7 days, 11 summits, 4 ridges, 6 passes, 55 miles, 38900' gain, 36700' loss, 6 goats, 3 bears, 4 ptarmigans, 1 magical tarn, 56 PowerBars, 1 international space station, 1 meaningful wreath, 1 trip of a lifetime.
Our enchainment as seen from our last night's camp on the summit of Mineral Mountain.
For seven days, Tom Sjolseth and I grunted, trekked, scrambled, and climbed over some of the most rugged and amazing terrain in the North Cascades. Only the last two hours were on trail. Without a doubt, this trip was the coolest enchainment of high alpine ridges, passes, and peaks I've done to date. Ridges traversed included Porkbelly, Mystery, Pioneer, and Easy. Named passes included Jasper, Wild, Pickell, Perfect, Chilliwack, and Hannegan. Peaks included Berdeen, Hagan, Mystery, N Despair, Pioneer, Crowder, Swiss, Middle Challenger, Whatcom, Easy, and Mineral Mountain. Credit goes fully to Tom for dreaming up this amazing route, which has probably never been done before in full sequence.
The trip was certainly a test of physical endurance, with a whopping full-pack-average-gain-loss-per-day of 5560 ft. Fortunately we not only had perfect weather, but we also had virtually no bugs. Conditions could hardly have been more ideal. In the days following our trip, Tom wrote: "I have no words to describe this once-in-a-lifetime journey into some of the most rugged, scenic, and remote territory in the lower 48 states....This will undoubtedly go down as my single proudest and most memorable mountaineering voyage to date." That is true for both of us. I'm so glad Tom chose me as his partner for this adventure.
As Tom noted, words fail to describe our experiences, so I will let the photos that follow tell the tale. The following page gives maps, route overlays, over 100 photos, commentary, and the adventures of a particular tiny stuffed mountain goat. Enjoy!
•ITINERARY / MAP•
Map of our daily GPS tracks.
Day 1:Starting from the end (850') of Bacon Creek Road, we 'schwacked up Porkbelly Ridge, climbed over the east side of Berdeen Peak (6400'), and established a camp above Berdeen Lake. (+6550', -1820', 6.3 miles)
Day 2:I began the day by running up the east side of Mt. Hagan North Peak (6960') from camp. Then we began our traverse of Mystery Ridge, crossing over Mystery Peak (6585') in the process. A route-finding kerfuffle ended in an unplanned camp on the north side of the ridge. (+6190', -6430', 9.2 miles)
Day 3:We reversed our kerfuffle and completed the traverse of Mystery Ridge. I climbed up the north ridge of Mt. Despair North Peak (7240') while Tom relaxed at the beautiful Mystery Tarn. Then we descended to Jasper Pass and established a camp halfway up the ascent to Pioneer Ridge. (+5500', -5320', 8 miles)
Day 4: We gained Pioneer Ridge and climbed the NW slope of Pioneer Peak (6980'). Then we descended to Wild Lake and ascended the SW Flank of Mt. Crowder (7082'). We made a sketchy descent of the NE Ridge to a camp at Pickell Pass. (+4480', -4050', 5.8 miles)
Day 5: I woke up early and climbed the south side of Swiss Peak (7988') from camp. Then we traversed under the west side of the Northern Pickets and through the col between the Middle and West Peaks of Challenger, from where we climbed the west flank of Middle Challenger (7920') before descending to camp at Perfect Pass. We climbed up the south side of Whatcom Peak (7574') from camp. (+7880', -7540', 9.7 miles)
Day 6: We descended from Perfect Pass, negotiated the Imperfect Impass, and gained Easy Ridge. We traversed over Easy Peak (6613') and then descended and ascended to a camp on the summit of Mineral Mountain (6781'). (+5450', -5020', 6.5 miles)
Day 7: We 'shwacked and tree-rappelled our way down to Chilliwack Pass and traversed our way over to Hannegan Pass and hiked 5 miles of trail to Hannegan Pass Trailhead (3040'). (+2880’, -6530’, 9.7 miles)
DAY 1: Porkbelly Ridge, Berdeen Peak.
In the spirit of maximizing elevation gain and effort, we chose a low and un-tracked entrance into the Cascades by beginning our trip with a 'schwak up Porkbelly Ridge. The ridge starts a couple of miles from the end of the Bacon Creek Road on HWY 20. I think it is perhaps one of the brushiest ridges I've ever ascended. We never did find much of a consistent path that is mentioned in the Cascade Alpine Guide under "Berdeen Lake Route."
Getting above the 'schwack on Porkbelly Ridge.
The CAG describes contouring over a spur ridge coming from Berdeen Peak in order to get to our night's destination above Berdeen Lake. However, we chose to climb up and over Berdeen Peak. At first it was a bit questionable if this route would go, but it ended up being just steep and mossy and for the most part Class 3 (maybe one or two Class 4 moves). To the left is a route overlay Berdeen Peak, showing our ascent up the East Ridge and our descent to camp down the NW Slopes.
Mossy and loose terrain on the east side of Berdeen Peak. If you chose your moss and rock holds wisely, it stayed mostly Class 3.
The 6400-ft summit of Berdeen Peak. By any approach this peak requires some effort to get to, so it is not climbed often.
We descended about 500' and established a comfortable camp about 800' above Berdeen Lake. Bacon Peak in distance.
Mt. Hagan beckoned me from across the lake. I began to drop hints: "Isn't it a beautiful mountain?" "Looks fun." "I've always wanted to climb that." "Hey Tom, feel like sleeping in tomorrow morning?"...
Heather shadows on the tent.
Cool clouds and alpenglow on Berdeen Peak. Bacon Peak on right.
Milky Way over Berdeen Peak and Bacon Peak. Exposure settings: 57 sec, f/3.5, ISO 1600.
The same view as above (I didn't even move my tripod), just with a 25-minute exposure in order to capture the stars streaking across the night sky. Exposure settings: 25 min, f/5, ISO 400.
DAY2: Mt. Hagan, Mystery Ridge/Peak.
We awoke to clouds in the valley below, and were thankful we had not descended any further to establish our camp. Tom graciously agreed to sleep in and take his time enjoying his morning coffee while I descended into a white-out to climb Hagan.
Route overlay Mt. Hagan.
As Hagan had not been a member of our initial summit itinerary, I did not have any route descriptions for it. For one reason or another, I figured the peak on the far right (the North Peak) was the highest, so I headed there. I was a bit confused when I couldn't find a straightforward Class 3/4 route up it, but I made it up anyway. When I got home a week later, I discovered that the North Peak is the hardest (low 5th) yet lowest of the three summits. Oh well, same views.
Taken from the top of the North Peak of Hagan. My shadow is waving in the foreground and Mount Baker is in the distant background.
I returned to camp, packed up, and then Tom and I headed north to gain Mystery Ridge, which we planned to traverse over the course of the day to its termination near Mt. Despair.
Mystery Ridge is for the most part a gentle romp on snow and slabs with a few minor ups and downs. We traversed over the high point of the ridge, which we called "Mystery Peak" in order to count it in our summit tally. This photo shows an overlay of Mystery Ridge/Peak.
We were treated to nice views of the steep northern walls of Mt. Triumph.
The Cascade Alpine Guide has a description for Mystery Ridge which describes dropping south into the broad basin of the E Fork of Bacon Creek. Instead, we were suckered into maintaining a high ridgetop traverse. A few bumps past "Mystery Peak" we hit a cliffy bump. We couldn't go right. We couldn't go up. We could either go left or retrace our steps. We took a gamble, and dropped down left.....
Still trying to go around the cliffy bump.....
Yep, cliffed out on Mystery Ridge. It was too late to backtrack, so we found a spot with a tolerable slope angle and an acceptably low density of bumps and set up camp. We would retrace our steps back to the pre-cliffy-bump Mystery Ridge in the morning.
DAY3: Mystery Ridge, N Despair, Jasper Pass.
Tom ascending steep snow to get back on Mystery Ridge.
The south side basin traverse to get around the cliffy area on Mystery Ridge. This traverse just involves crossing talus, snow, and alp slopes. There were a lot of pretty flowers to distract us from the side-hilling discomfort.
This tunnel leads to China.
Tom on the endless talus on the south side basin traverse below Mystery Ridge. We ascended this talus field to a low point in Mystery Ridge above (i.e. we did not traverse all the way to the North Ridge of North Despair as noted in CAG).
Back on Mystery Ridge, it was a short jaunt to the magical "Mystery Tarn." We had planned on camping here the night before, but due to the cliffy bump kerfuffle, we had to be satisfied with just a nice midday break.
Tom got an extra nice break when I scampered off to climb North Despair.
Annotated photo showing the North Ridge of North Despair.It took me less than 3 hours round trip to climb from the magical mystery tarn.
Getting to Despair involved a steep traverse around the north side of "The Tit" at the east end of Mystery Ridge. Don't fall here!
Ice chunks below the traverse to Despair.
CAG, Despair North Peak: "The N Ridge offers a straightforward snow-ice climb from the vicinity of Jasper Pass (no technical difficulties)."
The wonderful snow arete that makes up the North Ridge route of N Despair. It's a really fun, easy, and aesthetic route.
View of South Despair (which is actually the higher—albeit less cool—summit) from the summit of North Despair. There is no easy way between them. On the horizon is a lot of haze and smoke, perhaps from a large fire somewhere.
My shadow on the summit of North Despair.
Unfortunately, the summit register had gotten wet over the course of the winter and spring melt.
After Despair, we continued on towards Pioneer Peak. This annotated photo shows the route.
Tom descending snowfields on the north side of Mystery Ridge towards Jasper Pass. Southern Pickets in the distance.
Tom ascending from Jasper Pass up the relatively moderate south side of Pioneer Peak. In this photo you can actually see where we camped the night before on one of the arms above some cliffs.
On our ascent of Pioneer Peak, we came to a really pleasant bench of heather and granite slabs. It was too nice not to take a break. Then we figured it was too nice to leave and it became our camp for the night. Out came the Via. Mt. Despair in distance.
One of my favorite things to do after a long hard day in the mountains is to pull out a long hard logic puzzle.
Milky Way above Despair. Exposure: 60 sec, f/4, ISO 1600.
Star trails around the North Star, above Pioneer Peak. Exposure: 20 min, f/4.5, ISO 500
The Perseid meteor shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the peak in activity being between August 9 and 14, depending on the particular location of the stream. I managed to capture this meteor in one of my long exposures. At first I thought the light streaking across the sky was a plane, but it did not have any blinking taillights as planes usually do, and it also behaved weirdly by getting really bright for awhile and then just dying off. The light died off about 5 minutes before this exposure ended (i.e. the reason the streak ends is not because the exposure ended, but because the meteor burnt off). Exposure: 24 min, f/4, ISO 500. Update: Actually, I think it's the international space station, rather than a meteor (we saw plenty of meteors but all of them burned out much quicker than the object in the photo). ISS passes can take several minutes, and end when it either goes over the horizon, or the reflection from the solar panels moves away from you.
Star trails above camp below Pioneer Peak. The tent is lit by the light of a half moon and I am inside napping between photos. Exposure: 8 min, f/5.6, ISO 500.
Bottom left to top right: Venus, Moon, Jupiter, Pleiades. Also Orion poking above horizon. Exposure: 49 sec, f/5, ISO 640.
Another beautiful clear morning in the North Cascades. Our first objective of the day, Pioneer Peak, is on the left.
Tom ascending the south side of Pioneer Peak. Mt Despair and Mystery Ridge behind.
The terrain steepened as we ascended, so we had to contour around on the west side of Pioneer Peak to a low point in the ridge. This was really steep heather, the kind that is downright dangerous if there is any moisture (fortunately it had been a hot and dry week and it was another hot and dry day).
The summit area of Pioneer Peak from the northwest. It is just a moat and a class 3 scramble from here. The geology of this area is somewhat unique: the rock of Pioneer Ridge is light-colored granodiorite with volcanic remnants at the eastern summit.
On the summit of Pioneer Peak. Mt. Despair behind.
On Pioneer Peak is a Cliff Lawson Memorial Summit Register placed by Tom's Dad, Mike Swayne, and Jim Nelson in 2003. Northern Pickets in background.
After Pioneer Peak, our next task was surmounting Mt. Crowder en route to our day's destination at Pickell Pass on the other side. We headed down to Wild Pass (getting views of the frozen Wild Lake) and then rambled up the easy SW Flank of Crowder. Northern Pickets in distance.
Almost at the summit.
The summit register on Crowder. Not many people get here. I suppose it doesn't help that there is no pencil in the register.
Now we had to figure out how to get down from Crowder to Pickell Pass below. The most direct line would be the NE Ridge, which is described as a route in the Cascade Alpine Guide. However, the route description is only a sentence long (essentially: "climb SW from the col between Phantom and Crowder") which gives little indication of difficulty. Which could suggest a problem....
But I voted for the NE Ridge so down we went. I actually was able to weave a convoluted path of grassy 3rd class ledges and avoid much more than an occasional 4th class move. I did one or two short 5th class downclimbing moves. But it was pretty tedious and definitely don't-slip-here terrain. Tom wisely felt more comfortable rappelling and eventually I joined him near the base of the ridge. It's always a bit tricky to navigate cliffy terrain from above, and we hit an expected vertical drop just when we thought we were home free to get to Pickell Pass. After traipsing around a bit trying to figure out what to do, Tom spotted a break in the cliffs and a scree slope, so down we headed to the safety of the snow below.
A major chasm splitting through the lower NE Ridge of Crowder. It was quite deep and several hundred feet long. Perhaps a fault?
Here's a view looking back at Mt. Crowder's NE Ridge. Steep! I'm not sure if there is a non-nail-biting-pain-in-the-you-know-what way between the summit of Crowder and Pickell Pass.Email correspondence between Tom and Fred Beckey the week following our trip:
"Hey Fred, Do you know of anyone who has climbed (or descended) the NE Ridge of Mt. Crowder? I’m curious where you obtained the information in your CAG for that route. We descended it this past week and it was pretty sketchy! -Tom""TOM I AM BLANK ON MY INFIO NOT SURE WHERE I OBTAINED IT I WILL KEEEEP THINKING WILL PHONE WHEN I CAN COME UP WITH A CLIMB THT I CAN KEEP UP WITH YOU GUYS CHEEERW"
Finally, we arrived at Pickell Pass. There was a nice heather bench to camp on. To the north of the pass are the towering walls of Spectre, Swiss, and W Fury. Unfortunately, we had spent longer descending Crowder than expected, so there was not enough time to tag Spectre or Swiss as we had planned.
From our camp at Pickell Pass we had great views looking across Picket Pass into the Southern Pickets.
A black and white shot of the Southern Pickets.
Sunset from Pickell Pass. Shuksan just left of setting sun.
Star trails around the north star above Spectre, Swiss, and W Fury.
Not to be denied at least one Northern Picket, I began the morning by running up Swiss Peak from Pickell Pass. It was a straightforward ascent with some Class 3 rock at the top and a bit of summit ridge traversing to make sure I found the highest point. It took 2.5 hours round trip from the pass.
On the summit area of Swiss Peak. I didn't find a summit register.
Crooked Thumb and Mt. Challenger from the summit of Swiss Peak.
Moss campion high on Swiss Peak.
After I returned to camp at Pickell Pass, we set out on our traverse towards Mt. Challenger. The rugged Northern Pickets (Spectre, Phantom, Ghost, Crooked Thumb) towered above.
Looking up towards Phantom Peak. I had hoped to climb this one but we did not have time. Next time....
Traversing up to the 7640 ft notch between the West (left) and Middle (right) peaks of Challenger.
An ice mushroom. I did a bit of searching online for how these form, and found no specific answer. Here's what I suspect: Snow is merely ice in fine particles. So a kilogram of snow and a kilogram of ice take the same amount of energy to melt. In other words, the snow melts at the same mass/time rate as the ice. It follows that since snow is less dense, the snow melts at a greater volume/time rate then the ice. Hence an ice mushroom forms as the snow underneath it melts out faster (volume wise) than the ice melts. At least it makes sense.....
The 7640 ft notch between the West (left) and Middle (right) peaks of Challenger. There are actually two possible ramps up about 100 ft apart, the leftmost of which is solid but low 5th class and the rightmost of which is very loose but 3rd class. In the end we went right, but I did scope out the left one and climb all the way to the top of it in the process. I think the left ramp is safer if you are comfortable with unroped low 5th. The right ramp is like playing Russian Roulette. It is interesting that the CAG mentions "steep snow" extending up to the col on this side, but for us the snow ended at least 100 ft below the col.
From the 7640 ft notch between the Middle and West Peaks of Challenger, we scrambled up the west side of the Middle Peak (7920 ft). The west side is blocky class 3, very quick, just a few hundred feet from the notch.
We had entertained the idea of climbing the West Peak of Challenger, which climbs loose rock on the W ridge crest and involves a rappel into a notch. Recent reports had indicated it was a pretty loose route, so we decided against it. Note the interesting dike formation in this photo of the West Peak.
Photo showing Mt. Challenger and the location of the three summits (Main, Middle, and West). The descent to Perfect Pass was straightforward and large cracks were easily avoided.
We set up camp at Perfect Pass and then headed up to the summit of Whatcom Peak, which is a quick and easy slog from the pass. It took about 45 minutes round trip from the pass.As this photo shows, it was a bit hazy that afternoon, due to some smoke from some wildfires near Yakima.
This photo shows Tom on Whatcom's gentle summit ridge.
Enjoying a beautiful evening at Perfect Pass.
Alpenglow on Mt Challenger from Perfect Pass. Note our tent on the granite bench on the left.
Another photo of alpenglow on Mt Challenger from our camp at Perfect Pass.
Glowing tent and star trails over Mt. Challenger. Exposure: 10 min, f/5.6, ISO 500.Since the camera is pointed at the Celestial Equator, on the right the stars circle around the South Celestial Pole while on the left the stars circle around the North Celestial Pole.
Another photo similar to the above. Exposure: 15 min, f/5.6, ISO 500.
DAY6: Easy Ridge/Peak, Mineral Mountain.
Watching sunrise over Mt. Challenger through my snow wall window at Perfect Pass.
Sunrise through a wreath we found at a saddle just south of Perfect Pass (if I'd known the story behind this wreath—given below—I wouldn't have moved it from where we found it, but now the wreath rests at Perfect Pass).The story behind this wreath came out in the nwhikers forum after our trip report was posted; tommytownsend writes: "The story of how it got there is one that those of us who take risks in places like The Pickets should know. The first time I visited Perfect Pass was in 1980 with my buddy Doug. We got turned around by bad weather after camping on the Challenger glacier, descending the talus south of the pass we came upon the wreckage of a navy helo that crashed there about 10 hours previous. There were two survivors but five died. They were on a rescue mission headed to Mt Redoubt when they got off course in the clouds (no GPS folks it's 1980!) and the rest is history. The navy had a memorial on the 25th anniversary and this wreath was flown to the sight by a SAR crew. I recall being touched that despite the fact that many have passed this way in the last 32 years much of the wreckage rests where it landed. It's a lonely spot, perhaps the most beautiful graveyard I've ever been to."
I really made the most of soaking in this sunrise.
The first people we saw the whole trip! This party of three guys had climbed Challenger the day we traversed in. They kindly gave Tom some of their food since he was running low.
Traversing from Perfect Pass towards the Imperfect Impass, which is at the far end of the basin on the SW slope of Whatcom Peak where the drainage has formed cliffy walls (est. 5400 ft). It is about 0.5 mi E of Perfect Pass.
Imperfect Impass from above.The Imperfect Impass is an eroded gully along a volcanic dike that cuts the quartz diorite. We took the higher route line, but the other party took the lower route line. I had taken off my pack to scope out the higher traverse, and it actually wasn't so bad once I knew where the holds were, even with my heavy pack. NOTE: I have labeled the climbing as 3rd/4th in this annotated photo. However, with heavy packs or slightly wet conditions (or without the snow bridge), the Impass could definitely feel more like 4th/low5th. Some parties select to rope up and belay the Impass. You definitely do not want to slip here.
Imperfect Impass from below.NOTE: I have labeled the climbing as 3rd/4th in this annotated photo. However, with heavy packs or slightly wet conditions (or without the snow bridge), the Impass could definitely feel more like 4th/low5th. Some parties select to rope up and belay the Impass. You definitely do not want to slip here.
The Impass ravine was filled with ice/snow. However, the ice/snow was starting to break up. This block had broken loose just below where we crossed.
We actually had to crampon across this block, which is about to break loose any day. It could be deadly if it broke loose with a climber on it.
Once past the Impass, the rising traverse up to Easy Ridge is straightforward. We headed for the low point in the left-middle of this photo.
Easy Ridge is easy rambling and quite beautiful, with the meadows, lupine, and views of Shuksan.
This annotated photo shows the final ramble to Easy Peak. This doesn't feel like a climb without the grunting, 'schwacking, and sweating!
Tom on the built-in summit chair on the top of Easy Peak. Easy Ridge, Whatcom Peak, Perfect Pass, and Challenger in distance.
From Easy Peak we could have descended to the Chilliwack River Trail and hiked out. Instead, keeping in line with the cross-country nature of our trip and wanting one more night surrounded by mountain views, we headed towards Mineral Mountain. This involved dropping westward to a saddle and then ascended the east side of Mineral Mountain. There was a pretty lake on the way to the saddle. The descent and ascent were open and non technical.
We camped on the summit of Mineral Mountain to enjoy one final night of high alpine views. We could see nearly our entire traverse stretching across the horizon (see the photo at the top of this page).This was our easiest day of the trip, and we had several hours to just relax and soak in the views. And do logic puzzles.
Enjoying an evening on the summit of Mineral Mountain. Tom was able to get cell service here so he called his dad to let him know we still planned on being at the Hannegan Trailhead at 3pm the next day (Tom's dad had generously offered to come pick us up.)
Star trails over Mt. Shuksan as seen from the summit of Mineral Mountain. The light on the horizon is probably from civilization. Exposure: 25 min, f/5.6, ISO 250.SInce the camera is pointed at the Celestial Equator, on the right the stars circle around the North Celestial Pole while on the left the stars circle around the South Celestial Pole.
DAY7: Chilliwack Pass, Hannegan Pass/Trail.
Waving good morning to my shadow on some rocks on the summit of Mineral Mountain. It was really windy in the morning as a heat wave was moving in.
I've found the secret to make PowerBars taste great, even after eating 8 of them a day for an entire week.
Getting from Mineral Mountain to Hannegan Pass involves descending the west side of Mineral Mountain to Chilliwack Pass. There are some cliff bands to negotiate just above Chilliwack Pass. Just above the pass we had to make two rappels off of trees.
Tom trundled some rocks and ended up with two ropes instead of one.
The final traverse before we hit the Ruth Peak climbers trail near Hannegan Pass.
Glacially striated rocks.
What's this? Our first trail the entire trip! Less than 5 miles to the TH (3040 ft) from Hannegan Pass (5066 ft).
Tom and his dad Dan Sjolseth at the Hannegan Pass Trailhead. Tom's dad had generously offered to come pick us up. In the meantime, our friend John Scurlock generously offered to pick up Tom's car from the Bacon Creek Trailhead and drive it to my place where Tom's dad would drop us off. Thanks so much Dan and John!
And the now-regular installment of the escapades of a tiny stuffed (becoming not so) white multi-nick-named mountain goat....
•THE ADVENTURES OF "MYSTERY AKA PICKET BILL"•
Billy atop his PowerBar tower at the first night's camp above Berdeen Lake.
Billy cooling off in a snowmelt pool on Mystery Ridge. It was a hot day.
Billy wearing his goat wool bonnet in the evening at camp.
Mystery Bill posing beside the summit register container on the top of the North Peak of Mt. Despair. South Peak behind.
Billy and his "Monster Bill" shadow and a balloon we found at Jasper Pass.
A scruffy-looking Picket Bill wearing his fuel canister cap helmet on the summit of Swiss Peak.
Billy pulling an above the wire act on the summit of Mineral Mountain.
Billy in his PowerBar wrapper nest on the last night.
More on my website
This trip report is copied from my website, which has several other climbing trip reports and photographs from the North Cascades and elsewhere: www.stephabegg.com.
"Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks. Great success shooting the knife into the piano. The woodworms are so bad and eat hell out of all furniture that you can always claim the woodworms did it."