I slowly pulled myself forward though the thick brush with twigs still caught in between my 65-pound pack and my body. I struggled to free myself and press uphill. It was two steps up the hill and one step back because of the muddy ground sliding beneath my feet. Every branch that I fought through was wet and the rain made it that much more miserable. It is one thing to be hit in the face with a branch but it is quite another when its soaking wet. It was as if I was being slapped with a wet sock, over and over again. I was climbing up the approach to the Eliey Wiley ridge on day 2 of my 8-day expedition into the Picket range. It was a rude awakening when I realized what this mountain range actually included. The trip had not been presented to me as a bushwhack through the rainforest while being rained on and then endless climbing on loose boulder fields. I felt like I was trying to climb 50,000 bowling balls stack up on top of each other. But it didn’t matter; we were already 17 miles and a boat ride away from civilization. I had no choice but to press on.
We started out on the first day of the trip with a boat ride 6 miles down Ross Lake to Big Beaver pass where we said goodbye to civilization. My guide and I were stuck for the next 8 days in the wilderness with no quick or easy way back. As we started our journey, I realized we would be fine with heavy 65-pound pack. We had packed enough food I was sure. We hiked 10 miles on a trail to Luna camp and then another 7 miles the next morning until the bushwhacking began at Eliey Wiley ridge. I found myself during the first few hours of battling the brush taking five steps forward and either falling/sliding down the muddy terrain or taking 4 steps back. It was almost as if the Pickets were playing a cruel joke on me. I would take three or four tries to step up and over a fallen tree uphill from me. Or I would get caught in a thick slide alder, a weed-like tree with thick branches that refuse to let you through without a fight. Going downhill, these alder trees have slick branches that grow along the ground making it slippery and causing you to fall.
Eliey Wiley Ridge
We also faced Devils club, aka the guardian of the Pickets. Devils club is a thorny plant that grows in wet areas and has thousands of sharp thorns on each plant. They grow close together making it difficult to cross without pain and being poked many times. These are some of the hazards of getting into the Picket range. Once on top of the Eliey Wiley ridge, we set up camp. The problem we ran into was none of the snowfields had running water coming out of them. They were all dried up. We knew it was a long way to the next water source. So we took out our ice axes and started hacking away at the downhill edge of the snowfield. After a few minutes of hard work, it had released enough water to allow us to rehydrate and have enough for cooking that night. The next morning we headed out and traveled on the side of the ridge. This involved a pile of very loose rock leading to unstable footing and several falls. The problem was, once I got a 60-pound pack moving in the wrong direction, I could not stop the momentum, which was caused by loose rocks shifting under my feet. I ended the day with multiple bleeding wounds on my arms and gruesome bruises on my legs. We pushed on the next day toward our first objective, Mount Challenger. We decided to stop at Wiley Lake.
Willey Lake is a natural campsite with stunning views of the lake. The lake is surrounded by huge ice cliffs on two sides and has an ice bottom. Moving on the next day, we made it to the base of Mount challenger by mid morning. We setup our camp for that night and set off to climb the peak. The Challenger glacier was not broken up much and was an easy climb. We got up to the Bergshrund in about 2 hours. The normal route was not crossable due to the melt out. A schrund is a large several hundred feet deep crevasse that looks as though it has no bottom. We had to improvise if we wanted any chance to summit.
We spotted a 55-60 degree snow climb on an exposed ridge to the far left. As we headed there, we found a natural route to the summit. We climbed and tried not to look at the 1500 foot drop offs to either side of us as we climbed. From the top of this, it was an easy 30-minute traverse across a snow ridge to the summit pyramid. The climb is about 5.3 but it feels much harder if you are wearing mountaineering boots. I had double plastic boots on so I could not foot jam. Therefore, it was all arms. I pulled myself the final 80 feet to the summit, which is a bird’s nest type of feeling. It is a little spot big enough only for two people to sit on but the views of the virgin untouched wilderness are stunning and unmatched in the cascades. After repelling down the summit pyramid and down climbing the steep snow ridge, we headed back to camp.
On the fifth day, we headed out from camp for a huge 10-hour push with full loads to Lousy Lake. We setup camp on a rock island about 30 ft into the lake, which contented spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. Louise Lake is a glacial lake that had a huge glacier on one side and a rock/ice plug on the other side holding the water in. It had deep, algae, green colored water due to the glacial sediments. Even with this color, the water was very pure, clean, and great for drinking. That night there was constant rock fall off the glacier into the lake. We looked at the wall of the glacier on the edge of the lake and noticed it was separated from the rest of the glacier, tilting towards the lake. We even joked about the possibility of the wall falling into the lake causing a tsunami, which would blast us off the island we were on into the rocks on the edge of the lake. Well, soon thereafter, we heard loud cracking that went on for about 15 seconds. We got out of our tent and looked just in time to see the ice wall fall into the lake. We stood stunned, unable to do anything but wait and see what would happen next. We watched as a huge wave formed. However, lucky for us, we found out later the lake is only about 10-20 feet deep and the impending wave of doom ended up 2 feet below our tent platform. It was a scary sight to see and we were thankful it did not turn out worse.
The following day we headed back toward Mount Fury to attempt the northwest face, which was not in the greatest condition. It was stained by rock fall on the left side of the route. We had hopes to find a route up the right side of the lower portion of Fury’s NW face then cross the rock fall area quickly to minimize the risk. In hindsight, this was a not great plan but we thought we would try it. The closer we got to the route, the more we could see what terrible shape the route was in. We started climbing the steep snow and ice up, about half way to the top of the rock fall area (shown in the photo). There were boulders twice the size of cars coming down the far side of the route. The final factor that led us to turn around was a huge ice serac the size of a house came crashing down the west side of the face. It shook the earth so much it made one of my ice axes pop out of the ice. This is quite a scary feeling when you are two-tool ice climbing up a 60-degree face. We decided to turn around after this as the objective danger was off the charts. We then, as quickly as possible, repealed down the face keeping an eye at all times on the ice cliffs above. We got back to camp very thankful that any rocks or large ice chunks did not hit us.
We headed up Luna Peak, to the saddle, the next day where we were going to camp and attempt Luna the following day. It was a difficult day since I had torn up my feet the day before. My wet feet never really dried the whole trip because of all the rain. I had large, deep, open sores on my feet that made me limp slightly in pain with every step. We made it to the saddle about 4 pm and enjoyed the views of the Southern Pickets and the rest of the Northern Picket range. We had an alpine start to attempt Luna but we ended up calling off our summit about half way up because of my feet. We headed back down to camp, packed up, and head down through access creek for another full day of bushwhacking. We enjoyed the pleasures of slide alder, devils’ club, fighting wet brush out of our way, and balancing on slippery logs across rivers. We down climbed and hiked for about 10 hours until we finally reached Beaver creek. We had a 2-foot wide tree that had fallen across this fast flowing creek about 100 feet wide. It would be very bad to fall at this point. The risk of drowning was very real. I slowly shuffled my way across the creek and made it across. I was greeted by a 200-yard field of devils’ club and then I was back on the trail, 1 mile away from Luna camp.
The Home Streach
We arrived at Luna camp and I was very happy to be there. Having dealt with rain all day and being soaked after falling into a smaller stream we had crossed early that day, I was ready for a break. That day left my feet sloshing in 3 inches of water inside my boots. To make it worse, the sores on me feet had gotten much worse making it almost impossible to walk without a limp. Back at Lousy Lake, we were able to tape my feet to my insoles to limit the movement of my foot inside my boot. This helped a little but the pain was still horrible. It made me almost a cripple around camp without my boots on for protection. Tasks like getting water and going to the bathroom were huge ordeals since they involved putting pressure on my torn up feet. This was not the end of the trip though. We still had 10 more miles or so of hiking on Luna trail to the boat dock the next morning. The next day was full of pain and agony in my feet. Every step hurt but was made even worse by the pressure of my heavy pack. I reached the dock about 1pm. I could not believe I had made it. Just days before, I never thought I would make it to the dock. We caught a 2-hour nap while we waited for our water taxi. The final test of stamina was, once back at Ross lake resort, we had one final mile of uphill climbing to reach our car. It seemed like forever but I was very glad to see the parking lot. We made it back to the car safely. [img:334318:aligncenter:medium:]
As an entire expedition, I would consider the Pickets successful. They are a special place for me. They are where I learned what real mental toughness is. I learned about planning expeditions, a lot of wilderness navigation and how to analyze objective hazards. This mountain range charges a high rent… payable in sweat, blood, and tears. The reward is worth it all, a spectacular experience of a hidden treasure and beauty in northern Washington. While I did not have the best experience in the Pickets, it was priceless. Maybe someday I will get back there, back to the land guarded by alder, devils’ club, and miles of despair and agony. If you would like to read more about my adventures check out my personal site My personal climbing site
with trip reports and photos from other climbs