The Southern Picket range at sunrise After reading numerous trip reports of climbers in the Pickets being attacked by wasps, getting rained out, lost for days, and even abandoning all their gear to escape the jungle and bugs, I decide I’m definitely going. Like I always say, there’s nothing like a good suffer-fest to build character. Besides, it’s not like I haven’t been into the Pickets before. Let’s see… last time was about twenty years back on a southern approach. I seem to remember nearly being swept away in swollen Terror Creek while attempting to cross a submerged log on my belly. This incident followed being trapped in a one-man tent for 16 hours during a raging, relentless rain storm. But this trip will be different. I’m sure of it.
The Pickets Range in Washington’s North Cascades has an abundance of unspoiled wilderness terrain devoid of people with the most jaw-dropping mountain scenery you will ever see. This is one of the most rugged and least explored regions in the lower 48. This range, however, is very remote and extremely difficult to access.
The approaches travel through isolated brushy valleys that create innumerable challenges: creek crossings, steep climbs with big elevation, and bush whacking through stinging nettles, fallen logs, slide alder thickets, devils club and skunk cabbage. Let’s not forget the bugs: ravaging mosquitos, biting flies, and vicious ground-dwelling wasps round out your travelling companions on a trip to the Pickets. It is tough and committing. Misery and thrashing cannot be avoided.
I’m sure I’ve whetted your appetite and you’re probably already planning your trip. Here’s my tale.
I planned to spend 4-1/2 days in the wild and climb Luna Peak, which has a summit elevation of 8,300 ft. A measly 8,300 ft.? How hard can that be? There are trailheads in the Sierra with higher elevations. But wait, this one starts at 1,600 ft. Carry the four… that totals nearly seven thousand feet of elevation gain! Hmm. Ross Lake water taxi
My adventure begins with a water taxi ride up Ross Lake to the Big Beaver trailhead. As I begin hiking, the trail enters into quiet and dark old growth forest. The Douglas firs are huge, and the towering cedars are the largest I have ever seen. There are not many places like this left.
Towering old growth cedar Protected within the North Cascades National Park, the area was never logged and there are no roads and few trails leading into it. The trip is a real adventure, like in the old times, including boating across the lakes, following rivers and fighting with brush.
After 9 miles of pleasant trail travel, I reach the dreaded point where my route ventures off into the unknown. There’s supposed to be a cairn and maybe some semblance of a foot path leading down to the creek crossing. I see nothing but green…and lots of thorns.
After a half hour of hacking through vegetation, bogs, and log crossings, I reach the Big Beaver river crossing. You pretty much have to cross where you find it, since the consequences of going back into the swamp to find a better location are severe and painful. Originally, my plan was to make this wade barefoot, but after one look at the stream, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not with a fortune’s worth of photography gear in my pack. Anyway, who needs dry socks for the next couple of days?
The Big Beaver crossing Once on the far side, the bushwacking intensifies. For the next half mile, I power through fallen logs, prickly devils club and giant skunk cabbage. It takes me an hour. I can’t get a GPS signal and don’t really know if I’m on route. This is grim. I decide to gain some elevation out of the valley bottom and find a faint climbers trail heading up the slope. These few footprints bring me immense happiness. Of course there's always the question of whether the climber that made them was as lost as I. The thrashing continues through a mixture of steep, dense shrubbery, but it is now interspersed with sections of open forest and occasional boot prints. I'm on track.
My watch says it 6pm. It’s been a long day, starting in Seattle at 3:30AM. Up ahead, I can see talus fields opening up as the route reaches the headwaters of the stream valley I’ve been following. One last large patch of slide alder stands in the way of freedom to the high country. As I am completely intertwined with branches on all sides, my arm and face suddenly begin to scream in pain! I think wasp attack, but it turns out to be stinging nettles. Everywhere. At this point, I’m past being cautious and just hack myself out of the thicket muttering curses and continue onto the open talus fields above. Another half hour of climbing brings me to a sweet little camping spot beside the creek. I’ve made it through the crux. Headwaters of Access Creek
Side bar: Photography was one of the main motivators for this trip and I decided to bring the big gear. For those that are interested, this was comprised of a Nikon D800E, tripod, full pano gear, and three lenses (28 1.8G, 45 PCE, and 70-200 F4). I recently acquired a much lighter mirrorless kit for trips like this, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the full frame at home for this adventure. Next time for sure. The total weight of my photography gear was around 8 lbs, which was about a fourth of my total pack weight.
I wake up the next morning fairly well rested and almost ready to resume my climb into the high country. I begin hiking after dumping all of the pine needles, leaves, thorns and other miscellaneous vegetation out of my pack, pockets, boots, and any other open orifices. The route is steep, but the thick vegetation is thankfully replaced by open heather and talus slopes. Rounding the top of the saddle at 6,300 ft. brings me to a breathtaking view of the southern Pickets.
These rugged and sharp peaks rise in an unbroken 4,000-foot wall of rock buttresses and steep glaciers. Awesome! Whoever named the peaks in the Pickets got it right: Terror, Fury, Challenger, Phantom.
Luna Peak from second camp Camp for the night is at Luna Col, which is about 1,000 ft. directly below the summit. I spend the afternoon photographing the landscape and preparing for my climb the next morning.
I wake pre-dawn on August 21 and climb by headlamp to arrive at the false summit in time to capture the first rays of sunlight being cast upon the peaks. It is an amazing experience made even better when the full solar eclipse occurs mid-morning. At this location, the ellipse is approximately 90% of totality. Not a huge deal, but pretty cool to witness this event up on the summit of a mountain named Luna. I make the third class exposed scramble from the false summit to the true summit before retracing my steps back to camp at Luna col.
The four hours I spent on the summit was certainly the highlight of the trip. The weather was perfect with no one around for miles. These are the experiences and memories that stay with you. The struggles and hardship you suffer seem to fade away quickly as soon as you're home. The trip actually went very well, all things considered. The middle section of the approach is nasty, make no mistake about that. Anyway, trip reports where everything is straightforward and goes according to plan are boring. The most interesting stories are always the ones where things go sideways at least a bit and success is not guaranteed. Hope you enjoyed the account of my adventure. Peace.
Additional images from my journey into the Pickets range: