Blum, Hagan, Bacon

Traverse from Blum

The peaks between Baker and the Pickets were an island of unexplored terrain to me. Bacon Peak in particular had drawn my interest, with its remarkable volume of glaciers for a peak barely over 7000 feet. Cut off from the rest of the range by the Baker River to the north and west, deep Goodell and Bacon Creeks to the east, and the Skagit River to the south, these peaks are difficult to reach, with one high trailhead at Watson Lakes, and other approaches generally being cross-country from below 1000 feet.

Blum Lakes trail

I had initially thought of doing just Bacon, but someone I met mentioned that there were longer options. Looking around the web, I found the Watson-Blum High Route, which runs between the Watson Lakes and Baker River trailheads, connecting four of the area’s high peaks. Most people go south to north to take advantage of the high start, but they also have two cars. With only one of me and one car, I decided to do it as a bike shuttle instead, in which case it made more sense to hike low to high. The whole process took about 17 hours: 15 for the hike and 2 for the bike. I was going fairly hard, made only one significant route-finding error, and skipped Watson Peak, so even going south to north, the traverse would be a significant day.

More trail

After an easy day out of the Watson Lakes trailhead, I locked my bike to itself, set it in some bushes, and drove around to the inlet of Baker Lake. I set my alarm for a punishing 3:15 AM, then tried to get some sleep. I knew I would have to start the off-trail approach by headlamp, but I can do such things at need, and sometimes the faint tread of a climbers’ trail is almost easier to pick out by headlamp. I started out around 4:00, hiking the broad Baker River trail, crossing the bridge, then backtracking south to just north of Blum Creek, where I plunged into the jungle on something path-like.

Baker and Shuksan

I found and lost this path for awhile, making my way around devil’s club, through lesser brush, and over and under deadfall as I approached the valley wall, keeping the creek within hearing. At one point I found a bit of flagging tied uselessly to a tree with no hint of a path nearby; at least it cheered me up by indicating that other humans had passed this way. Cutting back and forth, I eventually found a faint tread as the valley steeped. It rivalled the Crescent Creek approach in obscurity, despite having been in regular use for a long time: I saw both new flagging and old notches in logs. The trail skilfully weaves through cliff-bands lower down, then fades as the angle eases around 4000 feet. The days are getting noticeably shorter, so I made it to more open woods in time to see the morning light on Baker and Shuksan, dimmed by a dark stripe where smoke was drifting over from the rest of the West.

Blum, ledge leading right up high

I found bits of trail as I continued up the broad ridge, skirting the Blum Lakes, then crossing before Lake 5820′ to reach Blum’s northeast ridge. I grabbed some frigid water here, then hurried uphill in the shade, briefly cold between the sweaty low-elevation climb and the long, sunny traverse. I followed the ridge until it got narrow, serrated, and mossy, then dropped down to the east face to crampon up snowfields. There seem to be several routes to Blum’s summit, but an obvious grassy ledge leading right from the upper snowfield to the southwest ridge seemed the easiest. The snow became precarious as it steepened, being neither solid enough for crampon points to stick, nor soft enough to kick deep steps, so I was happy to finally reach rock. My ledge worked wonderfully, depositing me on a broad ridge a short boulder-hop and snow-walk from the summit.

Pickets from Blum

I found the an register can, battered into uselessness and perforated by multiple lightning holes. I suppose it protects the contents from marmots and mountain goats, and the triple-bagged register inside went all the way back to 2012. The summit sees a few parties per year, many doing the traverse. However, Blum is an obscure and hard-to-reach summit, so those who climb it are often doing something interesting. I noted a party continuing to Pioneer Ridge, perhaps via Berdeen Lake and Mystery, and an email correspondent climbing Blum’s north ridge, a 1500-foot buttress separating two lobes of a glacier. I also saw that someone else had signed in earlier in the day, hard to imagine since I had not heard anyone, and did not see fresh tracks in any snowfield.

Hagan spires and glaciers

Looking south, I saw the rest of the day’s objectives from their scenic, glaciated sides, with Watson looking distressingly distant. The views northeast to Baker and Shuksan continued to impress, but the view of the nearby Pickets was spoiled by smoke thick enough to smell. Being in the northwest corner of the country, I have largely been spared smoke so far this summer, but I have experienced brutal smoke in the Cascades from an easterly wind or fires in British Columbia, so my luck will eventually end.

Blum south side

I headed off down Blum’s southeast ridge, finding generally delightful travel on or near the broad ridge. Near a notch, I found and destroyed some cairns leading to the class 3-4 bypass. Popular high routes like the Ptarmigan Traverse are basically trails at this point, and this area felt like it should stay wild awhile longer. A big part of their appeal to me is the constant attention and thought necessary to choose a good path, and I want to preserve that for others. I stayed on the ridge for awhile, contoured right across snow above a large glacial lake, then continued on the ridge past where a spur heads east to Lonesome Peak.

Left bypass ledge

Peak 6800+, anchoring the north end of Hagan’s large glacier, is a more formidable obstacle. Based on others’ online trip reports, most people seem to drop around it to the west. However, I saw a potential ledge to the east and, putting my faith in Goat, followed the hoof-prints, turds, and tufts of hair across generally-safe outward-sloping dirt to a notch. This could easily have stranded me above the Hagan Glacier, but instead I found a series of steep, chossy ramps leading down and left to where I could easily cross the moat. The broad glacier was flat enough that I did not even need crampons to cross it, traversing under Hagan’s northern subpeaks to the col north of its twin summits. From this notch, I got my first view of huge and colorful Berdeen Lake, buried deep in this part of the range and unseen by all but a few adventurous souls.

Hagan true summit

According to both my map and Peakbagger, the true summit is the eastern one, reached via an easy class 2-3 scramble from the notch. However, standing on that point, the other looked to both be higher and have a cairn. It also looked much more challenging, which appealed to me at this point in the day. I sketched my way down the connecting ridge a bit, then dropped onto the right side to traverse into the notch, where I found rap garbage (and me with no knife…). From there some exposed class 3-4 climbing led up the ridge to the summit. Looking back, I can’t say for sure if this one is higher, but it is certainly more worthy.

Hagan glacier

Looking at my map, it seemed like the best route south would descend the snowy valley emanating from between the two summits, then make a descending traverse southwest to the saddle near Lake 4560′. To enter this valley, I returned to the other summit, descended its south ridge a short ways, then cut back northwest down a choss gully to the snow. Once the angle mellowed, I had a pleasant hike and boot-ski to some tarns around 5900′, where I began my descending traverse.

Bacon and Green Lake

This saddle at 4560′ is the lowpoint of the route, in both elevation and fun. As I descended, the brush got higher and thicker, and trees began to appear. The last part was a full-on forest bushwhack with cliffs, with me descending trees and blueberries hand-over hand while fighting for purchase with my worn-out trail runners. I found no sign of a trail, and few useful bits of game trails. Finally emerging at the saddle, I found a clear path leading to a well-used fire ring, which I badly wanted to destroy. Returning to the alpine on the other side was a similar battle, though less steep and vicious. There are two bumps in the ridge leading west of Green Lake to Bacon, each adding about 500 feet of elevation loss, and I resented them in my increasingly hot and tired state. The scenery was hard to beat, with beautiful Green Lake (blue, actually) below and Bacon’s retreating north glaciers ahead, but the heat was brutal, and this is the longest stretch between peaks.

Bacon summit glacier

I stayed mostly on rock climbing Bacon, then cut left on snow to pass between the northern two of its many false summits. Crossing the col, I was confronted by its startling summit glacier, a small, thick cap of ice nestled in a bowl to its northwest. I put on crampons again to make my way up the partly-bare left side, then followed the crest to the small, rocky summit. In addition to its large northeast and small northwest glaciers, Bacon holds a large southeast glacier falling to a lake above Diobsud Creek. Across that valley, another remote ridge leads from Electric Butte south.

The slog home

I returned across the northwest glacier, then began heading out the standard Bacon approach, for which I had fortunately downloaded a track. The first part was logical if painful, losing a bunch of elevation into the head of Noisy Creek. From there it reclimbs the south side, passing under some pinnacles to regain the ridge around 5100′. I would have dismissed this route as a horrid bushwhack if I had not had a track to encourage me, but it is actually not bad, largely climbing open woods and boulder-fields. The trees in some of these woods are impressively goosenecked, testifying to the brutal snowpack they must survive on these steep north-facing slopes.

Gooseneck trees

I was tired and dreading the bike back to the car, but probably would have rallied to tag Watson if I had not screwed up the route here. Finding what I thought was a boot tread on the ridge, I stopped looking at my track for awhile, only to cliff out on a subpeak. Belatedly looking at the track, I saw that the route passed along the south side of the ridge here, side-hilling under the difficulties before returning to the north near Elementary Peak. Demoralized, I retraced my steps, then descended to get back on-route, sliding and cursing as my treadless shoes failed to find any grip on the compacted pine needles. Fortunately the steep, vegetated traverse was dry, and I made it back to the saddle without any mishaps.

Warranty time?

I thought I was nearly “home,” but I was also wearing down. My shoes were beyond done for after a month of hard use (we’ll see if Salomon honors their two year warranty), and my feet had been wet for hours. The final traverse to the trail at Watson Lake was a complicated post-glacial wilderness of valleys, snowfields, and slabs that was a grind in my depleted state. Even the trails were a nuisance, with enough branches leading to campsites that at one point I had to ask some campers how to get out of here. The mosquitoes were also hellish if I stopped for more than five seconds, making me wonder why anyone would camp out here.

I was elated to find my bike where I had left it. I quickly unlocked it, then immediately started riding before the mosquitoes and biting flies got too intense. I stopped several times on the first part of the road to complete my transition to bike mode, making an adjustment, then riding a short distance to escape the bug swarm. The 3000-foot descent to the Baker Dam was much more fun on a bike than in a car, as I could dodge and weave around the potholes and runnels. From there, the ride was just work, pushing half-heartedly to minimize headlamp time, then pedaling listlessly along the dirt road by headlamp. Finally reaching the car, I propped up my bike, threw my stinking shoes on the hood, and almost instantly fell asleep.

Monte Cristo

Monte Cristo from Glacier Basin

Monte Cristo was a mining boom-town active between 1889 and 1907, linked to Everett on the coast by a railroad during its brief life. Monte Cristo is also a mountain behind the town, a lesser summit between the higher Kyes and Columbia Peaks, with the Pride and Columbia Glaciers to its southeast and southwest. Not having any information on any of these peaks, I ended up stumbling upon the surprisingly hard (5.6) standard route on Monte Cristo, and discovering that the peak is some of the worst Eiger-level choss I have climbed this season, with most of its summit consisting of outward-sloping blobs covered in gravel. Dreams of linking it to Columbia and/or Kyes were beaten out of me by what felt like hours of sketching around looking for a feasible route.

Some more history

I camped a short distance from Barlow Pass, then returned to the old rail-bed, this time by bike. The first part flew by, but I was forced to hike-a-bike as the route turned into a twisting, rooty trail where the line had been washed out. I was beginning to regret bringing the bike, and almost left it where the route crosses the Sauk on a big log, but the old rail-bed resumes on the other side, and is mostly rideable to the town site, where I found a bike rack with a half-dozen other bikes already locked to it. I spent some time reading the interpretive signs and looking at the locked buildings, then began hiking up the Glacier Basin trail.

Wilmans Peak and Spires

Despite all the bikes, I saw only three other people on the trail, one still asleep under a tarp, and a couple returning from a mountaineering trip. I was tempted to ask them about the route up Monte Cristo, but did not want to reveal myself to be the unprepared idiot I was. Monte Cristo looked like a mess from the valley, with no obvious route on this side. However, I saw clear paths to the saddles on either side, and chose the left because it looked less snowy and therefore slightly easier without crampons — I had foolishly only brought an axe. The route worked as well as one could expect, and I was soon separated from the saddle only by a short dirt-chute.

Here began the theme of the day. The dirt-chute was crumbly garbage and outward-sloping dirty ledges, which I ascended carefully on all fours. I had hoped to find gentle heather, or a glacier, or something else nice on the other side, but instead found more steep choss leading to snowfields below. I started up the left side of the ridge, then thought better of it as things got worse. I retreated nearly to the notch and headed right, finding some goat tracks and eventually, after some sketchy traversing on outward-sloping dirt and gravel, returning to another notch closer to the summit.

East side snowfield

Here I was finally greeted by something pleasant: a moderate-angle snowfield leading up around the summit to the left. The ridge itself did not look promising, so I began traversing across the snowfield, hoping to find an easier slope or ridge around the peak’s southeast side. Midway across, I spotted two parallel chimneys that seemed to offer a route to the peak’s upper slopes. Looking closer, I saw some rappel tat; perhaps this was the way. The chimneys were stiffer than they looked, with some awkward jamming and big moves to get over a few bulges. They were also practically sport-bolted, with a half-dozen or more shiny new bolts showing the way, some with cheater slings attached. Puzzled and reassured-yet-not, I followed the line, a part of me hoping that the other side was easier.

Lots of bolting

Above the chimneys, I followed a good, solid ramp, then scrambled up grass and moderate gravel-blobs to the summit. The damp register did not show much traffic, but did include one guy soloing the “north ridge” (was that what I did?), one party coming up the southwest, and one “traversing” from Kyes. I let the fact that there were other routes off the peak cheer me up for a bit while the register dried, then signed it and headed out down the ridge toward Kyes. After a couple of boulder problems, this ended soon and badly at a steep slope of moss-and-choss above a vertical step in the ridge. I circled around the peak’s east side looking for an unlikely descent, then gave up and returned to the summit. So much for the “traverse.”

Upper choss

Next up, I started down the southwest ridge, encouraged by both the register entry and a mountain goat perched on a knoll below. I had seen goat tracks around the summit, so I knew they had some route. Unfortunately the southwest ridge is all made of the summit’s horrible gravelly crap, which makes even easy-looking terrain feel perilous. I eventually reached a rappel anchor and a cairn beneath it, but I was still short of where I had seen the goat, and the remaining terrain looked worse. Not quite ready to give up, I traversed back along the southwest face, and was pleased to find myself at the bottom of the step that had stopped me on the south ridge.

Lower choss

Unfortunately my torment would continue. I traversed right around another tower, descended some moss-and-choss, then did some low-fifth-class downclimbing in a crack to within 20 feet of easy ground. So… close! Unfortunately my little crack system ended in an overhang without any positive holds, just a bit too high to jump. I traversed a flake to the left onto cleaner granite, but did not have the courage to downclimb a sharp, steep hand-crack with a few flakes to either side. I thought for a minute, then retraced my route to the notch, hoping to descend the gully on its east side. Unfortunately this turned out to be steep dirt below, and guarded by a chockstone above.

Kyes and Blanca Lake

Feeling increasingly frustrated, I almost returned over the summit to the known route, but decided instead to give the hand crack another look. On this second attempt, I trusted the flakes to lean back and smear my feet in worn-out trail runners, got a foot jam or two, and worked my way down the crack to where I could traverse back over and down to flatter ground below. This route felt no easier than the way I had ascended, but at least it left me a couple hundred yards closer to Kyes. I crossed the snow saddle between the Pride and Columbia Glaciers, then headed south on alternating rock and snow. I was mentally worn down, but the peak was close and looked straightforward.

Sadly, easy success would not be mine. The ridge turned to horrible choss again, and was cut by a deep cleft with vertical sides. It looked like I might be able to descend the east side a few hundred feet and traverse, then climb a step snow-tongue, but I could not see the whole route. At this point I had had enough of disappointment, backtracking, failure, and sketchiness. It was time to cut my losses and head home via a known route. I returned to the saddle, then traversed the snowfields east of the ridge to the first chossy notch. The snow below was nice and soft by now, so after a final bit of chossineering, I had a pleasant boot-ski to the valley and the trail. I saw no one in Glacier Basin, but perhaps a dozen tourists near and around the ghost town. I unlocked my bike, then bombed past a half-dozen poor souls walking the road on my mostly-downhill way to the trailhead. I still had food to stay longer, but I had seen enough of this part of the range.

Del Campo

Del Campo from Foggy Lake

Del Campo is the highest peak above Gothic Basin, a popular camping area near Barlow Pass on the Mountain Loop Highway. Lying west of the main mass of the Cascades, it has views of the high Cascades from Baker to Rainier, its fellow outliers like Sloan and Three Fingers, and even Puget Sound and the Olympic Range to the west. Having driven the annoying dirt road south from Darrington, I decided to amortize the time and gas by spending a few days in the area. I knew the area would be crowded on a Saturday, but figured I would be in and out before things got out of hand.

Gothic Peak and Foggy Lake

I drove over to the Barlow Pass trailhead, which was already nearly full before 7:00 AM, finished my coffee, and started along the old railway bed toward the ghost town of Monte Cristo. I could have biked this, but it wasn’t worth the trouble to save only about a mile of road-walking. While the railroad continues up the South Fork Sauk River, a well-used trail follows Weden Creek, then switchbacks up the steep hillside to Weden and Foggy Lakes. Like all good Cascades trails, this one is consistently steep, occasionally very steep, and crosses cascading and eroded streambeds sometimes containing large pieces of snow. A sign at the trailhead warned about collapsing snow-bridges, and I imagine more than one novice hiker has fallen victim to them on this popular route.

Looking down upper ridge

There were already several tents near Weden Lake, where the snow became more consistent. I crossed a mixture of snowfields and slabs on my way up to Foggy Lake, then found a trail around its right side. Since I had not planned to tag this peak when I drove down to Vesper, I had no route description and only a low-resolution map with 50-meter contours, and was forced to actually look at the mountain and figure out a plausible route. I settled on approaching on the right shoulder, then crossing a snowfield and hopefully ascending a gully to the right ridge higher up; this fortunately turned out to be the standard route, as evidenced by some fresh boot-prints in the snow.

I climbed a loose gully to a notch in the ridge, made a few exposed third class moves to get around to the east face, then enjoyed some easy third class scrambling up ledges to the summit. I found a seat to enjoy the views of nearby Vestal to the west, Sloan and Glacier to the northeast, and even high Stuart far away to the southeast. Unfortunately the summit was also a meeting-place for flying ants, so I did not feel like staying long before retracing my route. I could have climbed Gothic Peak as well, but was out of food and not too excited about the lesser summit, so I simply headed back down the trail. The tourist hordes marched up in twos and threes, except one group of a dozen attractive young people who seemed to be part of some college outdoor group. Hike-jogging the road back to the car, I decided to stay another day and use the bike I have been carrying around all summer.

Vesper (True Grit 5.8, Ragged Edge 5.7)

The climbing part

Vesper Peak is an unremarkable summit off the Mountain Loop Highway with a remarkable granite north face containing several five- to six-pitch moderate climbing routes, which had been on my radar for awhile. I met Ben climbing in City of Rocks, and when he contacted me looking to do some climbing in the western Cascades, I immediately thought of Vesper. I don’t get to rope up very often, but I still more or less remember how to do it safely, and it helps my scrambling. Since the approach is long (3500 feet) for relatively short climbs (500 feet or less), we did two routes, climbing True Grit, then looping around the convenient walk-off to climb the more popular Ragged Edge. We climbed on a weekday, so the crowds were manageable, but there were still at least three other parties on Ragged Edge, including one guided. The parking lot was jammed with pricey “#vanlife” vans on Friday night, though, suggesting that this area is too close to Seattle to be pleasant on a weekend.

Unnamed glacier and Copper Lake

We got a semi-lazy start from the parking lot around 7:00, each carrying too much stuff: I was lugging Ben’s 70m rope, while he carried an extensive rack with two sets of nuts and cams up to #3 including many small ones. We passed two teams headed in the same direction, and saw one tent at the lake near the head of Vesper Creek. Looking at Vesper from the approach, it seemed like we were hiking too high, and would run out of peak. However we were in fact on-route, and once we reached the saddle with Wolf Peak it became clear why Vesper is so popular: its upper north face is a smooth, triangular granite slab tilted at about 60 degrees. The ledge traverse to reach the base of the climbs can be dicey with snow, but it was mostly clear and easy.

Climber finishing Ragged Edge

Reaching Ragged Edge’s original start, we quickly racked up and got climbing so as not to delay the party behind us. As it turned out, we need not have worried, since they were doing the adventurous alternative start, and since we quickly got off-route and climbed True Grit. Ragged Edge jogs drastically right in the first or second pitch, so this is an easy mistake to make. True Grit is a more direct line, with generally better rock and more interesting climbing. Ben linked the third and fourth pitches, a slab and a long finger crack, using the full 70 meters of rope. I was glad he led this one, as the finger crack would have been intimidating on lead, especially now that the rubber has worn off the toes of my ancient climbing shoes. I finished the final vegetable scramble to the summit, where we chatted with a guide as he brought his client up the final hero pitch of Ragged Edge.

Ben and someone on the two routes

We followed a bit of a trail east, then slid and kicked steps down snow to reach the saddle again. There were already two parties headed for Ragged Edge, but we were moving fast, and they very politely allowed us to go first. Rather than starting in the same place, we did the alternate start, which requires a bit of fourth class downclimbing to reach the base of a lieback flake. I took the first pitch, making the lieback look harder than I should have, then wandered up the class 3-4 slabs and gullies above, looking for the “faint white dyke [sic]” mentioned on Mountain Project. Not seeing any such feature, or many good gear placements, I wandered up and slightly right until I found some clean cracks below a step to build an anchor.

Across face to Sperry and Glacier

Ben followed up, then traversed right to spot some bolts leading to a bolted anchor, then belayed me across to get back on-route via a short and unremarkable pitch. I led the next, which traverses some moderate ledges before climbing the arete past a couple of old pitons. The initial ledges were a bit intimidating, as the only crack that looked like it might take protection was behind a giant loose breadloaf. I was much happier after reaching the first bolt and piton, and continued up to another gear belay on a grassy ledge.

Looking down the Ragged Edge

Ben once again linked the two crux pitches, which head out to and climb along the edge of the face, giving the route its name. The climbing is sometimes face-y, and the exposure feels very real for both the leader and follower, as a fall could leave one swinging over the edge. I took the final pitch, along the easier upper portion of the edge to the summit. The climbing was not very hard, so I got lazy with my gear placements, slinging a horn and placing a cam in a too-big crack. While Ragged Edge ascends a cool feature, we both agreed that True Grit was a better climb.

After hanging out on the summit for awhile, we descended to the lake, passing a couple guides setting up camp. They suggested that we do Mile High Club, a 7-pitch 5.10a on a formation we would pass on the way down. Ben seemed tempted, but we had climbed 9 pitches already, and I did not feel that my skills were up to sustained climbing at that grade. So we just hiked back to the cars, and he headed back to Index while I had dinner and settled in for another night at the trailhead. The weekenders were descending in force, so I was glad to leave first thing in the morning to scramble somewhere less popular.


Thornton from approach

Thornton Peak sits above the Thornton Lakes, between Triumph and Trapper on the ridge west of Goodell Creek. I had climbed both of its neighbors from the high Thornton Lakes trailhead, and had half-hoped to climb the more impressive and remote Mount Despair. But a combination of laziness and big plans for the next day led me to settle for Thornton, a much more modest goal.

Big terrain to the west

Taking advantage of the high trailhead, I got a slightly late start, hiking the flat continuation of the old road, then making my way up the steeper trail toward the lakes. I passed a couple of parties who had started while I was drinking my coffee, then had the trail to myself until the saddle south of Trapper. Here I met an older man on his first backpack since injuring his back. It was going well, and he planned to drop his overnight pack to take in the view from Trapper before heading home. He had clearly been hiking and scrambling in the area for years, and when I told him that I planned to climb Thornton, he gave me some helpful information about the route, cautioning that it would be “a big day.”

Thornton Lakes from summit

From where I met the man, I dropped several hundred frustrating feet to the lowest lake’s outlet, where there is a campground, then continued through a maze of use trails toward the second lake and the broad ridge leading to Thornton’s south side. I had come this way for Triumph before, but still managed to lose quite a bit of time following various false trails. I finally found one that worked, which stayed low toward the second lake, then turned sharply uphill on the right edge of the ridge, marked by intermittent cairns. Once it emerged from the woods, the cairns became unnecessary, and I followed the easiest path up slabs, grass, and snow to the narrowing crest, where all trails converge.


I cut under the bump where the ridge turns north, crossing a snowfield and climbing some third class slabs, where I found an unnecessary rappel anchor. From there, I followed more bits of trail along the crest, then dipped right under a subpeak where the trail presumably went left to traverse toward Triumph Pass. Following the beta I had learned earlier, I traversed the left snowfield below Thornton, then found an easy scramble up the rock rib separating it from the right one. From there, a bit more scrambling along the east ridge led to the summit. The register was an interesting mix of people doing Big Things like traversing from Triumph, turned back from Big Things like Triumph’s northeast ridge, and enjoying an obscure peak for itself. Clouds unfortunately obscured many of the surrounding peaks, but I did get a brief, clear glimpse of nearby Triumph in all its pyramidal glory.

I retraced my route on the return, slightly botching the descent between the middle and lower lakes, then put myself on autopilot for the trail. I met a steady stream of people coming the other way, either day-hiking or intending to camp at the lake. Even on a weekday, such an accessible area of the western North Cascades can be crowded.

The Chopping Block

Chopping Block

It had been awhile since I had visited the Pickets, and I had only briefly visited the Crescent Creek basin briefly in 2014 to tag Terror via its standard route. That time, I had ascended and descended the relatively popular Terror Basin route, crossing back and forth across the Barrier after tagging several peaks in that basin. This time I decided to investigate the less-used Crescent Creek approach, which crosses the bottom of the Barrier near the Chopping Block. Crescent Creek is bordered by some of the harder, more obscure, and less-climbed Pickets summits such as the Rake, Ottohorn, and Twin Needles. All but East Twin Needle supposedly have class 3-5.easy routes on their south sides, though they seem to be done more often either via harder routes or as part of a traverse. However, I ended up shut down and demoralized after attempting West Twin Needle, and further beaten down by annoying travel over the Barrier and across the Terror Glacier to the standard route. Fortunately I had summited the Chopping Block and chance-met an online acquaintance along the way, so the day was not a total waste.

Giant tree fungus

I suppose I could and should have started by headlamp, but the days are still long, so I got a relatively leisurely start along the old Goodell Creek logging road. The parking lot was full, and the trail well-beaten-in, so I expected to find a small tent city at the usual camping spot for West MacMillan Spire. Where the Terror Basin approach turns sharply uphill, I continued straight onto unfamiliar ground, finding a decent climbers’ trail that soon left Goodell Creek and any former road behind to climb through the woods south of Terror Creek. The trail started out fairly easy to follow, but soon split and disintegrated. I lost it for awhile, weaving through small cliff-bands, balancing on logs, dodging devil’s club, and retracing my steps for awhile before finding some bits of flagging and trail near where it crosses the creek.

There were some logs as described online, and an obvious cairn on the other side, but none of the logs formed a bridge. I stupidly wasted some time trying to build a bridge over a constriction, only to have my inadequate logs washed away; then I walked fifty yards upstream to a flat, gentle part and waded across, finding it no more than calf-deep and smooth enough to be comfortable barefoot. Putting my shoes back on on the other side, I walked back downstream and picked up the “trail again.”

Goodell Creek and the Skagit

This part of the route is the most insanely-steep approach trail I have followed in the Cascades, climbing more or less straight up the side of the steep ridge between Terror and Crescent Creeks. Others have told nightmare stories of rappeling through woods to pass cliff bands while descending this route, but I found the trail relatively easy to follow in all but one or two places. It was certainly an efficient way to gain elevation, and almost pleasant with a daypack. Once on top of the ridge, the trail becomes fainter and more annoying. The crest is infested with blueberry bushes, and the trail fades in and out of existence. I was soon tired of thrashing through brush, bashing my shins and seeming to make little progress. I was also thirsty, as there was limited shade on the crest, and no water.

Triumph and Despair

After a marked increase in annoyance, I finally emerged on the slanted, triangular plateau forming the Barrier’s base. Travel was suddenly easier, and water plentiful. I sat on a slab to drink a liter, then filled up my bladder and continued toward the Chopping Block. My main goals were farther north, but I had a chance to return to them later this summer, and I did not want to repeat this approach. Nor did I want to return the way I had come, preferring instead to cross the Barrier and join the well-used MacMillan Spire approach.

West Peak through Terror from Chopping Block

I did not know anything about how to climb the Chopping Block, but it looked fairly easy on the south side, with access gullies on this side and a heather ledge leading back to the north and, presumably, the Barrier crossing. Approaching the base, I was surprised to hear shouts from above and see a climber rappeling the north ridge. I continued toward my chosen gully, which was loose but not particularly hard, and soon reached the near side of the sloping south face. Following the obvious line, I soon found some typical Cascades rap tat, reassuring me that I was on some version of a route. There were a couple of short, exposed sections that might have been low fifth class, but a line staying near the east side of the peak led to the summit plateau without too much difficulty.

The Barrier

I found a wet register in a cylinder on top, which the other party had not signed, carefully added my name, then set it out to dry a bit while having a snack. One reason to climb the Chopping Block is for the view, with a perfect panorama of the Southern Pickets from West Peak to Terror. They looked intimidating, and the bowl below them looked like a grim talus slog. I cleaned up the anchor garbage on top, then retraced my route to the heather traverse, which worked as well as I imagined.

While on top, I had seen a climber returning to a camp on the ridge. Unsure whether I wanted to subject myself to the talus-filled Crescent Creek cirque, I headed where the climber had gone, figuring that it would only be a minor detour if I decided to bail back to Terror Cirque, and that they might also have camped near the correct entry point to Crescent. I emerged on the ridge to find two climbers packing up camp, almost ready to hike down the way I had come. After speaking for a minute, one asked me my name, and when I told him, he revealed that he (Jon) had been emailing me recently about Picket beta. The world of people interested in rugged, remote Cascades peaks is small indeed. Talking to Jon and Alex for a half-hour restored my motivation, and I set off down the scree toward the Twin Needles with new determination.

The bowl was not as bad as it looked: the talus was fairly stable, and there were slabs and snowfields mixed in. Other than a couple of steep old moraines, I found no major obstacles in reaching the base of the ridge near the Needles. Beckey says that all of these peaks were first climbed long ago and, with the exception of East Twin Needle, are no harder than low fifth class from the cirque. He does not, however, describe any of the routes in any useful detail, and I quickly found that while there may be moderate routes — it certainly looks like there should be — most of the terrain is chossy, outward-sloping, or otherwise difficult or unpleasant.

Baker, Shuksan, and Southwest Pickets from Barrier

I tried several approaches to the West Twin Needle. First I tried a gully, which ended in a mess of chockstones and gained me nothing but some skin torn off my fingers by a slip getting into the moat. I got around the first chockstone to the right with some careful face climbing, but was confronted by more chockstones, and a not-quite-accessible ramp to the left. I tried another line left of the gully only to give up as the meandering ramps seemed to lead to steeper terrain. Slightly bloody and thoroughly unhappy, I tried going right around the corner, only to find steep turf and choss leading away from the Twin Needles and toward the Rake. Far from home and sick of this pointless activity, I retraced my route to the snow and climbed over to the upper Barrier crossing.

This crossing has a reputation for being tricky, but I do not remember it giving me much trouble back in 2014. However either it had gotten harder, or I was in a less buoyant mood from having been defeated at my main goals. I found sketchy downclimbing, packed dirt, and a slightly dubious moat crossing. My frustration continued on the glacier, where I found that my line staying close to the ridge toward West MacMillan Spire was probably too crevassed to safely cross. I instead made a long detour down and right to reach the glacier’s toe. The traverse toward camp and the trail home held its own irritations, with steep slabs left behind by the retreating glacier, often lubricated by melt streams from what remained.

Parting view of Pickets (2021)

Southern Pickets, July 2014

Finally reaching the normal camp, I was surprised not to find any tents. Even the boot-prints in the snow looked old, as if everyone had left that morning. This made no sense to me, it being a weekend. Fortunately the path, once I found it, was easy to follow, and after a long alpine traverse, I enjoyed bombing nearly straight down to the road. I even played the same album I had in 2014 by the Klezmatics — Jewish wedding dance music goes well with the quick reactions and careful footwork required on such a descent. Once back at the road, I jogged and quick-hiked to beat boredom and darkness, but stopped to harvest thimbleberries when they were close to the trail. Most of the cars were gone by the time I reached the lot, so I set my shoes out on the hood and settled in for another night.

Tomyhoi and Little Devil



Tomyhoi is an odd-shaped peak on the opposite side of Tomyhoi Creek from American and Canadian Border Peaks, with cliffs surrounding a broad plateau around its summit crest on most sides. It is a moderate scramble from the Yellow Aster trailhead, and while not exactly popular, it has a reasonable use trail most of the way. I needed an easier day after thrashing back from American Border Peak, and Tomyhoi was convenient. Unfortunately it was cloudy most of the day, so I did not get to see much of its surroundings.

I drove the short distance down to the trailhead, once again ignoring the “fee area” signs, and hiked back up the trail I had descended the previous afternoon. I turned left where the trail splits toward Tomyhoi Lake, making a long, gradually-ascending traverse under Yellow Aster Butte’s three summits. This was a pleasant section of trail, crossing mostly open ground with views of Baker and Shuksan peeking out of the clouds across the valley to the south. Where the main trail finally turns back northeast to climb to the butte, I took the less-used spur down to a plateau dotted with mostly-frozen tarns, where I met a couple packing up their cold camp amid the snow, ice, and mud. Why do people do that?

I continued following a fading trail along the undulating ridge, finding a bit of easy class 3, but no real difficulties. The only trouble was toward the very end, where one must cross a small glacier on the east side to avoid some gendarmes on the ridge. I had left my crampons in the car, so I had to exercise some caution crossing the snow with an axe and running shoes. I also went too far, making the snow steeper, the moat deeper, and the rock more challenging than necessary. After getting back on-route, I found the final class 3 scramble to the summit easy by comparison. I had no views on the summit, so I only stayed a few minutes before following the trail back to the correct glacier crossing, which skips only the first couple of gendarmes by crossing 100 yards or so of snow. From there, I had an easy hike/jog back to the car, then a drive back south to Highway 20 with a stop to resupply before heading into the food desert.

Little Devil

Glacier and scramble

Looking for an easy day near Marblemount, I noticed Teebone Ridge, which extends from near Monogram Lake to Big Devil southwest of Newhalem. Access to the Big Devil (north) side involves a boat and a terrible bushwhack, but the Little Devil (south) side has a convenient trail to about 5000 feet on the way to Monogram Lake, most of which is shared with the popular hike to Lookout Mountain. My plan was to go at least as far as Little Devil, and then to continue on toward Big Devil as far as I felt.

I got a late-ish start, soon passing the two parties that had started ahead of me while I finished my coffee. Most of the trail is through open old growth forest, but I was grateful for my long pants as I bashed through the open area with miscellaneous brush including nettles. Above, I left the well-used trail to the lookout, finding the Monogram Lake trail somewhat rougher but still in good shape. I briefly lost it in some avalanche snow below an open bowl, but soon found it again, and spotted the use trail up Teebone Ridge right where I expected it on the next shoulder.

This “trail” was steep, with bits of scrambling, but still easy going. After an initial steep climb, the ridge flattens out, with cliffs to the left and a grass-and-boulder slope to the right leading down to Monogram Lake. I stayed on or near the crest, finding easy travel and few undulations. Things got a bit trickier where the ridge turns north at an unnamed summit before Little Devil. There is a small glacier nestled on the ridge’s east side, and both sides become fairly steep. I had read that one can cross the glacier, but that would require losing a lot of elevation, so I stayed generally east of the ridge crest, finding some boulder-hopping and enjoyable class 3 scrambling on good gray granite.

The rock turned to black choss at the (formerly glacier) saddle below Little Devil, and I made a final choss-slog up to the twin summits. One highpoint is easy to reach, while the other is a Sierra-style balanced block. I walked over the first, then dropped my pack to tackle the second, which involved a couple low fifth class moves on its south side. I had plenty of time, but the ridge continuing to Big Devil looked less pleasant than what I had seen so far, so I took a 30-minute nap at a flat spot, then retraced my route. The Lookout trail descent was fun as always, with soft, mostly smooth footing and a steep but reasonable grade. I had a late lunch at the shady parking area, then rolled into Marblemount for internet before preparing for bigger things.

Larrabee, American Border Peak


[While writing this violates the letter of the local law, I believe it keeps with its spirit.]

Pleiades and Slesse from Low Pass

Canada’s seemingly eternal closure, even to those fully vaccinated, has caused me much irritation this summer, as there are plenty of peaks up there I want to climb, and I will likely be far away if the pandemic has settled down by next summer. However, I hoped to engage in a bit of international crime by tagging Canadian Border Peak, lying less than a mile into the Great White North west of Mount Slesse. The peak is at the northern end of a ridge that includes Mount Larrabee and American Border Peak. I had hoped to traverse all three peaks, but the first two proved much harder than I had anticipated. I therefore found myself turned back from Canada not by armed and masked Mounties, but by savage choss.

Low Pass from High Pass

The Yellow Aster Butte trailhead is yet another fee area, so I parked halfway between there and Twin Lakes, which made sense since I was planning a loop hike between the two trailheads. I got a reasonably early start, hiking the steep 4WD road to the lakes and meeting a couple of people coming down in more capable vehicles. There are two trails out of Twin Lakes, one heading down to Silesia (Slesse) Creek, the other up to Low and High Passes. I took the latter, which crosses a shoulder, then traverses down and around to gain the ridge south of Larrabee at Low Pass. From there, the trail continues to High Pass, then splits, with one branch heading left to an old mine, and the other dead-ending at some more mining debris on Larrabee’s southeast ridge. The peaks had been in and out of clouds all day, and while they did not threaten rain, then did obscure the route ahead, both complicating my route-finding and protecting my eyes from the discouraging choss to come.

This totally goes…

The easiest way up Larrabee is probably the southwest ridge, but I found a plaque memorializing a dead climber on the southeast one, and figured that it, too probably went. [The climber, Dallas Kloke, was actually a well-known local and author of several guidebooks, who died at the age of 71 falling from the Pleiades, just east of Larrabee. — ed.] It turned out okay, and I even found a cairn or two and the occasional apparent boot-pack, but the gendarmes and stretches of low-fifth-class choss were harder than I had expected, and made this “warmup” peak slower than I had hoped. Reaching the summit, I caught occasional glimpses of a glacier far below to the northeast, and of the first part of the ridge north to ABP, but not much beyond that. I took the time to download some map tiles, then headed off along the ridge.

East ABP ridge

This ridge turned out to be mostly time-consuming and tedious. The east side, recently cut by glaciers, is rarely useful, and the west side has several spur ridges and is often steep, so the crest is usually the best path. However it has numerous towers, which sometimes forced me to one side. The worst was probably a sizable subpeak with a goat sleeping area just to its south. I looked at the right, where the goats go, but it was steep, hard dirt with a bad runout. To the left, I descended some snow, then traversed a rib and did a few short stretches of low-fifth downclimbing to fight my way back to the crest.

West ABP ridge

The ridge improves somewhat closer to ABP, changing from reddish choss to some white, harder rock (granite, perhaps?), but unfortunately this does not continue to the summit. The peak has a subpeak to its south, with sheer north and west sides. I traversed around the east, then checked out the prospects of continuing the traverse and finishing up ABP’s southeast face, but that looked unlikely. Instead I retraced my steps a short ways and climbed back to the notch with the subpeak, since it seemed likely that things would go better on the ridge crest.

Crux area

From the notch, I climbed a steep ramp to the right that dead-ended a short ways below the ridge. There appeared to be two ways up to the ridge: a burly lieback/mantle up a big flake to the left, and an exposed dirt-and-choss traverse around a corner to the right. I found an old piton at the bottom of the flake, but lacked the cojones to make the moves. The choss traverse was not appealing, either, but after my body encouraged me to unload some ballast, I found a sequence of cautious moves that worked, and got me to safer ground. From there, class 4-5 terrain got me back left to the crest where, as I had suspected, things were easier. I made my way through some big granite blocks, passed a surprising tent platform, then continued boulder-hopping to the summit. I later looked at the route description I had downloaded and ignored, and found that very little of it corresponded to what I had seen or done. Oh, well… there was a piton, so at least a couple other people had been my way.

Not really wanting to reverse what I had done, I continued traversing toward Canada. This started off well, and I even saw some old boot-prints in the snow; I was finally feeling optimistic about getting into Canada. Alas, the smooth going ended at a sheer notch extending well east toward the glacier below. The west side was still vertical, and careful exploration uncovered nothing I would like to climb to get into the notch. Fearing a nasty and demoralizing backtrack, I traversed back along the east side, finding ledgy slabs that I could use to make my way back down and north.

CBP taunts me

But once again my budding hope was crushed, this time by a cliff in the final few hundred feet above the odd three-way saddle between ABP and CBP. I saw no direct downclimb, and it seemed unlikely that I would be able to reach the glacier to the east. However some instinct told me to traverse around the west side into a bowl in the otherwise-vertical face. Here I found more broken and promising terrain, where I finally made my way to the snow and talus below, passing a possible cairn above a final steep, diagonal downclimb.

West side of ridge

I looked over at CBP, now only a short distance away, but lacked the will for another choss-battle. I had seen the clear-cut border swath to both sides, but as far as I can tell I was stopped just feet from Canada. In retrospect, turning back was wise, because the terrain between north of ABP and the trail from the south end of Tomyhoi Lake was horrid. Perhaps I should have stayed high and traversed to somewhere near High Pass, but I did not. Instead I diagonaled down endless loose talus to treeline, then contoured south there through the bowl west of ABP. Past that, I dropped through talus fields and mostly open woods to the shore of Tomyhoi Lake. I had hoped to find a rocky beach or something, but instead found only hellish alders. I retreated to the woods, then made my way south. The woods themselves were fairly open and pleasant, but they were cut by numerous slide paths and deep-gullied creeks. My pace went from miles per hour to hours per mile as I cursed and thrashed my way toward the trail. Once finally on trail, my energy returned and I fast-hiked up to the pass, then ran the more popular Yellow Aster Butte trail back to the other trailhead. One short road-hike later, I returned to the car to spend another night and do an easy nearby peak the next day.

Baker (Coleman-Deming ski)

Baker from near camp

I had previously done Mount Baker in 2014, going up the “fun way” via the Coleman Headwall and walking down the standard Coleman-Deming route. This time I decided to have my fun on the way down instead, lugging skis up the Coleman-Deming. Mid-July is late for skiing, but I figured that Baker is the northernmost Cascades volcano, that it accumulates incredible amounts of snow each winter, and that the generally north-facing Coleman Glacier would have decent snow-cover. However, I underestimated how much the recent heat wave had melted off. While there was still some good skiing on the Coleman, the west-facing Deming had a couple of unavoidable patches of bare glacier, which skis better than waterfall ice, but is not exactly fun.

Heliotrope Ridge

Heliotrope Ridge, like seemingly every other National Forest trailhead in Washington, is a fee area, so I drove past it to park in a flat spot a quarter mile beyond. I understand that the Forest Service is badly underfunded, but this sort of nickel-and-diming, like the good old “Adventure Pass” to park on roads around Los Angeles, just annoys me. I would happily spend $80 on an Interagency Annual Pass to make the problem go away if they made it easy to buy one, but I refuse to spend money on a regional forest parking pass.

Anyways… knowing that the suncups would have to soften for the snow to be skiable, I took my time getting started in the morning. The first stream crossings were easy, but I somehow missed the turnoff for Heliotrope Ridge. Running into an uncrossable stream, I looked at my map to realize I had come too far toward the Coleman Glacier overlook. I was soon back on track, feeling slightly ridiculous as I passed the Real Mountaineers (helmet, picket, boots) in my trail runners with skis and boots strapped to my pack. Heliotrope Ridge was as spectacular as I remembered, covered in various wildflowers, with Baker and the large Coleman Glacier as a backdrop.

Baker and Colfax

Passing a few tents at the normal camping spot, I scrambled up a rock rib for a bit, then got on the glacier. I thought I might have to put on skis and skins here, but between the suncups and a solid boot-pack, I found it easier to stay with running shoes and ski poles. I met a guided-looking party coming down at the ridge separating the Coleman and Deming glaciers, a novice Asian couple and a slightly overweight white guy carrying extra gear. The latter informed me that there was quite a bit of ice on the Deming, making me question my choice of activities. Hiking up the choss-ridge between the two glaciers, I saw that the Deming was indeed in sorry shape.

Fire near Silver Star

I sketched my way up the icy patches and over a small crevasse on the way to the summit plateau, sort of wishing I had brought crampons, but refusing to take out my ice axe. I stashed my skis at the top of the glacier, then hiked across the glacier plateau to the summit dirt-hill. I met an Eastern European couple from Chicago on top, acclimatizing for Rainier. Looking at my feet, the woman began “coming up here in just shoes seems…” “Sketchy,” I suggested, before she could bring herself to say “dangerous” or “stupid.” We talked for awhile, then I took some time to look over the familiar peaks, from nearby Shuksan, to the Pickets, to the more distant high peaks like Goode. On the other side of the range, I saw a fire blowing up near Silver Star, which would eventually close Highway 20 near Mazama.

Deming descent

A large guided group had arrived from the Baker Lake side, so I let them have the summit and returned to my skis. After an awkward transition standing in the boot-pack, I made a few hesitant turns around some rocks, then skied a bit quicker down to the ice, where the surface had softened enough to make crossing it safe, if not fun. Below, I stayed left of the choss ridge, finding decent snow for some asymmetric turns along the right side of the Deming Glacier. Rounding the corner where I would cross back to the Coleman, I was surprised by a small crevasse, which forced me to make an emergency hop. I put my skis back on my pack, then kicked steps back to the ridge and crossed the choss to get back on the boot-pack.

I had thought of doing Colfax, a bump on this side of Baker, but once again lacked the motivation. I instead skied down the Coleman Glacier near the boot-pack, finding the suncups softer but still a bit bumpy. I managed to open up in a couple of places, but only hit around 30 MPH. Cruising down the final slope to camp, I sailed by some guys hiking in boots, and felt happy to have brought the skis. While transitioning back to hiking mode, I met a couple of undergrad girls sampling stream insects, and congratulated them on choosing a major that let them hike around in the wilderness for their summer research. I passed the usual tourists on the hike back, plus a trio headed up to camp and ski. So I wasn’t the only crazy one…

Glacier comparisons

Having made two trips to the Coleman-Deming route, one on 7/31/14 and the other on 7/14/21, I took some similar photos, which give some idea of how the mountain has dried out in seven years. Here is Colfax in 2014 and 2021:

Colfax icefall (2014)

Colefax icefall (2021)

And here is Baker itself, showing the Coleman Headwall:

North ridge (l), Headwall (c), standard (r)

Baker from near camp (2021)


Ridge to Buckner

Horseshoe Peak is one of many lesser summits on the long, serrated, chossy ridge between Boston and Buckner. While it makes the Bulger List of Washington’s highest 100 peaks, it does not have enough prominence to count as one of the 100 highest “true” peaks. Its prominence, i.e. height from the highest saddle with a higher peak, is only listed as 80 feet, but looking from its summit, the ridges toward both Boston and Buckner seem to drop more than that, making it at least feel like a real peak. I had ignored it on my previous trip to Boston and Buckner, giving me something else to do while the Cascade Pass road was closed.

A joy to behold

I biked up to the trailhead in an hour or so, and luxuriated in the absence of cars and tourists. There were a couple tents nearby, but mine was the only bike. Less than a quarter of a mile up the trail, I surprised a black bear also enjoying the quiet, and after we both took a moment to assess the situation, I backed off to give him a chance to get off the trail. Continuing up toward the pass, I was reminded of how I loathe this trail: it is just steep enough to be annoying to run uphill, but graded at an average of 10%, i.e. less than an ADA wheelchair ramp.

The brown streak

From the pass, I continued on the trail up Sahale Arm, passing a couple of guys hoping to climb Sahale. I remembered coming back to Sahale Camp from Buckner, but did not know much about the route. I headed right, descended a snowfield, and reached the cliffy edge of the Sahale Arm without finding a use trail or cairns. After wasting some time looking at my options, I finally sketched my way down the “brown streak,” an intrusion of brown choss in the granite. This was probably only fourth class, but it took me quite awhile, reminding me that I am out of practice at the alpine shenanigans at which I normally excel. From there, I made a long snow traverse across the basin around 6800 feet, eventually reaching an old mine which seems unlikely to have been profitable.

Buckner from Horseshoe

I diagonaled up the snow toward Horseshoe’s base, then transitioned to chossy rock before the final snowfield south of the summit. Along the way I had been battling large biting flies, which flew faster than I could climb or descend snow, and refused to lose interest. The only good thing about them was the satisfying thwack resulting from a direct hit. After some needless hard scrambling, I reached the saddle between the peak’s two summits. I climbed the right one first, only to look over and see a massive nest of tat on the other. Bummer! I returned to the saddle, then made my way up a ramp to its end, where a final, steep pull-up/mantle got me to the summit.

Climber trash

Lounging around, I examined the ridges to both sides, with their many large pinnacles. The ones leading back to Boston looked painfully loose, while the next major one toward Buckner, I believe nicknamed “Lick of Flame,” looked like a worthy summit with no easy routes. Satisfied with my day, I retraced my route across the basin and up the brown streak, refilled my water and ate my last bar, then joined the trail once again at Sahale Camp. I met a half-dozen people headed up the ridge, most intending to camp and probably climb Sahale. I also passed the two guys I had met in the morning, who had turned back because of (supposed) altitude sickness. I ran the switchbacks down Cascade Pass out of sheer frustration and boredom, then had a final, wonderfully cooling ride down the road to my car.