After doing a big route with almost no approach, I drove down closer to sea level to do the opposite: a bunch of snack-sized peaks with an epic approach, i.e. the southern Pickets. This subrange epitomizes the north Cascades, with a 5,000-foot wooded climb on the approach, usually followed by a glacier crossing and 3rd class or harder climbing on variable rock. Wanting to get the most value out of the brutal approach, I climbed everything between East McMillan Spire and Terror except Inspiration, which is face-y 5.7 at its easiest, in 15h45 car-to-car, including at least a half-hour on the wrong route up Terror. I believe the most popular southern Picket peak, West McMillan, is a very reasonable dayhike, with moderate snow and scrambling and no crevasse issues.
Dreading a soaking bush-whack, I got a late start at 5:30 from the completely full Goodell Creek trailhead parking lot, and was pleased to find the head-high brush unusually dry.After following the old logging road for a bit over an hour, I reached the well-worn Terror Creek climbers’ trail, marked by a rock arrow, a post, and a large cairn. The approach is some kind of efficient: after covering 4 horizontal toward the objective while gaining only 1,000 vertical feet, it gains the next 4,000 feet by going straight up a hillside, then covers the remaining horizontal distance along open mostly open heather slopes.
Though the climb is relentlessly steep, the trail is well-established, so it passes quickly. After years of guidebooks and climbers singing the Pickets’ praise, they are now being loved to death. On the one hand, don’t expect solitude; on the other, the pilgrims to West McMillan Spire have beaten a good path.Where the trail reaches a level and open bench, I finally got a good view north to the peaks from Degenhardt to East McMillan Spire, and southwest to the equally impressive north face of Mount Triumph. Shortly thereafter, I passed a group of four heading down surprisingly early in the morning. After briefly losing the trail at a stream crossing (the route actually goes up the boulders next to the stream for a ways), I regained it and passed another large, possibly guided group heading down. Climbing a short snow-slope to a col, I saw the tents of the standard Pickets camp below me and, across more snow and slabs, the Terror Glacier leading to the peaks. Not sure whether the ridge to the right connected, I slid down to the camp and followed the boot-track to West McMillan down to a low saddle, then up the snow and slabs east of the glacier. This was the first of my suboptimal route choices: it turns out that the ridge to the right would have been easier and more direct. My ambition wavering, I briefly contemplated just doing West McMillan, but convinced myself to make the most of my one day in the area and headed for East McMillan. A steep snow gully leading to the col between the East and West spires is the standard approach, but with just my running-shoe crampons, I prefer rock. I followed a reddish, rightward-trending ledge for awhile, cut back on some 4th class, passing a sling, and finally climbed a rib on one side of the gully to the saddle. Here I had my first view of the precipitous drop north to the McMillan Glacier, and of the easy 3rd class terrain to East McMillan’s summit. After scrambling up to the summit, I took in the rest of the day’s objectives to the west, and Luna and Fury to the north. I also kept an eye on the West Spire, hoping to see the couple I had seen approaching it ahead of me on the snowfield. Beckey’s guidebook mentions only a 5.6-5.7 “southeast face” route on this side of West McMillan — harder than I want to do in running shoes — so I resigned myself to dropping down and around to its easy west side. However, I took another at the face on the way down and spotted a tempting grassy ramp/crack that could work. It had to be tried. Returning to the col, I passed north of a gendarme then climbed up near the ridge crest to where I could traverse into the crack. I found it to be secure and straightforward 4th class to where it disappeared into the face. From there, an extremely exposed step-around followed by easy scrambling led around to the west side just below the summit. My route somewhat matched Beckey’s description of the southeast face route, including an “awkward 5.7 step-around,” but whatever I found seemed no harder than 5.0: while extremely exposed, it had good handholds, decent feet, and solid rock.
After a short break on the summit, I scampered down the west face, trying to catch the couple I had seen earlier. I stayed well left of them on the loose face, announcing my presence by sending a decent-sized rock down the face (oops!). I explained how we had missed each other, and encouraged them to tag the East Spire, but they seemed content to hang out together for the afternoon (this is not among the ways I roll). Unholstering my axe, I slid happily down to the corner of the Terror Glacier, leaving them far behind as they downclimbed the snow-slope.With an overabundance of caution, I skirted the edge of the glacier and its ice-falls, reascending a rock rib on its east side, then traversing along the top below Inspiration. Though inspiring, it is also supposedly 5.7 by its easiest route, so I did not even try. My next targets were Pyramid, notable only for having a good view of Inspiration, and Degenhardt, at the north end of the Barrier. The Barrier, which separates the Terror and Crescent Creek basins, marked the end of the day’s good rock. After clawing up some choss and dirt to the notch south of Degenhardt, I traversed more garbage to Pyramid’s summit, then returned west along the slightly-better ridge to Degenhardt’s 4th class summit. Climbing Terror, then reascending and crossing the Barrier to return, looked like a lot of work, but I had motivation and daylight to spare. I was, however, out of water unless I wanted to suck on my socks. Dropping slightly down the ridge toward Terror, I shoved the first slush I found into my empty Camelbak, shook it up a bit, and drank it as it melted while traversing down slabs to the unnamed glacier, supplementing it with melt-water along the way. The easiest route on Terror climbs a gully to a saddle west of the summit, then follows the west face/ridge, so I took the first gully I found. This proved a costly mistake: increasingly tired and climbing slowly, I found some tricky 4th-5.0 climbing, then a huge chockstone with no easy bypass. After experimenting with one very steep wall, I backed off, carefully returned to the glacier, and found the obvious snow gully about 100 yards farther on. Ugh. Though better with snow than without, the gully was still a bit of an ordeal, as my running shoes and crampons are not the best tools for steep, deep slush. I kicked careful steps to the top of the snow, then continued on rotten rock to the saddle. In my impatience, I went straight up the easy 5th class from the notch rather than searching for the easier route around the corner, then slogged up slabs and boulders to what turned out to be a false summit, separated from the true summit by the gully I had failed to climb earlier. Had I known, I could have saved myself 100 feet of climbing by contouring south — oh, well. Resting on the summit, I gazed on the route back toward the trailhead and suddenly felt late and far from home. Returning, I downclimbed the easy route into the notch, then tediously kicked steps back down the slush-couloir. Finding the way up this side of the Barrier was straightforward: a ridge leads to the notch south of Degenhardt, which is the top of the upper crossing point. I carefully made my way down the choss to the glacier then, not wanting to follow my meandering route on the return, took a direct path following an old boot-pack through a gap in the ice-fall. After speaking briefly with the couple I met earlier at their camp, I downed my last pop-tarts and painfully made the final climb out of camp to the approach trail. As expected, I was extremely slow going uphill, but my flat and downhill speed was intact. I cruised the traverse to the woods, bombed down the climbers’ path to the road, and jogged most of the flat and downhill sections there, trying to make it back before the Headlamp Hour. Bent over to cough after scrambling up the big wash-out a mile or so from the trailhead, I glanced up and was surprised to see twilight on the peaks south of the Skagit. With a final shuffling speed, I reached the car with enough dusk left to strip off my dirty, sweat-soaked clothes and even clean up a bit before crawling in back to sleep.