Challenger is the iconic north Pickets peak, a small black spike above the massive glacier covering its northeast side. It is most easily reached from the popular Hannegan Pass trailhead near Mount Baker, via ten miles on maintained trails and another five miles on the abandoned Easy Ridge trail. After reaching the base, the climb requires crossing the crevassed Challenger Glacier, then climbing a short pitch of easy 5th class rock. Dayhiking the north Pickets was one of my “stretch goals” for this season, and I was pleased to manage it in just over 16 hours. The other major north Pickets peaks, Luna and Fury, can probably be dayhiked with a similar effort from the Ross Lake side. The Pickets are reputed to be inaccessible, and while the southern Pickets did not live up to this reputation, the northern part of the range certainly did.
Waking to my alarm at 3:30 AM, I tried to sleep a bit more, then finally got started by headlamp at 4:25. The day dawned on the surprisingly-glaciated Mount Ruth (named for Grover Cleveland’s daughter, natch) as I made the ascending traverse on the well-used trail to Hannegan Pass. Reaching the pass, I wasted ten minutes exploring the climbers’ trail toward Ruth, then returned to the main trail and found the junction I expected a half-mile down the hill.
I lost a depressing amount of elevation as I jogged down to the Chilliwack River, where I was fortunate to spot the clear but unsigned Easy Ridge trail across from Easy Creek. I had dreaded fording the Chilliwack in the morning, but found it mercifully tame — only ten yards wide and no more than calf-deep. After putting my shoes back on, I easily picked up the old trail, which is fainter than the Goodell Creek approach to the southern Pickets, but still usable and easy to follow.
One long, wooded climb later, I suddenly emerged on the broad, rounded heath of Easy Ridge. Unlike most Cascades ridges, which are either wooded or glacially gnawed into precipitous, serrated choss, Easy Ridge lives up to its name, with impressive views of the Pickets ahead and Shuksan behind. While mostly easy, the ridge is long, and my hopes of adding Luna and/or Fury to the day died as I measured the distance to Perfect Pass. I saw only one other party between the Chilliwack and Whatcom Pass, a couple camped along the Easy Ridge trail before the old fire lookout site. I coughed to warn them of my presence as I hurried by.
The ridge becomes difficult where it runs into Whatcom’s west face, so I dropped south onto talus, snowfields, and slabs, aiming for the foot of Whatcom’s southwest buttress. Passing the buttress on chossy slabs, I came to “Imperfect Impasse,” a strange, vertical-walled slot leading far into the valley below. While some parties have evidently descended far into the valley to get around the slot, I found a crossing no harder than third class just above where I passed the buttress. After a minor mishap involving a slimy slab, I found class 2-3 climbing and occasional bits of boot-pack on my way to Perfect Pass.
Looking southeast, I was briefly dismayed by the apparent length of the traverse to Challenger, and considered a cowardly retreat over Whatcom. However, I plotted a line high on the glacier, avoiding most of the obvious crevasses, and soon found that the distance was less than it appeared. With my minimal crampons, I threaded my way on and off the rock where the glacier steepens near Challenger’s main summit. Though the rock was often chossy and occasionally tricky, this route avoided almost all crevasses.
Challenger’s summit is the high-point of a ridge extending west from the glacier’s peak, then south over lesser pinnacles to West Fury. I had been apprehensive about the 5.5 (or 5.7, depending on who you believe) summit pitch, but it was a one-move wonder, and definitely not harder than 5.5. After searching around a bit, I found the nice positive holds required to climb comfortably up and around a bulge, and was soon on the surprisingly comfortable and non-exposed summit. To the south, I admired the mass of rock and hanging glaciers ringing Luna Cirque and leading to Fury’s north face. Luna Peak itself stands at a distance to the east, an un-Picket-like, unglaciated talus mound.
After some time resting and listening to rock and ice falling off Fury, I downclimbed the pinnacle, then looked to see if there were a pure-snow line back across the Challenger Glacier. I quickly found that the route northeast to flatter ground below was blocked by a series of crevasses; passing them would require meandering climbing on steep, sometimes-icy terrain for which I was ill-equipped. I instead retraced my steps, saving a bit of time with some short, careful glissades.
I returned to Perfect Pass, then made my way easily up Whatcom’s south snowfield, not even needing crampons. The day had turned partly overcast, but the snow was still soft. Passing over the summit, I started down the north ridge toward Whatcom Pass and the trail home. This turns out to be the wrong direction to traverse Whatcom, as the north ridge is a classic Cascades choss disaster, much easier going up than down.
Frustrated by the bad rock and close to 11 hours into my day, I got careless and tried to boot-ski a small snowpatch on the ridge. I am not as stable doing this with just an ice tool, and soon lost my balance. I quickly started to self-arrest as intended, but somehow got flipped around head-first. My reflexes are pretty good, and I held onto my tool as I got back into self-arrest position, but I was moving too fast to do more than slow down before sliding off into the scree to one side. That stopped me right-quick, but at the cost of some minor scrapes and a nasty, deep gash in my shin.
I dug out some pieces of grit with my fingernail, rinsed it out as best I could with my Camelbak, then tied my detached pant-legs around my calf to hold it closed and protect it. I had hoped to make the 20-mile-ish return in daylight, but it now seemed I might hobble home by headlamp. I was angry with myself for taking a stupid chance — sliding down steep snow with a bad runout to save a few minutes — but also gratefully aware that it could have turned out much worse. Hopefully I could bum some tape or gauze from some backpackers along the trail, and the cut, which was deep but did not affect a muscle, would not prevent me from running.
Hobbling down the ridge toward Whatcom Pass in a generally bad mood, I had some undeservedly good luck. A man and two very attractive young women were stopped at the pass, the first place I could possibly have expected to meet someone else, and one of the women had a roll of cloth tape. I tried not to disgust them too much as I pulled the cut closed and taped it, then wrapped more tape around my calf to hold the tape in place.
After taping myself up, I couldn’t resist chatting for a few minutes. The two women were apparently more experienced backpackers, taking their novice friend on a leisurely 3-day trip from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, then out via boat shuttle. The two women seemed to be carrying the majority of their supplies, including a variety of tasty food. Contemplating my solitary 17-mile slog home and my three remaining packs of pop-tarts, I couldn’t help but think that I might be going about things the wrong way.
Tearing myself away, I left in an unsurprisingly good mood, and was pleased to find my running unimpeded. I jogged most of the descent to the Chilliwack, and most of the flats along the river to the completely gratuitous cable car, which felt a bit like taking a 10-minute break in an amusement park. With the help of podcasts, the climb back to Hannegan Pass was as quick and painless as 2,500 feet can be. I jogged as much of the descent to the trailhead as I could, but tired legs and sore feet kept me at a pathetic pace. Reaching the trail register, I glanced back at my entry and was amused to see that someone had written “almost died” in the “comments” box of my entry. Ha, ha.