Category Archives: States

Outings by state

West Needle

Real Mountains across Animas


I had set my alarm for 4:00 AM, planning to harvest some of my last remaining cluster of Weminuche 13ers around Noname Creek, but the prospect of 2.5 hours of headlamp and a long commute across from Purgatory crushed my motivation. Instead, I went back to sleep, then drove on up to Andrews Lake for an easier day to West Needle Mountain. This seldom-climbed 13er, south of Twilight Peaks, is a much more reasonable 15 mile round-trip via the Crater Lake trail and the head of Watertank Canyon.

Traverse toward col

There was only one other car in the lot, but the trail evidently sees quite a bit of horse and foot traffic during the summer. I took my time to Crater Lake, jogging some of the downhills but not in any hurry. Beyond the lake, a trail continues to a gentle saddle at the head of Watertank Canyon, then fades to faint game trails. I descended a bit, then linked benches and ledges on a southward traverse, crossing one obnoxious boulder-field, but otherwise finding fairly pleasant terrain, and a couple of cairns. The rock above looked more like the Grenadiers’ solid bedrock than the Needles’ kitty-litter.

Col from West Needle

After traversing below some buttresses, I climbed a grassy slope to the col just northwest of point 12,932′, finding a well-used game trail and some sheep droppings. The game trail continues on the other side, traversing south before fading well above the lake at the head of Twilight Creek. After crossing more talus, I finally got on West Needle’s northeast ridge. It looked steep from the col, but turned out to be mostly class 2, with a couple class 3 steps higher up. I wandered around the broad summit plateau a bit, then sat down to admire the view of the Real Mountains east across the Animas.

The return was pleasant and mostly uneventful. Though it was t-shirt weather, I met only one other person on the trail, a man with two dogs, one of which followed me for a couple miles before returning to its owner. There were a few young women fishing at the lake, and a couple preparing for an elk hunt, but things were surprisingly quiet for such a pleasant day. I made part of the drive back to Durango before stopping at my usual Lime Creek camping area.

Moss, Lavender, Hesperus

Hesperus from Lavender


The La Platas are an isolated group of 13ers west of Durango, unconnected to the rest of the San Juans. The rock varies widely, from solid granite to nasty red and white choss. I had visited in May 2016, coming in a long dirt road from the west to climb Sharkstooth and Centennial in the snow before being defeated by the ridge between Centennial and Lavender. This time I came in from the east, ascending Tomahawk Basin and traversing across Moss and Lavender to reach Hesperus, the range highpoint. I was planning to also tag Babcock and Spiller, but lacked the energy after some route-finding shenanigans.

Beattie again

There is not much in the way of parking at the junction of the La Plata River and Basin Creek roads, but I found a wide flat spot to sleep, then got a lazy start around 8:00. It had reached 70 degrees in Durango the day before, and it was calm and pleasantly warm once I reached the sun. I followed the old road to the Tomahawk Mine, then found a faint, occasionally cairned trail continuing up the drainage to the Little Kate Mine. Expecting the choss-piles I had experienced on my last visit, I was surprised by Babcock’s sheer north face, and the cliffs and pillars on the ridge leading to Moss.

Steep finish on Moss

Trying to be clever and save time, I headed straight northwest toward Moss’s summit, finding mostly turf with only a bit of loose talus. Unfortunately, Moss’s east ridge and southeast face are quite steep. After some shenanigans along the ridge, I retreated a bit, then found some fun, steep, blocky low fifth class climbing on the southeast face leading to the summit. The descent toward Lavender was an easy talus-hop, as was most of the climb. Near the top, I found a short third class scramble and a move onto the summit block. Leafing through the register, I saw a couple familiar names (hi, Bob!), and was impressed that someone had apparently arrived via the north ridge, which had defeated me before and still looked intimidating.

Lavender, Moss from Hesperus

The traverse to Hesperus was supposed to be tricky, but I found it straightforward, with a bit of optional third class climbing getting through some notches. The rock sharply changes from nice granite to layered red and white choss partway along the traverse, so the best route stays near the crest to avoid sliding talus. I found a solid wind-break on the summit, and a bit of a trail for the standard route up the west ridge.

I retraced my route partway, then side-hilled across the south side of Lavender and Moss before descending Moss’s south ridge. I thought about climbing Babcock, but its northwest face looked steep and snowy, so I wussed out and dropped down a chute to Tomahawk Basin, taking the trail and road back to my car.

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.

South Mineral 13ers

Ice Lake Basin


Though the days are short, and snow lingers on north-facing slopes, the weather continues to hold in the San Juans. I had hoped to tag several 13ers near scenic Ice Lake Basin, but a case of projectile diarrhea left me with little energy. Given the timing, I am guessing I was not careful enough in my water choice on the way back from Organ Mountain. Fortunately I had planned ahead, spending all of $8 on suitable antibiotics while I was in Mexico, so instead of driving back to Durango to throw a couple hundred bucks at the American medical-industrial complex, I swallowed two pills and was back to normal in 24 hours.

SE side of Rolling

Continuing along South Mineral Creek past the campground, I carefully drove up the rocky road to the trailhead for the Rico-Silverton trail to spend a couple of days cleaning out the nearby 13ers. I started with the ones to the west, traversing from Rolling around to Beattie. Based on an online trip report, I made my way around to Rolling’s southeast side, where I found willows followed by loose talus, then a bit of scrambling along the east ridge to the summit. The east/northeast bowl would have been faster and likely better.

Descent off Rolling

I continued along a ridge to the western sub-summit, then made my way carefully down its north face, a sketchy mix of powdery snow and loose rock, to the connecting ridge with V9. I think this face would be similarly unpleasant even when dry. The ridge up to V9 was a pleasant, sunny respite. I had hoped to continue to impressive San Miguel Peak, but the connecting ridge looks loose and complicated. The north side of V9 was more choss and powder, though fortunately less steep than Rolling, and after more careful downclimbing, I finally reached the pass leading to Lake Hope.

Across choss to Sisters

The talus toward 13,300 started out pleasantly solid, then turned loose again higher up; at least it was snow-free. After checking out the summit, I followed some other poor unfortunate soul’s tracks in the intermittent snow along the connecting ridge to Beattie. Now to get home…

Rock glacier descent

I did not like the look of the southeast ridge, so I continued to the saddle with Fuller, then took off across the rock glacier to the southeast. This was as straightforward and tedious as one would expect. I planned to join the road to Big Three Mine, but ended up heading down through the woods almost straight east toward the parking lot. The terrain was mostly open and friendly, with bits of game trail switchbacking down the slope. After a final bit of steep grass, I emerged on the road near the trailhead, where I set out my chair to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Twin Sisters

Twin Sisters from the west

These are the two similarly-high peaks east of the trailhead. I started as before, following the trail south, then turned east when I saw an easy passage through the willows toward the south end of the Sisters. I managed to follow grass most of the way, then slogged up loose stuff to the base of a gully on their southwest corner. There was a strong west wind above the trees, so it was an unpleasantly cold climb up the loose, snowy, shaded gully. When I finally reached the top, I took a few minutes on the sunny east side of the ridge to recover.

Twin Sisters from south

Since the whole massif is loose talus, the only reasonable route is right along the crest. The west wind froze my left eyeball as I stumbled along with all my layers on and both hands balled up in my gloves. A notch between 13,205′ and the southwest Sister gave me an excuse to drop down around the east side, where I took another break to warm up again before continuing to the summit. I found a sheltered spot to peruse the damp register, then added my name.

South Twin from North

The crest of the north-facing ridge toward the northeast Sister was covered in snow with a crust that either broke through to powder, or was too hard for me to get traction in the wind, so I was forced onto the talus on the east side. Happily, once past the saddle I found a sort-of trail of compacted talus, making the climb to the summit a bit easier. The register contained a number of entries mentioning Hard Rock, though the race doesn’t go over the peak.

I continued down the northeast ridge, finally in more pleasant conditions, looking for the supposed Hard Rock 100 trail. Since it starts out on the other side of the valley, I ended up doing a bit of extra cross-country through the woods before picking it up as it makes a rolling traverse to the southwest. Listening to a podcast and concentrating on my footing in an icy section, I nearly ran into a young man doing the same peaks in the opposite direction. After a brief conversation, I continued down some steep switchbacks, then along the valley floor back to my car, and away from this talus-pit.

Electric, Garfield, “Point Pun,” Graystone

Garfield again


Unlike most of the rest of the San Juans, which are made of relatively recent volcanic choss, the Grenadiers are an uplift of ancient bedrock. This is most obvious when looking at the central peaks, Arrow, Vestal, and Trinity, in which the bent rock layers are clearly visible. They are also hard to reach, being separated from the road by the 1600-foot-deep Animas River valley, and not along any maintained trail or abandoned mining road. Though the climbers’ trail into Vestal Basin to the north is much easier to follow than it was when I first visited in 2012, there are no 14ers in the area, so it thankfully has not been “comfortized” by CFI. On my previous Grenadiers visits, I tagged Arrow, Vestal and Trinity, and the eastern peaks from Storm King through the Guardian. This time I came for the western peaks: Electric, Garfield, and Graystone. Being closer to the car, I thought these would be a shorter day, but thanks to some awful terrain, they took a bit longer than the central peaks.

Grenadiers from Molas Lake

It was somewhat cold sleeping near Molas Lake, not enough for my water bottle to freeze, but enough to freeze my Camelback hose, frost the inside of my windows, and force me to fully mummify my sleeping bag. Still, I forced myself out of the car and onto the trail by 5:40 for the usual nighttime commute across the Animas. There was no one camped along the Colorado Trail, and no footprints in the dusting of fresh snow as I climbed to Vestal Basin — I had the range to myself.

Arrow, Electric, and talus notch

I left the trail where it turns east near Arrow, aiming up talus toward a notch between Arrow and Electric containing a permanent-looking snowfield. The talus started out well-behaved, but quickly turned awful. Not liking the look of the notch, I headed to the right, at one point comically falling off a beachball-sized boulder as it slowly rolled beneath me, bruising my thigh. The suck continued up Electric until I eventually gained a third class rib on the south side, which I followed to near the summit. I found two registers: a wad of wet but legible paper in a PVC tube, and some dry pages from a Simpsons calendar in a salsa jar. I have seen a similar Simpsons register on another peak in the area, but I don’t remember which.

Garfield and talus-bowl from Electric

I made my way down the choss toward Graystone, then headed west through the talus-bowl toward its northwest side. Without the snow, I could probably have walked up slabs to its north ridge, but the fresh snow made them slick and impossible. I ended up walking all the way around, to a point where it made more sense to tag Garfield first, then traverse back east along the connecting ridge. I passed “Garfield Lake” on pleasant, dry slabs, then made my way up a turf-y gully to the ridge, where I finally found some fun.

Garfield and Point Pun

The traverse out to Garfield was mostly class 2-3, with one fourth class step that could probably be avoided to the right. I tagged the closer, higher-looking point, then spent 20 minutes tagging the farther one, which had a cairn. The traverse back to Graystone over “Point Pun” was mostly fun class 2-3 on solid rock, with the best line staying near the crest except for detours around a couple notches between Pun and Graystone.

Right (l) and wrong (r) way down Graystone

I planned to return by descending a snow gully between Graystone and Arrow. Unfortunately, I did not traverse far enough — the easiest gully descends from the low point of the ridge — and did some sketchy downclimbing on a mixture of crusty powder, choss, and hard older snow. It was slow, careful work, but I eventually made it back to the talus bowl, hacked through some ice to replenish my water, and made my miserable way back down the talus to the trail. I went straight through the notch this time, finding a suitable passage in the moat west of the permanent snowfield. I again had the trail to myself on the way home, reaching the car a bit after sunset, in time to eat dinner and watch some TV before another cold night at the pass.

Sheridan, Sheep, Amherst, Organ, Emerson, 13,085

Organ (and Oso) from Amherst


As is becoming tradition, I am spending some time in the best part of Colorado (the Weminuche) at its best time of year (late September and early October). I had been impressed by Organ Mountain on the hike up Johnson Creek last year, so I looked at how to tag it this year, and decided on an approach via Endlich Mesa, a new trailhead for me. The road was supposedly “4WD strongly recommended,” but I decided to give it a try anyways. While it is no Como Lake road, it turns out to be awful, with sharp rocks just large enough that I only managed two of ten miles before chickening out and sleeping in a pullout. There is apparently another approach from the west via easier roads, but it was too late for me to drive around.

North across Endlich Mesa

I woke at 5:00, and was on my way up the road by headlamp by 5:30. There is a use trail that shortcuts the road’s maddening switchbacks, but I did not find it in the dark, so I had a long walk before I even reached the official trailhead. The trail starts out somewhat confusing and badly rutted, but all trails seem to lead to the same place, and I eventually emerged from the trees to see a multi-lane pack trail snaking across the endless rolling grass of Endlich (“Endless”) Mesa.

Game trail?

I hike-jogged along the trail to where it drops down to the Durango reservoir, then continued traversing on a well-defined trail to the saddle southwest of Sheridan Mountain. This trail continues through the saddle to traverse Sheridan’s east side to the saddle to its northeast. I could not tell if it was a use/pack trail or one of the area’s many well-defined game trails, which greatly eased my side-hilling on the return.

Sheep Mountain

After crossing a false summit, I found a windbreak and register on the summit, added my name, and admired the glacier-planed slabs of Sheep Mountain’s southwest side. I contemplated the steep northeast side for a few minutes, then started down right, traversing back left on tussocks and faint goat paths. Though steep, the face proved much easier than it looked. Crossing the trail at the saddle, I began meandering toward Sheep, passing numerous streams and tarns as I tried to minimize the up-and-down. Though it looks a bit like a plain from above, the face is split by many crossing gullies, like Humphreys Basin in the Sierra, and progress toward the summit is tricky and frustrating.

Needles, Amherst, Organ from Sheep

Not sure how much time and energy it would take to reach Organ, I aimed straight for the gap between Emerson and 13,085′, which looked from the topo to be the quickest route. Getting off the north side of Sheep involved some sketchy snow and dirt, but I didn’t cliff out, and soon found much easier terrain in the valley. Looking north from the saddle, I realized that this route would suck. Fortunately, the amazing game trail continued down east of the saddle south of Emerson, then contoured around. I took a sketchier high line on the way out, and found the correct, lower line on the way back.

Amherst’s south side

Amherst and Organ are classic Needles kitty-litter, a mixture of gravel slopes and decaying blobs. I made my way easily up the maze of Amherst’s south side, then found decent boot-skiing in the snow and gravel leading toward Organ. While Organ looks like an impenetrable collection of decaying pillars, there is an easy route on its east side, with a couple third class moves and a third class summit block.

I mostly followed the game trail on the way back, deviating to tag Emerson and 13,085′. I should have tagged 13,105′ while I was in the area, but I was eager to return and dreading my long road-walk. I cautiously cut the road switchbacks higher up, then picked up the well-established horse/use trail lower down, reaching my car after a bit over 12 hours. I drove down the nasty part of the road to get that out of the way, then made dinner and slept in a dispersed site off the smoother part of the road.

Jackson, Gros

Gros from head of Granite Creek


Real Life has been a real headache lately, interfering with peak-bagging plans, but I have managed to get out a bit, experiencing northwest Wyoming during the snow-free late summer for the first time. I normally use the Gros Ventres as a late spring warm-up, as they are both lower and gentler than the neighboring Tetons and Winds. I had tried to tag Gros Peak this spring, only to be turned back by uncooperative snow, bogs, and general misery. With most of the snow gone and the wildflowers out it proved much easier, with the route past Goodwin Lakes involving about 11 miles of mostly gentle terrain each way.

Tetons from below lake

Curtis Canyon is the closest legal camping to Jackson, so the popular Goodwin Lakes trailhead was much more convenient than the Little Granite trailhead I had used in the spring. I followed the popular trail to the lake, then briefly lost it as it circled around the far end, instead following an indistinct boot-path and some open terrain along the base of Jackson’s east ridge.

Flowers need mowing

I rejoined the trail near the head of the drainage, then took a side-trip to Jackson’s summit. I had already been there in June a few years ago, but figured I might as well make a minor detour for the morning view of the Tetons. I followed the trail back south, then took off cross-country along the ridge to rejoin the Goodwin Lakes trail as it contours around the head of Flat Creek to meet the Cache-Granite trail. These trails see relatively little use, and are therefore partly overgrown with wildflowers, but they are still easy to follow, and the trail junction signs are all intact.

Looking north from Gros

I jogged a bit, but mostly just walked fast on the rolling traverse around to the head of Granite Creek, from which the remainder of the route to Gros is visible to the south. The trail drops down to well-hidden Turquoise Lake, but I left it to head cross-country on a bench leading to Gros’s northeast ridge. I passed east of a large, unnamed, turquoise-colored lake, then found a few cairns as I made my way up the class 2-3 ridge to the northern false summit, passing a tarn nestled a bit above 10,600′.

I found a bit of a use trail along the final summit ridge, and a cairn and benchmark on the summit, but no register. The weather was behaving itself, with the monsoon storms slower to build over the Gros Ventres than their higher neighbors, so I took my time on the summit before retracing my steps, taking advantage of some lingering snowfields to avoid the loose scree. I had the trail to myself up to the turnoff for Jackson Peak, then met a steady stream of hikers heading up as I made my way down past the lake to the car.

Maidenform (and the Eclipse)

The total eclipse of August 21 was notable not just for crossing the whole contiguous United States, but also for the crossing several popular mountains, including Mount Jefferson, Mount Borah, and the Grand Teton. Jefferson was in the middle of a fire, and I suspected that any popular peak would be a zoo, as would the entire Wyoming side of the Tetons. Fortunately I have some obscure peaks on my to-do list, including Maidenform, reachable from a couple relatively obscure trailheads on the Idaho side of the range. This turned out to be a good choice — there were 40-50 cars at the North Leigh Creek trailhead, but I had my peak to myself for a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime event.

Dawn comes late on this side of the range, and I was coming from a timezone to the west, so I got an almost fatally late start a bit before 7:00 AM. There are two similar approaches to Maidenform, so for variety I took the Tin Cup trail to Granite Basin on the way out. I passed some cows and a group of dayhikers just above the trailhead, then a party camped on the trail at the pass over toward Granite Basin, hiking at a steady pace and feeling the altitude a bit after so long near sea level.

Granite Basin and the plateau north to Green Lakes remind me of the nicer parts of the Sierra, with granite slabs and boulders among grass and open woods, and plenty of lakes and tarns. I saw a few more campers in Granite Basin, then left humanity to head cross-country west to the ridge at the head of Leigh Canyon. When I finally got a look at the climb up Maidenform, it looked chossy and slow, and I was a bit worried about making it to the summit on time. I picked up the pace a bit, suffering up some fairly unpleasant class 2-3 choss, and made it to the summit a bit after 10:30, when the sun looked less than 25% occluded.

I had most of an hour to kill before the totality, so I alternately looked at the sun through my eclipse glasses, and experimented with trying to photograph it. I got some mediocre shots through the glasses using manual settings, though nothing spectacular with my wide-angle pancake lens. I tried taking some photos without the glasses, but even at over 90% occlusion, my lowest-light settings of f/22 and 1/4000 exposure were not good enough. I guess that demonstrates how it is a bad idea to watch a partial eclipse without proper glasses…

Maybe 5-10 minutes before totality, the light was noticeably dimmer than mid-day. Even before that, I could tell the eclipse was approaching by my camera’s settings on full auto: f/4 and 1/160 near mid-day, instead of a more normal f/4 and 1/2500 or so. I emerged from my sheltered spot just east of the summit, and prepared to try to capture the thing on video. Maidenform has a clear view of both the Idaho plains to the west, and the main Teton peaks to the south. I hoped to see a dark line approaching along the plains at over 1000 MPH, but the lingering forest fire smoke made that impossible, and it might not be visible even with clear air.

I got a couple of interesting videos, of the eclipse onset:

and of the eclipse end:


I tried to catch a still photo of the corona in between, as well as simply enjoying the brief period where I could stare at the sun without glasses. Those photos sucked, unfortunately. I notice that someone, in a particularly well-timed and baller move, had flown a jet around the Tetons right at totality:

Baller…


One thing I had not planned for is how much it would cool down during the eclipse. I had climbed in a t-shirt, and been fairly comfortable in an overshirt and windbreaker until totality, but my hands were aching by the time the sun returned, and it took awhile for the mostly-occluded sun to warm me back up afterward. It looks like temperatures dropped at least 5 degrees in Jackson, and may have cooled as much as 15 degrees on the peak. (Update: More on eclipse-related cooling.)

I had originally intended to tag Cleaver Peak as well, but by the time I had warmed back up, I lacked the energy to do the mile-plus brushy traverse. I returned to the plain above Granite Lakes instead, then took the Green Mountain trail back to the trailhead, meeting various eclipse-viewing parties instead. Since I had plenty of time, I enjoyed talking to a solo backpacker with his dog on the way down. The “crowd” was beginning to disperse as we reached the trailhead, but I decided to give things a bit more time to clear out. I washed up a bit in the creek, then found a quiet spot to camp for another night before heading back to civilization.

Glacier (North Sauk, 8h38)

Ptarmigans and Glacier


Glacier Peak is the most remote of Washington’s Pacific Rim volcanoes. I first climbed it in 2014, taking about 12 hours on a semi-casual outing, and found it to be one of the most scenic hikes in the Cascades. After about 5.5 miles passing through old-growth forest by the North Sauk River, the trail climbs to meet the PCT in alpine meadows near White Pass. From there, the route follows the Foam Creek trail (not on any maps) below White Peak, then leaves it to cross the ridge north before Point 7520’+. There are bits of climbers’ trail beyond the col, but since the talus plain is covered in snow for most of the summer, most of the long talus traverse is pathless. The summit, rising 1000′ or more above its neighbors in the center of the range, would have a great view on a clear day.

Moss everywhere

The FKT on Glacier, 7h58, was set by Doug McKeever back in 1998, using the now-abandoned White Chuck River trail to the Sitkum Glacier. The new standard route, via the North Sauk, is significantly longer, but I thought I had a chance to beat the venerable record. After a couple of easier days along the Mountain Loop, I settled in to sleep at the North Sauk trailhead. Sometime around 2:00 AM, I woke to the sound of a mouse in my car. Since I had not kept the mouse traps from the last time I had this problem (two years ago, also in the western Cascades), I lay awake until the mouse went to sleep around 5:00 AM, then got a couple more hours’ sleep before downing my beet-enhanced breakfast and hitting the trail at the ludicrous hour of 8:00 AM.

Approaching White Pass

The mornings are surprisingly cool in the wet west-side valleys, so I was comfortable jogging the 5.5 miles to the cabin at the base of the climb, then hike-jogging the switchbacks to the PCT, reaching the junction in almost exactly two hours. I put on sunscreen, moved food to the front of my pack, then continued past a couple scruffy PCTers and a large cluster of mountaineers returning from Glacier with all sorts of heavy gear. The last of these, an attractive young woman putting on sunscreen at the pass, seemed concerned about my safety tagging Glacier with so little gear. She was not entirely convinced by my protests that I knew what I was doing, and skeptical of my fast-and-light evangelism.

First view of Glacier

I continued mostly jogging along the Foam Creek trail, then left at a cairned junction to cross the ridge north, finally getting my first view of the peak. I was nonplussed to see the summit covered in a lenticular cloud, promising cold, wind, and no views. I had done the peak a month earlier in 2014, so the long snow traverse I remembered was mostly obnoxious moraine, barely runnable with extreme concentration.

Broken ice at Gerdine-Cool saddle

After some ups and downs around 6600′ below the much-diminished White Chuck Glacier, the route climbs to a popular camping site around 7200′, then over a minor ridge to finally reach the edge of the Gerdine Glacier. A well-worn track follows the lateral moraine to where it becomes nasty, then drops to the edge of the glacier. I followed the boot-pack left by the several recent parties, putting on crampons near the headwall where the snow is slightly steeper. I remembered the glacier climb as being mostly snow, with one easy crevasse to avoid, but found quite a bit of bare, broken ice on the saddle with the Cool Glacier, making me glad to have brought crampons.

Crossing Gerdine Glacier

Continuing up the Cool, I jumped warily across one widening crevasse on the bootpack, then left my crampons near the summit ridge. It was slow going on the volcanic sand and loose boulders above, but I had no trouble avoiding snow on my way to the summit. I reached the top in almost exactly 5 hours, and spent about 30 seconds in the clouds before hurrying down to get out of the cold. I had both my overshirt and jacket on over shorts and a t-shirt, and was barely warm enough while moving. Also, while there was no way I could do the round trip in under 8 hours, I still wanted to put in a decent effort.

All snow last time

I jogged the upper glacier in crampons, then sat on a rock lower down to take them off and empty the volcanic sand from my shoes. I stopped again below the bivy site to refill my water at a stream and take off my overshirt, but otherwise maintained a steady effort on the return. It would have been hot if it had remained clear, but broken cloud-cover and a breeze kept temperatures comfortable as I descended back to the forest. I was slower than I probably should have been on the rolling downhill jog through the woods, but managed to reach the trailhead in a respectable 8h38. This is a runner’s course, so a better trail runner could probably do Glacier in under 8 hours.

Gear notes

I used the same setup for Glacier that I used for Olympus: running-shoe crampons and no ice axe. This is perfect for moderate-angle terrain that might include bare ice, as my crampons are light (600g) and compact enough to strap on my running pack. I thought about leaving the crampons at home, but am glad I did not, as it would have been difficult to work my way around the ice at the Gerdine-Cool glacier saddle, and incredibly sketchy to cross it in trail runners. Going crampon-free on Adams last year worked only because it is popular enough that other people put in stairs.

Northern Pickets traverse (East Fury to Challenger, VI 5.7, 28h32)

Northern Pickets pano


The central northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so it was only a matter of time before I had to try them. I had visited both ends of the northern Pickets: Challenger in 2014, Luna in 2015, and East Fury in 2016. On this last effort I had been planning to go for more, but I was stopped after a single pea by route-finding errors, a lack of drive, and the realization that I had underestimated my objective.

And so it begins…

While it is possible to pick off the peaks one-by-one, for the sake of efficiency and style I wanted to nab them all and claim the coveted Northern Pickets Traverse. I had estimated that it would take me 24-30 hours with a shuttle from Hannegan Pass trailhead back to my car at Ross Dam. Unfortunately I was unable to set up a shuttle on short notice, forcing me to either hitch, or use a different route. Not liking my chances of finding a ride first thing in the morning after rolling in late to Hannegan and taking a dirt nap, I used a significantly longer and harder route, descending the cross-country Eiley-Wiley ridge to Beaver Pass, then “running” 20 miles of trail back to my car. This put me at the upper end of my estimated time range.

Smoky dawn on Luna

I got a few hours’ sleep at the Ross Dam trailhead, but it is noisy right by the highway, and I was too wired to sleep, so I turned off my midnight alarm, drank my Cup of Sadness fortified with beet nitrates (found at a Walmart full of obese tweakers in Bellingham), and started down the trail around 12:15. The toads seemed more numerous than last year, and I even met a few on the trail down to the dam. It is around 17 miles to where you leave the trail for Access Creek, so this would normally be far too early to start, but I had a good GPX track of the cross-country route from last summer, so I could do it at night without losing too much time. This was key to giving myself as much daylight as possible to deal with the ridge and unknown de-approach.

Upper East Fury

The approach worked about as well as it ever does. I bashed down to the river, where I almost immediately found the remnants of the log bridges I had used in 2014. I wasted only a bit of time dithering (I still hate getting wet), then forded barefoot to try to keep my feet dry and minimize the damage they would suffer in the evening. I found a bit of a boot-pack along the subtle ridge right of the creek that is least brushy. My worst mistake was crossing south one slide path too early, but that did not cost much time. As a result, I reached East Fury’s summit in only 10h15, vs. the 11h30 I took last year.

Luna, East Fury from West Fury

Now it was time to launch into the unknown. The final scramble up East Fury consists of shockingly mobile large talus, and the same continues on the way to West Fury. Beckey’s guide suggests that this traverse takes multiple hours, but I found most of it to be standard chossy 4th class, and reached West Fury in under an hour. The first ascent register was still in good shape, and I was surprised to supposedly be the 19th “party” to visit.

West Fury descent

Up to this point, the best exit would be to retrace my steps. Once I headed down the west ridge, things would become more complicated, possibly involving a long and unfamiliar cross-country route around the north end of the range. I steeled myself, then followed the first ascent route down the west ridge. Starting slightly east of the summit, I descended a chute, then made a descending choss-traverse back west to the ridge. I followed that a bit, then made my way down dirty, ledge-y terrain on the other side to gain the small glacier northwest of the peak. From there, I easily kicked my way back across to the saddle with Swiss.

Good rock on Swiss

I made my way more or less up and over several small pinnacles of mediocre rock on the way to Swiss, a broad NW-SE summit with a permanent snowfield on its southwest side. I found the rock pleasantly solid, climbing a line on its southwest face and descending near the northwest ridge. I stuffed some snow in my Camelbak, then tossed that out when I found running water below the snowfield. This was a valuable find, as running water is scarce on the rest of the ridge, and it was hot enough to be sweating in shorts and a t-shirt on the crest.

Spectre (l), Phantom (r)

Given the time and my longer-than-desired descent route, I skipped “Spectre Peak” without a second thought, then spent some time considering my route to the saddle with Phantom. The ridge itself looked unusably steep, the gully to its west at least somewhat navigable. Looking back, I think a line just right (east) of the ridge would have been better, blocky low 5th on decent rock. My chute was a garbage-fest with a tricky chockstone, and the traverse back to the ridge was outward-sloping dirt and death-choss.

Challenger and Crooked Thumb

The rock was somewhat less chossy on the way up Phantom, but still not great. I mistakenly climbed a lower summit to the northeast, earning zero bonus points, then found the original register on the true summit. It was in bad shape, and probably not long for this world, being protected by only a bashed-up tin canister and a plastic bag. There appeared to be even fewer entries than on West Fury, but I was concerned enough about my position that I did not pay much attention. Phantom is about one third of the way from West Fury to Challenger, and if things continued apace, I would be lucky to make it off by dark.

The misery continued descending off Phantom, with tricky route-finding on rotten rock on its left to bypass steps in the ridge. Considering the prospect of a bivy or a very long night made me think of efficiency: I turned off my GPS to save batteries for night-time navigation, and skipped the ridge crest whenever I thought it would save me time. As I made my slow way north, I was examining my escape route down the west side and up between two of Challenger’s lower summits.

Challenger from Crooked Thumb

Fortunately things improve considerably at “Ghost,” a subpeak of Crooked Thumb. I could have gone up some line along the south ridge, but Beckey mentions that Roper had climbed an “exposed class 4” route on the west face. Good choice! The rock reminded me a bit of the Tetons’ golden granite, and I had my first fun in awhile romping up steep, solid rock with incut holds.

The ridge from this point looks long, but the climbing remains mostly fun, with the best route generally on or near the ridge, and the descents to the north usually easier than the climbs from the south. Reaching Crooked Thumb, I found quite a bit more traffic in the register than on previous peaks, though still only a party or two per year.

Final ridge to Challenger

Since I was not rappeling, I had to make a substantial deviation west to reach the first saddle on the way to Challenger. From there, I stayed near the ridge to enjoy the fine, exposed climbing, deliberately not thinking of the grim headlamp time that awaited. Challenger’s summit ridge is a wonderful finale, a series of narrow fins with the holds angled so that the easiest route climbs right along the spine. I let out a whoop of joy, looked around for a summit register, then made the short downclimb to the Challenger Glacier.

Eiley Ridge

I had three options at this point: exit to Hannegan and hitch (16 trail miles), traverse to Whatcom Pass and take the trail back over Beaver Pass (25-30 trail miles?), or descend Eiley Ridge directly to the pass (20 trail miles). Given the time, I should have sucked it up and chosen the second, but I optimistically and foolishly took the new-to-me Eiley Ridge descent. Things started out great, with a nice hogsback of snow providing a clear path around the yawning summit crevasses, and easy jogging on the lower glacier to Challenger Arm.

I climbed Point 7374′, then was forced to sketch my way down a dirt-chute to the snowfield on its northeast side. I got more water at a tarn near frozen Wiley Lake, then continued making good time on snowfields south of the ridge to Eiley Lake. So far, so good — I thought I would be near the final bushwhack down to Beaver Pass by headlamp time.

Challenger

Unfortunately I made a mistake here, straying too far southeast of the ridge. There are several places where it is temptingly easy to descend directly east here, but they lead to Luna Creek, which is supposedly one of the worst places in the world. When I realized what had happened, I tried to fight though some scrub pines back toward the ridge, then tried side-hilling across steep grass and flowers to rejoin the ridge. Unfortunately the ridge rises again; maybe the correct route goes over Point 4984′, but I have no idea, and that was not an option for me now.

Before it got dark, I had programmed my GPS with a point a bit south of the pass, so I turned it on, turned on my headlamp, and continued via IFR. My strategy was to traverse until the point was directly down-slope, then bash my way toward it. I found plenty of wretched scrub, blueberries, and alder, but also some surprisingly open groves of big trees. Unfortunately all of it was steep and slick, but I suppose sliding on your butt is an efficient way to lose elevation.

I’m a size 10

There was much less devil’s club than I expected when I finally reached the valley bottom, but I reached my random point without hitting the trail. I did my best to bash due east, and almost fell as I stumbled out onto the trail. At the first stream that seemed safe-ish to drink, I got some water, downed a couple ibuprofen, rinsed my feet, and switched to my dry socks. My calluses were all white, soft, and wrinkled, so I knew my feet were in for a beating, but I hoped that the clean (and thinner) socks would reduce the suffering.

Moonset from Ross Dam

On a normal outing, this return would take about 4.5 hours, 3 to Ross Lake and 1.5 back to the dam. I started off at a reasonable jog, but realized shortly after Luna Camp that it would not last. I could motivate myself to jog with a mixture of Rammstein and reminders that the more I jogged the sooner it would be over, but it was a pathetic shuffle. As I neared the lake, I tripped more often, and was worried I might face-plant into one of the toads, which are even more disturbing after 3 hours’ sleep and 27 hours on the move. I could probably have gone to sleep curled up on the trail, but I wanted to do this in a single push, and did not want to be woken by a ranger’s boot or the splat of a toad to the face. I took in the moonset while crossing Ross Dam, and for once was grateful to be finishing in evening headlamp time — at least it wasn’t quite dawn.