“Because of the rugged terrain, the Picket Range has remained the wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades. It is not an area for the wilderness novice; its isolated brushy valleys and jagged ridges are a test for the most seasoned mountaineers. The length of climbs, combined with steep mixed terrain and variable conditions, demands all-around competence and fitness. When traversing ridges and glaciers, one is likely to be dismayed at the deep gorges, serrate crests, and crevassed icefalls, often very difficult for backpacking.” (Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide, Volume 3)
To give that statement some real meaning, you’ll need to know something about Fred Beckey. He is an American rockclimber and mountaineer who has made more first ascents than any other North American climber. He literally wrote the book (3-volumes) on mountaineering in the Cascades. This year he turned 90, and is still climbing (3-pitch 5.6). Suffice it to say that what Beckey thinks is difficult, most mortals would deem outrageous if not impossible.
With a description like Beckey’s, and names of peaks like Fury and Terror, I’ve dreamed of seeing (not climbing) these mountains since I moved to Seattle. So last week Aubrey and I set out to climb Luna Peak, which is only barely considered part of the range but has a 360° view of the surrounding mountains. This was my second attempt actually. My first attempt was two years ago with my friends Shawn and Raghu. On that trip I learned about devil’s club (an aptly named evil plant with poison laden spines), slide alder, and that navigating with a map and compass in the PNW jungle is nigh impossible. Long story short, we got a little lost in the bushes, and were forced to turn back after getting a brief and tantalizing view. This time I was more prepared, and had a GPS. As I learned on this trip, the USGS maps are wrong with their placement of Access Creek (the “trail”) by about half a mile. I’d like to think that’s why we got lost the first time.
While Luna does not involve any technical rock or glacier, it is equally steeped in the wilderness experience as any of the other peaks in the range. There were bushes, tears, mosquitoes, clouds, rain, lost gear, broken gear, and a few handfuls of delicious berries. But, much to our dismay, no views. The forecasted sunny and clear weather never came, and instead we were stuck in swirling mists for the duration of our stay.
As if foreshadowing the dreary times to come, the water taxi dropped us off in the mist and rain at Big Beaver after a 5 mile ride across Ross Lake. That night we camped nearby, at Pumpkin Mountain. After a damp night in our ultralight mountaineering tent everything was covered in a fine layer of condensation. Fortunately I had remembered to pack a tent-sponge, and Aubrey diligently sponged out the tent in the morning.
After a breakfast of cheesy grits and bacon, we hit the trail. The Big Beaver trail takes you through an endless forest of old growth cedar. After 10 miles of easy trail hiking, we picked a spot with minimal devil’s club and said good-bye to the trail. Having been here before, I was able to follow my GPS directly to a spot that provided an easy river crossing of Big Beaver creek (which can be chest deep in places). We followed Big Beaver north towards Access Creek, which would be our landmark for the next 4 miles of bushwhacking. The term bushwhacking often gets misused, here, you actually have to whack the bushes to get through. For four miles. Uphill. We felt like bears, bumbling through the blueberry bushes, which fortunately were ripe with tasty treats. But that only provided mild solace for the cuts, bites, bruises, and shredded spirits.
Somewhere along the way Aubrey lost a shoe, accumulated 97 mosquito bites, and a bee sting. A few miles, and many bushes, later, she threw her ice axe to the ground and broke into tears (she wanted to tell you all that). Her mood improved enough to keep going after I convinced her we only had a short way to go before the trees would thin out and we would be able to see the rock cliffs of Luna – our destination. Aubrey is much happier in the alpine environs, than in the forest.
But the bushes weren’t done with us yet. There was a half mile prison of slide alder, which has the uncanny ability to wrap its flexible appendages around you, and anything attached to you. People have been known to abandon all their gear in an attempt to escape their grip alive (no joke).
Finally, we arrived at our site for the night, with a view up towards Luna, and the last rays of sunshine we would enjoy for the coming days. That evening we feasted on my new backcountry meal of peanut-coconut sauce and ramen, which packs in a whopping 1400 calories using the highest calorie density foods money can buy – peanut butter, coconut butter, ramen, sausage, and some critical spices.
The next morning we slept in and gorged on an 800 calorie breakfast – nutella and banana chip crepes (in reality: cold tortillas). With our bodies full of energy we strapped on our packs and started climbing. A few thousand feet later we reached the pass. From here it was a moderate traverse across heather and talus, aside from one minor obstacle. Given the effort required to get here, we expected to be the only ones, and were surprised to run into two additional parties (of 2) who hoped to climb Luna. Unfortunately for them, both turned back at the pass, discouraged by the terrain and weather.
For the next two nights this little green tent would be our home. We watched as clouds and mist rolled over the Picket range, always hiding the final few hundred feet of the jagged crest. We scrambled up to the summit of Luna from our camp to see yet more clouds.
Since the weather showed no sign of changing, and with no access to more recent updates, we stuck with our plan and hiked out after two nights in the cloudy col. We chose a better route this time, which took us through plentiful bilberry bushes.
The berries helped, but I was still frustrated with the cloudy experience. When I came here two years ago and returned empty handed, I never posted any images, instead hoping that someday I would be able to return and do the place justice. Now it seems that time will have to wait yet again, so for now I have to live with with this mid-day glimpse of the southern Pickets I took two years ago in better weather.
Two days later, when we arrived back at the lake, the sun was shining and the mountains were out in all their glory. Just our luck. At least we got to swim in the lake and sun-dry on the dock while waiting for our boat ride!
While stuck in the clouds, reading my book, I learned that the most important measure of how humans remember experiences is the difference between the highest point, and the final point, rather than an integral of the experience. Since the high point of this trip was rather low, I thought I’d at least try to end it on a high note by sharing the only picture I took that I was truly happy with.
I think I’ve hit my technology quota for a while again; back to the rock and glaciers! Send some sun our way!