|"Before us was the fluted, ice draped, four thousand foot north wall of Mount Fury. We had arrived at the Pickets." (May 1985. Map, 1.2Mb.)
This article was published in the March 1986 issue of
Rock & Ice magazine. It was my first published story.
The pictures accompanying this article helped launch my brother
Carl's career as a professional photographer. At the time this
story was written, Carl and I were focused on skiing high routes
in the North Cascades, especially between Glacier Peak and the
Canadian border. Twenty years later I decided to extend
from Mount Baker all the way to Mount Rainier. The ski traverse
of the Northern and Southern Picket Ranges was repeated for the
first time in February 2010 by Forest McBrian and Jason Hummel.
"WELCOME TO MARBLEMOUNT, Entrance to the American Alps," says the sign at the outskirts of the little town. A visitor driving up the North Cascades Highway for the first time will probably smile at such boosterism. The residents of the town of Marblemount, Washington can be forgiven though, because the legend on the sign is quite simply true.
In some ways the North Cascades are not like the Alps at all. While the mountains of Europe abound with villages, paved roads, and neatly groomed pastures, the Cascades are full of damp forests, decrepit trails, and wide brushy thickets.
In other ways, however, the North Cascades are more alpine than any other range south of Canada. Broad glaciers, lush meadows, and steep rock walls are commonplace here. As a dazzling stronghold of snow and ice, the Cascades are unmatched in this country.
Climbers have long explored the North Cascades. Once-obscure summits like Shuksan, Sleese, and Forbidden Peak are now recognized as classics in American mountaineering. For the other branch of alpinism--skiing--the Cascades are much less known. Suddenly, this is changing.
During the last five to ten years, backcountry skiers throughout the western United States have been searching for the ultimate American high route. Inspired by the Haute Route of the Alps, they have established traverses like the Colorado Grand Tour and the Sierra Crest Route.
In the Pacific Northwest, a similar effort has focused on the North Cascades. From Glacier Peak north, these mountains stretch in increasingly rugged and ice-mantled waves to the Canadian border.
The first breakthrough in skiing this area came in June, 1981, when Brian Sullivan, Dan Stage, and Dick Easter skied the southern third of the range. This section, between Cascade Pass and Dome Peak, has long been known to climbers as the Ptarmigan Traverse. Beautiful, accessible, and only moderately difficult, the route is destined to become the classic ski traverse in the Northwest.
Two years later, in March, I skied with Brian, Gary Brill, and Mark Hutson through the central part of the region, from Snowfield Peak to the icefields of Eldorado. After tiring of calling the trip "The Area Between Snowfield and Eldorado," we decided that "Isolation Traverse" would be a fitting name for this route. Although shorter than the Ptarmigan, the greater elevation gain of this traverse made it more strenuous.
With these two routes completed, one final section of the Cascade crest remained to be skied. This was the region from the North Cascades Highway to the Canadian Border, a supremely rugged area known as the Picket Range.
Even in the wild country of the North Cascades, the Picket Range has special stature. The Picket summits are divided into two groups. The southern group is like a wolf's jaw, a curved line of fang-shaped peaks separated by narrow, jumbled icefalls. The northern group is like a rock curtain, a broad wall of dark ribs above an apron of shattered ice.
At the junction of the two groups is Mount Fury, highest summit in the Pickets. Like its neighbors--Terror, Challenger, Phantom, and Inspiration--the name of this peak reflects something of its character.
The Pickets are the most inaccessible mountains in the Northwest. Near the center of the range, the glaciers and ridges are often girdled by cliffs. If caught by storm in such a place, you can press on or retreat, but you can't go down.
Even if you reach the valley, it may do no good. All the valleys adjacent to the Pickets are brush-choked and trackless. Parties have been known to spend days wrestling the brush to travel just a few miles down one of those valleys. Add to this the notoriously unreliable weather of the North Cascades, and the thought of skiing the Pickets becomes a sobering prospect.
With my brother Carl, I plotted a route that seemed reasonable (see map, 1.2Mb). We would approach from the northwest, following a snow covered trail along the Chilliwack River and over two passes. Through the Picket Range itself, we would take a roller coaster route. Rather than traverse the hanging glaciers, risking annihilation by avalanches from the walls above, we would ski down into Luna Cirque below the Northern Pickets, climb high onto Mount Fury, then ski down again into McMillan Cirque below the Southern Pickets. Finally, the rounded crest of Stetattle Ridge would lead us to the town of Diablo on the North Cascades Highway.
For three months we watched the weather and snow conditions, hoping for a chance to go. Finally in May of 1985, a clear spell settled over the Northwest. With our friend Jens Kieler (then Kuljurgis), we headed for the mountains.
We took two days to reach Whatcom Pass at the northern end of the Picket Range. On the second day, as we skied down the Chilliwack River valley, the snow started to peter out. We strapped the skis on our packs and started walking. Where the trail was bare, it was easy, but the snow patches were exhausting. We stumbled along, alternately tiptoeing on top of the snow and plunging into it up to our knees.
We quickly decided that it was easier to ski on dirt than walk on rotten snow, so we put the skis back on. The travel was downright enjoyable then. We skied across streams and rocks and logs, and zipped over snowy sections, careening around corners and dodging wide holes. We had several miles of this and several more of hiking before we finally climbed back up, out of the forest, to the deep snows of Whatcom Pass.
The afternoon sun glinted off ridges to the west. We dropped our packs and rested in the warm light. I was relieved to finally be out of the jungle. Two days in the forest had given me claustrophobia.
As I fiddled with the camp stove, Jens and Carl worked intently on their skis, handing a scraper back and forth. "Hey can I borrow some white gas?" called Jens. "My skis are a mess."
I tossed him the fuel bottle and picked up one of my skis. The base was coated with green-brown slime. A mixture of dirt, needles, pitch, and pollen, this gunk make it impossible for Carl and Jens to keep their adhesive climbing skins on their skis. With my old strap-on skins, I hadn't noticed the problem. Jens sacrificed a dirty T-shirt, and we used white gas gunk remover.
"You know Carl, if you get cold, you can wear my shirt," said Jens, holding out the new rag.
"You're too generous," said Carl. "Just for that, you can carry my pack." Jens wasn't impressed. He took the foul smelling shirt and laid it on a rock to dry.
We had all climbed on the Picket Range before, so we were familiar with the terrain. Still, I knew it would be different on skis. Skiers and climbers see the mountains differently. They look for different routes; they appreciate different lines. Our intention was not to force a route where skis didn't belong, or where they were a handicap. I wanted to find a natural line, a skier's line--to experience that part of the Picket Range where skiing made sense.
The next morning I got my chance. At dawn we hurried across a steep frightening slope, racing the sun to minimize avalanche danger. Then we made an easy ascent up the Challenger Glacier. There were crevasses, so we roped up and skied in line. The glacier took a gradual turn and suddenly there was no more climbing to do. In front of us the slope dropped steeply to the Luna Cirque. Far below was the muffled sound of waterfalls. Spread out before us was the fluted, ice draped, four thousand foot north wall of Mount Fury. We had arrived at the Pickets.
Jens started down first. With a short traverse and a quick turn, he started some of the wet surface snow sliding. The sluff moved slowly and relentlessly down the slope, clearing a thirty foot wide path as it went. He waited quietly as the slide reached gentler slopes and slowed to a crawl. "Keep an eye on me," he said, as he started linking turns down the slide track.
Carl and I watched him go. We fished the avalanche beacons out of our shirts, checked for a beep, and followed him one at a time. The descent into Luna Cirque went smoothly. We weren't stylish, just careful. Lower down, when the angle lessened and the snow got firmer, we let the skis run, swooping down to the moraines.
We were now at the bottom of a magnificent, desolate hole. I looked far above us, straining to take in the view. We were surrounded on three sides by steep snow slopes, perched ice, and grim rock walls. I felt like an insect surrounded by poised fly-swatters.
Jens led the way as we climbed up the other side of the cirque. Above us loomed one of the enormous ice cliffs of Mount Fury. The main path of its avalanches lay farther right, but old ice chunks embedded in the snow told me that a major fall could come our way. We wasted no time climbing through that place, and after lunch continued to the ridge crest above.
The next morning we followed the ridge toward Mount Fury. The snow was frozen hard, so we walked, wearing crampons. Low clouds hid the valleys. Mists swirled around the peaks. We reached softer snow, put the skis on, and climbed to a saddle near the summit. Clouds were billowing up, obscuring the view. Within minutes, we were in dense fog. I wasn't worried about rain--yet--but without visibility, it would be hard to go anywhere, let alone finish the traverse.
Remarkably, Mount Fury is the highest of the Pickets, yet its summit is the only one accessible on skis. We had hoped to make a ski ascent of the peak, and since we were so close, we decided to go for it despite the fog. Dropping our packs, we found new spring in our legs. The air was warmer and the sky brighter as we climbed up the glacier. Driven by a hunch, I hurried on ahead. At the top of a steep rise, I popped like a cork through the tops of the clouds. "Come on up, you guys. You won't believe it," I yelled. Carl and Jens hurried up and stood blinking in the sun.
Only the highest reaches of the highest peaks stood above the clouds. The rest of the world was limitless, cotton-white smoothness. From the summit of Mount Fury, I looked at the spires of the southern Pickets. I looked at the endless calm sea of clouds. I looked at my skis. I looked at Carl and Jens. The feeling of airy isolation was overwhelming. We were all thinking the same thing. "This is a ski run?"
It was indeed a ski run. We had skied all the way to the summit crest, and after wallowing in the view, we danced and dodged back to our packs at the saddle. Things hadn't changed much. We were still in the fog. We still couldn't see where to go. We decided to spend the night there and figure out what to do in the morning.
The mist and the long evening gave me time to reflect. High on Mount Fury, we were smack in the middle of the Pickets. To one side was an impenetrable, brushy valley. To the other side was a glacier, then cliffs, then another hopeless valley. If the clouds didn't break, we might have to take an escape route. The only one I knew required a desperate river ford. We might be stuck here. Even if we could push on, the trip wasn't going to be much fun if we couldn't see it. There was little point in skiing a beautiful place like this in fog.
I was uneasy. "You know, Carl," I said, "I've noticed something. I never seem to get hungry on this trip. The only thing that tells me to eat is that I get tired."
"You're too wired to get hungry," he said. I thought about it and realized he was right. Unlike the other ski trips I had been on, this one had a serious air. Carl, of course, never lacked an appetite, no matter how he felt. We squabbled over the last bits of dinner, as usual.
In the morning, the clouds were still there. But they were lower--about a thousand feet lower. We could see. If we could find a way into McMillan Cirque, our troubles would be over. Unfortunately, there was a formidable obstacle. Mount Fury has several summits, and between us and our descent route was the steep-walled southeast peak. We had two choices. One was to climb directly over the peak to a snowfield that we knew was on the other side. The other was to circle around the peak by dropping down a gully and traversing. We chose the gully first.
Jens started skiing down it but stopped cold. "Hold it! Whoa!" he called out. "No way I'm going down there." The gully was terrible--steep, narrow, flanked by hideous walls, and choked with fog.
We climbed back up and looked at the peak. Earlier we had dismissed it as unreasonable, but we had viewed it through skiers eyes. The problem was clear. Just for a while, we needed to find a climbing route. We stowed our skis, tied into the rope, and grabbed ice axes. We inched across rock slabs masked thinly by snow, then climbed a steep gully. Near its top, we traversed carefully under a cornice, turned a corner, and scrambled to the ridge. One rappel on the far side brought us to our snow slope. We were skiers again.
There was one last problem. Below us the slope into McMillan Cirque vanished in fog. I knew there were cliffs down there, but I didn't know where.
We checked the map, checked the altimeter, and plunged into the mist. After about a thousand feet of skiing, moving slowly to keep in sight of each other, we dropped below the clouds. Now that we could see it, the descent to the valley bottom was easy. We had escaped. There were no more traps. We whooped and hollered for three thousand feet to the floor of McMillan Creek.
Having solved the puzzle of Mount Fury, we could start to relax. It was a long climb out of McMillan Cirque to the crest of Stetattle Ridge. The clouds persisted, and we climbed straight into them, camping in the fog. As I cooked dinner at the tent, my memory of the traverse and its uncertainties started to mellow. From here, there was a long gentle ridge to follow. Though the fog might make routefinding slow, the hard part was over. We slept well that night.
The morning of the sixth day dawned clear. Just as on the previous day, the clouds had fallen another thousand feet. Mount Fury, the spires of the southern Pickets, and the other peaks of the North Cascades glowed in the morning light. We felt like the luckiest people alive, not only because travel would be easy, but because we could see it all. The wind scalloped ridge, the towering peaks, and the cloud filled valleys all stretched out before us.
Late in the day, as we plodded slowly down the steep trail to Diablo, our legs were wobbly, our hands and faces sunburned, and our feet aching. But our mountain souls were soaring. We had skied the Pickets, and in so doing had found the climax of the North Cascade high routes.
I thought about the other trips, of the Ptarmigan and Isolation Traverses, and realized that the ultimate tour would be to combine all three. It would take a remarkable stroke of luck to find stable enough weather and snow conditions to pull if off. But the rewards would be worth it--climbing and skiing with a group of friends over 40,000 feet of ascent and 40,000 feet of descent, across 100 shining miles of the American Alps. "Some day," I thought. "Some day."
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