Winter in the Picket Range

I got my birthday present late this year. It arrived on February 17th: 6 days of solid high pressure. The time had come for my most ambitious mountain project to date: a winter ski traverse of the wild Picket Range.

If you have ever visited the North Cascades of Washington, you have tasted something of the adventure I faced. The Pickets rise from the dense rainforest valleys east of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan. Together the McMillan and Luna cirques form the steepest, hardest to access alpine arena in the lower 48; any adventure here demands hard work and commitment. In addition to intimidating terrain, my project was guarded by formidable history. The range hasn't been traversed on skis since 1985, and then by the talented Skoog brothers (along with Jens Kieler). They did it in summer, and in an email earlier this winter Lowell Skoog qualified it as the most demanding ski traverse he had undertaken in the state. A quarter century had passed, and no one had repeated their journey. I planned obsessively through the winter, but still felt a sense of panic when the weather arrived. I had to actually do this.

I scrambled for a partner and managed to recruit Jason Hummel. No one has skied more in the Pickets than Jason, and his reputation as a strong ski mountaineer preceded him. Like me, Jason had the freedom to disappear into the mountains. We hoped to do it in six days, but eight or nine was not impossible.

My strategy for a winter Pickets traverse was to turn the Skoog itinerary upside-down. We would go from south to north, climbing firm slopes early in the day and skiing soft snow on north slopes in the afternoon. Sleeping low might let us take advantage of running water, helping to save precious fuel and tedious hours of snow melting. In addition, starting in the south gave us two days of relatively uncommitted skiing along Stetattle ridge during which any avalanche hazard would hopefully subside.

We skied for two days to reach the edge of the southern Pickets below the McMillan spires. This col would be the commitment point: either drop into the deep dark hole of McMillan cirque and force our way north, or turn tail and run. The score so far: remote triggered slab avalanches, deep trail breaking, and little snow in the low valleys to facilitate retreat; any escape down there would be true jungle hell. We listened to the weather one last time and dropped in.

The heart of the traverse proved challenging and magnificent. In advance we knew that the crux of the traverse would be getting onto Fury from the cirque floor. We weighed various options: the technical solution used by the Skoogs to get over Outrigger peak, a mysterious col on the shoulder of that peak, and the creek draining the Southeast Glacier. We chose the last of these options; if it worked out, we would have found an elegant ski-touring solution to the problem. But the anxiety was horrible: whiling away the afternoon in under the weight of the southern Picket north walls, wondering if our route would pan out. We swilled the free-running water and labored on little beds of dirt in the moat around a giant boulder.

The next day dawned as clear and brilliant as the rest. We climbed up out of McMillan via our clever snow ramp through cliffs (the worst of it was a short, 50 degree chute with a little bulge of ice), out over Luna col, down dream-like snow into Luna Cirque, and then once more up and out: 8,000 feet of climbing in one day. I don't know how Jason did it with his heavy skis and massive camera gear. Even my little 35 liter pack was feeling heavy at this point.

Relieved to have dealt with the cruxes of the route, we headed west with lighter hearts. After a night on Challenger arm, we glided across the cold, cold Challenger glacier to Perfect pass and dropped skier's left around the imperfect impasse. Rather than finish by dropping off of Easy ridge to the Chilliwack (or traversing off the Challenger Glacier to Whatcom Pass as the Skoogs did), we followed the Mineral high route. Surprisingly, climbing over Mineral and Ruth mountains added barely 1,500 feet of climbing to the trip. We thought it well worth the effort, as the summit of Mineral offered some of the best views imaginable of the Pickets, Hagen, Crowder, and Blum. Fresh crampon tracks greeted us on top; as best we can ascertain, some brave soul had just climbed Mineral from the Chilliwack and Hannegan Pass. Intrepid!

Steep, scary tree skiing in poor snow led us down to our final camp at Chilliwack pass. In the middle of the night, as I lay staring at the stars, Jason piped up. "Hey Forest, what time is it?" I looked at my watch. "1 am." Jason moaned in horror; these winter nights had become endless, a tiring succession of wakeful tosses and turns. I shared his torment, especially on this final night. My frozen boots have never been such a relief as they were that morning.

We lucked out on the exit: with a mere half-dozen dirt patches requiring us to remove our skis, we made good time down the snowy trail to the road. A brief ten minutes of walking brought us to the car and the end of our grand Pickets traverse.