West McMillan Spire

  • Date: July 27-28, 2019
  • Start: Goodell Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,000 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: The Mountaineers
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

My eyelids fluttered open. I looked at my phone and groaned. The alarm had yet to go off, so why was I awake? Rainwater trickled down the fly as I unzipped the cold, damp door and pulled it back. My jaw literally dropped. A star-studded night sky greeted me and there in the distance, after being shrouded in thick clouds all the previous day, was the clear silhouette of the jagged spires comprising the Southern Pickets. 

I first heard about the Picket range maybe three or four years ago, even before our very first trip to the North Cascades. Summer after summer I considered planning an adventure out there, but phrases like “daunting” and “not for the faint of heart” and “experienced mountaineers” kept me from going. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to do it right.

Ironically, this first trip was planned almost completely on a whim and not coming at a good time in terms of where I was at mentally. Over the past month, I’d backed out of or failed to complete a couple bigger climbing goals, I dropped from the 100K race I’d been training months for,–this climbing trip would be the same weekend as the race–and, in general, I’d been feeling hollow, an empty shell, for much of the summer. Like I wasn’t doing enough or pushing myself or challenging myself enough. Like I wasn’t enough. Last week, after finally giving in to my anxiety and withdrawing from the aforementioned race, all I knew was I wanted to be in the mountains. And I wanted it to be the Picket range. 

Summit of West McMillan

Day 1: Goodell Creek Trailhead to Terror Basin (7.2 miles; 7 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)

Following a restless evening attempting to sleep at a rest stop and a long wait for overnight permits at the Wilderness Information Center in the morning, Caylee and I finally pulled up to a surprisingly full parking area shortly before Upper Goodell group campsite. The air was thick when we stepped out of our cars. I tried not to think about what this would mean for the lower, brushier section of the approach along Goodell Creek. 

I knew the climber’s trail was going to be a doozy, gaining somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 feet over the course of 2.5 miles, but what I didn’t expect was the 4-4.5 mile approach TO the climber’s trail to be as miserable as it was! Despite only gaining about 1,000 feet, there were what felt like hundreds of downed trees to crawl over,–never easy with an overnight pack–long sections of sopping wet brush (thanks to the recent stormy weather) to push our way through, and, worst of all, incessant, vicious, bloodthirsty mosquitoes that ate us alive no matter how fast we hiked or how often we swatted them away! The Pickets were already living up to their notoriety. 

After a couple of hours we reached the well-marked climber’s trail turn off and began the steep ascent to Terror Basin. The trail was thankfully well worn and easy to follow despite being unmaintained. There was still some brush and downed trees to contend with, and the trail was seriously steep, but at least we weren’t being aggressively hunted by ravenous mosquitoes! Although now it was gnats unintentionally getting stuck to our sweaty faces. I occasionally checked my phone to make sure we were following the gpx track I’d downloaded ahead of time, but the trail seemed so clear that I didn’t keep a super close eye on it [gpx track]. Then, somewhere around 4,000 feet, we lost it in a boulder field at the base of a sheer rock wall. Confused, I pulled out my phone. Sure enough, we were off-route and should’ve ended up somewhere ABOVE  the rock wall, not below it. 

We wasted nearly an hour trying to figure out how to get back on the correct, least resistant path. After several attempts to seek out a path above the boulder field (which only led to thick patches of devil’s club), we started hiking back, scanning the area carefully for an uphill turn off. I stopped at a spot that earlier had made me think, “Huh…that’s weird,” because a medium sized rock, with no other rocks in close proximity, sat in the middle of the trail near a downed tree. I looked on the uphill side, past the downed tree, and there, slightly obscured under a low hanging branch, was a small cairn. Finally, here was the turn we’d missed. Despite being back on track, we were in low spirits following the navigation mishap.

“Beer and burgers sure sound nice right about now,” said Caylee, more seriously than jokingly.

I agreed, but I knew if we dwelled on that thought for too long, we’d definitely end up turning around. We kept slogging on uphill.

The next portion of the climber’s trail took us through a series of class 3 (not exaggerating) tree root scrambles. And I thought getting over downed trees with an overnight pack was difficult! The strong tree roots did make for good veggie belays though. At long last we finally exited the forest onto a more open ridgeline…with no views. Where there should’ve been mountains upon mountains for miles and miles, there were heavy clouds. That forecast for “clear, sunny” skies after 11 am–it was now past 4 pm–was a load of crap. At least they were moving, and we did occasionally get glimpses of blue sky and mountains as we hiked higher. We followed the trail through heather meadows and boulder fields up to a notch at around 6,000 feet. Terror Basin and the prospect of camp, as well as an end to the day’s tortuous approach, were now just a few hundred feet below us!

Caylee hiking toward the notch; starting to get a little bit of a view

We carefully picked our way down the steep, slick scree slope, working hard to stay balanced with our bulky packs. Now that we were over the notch we could see the camp area. At least three or four tents dotted the basin below. After getting off the scree, we plunge-stepped down steep, soft snow to finally reach our home for the night. 

Terror Basin is known for having absolutely breathtaking views of the Southern Pickets, well worth the arduous undertaking to reach the basin. Unfortunately, we were completely socked in. From speaking with some other climbers in the basin, the weather had been terrible, even downright raging, for a good part of the day. My hope for decent climbing weather the next morning began to dwindle, but I worked to keep that small sliver of positivity alive.

I messaged Mack from the inReach to let him know we’d reached our camp. While we’d been trudging up to Terror Basin, Mack had been racing in the inaugural Wy’east Howl 100K (a race that I had also planned to run but ultimately dropped out of earlier that week). I hadn’t seen him since Friday morning. As silly as it sounds, it was the longest we’d been away from each other in nearly a year. His non-presence had left a noticeable void, which I felt even more as I lay in my tent, completely alone, for the first time ever. I’d been thinking about him all day, looking at the time, wondering what part of the course he was on, how he was holding up. His goal was to podium. I stared at the inReach screen for a few minutes, hoping a message from him might pop up. Nothing. I turned it off to conserve the battery. It was still light outside, but me and Caylee had crawled into our tents early, our battered bodies ready for sleep and probably not ready to climb the next morning. 

Socked in at Terror Basin
First time ever sleeping completely alone in a tent!

Day 2: Terror Basin to West McMillan Spire summit, then back to Goodell Creek Trailhead (11.8 miles; 13 hours 50 minutes, breaks and packing up camp included)

The morning brought renewed hope and excitement as I stepped outside to unobstructed views of the Southern Pickets and the day’s objective prominently front and center. While researching and planning this climb, I’d gazed starry-eyed at accompanying photos on Google. But being there and experiencing it in person after only seeing it through someone else’s photos for years? I could’ve cried I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. 

We waited until it was light enough that headlamps weren’t necessary before setting out. A group of five climbers from the Mountaineers group had started shortly before us. We followed their path, but, after the previous day’s mishap, I also kept a close eye on my gpx track.

“How long do you think it’ll take to reach the summit? Maybe another hour or two?” asked Caylee, about an hour into the approach. 

“Maybe,” I started, “but to be more conservative, I’d estimate closer to three.”

“Three more hours?! I’m not sure I’m up for that…”

Caylee paused, mulling over her options, looking at West McMillan and looking back at camp. 

“I’m going to call it here. I’m just really not feeling it today,” she concluded. 

I was sad to see her go, knowing we wouldn’t get to share the summit together and that we’d both be hiking back to our cars alone on that god-awful terrain. For a moment, I considered turning around with her, a little uncertain about completing the remainder of the climb by myself. A relaxing morning in camp and getting back to the car by early afternoon sounded nice. But when was I actually going to make it back out here to attempt West McMillan again? And how many climbs had I already bailed on over the past few weeks? I couldn’t turn around. Not yet. Time to embrace being alone and uncomfortable.

Clear views in the morning; can you spot my tent?
Southern Pickets are gorgeous

I caught up to the Mountaineers group shortly after Caylee turned around, staying a short ways behind to avoid leapfrogging with them and/or accidentally dividing their group. We all eventually stopped for a brief break and got to chatting.

“You look familiar,” said one of the guys. “Is your name Theresa by chance?” 

The climbing community is a small world, made even more close-knit with the advent of Facebook groups, where Jonathan had seen some of my posts from other climbs and recognized me. A funny coincidence indeed. A coincidence though that also made me feel a little less alone and nervous about being without a partner on this unfamiliar mountain. (Sidenote: Jonathan wrote a fantastic trip report about this climb and took some gorgeous photos to accompany the report! Check it out here!)

After their group stopped for another break further up, I decided to keep pushing on, anxious to get up and start the tedious task of downclimbing. I saw the two other climbers we’d met in camp the previous day making their way up the steep snow to the saddle below the west ridge route. I laced up my crampons and followed their tracks up. The snow was still firm (which wasn’t my favorite for trying to kick in steps with trail runners), but up higher I found some great steps kicked in by the climbers in front of me and took full advantage of them. I got off the snow a bit earlier than I should’ve and ended up doing some sketchy scrambling on heinous, chossy rock to reach the beginning of the west ridge. I thought after the snow the summit would seem closer. Wrong.

Terror Glacier and the Barrier

It took almost another hour of precarious and exposed scrambling on varied terrain (scree, talus, dry and wet slab–class 3 and even some class 4 sections) to finally reach the summit ridge. Far more involved than I’d anticipated! I dropped down off the spine and followed a surprisingly mellow path to the true summit though. It was 9 am when I stepped onto the summit, about 3 hours and 40 minutes since I’d left camp. 

The two climbers before me, Mary and Vazul, were just about to head back along the ridge when I arrived. We chatted for a few minutes and Mary mentioned she’d seen some of my posts on the PNWOW Facebook page. Another small world coincidence! What a morning! I stayed on the summit by myself for a few extra minutes, signing the register, and soaking in the 360-degree views of this mythical range. Three years of daydreaming and I was finally getting a small taste of it. I could’ve sat there for hours honestly, but I knew the downclimb (especially of the west ridge and the steep snow) was going to be 10x more difficult than the climb up. Time to get moving! 

Inspiration Peak
Looking toward the Northern Pickets, Koma Kulshan, and Shuksan
Azure Lake
Summit selfie
Summit register

I passed the Mountaineers group and Mary and Vazul on the summit ridge as I descended. Knowing the risk of rockfall on this section, I was happy to be putting space between us. Aside from a couple of airy moves, the downclimb of the west ridge wasn’t too bad. Getting back onto the snow was a different story though. I knew I’d gotten off the snow too early on the way up, but I was nervous about taking a different way down, so, likely against my better judgement, I opted to take the same way down. That heinous rock that I’d had to scramble up earlier was even more terrifying to downclimb! I took slow, deep breaths for each sketchy move I had to commit to, desperately hoping the rock would hold my weight and not crumble beneath me. Once I was close enough to the snow, I got back on, even though I was still a ways from where I’d planned to. 

The steep snow, though a little nervewracking, felt far safer than the questionable rock. Part way down, I looked up to see Mary and Vazul. They’d made it onto the snow much quicker than I had since they were smart and DIDN’T attempt to scramble down terrible rock. Vazul breezed by me about halfway down the snow slope. Once the slope angle mellowed out, I turned and plunge-stepped/standing-glissaded down the rest of the way to where the rock began again. Mary and the Mountaineers group arrived a few short minutes after. 

I followed Mary and Vazul back to camp so I didn’t have to navigate the sea of granite slabs by myself. We made the time pass with talk of past and future climbs and goals. I was amazed that this was Mary’s first season of climbing and she’d tackled a peak in the Pickets! Watching her climb, I wouldn’t have guessed it was only her first season! I rolled into camp a few minutes after them around 1:30 pm. As expected, Caylee’s tent was gone. A small part of me had hoped she’d still be there but I knew the chances were slim. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait around either, especially since I returned way later than I’d anticipated. The climb had taken an unexpected EIGHT HOURS round-trip just from camp! I slipped off my socks and shoes to air them out, hastily packed up my gear, and got a quick message out to Mack that I was about to hike back out. To my delight, I saw a message from him when I turned on the inReach. He’d taken 2nd place in the Wy’east Howl!!!! Despite how exhausted I was, reading that filled me with so much joy, even more joy than standing on the summit of West McMillan. My eyes welled up with tears at the thought of him crossing that finish line and finally getting to stand on that podium he’d trained so hard for. I was ready to go home now and congratulate him in person. 

Terror Basin seems so far away…

I was off and heading up to the notch around 2:15 pm. Once over the notch and back on some semblance of trail, I moved quickly, stopping once every hour to get a swig of water–it was super toasty out with the sun beating down on me!–and attempt to stomach a snack. I didn’t want to get too caught up in taking photos despite finally having clear views, but I did take a moment to snap one of the Southern Pickets before re-entering the forest.

As expected, the tree root scrambling to get back into the forest was slow and frustrating, but once back on less technical terrain, I made an effort to jog what I could. By the time I finally made it down to the junction with Goodell Creek “trail”, my knees felt like they were about to burst and I was completely soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity. Since the summit of West McMillan, I’d descended about 8,000 feet over 5-5.5 miles. Ugh. I collapsed next to the cairn and lay there for a few minutes to mentally prepare myself for the next slew of mosquito-infested miles back to the car.

It was bad. Really bad. In addition to the endless mosquito attacks, I’d somehow forgotten about a lot of the brush and, more importantly, the seemingly endless obstacle course of downed trees that I had to belly flop over because I was too tired to pick up each leg. And of course, each time I slowed down to maneuver over each tree, the mosquitoes swarmed in full force.  I finally extricated myself from that bullshit mess when I stepped out into the parking pullout at 7:15 pm, five hours after leaving camp. 

I called Mack in Marblemount when I got enough cell service and practically broke down in tears. After three days of almost no sleep and completing a more difficult adventure than I’d anticipated, I was utterly exhausted, filled with a lot of emotions, and stressed about the 5+ hour drive back to Portland. Everything hurt, I was on my period (why did I think this climb was a good idea?), I was surviving off half a bagel, a pack of Gushers, and a couple measly bites of a tuna sandwich (which was all I’d managed to stomach throughout the day), and all I wanted to do was lay down and not move for hours. At the same time, I was overjoyed to finally hear Mack’s voice again (although it was filled with concern about my current mental state). Ultimately, I didn’t make it home until 7 am the following morning, opting to pull over and rest my mind and body to avoid putting myself and other drivers at risk. 

All in all, it was one of the more difficult climbs that I’ve done (especially since I didn’t expect most of it to be solo). Despite the numerous physical and mental struggles, I can only look back on this adventure with fondness though. My first foray into the Pickets, where I proved to myself that I am stronger and more capable than I often think I am. 

Goodbye, Southern Pickets!
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