Luna Peak

  • Date: August 4-6, 2019
  • Start: Big Beaver Trailhead (water taxi from Ross Dam Trail)
  • Distance: 38 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,800 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: SummitPost
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

“Arrrggghhhh!” A split second later I was on the ground, hand pressed firmly against my throbbing ankle as if it might aid in keeping the inevitable swelling at bay. I wanted to cry. Not from the pain, but from the frustration. We were 16+ miles into a trail-less backcountry on a sweltering August day, surrounded only by the rugged terrain of the North Cascades. Luna Peak pierced the sky thousands of feet above us, a sentinel standing watch over the most magical place in all of Washington. I’d waited years to experience it, to prove to myself that I was ready and worthy of tackling the challenges and making it up there. The pain in my ankle jolted me back to reality. We had a decision to make. I had a decision to make…

After standing awestruck on the summit of West McMillan Spire the previous weekend, I was determined to use my limited vacation days to make it back out to the Pickets and see more of them, to chase that same thrill and exhilaration I’d felt when I finally glimpsed them from Terror Basin. Based on everything I’d read about this particular climb, I knew we’d probably be in for more of a battle than a casual, low-key jaunt in the mountains. With a string of clear, sunny days in the forecast, we left Portland on Saturday morning to start our “vacation,” completely unaware that it would end up being one of the most punishing mountain ventures we’d ever experienced.

The Pickets never let you off easy that’s for damn sure.

False summit of Luna Peak

Day 1: Big Beaver Trailhead to Access Creek Basin, plus hike down to boat launch from Ross Dam Trailhead to get to water taxi (16.3 miles; 9 hours, breaks included)

We hopped off the water taxi and onto the rocky shoreline–the water levels at Ross Lake are so low this year that the boat couldn’t even reach the actual dock!–at Big Beaver.

“See you tomorrow at 5,” said our driver after we thanked him for the ride. 

The sun was already beating down and it was only 8:30 am. Yesterday’s raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream from Cascadian Farm sounded delicious right about now. Nothing in my food bag was nearly as enticing or refreshing, except for maybe the Gatorade jostling around in my water bottle. Thankfully, we entered the shade of the forest and were welcomed with much cooler temps. The 11 miles on Big Beaver Trail were mellow and fairly uneventful. We moved quickly, jogging the flats and downhills and powerhiking the ups and rocky, root-covered sections.

Our Ultimate Direction fastpacks were weighed down with overnight gear, two days of food, and a climbing helmet, but they were still fairly comfortable to run in. This was Mack’s first time getting to use his fastpack for an actual multi-day adventure so he was pretty stoked. It was only my second time. Based on the beta we received from a couple other climbing groups, we were able to leave the crampons and ice axes at home, which made it possible for us to fit all our gear into our 35 liter packs. 

Raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream pit stop on the way to the ranger station
Water taxi ride across Ross Lake to reach Big Beaver Trailhead

Nearing 11 miles, we slowed down to search for a turn off into the brush to reach Big Beaver Creek. There are a couple of different log crossings you can aim for. The single log crossing (which requires continuing a little further on Big Beaver Trail) brings you closer to Access Creek (definitely a plus!). The log jam, which is what we aimed for, is an easier crossing overall, but afterward you have to do some extra bushwhacking to reach Access Creek. We opted for the log jam because I am petrified of log crossings and felt that crossing on a log jam would feel less terrifying than a single log. In retrospect though, we DEFINITELY should’ve aimed for the single log crossing instead. Lesson learned.

It took some mild bushwhacking to reach the log jam, but nothing horrendous. Was this the worst of it? That answer came after we crossed Big Beaver and headed back into the brush to get to Access Creek. We forced our way through the dense riparian vegetation, battling devil’s club, salmonberry, huckleberry, and blueberry bushes, skunk cabbage, vine maple, and a variety of other flora, as well as a good deal of hopping over or walking across slick downed trees, all while flies and mosquitoes swarmed our faces. Slowgoing and a tad annoying (mainly the bugs), but overall not soul crushing. We eventually reached Access Creek. This is where our troubles really began. 

The easy bushwhacking to Big Beaver Creek
Jamming across the log jam!

First off, we made the mistake of not crossing to the north side of Access Creek early on where there’s actually a somewhat decent boot path for the steepest part of the climb along the creek! (We didn’t discover this until the hike out) We stayed on the south side, far too close to the creek, and practically crawled through slide alder for who knows how long. Okay, definitely a little more miserable now. And we were moving ridiculously slow. I sang “Happy Birthday” quietly to myself as a reminder that I was the one putting myself through this mild torture. This was my chosen birthday vacation afterall. We kept our eyes peeled for a stable looking log crossing to get us over to the north side, eventually opting for one that we had to “au cheval” across because it was too slick and narrow to walk on.

Following those shenanigans, we found the ‘shwhacking on the north side to be far less tedious and even managed to stay on a clear path every once in awhile–it disappeared often. Unfortunately, I think we got too comfortable and, even though I had the beta saved on my phone about crossing back to the south side once the boulder fields came into sight, completely forgot to refer to it. We found ourselves venturing deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast (aka the slide alder forest aka one of the nine circles of hell). At first we thought we were following most everyone else’s path until we realized that we were just following the path of all the other poor, hapless souls that had missed the crucial crossing to the south side. But it was too late. We tried navigating our way back but somehow wound up going in a circle! In slide alder! For almost another hour! So demoralizing I didn’t even make an effort to take photos. Mack was getting flustered now, violently thrashing through and cursing at the slide alder as I attempted awkward gymnastic moves through the perpetual series of tree limbs. For the briefest moment, I actually thought, “This is it. This is how I die. Imprisoned and strangled by slide alder.”

We finally made it to the edge of the water, trudged through it (since there were no logs or rocks), shoved our way through more slide alder, and, at long last, collapsed at the base of the boulder field. Mack was already slumped against a rock when I emerged from the last of the slide alder.

“I think we need to make camp now. Luna Col is still nearly 4,000 feet higher and the terrain won’t be any easier,” I said. “We’re going to need an extra day to do this.”

Mack agreed. We continued through the boulder field until we saw an open, bare spot (clearly an established campsite). It was 5 pm, maybe a little after. We’d started the bushwhacking at 12:15 or 12:30. Needless to say, we were beatdown, battered, and broken. And now that we needed to prepare for an additional day, we couldn’t even enjoy our food! After setting up camp, I messaged Tom (Mack’s dad) from our inReach and asked him to call Ross Lake Resort to reschedule our water taxi pickup for Tuesday instead of Monday. He messaged back almost immediately with confirmation. Phew! One less thing to worry about it. We fell asleep to the sound of the rushing creek next to us, awaking a couple times throughout the night to snaffehounds scurrying close to the tent. We pulled our shoes inside so they didn’t fall prey to the pesky scavengers.

Luna Peak still so far away
Smiling despite getting my ass seriously kicked

Day 2: Access Creek Basin to Luna Peak *false* summit, then back to Luna Col (3.7 miles; 9 hours 10 minutes, breaks and setting up camp included)

The tent was already stifling hot by the time we awoke the next morning. I was relieved to see that it was intact and no rodents had chewed through it during the night. The only victim of their insatiable appetites? My trekking pole handles. Better those than the tent! We took our time getting ready for the day since we were only heading to Luna Col and the summit, finally starting out of camp shortly before 9 am. We ran into two other groups almost right away, but after that it was just us for the rest of the day.

Right before we reached the base of the rock gully, I stepped into a concealed rut on a completely unsuspecting and flat section of “trail.” Caught off guard, I didn’t react fast enough and before I knew it I was on the ground clutching my ankle. I could feel it starting to swell within a couple minutes. We moved into the shade of some boulders so I could catch my breath and allow the pain to subside as much as possible. I stared up at the gully. It looked even steeper, looser, and more intimidating now that I couldn’t put weight on my left foot. Were we really going to have to turn around now? After making it so far in? We hadn’t even hiked high enough to see the mountains!

We sat there for a long while, probably close to an hour. I’d already slapped on the ankle brace I’d packed in–thank goodness I’d remembered to bring it!–to start compression, and I kept it elevated as we waited. I couldn’t make up my mind about what to do though. Go back to the previous night’s camp, spend another day and night there to let my ankle rest, then hike back out the next day without ever seeing the mountains or climbing anything? Not moving sounded real nice. Or continue up, being as mindful as possible of the increasingly technical terrain, to camp at Luna Col?

“Mack, what should I do? What should we do?” I asked kind of desperately. 

“You know yourself better than I do. Just be smart and listen to your body,” he responded calmly.

“Do you think I can do it?”

He smiled, and without hesitation, “Of course you can.”

I stood up and began a slow and careful limp up the gully. Mack climbed up nearby, careful to stay away from the fall line beneath me in case I accidentally kicked down any loose rock. The rocks in the lower section of the gully were larger and easier to navigate since they packed down in a somewhat supportive manner (i.e. they didn’t come loose as easily). The higher we got the more scree on slick rock we encountered. We traversed over a little bit of snow up higher and started up the second half of the gully, which started on larger rocks again, but eventually gave way to an actual dirt path on heather benches that switchbacks steeply to the top of the gully. Don’t be fooled by the brief description. From bottom to top, the entire ordeal probably took about two hours, especially since I needed a number of breaks to check in on my ankle. 

Damage wasn’t too bad
Mack coming up the rock gully

Upon reaching the top of the gully, I knew we’d made the right call to keep going. We were immediately met with a view of those jagged spires I’d had the privilege of seeing up close for the first time the previous weekend: the Southern Pickets. And even though I was further away from them this time, they were even more mesmerizing from this vantage. Off the loose rock, we moved a little faster through the steep, outsloping heather meadow, crossing over a handful of flowing water sources, then eventually back onto boulder fields and granite slabs. Luna Col still seemed so far away, especially since we’d actually lost elevation on the traverse from the top of the gully! We scrambled up more loose rock, heather benches, and even a small patch of snow–a welcome change from the loose rock!–before making the final rock moves up to the col and the first visible campsite.

Traversing to Luna Col; Southern Pickets in the distance
Looking out on McMillan Creek and the fringe peaks/high points of the Southern Pickets

Out of the basin, we could now see what the ridge line had been guarding: Luna Lake, the Northern Pickets, and Mount Fury at the heart of the entire range. It was official. I was standing in the most beautiful place in all of Washington, gazing at the most incredible subrange of mountains in the most incredible mountain range ever. Even with a mildly sprained ankle holding me back, I felt like the luckiest person alive in that moment. And I knew it was only going to get better the higher we climbed. 

We set up camp first, opting for a site with unobstructed views of the Northern Pickets behind it. After some snacks, we set out for the summit of Luna Peak. It was the easiest terrain we’d been on all day. Sure the rock was loose, but at least it wasn’t straight scree all the way up. There was even a discernible boot path for a good chunk of the approach. The scramble up from the col to the summit can be done fairly fast, but I found myself turning around quite often as the view of the Pickets improved and I could finally see the northern and southern halves meet to form a continuous, unbroken spine. 

Most beautiful spot I’ve ever set up a tent
Northern Pickets and Luna Lake
Heading up!
Just below the false summit

At the false summit, we paused to assess the final ridge to the true summit. As expected based on previous trip reports and beta from friends, it definitely appeared to be more demanding than class 3. I was eager to give it a go, but my ankle had not felt very strong on the easy class 2 scramble up to the false summit. The traverse was high consequence with no room for error. A fall would almost certainly be fatal. Mack was content to hang out where we’d stopped, but I stared longingly across the ridge. In the end, common sense and caution won out. I assured myself that I’d return with two solid ankles and tackle it then. 

To keep from feeling too down about bailing on the final traverse, I kept myself occupied by snapping photo after photo of the surrounding views, studiously referring to the North Cascades map I’d carried up to try and identify the most distinguishable peaks around us, and rewarding myself/deviating from rationing with a couple of summit treats. We stayed up there, savoring the solitude, for nearly an hour. I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I had finally made it up here. I’d had similar feelings about West McMillan the previous weekend since that was my first time experiencing the Pickets. But this place? This particular spot? This was something else entirely. 

Ridge to the true summit
Koma Kulshan and Shuksan behind the Northern Pickets
Summit snacks!

The magic of the climb wore off once we reached camp again. The sun was still pretty high and our campsite offered no shade. The heat and exposure combined with the food rationing finally hit me. And hard. My head was spinning and I slumped down on a shaded, slabby rock wall around the corner from our tent, forcing myself to eat and drink to stave off the inevitable headache and nausea the best I could. The sun was still high when we crawled into the tent. Mack packed some nearby snow into a ziploc bag so I could ice my swollen ankle (as well as my aching head). To pass the remaining daylight hours, he turned on a podcast about Belle Gunness,–holy shit her story is insane!!!–and I buried my face into my makeshift pillow, trying not to vomit from the wave of nausea that consumed me. I did manage to drag myself out of the tent for a few minutes to watch the sunset a couple hours later though. Totally worth it.

Enjoying the shade after hours of sun exposure
Goodnight, Pickets!

Day 3: Luna Col to Big Beaver Trailhead, plus hike up to Ross Dam Trailhead from boat launch (18 miles; 11 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

It was still completely dark outside when we packed everything up. Our water taxi pickup time was 5:30 pm, and after the shenanigans of the past couple days (particularly the first day), we both decided it would be best if we started at first light, guaranteeing us 12.5 hours to reach Ross Lake. It seemed like a good chunk of time–perhaps more than we needed–but I was nervous, especially since my ankle was still swollen and in pain. Navigating the talus and boulders below Luna Col was slow because of my ankle, but once we reached the heather slopes we were moving faster. I stopped a few times to take in some final views of the Southern Pickets as first light gradually washed over their steep, rugged faces. What a difficult place to leave. 

I was most nervous for the loose rock gully. I took a few deep breaths before starting down the steep switchbacks, concentrating on each step while mosquitoes dive bombed my face (literally the ENTIRE TIME we were in the gully; it was probably the crux of descent). I forced myself to only focus on one section of the giant gully at a time. Section one: the steep switchbacks through the mountain heather. Done. Section two: traverse left over loose rock, some scree to brief snow crossing (which was basically melted out at the spot we chose). One minute break. Section three (my least favorite): cross snow patch and carefully descend steepest section of this part of the gully on mostly scree on slick rock. Section four: back on mostly bigger rocks and talus with slope gradually becoming more mellow as it nears headwaters of Access Creek. We made it down (from the top of the gully) unscathed in less than two hours! The scariest section was over for me. We were back at Access Creek basin camp 20 minutes later and took a 15 minute hydration/cool down/mental decompression/snack break before starting part two of the journey back: the Access Creek bushwhack.

Morning glow on the Southern Pickets
Mack hiking into the sunrise (with Elephant Butte [?] on his right)

Learning from the first day’s mistakes, we stayed on the southern boulder field until reaching its terminus, completely bypassing the slide alder forest of madness and misery. We crossed Access Creek to the north side (i.e. walked right thru it since there were no suitable log crossings) and continued down a fairly discernible path. We’d made it through the most dreaded section! Woo! The bushwhacking was very moderate on this side. There was actually a path to follow for at least half of it (although it disappeared and reappeared constantly).

Close to where we crossed from the south side of Access to the north side on the first day, we continued down the clearest continuous path (on the north side NOT the south side) and it took us almost all the way to where Access Creek meets Big Beaver! Damn did we screw up big time on the first day! At least things were going much better on the hike out. We bushwhacked for a couple minutes along Big Beaver to reach a single log crossing (rather than bushwhack a half mile downstream to reach the log jam). Another few minutes of moderate bushwhacking after the log crossing spit us out onto Big Beaver Trail. Actual trail. After a long morning of cross country travel. And we’d made it back well before noon (our goal time).

Crossing Big Beaver
Bushwhack back to the trail

We took a longer break (maybe 30-40 minutes) just past Luna Camp since we knew we could easily make it back to Ross Lake well before our scheduled pickup time. The next few hours after that break though were downright miserable. Although Big Beaver Trail isn’t a difficult trail, we were now hiking midday during a heatwave. Not even the shade of the forest cooled us. The air was moist and heavy. I felt like I was suffocating. I thought we’d be able to push all the way to Ross Lake without stopping, but we had to stop numerous times to refill water because we went through it so quickly in the heat. And the mosquitoes. Oh my god the mosquitoes! They only became worse and worse. And because of my ankle, we weren’t able to jog like we had on the first day. I was ready to lose it after a couple of hours.

We finally reached the lake shore about four hours after we’d stopped at Luna Camp. We still had over an hour to kill, so we went for a dunk in the lake, cleansing ourselves of at least some of the grime and stink of the past couple days. I still felt absolutely disgusting, but at least it was a little less now! On the water taxi ride back, I contemplated our surroundings and how far we’d hiked on this trip. You couldn’t even see where we’d been from where we were now! Every year now (since first visiting the North Cascades in 2017), we were seeing and experiencing more and more aspects of these mountains. And every year, regardless of their brutality and harshness, I fall more and more in love. If I was only able to explore this place for the rest of my life, I would consider it a life well lived. 

I wonder what my 30th birthday adventure will be next year. Oh the possibilities…

Heading back to shade after a quick dip in Ross Lake
Never gonna be a leg model
“Sitting on the dock of a bay…”

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!

Black Peak

  • Date: September 7, 2018
  • Start: Rainy Pass Trailhead
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 35 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: SummitPost

My phone alarm went off like a blaring siren, filling the confined space in the back of my Crosstrek. I fumbled frantically in the dark for it, embarrassed that I was disturbing the rare silence and solitude in the normally crowded Rainy Pass Trailhead. After turning it off (as well as all the subsequent alarms I had set), I pulled my sleeping bag and blanket back over my face. I wasn’t feeling sleep deprived. In fact, I was quite awake and ready to greet the day. What I wasn’t ready for was setting off alone on a trail I’d never been on and scrambling up a peak I’d never navigated before. It was my final weekend before full-time work started again though, so I wasn’t about to let fear ruin my last climbing adventure of the summer.

My on-a-whim solo trip to the North Cascades began two nights earlier. I set out from Portland late Wednesday night in hopes of soloing Mount Shuksan on Thursday. Unfortunately, I underestimated my ability to stay awake for the entirety of the drive and ended up having to make several nap stops. I made it to the trailhead much later than expected/was ideal but attempted the climb anyways. I only made it as far as the glacier, turning around just before high camp.

I was disappointed, convinced that my solo endeavor was ruined, and planned to hightail it back to Portland, probably moping the entire way. However, after a much needed stress-free nap back in the car, I realized how silly I was being and decided to head out further east to attempt my contingency climb, Black Peak. I made some last ditch efforts to find a partner to go with so I wouldn’t have to climb alone but none panned out. However, as I watched the sun set behind Ruby Mountain, savoring the last rays of light as they danced across the surface of Diablo Lake, I knew that going at this alone was exactly what I needed.

Magnificent Koma Kulshan while heading up to Shuksan

Trying to have some fun with a self-timed jump shot after calling it quits

Sunset over Diablo Lake 

As expected, the trail was empty when I set off shortly after 7:30 am. My senses were heightened. I found myself constantly turning around, jumping at every snapped twig and rustle in the brush. The first mile and a half passed quickly and soon I was out of the trees, feeling a little less on edge, and overlooking Heather Lake. The fall colors for which the Heather-Maple Pass area is famous were just starting to reveal themselves. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how vibrant they’d be in a few short weeks.  I left the loop trail and continued on to Lewis Lake. A brief jaunt through a meadow brought me to my first view of Black Peak. The pictures I’d seen while researching the scramble didn’t do justice to the rugged, yet simple, beauty of this peak. Only a long stretch of boulder fields and two alpine lakes lay between me and the final approach.

I felt like an ant in the ocean of boulders leading to Lewis Lake. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to end up on a worn path of sorts, but most of the time I was carefully picking my way through endless unstable rocks. After a few solid ups and downs, I finally reached Lewis Lake. Although the view of Black Peak from the eastern shore was stunning, I didn’t find the lake all that impressive. Then, I made my way around to the western side (in order to continue to Wing Lake) and turned around to get one last look. What a difference. It’s milky aqua green tint was like nothing I’d ever seen. The variety of colors surrounding the water (from the bright red huckleberry leaves and forest green to the glistening pale grey of the granite field) only enhanced its mesmerizing qualities. Every couple of feet I would turn around and snap photo after photo of the scene from this angle.

The scenery only continued to improve as I climbed the steep, technical trail leading to Wing Lake. I still hadn’t seen another soul, and, to my surprise, I was actually delighted! The sun was shining, skies were blue, and layers upon layers of mountains filled my immediate view. I didn’t need an adventure companion in this moment to be content. It felt good to realize how happy and confident/competent I was by myself. It was late morning (between 10 and 10:30 maybe) when I crested the final hill and Wing Lake came into view. I stopped along the shore for a snack break. The remainder of the climb was now completely visible to me so I studied it while I sucked down a GU. So close but still a ways to go, I concluded.

Lake Ann

Lewis Lake with Black Peak in the background

Favorite angle of Lewis Lake


Wing Lake with Black Peak towering above

I briefly enjoyed some runnable singletrack before hitting the loose rock of the moraine above Wing Lake. It became more of a trudge (but an enjoyable trudge!) from there to the summit. After doing my best to make quick work of the short and steep switchbacks on the moraine, I scampered across the soft snow to end up just below a col on the south ridge. The only thing that stood between us? An intimidating, particularly steep, scree slope. Even getting up was a little nerve-wracking. Not only was the surface level rock incredibly loose, but the layer was shallow with slick rock underneath. There was practically no solid rock to grab onto whenever I started to slide. I tried not to think about the descent once I finally made it to the top of the col.

The rest of the way was far more enjoyable. More scrambling over solid rock and less scree sliding. The lakes below were mere dots against the mountainous terrain now. I could also finally see some of my favorite peaks further west. The jagged outlines of Goode, Storm King, and Logan were at the forefront, but I swore I could even make out Buckner and Sahale beyond them. Either way it was an endless sea of peaks that stretched so far back I couldn’t distinguish where the sky met their summits.

After ascending a gully, I followed a slightly more worn “path” to the east (which matched descriptions that I’d read about the final traverse to the summit scramble), finally passing the first person I’d seen all day: a female mountain runner heading down from the summit. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and, after bringing up my lack of enthusiasm regarding the steep scree slope below the col, she kindly suggested a slightly better (though still sketchy) way down. I thanked her and we continued on our separate ways. A few minutes later, I ran into a male hiker also heading down from the summit. We stopped and chatted briefly. He’d been up at the summit since about sunrise–it was already around noon when I saw him–soaking in the beautiful weather and views while enjoying a summit beer. The mountain runner I’d passed earlier was the only person he’d seen all day as well. I continued on and smiled, knowing I’d have the fortune of an empty summit.


Wing Lake and Corteo Peak

View of the scree slope from the top of the col

Gully scramble

The “path” ended at a short fourth class pitch to the summit. I laid my trekking poles at the base of the pitch and scrambled up. It was 12:15 pm, just over four and half hours since I’d started out. I used the inReach to message Mack to let him know that I’d made it to the summit then wandered along the summit ridge to see what I could see. I was certain I could discern the North Cascades Highway far below to the east. It’s always amazing to see your entire route laid out before you. For me, at least, it almost always appears more difficult than it actually felt. I mean, had I really started all the way from that skinny little line snaking its way through the valley far below? I felt a tinge of pride, but, more than anything, I felt gratitude, especially toward this spectacular mountain who allowed me this beautiful day of climbing.

I stayed on the summit for an hour. I could see why the other hiker had chosen to stay even longer than that. Without my trusty Instagram husband to take pictures for me, I used my mini-tripod to capture some fun summit “selfies” (it’s still a selfie if it’s a self-timed shot, right?). My favorite shots though were of the surrounding mountains by themselves, without the interference of my presence. After one final round of gazing in admiration and amazement, I packed everything up again, scrambled down to my trekking poles, and picked my way back to the col. From there, I stayed a bit more to the left (climber’s right) and found more opportunities for scree skiing since it was deep enough that I wasn’t skidding across the slick rock as often. It still took me a solid 20 minutes to make it down to the snowfield, but from there I was gleefully running, knowing that I’d made it through the crux.

Lewis & Wing Lakes from the summit

Views to the west

Mountains upon mountains

Mount Goode


Once past the slow going loose rock of the moraine, I picked up my pace on the singletrack and even on some of the technical downhill leading to Lewis Lake, only once slamming my knee into a granite boulder (which I have a nice little scar as a result). My pace slowed again at the giant boulder field, especially since it was actually more uphill than downhill to get back to the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail. Rain clouds were building up behind me, but I was still in the clear.

Made it safely down the scree slope

Wing Lake

Lewis Lake


Enjoying the view of Black Peak while I still have it


Back on more well groomed trail following the boulder field, I finally got to do what felt like actual running. I took one more longing look at Black Peak as I crossed the meadow, still in awe that I’d been up there looking out on this spot just a couple short hours earlier. I smiled ‘goodbye’ and sped past the Heather-Maple pass junction, past the expected hordes of people, stopping occasionally for a photo here and there, but mainly just running, uninhibited and full of joy. And that’s how I finished my final North Cascades adventure of the summer, filled with joy, excitement, gratitude, an insatiable desire to return as soon as possible, and certainty that I would be back to share this adventure with Mack.

Meadow leading back to the junction

Lake Ann


Signs of fall!

Mount Thielsen

  • Date: May 13, 2018
  • Start: Mount Thielsen Trailhead
  • Distance: 9-10 miles
  • Duration: 10 hours 4 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  •  References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Outdoor Project

I laced up my climbing shoes and took a deep breath. Hischokwolas’ summit spire loomed high above us, its basaltic andesite rock glinting in the sunlight. Three years ago, Mack and I had stood in this exact spot, fearful of the class 3-4 scramble before us. We’d only been seriously hiking for about a year and had never done rock climbing or mountaineering of any sort. Three years ago, we turned around, and the memory of that incomplete adventure both haunted and motivated me. I studied the base for a few more minutes. Eighty feet. Just eighty feet. I took one more deep breath and made my first move.

After a rather tough 50K race and a mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night in the front seats of the car, we hit the trail just before sunrise with our friends, Alyssa and Ryan. First light was already upon us, so headlamps were packed away shortly after we started. The first couple of miles passed quickly with good conversation to wake us all up. Chilly morning temps kept the snow firm for us as we wove through a forest of mountain hemlock and fir before gaining the ridge. Our objective was now in full view, a dark silhouette with the sun still tucked behind it’s northern flank.

We donned our crampons and pulled out ice axes to move more efficiently and safely, especially with the increasingly sketchy run out on either side of the ridge. They quickly became obsolete though once we reached the steep talus slopes. We packed away our steep snow equipment, put on our helmets, then slowly picked our way up the crumbling rock, moving in pairs, careful to stay out of each other’s fall lines in case any rock came loose beneath us. As we neared the final chimney chute leading to the chicken ledge, we were forced to pull out our axes one last time to traverse a short, but rather steep, early season snow field. After that, it was an easy scramble to the base of the summit block.

One of the first views of Thielsen after emerging from the forest

Alyssa with Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey in the background

Alyssa and Mack

Carefully picking my way up the talus slopes

Mack and I traded our mountaineering boots for climbing shoes at this point. We paced back and forth along the base, seeking out the path of least resistance. Three years ago, every path up looked terrifying and impossible. Now, this final tower was just a fun little puzzle with multiple possibilities! Mack made his first moves and I followed, opting for an alternate starting point that seemed more feasible for me.

I was amazed at how easy each move felt! Although I climbed slowly, it wasn’t out of nerves or fear. I was savoring each moment, each move, relishing in this seemingly newfound confidence (all while staying focused of course). There were plenty of platforms to step onto and the rock was incredibly solid the entire way up. Ironically, the hike up the talus slope down lower was far more nerve-racking! The final eighty feet honestly felt like the easiest part of the entire adventure. It was by far the most rewarding and fun part as well. We stayed on the summit for a short while, scanning for fulgurites on the rocks and enjoying the views of Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey, and the waters of Crater Lake. Mack was anxious to get moving though, feeling nervous about the down climb, so we snapped a few photos and carefully began the descent.

Mack on the summit

Me on the summit

Survey marker

Summit selfie

The scramble down felt just as easy and straightforward as the climb up. We knew the various holds and platforms well enough that we were actually able to take a few pictures this time around! I was beaming with excitement when we made it back down to the ledge where Alyssa and Ryan were hanging out. If we didn’t have such a tedious descent on talus slopes and slushy snow, as well as a long drive home, I would’ve scrambled up again!

Scrambling back down the summit block


As predicted, the descent from the chicken ledge until we were off the west ridge was slow and laborious, especially beneath the hot afternoon sun. Getting off the loose rock and back onto the snow was such a relief, even though it meant post-holing in knee deep snow at times. Once we were back on dirt, away from both snow and talus, we stopped for one last snack (or, in my case, power nap) break before making the final push back to the car. My mind and body were drained and suffering from the heat of the day (and the day before) by this point, and my final push felt more like sleepwalking. Despite being completely spent by the time we reached our cars in the mid-afternoon, we all finished with smiles on our faces. I’m sure it was partly a result of relief for being able to remove our heavy and hot mountaineering boots, but I think it was mostly because we’d had another memorable mountain adventure with the best company.

Ryan and Alyssa enjoying the views at the base of the summit block

Mack, Ryan, and Alyssa traversing one of the few remaining snow-covered slopes

Almost there!

Couldn’t ask for a better crew!

Getting in a quick power nap and resting my poor legs and feet