- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…