Straddling the Fence

B. Gilkison Pics

Lately I've been walking many fences. Unemployed vs Climbing Dirtbag, Colorado vs Washington resident, and married vs dating. It is nice to be settled to one side of (some) of those fences, and to match this theme, here's a report from a recent trip to Washington's Picket Range.

THANK YOU to all the awesome Bellingham residents who came out to support Index! We had over 100 people packed in at Backcountry Essentials for pictures and movies from Patagonia and Alaska. With donations and raffles, we raised more than $350 to preserve public access to the world-class climbing at Index. I'm grateful for the raffle prizes donated by Cilogear Packs, Trango Climbing, and Outdoor Research.

After getting married outside Seattle, I'm now in Denver with Allison. We'll be mostly living here for the next 1.5 years.

I suppose I am climbing something, even if it is just the social ladder. My old buddy Forest Woodward took these pictures.

With strong motivation to train hard and improve my skills in Colorado, I'll try and take this opportunity to really improve my technical ability on rock and ice. What else can I do when there aren't any real mountains* nearby?

In September, my friend Sol and I decided to try the 2nd ascent of the E->W Southern Pickets Range Traverse. This is a skyline route climbing across 12-15 towers and peaks in the North Cascades. The traverse was completed by a trio of Northwest veterans in July of 2004: Colin Haley, Mark Bunker, and Wayne Wallace. These fellows had all been in the area several times, and had climbed some of the terrain before. They chose July for the trip, which meant at least 3 more hours of daylight than Sol and I would have.

It would be the first time for us in the area, so we'd be working to onsight the approaches, descents, and the route routes. Sol's employer, the famous 59er Diner, gave him extra time off for the trip. We rocked 59er Diner stickers, hoping to score free onion rings in the future. Sol got delirious at one point and busted out his alpine straw, thinking this melt pool was a milkshake.

Planning for 4 nights on the route, were were excited to fit all our food and gear into two 30L Cilogear bags. We ended up bringing too much fuel, and more then enough clothes. The Thermarest was my pack's frame, we used one 8.1mm half rope, and light-was-right!

We were impressed with the very obvious and brush-free trails that led us all the way into the alpine meadows below the McMillan Spires. No Beckey-era bushwhacks here!

We could see the peaks that we'd climb on our first and second days.

Untitled from Blake Herrington on Vimeo.

The vertical gain was around 6,000' to the glacier, but went quickly with easy paths to follow.

Up Little McMillan and East McMillan spires, we found some scrappy rock, nice views, and fresh snow! This would be a serious help in finding water along the way. The grade III routes early on the traverse all seemed to be about 3 pitches long, and definitely not particularly inspiring on their own merits. Here's Sol, lost in a sea of down-sloping holds.

We settled in for a bivy between East and West McMillan spires, and tried not to roll off the edge of our platform into the void.

We'd made the approach, two peaks, and about 10,000 vertical feet of gain, but were already one peak behind the itinerary of the First Ascentionists.

The negotiation of many gendarmes and towers between the McMillan Spires and Inspiration proved slow and tedious on day two. Having no experience in the area, we continually changed between soloing, simul-climbing, and traditionally-belayed pitches. And having short days, we found ourselves worrying about finding a bivy spot that would offer flat ground and clean snow. Here's the result of our snow melting in the dark. Extra protein!

As we approached Inspiration Peak, the excitement grew. Inspiration's East Ridge is meant to be the best rock in the area.

Sol at the bottom of the photo, coming up West McMillan:

On to Inspiration Peak, the rock lived up to the hype. Sol took the 5.8 layback, which set me up to the long 5.9 fist crack.

With nothing bigger than one #2 camalot, I was not in the mood to fall, but we assured ourselves that the rock would be excellent and jamming secure.

However, it appears that I was climbing a crack slightly left of the more popular route.

Here is someone else's photo of the pitch. I climbed the left crack and moved right, just above where they are in the photo.

While gingerly stepping to my right, my foot knocked a microwaved-shaped block out of its time-bomb perch in the wall. The steepness of the pitch meant that there was nothing for it to hit, apart from the belay ledge. I screamed 'ROCK' before I'd realized what happened, and was instantly swinging back left as Sol, barefoot and seated on the ledge, pulled some ninja skills from his bag of alpine tricks and jumped to avoid the explosion. With cut-up feet and damaged nerves, he kept me on belay as I screwed around before finally completing the pitch. So much for the best rock in the range!

We pushed onward, not sure where our motivations would take us, but certain that we'd need a flat spot and water for the night. Sol leads on, between Inspiration's two summits.

Onward to Pyramid Peak, we simulclimbed several hundred feet of good rock, before things got serious once more. Shortly below the summit, the rock type changed dramatically, and we both 'oozed' our way up consecutive pitches of 5.10 climbing with dicey protection and character-building rock. It sounds like we were further to the south than Colin, Wayne, and Mark. Don't go our way. On the bright side, there were lots of holds, which appeared whenever we would grab a block and remove it from the wall.

By this time it was nearly dark, and we sought out a 2nd bivy platform.

Snow could be good, but cold.

Fortunately, Sol's nesting instincts again proved sound, and he found us an amazing perch between Mt. Degenhart and Pyramid peak.

We woke up the next morning to sun, but the presence of fish-scale clouds. Our high-pressure system wasn't going to last forever.

After an unappealing scramble up and down Mt. Degenhart, we crossed to the toe of Mt. Terror and turned to one another with "the look."

The Look has many manifestations. It can mean that you are lost, suddenly committed to an unknown runout, out of protection, or just plain scared and tired. Sol's look said "I've just spent two days climbing on shitty rock, and I almost got killed yesterday on the best rock in the range." Being the offending block-trundler, I wasn't about to disagree. The rock was meant to improve further along, but not for a few more peaks. After climbing solid alpine rock all year, perhaps we were just not mentally prepared for days of climbing in a constant "cannot fall" situation. In any case, we decided that the East edge of Mt. Terror was the end of our traverse, and carefully descended to the basin.

Orange shoes make for orange feet.

The peaks we didn't cover:

Our final day, we recieved the royal North Cascades treatment.

1.Wake up in a rainy fog, visibilty is less than the distance I am able to throw a frisbee.

2. Determine best method to cross 800'-tall barrier of rock (called The Barrier)

3. Descend 5,000 down soaking brushy and cliffy slopes, in the same cloudy fog.
4. Follow 5 miles of trail back to the car, it's beer time!

We'd covered about half of the Southern Pickets in 1.5 days of climbing, and gained a renewed appreciation for the speed and gumption of the FA team.


Items we each had, we had very similar individual gear:

Ultralight Helmet
CAMP ubber-light Harness and BD ATC Guide Belay Device
30 Liter Cilogear Backpacks W/Lids
3/4 Length Sleeping pads (also used as frames for backpacks)
Ice tool w/hammer (for pitons)
Aluminum strap-on crampons
Tennis shoes & comfy rock shoes
1 lb sleeping bag & Down jacket
Light Gloves & Stocking Cap
Soft-Shell Pants, one T-shirt, one long-sleeve shirt, and one windshirt
MSR Dromedary bladder (4 liter) and one water bottle
Plastic straw and spoon from Wendy's!

Group Gear:

1 x 60mm 8.1mm half rope

1 x BD Firstlight Shelter

1 x Jet Boil stove

Food for four nights. We trimmed the pouches from the freeze-dried dinners (first night) as bowls for oatmeal and all other subsequent meals, so we didn't need a cookpot or bowl or mugs.

1 x small rack of gear to 2", with pins and 10 dyneema runners. Superfly wiregates and a few superfly lockers. The Green Alien / Blue TCU size was the money piece, placed on every pitch.

*Just kidding citizens of Boulder! Please don't be offended or pummel me with your designer soft-shells and Fall '09 model down sweaters. I only jest because as the center of the known universe, I am getting inextricably pulled into your orbit. I know you have plenty of '14ers', some of which don't even have monster-truck races all the way to the summit! Whereas Washington has but one '14er' and then some obscure brushy little hills.



  1. You'll be alot closer to some super desert towers and crack climbing...

    Nice trip report by the way! And congratulations!

  2. What gear did you take along?

  3. Good question... I think i'll edit the post to add our packing list!