Northern Picket Traverse to Mount Challenger + Eiley Wiley Ridge / 北尖樁

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Northern Picket Traverse to Mount Challenger took us through Eiley Wiley Ridge. The classic route went over rugged terrain inside North Cascades National Park. We included Phantom Peak and Crooked Thumb Peak on this trip as well.

Northern Picket Traverse: Mount Challenger calls
Northern Picket Traverse: Mount Challenger calls

See more trip photos here.

Northern Picket Traverse at a Glance

Northern Picket Traverse = Mount Challenger + Phantom Peak + Crooked Thumb Peak
橫貫北尖樁=挑戰者山+幻象峯+歪拇指峯

Access: Ross Dam Trailhead 
Round Trip: 61.6 miles
Elevation Range: 1600′-8207′
Gear: rock and snow
Route Info: Noah, Steph Abegg, Trailcat
GPS Track: available
Dog-Friendly: no pets

July 29 – August 6, 2017

Day 1 – Saturday, July 29
Water taxi + Beaver Pass Campground
Night 1 – Beaver Pass Campground

Day 2 – Sunday, July 30
Eiley Wiley Ridge high traverse
Night 2 – Challenger Arm

Day 3 – Monday, July 31
Mount Challenger
Night 3 – Lower Crooked Thumb Glacier

Day 4 – Tuesday, August 1
Night 4 – Point 6148

Day 5 – Wednesday, August 2
Phantom Peak
Night 5 – Upper Crooked Thumb Glacier

Day 6 – Thursday, August 3
Crooked Thumb Peak Climb
Night 6 – Land of the Rats and Colossal Boulders

Day 7 – Friday, August 4
Crooked Thumb Peak Summit
Night 7 – Upper Crooked Thumb Glacier

Day 8 – Saturday, August 5
Eiley Wiley Ridge low traverse
Night 8 – Beaver Pass Campground

Day 9 – Sunday, August 6
Big Beaver Trail + Water taxi + Highway 20


Day 1

Water taxi + Beaver Pass Campground

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: The Preface

Last year, I enjoyed two short visits to Luna Peak and West McMillan Spire in the Picket Range. So this time, I rallied two partners and picked a few peaks for a Northern Picket Traverse. We also added more time to have a relaxing outing.

This classic traverse was the most extended trip for me to go off the grid. It also tested my willpower in many ways. Moreover, I’ve since added “nine days without a proper shower” to my list of new experiences.

Ross Dam from the trail
Ross Dam from the trail

See more trip photos here.

The Journey of a Lifetime

Constant craving for regular food, more scrapes, and bruises was among the many things memorable. Above all, the question of “How much longer?!” continued to linger inside my head as we made the traverse.

Of course, the trip wouldn’t be complete without the periodic debates or bickers over trivial things. But we all tried our best to laugh things off in the end. Moreover, I was grateful for my partners to keep me going.

Northern Picket Traverse: riding the water taxi
Northern Picket Traverse: riding the water taxi

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Ross Lake Resort Water Taxi

The first leg of the trip included a short and enjoyable boat ride to Big Beaver Campground. Then it was a 13-mile-long trek to Beaver Pass Campground. I was happy to have worn approach shoes on the Big Braver trail.

Two groups were the last people we saw on the trail on their way out. Then it wasn’t until the final day of our trip that we met more folks on the beaten path. We later reached the empty camp in the early evening.

Tree hugger on Big Beaver Trail
Tree hugger on Big Beaver Trail

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Day 2

Eiley Wiley Ridge high traverse

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: Eiley Wiley Ridge

Scrambling up the steep southeast ridge from the get-go with nine days of supplies was brutal. So I mainly rest-stepped my way up the hillside to save my calves. Then it flattened as the terrain expanded after 2000′ of climbing.

Soon, the breathtaking landscape took our minds off the heavy loads. Then Mount Prophet, Luna Peak, and the Chilliwack peaks came into view at the 5700′ overlook. But I couldn’t wait to see what else was in store.

Northern Picket Traverse: hillside view of Chilliwack peaks
Northern Picket Traverse: hillside view of Chilliwack peaks

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Eiley Wiley Ridge High Traverse

Below 6200′ was a climber trail, which we used until it faded at 6600′. Soon, we bypassed Little Beaver Peak from the south to its southwest pass at 6520′. It was smooth sailing until the broken ridge over Eiley Lake forced us to reroute.

Shortly, we exited the ridge via a south-facing gully. Then we went around the lake from the south shore adorned with moraine deposits. Meanwhile, we had vast views of the Northern Pickets and the Chilliwack peaks.

Eiley Lake below Point 7049 on Eiley Wiley Ridge
Eiley Lake below Point 7049 on Eiley Wiley Ridge

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Northern Picket Traverse: Challenger Arm

We continued at 6800′ under Point 7049 and went around Wiley Lake from the south. Then we moved up steep snow to Big Beaver Peak’s east shoulder. Despite the smooth contour lines, cliffs had covered the entire south face.

So instead, we bypassed on the north via a steep rock field onto Challenger Arm at 6700′. It was the first of many stops on the Northern Picket Traverse. Soon, Luna Peak, Mount Baker, and Whatcom Peak filled the evening view.

Dinner with Luna Peak on Challenger Arm
Dinner with Luna Peak on Challenger Arm

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Day 3

Mount Challenger

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: Mount Challenger

The following day, we roped up and went south on Challenger Arm. Some groups had noted the difficult bergschrund before the 8000′ col, but we easily bypassed it from the west. Soon, we were on the pass north of the summit.

After stashing the overnight gear nearby, we checked out the steep ice to the east. I tried to lead out, but I thought it was pretty sketchy. So Anne graciously led the pitch up to the next crux–the snow arête.

Northern Picket Traverse: climbing Mount Challenger
Northern Picket Traverse: climbing Mount Challenger

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The Final Stretch on Mount Challenger

We stayed tied in and then belayed through the sketchy knife edge. Shortly, we hopped on the rocks and crossed over to the base of the summit block. Rock shoes came in handy for leading out the 50′ pitch to the rappel station.

We spotted the two old pitons noted in a few reports en route. They were still intact and solid to use for protection. Then a brief, exposed scramble took us to the top after everyone went through the second pitch.

Mount Challenger summit tower
Mount Challenger summit tower

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Northern Picket Traverse: Mount Challenger Summit Views

Soon, we saw wildfire smoke creeping in from the Ross Lake area. Little did we know, the haze had come from Canada, the onset of the season’s wildfires. Then we went back to the col after a quick visit.

Crevasses had us drop to 7200′ before traversing west to Mount Challenger Middle Peak. We rappelled off the west of the two gullies. But we barely stepped onto the snowfield because of a receding snow ramp.

The looming Hozomeen Mountain
The looming Hozomeen Mountain

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Challenger Glacier to Crooked Thumb Glacier

After a half-mile walk south over Crooked Thumb Glacier, we made our home at 6800′. The spot had an excellent view of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. But it would be the last time we saw a clear sky before we knew it.

The overnight wind gusts drowned out my clock’s buzzing. I had set it for 1 AM to take photos, but I looked outside and saw no stars above. Then I knew the smoke we saw on Mount Challenger had arrived, and I went back to sleep.

Mount Challenger Middle Peak's west col
Mount Challenger Middle Peak’s west col

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Day 4

Point 6148 Camp

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

A Windy Night Came a Smoky Morning

Wind gusts continued into the dawn. During this, Anne and Dave flattened their tent to reduce friction. My solo tent lay on its own without me doing anything. But when the wind stopped, we had lost much daylight.

Shortly, we moved our camp 500′ higher and knew we wouldn’t have time for Crooked Thumb Peak. Instead of waiting around, we decided to continue to Point 6148. So we could start early on Phantom Peak in the morning.

Northern Picket Traverse: camping on Crooked Thumb Glacier
Northern Picket Traverse: camping on Crooked Thumb Glacier

Day 5

Phantom Peak

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: Phantom Peak

For me, the crux was the snow before the broad gully. My skier partners quickly moved through it, but I was glad to have the ice tools! At 7200′, we came upon the steep snow ramp extending down the south gully and roped up.

We protected with pickets and moved onto the rocks by the bergschrund. Then I enjoyed scrambling through the exposed, sharp ridgeline. Soon, we put up a hand line by the false peak and prusiked a short way to the top.

South gully crux on Phantom Peak
South gully crux on Phantom Peak

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Ghostly Views on Phantom Peak

The top was only broad enough for one person to straddle somewhat comfortably. Then we took turns taking photos and seeing the hazy view before returning to the false peak. It’s a whole new level of adrenaline rush and airiness.

Views certainly would’ve been more spectacular sans the smoke. The curvature of ridgelines appeared ghostly under the thick haze. Then there was Mount Fury in the back, with Luna Peak looking like a castle in the sky.

Northern Picket Traverse: the picket fence
Northern Picket Traverse: the picket fence

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Back to Point 6148

Back at the snow ramp, we roped up again through the crux. Suddenly, a few loud thumps from below startled the group. So Dave quickly hopped off, “I’ll take my chances!” he yelled. Then we hurried down the gully and exited.

Back on Point 6148, Anne’s treated us to her concocted snow cones. Then we spent the afternoon going back to Crooked Thumb Glacier. We later prepared for the next day’s climb as Crooked Thumb Peak loomed above us.

Exiting Phantom Peak via the sharp ridge
Exiting Phantom Peak via the sharp ridge

See more trip photos here.


Day 6

Crooked Thumb Peak

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: Crooked Thumb Peak

Snow below the northwest gully was steeper than I had expected. It was perhaps the steepest traverse with significant exposure for me. Every step tested my willpower as I continued to be grateful for the ice tools.

I improvised with acrobatic moves through the exposed terrain. It was even trickier to attain the rocks from the snow ramp due to the steep incline. So I couldn’t wait to hurry back to the rocky, if not solid, ground.

Northwest gully above the snow ramp
Northwest gully above the snow ramp

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Crooked Thumb Peak Northwest Gully

We spent the bulk of the morning in the northwest gully. The rocks came in all flavors: the good, the bad, and the ugly. It would’ve been a better choice to move up from the right. But we only realized that on the return.

It was noon when we reached the north col. But we could see the rest of the route at last. The steep north ridge was full of choss, with many boulders that looked like they could tumble. So we belayed through this part.

Crooked Thumb Peak north ridge
Crooked Thumb Peak north ridge

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Northern Picket Traverse: The Land of Rats and Colossal Boulders

We had aimed to sleep below the top had we not made the summit too late in the day. We didn’t. So we camped right above the vertical ledge crux in “The Land of Rats and Colossal Boulders,” we called it.

The days seemed to go by faster since we entered the area. Soon, we watched the hazy sunset as we enjoyed dinner among the boulders. Then we turned in after lots of chatter and laughter as the horizon dimmed.

9 o'clock dinner with a view
9 o’clock dinner with a view

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A Night Showdown with the Rats

As we settled into our sleep area under the moon, we got a surprise visit from the pesky mountain rats! It was my first time seeing these ruthless critters, and I was on edge all night. Oh, dear Lort, have mercy.

I couldn’t sleep to the shuffling noises around me. I did not sleep a wink, keeping the rats away from my belongings. On the other hand, Anne and Dave slept through most of the ordeal. Now that’s pure talent!

Northern Picket Traverse: the sunset
Northern Picket Traverse: the sunset

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Day 7

Crooked Thumb Peak Summit

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: Crooked Thumb Peak Climb

We started moving through the 10-foot vertical gap the following day at dawn. Beyond that point, we would’ve liked to have scrambled the rest of the way. But the scree and constant rockfalls had us think twice.

Soon, we belayed through to the ridge notch below the summit tower. By now, we were comfortable enough to scramble on the milder terrain. So we unroped and finished the final 30′ up to the top.

Above Crooked Thumb Glacier camp
Above Crooked Thumb Glacier camp

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Summit Views Plus Exit

Views here were much worse than at Phantom Peak. As the day progressed, more and more smoke spewed into the area with weak visibility. So it was a relatively quick visit taking our selfies before leaving the top.

We rappelled in the northwest gully using the good anchors as the rest had detached overtime; eek! Leaving the steep snow at the bottom took the longest. But we all made it back to the camp safely just after dark.

Northern Picket Traverse: ghostly view of Mount Challenger
Northern Picket Traverse: ghostly view of Mount Challenger

See more trip photos here.


Day 8

Beaver Pass Campground

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

Northern Picket Traverse: The Grand Exit

We planned to move as far out on Eiley Wiley Ridge as possible with a long day ahead. After breakfast, we returned to Mount Challenger Middle Peak. Then we scouted out the east gully that looked manageable from below.

At the bottom was a narrow chimney, which looked like a feasible option. So David went through the tight space and lifted our backpacks with the rope. Then Anne and I followed through the narrow passage.

One last look at Crooked Thumb and Phantom
Northern Picket Traverse: ghostly view of Mount Challenger

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Back to Challenger Arm

Soon, we scrambled to the pass and were glad to have come up that way. After crossing to Challenger Arm, we ate lunch by the small tarns. It looked to be the vantage point to view Whatcom Peak.

None of us liked the route we took off Big Beaver Peak on day two. So the group opted for the low traverse through the east end between 6200′ and 6400′. It worked out, but having more snow would’ve been more pleasant.

Back on Challenger Arm with Whatcom Peak
Back on Challenger Arm with Whatcom Peak

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Northern Picket Traverse: Leaving Eiley Wiley Ridge

We returned to the 5700′ meadow on the southeast ridge half an hour before sunset. Earlier, we talked about staying the night there. But then decided to use the remaining daylight to drop the 2100′ to Beaver Pass.

It was just as steep going down, and we took time to bypass cliffs in the dark. We rolled into camp past 11 PM with one new tent nearby. Anne slept immediately, but Dave and I put food in our system before crashing.

Northern Picket Traverse: leaving Eiley Wiley Ridge
Northern Picket Traverse: leaving Eiley Wiley Ridge

See more trip photos here.


Day 9

Big Beaver Trail + Water taxi + Highway 20

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

En Route Back to Ross Lake

The morning came too soon. But we were happy to have stayed the night by the trail for a head start. We briefly chatted with the tent owner hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) and left a short time later.

The 13 miles out to the dock went fast over many chats. Then we saw another PNT hiker who happened to be an Instagram follower. I recognized him by his long facial hair and oversized-frame glasses. Small world, indeed!

Morning sun
Morning sun

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Northern Picket Traverse: The Finishing Touch

We reached Big Beaver Campground two hours before our scheduled pickup and relaxed by Ross Lake. But even at the low altitude, we couldn’t escape the smoke either. It was hotter here, and visibility only went as far as the east shore.

We enjoyed a quick boat ride back to civilization on the other side. Then all we had left to do was walk a mile uphill back to Ross Dam Trailhead. Like the Luna Peak trip, it sure was the icing on the cake to end a long journey.

Back to the other side
Back to the other side

See more trip photos here.

Overview > Day 1 > Day 2 > Day 3 > Day 4 > Day 5 > Day 6Day 7 > Day 8 > Day 9

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