Southern Pickets

May 25 - 28, 2001

Dave Svilar, Matt Alford, Darren Rainey, Matt Smitherman


This picture is fuzzy (Darren took it), but still shows our routes up the two peaks.  The rest of the Southern Pickets are just as impressive but hiding behind Degenhardt. (Darren Rainey)

The Picket Range is considered to be the most remote and rugged wilderness in the lower 48 states.  Veteran climbers of the Cascades consider a trip to this foreboding range to be a graduate course in northwest mountaineering.  Somehow four jokers who probably didn't belong in a graduate course of anything wandered their way into the range in late spring - a full month before the few who dare venture into this wilderness usually show up.  Nevertheless the four of us found ourselves squished in the cab of Alford's Nissan heading down Highway 20 past Marblemount towards Newhalem.

For Alford and I this was to be the first trip into the woods with Darren and Smitherman whom we had connected with in a Mountaineers climbing class (yes, we're all Mounties).  If Darren and Smitherman were trying to size up their new partners they would have been less than impressed with me.  For reasons I can't explain I decided I could either take a helmet or rock shoes, but not both.  The Pickets are notorious for falling rock and the routes we proposed to climb were never much more than 4th class, yet I took the rock shoes.  Not only did I receive teasing for months afterwards for this stupid decision, but it nearly cost me my noggin later in the trip.

The reason this range sees so few visitors is the approach, therefore we set aside an entire day in order to reach camp.  The first few miles followed a faint and mostly flat path through forests next to a river.  The easy hiking ended when a climber's path broke off and headed straight up hill.  After a couple of hours we were all tired and took a lunch break.  I was feeling worn out and against my better judgment broke into my stash of my mom's cookies.  Once hiking resumed I made a startling discovery: not only were my mom's cookies the best tasting, but they gave me an incredible jolt of energy. 

Darren, Alford and Dave seem to all be staring at the same thing as we hike to camp. (Darren Rainey)

The trail basically disappeared into the forest, so we found ourselves navigating by following surveyor's tape that was periodically hung in the trees to mark the trail.  I wasn't good for much on the trip, but when it came to spotting trail markers I was the guy.  Some climber's excel at different aspects of their craft such as crack climbing, anchors, or glacier travel - it appeared I was blessed with being able to spot orange tape in the woods. 

Before breaking the tree-line we were trudging through snow and everyone seemed to be wearing down except for me and my cookie induced sugar high.  I kicked steps across a long slope before it suddenly ended at a steep step.  Too lazy to go around, I started downclimbing the tricky step that was made even trickier by the weight of my pack.  To relieve myself of the burdensome pack I tried to throw it into a moat between the rock and snow below me.  To my dismay I missed the moat and watched helplessly as my pack rocketed down the steep snow, over a 25 foot drop, and finally came to a rest a couple of hundred feet below.  Miraculously everything was fine except for a few broken wands and an exploded sunscreen container.

Shortly thereafter and eight hours after leaving the Nissan we came to a small notch in the ridge that would be our camp for the next three nights.  We wearily dug out platforms in the snow for our tents and then sat down to eat and contemplate routes on the Pickets, which layed directly in front of us.

Setting up camp with the Pickets in the background.  I had the privilege of spending the first night in Alford's new single wall Bibler tent (yellow).


Same camp, different perspective.  We climbed up on the rock above the tents at night to watch the sunset.


Dave watching the sunset behind the Chopping Block in the distance.

We set off early the next morning from camp down a steep slope and then continued to traverse to the base of the McMillan Spire.  Apparently most who come to the Pickets have big aspirations, but feel lucky if they can just climb McMillan Spire.  After traversing the long snow slope we decided to rope up because there was supposedly a glacier under foot.  Steep snow followed by mixed snow and rock scrambling put us on the summit by mid-morning.

Crossing the long snow slope after leaving camp en route to the McMillan Spire.


Darren and Dave on the steep snow below the summit of McMillan Spire. (Darren Rainey)


Dave scrambling near the summit of McMillan Spire making sure not to get to close to the right. (Darren Rainey)

Before the trip the weather forecast wasn't completely promising, so when we found ourselves basking in the sun on the summit of McMillan Spire we enjoyed it even more.  We were in no hurry to leave, so we relaxed and took in the views - especially those of the wild basin between the Southern and Northern Pickets.  We were all relaxed and enjoying the scenic splendor until Alford called out from behind a rock, "Hey guys, come check this out."  Expecting for him to point out another aspect of the great view I rushed over only to find Matt smiling proudly and holding up a rock displaying the largest pile of human feces I had ever seen.  I photographed Matt's prize before he thankfully hurled it off the cliff.

The Red-Head in all his glory.  I'll replace this picture with a better summit shot of Alford this spring.  I believe my mom may have placed it in the family photo album...


Fiercesome north side of the Southern Pickets.  Our peak the next day, the Pyramid is second from the left.

After descending the steep snow slope we stopped for over an hour on a rock slab and lounged in the sun.  The second day of the trip we planned to climb Mt. Degenhardt, but that would require crossing over the Barrier, which was a long steep cliff band that was like... a barrier.  From our vantage there seemed to be one reasonable way to cross at this snowy time of year.  Problem was that our one reasonable spot had a large overhanging cornice directly above.  Instead of rolling the dice with the cornice we adjusted our plans and decided to climb Degenhardt's satellite, the Pyramid.  The decision to avoid the cornice proved wise, because the next day at the time we'd likely have been climbing in the area the cornice broke off and rumbled down the gully which would have squished us like a pile of ants.

Despite this wise decision our day climbing the Pyramid would be no cakewalk.  As easy as the McMillan Spire had seemed, the Pickets were about to give us the lesson of our young mountaineering lives.

After another pleasant night watching the sunset above camp we awoke early and made the long trek across the snow slopes towards the Terror Glacier.  We roped up and wound through crevasses until reaching the south face of the Pyramid.  Smitherman and Darren ascended a narrow gully of mixed rock and snow on one rope.  Not wanting to wait for them to clear the gully I spotted a pitch that looked promising - it was covered with moss, so how hard could it be?  I was wrong, the rock was steep, loose, and wet.  Even placing protection I was a little nervous, so was glad when we swung leads and Alford took over.  After Alford's lead we ascended a steep snow field that put us on the col between  Degenhardt and the Pyramid.  My idea to climb the moss proved costly in terms of time because Smitherman and Darren were already on the summit.  The final climb from the col to the summit looked easy, but after starting to climb the loose snow and fiercesome exposure of the north side of the peak forced us to keep the rope on.

Darren took this picture of Smitherman (red helmet) following up the steep snowfield to the col.  This is the same snowfield we decided to rappel on the descent.  (Darren Rainey)


Darren belays Smitherman to the summit of the Pyramid.

I felt no relief upon reaching the summit because I knew we still had to go down.  Unlike the day before when we had basked in the sun on top of McMillan Spire the incoming weather and prospect of the descent quickened our pace.  We were able to combine our ropes and rappel all the way back to the col in one shot.  By the time all four of us had reached the col the sun had disappeared and the wind was howling.

At this point we were faced with another decision that would prove critical.  Do we rappel the steep snowfield or try to downclimb?  There was no runout at the base of the snowfield, just a cliff, so we decided to take the time to rappel.  The duty of the first one of us down the rappel would be to find the next anchor, which would be difficult due to all the snow and poor quality rock.  Which one of us was most suited for this task?  Certainly not me, my numerous blunders already in the trip proved I was incapable.  Not Alford, he had spent too much of his post-college career breathing paint fumes.  Darren spent his week days trapped in a cubicle placing calls to strangers.  The obvious choice was the medical student Smitherman, whose meticulous nature would prove just right for finding anchors and assuring they were secure. 

Smitherman raps off the summit and down to the col.  Degenhardt in the background.  The steep snowfield we decided to rappel is shown in the lower left. (Darren Rainey)

A double rope rappel got Smitherman almost all the way down the snowfield, but upon reaching the end of the ropes he looked in vain for a suitable anchor.  Meanwhile, Darren and Alford tried crouching behind a rock as incoming winds were raking the col, while I had long since resigned to the fact that misery was inevitable.  Instead of seeking shelter me and my shorts-covered legs stood at the col and absorbed the full force of the wind almost to the point of enjoying it.  There was no enjoyment for me though, as I realized the difficulty we were facing descending this mountain.

When I finally rappelled down, I was amazed to see the anchor Smitherman had found.  He had dug the snow out from around a boulder that was mostly submerged in the snow and tied a long cordelette around it.  From this anchor he rappelled the rest of the snowfield then dropped over the side of the cliff and out of our view.  I was nervous for him (and me) because dropping over the cliff he had no idea if any decent anchors were available for the next rappel.  Finally the ropes slackened and we followed down the snowfield and over the cliff to where Smitherman was clipped at a tiny anchor station.  The anchor was sketchy, but it was all he could find.

As if I wasn't nervous enough tied precariously to a cliff on a weak anchor the mountain dealt us another blow.  As Smitherman started down on the next rappel I heard a deep, loud, rumbling noise from above that sounded like a train.  Before I could comprehend Darren yelled, "AVALANCHE!"  The snowfield we had just descended had released and was shooting a river of snow over our heads and down the cliff onto the glacier below.  We pressed our bodies as tight to the cliff as possible as the snow seemed to graze the top of our heads as it rumbled over the cliff.  I think each one of us expected the snow to rip us and our sketchy anchor off the mountain, but when the avalanche subsided Smitherman had miraculously side-stepped the onslaught of snow and we were all still in one piece, albeit stuck on this dreadful mountain.  Had we not rappelled the snowfield and this avalanche occurred while we were there it would have swept us to our death.  At least one good decision for the day.

Now we all wanted off this face and quick.  I can measure my anxiety level by looking back on the thoughts that were going through my head as I we continued to descend.  If I believed in God I would have prayed for him to deliver me anywhere but the side of this cliff - even to the confines of my cubicle or windowless lab.  No divine intervention took place, so we were forced to keep descending on our own.  Finally, we arrived what looked to be the last rappel.  To no one's surprise the anchors available were terrible.  As Smitherman and Darren rappelled before me I couldn't take my eyes off the anchor - a small rock that wiggled with each jug on the rope.  A great feeling of relief swept over us when our last guy, Alford touched down safely on the glacier.

Alford finishes the last rappel off the face and onto the glacier.

Like a bad horror movie the villain (Pyramid Peak) would not die.  Just because we had reached the glacier didn't mean we were home-free.  Snow conditions were highly unstable and loose slides highly likely.  While retracing our tracks back through the glacier we reached the steepest step.  As I stood above I gave the snow a couple of test kicks which set off a loose slide avalanche that rumbled into a crevasse waiting below.  We reversed our course and finally reached safety on the rock slab we had lounged  on the day before.

We quietly and slowly made the traverse back to camp where we sat in a tired daze.  All of us still had the events of the day in our mind and not surprisingly none of us went up to watch the sunset.  We just wanted to go to bed and get out of there the next day.  We slept in the next morning and then made the long trek out to the Nissan.  As we hiked out the weather moved in obscuring all the surrounding peaks and pelting us with raindrops.  It was an enjoyable first outing with Darren and Smitherman, and one in which the country's most rugged wilderness taught us a few key lessons. 

-written May 2002/January 2003

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