Paul Pottinger’s Adventures from the Top of the World

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Challenger 2020: Day 3

Cascades  •  August 5

I slept fine… Not well,  but fine. Creepy nightmares stalked me, as often happens on summit morning, no doubt a sign of deep stress and anxiety working its way through my system. The upper mountain would go, but how much would it hurt getting there and back? Would I have the stamina to make it out and back in a reasonable time, or would we epic? These were the unanswerable questions I wrestled with. Time will tell. Indeed, I woke a few minutes before the alarm was set to trigger at 3:45 AM. Sleeping naked in the bag had been a luxury, and now I had to face the reality of wet, smelly clothes which were still damp from being soaked through with sweat the prior day. My sun shirt smelled unspeakably bad, like something from a dark realm of Dante’s inferno. Somehow, getting into that shirt was worse than putting on the moist socks and underwear. It will all dry with body heat. This is Challenger. It’s worth it. Do it.

Video of our summit approach:

Our camp, in the pre-dawn light. Thank you, iPhone auto exposure!
The moon calls to us, “Come and catch me, if you can.”

The lowest point of the trip happened when we got out of our tents: Teresa was out for the summit bid. She had suffered a serious injury recently, and even attempting this trip was probably madness. She is tough as hell… and also smart as hell, and knows when to listen to her body, which that 4 AM was telling her NO SUMMIT FOR YOU. Common sense and self-awareness are among her many fine qualities that I admire, and which I lack in great abundance. We were a tight team, we were in this together, and summiting without her felt wrong. But there was no convincing her. She was at peace with it. She would have the day to rest, recover, and enjoy the solitude of a spectacular campsite. I had the rest of the day to catch up with her decision, mentally and emotionally.

The usual pre-departure business proceeded without a hitch… until we realized that our water source had run dry, because the sun was no longer melting the snowpack above. We had enough for breakfast, and to get us to the next source that must be waiting for us above. Leaving camp for the summit with half a liter felt strange… I think Justin and Forrest had run totally dry, which must have felt very strange. It’s the Pickets. It’s worth it. Do it. And off we went. The target was to depart at 5 AM… we made it out at 5:15.

And, sure enough, we found water within an hour.

Dawn became day, revealing our route: The first section would be a long traverse, gradually climbing towards Wiley Lake. No path, no trail… just trudging across talus, bushwhacking through stands of spiky spruce, scrambling up slabs, tromping across snowfields. Our packs were light, and we made good progress, with Justin always choosing the best, most efficient line.

Although the bugs were vicious, we had to admire this location’s beauty. “Every place we cross is better than the last one,” said Forrest. The second big one, in particular, I dubbed Magic Camp, because it was completely perfect: Abundant flowing water, cushy flat spots for tents… even the bugs seemed to stay away out of respect for this sacred location.

Justin shoots a vector from the bottom of “Cathole Gully.”
Justin figures all we have to do is follow the moon to the summit! Indeed the summit sits directly below the moon in this view.
Forrest getting water at our first break.
Almost a full moon, racing away in the dawn.
Luna seen in the distance, reflected in the calm waters of Magic Camp.
Magic Camp, photographed by Justin.
Ah…. yes. The Sun. Thanks for keeping us alive, but… would it be too much to ask for just a few hours more shade?
Forrest takes in the scene. Everything’s bigger in the Pickets.

I started out feeling very strong. The summit pack felt so light! And yet… as we made it to Wiley, I began to feel tired. Maybe the prior two days’ effort was catching me, the lack of sleep, etc. Was I eating and drinking enough? Sure… the unavoidable truth became clear: this was my lack of training and declining fitness in the prior 6 months! Well, this was happening, and nothing would stop me now. Still, when we pulled in to Wiley at 7:27 AM, just over two hours since leaving camp, I really did feel pooped. The lake was frozen on the edges, with some beautiful blue liquid water in the center. Yesterday, we had considered coming here to camp, and it was clear now that we’d made the right call. Coming here with a full pack, exhausted after the bushwhack ascent would have been cray-cray.

Photo of me making my way up the slabs below Wiley Lake.
Forrest is looking strong!
Getting moving on the descent to Wiley Lake.
Panorama of Wiley Lake, seen from our water filling spot.
Wiley Lake: Clear… inviting… very very cold!

We filled our water bottles at the lake and took a proper break. And, we made the transition to the next segment of the climb: Snowfields and glaciers. Wiley sits in a bowl immediately East of a small mountain, which rises a few hundred feet above the water. Cresting it would be easy… but, what lay on the other side? Justin’s read of the topo suggested that the far side would be a chossy, exposed, steep drop. We all agreed on the alternative route: Skirting around the north side of this rise, which involved no substantial elevation change but required an additional mile (or so) traverse on snow and ice. It seemed the better approach to all of us. And, indeed, I think it is the better way to go.

The traverse mostly involved corn snow. The runout on our left was no big deal: A gradually-steepening drop towards Little Beaver Creek about 3,500 feet below. We were  very safe. Only one section of steep water ice slowed us down, necessitating a quick rope up, although it was perhaps 10 meters wide. Immediately beyond that, a transition again to rock scrambling… then more snow… then more rock.

By 9:20 AM, about an hour after we left the lake, we arrived at the rim of the summit basin, and our route to the top was revealed: A beautiful glacier climb that led straight to the summit block. Across the basin, my old nemesis: Perfect Pass. John, Tom, and I had been so close to it, within a mile the last time we tried from the other side, but had been flummoxed by dense fog. As if on queue, we watched a fog bank rise up and spill over the pass into the basin, like dry ice welling up from a witch’s cauldron decoration on Halloween. The other side is less painful than this approach, no question about it… but, at least we would not get trapped in that fog bowl again!

Justin susses out the summit massif. True summit is the tiny dark stone peak on the left.
Whatcom presides over Perfect Pass.
That damned Perfect Pass has dogged us for years when approached from the other side. It looks so benign from here… oops, yeah, here comes the fog now.
Crossing a talus band, Whatcom and the fog over Perfect Pass in the distance.
Forrest, meet your new Insta profile photo.
Forrest and Justin ponder our next moves.
Passing watermelon snow on our way towards the upper mountain.

One last break at a rock band at the base of the steep glacier slope. I stashed a pole and got ready for the final section. The sun was up now, and it got hot. No worries, all I have to do is hydrate, eat…. but, my stomach was not having it. Just, not having it. Most anything I put into my mouth triggered waves of sudden, legit nausea. This is very rare for me, and I have never had it this bad, not even close. This is not good. Was it… Food poisoning? Dehydration? Reflux? Stress? I could not suss it out. I managed to put some fluid in my belly, even some calories… but, not much. There was nothing to do but climb the mountain. And so, we did.

Selfie as we get ready for the final push to the summit block.
Summit… so… close……….
Justin finds the nicest lines.
Making progress on the upper mountain.
Justin’s view looking back on me and Forrest.

A spectacular section, with sweeping views all around. One foot, then the next. The snow was soft enough to take the axe spike, but firm enough to prevent us from sliding backwards. Essentially, perfect conditions.

In the distance, a totally unexpected site: Another party of three, heading for the summit from Perfect Pass. We had heard from the rangers of another party up here, who left a day before we had, and wondered if we would see them: Sure enough, here they come… headed for the top at the exact same moment as us! We would get there first, but not by long.

As we approached the final Summit Block, I said, “Wait, that’s it? The damn thing can’t be more than 30 feet tall!”

“That’s not the summit,” Justin said, “It’s farther ahead.” Indeed, what we could see from the glacier was in fact the little end of a larger ridge, extending away to the West… like the view an ant would have of a rooster’s comb when looking at it from the front while sitting on its beak.

A predictable problem came into focus: How would we transition from glacier to granite? The North Cascades are notorious for the “moats” that separate snow from stone. As the stone soaks up solar radiation during the day, it melts the snow, just a bit, day by day, until eventually a big gap opens up. Sometimes, the gap is truly big, man-eating size. Here, on Challenger, the moat was not bad at all, and a big step onto the jumbled debris of the Block would do it. The trick was to not fall on the way there, because a snow ridge about 10 meters long separated us from the moat… and it was very exposed to the right, where the glacier pitched steeply down hundreds of feet into a ravine, the bottom obscured from view by clouds. Justin reminded me what I already knew: If I fell, all I had to do was holler and he would dive into the moat, arresting my fall, a classic alpine maneuver for au-cheval ridges that everyone understands and no one wants to perform. But, no matter: We would not slip here. Justin kicked wide steps perpendicular to our direction of travel, right across the snow ridge, and they were easy to match with my own steps. Forrest of course had no issue at all in third position. Once Justin was across the moat he slung a horn and provided a quick belay for me as I matched his moves: Clatter, scrabble, and scrape went my crampons and ice axe as they touched stone.

A quick transition to get the spikes off and leave them and our poles and axes behind, and we began a scenic traverse in the shadow of the final block. The route was a bit slidey and scree-ish, but there were beautiful hands on our left. Eventually, this pathway petered out, and there was nowhere to go but up. Justin looked up to his left and spied a nice ledge about at eye-level. Quick scramble up and he was able to establish a horn-anchor and belay us up from above.

Video of the summit section:

Justin spies a good spot to dump our packs, a small ledge just above his head on the left.
Forrest mantles up to join us on the pack ledge.
Justin at the pack ledge.
Justin ponders this mountain’s single pitch from the Pack Ledge.

Tight quarters on the ledge, and all the awkwardness of having three dudes with backpacks on a space smaller than a kitchen counter, but very safe and it worked fine as a  spot for a quick break while we prepared for the last push. Above, a beautiful dihedral rose steeply up towards the sky (which was intermittently bright blue and filled with wispy clouds scooting past silently at an alarming speed). For the first time I wondered how much room would be on the summit, which was still obscured from here. Justin reassured me that there’d be room for all three of us.

A thin crack separated the left from the right dihedral faces, like the deep cleft in the pages of a book stood up on edge, and it made for a happy home for a series of ancient pitons that Justin was able to clip for protection. There was one obvious problem about 20 feet above the ledge, a relatively blank section of granite that would require some “finesse,” which Justin climbed with ease, thanks in part to his supernaturally long legs. Forrest shook his head while belaying, “How in the hell are we gonna do that?”

Justin maneuvers his way around the cruxy bit.

It was actually no worries, even for those of us with “normal” strides, just a bit of a mantle move and nothing more required. I reached the belay station and Justin welcomed me to the final ridge. I got settled while he prepared to belay Forrest up, and I took in the scene: A world out of the shadows, dazzling blue sky, clouds scudding quickly past, and the Northern Pickets Ridge finally revealed up close: Severe, razor-sharp, oh-so-very-spectacular. We presided over the deep basin of glaciers, talus, scree, and tarns hundreds upon hundreds of feet below. “I have been in that little office for all these months, that little 7′ x 7′ x 7′ cubicle… I wasn’t sure I’d ever get outside again, really outside like this….” The contrast with my fluorescent-lit hospital office was so stark. I had been in there for so months, focused on COVID-19… the relief at being up high again was almost more than I could bear, and I took deep breaths, literally breathing in the freedom, the joy of the high mountain air. So many lives lost, so many protocols built, so many colleagues to be reassured and comforted… so much sadness, rage, fear, and inspiration, day after day, week after week, month after month… all the death threats and hate mail from the cowardly legions of scrotus, the deep and unrelenting embarrassment for what we had become as a nation of weak, whiny morons… I was totally, completely spent, in every way. And now, Challenger would start filling me up again.

Forrest at our Pack Ledge, seen from the “crux.”
Looking back at Forrest at the rap station, seen from the summit.

There was little time to reflect at the belay station, because Forrest made quick work of the climb. Next, Justin needed to traverse a short ridge, about 3 feet wide, to the final true summit, which looked like an old sedan lying on its side. A rap station consisting of a cord and some rings flapped in the breeze. He built a new anchor (using some insanely light BD cams, these things are cray-zee light) and I belayed him out to the summit. He slung a horn and then belayed me out. This was so very reminiscent of Forbidden’s North Ridge (although that climb has more exposure). I laughed as it felt like I had stepped 2 years back in time to that expedition.

The catwalk between the rap station and the summit, just a few feet above.
I took this photo on Forbidden’s North Ridge in 2018. So very, very similar, no?

I topped out at 12:48 PM. From the summit, it seemed we could see forever. I had envisioned this view for years now… I really wished that Teresa had been able to make this last section, but knew she had decided wisely. We looked back at the traverse, and imagined where camp would be… could she see us here, miles away? We sent her a message via InReach. I wished John and Tom were here, too. We had always planned to do it together… breaking that plan was painful, but the right call. It was worth it. I thanked Justin and Forrest for their guiding and friendship. It was a great moment.

Justin belays Forrest up to the summit.
Summit selfie.
Peering over the summit towards the glacier far below, in Luna Basin.
Forrest and me on the summit.
Fists of glory on the summit.
3 Amigos on top.
Looking towards Crooked Thumb and the rest of the Northern Pickets.
Wide angle of the Northern Pickets, I think the largest dark peak at center is Fury.
Looking towards Whatcom in the distance.
Looking back along the summit ridge. In the distance, miles away on that green slope, camp awaits us. But, long to go before we can rest.

I looked back at the green ridge to the East: High Camp. Teresa was there, probably basking in the sun and snoozing. Well, we were halfway home, and eager for the comforts of camp. Just… one foot in front of the other, and we would get there.

Video of our descent:

Walking from the summit back to the rap station.
Looking back at the summit, occupied by Merlicious.

Our prediction came true: As soon as we reached the summit, the first member of that other party gained the belay station. By the time we climbed down to it, we had a veritable traffic jam, with five people on a small piece of rock. We all marveled and laughed about going days without seeing another soul, then getting into a jam up here at the top. Nice people, and easy to negotiate around them as we set up for our rappel.

Forrest raps down towards our pack ledge.
Justin raps.

After we regained our packs, we traversed back along the base of the shattered summit block, crossed the moat, and plopped down in the snow for a break. It was really hot here, and again I felt dehydrated and under-fed. I tried to remedy both issues, while taking in the really incredible views on all sides. We saddled up and descended easily, no trouble identifying a handful of snow bridges. The conditions remained essentially perfect.

Looking back at the summit block from our break spot.
Forrest leads us down from the upper mountain.
Justin looks happy to be headed downhill.
In my left hand I hold our fourth team member, the amazing T$, taken the previous day during our bushwhack!
Me holding a picture of me on the summit of Vinson holding a picture of Ann Sparks, kissing her ice axe. This is meta. This is how we roll.
For scale: The three other dudes can be seen at center, approaching the lip of the glacier, which they plan to downclimb on their way to Luna Lake.
Closer view of the threesome making their way towards the cirque.
Starting our circumnavigation of this sub-peak
OK I need to get a closeup of this for John and Tom….
There it is, finally seen clearly: Perfect Pass, and beyond Shuksan and Koma Kulshan hiding in the clouds past that.
Luna seen across the valley from Magic Camp.

The return trip felt long. We had all the daylight in creation, with perfect conditions, and a clear path home. All that was required was stamina. And yet, I admit that I was genuinely exhausted. Oh Pickets, you are a harsh taskmistress! I just could not put enough water or food in my stomach without triggering waves of nausea… so very unpleasant. Was there ever a time on the way back to camp when I thought I would just sit down and collapse, when I would just “give up” and crump? No. I’m not very strong, and I’m certainly not fast, but I never stop. My buddy John said that once, that this was my “super power,” the dogged determination to just put one foot in front of the next, until the objective appears. Sensible breaks periodically? Hell, yes. Water, calories, sunscreen, foot care… the basics… then, saddle up and go. But no unplanned stops or misery sessions. How could one be miserable here? The valley is so, so spectacular, truly an alpine wonderland. And, no matter how rotten my stomach felt, and no matter how stiff my legs became, no matter how clinging the branches we ‘schwacked through, no matter how cloying the biting flies and insects, no matter how merciless the sun, the truth could not be denied: We had just climbed Challenger, and the comforts of camp drew closer with every step.

At 7:20 PM, 14 hours after departing, we arrived back in camp. Teresa was doing great. The water source was flowing again. All was in order. The boots came off (what Justin calls “bootgasm”). A fresh top layer. Evening light. And, a decision: Would we move camp now, and avoid the rain that was forecast for tomorrow morning? Or, would we stay here and risk a wet traverse and downschwhack the next day? I was cooked… We chose to risk it, and get an early start. This turned out to be the right call. For tonight: Dinner. And sweet, blissful rest.

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