Dan Aylward on lead on Poltergeist
  A Poltergeist in the Pickets  
  by Dan Aylward  

Oome describe emotion as the realm where thought and physiology are inextricably entwined, and at that moment I could feel the truth in that statement — I was shaking. I hoped I’d find a crack somewhere for salvation, a guard against what was now the very serious prospect for a highly injurious groundfall, but my heart sank when I found nothing. What I could see of the terrain beyond the small roof above me looked lower angle and more featured, so I felt if I could get there I would be fine, but the move ahead looked very difficult. I looked down at my partner Forrest. He was snapping a picture of me as he stood, hardly bothering with the ineffectual belay, on a narrow lip of snow — the event horizon of a monstrous gaping moat some 60 feet below.


Wolf Forrest Murphy on the 2nd lead.  Dan Aylward
Forrest Murphy on the 2nd lead. Enlarge © Dan Aylward.
I was there for 45 minutes. I stood on my toes, smearing in a shallow dish, leaning my body against the 80-degree smooth dark granite. I started to try the move several times in several ways, but couldn’t commit. In the best sequence, I had to high step with my right foot into a small sloping dish, grab a shallow sidepull with my left hand, and mantle into another dish with my right hand until I could get my weight over my right foot. If I got to that point, I would be able to stand up and reach some large protruding dikes above the roof. But I just couldn’t commit. I considered a retreat, but I was equally frightened by the thought of reversing the moves I had already done to where my single cam, 20 feet off the deck, would be of any use in a fall.

In an attempt to free my mind from the grip of fear, I looked over my shoulder at the broken clouds that were flowing through the sky and the expanse of Luna Cirque below Mt. Challenger and Ghost Peak, the impressive North Buttress of Mt. Fury (I need to climb that someday!), the cleaved-off shape of Luna Peak, and Lousy Lake nestled in the moraines below. I remembered the hump down to the cirque bottom and back up to Luna Col in 1999 during a weeklong traverse through the Pickets. Oh, that sunset! As we kicked steps up toward Luna the sun was a fantastically incandescent orange, boiling the undersides of the dark clouds with its brilliance, bouncing off the facets of countless peaks before illuminating us in its glory through the gap between Challenger and Ghost. Then I experienced emotion in freedom; now I was experiencing emotion in a self-imposed entrapment.


I turned around and reassessed my situation, then rested my forehead against the cold, crystalline rock, trying to convince myself that it was my friend. No human had ever touched this rock before, and how I expected it might warm to friendship is beyond me now, but at the time I felt I should seduce it. How had I gotten myself into this predicament?


After our 1999 trip, which was plagued by bad weather, I toyed with the idea of doing a route in the Pickets in a mere 3 days. Doing it that way would avoid a lot of problems — the need to carry heavy packs, the unpredictability of the weather, and the need to use valuable vacation days. In addition, I was attracted to the challenge of covering so much ground so quickly. I discussed the idea with Forrest, and we hatched a pretty simple plan: hike in to Perfect Pass on July 3rd, do the climb on the 4th, and hike out on the 5th. We knew the difficulties of the approach well: 16 miles and roughly 7000 vertical feet of gross elevation gain just to get to our campsite, much of it through quite rough or overgrown terrain.


Traversing the crest to the summit of Challenger. Photo  Dan Aylward
Traversing the crest to the summit of Challenger. Enlarge Photo © Dan Aylward
As the weekend approached the forecast remained pleasingly optimistic. We knew getting there would take a full day, which made our permit situation rather infuriating. I had called the Glacier ranger station the day before for permitting that allowed us an alpine start. No chance: an 8:00 a.m. pick-up in person was the earliest possible. By the time we drove to the trailhead, organized our gear, and started hiking up the recently weed-whacked trail, it was already 10:00 a.m.

We made good time, studiously checked at each landmark — Hannegan Pass, the Chilliwack River and the blueberry bushes of lower Easy Ridge, the remains of the antenna on Easy Peak, and the descent to the infamous Imperfect Impasse below Whatcom Peak. We found that the Impasse still contained some snow, so we scrambled down the side on low class 5 rock to a perfect tunnel under the snow, then more scrambling up the other side. Our packs were light enough that we didn’t rope up, but we did find it rather thought-provoking.

Fog became a bit of an issue for us after we gained the snowfield beyond the Impasse. Going “up” through the oppressive translucent gray to Perfect Pass, we instead arrived at a blank wall of rock — Whatcom Peak! We sheepishly retreated and traversed before trying the “up” plan again. The second time worked; we arrived at our campsite in a faint sunset through the parting fog at 9:30 pm, dead tired.

Maybe we’re just getting old and soft, or maybe just lazy, but we needed sleep and didn’t wake up until 6:00 am the next morning. We rationalized that Luna Cirque wasn’t that far over the Challenger Glacier, we were fast, the route we wanted to do wasn’t really that long, and we had tons of daylight. So, like fools, we moseyed out of camp in the bright sunlight of 8:00 am.


We took longer than expected to drag our rope across the Challenger glacier, around Challenger Arm and into Luna Cirque. With much less snow than before in 1999, navigation to our route was not clear. We decided to take a high road, above the first set of crevasses. At first, the going was generally pretty easy, with only a few glacier-related obstacles. However, after traveling some distance below Mt. Challenger and its sub-peaks, a great icefall blocked our easy path, bounded by a rock ridge. Our choices were to rappel and downclimb technical ice without ice gear, downclimb a very time-consuming rock ridge, or backtrack to Challenger Arm and take the low road. Now 11:00 AM, we looked up to see a great apron of beautiful-looking granite only a few hundred feet above us. The wondrous conveniences of the Northern Pickets! Decision made: we abandoned our original objective for something immediately obtainable.


Traversing the crest to the summit of Challenger. Photo © Dan Aylward
Forrest near the summit of Challenger. Photo © Dan Aylward
Why had I been so eager to take the first lead? The climbing did look very aesthetic from below: dark granite with stunning white protruding dikes crisscrossing it like a pile of giant petrified pickup sticks. Its run-out appearance did not concern me much. The foreshortening had lessened the appearance of exposure and I optimistically thought that I would find more protection once I got up there. Now, what mattered most to me was my inner struggle, and the dimples in the rock to which I was clinging.

Fear is an emotion every climber has to deal with in some way or another. Some let it consume them, others push it into a dark corner of their mind, and still others claim to have purged it from their souls altogether (I’m always skeptical of those people). The way fear is dealt with can directly affect what becomes of a given situation, and I intensely wanted this situation to resolve in my favor. My eyes closed, I felt around in my mind and gathered up the pieces and squeezed them into a lump. I held out the lump and looked at it from various angles. I opened my eyes and felt the gravity of the situation, the feeling of epinephrine, the incremental passage of time, each trembling breath of air, the thoughts about what might happen if I failed — all of it was funneling into that lump. I thought, “This is fear. It’s only a lump. I’m holding it in front of me. I can do what I want with it”. It freed me from my confinement, allowing my mind and body to solve the puzzle. I found the missing piece of the sequence. I had to stem my foot way left out onto a small protrusion on the overhanging formation on my left, which gave me the stability I needed to get my weight onto my right foot. I reached up and grabbed the dike above the roof, which was thankfully positive, and kept moving another 20 feet through slightly easier terrain before I finally got to a crack that would accept gear.

After getting a good cam in, I paused to reflect on having climbed nearly half the pitch effectively solo. I don’t intentionally free-solo 5.9+. If I’d known beforehand, I wouldn’t have started. I said out loud: “Well, this has been one of the more memorable leads of my life!”

Still holding the lump, I wanted to keep it and bring it with me so I would not lose what I had just gone through. But it was dissolving in my very grasp, like a sugar cube in hot coffee, until just the memory remained, like a ghost. I let out a sigh of relief.

Emotions are transient and malleable, like the events that inspire and result from them.

• Dan Aylward
• Forrest Murphy
• July 3 to 5, 2004
Objective Climbed
• Poltergeist Pinnacle
(a satellite formation to Mt. Challenger)
undetermined grade, 5.9+
Route Photo
Poltergeist Pinnacle (the name Forrest coined for the feature, a prominent sub-summit of Challenger) was, in hindsight, a phenomenally enjoyable climb.

Three pitches of good clean 5.8 to 5.9+ climbing at the bottom, followed by two long simulclimbing pitches to the ridgeline. The descent was accomplished by traversing the ridge to the true summit of Challenger, and then following the standard Challenger Glacier descent.

While the aesthetics of the climb were amazing and the difficulty technically moderate, the lack of protection on the first pitch should be carefully considered by any party intending to repeat the route.