Spectre Peak. Photo © Mike Layton
  The Pickets Get a Southern Facelift  
  By Mike Layton  


Me should go climb in the Pickets.

This statement can cause many reactions from one’s climbing partner. The first is usually, “Heck yeah, let’s plan something this summer.” A pang of regret usually follows when your partner realizes what he or she has just agreed to. Most trips never get beyond the planning stage. Usually the sunny days of summer are spent climbing more pleasant routes, and the plan gets pushed further and further back until the inevitable rain returns and you say, “Good thing we didn’t waste our time with all that bushwacking. The rock sucks anyway. I’d still like to go sometime though. How about next summer?”

Most climbers assume that the Picket Range is a pain in the ass to get to, the rock quality is terrible, and all the routes are easy and climbed out. During the summer of 2006, Wayne Wallace and I ignored the conventional wisdom to climb three routes long considered too remote or chossy to bother with. Wayne and I climbed the first route together, then Erik Wolfe and I climbed the second route, while Wayne (unknown to us) tackled the third in an amazing solo effort. The approaches lived up to their reputation, but the rock and the climbing were spectacular. Here’s my part of the story.

Spectre Peak, SW Buttress, “The Haunted Wall”

When I first saw Spectre Peak from the top of Mount Triumph, my initial thought was, “What is that thing?” followed quickly by, “That’s gotta be the most remote peak in the Cascades. Climbing it would take over a week!” Located between Phantom and Swiss Peaks in the Northern Pickets, Spectre Peak isn’t described in the Beckey guide. The only mention of the peak is a single photo with the summit labeled. Viewed from the west, the peak’s south buttress begs to be climbed. But getting to it seems almost impossible. When I learned that Wayne Wallace wanted to climb it as well, we pieced together a plan to actually get back in there.

Wayne Wallace leading on Haunted Wall. © Mike Layton
Wayne Wallace leading on Haunted Wall. Enlarge. © Mike Layton

John Roper suggested that we approach from the Baker River, traverse Pioneer Ridge, and drop down to the base of the route. That seemed simple enough, so we set out on August 11. But after spending six hours to travel a mile and a half along the Baker River we bailed. Ahead were three more miles of rain, brush, and swift water followed by a 5000-ft climb to the ridge, then miles of travel along the steep cliffy divide, and finally an unknown adventure to descend to our climbing route. We began to think that Roper had thoroughly sandbagged us and was having a good chuckle to himself. John assured us that “it’s not so bad,” and in hindsight maybe it isn’t. But I don’t think I’ll ever find out. Anyway, after our eight-hour false start, we dragged our soggy asses and 25-lb packs to the Hannegan Pass parking lot to restart the trip. Spending an entire day approaching, bailing, and starting all over again took our enthusiasm for the approach down yet another notch.

Compared to the previous day’s rain-soaked river thrash, the trail over Hannegan Pass to Easy Ridge was a breeze. We camped on Easy Ridge, one of the most gorgeous camp spots anywhere, then descended below Whatcom Peak to Perfect Impass, the “filter” for parties approaching the Northern Pickets. We climbed to Perfect Pass and ascended the Challenger Glacier to the pass between the Middle and West Peaks of Mount Challenger. We descended to the south and crossed the Picket Creek cirque to a camp below the west face of Phantom Peak. Spectre Peak was still nowhere to be seen. The approach had taken us into the heart of the North Cascades, so each weary step seemed worth the effort. We lost count of the passes we climbed, glaciers we crossed, miles we hiked, and mountains we saw. Camping under Phantom Peak was eerie, knowing that only a few people, living or dead, had ever been there before.

At first light on August 14 we traversed under Phantom and climbed to a col for our first look at Spectre. Immediately we noticed two things: first, the route was bigger than we expected, and second, the tower that it ascended was separated from the summit by a huge gap. Our stomachs knotted as we considered the obstacle this might present once we were committed to the route.

We climbed a snowfield to the base of the rock and began simul-climbing up a long dike. After about 500ft of climbing with no more than three pieces of protection, we realized that retreat off this route would be a nightmare. We kept our thoughts to ourselves as we continued upward. The rock on the buttress crest was solid, steep, and completely unprotectable, so we headed up a steep chimney system. The chimney was extremely deep—as I passed behind a chockstone I felt as though I was tunneling inside the bowels of the mountain. At times we were boxed in on all four sides. It was spooky but fun!

View of Southern Pickets. © Mike Layton
View of Southern Pickets. Enlarge. © Mike Layton

The chimney petered out part-way up the detached tower, and the route was blank above. There was only one option, but it would make retreat almost impossible due to our minimal gear and the scarcity of cracks. From our cul-de-sac, we rappelled into the deep vertical notch that separated the tower from the main peak. From the notch we pulled down the rappel ropes, eliminating any possibility of retreat. We kept our thoughts to ourselves, but we both realized we had no choice now but to find a way up the final headwall behind the tower.

We saw two options: an impossible looking 400-ft off-width with a chockstone sticking out of the crack or a dihedral somewhat hidden to the right. We dismissed the off-width, since our biggest protection was 3 inches. Wayne climbed the steep, blank looking rock to the right, pulled several exposed and scary moves, and reached the dihedral to save our asses. The view of the Southern Pickets was incredible from there, and the feeling of exposure against the backdrop of endless peaks was exhilarating. I led up to the ridge crest and we simul-climbed for several rope lengths to the true summit.

We were happy and relieved, but also anxious to get off the mountain, so we began down-climbing the SE side. We glissaded down the snow and followed a “thank god ledge” all the way around the peak and back down to our packs. It was during this descent that we got a good look at the SW Ridge of Mount Fury, the “Mongo Ridge.” It looked impossible and we both joked about never wanting to climb it. But after a few minutes of joking and gazing we both changed our minds and began making plans to return. A marmot’s lonely whistle accompanied us back to camp, where we collapsed after the long day.

The next day we hiked all the way back to the Chilliwack River. On the sixth and final day, we hiked tiredly over Hannegan Pass and down to our car. We both had a lot of fun on this trip, and Wayne was a great partner. This climb was my first with him.

The Blob, South Buttress, “Plan 9”

Mike Layton leading on The Blob. © Erik Wolfe
Mike Layton leading on The Blob. Enlarge. © Erik Wolfe

Only a week after climbing Spectre Peak, I headed back into the Pickets. Still recovering from the previous trip, I dragged my feet into the Marblemount Ranger Station to meet Erik Wolfe on the afternoon of August 23. We didn’t start hiking until 4 p.m. so darkness came as we tackled the steep forest slope heading toward Terror Basin.

Our plan was no plan. I had stared at the south faces of the Crescent Creek group many times in the Beckey guide wondering if there was anything good, clean, and steep to climb back there. Erik, up for anything, decided he was game for whatever we might find.

We camped around 4,100ft on the approach climb and awoke the next morning to fog and light rain. We climbed to Terror Basin and tried to find our way across the barren cirque toward The Barrier with only 200ft of visibility. After blindly groping around in the fog most of the day, we found ourselves at the col west of Azure Lake. I had been at this spot a couple years earlier and realized how far we were from where we wanted to be.

Tired and not thinking too clearly, we pitched our rain fly on a dirt patch in the lowest depression in the area. Shortly after dinner the fog lifted and coalesced into a thunderhead. As the cloud unleashed a downpour of rain, wind, and hail, we dove under our tarp. Within seconds water started flowing under the tarp, so we dug a hasty moat. We were secure for another few minutes until the levee broke and our campsite became a muddy lake. We shoved everything into our packs and sat on top of them until the storm abated enough to move our tarp to a better spot. Soaked and depressed by our lack of progress, we fell asleep wondering if the trip was already a failure.

The next morning was windy, but crystal clear. With good visibility, we finally made our way to The Barrier. Like Perfect Impass in the Northern Pickets, The Barrier adds an element of excitement and danger to approaching the Southern Pickets. Much later than expected, we reached the saddle above the Chopping Block. The Crescent Creek group seemed miles away! It would have been much quicker to ascend The Barrier directly from Goodell Creek, but in the rain and fog of our first day, I wasn’t confident I could find a sketchy trail I’d never been on before. We decided we’d definitely go out that way, though.

The traverse to the base of the Crescent Creek group wasn’t as bad as it looked, but we were exhausted by the time we set up camp. We still hadn’t decided what we were going to climb. Erik took a closer look at the south face of Mount Terror, while I hiked all the way over to the Himmelhorn and back. I didn’t have to go that far, because I soon saw what we were going to climb. A perfect buttress came off the south face of The Blob (a.k.a. The Rake) and it looked absolutely classic. I hiked an extra mile or two just to make sure there wasn’t something better, but quickly ran back to find Erik and tell him how sweet this route looked.

We awoke to blue skies the next morning and geared up for the unknown. After some screwing around to bypass a large moat with a single set of crampons, we gained the buttress and realized immediately that the route was going to be exceptional. The rock was a blend of gneiss and granite, making it solid, but also full of cracks and good holds. As the buttress got steeper, the climbing just kept getting better. Several stretches offered splitter face cracks, laybacks up dihedrals, and exciting overhangs with big holds and good gear. After seven pitches, with climbing up to 5.10, we gained the top of the headwall. But when we looked toward the summit, we thought we were screwed. Ahead were three massive pinnacles that separated our north-south ridge from the east-west summit ridge of The Blob itself. On each side of the knife edge was a 1500-ft drop straight down. The pinnacles were overhanging and crackless.

We found a breathtaking and incredibly exposed line by traversing along each separate pinnacle and feeling the tug of gravity below us. We felt we were really committing ourselves because not only would reversing the traverse be difficult, but we weren’t sure how to get off the mountain once we reached the summit. Any way down looked steep, long, and involved. Our anxiety remained high when we topped out on the spectacular summit. We knew that Wayne Wallace and friends had traversed from Terror-Rake Col to the summit during their Southern Picket traverse in 2003. We decided to reverse their route because the climbing looked interesting and once at the col we would be only minutes from our camp.

Traversing spires after completing The Blob. © Mike Layton
Traversing spires after completing The Blob . Enlarge. © Mike Layton

The knife-edge ridge traverse turned out to be a lot of fun, although the route finding was tricky around the half-dozen gendarmes we passed along the way. After three hours of simul-climbing, two 150-ft rappels from horns landed us at Terror-Rake Col. Twenty-five minutes later we were swimming in a pond above our camp.

In keeping with the B-Movie theme of "The Blob", we named our route “Plan 9” after the movie “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The name also reflects how unsure we were throughout the trip of what we were going to do.

Unknown to us, while Erik and I were climbing “Plan 9” and descending to Goodell Creek the following day, Wayne Wallace was having the adventure of his life on the South Ridge of Mount Fury. Wayne and I had talked about trying that climb next summer, but Wayne decided he couldn’t wait. I’ll leave the telling of that story to Wayne.

Spectre Peak, “The Haunted Wall”
August 14, 2006
• Mike Layton
• Wayne Wallace
IV, 5.9+, 2,100ft
Spectre Itinerary

• August 11
Baker River false start and retreat. Drive to Hannegan Pass Trailhead.
• August 12
Hike over Hannegan Pass to Chilliwack River to Easy Ridge
• August 13
Hike to Perfect Pass, climb Challenger Glacier to notch between Middle and West Challenger. Descend to below Phantom Peak.
• August 14
Traverse around Phantom to Spectre, climb route, return to camp.
• August 15
Retrace approach to Chilliwack River.
• August 16
Return to the trailhead.

Spectre Previous Ascents
• July 29, 1980
Peter Jewett
Stuart Ferguson
Reed Tindall
John Roper

• August 11, 2004
Roger Jung (solo)
The Blob, “Plan 9”
• August 26, 2006
Erik Wolfe
Mike Layton
IV, 5.10, 1,500ft
The Blob Itinerary
• August 23
Late start with hike to 4,100ft east of Terror Creek.
• August 24
Gain Terror Basin, wander to col above Azure Lake.
• August 25
Cross The Barrier and hike to Crescent Creek Group.
• August 26
Climb The Blob SW Buttress, traverse ridge to Terror-Rake Col, return to camp.
• August 27
Exit by walking down the length of The Barrier and descending to Terror Creek.
Blob Previous Ascents

• South Face and East Ridge
Labor Day 1951
Pete Schoening
Phil Sharpe

• North Buttress
July 1974
Carla, Joan and Joe Firey
David Knudson
Frank de Saussure
George Wallerstein

• West Ridge
September 7, 1981
Russ Kroeker
John Roper
Silas Wild

• East Ridge (traverse of peak)
July 26, 2003
Mark Bunker
Colin Haley
Wayne Wallace