DAY TWO WEST MCMILLAN SPIRE, Southern Pickets


DAY ONE - DAY TWO

Photos and story by Jason Hummel

I was chased out of our shelter with the prospect of morning alpenglow sweeping the slopes of Degenhardt over to McMillan Spires. Snow slopes appeared more alien than terrestrial with dark shadows starkly contrasting the pinkish glow of glacier and rock. While the day came alive, we ate breakfast and melted more water. By then that night’s smile had morphed into a full on grin.

The route to the base of the climb was still a long traverse around a lake; the remnant of a retreating glacier. Surrounded by steep walls at the outlet, cliffs act like a gateway. I skied up to this on my descent and felt privileged to see a lake newly formed in my lifetime. It truly looked wild and surreal with the snow sluffs leading to the perfectly leveled bottom.

Climbing up the snowfields went very quickly. There was just enough give in the crust to offer purchase for the climb. This softened as we climbed into the light, and by then tee shirt and no gloves were par for the course. It was hot!!! We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Obscenities would just randomly be shouted at the top of our lungs or under our breath. It was incredible; the Pickets have treated me well in nearly every journey. I was getting spoiled, and I liked it.

We were forced to boot when the slope steepened. I led the way to the col. I couldn’t wait to see the other side of the Picket Range, and whatever energy I had left carried me upward until, nearly there, I slowed to catch my breath before Fury, Luna, and the North Faces of Terror, Degenhardt, Pyramid, Inspiration and everything between were brought into focus. It took my breath away again. I’ve dreamed of climbing in the Pickets in winter for a long time. This was it; my payoff. Maybe it’s what climbing is all about: to come and see the true beauty of nature; the destructive forces and calm serenity of wind, rain and snow. They carve these statues and we idolize them.

Above us was a narrow shoulder leading to a knife ridge. To either side was a lot of exposure, but the climb was reasonable. With my whippets and crampons, I took charge before the others were ready and led the way to the summit. There were icy nubbins with soft snow underneath. Not the best for skiing. I kept looking back, wanting to take out my camera. Near the top I let the others pass and they didn’t dally. By the time I climbed across the final ridge, they were retreating and preparing for the descent.

The skiing did have a few obstacles, the main one of which was a rock step toward the top. When I climbed by it I didn’t think that it would be very wise, but impressions while climbing are never good, it is best to decide once the skis are on your feet. No matter the butterflies and the narrow ridge, I focused on getting my newly waxed skis on. I swore that I would not be waxing anytime soon, especially any pair I had just purchased. I like them scratched, and when I came to the crux, I scratched them on the rocks. Sky had caught up with me by then. He had climbed down to find an alternate route, but decided that it was no good. Just as I was skiing down he had returned to the top. We both had no issues with the original route, although sky used his axe while I employed my 168cm skis. When I reached Phil just below the crux, my mouth wasn’t dry anymore. When kayaking we use what is called the ‘spit test’. If you can’t spit, you should portage.

At the top, I managed to spit, so I skied.

Getting back to the col felt great, and the snow was nice in places where it wasn’t icy (smile). That wasn’t the case below the notch; it was absolutely primed for three dogs to mark their territory. The snow was amazing.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story, at least the skiing part.

The return journey home was stalled by multiple looks backward. At camp, we ate the remainder of our food before packing up, Sky with his unbelievably small pack. The pace was pushed to get as far out before darkness came. Our best case scenario was to be at the road grade before dark (this road is not exactly a road anymore). Slush snow met us by the time the traverse back to the ridge was completed. It was a real energy waster, and turning was next to impossible. Sky and Phil gave up skiing at some point, while I continued to ‘cure’ my skis on multiple rocks and logs. Sky caught up with me when I changed to boots for a short walk to the road. Here we put skis back on. For the next several miles there were short carries, and wild skiing down around trees, stumps, fallen logs, and creek beds. The snow was very icy, making for quick travel. We arrived at the car after gliding along a few roads five and a half hours after leaving camp. You can’t beat that de-proach in the Pickets!!!

So, there you go, my thrill is here for all of you to enjoy, and for me to come back to years from now, after other trips to the Pickets remind me that I was very lucky to have such beautiful weather, perfect snow, and good friends. As for these mountains reputation of being big, burly and mean, I seem to think that they are not always so masculine; they have more feminine characteristics too. Maybe instead of the most beautiful mountains in the Washington Cascades, maybe they are the most beautiful mountains anywhere. And if you don't agree, I don't mind. Big, burly and mean keep out the riffraff, even us when we become to sure of ourselves.

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