Degenhardt Glacier: Skiing The Fence

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Southern Picket Range Skiing:
Degenhardt Glacier and Terror-Rake Col

27-29 June 2004

Southern Picket Range The Southern Pickets from the approach to Luna Peak. Red is the ski descent from Terror-Rake Col, blue is the ski descent of the Degenhardt Glacier, and purple is where we rappelled the icefall then stuck with crampons for expediency.

The Degenhardt Glacier is a wild-looking icefall glacier remnant. It becomes disjoint and turns into several precariously-perched hunks of glacial ice toward the end of a dry year. It is bounded by the precipitous wall that joins Mt Terror and Mt Degenhardt on the west and a lofty perch above the Barricade on the east. It takes a steep, choppy ride into McMillan Creek Cirque, which is one of the more isolated spots in the North Cascades. When Ben Manfredi and I gazed at it, while waiting for Jason Hummel above Access Creek Cirque on the approach to the Northern Pickets, he said in jest, "How about let's run across McMillan Creek and ski the Degenhardt?" The Austin Post photo of the glacier in Beckey's CAG Volume III had left quite an impression on me, but that impression was mild compared to the awe I felt after seeing it with my own eyes. I held it in high esteem and it quickly became a top priority for a ski descent.

I doubt I would have ventured to the Southern Pickets without Ben Manfredi as things were. He would have planned the whole thing. My only concern would have been that he would go without me. Sadly,things have changed, and we continue writing the story that Ben so fervently helped to start. Jason and I were left to formulate a plan and make it happen. I had a mind to pursue the trip several times when the Fat Boy was chained to a desk, but I was nice enough to wait. We finally mustered an attempt; we hit the Goodell Creek Trail on June 20th. I thought we were a strong group with Ben Kaufman, Jason Hummel, Ross Peritore and me. The approach is quite severe when one can't follow the faint hints of trail. Ross and I found our route rather disagreeable and it took twelve hours to reach camp, but in the end it was definitely worth it to hear timeless quotes from the Hummel like, "I'm f#@king dead, man!" and "Can you fire up the stove and make me some soup?"

The next morning, our group's disarray dissolved in the darkness, we trekked to the crossing between the Barrier and the Chopping Block in high spirits. We took a non-standard route up Mt Degenhardt, hoping abundant snowpack would allow us to skirt whatever obstacles we found between us and the saddle between Mt Degenhardt and the Pyramid. I scrambled to the summit ridge from the southwest, to see the summit less than fifty vertical feet above me but far away. When we tried to traverse around the peak toward the Degenhardt Glacier, we found suicidal snow conditions. Ross walked to a lip and tapped the snow with his pole. Whoosh, the snow gathered and fell in a huge wet slide over the large cliffs below us. I tried to skirt the snow next to some rocks, but found no path. I made a small snow ball, threw it, and whoosh, another massive wet slide. We slowly came to the painful realization that the Degenhardt was not our destiny for the day.

Skin Ben skins toward Crescent Creek Basin.

Degenhardt boot track Ross, Ben, and Jason on a snowy ridge high on Mt Degenhardt

As if to reinforce that notion, a thunderstorm pelted us with rain and hail during our departing descent, in which we saw some of the most dismal snow conditions imaginable. The westerly aspects were not as lethal as the southern slopes, but nevertheless the surface was a pain-inflicting trap crust over a lower layer of fresh snow that sluffed with every turn. Ouch. We did find a diamond in the rough on the way out Terror Creek, however. Our descent route not only gave us the good fortune of a tenable path through the cliffy terrain below the ridge, it also led us to what was indubitably a climber's trail. We were able to follow it to Terror Creek without any trouble; it even put us right next to a large log perfectly suited as a bridge for walking across the creek.

McMillan Spires McMillan Spires from the optimal place to cross Terror Creek

Somehow we even followed the climber's trail all the way from our creek crossing to the old logging road. It required plenty of bloodhound work. Here's a dead reckoning of sorts: if you must choose between moving fast and losing the fleeting foot path, or moving slowly and methodically along said foot path, the correct choice is clearly the latter in the Terror Creek matter. We found the vehicles shortly before dark, both relieved and disappointed. Ben had lost his jacket, which was loaded with a hat, gloves, and his cell phone. Ben without a cell phone, fancy that! Ross and I had bulletproof plans to get drunk the next day.

Passing the Entrance Exam

The next day I met Ross, Jessica, Jason and company at the Solstice Festival in Fremont. I spent way too much money and drank way too much alcohol. But we couldn't rave too much about the Pickets. There was an abundance of ideas. I made an inebriated oath that I would go back with a daypack, but carry neither sleeping bag nor stove. I appoached some rock climbers, thinking they were hard core, about a trip to the Pickets. They weren't interested.

One week later, the time had come. Ross was insistent about returning to the Southern Pickets. We knew the way, and we knew just what to do. I gathered all the bare essentials: bivy sack, sleeping pad, shirt, warm jacket, super light shell jacket, two water bottles, one pair of really thin thermal leggings, two pairs of socks, three pairs of gloves (one windstopper, one fleece, and one rubber grip gardening variety), skis, boots, one whippet, one pole, one straight-shafted technical tool with adze, crampons, and a 30m by 8mm rope. I brought a miniscule rack in case we decided to hit some summits: one tiny brass nut, one nut, one mid size cam, one piton, and one ice screw. I had the gear gathered, but I wasn't brave enough to see if it would fit in the daypack until the morning. Miracles never cease: It all fit snugly into the pack with room for my extravagant ten pounds of food. Even if I couldn't sleep, I'd be able to eat the night away.

Ross arrived shortly after 7am with coffee in hand. We took my dog Panama for a leisurely stroll around the block before departure. We had a pleasurable experience at the Marblemount ranger station. Not only did we miss the guys with guns, but we were also helped by very friendly ranger ladies. We had consumed copious coffee and we both made use of the ranger station facilities. They beat a blue bag, big time! We hit the end of the road at half-past ten. I ingested more bushwhacking aids and stashed two Rainier tall boys in Goodell Creek. My pack felt feather-light. We were elated to be a two-man Terror Squad. (Terror Creek squad, that is.)

The hike went well. We took turns expounding on the brilliance of the "one week later" technique, whereby one revisits unsuccessful exploits immediately while the keys to success are still fresh in one's mind. I've employed this technique again and again, on Price Glacier, Mt Buckner's North Couloir, the NE Chute above the Price Glacier; disregard the times I've unsuccessfully implemented it, although they may be just as numerous (or more). This time, the "one week later" technique was treating us very well. We reached Terror Creek before we could sneeze. There is a gorgeous view of the McMillan Spires at the optimal place to cross Terror Creek.

There is a gully just upstream of the crossing. There is a climber's trail to the left of the gully. After five-hundred vertical feet or so, the climber's trail crosses the gully through some nasty Devil's Club. There are logs that facilitate this gully crossing; they even gave us commodious head room for our ski tips. It was no great feat to follow the gully a few more hundred vertical feet, then exit on its left and climb through some cliff bands to the ridge. Ross and I were incomparably exuberant. We had debunked the infamy of the Terror Creek approach, what with reaching the ridge in five hours from the car with skis on our backs.

We finished the approach after a lengthy break, reaching camp in a total of seven hours from the car. We were at 5400', next to the Chopping Block. I decided to stash some of my smorgasbord for the return. We wondered when it would get dark. I made myself delicious croissant sandwiches with Bavarian sausage and Tillamook cheddar for the next day. We crawled into our bivy sacks for the long vigil until morning. It wasn't too bad, but my feet got chilly a few times in the early morning after a thick dew settled.

The morning dawned without a single cloud. Ciel pur, vent nul.We took our time getting ready. We truly had all day, since we were content to camp anywhere with a reasonably flat spot. We booted to the saddle between the Barrier and the Chopping Block before eight. I removed my long-legged underwear; I didn't want them to absorb any sweat. They were for the night. Things looked wonderful from the saddle. The couloir we were going to climb to Terror-Rake Col, on the west side of Terror, was a beautiful thin finger of snow. It looked like there was a bit of rock near the top, but hopefully that wouldn't be a problem. I climbed up a small slope to the knob toward the Chopping Block for a few quick turns.

Crescent Creek Crescent creek Basin, Mt Degenhardt appears highest; Mt Terror is the second tallest in appearance. The thin finger of snow in the couloir from the col to the left of Terror was a really fun ski descent on the exit.

Stump Chopping Block Ross takes a break before we enter Crescent Creek Basin. I skied from the knob.

Cooley Ross climbs the narrow section of the couloir to Terror-Rake Col.

After a short initial drop into Crescent Creek Basin, we made a rising traverse all the way around the basin to our couloir. We reached its base by ten. We took a long break, because the snow was just starting to soften and we wanted good conditions on the ski descent from the col. It was only a six-hundred-vertical-foot climb to the col. We had been advised that the ski from the col would be "pretty sick" by Colin Haley, who had looked down it while traversing the Southern Picket Range the previous summer. It had looked good to go when I saw it from the top of Mt Fury.

Caught between the conflicting interests of wanting to ski from the col in good conditions and wanting to reach the top of the Degenhardt Glacier at a reasonable hour, we began climbing the couloir shortly after eleven. It featured easy steep snow. There was a narrow section that was just wide enough to make turns the whole way, which got me really excited for the exit descent. This would be a bonus ski. It was a simple, short dirt ramp to the col from the top of the snow. Peeking over the edge, it was really steep. But we could definitely ski it. The steepest bit was clearly the top; from there the slope was concave. It would be interesting.

Ski Descent from Terror-Rake Col

Welcome to the Terror Dome!

We prepared to ski. I decided to go first. Then I would take pictures of Ross throughout the upper section. The first few turns were especially interesting for me. I was on my Dynafits for the first time in awhile, since one of my Dynafit-compatible boots broke on a May trip to the Price Glacier. I had neglected to lock the toe pieces before descending the slope into Crescent Creek Basin a couple hours before, and the icy suncups had caused a painful double ejection for me. Luckily my skis and I had stopped without any trouble. I'd never had such trouble with the toe pieces locked, and I was careful to lock them before venturing onto serious steeps, but just the thought of losing a ski on a slope as serious as this one made for a real gut check. Once the bindings held through the first few icy, sun-cupped turns on a slope pushing sixty degrees, I knew that everything was fine. I stomped my skis into the slope for a makeshift platform and prepared to take pictures of Ross.

Terror Dome Ross cranks the Terror Dome.

steep skiing In the words of Ross, "That's a whole lot of ski base showing."

more steep skiing Ross finds the groove.

creamy steep skiing Ross turns the corner, where things get really great.

Our first ski of the day proved to be a more fulfilling descent than I had imagined. It began pushing sixty degrees and was well past fifty for the first seven-hundred feet or so. Then the slope eased and the snow just kept getting better. The top had been a little icy, but once we turned left below the initial couloir the surface was nothing but buttery corn. By the time we skied around the North Buttress of Terror, we had skied a very satisfying two-thousand vert. I had skied it with Chuck D.'s lyrics reverberating in my head, "Welcome to the Terror Dome!"

Degenhardt Glacier Ski Descent

We had a clear path onto the Degenhardt, but we couldn't see around the corner. We decided to use the rope. We made our way through some easy snow-bridge and crevasse-maze shenanigans before coming to the crux. Turning a corner, a glacier-wide icefall blocked the way. A decision was imminent. We could try a rock ramp that finished in a step onto the snow of the glacier, but we couldn't see the glacial features with which we would have to contend after that and the step was highly exposed. I thought a ramp through the icefall would be fairly easy and put us on the climber's right side of the glacier, which I remembered as the place to be.

I headed for the ramp. Ross didn't seem to like where I was going. I changed my direction. It put me below some steep, blocky jumbles of ice below seracs. I started to head down a slightly different way. Ross didn't like where he was positioned. Finally, I decided there was an easy path through the blocky jumbles of ice. I could use them like oversized stair steps. I told Ross I was going for it. He didn't know where I would go. My path looked better from my position than from where Ross was. As I kicked my front points into the ice and stepped up the first block, Ross reminded me, "Remember, you're not on belay!" I looked at him and yelled, "C'mon man, this is super juggy." It was time to climb - or retreat (no!) - and I was sure we could manage this little glacial gauntlet.

We finally made it around the seracs to the right. The middle of the glacier was a mellow, thirty-degree cruiser all the way up to the final thousand-foot headwall. Fortunately there were no impassable, glacier-wide crevasses; it seems that might sometimes be the case on the Degenhardt Glacier. The upper headwall was still in the sun and we were in a race to catch the light before it disappeared. We unroped for the final steep, slushy slopes. Ross found a good rhythm and I followed his steps to the top gratefully, which helped me avoid my chronic crampon-snow-balling problem with my G-14s. We reached the top of the glacier at half past four. Newhalem still looked so close. It was close as the bird flies, but we knew better than that.

Northern Picket Range The Northern Pickets from the Degenhardt Glacier's col

Newhalem from above The view from the col to the south. Newhalem is so close, yet so far away from us.

Sluffs were the only concern for the descent, but they proved not to be an issue. The headwall provided some of the most joyous turns of my Cascades career. Spectacular scenery, steeps with perfect corn and thrilling exposure, and total isolation: a perfect recipe for elation. On the shady, lower angle sections we were happy to find that the snow hadn't hardened at all; it was perfect for making lazy GS turns.

Degenhardt start Ross skis the gentle slopes from the col.

skiing Degenhardt Now we're skiing the Degenhardt Glacier.

more Degenhardt skiing

approaching steep skiing Ross skis at the edge of the world.

We followed our tracks to the icefall. I thought there was a spot where we could ski through it. I edged around the corner to get a better look. The spot was steeper than I had hoped. And exposed to crevasses just below it. And the "flat" landing was on icy glacial debris surrounded by little cracks. Standing on an icy, sixty-degree slope that was only going to get worse, I decided to remove my skis. The uphill one detached with no problem. I kicked my toe a couple inches into the icy slope and tried to remove the downhill ski. It would not eject so easily. I planted my ice tool and clipped my harness to it. Then I placed an ice screw and clipped into it for extra protection. Then I finally managed to removed the stupid ski. The juggling act took fifteen minutes, but with a concentrated effort I changed into my crampons, retrieved my rope, and put my skis on my pack without incident. Ross had changed his gear safely above me, where there was a convenient hole in which to stand.

skier on rappel Ross rappels the icefall.

Ross left two pickets. We rappelled the icefall without incident, with my thirty-meter rope and thirty meters of cord from Ross tied together. We booted down the last bit below the icefall for the sake of expediency. We wanted to get over the Terror-Rake Col, ski the couloir, and find a good place to bivy in Crescent Creek Basin before dark. Ross reloaded quickly and made tracks. I took a little more time rearranging my day pack, but I wasn't too far behind him.

We made it over the col with ample time. We skied the tight little couloir into Crescent Creek Basin with time to spare. I counted six turns in the superbly skinny section, where the couloir was never more than two feet wider than my skis. My legs were thrashed, but I made turns the whole way down it because the snow was perfect and it was the right thing to do. We traversed high on skier's left at the bottom of the couloir and found flat rocks. We were both ready for a good night's sleep. I stuffed myself with as much of my edible arsenal as my stomach could hold.

Talk of a summit or two got scrapped for an early return. Neither of us wanted to endanger the satisfaction we felt. I was feeling my biggest buzz yet from ski mountaineering, and that's saying something. The Degenhardt Glacier was the objective, and it had lived up to all my hopes for it, but the lines to the north and south off Terror Rake Col had been thrilling, worthwhile objectives themselves. We had yoyo skied The Fence and spotted lots of lines for the future. It just doesn't get any better. And we were tired.

Mt Triumph This seemed like a good place for the glow of Triumph.

slayer Let's go home.

Degenhardt tracks Colin Haley happened to solo the North Buttress of Mt Terror the day after our descent of the Degenhardt Glacier. He took this sweet photo that shows our tracks. Thanks for the photo, Colin.

Despite being higher in elevation, we slept warmer and longer than the previous night. We didn't rise until eight, with the sun almost peeking over Mt Degenhardt onto us. It was an easy traverse and short climb to the basin next to the Chopping Block. I followed some old descending steps up the short slope to the saddle by The Stump, which we later confirmed to be Colin's on his way to the North Buttress of Terror. How about a picture of those tracks, Colin?

We skied sublime corn in the morning sun to return to our food stash. We made the best of our last opportunity for water until Terror Creek. Then we made haste like men on a mission. We were done with the bushwhack descent to Terror Creek in an hour and forty minutes flat. Ross's truck was less than five hours from the food stash. Who knew a couple Rainier tall boys in Goodell Creek and a bag of Tim's Cascade Style Potato Chips could be such a motivational force?

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My initials look like ski tracks.