In which three exceptionally motivated young men shoulder big packs for a long hike after a boat ride, endure a legendary Cascades cross-country approach, then ski some gnar. First Luna Peak then the Northeast Face of Fury.
Ben Manfredi and Jason Hummel had a good look at Mt Fury and Luna Peak during their trip to Mt Challenger the previous week. An e-mail came from Ben Friday morning, with the suggestion to leave Saturday and return Wednesday. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Maybe he could be the Godfather of Washington extreme skiing.
Jason stopped by my place to give me a ride to the meeting place at Highway 20. I still had some crucial stitches to make to my pack, since it sustained critical damage on Mt Jefferson. I had ample room and time to finish the job in the back of Ben's truck. We finished assembling our packs above Ross Lake Dam, where Ben surprised us by pulling a scale from his tool box. We all checked our weights with and without packs. Mine was the lightest around 77 pounds, while Ben and Jason would carry close to 90 pounds. Wait awhile before you decide I didn't carry my share, would you?
The prospect of carrying such heavy packs made the decision to pay for the boat ride to Big Beaver Camp easy. The ride was short; soon it was time to shoulder the packs. It was an easy day to Luna Camp, approximately ten miles down the trail. A little too easy, it must have been, since we decided to look for the place to cross Big Beaver Creek to reach Access Creek 1.4 miles farther down the trail. We found the log crossing and we were still carrying our heavy packs when we realized it would be best to return to Luna Camp for the night. Jason broke into histrionics. The backtrack was worthwhile in the end, since we were able to cook over a fire and enjoy good sleep at a very nice camp site.
I had carried a six pack this far. I disposed of a couple beers the first night, stashing the rest at the camp for celebration upon return. There was some brief drizzle as we finished repacking the next morning, but the clouds seemed ready to break. My pack weighing a little less and I felt that I was ready for the dreaded North Cascades bushwhack. The bushwhack was painful, with the skis adding to the intensity of the experience. With a few changes of direction here and there, however, we found ourselves entering open terrain in the cirque above Access Creek a half-day later. Soon it was time to don the boots and find our way up to the saddle below Luna Peak.
The views exiting the cirque were amazing. The Southern Pickets came to life before me. No guide book can adequately express the rugged reality of this range. Sharp peaks tower above glaciers hanging above cliffs leading to deep, lush valleys far below. As we waited for Jason, Ben asked, "Should we run across the valley real quick and do the Degenhart Glacier?" Yeah, with an auxiliary bushwhack down and up McMillan Creek for kicks, right?
With a little more work we were finally to the 7,200' saddle just below Luna Peak. As is often the case, Ben was waiting at the top, "Welcome, my friend, to the Picket Range." And let's take a look at the Northeast Face of the Mt Fury, shall we? Looking good! We dropped our packs, had some food, and enjoyed the sun.
There were clouds flirting with the Southern Pickets and elsewhere further west, but conditions were definitely improving. During the first few days I heard several comments from Ben and Jason about my food situation. They seemed to consider my supply meager. I had it rationed, however, and I knew that I could eat more than 3,000 calories each day as long as I didn't eat too much, too soon.
Around seven in the evening, the summit of Luna Peak demanded attention. It was a paltry thousand vertical feet above camp; Ben and Jason thought there was skiable snow on the other side. It was an easy third class scramble to the false summit, thence a fourth-class ridge led to the true summit. I was ready to ski, so I hit the ridge. Even with skis on my back and holding my ski poles in one hand, it wasn't too bad. Just watch for the loose rocks!
One of my favorite memories from this part is a classic Ben Manfredi comment. Before the summit-ridge scramble, he whispered to me in a conspiratiorial tone, "The guidebook says it's 4th class, but I told Jason it's 3rd."
I was pleasantly surprised to see a steep, skiable line less than fifty feet below the true summit. There was no summit register, but there was a film canister with a note form John Sharp. Jason added a few more scribblings to the note and returned the film canister to its initial position. Now, two days into our journey, we would have the pleasure of a tasty descent down the Northwest Shoulder of Luna Peak.
The sluffs required some attention, since they rumbled all the way down the face, over a cliff and into a chasm. The snow made for great skiing, however, and at the bottom we were all sporting smiles. It was an easy traverse and a short climb to camp, where we could eat, watch the sunset, then sleep in a place where being awake provides as rich of a vision as any dream. And dream we did, for the next day we would attempt the Northeast Face of Mt Fury.
Mt Fury, Northeast Face Ski Descent
The ski descent from Luna Peak the previous evening was marvellous, but it was not what had drawn us to the Picket Range. We awoke early the next morning, knowing that this was the day of reckoning. The Northeast Face of Mt Fury is a picture-perfect headwall: a high, steep precipice towering above glacier slopes that give way to rock above Lousy Lake, in total 4,000 vertical feet of uninterrupted fall line. We would attempt a high approach, traversing on skis from the pass, climbing to where we could acces the Fury Glacier, crossing the Fury Glacier, then climbing the Northeast Face.
We left camp around five, skiing tentatively on the icy snow surface shortly after dawn. The climb to the saddle to access the Fury Glacier was a good warm-up and it was easy to follow Ben's well-kicked steps. We used skis to traverse the glacier. On the other side, we still had one last traverse, but I was thinking about climbing the face and I was ready to do it. I changed into crampons and stowed one whippet for an ice tool. I was ready to go first and up and away I went. Ben asked me at one point if I wanted my other ski pole, but I would not hear of it. It was time to climb. One more short glacial traverse and we would be on the face. Crossing below the rock of the last ridge, I found a thin snow bridge. My right foot penetrated the bridge and I got a close look at the abyss, so I stepped back and reoriented myself. A few feet lower, things felt more solid and I crossed.
I began a steep, rising traverse of the face. Most notable were the giant runnels. The hard, icy surface inside the runnels provided easy climbing for me. I was using the whippet and the tool in high dagger position, making really big steps that ended in a rest position, with my butt sitting on one foot and the other leg fully extended and locked. The climbing was wonderful. After a while, I began to worry about Ben and Jason. I thought I might have to downclimb with the rope if a bad situation developed near the thin snow bridge. They made it just fine, but I didn't see them until I was well on my way up the face.
I was on a mission and having a great climb. Ben and Jason didn't like my tracks, so they opted to climb outside the runnels, where Ben could kick steps in the softer snow. Lou Dawson, is this on your list? Tele skiers have a tougher time ice climbing because of the big duck toes on the front of their boots; they don't allow for as much bite with the crampon points. Randonnée all the way, baby!
At the top, I admired the views in every direction. The top section looked like nice, smooth skiing. The runnels? Well, we would just have to find a way to deal with them.
Twenty minutes later, Ben arrived, followed at a similar interval by Jason. We had lots of time to wait for the snow to soften. I think we all had a nice nap time on the summit. Isn't June great? I don't think I've retreated from a climb in the last month; the weather and skiing have been the best so far this year, too. We could have waited longer, but around two thirty Ben wanted to get going. So who wants to ski first? Well, I wanted to get some pictures of someone ripping off the top, but my copious supply of temerity put me in position for first tracks. The snow was just a little icy, but really smooth, and I made five or six quick turns from the true summit.
Turning the corner, I could see down the whole face to Lousy Lake. Whoa, those runnels are big. And the snow was a little less consistent here. Waiting for Ben and Jason gave me too much time to stand there and think, which made me feel strange on my skis above the intimidating face. I had never felt this much of a gut check standing on my skis. I made one more tentative turn. Then Ben and Jason started skiing, so I moved to the side to let them approach. Soon Ben and Jason were above me and Ben had his camera. It was my time to go, so I swallowed my fear and made a turn. It went fine, and my perception (illusion?) of control was restored.
I skied into the runnels on the left looking for better snow, but it became a little too choppy. Finally, a little side-stepping led to a runnel crossing, after which there was some skiable snow. It felt great to link turns. Then there was a bottleneck, with rocks on the left and the main vein runnel to the right. Ben took the lead and sidestepped around the corner on a sixty-degree tilt that pointed straight into the runnel. When he was around the corner, I asked him how it looked. He said it was fine. I followed and with a few sketchy sidesteps I was around the corner, too. Whew. Next was a large section of skiable snow to the bottom of the upper face.
I traversed all the way across and let the slope sluff until I was stopped by a big runnel on the left, then I was able to link turns down the rest of the face. Now the main runnel and the runnel on the left joined below us and we had to find a way off the face. With liberal doses of consternation and profanity, I managed to get into the left runnel, keep my skis from getting positioned too awkwardly on the sidewalls of the runnel, and finally exit the runnel to skier's left. Just below me were some flat rocks above the glacier, where we could decide what to do.
Ben and Jason worked their way through the gauntlet in turn. While Ben and I were at the bottom waiting for Jason, a rock slightly bigger than a basketball came bouncing down the main runnel. We were relieved when it didn't take a funny bounce near the bottom. With some discussion, we decided to boot across the face and ski the Fury Glacier down to Lake Luna, which would put us closer to camp. The most aesthetic descent would obviously be to follow the direct line to Lousy Lake, but conditions on the glacier below the upper face looked unappealing. We had skied the crux of the route and we were ready to cut our losses and take the easier way to camp.
The Fury Glacier had some of the biggest crevasses I've seen and the snow was forgiving slush. After the descent to Lake Luna, all we had to do was boot up 2,000 vertical feet to camp, where we could collapse. After some sun and rest, Ben went to the races to do his trademark rapid-fire step-kicking. Jason and I took things at a slower pace. I couldn't quit gaping at Mt Fury and the Fury Glacier. The ski descent of the Northeast Face wasn't enjoyable for the sake of skiing itself. It could be incomparably exquisite without the runnels. I would be happy to hear about it. It would be interesting enough to hear about any skiing in the Northern Picket Range.
I was alarmed at the number of puddings and jellos Jason consumed over the next two days. He carried a lot of mostly-water-weight foods with him. He also had extra food at the end of the trip. I was happy to avoid the famine Ben and Jason had predicted for me, yet spare my back the extra weight. At Ben's truck on Wednesday, the scale told the truth. I was no more emaciated than Ben: We had both lost six pounds. Jason, however, didn't lose any weight.
We had leisurely two days heading home, but even now I can still feel the Fury. I thought total success was highly improbable when we began the trip, but it all went exactly according to plan. I thought we were supposed to get lost, beat down, and stormed off the mountain on a first attempt at something like this in the Picket Range. Lounging at camp, I couldn't help but peruse my topo and think about possibilities for the future. Though five days was by far the longest I've been in the mountains at one time, now I can't help but speculate how long I could go and what could be accomplished. But alas, return we must.
Life in Seattle seems so surreal after a trip like this.
For another perspective and some really great pictures, go see Ben's trip report.