Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Weekend in the Pickets: Challenger and Whatcom

Challenger from Whatcom on the first ascent in 1936

Mount Challenger marks the northern end of Washington's most remote and rugged range: the Pickets. Phil Dickert (my great-grandfather), George MacGowan, and Jack Hossack were some of the first mountaineers to visit the area when they made the first ascent of Mount Challenger on September 7th, 1936. Not much has changed in the 82 years since their ascent. The terrain is still raw and wild, largely unmarked by trails, and infrequently visited.

My great-grandfather passed when I was young and I never got the chance to hear his stories or go into the mountains with him. Fortunately he was a prolific photographer, and I feel a connection to him through the photographs that he left behind. It has been my goal to repeat his first ascents for some time.

With just a weekend free and wildfire smoke choking the Northwest, a Pickets trip seemed unwise. But it didn't look like it was going to rain and Nate was stoked, so we decided to go for it.

We left Seattle on Friday night and made it to the Hannegan Pass trailhead at 10:40pm. We followed the route of the first ascent, hiking over Hannegan Pass and down to the Chilliwack River. The miles flew by as if in a dream; we were both stoked to wake up surrounded by terrain we had never seen before. We camped where Easy Creek joins the Chilliwack and got a few hours of sleep before the sun rose.

In the morning we easily forded the Chilliwack and followed a trail up series of switchbacks to Easy Ridge, where we found fields of ripe huckleberries. We hiked along the ridge as a strong wind brought smoke in from wildfires in the east. A descending traverse to the toe of a steep buttress brought us to an abrupt slot canyon known as the Imperfect Impasse. We found an easy traverse into the canyon by scrambling up grassy ledges from the toe of the buttress, then climbed out into a stunning cirque and made our way up talus and granite slabs to Perfect Pass.

Getting some water on Easy Ridge

The Imperfect Impasse

Perfect Pass

A mama Ptarmigan. Not pictured are her two chicks

The massive Challenger Glacier sprawled out in front of us. We made a high traverse and eventually gained the Challenger Arm, then continued up weaving through massive crevasses. We crossed the infamous bergschrund on a solid bridge and climbed a steep snow arête above.

Traversing the Challenger Glacier on the first ascent

Nate climbing above the bergschrund

Summit of Challenger on the right

We traversed to the summit block and scrambled over loose blocks to the base of the final corner. I led a short pitch protected by a couple pitons, possibly from the first ascent.

Challenger's summit block

Climbing the summit block on the first ascent

Smoke obscured most of our view into the Pickets, but added to their mysterious and intimidating aura. I'll have to come back on a clear day to fully appreciate the view.

The ridgeline south of Challenger looks quite intense. Maybe someday...

Sub-peaks of Challenger to the east

We rappeled the crux corner and made our way back onto the Challenger Glacier. I downclimbed the snow arête while Nate scrambled down good rock to the east.

We traversed to investigate a strange object that we had seen on the way up and found that it was a  dead turkey vulture. Why it was so deep in the mountains I don't know. Perhaps it was fleeing from wildfires in the east?

A turkey vulture high on the Challenger Glacier

We retraced our ascent back to Perfect Pass and made it to camp as the sun set.

A precarious snow bridge

The lean winter of 2014-2015 is clearly visible on the right side of this crevasse

Traversing the Challenger Glacier to Perfect Pass

Smoke made the night warm and the morning cold. We woke with the sunrise but slept for another hour until the sun's heat could reach us through the smoke.

Not convinced that we had achieved full value, we decided to climb Whatcom Peak and exit via Whatcom Pass instead of reversing Easy Ridge.

The south side of Whatcom from Challenger

We climbed easy snow up Whatcom’s south side then scrambled up the pleasant south ridge to its summit. It was clear that it was too late in the season to easily bypass Whatcom to the east, so we decided to descend the North Ridge. We tried picking our way down the NE face to avoid the steep and exposed upper ridge, but found the rock to be of terrible quality and returned to the ridge crest. We downclimbed an exposed knife edge on decent rock, which was the crux of the descent. The angle lessened afterwards, but the rock was loose enough and the position serious enough to keep the descent engaging. We felt quite stupid for not bringing helmets.

Nate high on Whatcom's North Ridge

The impressive Whatcom Glacier

Looking back at Whatcom through the smoke with the North Ridge on the right

We eventually made it down to a snowfield on the ridge and lower angle terrain below. We followed the scenic ridge back to the trail at Whatcom Pass. I felt a sense of relief knowing that we were done with Whatcom's choss and just had 17 trail miles back to the car.

From Whatcom Pass the trail follows pristine streams down to Brush Creek until it joins the Chilliwack River. We took a hand-powered cable car across the Chilliwack then followed it up to Hannegan Pass and made it back to the car at dusk.

Out of the smoke

Nearing the end of Brush Creek

Cable car across the Chilliwack!

Many thanks to my aunt Judi Lemp and Lowell Skoog for preserving these photos. They have given me a ton of inspiration and I hope that they will inspire generations of Cascade climbers to come.


  1. Sweet report! I'd love to get out there when it's not so smoky...

  2. Watch Football GIFs in HD at Vimeo
    Discover short videos related to the #football hashtag on Vimeo, the home for high quality free videos free youtube to mp3 and the people who need them. YouTube