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Desperate Country: Seven Days on the Fence

Chad Kellogg navigates the typically loose rock on West McMillan during his and Jens Holsten’s attempt to link the Northern and Southern Pickets of the North Cascades in a single push. They nearly succeeded, bailing three summits short of the complete traverse. Read about another Pickets Traverse attempt in the On Belay department of Alpinist 43. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

Warm air rushed through the windows as my beater Subaru huffed and puffed towards Newhalem. In the trunk was kit for the mission. The stereo pumped out slamming techno, and I gorged on pastries from the Sultan Bakery. Psyche was high. The following day, with Chad Kellogg, the gun went off and our dash through the Pickets of the North Cascades began.

On July 17 at 3:30 a.m. we left the car with 35-pound packs stuffed with climbing gear, seven (to 10 if you really pushed it!) days of food, a light jacket or two, sleeping bags, fuel, a stove and a sill nylon tarp. We sweated buckets climbing out of Goodell Creek, but the way was clear and easy. Arriving in Terror Basin we re-hydrated and made good time on easy snow slopes to the base of the McMillan Spires. With knowledge from my 2011 Pickets enchainment and fresh bodies, we raced over all three summits and arrived at our bivy 12 hours after leaving the car. I felt really good about our day and enjoyed resting through the afternoon.

Kellogg begins Day 2 with a snowfield crossing. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth
Holsten revels in what would be the best weather of the trip on Day 2. [Photo] Chad Kellogg

Day 2 started with a taxing traverse of some small towers in between our bivy and Inspiration Peak. In 2011, Sol Wertkin had navigated this section with relative ease, but I still struggled to find the way. When I did find the path I idiotically chose to make a long simulclimbing traverse with all 80 meters of our rope out. A bunch of drag and some sketchy 5.10 moves in my boots later, I finally arrived at the base of Inspiration’s East Ridge. With a clean hand crack ahead we soared up and over both summits, descended, shot up the fantastic East Face of Pyramid, and scrambled Deganhardt to end our day. Tom Sjolseth spotted us on the ridge from his bivy in the Crescent Creek Basin and ascended to our camp to chat and take pictures of the beautiful sunset. It was great to have this unexpected encounter with a friend in such a spectacular place. After Tom began his descent, Chad and I settled in for a brisk night.

Holsten gets ready to hunker down at the second bivy just under the summit block of Deganhardt. [Photo] Chad Kellogg

Since we had failed to stick our plan on Day 2 (we had hoped to make the summit of The Rake), we began early on Day 3. To regain our pace, we put the hammer down and climbed the East Ridge of Terror, The Rake, wound through numerous smaller towers, cranked out the 5.10 on East Twin Needle, scrambled terrifying rock on West Twin Needle and then completed the technical crux of our journey, monkeying up the mighty blade that is the Himmelhorn. By the time we rapped into the Ottohorn-Himmelhorn Col we had been on the move for 17 hours. I was astounded at how long we took to complete this section even though we were climbing well and I had traveled the terrain before. It was 1:00 a.m. before we curled up in the dirt. Dehydration dried out my tongue and torqued on my muscles. We were afraid to burn excess amounts of fuel to rehydrate properly at the windy and exposed col. In hindsight, we did have enough fuel to rehydrate here and it was this crucial mistake that cost us the final two summits in the southern portion of our enchainment. A cold and windy dawn had us struggling to stay warm in the early hours of Day 4 and with a primal focus on getting more water in our systems, we descended the Mustard Glacier via a snow couloir on the col’s north side and arrived at Picket Pass where we sat by a tarn and drank to our heart’s content. The past three days of leading had me a bit frazzled and fried. A few times I questioned my sanity. Was I really putting myself in this position again? Why yes, yes I was.

Holsten takes a traversing line up The Rake, Day 3. [Photo] Chad Kellogg

We left Picket Pass intent on using the latter half of Day 4 to transition into the northern section of our journey. We hoped to climb Outrigger Peak, East Fury and West Fury before lying down for the night. We ran into Tom and his partner Matt on top of Outrigger and enjoyed a social session on the summit. After a refreshing break, all four of us descended and then climbed to the summit of East Fury together in a thick fog that made navigation difficult. Nevertheless, we employed good beta from Tom and worked our way through worsening weather to a very cold and windy bivy below the summit of West Fury. The night passed somewhat excruciatingly as tough winds and moisture-laden clouds swept over the peak. The morning of Day 5 brought some clearing, but rime ice lingered on the rock as temperatures were slow to rise enough to melt the slippery nuisance. Finally, at 11 a.m., we left the summit of West Fury and began moving down heads-up terrain toward Swiss Peak. We both felt the loose down climbing and committing rappels in this section demanded much respect. The weather continued to be cold and unsettled. Chad had to encourage me through building doubt about our position. Our clothing was very minimal. If it started to rain or snow, hypothermia would come quickly on the exposed ridge. As on any grand adventure we were toeing the line of control.

Holsten navigates some 5.10 climbing on East Twin Needle, Day 3. [Photo] Chad Kellogg
Kellogg wakes from a cold bivy at the Ottohorn-Himmelhorn Col on Day 4. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

The remainder of Day 5 was spent climbing around many pointy spires, summiting Swiss Peak, and climbing up and over Spectre Peak. Again, as on West Fury, getting off of Spectre was a dangerous exercise in uber-choss down climbing. We also made one rappel in this section. This terrain, though technically easy, was the most serious I’ve ever encountered in the Cascades. In very cold, windy and foggy weather we climbed up toward the summit of Phantom Peak until we hit our wall for the day. Our camp that night was an exposed perch overhanging Phantom’s north face. It was hard to keep our minds off the weather, but we managed to make it through another cold and hungry bivy.

The next morning (Day 6), like robots, we stuffed our sleeping bags and got down to business. Some morning clearing showed the long ridge ahead. Unfortunately, we knew the improved weather wouldn’t last for long as a hazy ring cradled the sun and wispy clouds floated in the west. Knowing we had between 12 and 24 hours before the weather tanked, we climbed out of our bivy with focused determination. By the time we had summited Phantom and connected the ridgeline to Ghost Peak, clouds were bearing down on us. We were so intent on getting off the ridge that we chose to not scramble 20 feet of third class to the summit of Ghost. We just kept moving toward salvation.

The duo atop East Fury. Shortly after, they set off for West Fury in worsening weather. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

Finally, as I was leading the last two pitches to the summit of Challenger, snowflakes started to fall. In the 10 minutes it took us to high five on the summit, make a short rap and walk over to our glacier descent, the weather gave out. We tried to make our way down the Challenger Glacier but were unable to see anything. Though it looked like a gentle ski run with easily passable cracks in good weather, we found ourselves strung out over giant schrunds in a blowing mist. Our thin jackets began to get wet. I could feel my survival instinct telling me to abandon our descent before we were hopelessly lost and climb back to the rocks near the summit. Sure enough, just under the top of Challenger, Chad found a cave. It was a damn uncomfortable spot, but it was a key find for us. We huddled sleeplessly though the night, staying warm by fighting off the snafflehound from hell.

Day 7 dawned beautifully, the breaking storm amplifying the magnificence of the sunrise. We quickly left our cave and descended the glacier and onto Wiley Ridge. It felt wonderful to sit in the heather and not be exposed to the weather and other dangers that had made the previous days so intense. All that remained between us and a bag of potato chips was a long, long walk home.

Kellogg starts up Swiss Peak after down climbing and rappelling off of West Fury, Day 5. [Photo] Tom Sjolseth

We spent the rest of Day 7 slogging out to Ross Lake Boat Camp. Even though only seven flat miles remained to our car, we had to stop. We shivered in the 70-degree weather, and my stomach was twisted in pain. It had all caught up with us. It felt like I had predicted it would at this point. Utterly worked. Mosquitoes pestered us through our night in the dirt, but we were too exhausted to care. On the morning of Day 8, after a couple hours of hiking, we stepped onto Highway 20.

Chad and I are absolutely stoked about or enchainment despite not summiting three of the peaks we had hoped to (the Ghost, Himmelhorn and the Frendelspitz). We climbed nearly all day, every day, for seven days through demanding and serious terrain. We had minimal equipment, no cache and no support. With the cold and unsettled weather in the latter half of the trip, it was a true challenge to keep the mind at bay. (And get any sleep!) Looking back I see many mistakes and I have learned many lessons that I hope to take with me to future objectives. As always, the path of growth continues. There is no crowning moment or pinnacle of achievement in this sport, but rather the continuing evolution of skills and consciousness.

[Originally published on Jens Hosten’s blog on July 24, 2013.–Ed.]

On Wiley Ridge, having escaped the Pickets. [Photo] Chad Kellogg
Holsten and Kellogg arrive back at their cars, “already dreaming about future adventures.” [Photo] Chad Kellogg