Mount Challenger, Elevation 8,207ft
Mineral Mountain High Route
June 5-8, 2003
Our route from the summit of Mineral Mountain. Part of Day 1 is in green. Day 2 is in blue. Day 3 is in red. Part of Day 4 is in orange. The first night was spent on Easy Ridge (the nearer blue dot). The second and third nights were spent at Perfect Pass (the further blue dot). The south summit of Whatcom Peak is the blue square. The east summits of Challenger are the red dots. Mount Fury is the yellow dot.
The northern reaches of the state have always held particular appeal with me. My experience in the area centered around Baker and Shuksan where glimpses to white capped mountains rising out of deep green valleys left me awe-struck. A forecast of yellow circles and vacation time to spare gave rise to an irresistible urge to strike out for the Picket Range, climb what we could, ski everything we climbed, and stand in the great north looking south.
SoÖ to begin, I left work late and arrived at Benís even later. What sleep I managed was filled with dreams of sun, sweat, and sunsets.
Ben and I arrived early at the Hannegan trailhead full of strength and intention, audacity and drive. The weather was heavenly! With the cool morning on our brows and heavy packs on our shoulders the first stretch of uphill took just under 2 hours where at Hannegan Pass decision taunted us. From this point, we were required to choose and this choice could be the death of the trip or at least our expectations of what the trip would embody. Continuing on the trail to the Chilliwack River, fording, and continuing up to Easy Ridge on a climberís path is the standard route. In the dwindling hours of the night before Ben had sketched an alternate course that went directly to Easy Ridge. Every since our first trip to Ruth, weíd considered this route a fine proposition on skis. However, we were to discover the truth and no paltry amount of sweat, misery, blood and more misery would suffice as repartition for our ignorance. To take delight in the mountains is never cheap, but the rewards can far outstretch the costs. Simply one breathtaking view can be reward enough and this trip rewarded us lavishly and in the end, looking back, Iíd say this journey was one of the best of my life.
In simple terms, our alternate contrivance consisted of traversing Ruth, clambering over Mineral, traversing Easy Ridge, and traversing around Challenger to where we would pitch our first camp. Of course we are endowed with great proportions of optimism. Over the course of the day pessimistic devils dangled very convincing evidence to the contrary. For now, though, to begin, the whole shebang appeared to be moving along smoothly. Moreover, Ben and I were so high with certainty that we were heading beyond the mere range of the weekend warrior that we were heedless. Neither of us had ventured beyond Ruth and that alone raised the adventurer inside us. The thrill made the effort inconsequential.
Jason climbing above Hannegan Pass with Shuksan's mighty Price Glacier in the background.
Traversing down the ridge snaking up to Ruth a camper's inquisition leads to a plethora of questions. "Where are you going?" [Fury.] "Isnít the way down over the Chillawack?" [Yes.] "Where are you skiing?" [That way.] "Iíve never heard of anyone going that way." [Donít know.] "What are you climbing?" [Some stuff in the Picket Range.] Usually I am very considerate, but for some reason I am sure I appeared inconsiderate. I wanted nothing but to leave trails and people behind. I politely interrupted him saying I was in a hurry and had a long way to go.
Jason preparing to don the skis. Our route to Mineral Mountain is in green. Whatcom Peak is the blue square and Challenger is the red dot.
That long way started with gliding across Ruth above the large glaciated cirque towards Mineral. Beautiful! Arriving at Chilliwack Pass was a bit roundabout for us but our way wasnít necessarily the best. In the end, though, we ended up exactly between the two mountains where we brushed off the pine needles, shrugged off our huge packs, took off our skis and readied for the climb. We headed around the Chilliwack side of Mineral where pulling on shrubs, kicking steps into moss, and downright survival schwacking on exposed wet cliffs began. We eventually traversed above a deep ravine nicely brimming with snow snaking upward like a yellow brick road to salvation. Ben had climbed back out to check on me. Often I think his saneness is pushed to its limits by necessity and I am its unfortunate victim. Since there was only one solid hold to a narrow ledge that offered access to the couloir, I allowed Ben (tall) to take my pack. Even without the weight (90lbs), my reach barely sufficed.
Near the top, I climbed over a cornice with an overriding expectation of victory. As I crested, Ben queried, "So?"
My answer was anything but uplifting, "I donít know?" Followed by a shrug. This wasnít the top, that much was certain! Going back was unacceptable, going forward was madness. I sat below a weather-gnarled tree in shock. The top 100 feet was a nearly vertical snow and rock sliver into the unknown. I inquired of Ben, "How does it look?"
Benís lack of confidence was answer enough when he responded with, "Itís fine!" I managed to reach the first move where I looked up to see Ben struggling. I couldnít believe what I was about to do. In a daze, I found myself in the worst of the mix with a good foot on a vertical snow patch that ROCKED, a weak foot in a thin crack that only my telemark boots allowed, a bloody hand gripping the snow, and finally another hand holding a dry dead stick attached to a dead tree. Did I mention I was leaning backwards? Hoping the snow wouldnít slide away, my boot wouldnít slip off the wet crack, and the stick wouldnít breakľ I rolled the dice. I pushed off the ice patch that moved by inches, pulled off the stick, and reached my foot up as high as I could so I could reach for the dead tree. That hour is not a bright spot in my memory, but unless you push your limits how do you know how far you will go? With bloody knees, hands and elbows -- the wounds of a desperate climber, I saw the salvation at the end of the yellow brick road as I climbed the final snow spur to the summit of Mineral Mountain.
Jason finishing the crux sliver. Note the sole shoe.
Easy going on Mineral Mountain's West Ridge. Icy Peak, Mount Shuksan and Ruth Mountain dominate the background.
Near the top, Ben noticed my shoe was mysteriously unaccounted for. Looking back down the slope, I momentarily considered going back down. Even without a pack and skis, I couldnít lie to myself well enough to consider such foolishness. Four days in ski boots! How bad can it get? The logic was difficult to justify, but I had little choice deciding to turn my back and prayed for the best.
We didnít remain on top for very long. We still had miles of terrain to cover and already our resolve was dwindling. The ski down off the pile of rocks that marked the summit to the Mineral-Easy col was revitalizing. Several hundred feet of steep snow followed by a thousand or more of laid-back mush led us to the bottom.
Jason on the summit of Mineral Mountain.
Jason skiing the steepest portion of Mineral Mountain's East Face.
We refilled our water supply at the col before climbing up to were the slope mellowed out enough to skin. I pulled out my skins, a bear to pull apart I might add, and stuck them to my skis only to watch them fall right off. A dwindling supply of tape helped calm our tempers but nature's paradox tested our patience throughout the trip. We thought it was algae but have since come to learn that pollen was the culprit.
Jason skinning up Easy Ridge with Tomyhoi, Larrabee, American Border and Slesse in the background.
The view from the top of Easy Ridge was a stage to witness the North Cascades and on such a brilliant day I was a spectator to an exceptional show. After sixteen hours we were done, finished, through, concluded, and terminated. Our shortcut had turned out to be anything but. We pitched camp within a rock ring only when darkness preyed down on us. Up until then, we could only lay in an exhausted stupor, largely disappointed with our progress, but with some sleep and rest we hoped our confidence would be restored. As night came the sunset spread across the western sky and I felt better about all the effort, falling asleep as fast as the color brightened and dimmed.
Sunset from our camp on Easy Ridge.