West McMillan Spire: TR

Aug. 17-19, 2012

L’Equipe: Colleen Hinton (and Hortense, her tapeworm); Diane Hennessey; Clare Parfitt; Carla Schauble; Nancy Kim

Alpenglow in Terror Basin.

To celebrate two score and ten, Colleen chose a climb of West McMillan Spire in the fabled Pickets range, a remote cluster of peaks in the North Cascades. After Colleen’s lackadaisical summer which included Rainier via Liberty Ridge and a Pickets traverse, it was good she chose a climb with a hint of relief.

Carla Schauble on the root ladder.

The approach to West Mac is steep, commencing from Goodell Creek at a scant 600 feet, topping out at 6,350 ft., before dropping several hundred feet into Terror Basin. Our first challenge involved finding the start. We made the mistake of driving to Lower Goodell, only to find a curious absence of vehicles. We then drove to the group campground on the east side of the creek and found the small pullout described by Nelson. By 10:15am, we were hiking the relatively flat road, which crosses the creek a few times before arriving at a campsite with a rock arrow pointing to the right, marking the start of the climbers path. (4.5 miles and 1,600 ft.).

It’s pretty hard to miss the turn off, but if you’re not on a steep, well-defined path, you’re in the wrong place. The ascent is relentless with some sections requiring vegetation belay, the most vertiginous featuring a root ladder. It was extremely hot. We stopped for lunch well below the ridge where the views open up to the west. It was there that Carla had a lunch spot in mind, but Hortense would have abandoned Colleen for a new host had we waited to reach that spot. Carla, who had been snacking on Swedish fish (which curiously, are neither), ate nothing. I suspect she is a replicant and doesn’t need food to survive.

The climbers path forged over the years obviates the need to bushwhack. At one point it meanders up a dry streambed, cairned yet confusing at times. Once on the ridge, you angle north traversing a lovely ridge where westward views sprout up: Triumph with its stair-step ridgeline and the distinctive bevel-topped summit of the Chopping Block.

Carla descending into Terror Basin.

It was nearly 6pm when we arrived at the col at 6,350 ft. We could see the tents of two other parties as we peered 300 feet down into Terror Basin and wondered how best to descend. Carla, the only one in our party who had already bagged Mac (twice, in fact), said she dropped into the moat on previous trips. This time, we would have to descend hideous scree or frontpoint the steep slope, probably more than 50 degrees at its steepest. Nobody liked the scree option, so we strapped on crampons, faced the slope and dropped over the lip. I went first, followed by Carla, Colleen, DH and Clare. After speaking with others who had chosen the scree, I reckoned we had chosen wisely.

Saturday’s forecast called for 30 percent chance of thundershowers in the afternoon. We pondered bivy sacks, but decided to take HM’s ‘circus tent’ instead. The Black Diamond MegaMid (2 lbs. with stakes) is a great weight-saving shelter which sleeps four comfortably. Carla and Colleen packed bivy sacks. It was nice to have some shelter to stash gear while we were climbing in case the skies turned.

We left at a slackerly 7am on summit day, shortly after a trio of Bushwhackers departed. To reach the col for the west ridge, we stayed low, traversing up and over slab benches. By staying below the outlet of a high glacial lake at 5,550 ft (as described in Nelson’s), slightly lower than Terror Basin, you avoid cliffing out. We rested on some rocks for a quick snack before putting on crampons for the climb up the Inspiration-West Mac col on  30 to 40 degree-angle soft snow. Once off the snow, we tried to find a flattish spot in the loose rock gulley ill-suited for crampon removal. From there, it was a straightforward scramble to the summit on third class terrain, but I found myself throwing in some fourth-class moves to stay on ‘less dynamic’ rock. We topped out at 11am, four hours from camp, and admired views of neighboring peaks in Crescent Creek Basin, Luna and Fury in the Northern Pickets, and the usual suspects in the North Cascades.

Scramble to the top.

Clare Parfitt on the final push to the summit.

We moved off the true summit block to make room for the Bushwhacker boys, though oddly enough, only one arrived at the top. Looking towards Inspiration Peak, Carla spotted a red speck on the east ridge, which turned out to be a member of the BoALPS team. From our perch on West McMilllan we cheered them on.

For the descent, we were hoping to be above the other team, but one of their members, Steve, had veered too far rapper’s left and was subsequently waiting in the wrong gulley. This would be only the first of his mistakes. With the lads now above us, I scrambled down the last of the loose rock above the snow, traversed over loose dirt and waited out of the fall line for my teammates. Once all the ladies had descended, I moved down to the nook where we had stashed some gear. Carla and Colleen came down as well while Clare and DH were still above.

As Carla and Colleen put on their crampons, I didn’t have a great feeling about our location. I asked whether the others thought it was safe. Clare asked Steve to wait. I’m not sure which part of wait he failed to comprehend, but he moved and triggered a cascade of rocks.

“Rock!!” someone screamed from above. I didn’t know whether to move left or right, so I just went left. Colleen, just a few feet to my right, was nailed on the thigh by a large flat rock released from approximately 30 feet above. She was grimacing in pain. I didn’t see any blood. We did rapid triage and determined nothing had been broken, but Colleen couldn’t fully weight her leg without pain.

Meanwhile, Chris of the Bushwhackers, wanted us to get out of the gulley post haste. He was holding back a lethal pile of choss. We helped Colleen up onto the snow and administered four Naproxen, then improvised an ice pack from a produce bag and snow, and wrapped it around the injury with an Ace bandage.

Diane Hennessey improvising an ice pack.

It was a slow hobble back to camp. What was shocking and infuriating was how the other team never checked in to a) deliver an apology or b) see how the injured party was doing. We got back to camp in five hours, not bad for having a gimp in tow.

Nancy unzipping; Carla toasting; Clare scolding; Colleen posing.

You’d think a rockfall injury might sap your party spirit. Not our birthday gal’s. She slipped into a latex, candy-apple red mini-skirt and a mylar wig seemingly inspired by a cheerleader’s pom-pom. I did not ask DH, who had packed this outfit as a surprise, why she owned such items. The hobbling harlot of Terror Basin then pulled out the surprise she had stashed in the creek: a bottle of champagne transported in the original bottle. I popped the cork, and traced its elliptical trajectory to the far bank for post-party retrieval. Colleen failed to bring flutes, so we were forced to drink our bubbly from camp mugs. Carla broke out a fifth of whiskey.

Instead of sleeping in on Sunday, we woke early to prepare for a 7am departure, figuring we’d need extra time for hop-along Cols. Chris, Steve and Fred of the Bushwhackers had offered to take out Colleen’s gear, leaving her with a light back for the descent. Carla, DH, Clare and I also shared the load.

We managed the “ice-climb” out of the basin by kicking extra steps so Colleen would have a side-by-side platform, thus minimizing the stress on her injured leg. Good weather was still holding at our elevation; the valley below was a sea of clouds with peaks breaking through. Nary a complaint from Colleen, who descended with relative ease.

The coda to our Pickets weekend was a bracing plunge in Goodell Creek with streamside bar service: IPAs, Newcastles and chips.


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