DEGENHARDT and TERROR
July 3, 1970
I was back home from Vietnam
and ready to take on the Pickets again at the age of 26. I'd been
fantasizing about them for many young years by now. The details
are now vague, but Chris and I had a long and heated discussion
in Seattle the night before about where we were going to spend the
July 4th weekend. Gary Mellom and I had four days off and for some
reason Chris only had three. I was anxious to get back into the
Pickets, but she did not want to hike all the way in there for just
one day of climbing. We discussed climbing Formidable, and were
going to do it instead, when she finally reluctantly decided she
would let us go to the Pickets and she and a buddy would do a climb
Bleary-eyed and brain
bruised, Gary and I drove to Newhalem late that night. I dropped
Gary off at his folks' house and drove to mine. We both stayed up
late into the night talking to our parents and getting to bed about
2 AM. At 4:30 AM the phone rang. My mom answered and came to my
door and said Chris wanted to talk to me. It was already getting
light and on the way to the phone I peeked outside. The day was
perfect. The details of our conversation aren't important, but the
draw of the Pickets outweighed her change of mind.
I went back to bed and
stared at the ceiling for a few minutes until 5 AM when I got up
to give Gary the prearranged wake-up call.
Gary and I walked in past
the now familiar landmarks: The right road forks, the X log, the
cable at the road end, the 3000 and 3200-foot hummocks, and the
terrible doghair swath, and Lunch Creek. We were beat and low on
energy. What was behind worried my mind. What was ahead in the Pickets
worried my mind. Every step felt like I was carrying an unnatural
weight. It took us 12 hours to get to the 5900 foot Terror Basin
July 4, 1970
Another great day. We
were up and off, feeling much lighter with a night's rest and just
day packs on our backs. Gary wanted to see Azure Lake, so we angled
up for the 6200-foot Azure Col. The lake was totally encased in
ice and nearly 2000 feet below us. The snow was still five feet
thick at the col and perfectly stable, but the picture Gary took
of me standing at its edge on the remnant of the winter's cornice
brought nervous oooh's from our mothers at the post-trip slide show.
We sped across the upper
basin, alternating leads as step-kickers on a snow traverse then
ascent to the pass between Inspiration and West McMillan Spire.
We had a deal where we would change leads every 100 steps, and each
of us felt obligated to extend our leads a few extra steps.
To the neophyte climber,
which we were, or even the seasoned pro, which we thought we were,
the west ridge of West McMillan was a stupendous place to be. McMillan
Creek swept away a mile below. The Northern Pickets and Chilliwacks
came into view. There to the south was all that rocky chop on a
sea of ice. But most startling of all, there over our shoulders
and shooting straight up above us were the Southern Pickets standing
on edge equally vertical on the north and south faces, and looking
like the tips of a row of giant screwdrivers turned sideways. If
these peaks had only height and width, they did not have much of
the latter. Every step towards the West Mac summit made the summits
to the west even more impressive. We were constantly looking back
over our shoulders.
As a climb West McMillan
is pretty easy, though we may have taken our hands out of our pockets
a time or two. We lounged on the top, making peak identifications,
snapping shots, and eating an early lunch. Clouds played with the
spikes of Inspiration, Pyramid, and Degenhardt to the west adding
to the mystical aura of the Pickets. This peak was popular, we had
the 24th ascent.
It had taken us much longer
than the two hours we'd calculated for the climb from our 5900-foot
camp to the 8000-foot summit. We figured we better get rolling or
it would be a late night if we were going to succeed on Degenhardt
and get back to the camp.
Gary whooped it up as
he took giant plunge steps down from the col onto the flats of Terror
Glacier. I was just about to capture his frolic on film when one
of his feet stuck deep in the warming snow, holding part of him
behind as the rest of him catapulted forward. Instead of sprawling
clumsily out on his face and front, he tucked his head and rolled
forward in a somersault, ending up on his back, and followed up
with a textbook ice ax arrest, the prettiest I'd ever seen.
We wound our way around
a few of the crevasses that were starting to open up on the glacier,
wondering what the Barrier had in store for us. Beckey's cryptic
note in the 1961 guide was simply that it was "difficult to
cross." We reached the upper NW edge of Terror Glacier and
were met by a problematical 3-foot moat which wasn't so bad except
that the 6-inch-wide landing ledge was two feet higher than the
snow. Gary went first, whumphing out his held breath as he landed,
jarring his yellow construction hard hat off his head. He made a
futile lunge for it as it went banging down into the darkness of
the airy moat, forever lost. I duplicated his leap, but slipped
on the push-off, banging my right knee on the landing, wondering
if I was going to join his hat.
Once on the Barrier rock,
Gary was in his element, switching back and forth up the exposed
and rotten ledges which were covered with rubble. Every so often
he'd purposely pull a microwave-sized block loose and let it crash
down the face to the glacier below, until I put a stop to his frivolity.
Beckey's route description
for Degenhardt was another undecipherable classic: "From the
upper end of "The Barrier," contour snow to the N. ridge,
which offers and easy ascent, though the rock is somewhat rotten.
The S.W. side is traversed from the upper end of "The Barrier"
via a steep ridge, keeping right of the gendarmes."
We could see from West
Mac that the last part of the north ridge of Degenhardt was vertical
and there were lots of steep ridgelets on the SW side. If we kept
to the right of the gendarmes, we would be on the SE side, which
looked awful, not the SW side.
Gary took off up the most
prominent rotten SW ridge while I contoured on the SW slopes, in
and out of gullies. I could see him above me, at one point looping
the rope over a fragile pinnacle to use as a handline on a tricky
down-move. I kept swinging around to the left and eventually got
to the NW, then N, then NE side of the peak on a clockwise spiraling
ascent. You really could go around the N side.
Gary was still working
his way up the rotten S ridge as I whooped up my success and he
shortly joined me on the summit. The sun was sinking as fast as
our hearts. There was a hodge-podge of summit notes, including a
record of Degenhardt and Strandberg's August 7,1931 climb--the very
first climb of a Picket peak. We figured we had the 8th ascent.
I also copied down an 8/23/38 climb by Chas. Kirsh, Chas. Metsker,
and Ralph Clough, and a 6/3/51 climb by Phil Sharpe, Dick McGowan,
and Pete Schoening (did they go back into the Pickets in September
1951 to do The Blob?) and an 8/3/67 climb by Joe Vance and Ted Carpenter.
Ted reclimbed it on 8/4/67 .
There was no way we were
going to make it back to that tiny camp in the shadows of Terror
Basin . A bivy was certain. We backed our way down my ascent route
and located a tiny two-body flat on the SW side of Degenhardt and
started leveling the spot and building a holey rock wall for a windscreen.
We were not well prepared for the cloudless cold night.
It was the evening of
the 4th of July. Gary had carried a Roman candle in, which he'd
of course left at base camp. We had young-fool plans to fire the
candle off at 10 PM that night to signal our parents, an idea that
would have failed had we been where we should have been, so deep
in the cirque was that camp. From our perch on the side of Degenhardt
however, we could look straight down to the road leading into Newhalem.
At dusk we aimed our flashlights down the Goodell valley and flicked
them off and on a few times, making certain not to give three flashes
(the signal of trouble--SOS) in succession. At about 9:30 PM we
started getting flashes back--two lights of equal size, far brighter
than any flashlight we imagined, and one light even brighter than
that, all in a row. We later found out that the bright lights were
the headlights of our parents' cars and the really bright light
was the sheriff's car with headlight brights, top flasher, and spotlight
shining at us. We played this electronic tag for about a half hour
before deciding we should get some sleep. Our folks couldn't believe
we were where we were for the night, but they tried not to worry
since they didn't pick up a distress signal from us either.
We had snaked the goldline
rope out on the ground, back and forth as tight as you can with
the stiff coils, to serve as a mattress. We put on everything we
had and stuck our feet inside our packs and huddled back-to-back
in fetal position, seeming to suck the heat from the other, but
not giving much in return. It was a night of nearly constant motion
and essentially no rest.
Fred wrote a good line
in his Challenge of the North Cascades, 1969, p.127, "Those
who bivouac appreciate the night more than tourists; the loveliness
is paid for partly in the currency of suffering." I would not
have used the word, "loveliness," to describe our night,
but "suffering" hits the nail on the head.
July 5, 1970.
We clock-watched all
night long, praying for morning, but when morning came we couldn't
wait for the afternoon heat. We rolled out of "bed," but
not too far, and took our shoes off to soak up what little heat
the morning sun had to offer. A soft but chilling wind blew. We
were also getting down to our last peanuts. We had only packed a
lunch the previous morning. That lunch served as lunch and dinner
the previous day and would have to do for breakfast and lunch this
We gathered our gear and
recoiled the dusty rope and started down the steep, hard morning
snow into Crescent Creek on our way to Terror. Gary again was a
little frisky in his descent, slipping down on his butt as he glissaded
the icy slope. Luckily he went into an immediate self-arrest, scrapping
to a stop in 20 feet, losing not his life, but only the skin off
of half his knuckles. We finished the slope facing in.
The Terror couloir was
full of hard snow as well and we took turns kicking our way up the
steep gully. About 3/4 the way up the couloir, Gary , the rockhound,
bore right off his snow lead onto the rock. His route looked a little
thin to me and my saying at the time was, "If it's snow, it'll
go," so I continued kicking steps to the col. I fussed with
the first rock move out of the col and did not have the situation
comfortably solved when Gary 's face popped into view above me.
I threw him the rope and he gave me a belay for about 30 feet. From
here the route up the west ridge of Terror is a simple scramble
to a point where a corner is rounded to the right of the false summit.
From this vantage, looking at it head on, the last pitch up the
summit pyramid of Terror looked terrifying--a feeling enhanced by
our fatigue, hunger, and thirst.
We lay down on rocks warmed
by the morning sun and took a half-hour nap, falling asleep easily,
despite the concern over the problem ahead. I woke up before Gary
and picked my way to the top of the false summit, a west pinnacle
of Terror. The route to the top only looked worse from here.
Gary awoke to the sound
of my return steps and we descended into the gully before the face.
We were surprised and delighted that the final summit rocks were
solid and broken well enough to provide good gymnastic exercise
with some exposure but without much danger. The top supports a peculiar
rock that begs the unwise to stand on it for a summit photo. We
touched, but didn't stand. Eight other parties had preceded us to
this point, significantly fewer than the 23 before us on West McMillan.
We backwards crabbed down
the summit pyramid and dropped down the ridge to the point before
the col where Gary had given me a belay. He felt he had been definitely
hanging out on his route up, and in fact at a couple of points was
hoping for a top belay from me, so he recommended a rappel to the
col. I had not done a rappel for about four years at that point,
the thought made me a bit nervous. An error would be my last. Gary
rigged the anchor and was off down the cliff in no time, stopping
in the middle and extending his arms for a "Look, Ma, no hands"
shot with the emptiness of the upper McMillan Cirque behind him.
I fussed my way down holding on for dear life with both hands in
a painful dulfersitz.
We plunged and glissaded
the Terror Couloir cautiously and switched our way back up to the
top of the Barrier. The route down was nervous. I undid my manila
prussik sling at one point, tied a knot in one end, stuck the knot
in a crack and used the rope as a handline, then flicked and retrieved
the rope out of the crack after making the delicate move. Not recommended.
The moat was easily leaped going down and we skated and glissaded
back to our tent. Long before dark we fired off Gary's Roman candle
and crawled into our bags.
July 6, 1970
We'd had enough adventure
for the trip and decided to forego the plan to do Inspiration, opting
instead to enjoy a leisurely walk to the top of Glee Peak (7200'+,
then) which we called TMJG (for the known ascendants of the peak)
and a pleasant alpine traverse to the Roost. The glass olive-jar
register I'd left behind on the first ascent of the Roost in 1966
was gone and I cussed the helicopter boys for this suspected theft,
since their map showed that they had been landed on this point in
1966 or 67.
I lost both big toenails from short boots
on the steep, quick descent out, and six months later, a wife.
Copyright 2004, John W. Roper, MD.
All Rights Reserved.