Mt. Challenger lies in the Picket Range of the North Cascades. Fred Beckey, author of the Cascade Alpine Guide writes, "“Because of the rugged terrain, the Picket Range has remained the wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades. It is not an area for the wilderness novice…the length of climbs, combined with steep mixed terrain and variable conditions, demands all around competence and fitness.”
I have some history with Mt. Challenger - two previous attempts on the mountain, and nary a step on the summit. My first attempt was in 2012, via the Whatcom Glacier. This attempt involved an 18 mile water taxi ride (and $250 round trip fare), followed by 18 miles of hiking through bird-like mosquito swarms. My friend and climbing partner Brenda slashed her finger open with her ice axe and we were turned around by absolutely harrowing conditions on an extremely unsafe glacier. Needless to say, it was a bit of a cluster.
I think the high point of the 2012 trip, at least for me, was a moment where I was precariously wandering around amidst vehicle sized blocks of ice while my crampons were slipping on slopey, wet granite as Brenda screamed obscenities in my general direction. It was somewhere in that moment that turning around suddenly sounded like a really great idea. And so, we retraced our path and set up our tent on a beautiful ledge overlooking the Little Beaver Valley. The mosquitoes were nowhere in sight - perhaps intimidated by horrible glacier conditions as well, or maybe because they knew that we REALLY needed a break.
With stupidly high spirits, Brenda and I hatched another plan to try Challenger again in 2013 - this time, from a different route. This new route involved nearly 20 miles of extremely rugged approach hiking in order to get a shot at climbing the peak. We knew in advance that the "crux" of the route was a spot called the, "Imperfect Impasse" - a deep chasm that was difficult to cross.
The trip started out really well - we climbed up and over Easy Peak (not easy, by the way), and opted to take the low route across the Imperfect Impasse, which required losing 1000ft in elevation. At this point, things started to deteriorate ever so slightly - the routefinding was made difficult and hazardous by various gullies and quickly flowing streams, and we were halted to a stop at a dangerous crossing below a waterfall. At one point, I was about to attempt to jump across the creek with a rope attached to my waist, in case I didn't make it - yep, that's one of those moments when you look back and want to punch yourself in the face.
When we finally made it to the Impasse, the conditions were decidedly imperfect. We could hear rushing streams underneath the snow, which made it extremely stressful to pick a route with the knowledge that falling through the snow would be a complete disaster. We eventually made it to the other side, only to be turned back by brush so dense that it took nearly 10 minutes to move a mere five feet with a 40+lb pack on. Our objective was to get up the slope to reach a spot called, "Perfect Pass", but we absolutely could not find a feasible route up the slope. I really feel that the high point of this particular trip was when I somehow managed to wedge myself into a snow moat, only to end up stranded on algae covered rocks next to a waterfall that was pouring into a dark tunnel in the snow. Brenda, a mere 10 feet away from me, couldn't hear me yelling that I was stuck and needed help, so I sat down on the rock and tried to calm myself down so I didn't panic.
We retreated to a large boulder in the center of the Impasse after 5 unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a safe ascent route. Our bodies were exhausted, our minds and spirits were in agony. We both agreed that it was no longer safe to continue, and we turned back to retrace our steps. Well, sort of. The next few hours can be described as follows: extremely loose boulder fields, Brenda yelling obscenities, extremely steep snow, more obscenities, utter exhaustion, obscenities. To top everything off, we pitched our tent on the summit of Easy Peak (which was spectacular). In the morning, I spilled boiling water from my stove all over my leg, and literally scalded my skin off. It was a great trip.
Based on my "history" with Mt. Challenger - you might naturally assume that I would never want to come anywhere close to that mountain again. Of course, if you assumed this, you would be wrong. This past summer Brenda and Aaron and I decided to make yet another attempt on Mt. Challenger, from another approach route. This route involved a 7 mile water taxi ride (fare $125), a 14 mile hike up the Big Beaver Trail, followed by a bushwhack up the Eiley-Wiley Ridge, to a campsite on the Challenger Arm, which was supposed to provide relatively straightforward access to the summit. We were pretty excited and stupidly full of hope - I was particularly thrilled to have Aaron experience the Picket Range, because who wouldn't want to treat their spouse to a few days of absolute misery?
And so, our little group headed off with high hopes. The first day was a tiring, but relatively easy 14 miles of hiking. Feeling energized, we woke up on day 2 and headed out at first light. Our task for the day was to ascend the, "timbered ridge" near our campsite. One route description suggested to just go, "headlong into the brush." While bushwhacking is not for the faint of heart, I've done some pretty extreme bushwhacking before and felt mentally prepared. Of course, I was completely wrong. The best way for me to describe the Eiley-Wiley ridge is as follows:
Imagine the most densely forested area that you can possibly envision. Make sure the underbrush is extremely entangled with thorns and branches that whip you in the face. Now tilt that slope at an angle so steep that you have to claw your way up the slope by holding onto branches and sometimes by scraping your fingers into the ground like a desperate cat. Now make sure that your backpack, ice axe and crampons get caught on absolutely every branch that you try to avoid. Make sure that it takes approximately 15 minutes to walk 5 feet, otherwise you're going too quickly. Place areas of wet, slippery moss every few hundred feet. When things seem to be going well, add in an impassable cliff.
It took us almost 3 hours to ascend onto the ridge. But Challenger was not done with us yet - we had various route descriptions that told us what elevation that we should be hiking at in order to safety traverse the Eiley Wiley Ridge. The next several hours involved going up and down a loose, sketchy gully... backtracking multiple times ... climbing through a stand of evergreens (at one point we actually had to hold onto the trees and bounce up and down on the limbs to walk through them)... and delicately crossing slopes so steep that a fall would be, well, probably your last fall.
The energy that we had radiated in the morning was now a mere ember, desperately gasping for air so that it could keep smoldering. Our pace had slowed to a lethargic slog. As we crested a hill on the ridge, we saw Challenger, which seemed impossibly far away, in the distance - our goal had been to make it to the Challenger Arm, but instead, we had gone only 3 miles in 8 hours. Demoralized, we sprawled ourselves out on some rocks. We knew that the weather was supposed to take a turn for the worst in two days - we were behind schedule, which meant that even if we could possibly make it to the base of the peak, we would likely be ascending in horrible weather. Even worse, we were worried about descending the hellacious bushwhack in slick, wet conditions. As a group, we made the decision that we could go no further.
I've been disappointed many times in my life - that time when I accidentally put chili powder on my baked apple instead of cinnamon.. that time when I was sure I would win the lottery and I didn't... or that time when I spilled coffee on my favorite LuLuLemon tank top. You would think that not climbing the same mountain on three separate occasions would be cause for disappointment. And yet, when I think about my Challenger attempts, as much as they are a debacle, they are also some of the most beautiful memories of my life. I cannot possibly describe the privilege that I feel just to see the interior of a mountain range that most humans will never visit. It is such a gift to be able to close my eyes and know that a place of such vast beauty exists. I treasure the fact that I have two people to share those moments with - to celebrate the sheer awesomeness of being alive and watching the world unfold before us.
Not surprisingly, the descent the next day was even worse than the ascent. Amidst a flurry of Brenda's profanities, we picked our way down the precariously steep timbered ridge. I am not sure if I can adequately describe how horrible this descent was, only to say that each of us experienced enough character building moments to satisfy the requirements of several lifetimes. The final half mile was through neck-deep Devil's Club plants. As the thorny leaves scraped across my arms and face, the vines below tugged at my pants and shoes. I could tell that my boot laces were untied, but I couldn't motivate myself to fix the problem. We pushed on, tripping and stumbling with almost every step. I flung my arms and my poles wildly like a half-crazed conductor, building to a dramatic crescendo. And then, without any warning whatsoever, we stepped out of the brush and onto the trail. The trail that would lead us safely back home.
Reflecting back on my three Challenger attempts, it is painfully obvious that the mountain is aptly named. The incredible thing about never climbing a mountain three times, is that it forces you to pay more attention to experience as a whole. I have no doubt that standing on the summit of Mt. Challenger would be an awesome moment, but the real challenge is not that fleeting instant - the challenge is the journey. Life is an uphill (and sometimes downhill) battle. Focusing on a single moment in time, eliminates the importance of all the moments that occurred to get you to that point. If somebody were to offer me a helicopter ride to the summit of Mt. Challenger - I wouldn't accept it. The summit isn't important to me without the steps taken to reach that point, and success is not defined by one snapshot in time. Each second of our lives that we are breathing, climbing, walking, searching, exploring, feeling, trying - each of those seconds is important. We each have our own metaphorical "Challenger" in life - it is different for all of us, but as long as we keep moving, no matter the outcome, the beauty of life reveals itself in ways we might not even expect.
I don't know if I'll ever climb Mt. Challenger. I know that the 12 days, countless blisters, and over 120 miles of hiking that I have given to that mountain have been some of the most difficult and memorable of my life. I know that having the opportunity to share such a special place with two people who mean the world to me is something that I will never take for granted. I know that if we ever go back, it will be just as epic as I can imagine in my wildest dreams.
On the last night of our trip, after the harrowing descent, we set up our final campsite 10 miles from the spot where the water taxi would meet us the next day. We fell asleep listening to a vicious thunderstorm and we hiked out the next day in the soaking rain. Writing about it now, I sense a longing - not necessarily for the summit, but for everything the mountain represents to me. Somewhere, deep in the heart of the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen, Challenger is always waiting and silently beckoning me to return.