Category Archives: North Cascades

West McMillan Spire, Southern Picket Range, North Cascades National Park, July 28-30 2012

It was another banner snow year in the Cascades, with excellent snow cover even down to lower elevations well into July. Despite doing my best to take advantage of summer skiing, most of July for me and Ida was occupied with wedding planning, wedding, and post-wedding entertainment of family from out of town. The wedding constituted a wondrous series of weeks, but when it was all over, we needed some down time in the mountains. This report is on a quick, but spectacular 3-day trip to West McMillan Spire in the southern Picket Range of the North Cascades.

After a backpacking exploration of the Northern Pickets a few years ago (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5493105136333934049?banner=pwa), we were dying to get into the Southern Pickets, one of the few places in the North Cascades that we hadn’t been to yet. We decided to climb the spectacular West McMillan Spire, a non-technical summit, widely heralded as the easiest climb in the legendary Picket Range.

We began our trip at a casual mid-morning hour on July 28th, hiking up the overgrown logging road which is the Goodell Creek Trail (which runs north up Goodell Creek from the North Cascades Highway just east of Marblemount). After 3 or 4 miles, the Terror Basin climber’s trail leaves the Goodell Creek trail on the right. North Cascades climber’s trails were scouted and cut (and subsequently beaten down by years of climber’s feet) by some of the pioneering climbers in the range (Fred Beckey, Jim Nelson, etc.), and are “unofficial” and usually unmarked paths that are described mainly in climbing guides. The Terror Basin climber’s path is similar to most climber’s paths in the area: steep, unrelenting, improbable in places, overgrown in places, but providing direct access into some of the most rugged, remote, and inaccessible places in the lower 48.

After some 3000 ft. of climbing, we broke out of the old-growth forest and got our first views of the range. The spires of the eastern half of the Southern Pickets were spread out before us, forming a formidable wall with the giant chasm of Terror Creek between us and them. Even West McMillan Spire looked surprisingly intimidating. Across the valley to the west, Mt. Triumph loomed large, with hanging snowfields clinging to smooth rock, threatening to crumble and slide at any moment, especially with the first warm weather of the summer.

Now out of the trees at about 5200 ft., the climber’s trail was covered with snow. Our goal was to make a gradual rising traverse towards a notch about a mile across the hillside, that would lead down into Terror Basin. Working with route descriptions, an altimeter, and a topo map, we navigated up gullies and streambeds, across snow fields, and over ribs, occasionally bushwhacking through islands of trees, backtracking on occasion, until we had traversed the sideslope to within sight of the notch. Approaching the notch, now 5000 ft. above the valley floor, daylight was dwindling and flat spots for campsites were few and far between. The only course of action was to push over the notch. Arriving at the notch we were met with what proved to be the crux of the whole trip. A near vertical wall of snow, about 30 ft. high, formed by blowing winter winds, that would need to be carefully downclimbed.

Given the icy nature of the snow at this time of day, we broke out the rope and lowered packs onto the snowfield below. I belayed Ida down while she kicked toe holds into the snow with her crampons. Finally, I followed down, off belay, using Ida’s steps. Relieved to have this crux accomplished, we continued by headlamp down the rest of the snowfield into Terror Basin, which provided a remarkably flat camp on glacial outwash plains at the foot of the Southern Pickets. Low on blood sugar, and now cold, we fumbled around in the dark, setting up camp and making dinner under bright stars. Later, a large moon rose, illuminating the crags and spires in a ghostly light. Certainly one of the most spectacular camps in the Cascades.

On Day 2 we awoke to a marine layer pushing up all the low valleys. This is a familiar phenomenon in western Washington, and it is commonly seen in the North Cascades. If you are above the clouds, you are fine, but if you are below, you are in for a cold, drizzly experience. Sometimes the layer rises to envelope you. Other times it stays low and pushes over the eastern ridges, cascading down the other side in a waterfall-like fashion. Still other times, it rises and dissipates into wisps. It ended up being the latter for us, at least on this particular day. Still, before the fog rose and dissipated, we were able to take some incredible early morning pictures of an unbroken sea of clouds punctuated by some of the craggiest peaks in the Cascades. Whenever above a fog layer such as this, I enjoy imagining that it is not fog, but the surface of a valley glacier, envisioning how these valleys would have looked when full of ice some 14,000 years ago.

As the sun rose, the clouds began to dissipate, swirling up around the peaks in wisps, as convection currents blew them away. At this point, we were picking our way in and out of gullies, across the snowfields, rock slabs, and a small glacier at the foot of the climb. Finally, we arrived at the steep snow ramp to the col between West McMillan Spire and Inspiration Peak. The snow was in perfect condition and we made quick work to the notch, where we stashed crampons among boulders that were precariously perched on ball-bearing like gravel–recently melted out from under retreating permanent ice. This marked the beginning of the scramble up the broad, loose, 3rd class ridge leading to the summit. As we headed up the airy ridge, the col below us seemed to get smaller and smaller, while behind us the impressive east face of Mt. Terror and the spire-like crags of Inspiration all came into view. Framed between these two spectacular summits was Mt. Baker in the distance, with Mt. Shuksan just to the right.

The final 30 ft. to the summit provided some real exposure down to McMillan Creek and Terror Basin, which, although still 3rd class climbing, began to feel like 4th class. Some concentration on handholds and footholds became necessary, but within a few minutes, we were on the summit, basking in the sunshine and eating lunch. And what a spectacular summit it was! Perched among the crags of the Pickets on a clear early-summer day, and knowing that we had another night at basecamp, we were able to savor the incredible views from this truly inspiring location. Across the valley to the north was the gentle curve of Luna Peak, and beyond that was Eiley-Wiley Ridge, with several of our campsites visible along a route we came to know well on our backpack into the Northern Pickets several years ago. To the south, Eldorado and the Klawatti-Inspiration Ice Fields brought back more fond memories of another recent backpacking trip: (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5495774599329591665?banner=pwa).

Reluctantly, we began to think about descending to the col, a process that took at least as long as going up. Handholds and footholds that were obvious going up now seemed few and far between, as we attempted to look and feel for them on the downclimb. Carefully, we made it back to the col to re-don crampons for the steep snow chute down to the lower snowfields. Once at the lower snowfields, crampons came off and we glissaded another 1500 ft. on a blissful descent that felt like we were just flying over and into the Terror Creek drainage. Careful not to descend too far, we began the traverse back to camp, where the warm sun had heated the rocks, making for a perfect pre-dinner nap.

Day 3 dawned with fog in the valley again, which quickly rose and enveloped us and the peaks. This thick layer would never burn off for the rest of the day, (although it made for pleasant hiking temperatures on the hike out). How lucky we were to have the weather we did on our climbing day!

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Glacier Peak, July 2011.

GLACIER PEAK—snowbound in July, driving rain, and a summit!

Some of you may remember when Glacier Peak, Washington’s 3rd highest volcano, was relatively easily to get to, and there were hot springs at the base camp. Not so any more. The easiest hike in is via the North Fork Sauk through about 10 miles of gorgeous riverside oldgrowth eventually leading to the flower-filled meadows of the Pacific Crest Trail, before one is forced to break out for another 10 miles or so of moderately sloped off-trail walking across alpine and glaciated high country to the summit. As was the trend this year, the road to the trailhead was closed due to a washout about 10 miles from the trailhead. This time we came prepared. We strapped our mountaineering packs onto our mountain bikes and biked 10 miles to the trailhead before heading about 3 miles in for night 1.

A perfect warm sunny day led us the following day up out of the valley across flower filled meadows on a south-facing slope, and then over the ridge and back into a winter landscape to camp—yep, snow camping again. The glaciers of Glacier Peak are well known to be in some of the most rapid recession of any of Washington’s glaciers with the White Chuck Glacier completely gone (although still depicted on maps), but this year you would not have known it. We could have easily skied all the way from the PCT to the summit of Glacier and back on terrain that on an average year at this time is now entirely rock and rubble in some places.

We began climbing before dawn in clear skies, a few clouds on the horizon. But as we hiked onwards in the darkness the shapes of the clouds got bigger and more ominous, with the sun trying to come up but not quite making it. No problem, just some marine air that will burn off, right? Well, Glacier Peak sucked in that marine air, and we were buffeted by cold horizontal rain all day long, huddling in the lee of rocks and ridges at any chance we could get as we trudged up the glaciers towards the summit. After cresting the false summit in driving rain and howling winds, the only recourse was to head down to more sheltered areas in the lee of the summit. Still early, we waited. By late afternoon, patches of blue began to appear and we made a dash up a pumice ridge, and the final rotten snow field to the rime encrusted summit about 1000 ft. above us. The sucker hole got us to the top before clouds closed in again. We trudged the miles of spectacular snowfields and glaciers back to camp while the setting sun painted amazing patterns across the landscape between the clouds. A spectacular day in a landscape of white, perhaps made more dramatic (if less pleasant) by the weather.

Of course, our final day dawned completely bluebird, and made for some truly spectacular walking through emerging flowers and back down into the summery mildness of the old growth forest.

Mt. Baker, climb and ski. July 4th, 2011.

JULY 4TH, 8000 FOOT SKI DESCENT ON MT. BAKER (2011 was a year in which snowpack was about 175% of the climate average!)

True to form, this holiday kicked off summer in Washington, with the first warm weather of the season and only the second really clear weekend of the spring (June 26th being the first). This year the Mt. Baker snowpack was about 175% of the climatological average at Mt. Baker and even on July 4th, deep snow lingered down to 3000 ft., well below treeline. With my Nordic skiing fitness lingering from the ski season, the skin up from our camp to the summit on the gentle south slopes of the mountain felt comfortable. Baker has one of the most geologically active craters in the Cascades and I always make a point to stop and linger, mesmerized by fumaroles and bursts of steam, before pushing onwards, across a well-bridged bergschrund and up the “Roman Wall” to the summit.

The views from the top were some of the most spectacular I have experienced in the Cascades in a long while. With the spring rains finally lifted, and not a cloud in the sky, the clarity of the atmosphere allowed for 100 mile views in every direction, mostly over a sea of white hovering above the dark greens of the incised valleys of the North Cascades, and the broad basin and deep blues of Puget Sound.

The south side of Mt. Baker is not considered a difficult ski, but I will admit that the steep slopes coming off the summit plateau gave me some hesitation as I looked down thousands of feet of mountain, and a yawning house-sized crevasse cutting across the fall-line about 500 feet below. Working over skier’s left, the slopes finally ease after you pass the giant crevasse and then the crater, and then move out onto the broad and moderate glaciers of the lower mountain. The snow conditions were perfect virtually the whole way back to camp from the summit.

The cruise on the lower glaciers was not without its share of adrenaline, however. Baker is famous for enormous crevasses, and although most were well-bridged, my heart momentarily lept into my throat as I peered into an abyss while flying over a hole that had been opened by the previous skier in our group. The snowbridge that looked solid enough from above, was much thinner than any of us imagined, even after careful scouting. A bullet was dodged and a lesson learned here—although I’ve never experienced this kind of situation before after skiing and climbing many glaciers in the northwest, at the very least we probably should have roped up for this section, especially given the warmth of the day. Luckily my speed landed me on the opposite edge and we continued downwards on a run of nearly 8000 vertical feet back to the car. The snow in the trees was icy and covered with pine needles, but our pride pushed us onwards, so far in fact that we found ourselves below the road and on the wrong side of a stream separating us from the car. This meant down climbing a steep snow wall, wading a river in ski boots and clawing our way back up the 6 foot snow wall on the other side before we could complete our final July 4th celebrations with food and refreshments at the car!

Eldorado and Klawatti Icecap, North Cascades National Park, July 2010

Almost immediately following our northern Pickets trip (see previous post), my wife and I embarked on another adventure, exploring the Klawatti icecap and climbing several peaks in the area. We had originally planned to enter via Thunder Creek, and exit via the Eldorado climber’s trail, but several days of stormy weather (which deposited new snow on the glaciers) had us waiting several days in the lowlands for things to clear. We in stead entered and exited via the Eldorado climber’s trail. We had an absolutely spectacular trip in this rugged area. Stories and photos can be found here.

Eiley-Wiley Ridge, northern Picket Range, North Cascades National Park

In July 2010, my wife and I made a trip into the Northern Picket Range, intending to climb Mt. Challenger and/or traverse to Luna Peak. We were stymied by a gloppy snowpack, the first hot sunny weather of the year, and difficult route-finding, but we had an amazing trip nonetheless. Click here for pictures and stories.

Exploring the most northerly part of the North Cascades: Depot Creek (Canada) into the Redoubt Group (USA). July 2009.

Click here for some photos and stories from our trip into this incredibly scenic and little-visited area.

Mt. Shuksan, “crown jewel” of the North Cascades. September 2007.

Here are some pictures and stories from my climb with good friend Chris Templeton of Mt. Shuksan, one of the most photographed (for good reason) peaks in the world (and certainly of the N. Cascades). We brought rock shoes and easily climbed up and down the final rock pyramid. The rest of the climb is an easy glacier ramble (at least by the Sulfide Glacier route).

Shuksan is a large and complex mountain. Some of my earliest forays on Shuksan include several epic visits to Price Lake and the toe of the Price Glacier. This is Shuksan’s steepest side, and perhaps hardest to get to, as there are no official trails. The route to the lake and glacier involves an epic high log crossing of the Nooksack River, followed by a very steep climb through forest. Finally you are greeted with hanging glaciers and avalanche cones ringing a lake in a deep hollow. You can then continue up the slabby ridge to the glaciers coming flowing down from Nooksack Tower, one of Shuksan’s most prominent, but hidden (from most angles) rock features.