- Date: July 15, 2018
- Start: Cascade Pass Trailhead (three miles prior due to road closure)
- Location: North Cascades National Park
- Distance: 19 miles (6-mile round-trip addition because of road closure)
- Duration: 14 hours 41 minutes
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: SummitPost
My headlamp cast a long beam of light into the darkness. Besides Mack walking by my side, it was all I had to comfort me on the stretch of closed road leading to the trailhead. I’m used to alpine starts and hiking in the dark (even by myself!), but I’m used to being out in the open, on the slopes of Wy’east where I feel safe beneath the moonlight or starlit sky illuminating the snowfield beneath my feet. The dense forest that Cascade River Road runs through made me feel vulnerable and nervous about what could be lurking behind the trees or in the brush. I felt more and more confident as we neared the three mile mark though, knowing we’d finally be at the trailhead and starting the switchbacks up to Cascade Pass. Then the beam of light from my forehead hit it. A pair of glowing eyes, low to the ground, looked intently at me from the brush and trees on the side of the road.
We started our hike from the mile marker 20 gate closure at 3 am with heavy eyelids, excited for daylight and the sight of breathtaking mountains. It was an uneventful hike until those glowing eyes. I stopped breathing at the sight of them. “Mack…what is that?” He followed my gaze and saw them too. We began yelling and clacking our poles together. The eyes, a mere 20-30 feet from where we were standing, remained unwavering for the first several seconds. Then, the animal leapt out and took off up the road. Mack was convinced it was only a deer, but I swore I saw a long tail catch the light of my headlamp when it darted away. We hiked up cautiously, still making noise. A minute or two later, the eyes were back, again peering out from the side of the road. If I wasn’t petrified with fear at the first sighting, I sure was now. We shouted even louder this time and after a few moments it took off again. To our relief, we didn’t see those eyes a third time, but the damage was done. I was a nervous wreck for the next hour or so until sunrise. Mack was still under the impression that we’d seen a deer, so the uncomfortably close encounter wasn’t affecting him.
Daylight brought a renewed confidence and we were already about halfway up the long series of switchbacks to Cascade Pass. Our energy only increased as we stepped out of the forest, done with the switchbacks, with a complete view of Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets, sunlight slowly spilling down their sheer rocky cliffs. The sound of rocks crashing down their steep slopes filled the air and reminded us that we were indeed in a beautiful, but also rugged and dangerous mountain range not to be taken lightly. We stopped for a short snack break at Cascade Pass, the first leg of our approach finally complete. Light had yet to fill the valley below us, but Mixup Peak, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak were already soaking it in. I traced the beginning of the Ptarmigan Traverse–something I really want to make happen next summer!–with my finger before it disappeared behind Magic Mountain. We left Cascade Pass Trail and began the trek up to Sahale Arm.
After a few more switchbacks we finally reached the ridge and were rewarded with our first view of Sahale Mountain. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t find it to be that aesthetically pleasing with it’s disproportionately small and pointed nubbin of a summit in relation to the vastness of the rest of the mountain. Of course this didn’t affect my feelings about climbing it! I was beyond excited to put my alpine scrambling skills to the test and rappel off a mountain for the first time ever.
The views only continued to improve as we hiked up to Sahale Glacier Camp. As we gradually climbed the undulating ridge, we got glimpses of Doubtful Lake, sparkling beneath the mid-morning sun far below us. Mountains upon mountains towered high above deep, forested river valleys on either side of us, and the meadow-covered Sahale Arm felt like a scene straight out of an enchanted fairytale kingdom. The final section up to the camp was a steep climb over scree and large, loose rocks (typical North Cascades terrain). We pushed to the camp area as quickly as we could manage and sat down at the edge of the glacier, giving ourselves a breather before tackling the final part of the climb.
We chatted with another group that had just returned from their climb as we strapped our brand new aluminum crampons to our trail runners (the first time ever we’d be crossing a glacier with such minimal, lightweight footwear!). From the beta they provided us, I realized they most likely climbed the wrong peak (neither Boston nor Sahale) but decided not to say anything. (Note: The USGS bench mark on Sahale is marked as ‘Boston’ and this group didn’t know that prior to climbing) We scanned the glacier before stepping onto it, noting only one open crevasse that was well off the current boot path, and opted not to rope up to save time and move faster. Aside from one steep snow section on the southeast side approaching the summit block, the glacier and snow portion was pretty mellow. Once on the rock we dropped our packs and grabbed only what we’d need to rappel, as well as my camera to take some pictures. I may or may not have felt slightly badass coiling our rope into a backpack and wearing it up as I scrambled. Another first! We traversed over to the north side and scurried up the final fourth class pitch with ease. After nearly eight hours, we were finally standing on the summit of our first non-volcanic peak in the North Cascades.
I was a kid in a candy shop looking out on these beloved mountains. My alpine goals grew exponentially as I scanned the neighboring ridge lines, gazing in awe at Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, Sharkfin Tower, Boston Peak, and Mount Buckner. One day soon, I thought. One day soon. We reveled in our successful summit a few moments longer, committing to memory our excitement and exaltation, as well as the incomparable beauty of the surrounding peaks. Back on the south side, we triple checked the quality of some slings left in place then went about setting up the rappel. Mack rapped down first so I could check his set up before he took his first steps off the edge. I followed a few minutes later. We conveniently landed next to the gear we’d stashed earlier and quickly repacked for our return to the glacier camp. The steep snow below the summit block required some patience and focus but from there we enjoyed a fast and easy descent. We made it back around lunch time and lounged around the glacier camp while we feasted on candy and sandwiches.
The hike back to the car took longer than expected mainly because I’d decided to save most of the picture taking of the Sahale Arm for the hike out. Of course, once we entered the forest after Cascade Pass and began the infinite switchbacks down to the trailhead, we were desperate to get back to the car. The most tortuous section of the entire day (aside from waiting for daylight after our suspected cougar encounter) came when we reached the parking lot and remembered that we still had just over three miles left due to the road closure. Not even the views of Johannesburg could inspire me to enjoy this final stretch. We dragged our tired bodies through the late afternoon heat, finally shuffling past the closed gate to our car shortly after 5:30 pm. Despite the six hour drive back home (and work the next morning), all I could think about was the fact that we’d just spent an entire day among the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever laid eyes on and that my dream of alpine climbing in the North Cascades was slowly but surely becoming a reality.