Luna Peak

  • Date: August 4-6, 2019
  • Start: Big Beaver Trailhead (water taxi from Ross Dam Trail)
  • Distance: 38 miles
  • Duration: 3 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,800 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: SummitPost
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

“Arrrggghhhh!” A split second later I was on the ground, hand pressed firmly against my throbbing ankle as if it might aid in keeping the inevitable swelling at bay. I wanted to cry. Not from the pain, but from the frustration. We were 16+ miles into a trail-less backcountry on a sweltering August day, surrounded only by the rugged terrain of the North Cascades. Luna Peak pierced the sky thousands of feet above us, a sentinel standing watch over the most magical place in all of Washington. I’d waited years to experience it, to prove to myself that I was ready and worthy of tackling the challenges and making it up there. The pain in my ankle jolted me back to reality. We had a decision to make. I had a decision to make…

After standing awestruck on the summit of West McMillan Spire the previous weekend, I was determined to use my limited vacation days to make it back out to the Pickets and see more of them, to chase that same thrill and exhilaration I’d felt when I finally glimpsed them from Terror Basin. Based on everything I’d read about this particular climb, I knew we’d probably be in for more of a battle than a casual, low-key jaunt in the mountains. With a string of clear, sunny days in the forecast, we left Portland on Saturday morning to start our “vacation,” completely unaware that it would end up being one of the most punishing mountain ventures we’d ever experienced.

The Pickets never let you off easy that’s for damn sure.

False summit of Luna Peak

Day 1: Big Beaver Trailhead to Access Creek Basin, plus hike down to boat launch from Ross Dam Trailhead to get to water taxi (16.3 miles; 9 hours, breaks included)

We hopped off the water taxi and onto the rocky shoreline–the water levels at Ross Lake are so low this year that the boat couldn’t even reach the actual dock!–at Big Beaver.

“See you tomorrow at 5,” said our driver after we thanked him for the ride. 

The sun was already beating down and it was only 8:30 am. Yesterday’s raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream from Cascadian Farm sounded delicious right about now. Nothing in my food bag was nearly as enticing or refreshing, except for maybe the Gatorade jostling around in my water bottle. Thankfully, we entered the shade of the forest and were welcomed with much cooler temps. The 11 miles on Big Beaver Trail were mellow and fairly uneventful. We moved quickly, jogging the flats and downhills and powerhiking the ups and rocky, root-covered sections.

Our Ultimate Direction fastpacks were weighed down with overnight gear, two days of food, and a climbing helmet, but they were still fairly comfortable to run in. This was Mack’s first time getting to use his fastpack for an actual multi-day adventure so he was pretty stoked. It was only my second time. Based on the beta we received from a couple other climbing groups, we were able to leave the crampons and ice axes at home, which made it possible for us to fit all our gear into our 35 liter packs. 

Raspberry-chocolate chip ice cream pit stop on the way to the ranger station
Water taxi ride across Ross Lake to reach Big Beaver Trailhead

Nearing 11 miles, we slowed down to search for a turn off into the brush to reach Big Beaver Creek. There are a couple of different log crossings you can aim for. The single log crossing (which requires continuing a little further on Big Beaver Trail) brings you closer to Access Creek (definitely a plus!). The log jam, which is what we aimed for, is an easier crossing overall, but afterward you have to do some extra bushwhacking to reach Access Creek. We opted for the log jam because I am petrified of log crossings and felt that crossing on a log jam would feel less terrifying than a single log. In retrospect though, we DEFINITELY should’ve aimed for the single log crossing instead. Lesson learned.

It took some mild bushwhacking to reach the log jam, but nothing horrendous. Was this the worst of it? That answer came after we crossed Big Beaver and headed back into the brush to get to Access Creek. We forced our way through the dense riparian vegetation, battling devil’s club, salmonberry, huckleberry, and blueberry bushes, skunk cabbage, vine maple, and a variety of other flora, as well as a good deal of hopping over or walking across slick downed trees, all while flies and mosquitoes swarmed our faces. Slowgoing and a tad annoying (mainly the bugs), but overall not soul crushing. We eventually reached Access Creek. This is where our troubles really began. 

The easy bushwhacking to Big Beaver Creek
Jamming across the log jam!

First off, we made the mistake of not crossing to the north side of Access Creek early on where there’s actually a somewhat decent boot path for the steepest part of the climb along the creek! (We didn’t discover this until the hike out) We stayed on the south side, far too close to the creek, and practically crawled through slide alder for who knows how long. Okay, definitely a little more miserable now. And we were moving ridiculously slow. I sang “Happy Birthday” quietly to myself as a reminder that I was the one putting myself through this mild torture. This was my chosen birthday vacation afterall. We kept our eyes peeled for a stable looking log crossing to get us over to the north side, eventually opting for one that we had to “au cheval” across because it was too slick and narrow to walk on.

Following those shenanigans, we found the ‘shwhacking on the north side to be far less tedious and even managed to stay on a clear path every once in awhile–it disappeared often. Unfortunately, I think we got too comfortable and, even though I had the beta saved on my phone about crossing back to the south side once the boulder fields came into sight, completely forgot to refer to it. We found ourselves venturing deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast (aka the slide alder forest aka one of the nine circles of hell). At first we thought we were following most everyone else’s path until we realized that we were just following the path of all the other poor, hapless souls that had missed the crucial crossing to the south side. But it was too late. We tried navigating our way back but somehow wound up going in a circle! In slide alder! For almost another hour! So demoralizing I didn’t even make an effort to take photos. Mack was getting flustered now, violently thrashing through and cursing at the slide alder as I attempted awkward gymnastic moves through the perpetual series of tree limbs. For the briefest moment, I actually thought, “This is it. This is how I die. Imprisoned and strangled by slide alder.”

We finally made it to the edge of the water, trudged through it (since there were no logs or rocks), shoved our way through more slide alder, and, at long last, collapsed at the base of the boulder field. Mack was already slumped against a rock when I emerged from the last of the slide alder.

“I think we need to make camp now. Luna Col is still nearly 4,000 feet higher and the terrain won’t be any easier,” I said. “We’re going to need an extra day to do this.”

Mack agreed. We continued through the boulder field until we saw an open, bare spot (clearly an established campsite). It was 5 pm, maybe a little after. We’d started the bushwhacking at 12:15 or 12:30. Needless to say, we were beatdown, battered, and broken. And now that we needed to prepare for an additional day, we couldn’t even enjoy our food! After setting up camp, I messaged Tom (Mack’s dad) from our inReach and asked him to call Ross Lake Resort to reschedule our water taxi pickup for Tuesday instead of Monday. He messaged back almost immediately with confirmation. Phew! One less thing to worry about it. We fell asleep to the sound of the rushing creek next to us, awaking a couple times throughout the night to snaffehounds scurrying close to the tent. We pulled our shoes inside so they didn’t fall prey to the pesky scavengers.

Luna Peak still so far away
Smiling despite getting my ass seriously kicked

Day 2: Access Creek Basin to Luna Peak *false* summit, then back to Luna Col (3.7 miles; 9 hours 10 minutes, breaks and setting up camp included)

The tent was already stifling hot by the time we awoke the next morning. I was relieved to see that it was intact and no rodents had chewed through it during the night. The only victim of their insatiable appetites? My trekking pole handles. Better those than the tent! We took our time getting ready for the day since we were only heading to Luna Col and the summit, finally starting out of camp shortly before 9 am. We ran into two other groups almost right away, but after that it was just us for the rest of the day.

Right before we reached the base of the rock gully, I stepped into a concealed rut on a completely unsuspecting and flat section of “trail.” Caught off guard, I didn’t react fast enough and before I knew it I was on the ground clutching my ankle. I could feel it starting to swell within a couple minutes. We moved into the shade of some boulders so I could catch my breath and allow the pain to subside as much as possible. I stared up at the gully. It looked even steeper, looser, and more intimidating now that I couldn’t put weight on my left foot. Were we really going to have to turn around now? After making it so far in? We hadn’t even hiked high enough to see the mountains!

We sat there for a long while, probably close to an hour. I’d already slapped on the ankle brace I’d packed in–thank goodness I’d remembered to bring it!–to start compression, and I kept it elevated as we waited. I couldn’t make up my mind about what to do though. Go back to the previous night’s camp, spend another day and night there to let my ankle rest, then hike back out the next day without ever seeing the mountains or climbing anything? Not moving sounded real nice. Or continue up, being as mindful as possible of the increasingly technical terrain, to camp at Luna Col?

“Mack, what should I do? What should we do?” I asked kind of desperately. 

“You know yourself better than I do. Just be smart and listen to your body,” he responded calmly.

“Do you think I can do it?”

He smiled, and without hesitation, “Of course you can.”

I stood up and began a slow and careful limp up the gully. Mack climbed up nearby, careful to stay away from the fall line beneath me in case I accidentally kicked down any loose rock. The rocks in the lower section of the gully were larger and easier to navigate since they packed down in a somewhat supportive manner (i.e. they didn’t come loose as easily). The higher we got the more scree on slick rock we encountered. We traversed over a little bit of snow up higher and started up the second half of the gully, which started on larger rocks again, but eventually gave way to an actual dirt path on heather benches that switchbacks steeply to the top of the gully. Don’t be fooled by the brief description. From bottom to top, the entire ordeal probably took about two hours, especially since I needed a number of breaks to check in on my ankle. 

Damage wasn’t too bad
Mack coming up the rock gully

Upon reaching the top of the gully, I knew we’d made the right call to keep going. We were immediately met with a view of those jagged spires I’d had the privilege of seeing up close for the first time the previous weekend: the Southern Pickets. And even though I was further away from them this time, they were even more mesmerizing from this vantage. Off the loose rock, we moved a little faster through the steep, outsloping heather meadow, crossing over a handful of flowing water sources, then eventually back onto boulder fields and granite slabs. Luna Col still seemed so far away, especially since we’d actually lost elevation on the traverse from the top of the gully! We scrambled up more loose rock, heather benches, and even a small patch of snow–a welcome change from the loose rock!–before making the final rock moves up to the col and the first visible campsite.

Traversing to Luna Col; Southern Pickets in the distance
Looking out on McMillan Creek and the fringe peaks/high points of the Southern Pickets

Out of the basin, we could now see what the ridge line had been guarding: Luna Lake, the Northern Pickets, and Mount Fury at the heart of the entire range. It was official. I was standing in the most beautiful place in all of Washington, gazing at the most incredible subrange of mountains in the most incredible mountain range ever. Even with a mildly sprained ankle holding me back, I felt like the luckiest person alive in that moment. And I knew it was only going to get better the higher we climbed. 

We set up camp first, opting for a site with unobstructed views of the Northern Pickets behind it. After some snacks, we set out for the summit of Luna Peak. It was the easiest terrain we’d been on all day. Sure the rock was loose, but at least it wasn’t straight scree all the way up. There was even a discernible boot path for a good chunk of the approach. The scramble up from the col to the summit can be done fairly fast, but I found myself turning around quite often as the view of the Pickets improved and I could finally see the northern and southern halves meet to form a continuous, unbroken spine. 

Most beautiful spot I’ve ever set up a tent
Northern Pickets and Luna Lake
Heading up!
Just below the false summit

At the false summit, we paused to assess the final ridge to the true summit. As expected based on previous trip reports and beta from friends, it definitely appeared to be more demanding than class 3. I was eager to give it a go, but my ankle had not felt very strong on the easy class 2 scramble up to the false summit. The traverse was high consequence with no room for error. A fall would almost certainly be fatal. Mack was content to hang out where we’d stopped, but I stared longingly across the ridge. In the end, common sense and caution won out. I assured myself that I’d return with two solid ankles and tackle it then. 

To keep from feeling too down about bailing on the final traverse, I kept myself occupied by snapping photo after photo of the surrounding views, studiously referring to the North Cascades map I’d carried up to try and identify the most distinguishable peaks around us, and rewarding myself/deviating from rationing with a couple of summit treats. We stayed up there, savoring the solitude, for nearly an hour. I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that I had finally made it up here. I’d had similar feelings about West McMillan the previous weekend since that was my first time experiencing the Pickets. But this place? This particular spot? This was something else entirely. 

Ridge to the true summit
Magical
Koma Kulshan and Shuksan behind the Northern Pickets
Summit snacks!

The magic of the climb wore off once we reached camp again. The sun was still pretty high and our campsite offered no shade. The heat and exposure combined with the food rationing finally hit me. And hard. My head was spinning and I slumped down on a shaded, slabby rock wall around the corner from our tent, forcing myself to eat and drink to stave off the inevitable headache and nausea the best I could. The sun was still high when we crawled into the tent. Mack packed some nearby snow into a ziploc bag so I could ice my swollen ankle (as well as my aching head). To pass the remaining daylight hours, he turned on a podcast about Belle Gunness,–holy shit her story is insane!!!–and I buried my face into my makeshift pillow, trying not to vomit from the wave of nausea that consumed me. I did manage to drag myself out of the tent for a few minutes to watch the sunset a couple hours later though. Totally worth it.

Enjoying the shade after hours of sun exposure
Sunset
Goodnight, Pickets!

Day 3: Luna Col to Big Beaver Trailhead, plus hike up to Ross Dam Trailhead from boat launch (18 miles; 11 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)

It was still completely dark outside when we packed everything up. Our water taxi pickup time was 5:30 pm, and after the shenanigans of the past couple days (particularly the first day), we both decided it would be best if we started at first light, guaranteeing us 12.5 hours to reach Ross Lake. It seemed like a good chunk of time–perhaps more than we needed–but I was nervous, especially since my ankle was still swollen and in pain. Navigating the talus and boulders below Luna Col was slow because of my ankle, but once we reached the heather slopes we were moving faster. I stopped a few times to take in some final views of the Southern Pickets as first light gradually washed over their steep, rugged faces. What a difficult place to leave. 

I was most nervous for the loose rock gully. I took a few deep breaths before starting down the steep switchbacks, concentrating on each step while mosquitoes dive bombed my face (literally the ENTIRE TIME we were in the gully; it was probably the crux of descent). I forced myself to only focus on one section of the giant gully at a time. Section one: the steep switchbacks through the mountain heather. Done. Section two: traverse left over loose rock, some scree to brief snow crossing (which was basically melted out at the spot we chose). One minute break. Section three (my least favorite): cross snow patch and carefully descend steepest section of this part of the gully on mostly scree on slick rock. Section four: back on mostly bigger rocks and talus with slope gradually becoming more mellow as it nears headwaters of Access Creek. We made it down (from the top of the gully) unscathed in less than two hours! The scariest section was over for me. We were back at Access Creek basin camp 20 minutes later and took a 15 minute hydration/cool down/mental decompression/snack break before starting part two of the journey back: the Access Creek bushwhack.

Morning glow on the Southern Pickets
Mack hiking into the sunrise (with Elephant Butte [?] on his right)
Farewell

Learning from the first day’s mistakes, we stayed on the southern boulder field until reaching its terminus, completely bypassing the slide alder forest of madness and misery. We crossed Access Creek to the north side (i.e. walked right thru it since there were no suitable log crossings) and continued down a fairly discernible path. We’d made it through the most dreaded section! Woo! The bushwhacking was very moderate on this side. There was actually a path to follow for at least half of it (although it disappeared and reappeared constantly).

Close to where we crossed from the south side of Access to the north side on the first day, we continued down the clearest continuous path (on the north side NOT the south side) and it took us almost all the way to where Access Creek meets Big Beaver! Damn did we screw up big time on the first day! At least things were going much better on the hike out. We bushwhacked for a couple minutes along Big Beaver to reach a single log crossing (rather than bushwhack a half mile downstream to reach the log jam). Another few minutes of moderate bushwhacking after the log crossing spit us out onto Big Beaver Trail. Actual trail. After a long morning of cross country travel. And we’d made it back well before noon (our goal time).

Crossing Big Beaver
Bushwhack back to the trail

We took a longer break (maybe 30-40 minutes) just past Luna Camp since we knew we could easily make it back to Ross Lake well before our scheduled pickup time. The next few hours after that break though were downright miserable. Although Big Beaver Trail isn’t a difficult trail, we were now hiking midday during a heatwave. Not even the shade of the forest cooled us. The air was moist and heavy. I felt like I was suffocating. I thought we’d be able to push all the way to Ross Lake without stopping, but we had to stop numerous times to refill water because we went through it so quickly in the heat. And the mosquitoes. Oh my god the mosquitoes! They only became worse and worse. And because of my ankle, we weren’t able to jog like we had on the first day. I was ready to lose it after a couple of hours.

We finally reached the lake shore about four hours after we’d stopped at Luna Camp. We still had over an hour to kill, so we went for a dunk in the lake, cleansing ourselves of at least some of the grime and stink of the past couple days. I still felt absolutely disgusting, but at least it was a little less now! On the water taxi ride back, I contemplated our surroundings and how far we’d hiked on this trip. You couldn’t even see where we’d been from where we were now! Every year now (since first visiting the North Cascades in 2017), we were seeing and experiencing more and more aspects of these mountains. And every year, regardless of their brutality and harshness, I fall more and more in love. If I was only able to explore this place for the rest of my life, I would consider it a life well lived. 

I wonder what my 30th birthday adventure will be next year. Oh the possibilities…

Heading back to shade after a quick dip in Ross Lake
Never gonna be a leg model
“Sitting on the dock of a bay…”
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West McMillan Spire

  • Date: July 27-28, 2019
  • Start: Goodell Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Elevation gain: 9,000 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Resources: The Mountaineers
  • Ancestral land of the Nlaka’pamux people

My eyelids fluttered open. I looked at my phone and groaned. The alarm had yet to go off, so why was I awake? Rainwater trickled down the fly as I unzipped the cold, damp door and pulled it back. My jaw literally dropped. A star-studded night sky greeted me and there in the distance, after being shrouded in thick clouds all the previous day, was the clear silhouette of the jagged spires comprising the Southern Pickets. 

I first heard about the Picket range maybe three or four years ago, even before our very first trip to the North Cascades. Summer after summer I considered planning an adventure out there, but phrases like “daunting” and “not for the faint of heart” and “experienced mountaineers” kept me from going. I wanted to be ready. I wanted to do it right.

Ironically, this first trip was planned almost completely on a whim and not coming at a good time in terms of where I was at mentally. Over the past month, I’d backed out of or failed to complete a couple bigger climbing goals, I dropped from the 100K race I’d been training months for,–this climbing trip would be the same weekend as the race–and, in general, I’d been feeling hollow, an empty shell, for much of the summer. Like I wasn’t doing enough or pushing myself or challenging myself enough. Like I wasn’t enough. Last week, after finally giving in to my anxiety and withdrawing from the aforementioned race, all I knew was I wanted to be in the mountains. And I wanted it to be the Picket range. 

Summit of West McMillan

Day 1: Goodell Creek Trailhead to Terror Basin (7.2 miles; 7 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)

Following a restless evening attempting to sleep at a rest stop and a long wait for overnight permits at the Wilderness Information Center in the morning, Caylee and I finally pulled up to a surprisingly full parking area shortly before Upper Goodell group campsite. The air was thick when we stepped out of our cars. I tried not to think about what this would mean for the lower, brushier section of the approach along Goodell Creek. 

I knew the climber’s trail was going to be a doozy, gaining somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 feet over the course of 2.5 miles, but what I didn’t expect was the 4-4.5 mile approach TO the climber’s trail to be as miserable as it was! Despite only gaining about 1,000 feet, there were what felt like hundreds of downed trees to crawl over,–never easy with an overnight pack–long sections of sopping wet brush (thanks to the recent stormy weather) to push our way through, and, worst of all, incessant, vicious, bloodthirsty mosquitoes that ate us alive no matter how fast we hiked or how often we swatted them away! The Pickets were already living up to their notoriety. 

After a couple of hours we reached the well-marked climber’s trail turn off and began the steep ascent to Terror Basin. The trail was thankfully well worn and easy to follow despite being unmaintained. There was still some brush and downed trees to contend with, and the trail was seriously steep, but at least we weren’t being aggressively hunted by ravenous mosquitoes! Although now it was gnats unintentionally getting stuck to our sweaty faces. I occasionally checked my phone to make sure we were following the gpx track I’d downloaded ahead of time, but the trail seemed so clear that I didn’t keep a super close eye on it [gpx track]. Then, somewhere around 4,000 feet, we lost it in a boulder field at the base of a sheer rock wall. Confused, I pulled out my phone. Sure enough, we were off-route and should’ve ended up somewhere ABOVE  the rock wall, not below it. 

We wasted nearly an hour trying to figure out how to get back on the correct, least resistant path. After several attempts to seek out a path above the boulder field (which only led to thick patches of devil’s club), we started hiking back, scanning the area carefully for an uphill turn off. I stopped at a spot that earlier had made me think, “Huh…that’s weird,” because a medium sized rock, with no other rocks in close proximity, sat in the middle of the trail near a downed tree. I looked on the uphill side, past the downed tree, and there, slightly obscured under a low hanging branch, was a small cairn. Finally, here was the turn we’d missed. Despite being back on track, we were in low spirits following the navigation mishap.

“Beer and burgers sure sound nice right about now,” said Caylee, more seriously than jokingly.

I agreed, but I knew if we dwelled on that thought for too long, we’d definitely end up turning around. We kept slogging on uphill.

The next portion of the climber’s trail took us through a series of class 3 (not exaggerating) tree root scrambles. And I thought getting over downed trees with an overnight pack was difficult! The strong tree roots did make for good veggie belays though. At long last we finally exited the forest onto a more open ridgeline…with no views. Where there should’ve been mountains upon mountains for miles and miles, there were heavy clouds. That forecast for “clear, sunny” skies after 11 am–it was now past 4 pm–was a load of crap. At least they were moving, and we did occasionally get glimpses of blue sky and mountains as we hiked higher. We followed the trail through heather meadows and boulder fields up to a notch at around 6,000 feet. Terror Basin and the prospect of camp, as well as an end to the day’s tortuous approach, were now just a few hundred feet below us!

Caylee hiking toward the notch; starting to get a little bit of a view

We carefully picked our way down the steep, slick scree slope, working hard to stay balanced with our bulky packs. Now that we were over the notch we could see the camp area. At least three or four tents dotted the basin below. After getting off the scree, we plunge-stepped down steep, soft snow to finally reach our home for the night. 

Terror Basin is known for having absolutely breathtaking views of the Southern Pickets, well worth the arduous undertaking to reach the basin. Unfortunately, we were completely socked in. From speaking with some other climbers in the basin, the weather had been terrible, even downright raging, for a good part of the day. My hope for decent climbing weather the next morning began to dwindle, but I worked to keep that small sliver of positivity alive.

I messaged Mack from the inReach to let him know we’d reached our camp. While we’d been trudging up to Terror Basin, Mack had been racing in the inaugural Wy’east Howl 100K (a race that I had also planned to run but ultimately dropped out of earlier that week). I hadn’t seen him since Friday morning. As silly as it sounds, it was the longest we’d been away from each other in nearly a year. His non-presence had left a noticeable void, which I felt even more as I lay in my tent, completely alone, for the first time ever. I’d been thinking about him all day, looking at the time, wondering what part of the course he was on, how he was holding up. His goal was to podium. I stared at the inReach screen for a few minutes, hoping a message from him might pop up. Nothing. I turned it off to conserve the battery. It was still light outside, but me and Caylee had crawled into our tents early, our battered bodies ready for sleep and probably not ready to climb the next morning. 

Socked in at Terror Basin
First time ever sleeping completely alone in a tent!

Day 2: Terror Basin to West McMillan Spire summit, then back to Goodell Creek Trailhead (11.8 miles; 13 hours 50 minutes, breaks and packing up camp included)

The morning brought renewed hope and excitement as I stepped outside to unobstructed views of the Southern Pickets and the day’s objective prominently front and center. While researching and planning this climb, I’d gazed starry-eyed at accompanying photos on Google. But being there and experiencing it in person after only seeing it through someone else’s photos for years? I could’ve cried I was so overwhelmed with gratitude. 

We waited until it was light enough that headlamps weren’t necessary before setting out. A group of five climbers from the Mountaineers group had started shortly before us. We followed their path, but, after the previous day’s mishap, I also kept a close eye on my gpx track.

“How long do you think it’ll take to reach the summit? Maybe another hour or two?” asked Caylee, about an hour into the approach. 

“Maybe,” I started, “but to be more conservative, I’d estimate closer to three.”

“Three more hours?! I’m not sure I’m up for that…”

Caylee paused, mulling over her options, looking at West McMillan and looking back at camp. 

“I’m going to call it here. I’m just really not feeling it today,” she concluded. 

I was sad to see her go, knowing we wouldn’t get to share the summit together and that we’d both be hiking back to our cars alone on that god-awful terrain. For a moment, I considered turning around with her, a little uncertain about completing the remainder of the climb by myself. A relaxing morning in camp and getting back to the car by early afternoon sounded nice. But when was I actually going to make it back out here to attempt West McMillan again? And how many climbs had I already bailed on over the past few weeks? I couldn’t turn around. Not yet. Time to embrace being alone and uncomfortable.

Clear views in the morning; can you spot my tent?
Southern Pickets are gorgeous

I caught up to the Mountaineers group shortly after Caylee turned around, staying a short ways behind to avoid leapfrogging with them and/or accidentally dividing their group. We all eventually stopped for a brief break and got to chatting.

“You look familiar,” said one of the guys. “Is your name Theresa by chance?” 

The climbing community is a small world, made even more close-knit with the advent of Facebook groups, where Jonathan had seen some of my posts from other climbs and recognized me. A funny coincidence indeed. A coincidence though that also made me feel a little less alone and nervous about being without a partner on this unfamiliar mountain. (Sidenote: Jonathan wrote a fantastic trip report about this climb and took some gorgeous photos to accompany the report! Check it out here!)

After their group stopped for another break further up, I decided to keep pushing on, anxious to get up and start the tedious task of downclimbing. I saw the two other climbers we’d met in camp the previous day making their way up the steep snow to the saddle below the west ridge route. I laced up my crampons and followed their tracks up. The snow was still firm (which wasn’t my favorite for trying to kick in steps with trail runners), but up higher I found some great steps kicked in by the climbers in front of me and took full advantage of them. I got off the snow a bit earlier than I should’ve and ended up doing some sketchy scrambling on heinous, chossy rock to reach the beginning of the west ridge. I thought after the snow the summit would seem closer. Wrong.

Terror Glacier and the Barrier

It took almost another hour of precarious and exposed scrambling on varied terrain (scree, talus, dry and wet slab–class 3 and even some class 4 sections) to finally reach the summit ridge. Far more involved than I’d anticipated! I dropped down off the spine and followed a surprisingly mellow path to the true summit though. It was 9 am when I stepped onto the summit, about 3 hours and 40 minutes since I’d left camp. 

The two climbers before me, Mary and Vazul, were just about to head back along the ridge when I arrived. We chatted for a few minutes and Mary mentioned she’d seen some of my posts on the PNWOW Facebook page. Another small world coincidence! What a morning! I stayed on the summit by myself for a few extra minutes, signing the register, and soaking in the 360-degree views of this mythical range. Three years of daydreaming and I was finally getting a small taste of it. I could’ve sat there for hours honestly, but I knew the downclimb (especially of the west ridge and the steep snow) was going to be 10x more difficult than the climb up. Time to get moving! 

Inspiration Peak
Looking toward the Northern Pickets, Koma Kulshan, and Shuksan
Azure Lake
Summit selfie
Summit register

I passed the Mountaineers group and Mary and Vazul on the summit ridge as I descended. Knowing the risk of rockfall on this section, I was happy to be putting space between us. Aside from a couple of airy moves, the downclimb of the west ridge wasn’t too bad. Getting back onto the snow was a different story though. I knew I’d gotten off the snow too early on the way up, but I was nervous about taking a different way down, so, likely against my better judgement, I opted to take the same way down. That heinous rock that I’d had to scramble up earlier was even more terrifying to downclimb! I took slow, deep breaths for each sketchy move I had to commit to, desperately hoping the rock would hold my weight and not crumble beneath me. Once I was close enough to the snow, I got back on, even though I was still a ways from where I’d planned to. 

The steep snow, though a little nervewracking, felt far safer than the questionable rock. Part way down, I looked up to see Mary and Vazul. They’d made it onto the snow much quicker than I had since they were smart and DIDN’T attempt to scramble down terrible rock. Vazul breezed by me about halfway down the snow slope. Once the slope angle mellowed out, I turned and plunge-stepped/standing-glissaded down the rest of the way to where the rock began again. Mary and the Mountaineers group arrived a few short minutes after. 

I followed Mary and Vazul back to camp so I didn’t have to navigate the sea of granite slabs by myself. We made the time pass with talk of past and future climbs and goals. I was amazed that this was Mary’s first season of climbing and she’d tackled a peak in the Pickets! Watching her climb, I wouldn’t have guessed it was only her first season! I rolled into camp a few minutes after them around 1:30 pm. As expected, Caylee’s tent was gone. A small part of me had hoped she’d still be there but I knew the chances were slim. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait around either, especially since I returned way later than I’d anticipated. The climb had taken an unexpected EIGHT HOURS round-trip just from camp! I slipped off my socks and shoes to air them out, hastily packed up my gear, and got a quick message out to Mack that I was about to hike back out. To my delight, I saw a message from him when I turned on the inReach. He’d taken 2nd place in the Wy’east Howl!!!! Despite how exhausted I was, reading that filled me with so much joy, even more joy than standing on the summit of West McMillan. My eyes welled up with tears at the thought of him crossing that finish line and finally getting to stand on that podium he’d trained so hard for. I was ready to go home now and congratulate him in person. 

Terror Basin seems so far away…

I was off and heading up to the notch around 2:15 pm. Once over the notch and back on some semblance of trail, I moved quickly, stopping once every hour to get a swig of water–it was super toasty out with the sun beating down on me!–and attempt to stomach a snack. I didn’t want to get too caught up in taking photos despite finally having clear views, but I did take a moment to snap one of the Southern Pickets before re-entering the forest.

As expected, the tree root scrambling to get back into the forest was slow and frustrating, but once back on less technical terrain, I made an effort to jog what I could. By the time I finally made it down to the junction with Goodell Creek “trail”, my knees felt like they were about to burst and I was completely soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity. Since the summit of West McMillan, I’d descended about 8,000 feet over 5-5.5 miles. Ugh. I collapsed next to the cairn and lay there for a few minutes to mentally prepare myself for the next slew of mosquito-infested miles back to the car.

It was bad. Really bad. In addition to the endless mosquito attacks, I’d somehow forgotten about a lot of the brush and, more importantly, the seemingly endless obstacle course of downed trees that I had to belly flop over because I was too tired to pick up each leg. And of course, each time I slowed down to maneuver over each tree, the mosquitoes swarmed in full force.  I finally extricated myself from that bullshit mess when I stepped out into the parking pullout at 7:15 pm, five hours after leaving camp. 

I called Mack in Marblemount when I got enough cell service and practically broke down in tears. After three days of almost no sleep and completing a more difficult adventure than I’d anticipated, I was utterly exhausted, filled with a lot of emotions, and stressed about the 5+ hour drive back to Portland. Everything hurt, I was on my period (why did I think this climb was a good idea?), I was surviving off half a bagel, a pack of Gushers, and a couple measly bites of a tuna sandwich (which was all I’d managed to stomach throughout the day), and all I wanted to do was lay down and not move for hours. At the same time, I was overjoyed to finally hear Mack’s voice again (although it was filled with concern about my current mental state). Ultimately, I didn’t make it home until 7 am the following morning, opting to pull over and rest my mind and body to avoid putting myself and other drivers at risk. 

All in all, it was one of the more difficult climbs that I’ve done (especially since I didn’t expect most of it to be solo). Despite the numerous physical and mental struggles, I can only look back on this adventure with fondness though. My first foray into the Pickets, where I proved to myself that I am stronger and more capable than I often think I am. 

Goodbye, Southern Pickets!

Eldorado Peak

  • Date: August 5, 2018
  • Start: Cascade River Road (mile marker 20)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Duration: 15 hours 30 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: The Mountaineers

Just one more hill. Just one more hill and finally, after 5,000+ feet of climbing (over three miles I should add), we’d finally get a glimpse of the Queen of the Cascade River herself.  My mind and body seemed to forget about the morning’s intense vert once my boots hit the snow of Eldorado Glacier. I scampered up the long incline with a surprising pep in my step, overcome with excitement and impatience. The North Cascades just have that effect it seems, no matter how difficult the journey. Despite getting eaten alive by mosquitos all morning while navigating steep, technical trail with heavy mountaineering gear on our backs; despite the fact that the blue skies were choked with wildfire smoke and a veil of haze transformed many of the surrounding peaks into mere sihouettes; despite being hours away from finishing and another several hours from home, I felt nothing but pure, unadulterated joy as I stood on the edge of Inspiration Glacier and gazed in wonder at the classic East Ridge of Eldorado Peak.

When Ali threw out the idea of climbing Eldorado together just a few days earlier, I didn’t think twice before enthusiastically responding ‘yes.’ So what that we’d just driven all the way up here the weekend before for a Dakobed C2C? So what that we had a week-long California trip to plan for starting three days later? Mountain conditions were looking fantastic and there was no way I was going to turn down a North Cascades alpine adventure, especially another C2C of a peak I’d been dying to climb for over a year. On Saturday night we met up for dinner at Marblemount Diner following a long afternoon on the road, then caravanned up Cascade River Road to the familiar lot at mile marker 20. We set our alarms and braced ourselves for the early morning wake-up.

Shortly before 5 am we found ourselves carefully scrambling across the slick log over North Fork Cascade River and making our way into the dense forest by the light of our headlamps. As anticipated, the trail was incredibly steep and covered in thick tree roots that snaked across the narrow boot path, creating something of a staircase in sections. Reaching the boulder field and exiting the darkness of the forest was a relief, especially with views of Johannesburg, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets to greet us. Of course this section wasn’t without its downsides. If navigating the boulders wasn’t slow going enough, we also had vicious, persistent mosquitoes to contend with.

Soon enough though we were back on actual trail, hiking past waterfalls and continuing up a slope of mountain heather and granite slabs. Completely unobstructed, jaw-dropping views to the south made it difficult to leave Eldorado Basin. I probably could’ve spent all day sprawled out on some granite staring at the mountains surrounded by pink mountain heather blooms with only the sound of rushing water to keep me company. Instead, we followed the path up to the ridge on our left, then traversed and dropped down into Roush Basin via a class 3 gully. At least the first half of our approach was officially complete.

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Looking out toward Cascade Pass

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Easier going up than down

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Sunbathing, hoping for food scraps, or both?

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Johannesburg from Eldorado Basin

After a bit more scrambling at the base of the gully we crossed into the basin and dropped our packs upon reaching a flat section to sit and enjoy a well deserved snack break. It was mid to late morning now and we still had close to 3,000 feet of gain and a glacier to cross. I refrained from dwelling on it too much and savored my chocolate GU, as well as the view of the surrounding landscape. Large swathes of crevasses appeared scattered in patches on Eldorado Glacier. I observed the group ahead of us heading onto the glacier, taking note of their path for when we reached it.

No longer on steep terrain, we moved quickly across the granite basin, donned our crampons at the edge of the snow, and began another uphill stretch. The snow was already quite soft but it was thankfully still possible to kick steps without sliding backward or expending more energy than necessary. Johannesburg was back in sight behind us, a pleasant distraction from the continuous incline whenever I did turn around. Most of the time though, I kept my eyes on the horizon in front of me, eagerly anticipating the first view of Eldorado. One final climb above the ice cliff  and my wish was finally granted.

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Setting up the timer on my camera

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Snack break in Roush Basin

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Hiking up Eldorado Glacier

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Mack and the ice cliff

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Admiring the East Ridge

We all paused for a moment as we stood at the meeting of the two glaciers, soaking in the scene, knowing it would only become more magical as we neared the summit of the peak before us. I could also see Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak further north across Inspiration Glacier. Another reason to plan a future climbing adventure in this area. We enjoyed the flat-ish traverse across Inspiration to reach a gap on the East Ridge where we got off the snow and took another break to eat, reapply sunscreen, and rope up for the final push.

Through the gap and back on the snow it was all uphill again. There were only a handful of visible crevasses and the boot path skirted around them easily enough. Part of me wished we hadn’t roped up with what seemed like little crevasse fall risk, but I knew I’d probably appreciate it once we were on the exposed knife edge. After what felt like a relatively quick ascent (although it probably took us longer than it felt), we were standing at the base of the infamous knife edge, anxiously waiting our turn to ascend while a pair of climbers ahead of us finished their descent.

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Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak

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East Ridge

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Ali and Brad on Inspiration Glacier with Moraine Lake far below

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Climbers descending the knife edge

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Although not as terrifying or intimidating as I thought it would be (granted it had been packed down significantly at this point in the season), the traverse of the knife edge was by far the most exhilarating part of the entire climb, especially with the long runouts on either side of us. At the top of the edge, the route plateaued and widened all the way to the rocky summit at its conclusion. The group ahead of us was just starting to traverse back across and descend, so we lucked out with the summit to ourselves! It was around 1:30 pm when we finally dropped our packs on the summit, just over 8.5 hours since crossing North Fork Cascade River in the dark!

The sky was still hazy as ever, but the “endless sea of peaks” view that I’ve come to find typical of the North Cascades had not been tarnished. Just like I had on Sahale, I dreamt of future climbing endeavors as I stared off into these isolated, rugged ranges, wondering what challenges and mysteries they held. Maybe one day I’ll see for myself. We took some obligatory summit photos, grabbed another quick bite to eat, then booked it down (carefully of course ) the knife edge and glacier, looking forward to unroping back at the gap. My absolute favorite view of the entire approach was on this section of Inspiration Glacier: Moraine Lake, a delightful turquoise gem, with the towering Torment-Forbidden traverse watching over it from high above.

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Best part of the climb hands down

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Summit!

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Ali and Brad descending the knife edge

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Not even the smoky haze could ruin this view

Back at the gap we packed up the glacier gear and (surprise, surprise) ate more snacks. We still had a ways back to the car afterall! Mack and Ali also took advantage of the composting toilet here. Although I didn’t see it with my own two eyes, they both swore it provided one of the best backcountry bathroom views either of them had ever experienced. Better than digging a hole or packing it out, too! We were all pretty exhausted now, especially with the heavy afternoon sun beating down on us, but at least the snow was easy on our joints as we lost elevation quickly. We made it back to Roush Basin just after 2:30 and, with how quickly we were moving, thought that we might actually make it back to our cars by or before 7 pm! Naturally, I was wrong.

Navigating back through Roush Basin to scramble up the gully and regain Eldorado Basin wasn’t terribly difficult, but I was starting to feel some aching in my knees and even moreso in my poor toes getting shoved to the front of my boots. Ali suggested I take some ibuprofen but I said it wasn’t that bad and I could probably make it back to the car without too much pain. Wrong again of course. The unforgiving nature of granite took its toll on my body almost immediately as we started through the dreaded boulder fields. I struggled to keep up and eventually asked Mack (read: chided him for not noticing how far behind I’d fallen in the first place) to stay closer or hike behind me so I didn’t get separated from everyone.

Ali and Brad continued on down, seemingly unaffected by the steep grade after so many hours spent on our feet. I envied their energy but kept putting one foot in front of the other as best I could, cursing the entirety of the final half mile. Once the river came into view though, the pain seemed to diminish. Ali and Brad had finished a few minutes earlier and were now soaking their sore feet and legs in the water, celebratory beers in hand. It was just around 8:20 pm, and a six hour drive back home (as well as work the following morning) awaited all of us. Steep climbing and marathon driving. Signs of another exhausting but perfect North Cascades weekend, this time made even better by the presence of friends who also find  joy and worth in long, challenging days in the mountains. Now to plan our next North Cascades double date alpine adventure…

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Back in the beautiful Eldorado Basin

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Black Peak

  • Date: September 7, 2018
  • Start: Rainy Pass Trailhead
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 12 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 35 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: SummitPost

My phone alarm went off like a blaring siren, filling the confined space in the back of my Crosstrek. I fumbled frantically in the dark for it, embarrassed that I was disturbing the rare silence and solitude in the normally crowded Rainy Pass Trailhead. After turning it off (as well as all the subsequent alarms I had set), I pulled my sleeping bag and blanket back over my face. I wasn’t feeling sleep deprived. In fact, I was quite awake and ready to greet the day. What I wasn’t ready for was setting off alone on a trail I’d never been on and scrambling up a peak I’d never navigated before. It was my final weekend before full-time work started again though, so I wasn’t about to let fear ruin my last climbing adventure of the summer.

My on-a-whim solo trip to the North Cascades began two nights earlier. I set out from Portland late Wednesday night in hopes of soloing Mount Shuksan on Thursday. Unfortunately, I underestimated my ability to stay awake for the entirety of the drive and ended up having to make several nap stops. I made it to the trailhead much later than expected/was ideal but attempted the climb anyways. I only made it as far as the glacier, turning around just before high camp.

I was disappointed, convinced that my solo endeavor was ruined, and planned to hightail it back to Portland, probably moping the entire way. However, after a much needed stress-free nap back in the car, I realized how silly I was being and decided to head out further east to attempt my contingency climb, Black Peak. I made some last ditch efforts to find a partner to go with so I wouldn’t have to climb alone but none panned out. However, as I watched the sun set behind Ruby Mountain, savoring the last rays of light as they danced across the surface of Diablo Lake, I knew that going at this alone was exactly what I needed.

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Magnificent Koma Kulshan while heading up to Shuksan

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Trying to have some fun with a self-timed jump shot after calling it quits

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Sunset over Diablo Lake 

As expected, the trail was empty when I set off shortly after 7:30 am. My senses were heightened. I found myself constantly turning around, jumping at every snapped twig and rustle in the brush. The first mile and a half passed quickly and soon I was out of the trees, feeling a little less on edge, and overlooking Heather Lake. The fall colors for which the Heather-Maple Pass area is famous were just starting to reveal themselves. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how vibrant they’d be in a few short weeks.  I left the loop trail and continued on to Lewis Lake. A brief jaunt through a meadow brought me to my first view of Black Peak. The pictures I’d seen while researching the scramble didn’t do justice to the rugged, yet simple, beauty of this peak. Only a long stretch of boulder fields and two alpine lakes lay between me and the final approach.

I felt like an ant in the ocean of boulders leading to Lewis Lake. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to end up on a worn path of sorts, but most of the time I was carefully picking my way through endless unstable rocks. After a few solid ups and downs, I finally reached Lewis Lake. Although the view of Black Peak from the eastern shore was stunning, I didn’t find the lake all that impressive. Then, I made my way around to the western side (in order to continue to Wing Lake) and turned around to get one last look. What a difference. It’s milky aqua green tint was like nothing I’d ever seen. The variety of colors surrounding the water (from the bright red huckleberry leaves and forest green to the glistening pale grey of the granite field) only enhanced its mesmerizing qualities. Every couple of feet I would turn around and snap photo after photo of the scene from this angle.

The scenery only continued to improve as I climbed the steep, technical trail leading to Wing Lake. I still hadn’t seen another soul, and, to my surprise, I was actually delighted! The sun was shining, skies were blue, and layers upon layers of mountains filled my immediate view. I didn’t need an adventure companion in this moment to be content. It felt good to realize how happy and confident/competent I was by myself. It was late morning (between 10 and 10:30 maybe) when I crested the final hill and Wing Lake came into view. I stopped along the shore for a snack break. The remainder of the climb was now completely visible to me so I studied it while I sucked down a GU. So close but still a ways to go, I concluded.

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Lake Ann

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Lewis Lake with Black Peak in the background

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Favorite angle of Lewis Lake

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Wing Lake with Black Peak towering above

I briefly enjoyed some runnable singletrack before hitting the loose rock of the moraine above Wing Lake. It became more of a trudge (but an enjoyable trudge!) from there to the summit. After doing my best to make quick work of the short and steep switchbacks on the moraine, I scampered across the soft snow to end up just below a col on the south ridge. The only thing that stood between us? An intimidating, particularly steep, scree slope. Even getting up was a little nerve-wracking. Not only was the surface level rock incredibly loose, but the layer was shallow with slick rock underneath. There was practically no solid rock to grab onto whenever I started to slide. I tried not to think about the descent once I finally made it to the top of the col.

The rest of the way was far more enjoyable. More scrambling over solid rock and less scree sliding. The lakes below were mere dots against the mountainous terrain now. I could also finally see some of my favorite peaks further west. The jagged outlines of Goode, Storm King, and Logan were at the forefront, but I swore I could even make out Buckner and Sahale beyond them. Either way it was an endless sea of peaks that stretched so far back I couldn’t distinguish where the sky met their summits.

After ascending a gully, I followed a slightly more worn “path” to the east (which matched descriptions that I’d read about the final traverse to the summit scramble), finally passing the first person I’d seen all day: a female mountain runner heading down from the summit. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and, after bringing up my lack of enthusiasm regarding the steep scree slope below the col, she kindly suggested a slightly better (though still sketchy) way down. I thanked her and we continued on our separate ways. A few minutes later, I ran into a male hiker also heading down from the summit. We stopped and chatted briefly. He’d been up at the summit since about sunrise–it was already around noon when I saw him–soaking in the beautiful weather and views while enjoying a summit beer. The mountain runner I’d passed earlier was the only person he’d seen all day as well. I continued on and smiled, knowing I’d have the fortune of an empty summit.

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Wing Lake and Corteo Peak

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View of the scree slope from the top of the col

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Gully scramble

The “path” ended at a short fourth class pitch to the summit. I laid my trekking poles at the base of the pitch and scrambled up. It was 12:15 pm, just over four and half hours since I’d started out. I used the inReach to message Mack to let him know that I’d made it to the summit then wandered along the summit ridge to see what I could see. I was certain I could discern the North Cascades Highway far below to the east. It’s always amazing to see your entire route laid out before you. For me, at least, it almost always appears more difficult than it actually felt. I mean, had I really started all the way from that skinny little line snaking its way through the valley far below? I felt a tinge of pride, but, more than anything, I felt gratitude, especially toward this spectacular mountain who allowed me this beautiful day of climbing.

I stayed on the summit for an hour. I could see why the other hiker had chosen to stay even longer than that. Without my trusty Instagram husband to take pictures for me, I used my mini-tripod to capture some fun summit “selfies” (it’s still a selfie if it’s a self-timed shot, right?). My favorite shots though were of the surrounding mountains by themselves, without the interference of my presence. After one final round of gazing in admiration and amazement, I packed everything up again, scrambled down to my trekking poles, and picked my way back to the col. From there, I stayed a bit more to the left (climber’s right) and found more opportunities for scree skiing since it was deep enough that I wasn’t skidding across the slick rock as often. It still took me a solid 20 minutes to make it down to the snowfield, but from there I was gleefully running, knowing that I’d made it through the crux.

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Lewis & Wing Lakes from the summit

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Views to the west

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Mountains upon mountains

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Mount Goode

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Once past the slow going loose rock of the moraine, I picked up my pace on the singletrack and even on some of the technical downhill leading to Lewis Lake, only once slamming my knee into a granite boulder (which I have a nice little scar as a result). My pace slowed again at the giant boulder field, especially since it was actually more uphill than downhill to get back to the Heather-Maple Pass loop trail. Rain clouds were building up behind me, but I was still in the clear.

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Made it safely down the scree slope

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Wing Lake

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Lewis Lake

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Enjoying the view of Black Peak while I still have it

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Back on more well groomed trail following the boulder field, I finally got to do what felt like actual running. I took one more longing look at Black Peak as I crossed the meadow, still in awe that I’d been up there looking out on this spot just a couple short hours earlier. I smiled ‘goodbye’ and sped past the Heather-Maple pass junction, past the expected hordes of people, stopping occasionally for a photo here and there, but mainly just running, uninhibited and full of joy. And that’s how I finished my final North Cascades adventure of the summer, filled with joy, excitement, gratitude, an insatiable desire to return as soon as possible, and certainty that I would be back to share this adventure with Mack.

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Meadow leading back to the junction

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Lake Ann

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Signs of fall!

Sahale Mountain

  • 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.

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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.

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First view of Sahale!

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Looking back along the ridge

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Doubtful Lake far below

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.

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Power hiking up Sahale Glacier

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Scrambling the summit block

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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.

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Summit selfie with Boston Peak photobombing behind us

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Boston Peak and Mount Buckner connected by Ripsaw Ridge

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Boston Peak, Sharkfin Tower, and Forbidden Peak

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Looking toward Mount Buckner 

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Rapping off the summit

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Watching as two other climbers head up

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Trail runners with C.A.M.P aluminum crampons worked great!

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.

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Hiking back down on talus with Doubtful Lake peeking out below

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Looking out at Eldorado (next objective!), the peak on the far right

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Enjoying your meal there, Mr. Goat?

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Taking in the view of Sahale Arm

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Back at Cascade Pass

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Road walk back to the car in the hot afternoon sun