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 BucknerΒ 
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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
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Artist Point

  • Date: December 31, 2017 – January 1, 2018
  • Location: North Cascades
  • Start: Heather Meadows at Mt. Baker Ski Area
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Duration: 2 days
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Snowshoe Routes: WashingtonΒ by Dan A. Nelson; Washington Trails Association

The full moon shone brightly, illuminating a vast, snowy landscape crisscrossed with all the paths we’d taken that afternoon. I recalled the warmth of the sun from earlier in the day as I vigorously wiggled my fingers and toes within their gloves and boots, attempting the impossible task of staying warm with temps hovering around 10 to 12 degrees. Here we [Mack, Cassie, and I] were on New Year’s Eve freezing our asses off on a snow camping trip, just like the previous year. This time, however, we weren’t alone. Sitting out in the snow just a few yards from our tent, we were surrounded by strangers whose faces I only knew from their Instagram profiles. Before our trip began, I wasn’t entirely sure how camping with a new group of people would pan out, especially given my history of social anxiety. It turned out to be the best NYE decision we’ve ever made.

Our best family portrait ever captured by Stacia

 

Day 1: Heather Meadows to Artist Point, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

The sun was high in the sky by the time we arrived at Mount Baker Ski Area. Bluebird weather meant everyone was out enjoying the superb snow conditions. What better way to spend the last day of 2017? Thankfully, a majority of our group (us included) had caravanned up from Marysville together and managed to get parking next to each other. Phew! At least one of my social anxiety-related fears—finding people I’ve never met in a crowded area–wasn’t going to be an issue. We hit the trail shortly after noon. After sitting in a car for nearly six hours, we were happy to finally be outside breathing in the mountain air. Cassie, who harbors an extreme aversion to being in a moving car, was especially ecstatic to be out and romping in the snow.

The snowpack in the Mount Hood area left much to be desired when we were there a few days earlier. The short trek up to Artist Point more than made up for it. For the first time in a long time we were getting legitimate use out of our snowshoes, too! I hung back, completely enthralled with our surroundings, trying to capture it all on camera. I found myself clumsily waddling to catch up with everyone more than a few times. Despite a couple of hills here and there, the hike up to the ridge was rather mellow. The incredible views along the way (in addition to those from the ridge itself) amounted to a seemingly disproportionate payoff. Even with heavier-than-usual packs, the reward far exceeded the amount of effort needed to reach it. It also meant we still had a few hours to make camp and roam about before sunset.

Austin Pass Visitor Center below Table Mountain
Another of Austin Pass Visitor Center
About half of our group

Typical snow-eating Cassie with Kulshan Ridge in the background
Mount Shuksan!
“Why are you humans so damn slow?”

As soon as we topped out, I was immediately overwhelmed. Southwest of us stood Mount Baker, her slopes glinting beneath the afternoon sun. Just east of us stood the rugged and mighty Mount Shuksan, whose sharp, jagged towers rose high above her long, outstretched arm. God it felt good to be back in the North Cascades. All I wanted to do was drop my pack and begin exploring the expansive Kulshan Ridge, but our first order of business was getting our camp set up. Another couple in the group had made it up earlier in the day and already set up their tent. We all followed suit and situated ourselves in a sort of line, forming a little city along the northeastern side of the ridge.

More “familiar” (i.e. I recognize them from social media) faces began to arrive, including Meghan, the organizer of this NYE snow camping bash, and Rose and Anastasia, the Musical Mountaineers. I’m a little embarrassed to say this because I know I’ll sound like a fangirl, but I was ridiculously excited to be in the presence of basically everyone in our group. Before this event, I already followed many of them on Instagram, consistently drawn to their ability to inspire adventure and foster a love for the outdoors through captivating writing and/or photography. Getting to meet them in person and find that they were all truly wonderful human beings was the cherry on top of the entire experience.

Good afternoon, Baker!
Yeah…we had a big group

Another view of our row of tents
Crowd gathering to hear the Musical Mountaineers!
Rose (keyboard) and Anastasia (violin), the Musical Mountaineers

The afternoon passed far too quickly it seemed. Following Rose and Anastasia’s absolutely magical performance (which I was so happy to have the opportunity to hear in person), the sun began to dip behind Baker. The formerly glistening white landscape took on a blue-ish hue with the receding light. We hustled to the Mount Shuksan viewpoint where Amanda, Stacia, John, Jon, Alissa, and Justin were also capturing the final moments of daylight. A few of us made the additional short side trip up Huntoon Point to watch the sun set behind Baker. The warmth of the sun had now officially left us, but the glow of the full moon beyond Shuksan, as well as the opportunity to continue conversations with new friends, kept us from returning to camp (and warmer layers) for a little while longer.

Photo by John

Photo by (other) Jon
One more Shuksan shot (by Stacia)

The gentle purple and blue of twilight gave way to complete darkness by the time we returned to camp. Everybody sat gathered in the snow, cooking dinner and keeping warm with stoves. We coaxed Cassie out of the tent–she’d been napping in there ever since we’d set it up–and joined the dinner circle. Continuous conversation has never been my forte in large group settings, so I listened, laughed, drank, chimed in occasionally, and enjoyed the unexpected sense of community. I hardly knew any of these people and yet I felt safe and comfortable; I felt a sense of belonging. There were still several hours left until midnight. I knew we weren’t going to make it, especially with the early start we’d had that morning and the long drive back we’d have the following day. Mack, exhausted and a little drunk from all the beer John lugged up to camp, turned in first with Cassie. I hung out for awhile longer until I couldn’t feel my toes then succumbed to the warmth of my sleeping bag.

As I lay inside the tent, unable to actually fall asleep despite being tired, I heard the rest of the group hunker down in their tents shortly thereafter. I tossed and turned for awhile, finding it difficult to fully relax because I had to pee so bad, but unwilling to leave the warmth of my bag and tent. It was 11:50 pm when I finally gave in, threw on my boots, and stepped outside into the cold. The ridge was empty, save for a couple of backcountry skiers; a stark contrast to the bustling crowds of the afternoon. The moon gave off so much light that I didn’t even need a headlamp to walk around. I wandered about for a short while. The only sounds that filled the quiet night came from a few nearby campers shouting “Happy New Year!” and the whoomph from my boots plunging into the snow with each step. A smiled to myself, realizing I’d actually made it to midnight (the first time in years I think). I allowed myself a bit more time to absorb the first few moments of the new year in solitude before returning to the tent. I whispered “Happy New Year” to Mack and Cassie, kissed them softly, then tucked myself back into my sleeping bag. It’s amazing how quickly you warm up (and fall asleep!) when you’re not holding in your pee.

Dinner in the dark
Cassie and Meghan
Such a bright and clear night!
Midnight wanderings
Midnight wanderings continued

 

Day 2: Artist Point to Heather Meadows, with side trip to Huntoon Point (3 miles)

Despite a somewhat restless night, the promise of a breathtaking sunrise got me out of the tent pretty quickly. Mack, Cassie, and I joined Stacia and Jon for another trek up to Huntoon Point. Cassie bounded joyously through the snow and up the boot path. She was well rested now and ready to run and play again. As we walked, I kept my eyes on the melding of colors taking place in the sky and their interaction with the mountainous landscape. The soft pastels of dawn perfectly complemented the wavy, quilted texture of the clouds. Shuksan was still a dark silhouette, but Baker glowed a rosy pink with the first light of day. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a more beautiful “first-light-of-day-mountain-glow” than the one from that morning. From Huntoon Point, we could see the sun beginning to rise behind Shuksan and made our way back down to the spot we’d taken pictures at the previous evening. Capturing those first rays of light as our little group stood before it was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip; a perfect and glorious start to the year.

Morning snuggles
Chasing the sunrise

Morning light on Baker

Shuksan sunrise
Finally warming up

Back at camp, champagne bottles were popped in celebration and Meghan was busy whipping up a New Year’s Day feast of turkey bacon and pancakes. I don’t remember what Mack and I ended up making for ourselves (if we made anything at all), but I do remember partaking in the pancakes and sharing both the pancakes and bacon with Cassie, who shot us puppy dog eyes whenever the servings were passed around. The North Cascades had blessed us with yet another perfect weather day. More and more people seeking sunshine and deep snow were making their way up by this point. The solitude of my midnight wandering just a few hours earlier felt like a distant memory, but in its place was a scene filled with families, friends, smiles, laughter, and warm and welcoming exclamations of “Happy New Year!” One by one people our group began to disassemble to pack up camp or begin a new adventure for the day. Our celebration together was coming to an end. Thankfully, in the midst of it all, we did manage to come together for our one and only group shot to mark the occasion.

Breakfast time

Cassie with Stacia and Jon
The crew

2017 was filled with a number of new, outside-the-comfort-zone outdoor experiences for both me and Mack. I’m glad we decided to close out the year and begin the new one with one of those experiences. We’re ready for all the adventures that await us for this new year and, after this trip, look forward sharing a few of them with new friends. I mean, when you meet people who find joy in freezing their asses off outside in the dead of winter, why wouldn’t you hold onto them? Thank you Amanda, Meghan, Matt, Stacia, Jon, Alissa, Justin, John, Allison, and Mitch for your adventurous spirits and welcoming presence. We couldn’t have asked for a more incredible New Year’s.