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Water: Climbing Mountains in the heart of the North Cascades

Posted by Joseph Anderson

Climbing Mountains in the heart of the North Cascades

The forest is dark and quiet with shafts of perfect light shooting through the canopy above.  Thick green foliage of mostly ferns covers the well spaced old growth North Western forest.  I follow a clean dependable ribbon of a trail that sails through the giant trees.  “Oh man, that’s a big tree” I think to myself again as I’m spoiled with one giant old growth Douglas Fir after another, trees approaching the size of Redwoods. My feet sting, shoulders ache and I feel incredible with only eight miles to go.  Fit, healthy and lucky, the soreness has long been gotten used to and mostly ignored or maybe welcomed as I lead my three clients onward through the final hike of the fabled Ptarmigan Traverse.

That was ten years ago now, an enlightening experience (one of many) that would never have happened had I been climbing in many other rightfully famous ranges throughout the country and the world.  Just recently I finished up a trip into one of the wildest places in the contiguous United States, Mt Goode, the peak in North Cascades National Park.  If we could have parked at the bottom of the climb and spent a fraction of the effort, we would have welcomed it, but instead we were forced to endure steep bush whacking, black flies, stinging nettles and arduous work.  The difficulty was rewarded with fist fulls of plump, sweet, juicy huckleberries, giant expansive views of un-peopled wilderness, hanging glaciers, hanging lakes and impossible ridgelines.  Instead of having to answer to crowds of passer byes “Did you make the summit?”, “What did you guys do?”, “Stay safe…”, there were only stare offs with Black Bear doing what we were doing, walking through the forest, engulfed in silence.  You see, the fact remains if there was an easier way to have gotten out of there, we would have certainly taken it, but just like most of the mountain climbing into the heart of the North Cascades, there is no easy way in or out.  We complain about it.  I complain about, but the fact remains we are spoiled rotten with big wild mountains.

The huge effort may even posses a level of prestige, but that’s not why it’s done.  It’s done first and foremost because it’s there.  If the knife edge ridge, the clean and proud buttress or the wall of spilling ice is climbable I want to go out there and climb, get closer and unlock the guarantee of adventure and discovery.  This is what gets people to put the big effort into remote climbs.  Although it’s not just for the adventure, it’s for the end result as well, as one applies their accumulation of your knowledge, experience and amassed skills.  Route finding decisions are essential; how much further until the next stream crossing, how much higher until the forest gives way to rock.  Include the understanding of the weather, small group dynamics, hydration, caloric intake, fitness, packing.  The process of learning and fine tuning all of these skills are part of the game and the better you get the better you feel.

So close to Seattle and Vancouver the North Cascades remain incredibly rugged and wild.  Their wild state is defended by incredibly deep mountain valleys coupled with aggressive Pacific weather.  There is only one road that travels up and over the middle of the range and it is closed most of the time due to incredible amounts of snow and avalanche.  Every year a road, an important bridge or even trail leading into the range is destroyed due to mud slides, avalanches, floods and wind.  The fact is that most seasons wandering too deep into the mountains would be a desperate pursuit.  But every year the mountains get a break.  Sometimes for as much as 3 months during the summer a ridge of high pressure moves over the region allowing only occasional rain and storms with confident blue bird days.  Huge efforts are rewarded with sweet fresh mountain air and big remote mountain walls.