Saturday, September 6, 2014

North Cascades National Park

Failure and Success in the North Cascades

The North Cascades are commonly referred to as the "American Alps." It's an apt description: high rugged terrain, with thick forests, tons of glaciers, and quality rock for climbing. I've had my eye on a number of objectives in the range and wanted to give them a shot before leaving Washington for good.

The Failure

My first objective was Luna Peak. Luna is the highest of the famed "Picket Range" in the heart of the national park. The Pickets are just that - a fence line of impossibly steep spires smothered in snow and ice. The Pickets are remote; no trails lead into the range itself and access requires extensive bushwhacking. With all the difficulty, why bother? According to those that make the trip, Luna Peak has the best alpine view in all of Washington, possibly even in all the Lower 48. I love good views so that put Luna at the top of my list.

I borded a water taxi on Ross Lake to bypass 7 miles (one-way) of lakeshore trail. I was dropped off at the Big Beaver trailhead and hiked in 11 miles along Big Beaver Creek. I should have camped there and started off fresh the next day. But I didn't.

Ross Lake water taxi
I decided to press on and begin the legendary bushwhacking. I immediately found myself tangled in devil's club, an aptly named satanic demon plant that is a cross between stinging nettle and a briar bush. I started bleeding on my pants.

Then I had to cross the Big Beaver. The guidebook says that you can usually find a log but I didn't see one and I wasn't about to frolic about along the creek bank through more devil's club just to keep from getting a little wet. So I plunged in and waded across.

The devil's club eventually gave way to slide alder. Imagine a bunch of trees that are just waiting for an avalanche or a blowdown to open up a spot in the forest canopy. Then they all grow simultaneously, fighting each other for supremacy in a sadistic hierarchy of trees. They grow so fast that they intertwine themselves like something Hitler concocted to keep the Allies off Normandy Beach. At one point it took me an hour to go 250 yards. And then I realized it was kind of in the wrong direction and so had to exit the labyrinth of greenery for a net gain of about zero for 2 hours of intense effort.

All told it took 5 hours to go 2.5 miles. On top of the 11 miles I hiked earlier in the day. I was exhausted and I smelled like I got in a fight with a salad. I spent 15 minutes picking pine needles out of my beard. I decided to camp in the first suitable spot I came to. I left some of my sweaty smelly gear outside my tent to dry overnight.

I woke up to a ravaged camp. Apparently some little mountain rodent creatures liked the salts in all my sweaty gear and ate everything. I hope they choked to death. They destroyed my t-shirt. They ate the wrist straps and cork handles off of my trekking poles. They gnawed on my water bladder. I never did find my trusty ball cap. Worst of all, they took my spoon (though that was entirely my fault - in my exhaustion I forgot to secure it properly after dinner).

I had to whittle a stick into a primitive spoon to eat my breakfast. I patched my water bladder with duct tape. Then I grabbed the nubbins of my former trekking poles and continued to climb toward Luna Peak.

Improvise, adapt, and overcome
Camp was at 4000ft. Luna Peak is at 8600ft. As I started to ascend the boulder field above camp, my motivation tank was quickly running toward empty. It was hot. I had a leaky water bladder. My trekking poles were trashed. My knee ached from a slip in the slide alder the day before. My pants had holes from devil's club. I had 4600ft to climb. I still had to return through the brush. I stopped every minute, questioning my resolve to continue. "But everyone said the view is fantastic!" I reminded myself. Then I looked up at Luna. At that very instant a cloud moved in and obscured the summit. The voice in my back of my head said "You mean I could climb all that way for the great view and get clouded out?!?!" That was the last straw. My "stoke-meter" plummeted to zero. So I bailed.

Didn't get a whole lot closer than this...
But I still had to bushwhack out. I discovered that when going downhill you can just sort of jump through the really brushy parts and gravity will help you get through. Much faster that way.

I made camp along the Big Beaver trail, happy to be on a marked, alder & devil's club free path. The following day I headed back to the lake. I had made my return water taxi reservation expecting a 4 night trip and the Pickets whupped me in only 2. Luckily I met another group heading out and hitched a ride with them. They took pity on my story, particularly when I showed them my handcrafted spoon, and didn't charge me for my part of the taxi (which also helped reduce the sting of replacing expensive trekking poles). Thanks guys!

The icing on the cake was discovered when I returned to my truck. Not only had rodent creatures wrecked my camp in the mountains, but they somehow got inside the back of my truck and went to town on the food I had stored. Crackers, trail mix, dried soups, all stored in ziplock bags, were chewed through. They made a nest out of my paper towels. And pooped everywhere. If I die of hantavirus in the next month or so, all I ask is that my friends avenge my death and kill all the rodents in North Cascades. And find my spoon.

The Success

I took some time off to recuperate in town and catch up with good friends. I'll take a moment to thank everyone in the greater Seattle area that I stayed with in August: Phil & Andi, Raf, The Musselwhites, The Robertsons, James & Heather, and The Porters. With clean laundry and renewed motivation, I set off for redemption in the North Cascades.

My second objective was Sahale Peak, 8600ft. Sahale means the "high place" in native tongue and is purported to also have great views but is a much more manageable route. I enjoyed the hike in on good trail though lovely alpine meadows smelling of piney heather and ripe blueberries. Best of all - no bushwhacking!

The legendary trail along the Sahale Arm
I made camp on a rocky ledge beside a small glacier and a snowmelt stream. A fantastic sunset and clear starry skies were the night's entertainment.

Sunset from 7600ft
I woke early in the morning to make the climb. I ascended the small glacier and then had an enjoyable scramble up the rocky summit pyramid, just the type of climbing that I like best. With my early start I had the peak all to myself for half an hour before other parties started showing up. I soaked in the views, knowing that this might be my last North Cascade peak for a while. And I think the mountain gods were with me that morning - the top of Sahale clouded in and the winds picked up by the time I was back in camp. If I was any later in climbing I wouldn't have seen anything from the summit.

Good view of my old friend Forbidden Peak from the summit of Sahale

North Cascades redemption!
Sahale was a great climb and I was happy to end my North Cascades climbing on a more positive note. I've turned around on a number of climbing trips, most often owing to time constraints or hazardous conditions. Luna Peak was the first trip that I was just totally unmotivated to finish. I wasn't having any fun whatsoever. I think that's needed from time to time, to keep us humble and to keep us hungry for more. If every climb was a guaranteed success then they'd change the name of the sport from "mountaineering" to "summiting." A failure helps us to hit reset and is all the more a source of good motivation for renewed effort on the next trip. Speaking of ... Any takers for the devil's club?

Friends at high camp

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