In early July, my friend from Michigan, Nick, came to Seattle for a visit on a long road trip. Last time we hiked together was on Mt. Timanogos in Utah! I figured since he already had plans to visit Olympic and Mount Rainier National Park, I’d show him a little bit of our least-visited, third national park: North Cascades.
Unfortunately the weather was a little bit cloudy for us as we climbed toward Cutthroat Pass, a high mountain pass with trail access located just east of Washington Pass on SR-20. I didn’t realize until the trailhead that the Cutthroat area is not really in the park boundary. Nevertheless, any day in the North Cascades is a good one. We hiked along easy trail to Cutthroat Lake, occupying the head of the valley, and snapped a couple of photos before beginning the well-graded switchbacks up to the pass.
We soon broke out into the open, alpine terrain that makes north central Washington so beautiful. This area would be ridiculous in fall – I’ll need to come back and visit or maybe move a little bit east to the Pasayten Wilderness for a more extended trip.
We met up with the PCT at the pass and walked along it for a mile or so before encountering some lingering firm snow slopes that we elected not to cross over. Instead, we enjoyed the views with lunch and watched as the cloud deck pulled up a little bit and afforded some views of the local granite peaks.
Mt. Baker has been staring me in the face for months, ever since I started hiking Central Cascades peaks again. Rising almost straight out of the ocean from some viewpoints, Baker towers over the North Cascades with one of the most extensive glacier systems in the lower 48 states. While nearly 4,000’ lower than its neighbor Mt. Rainier, prodigious snowfall more than makes up for the difference when it comes to ice and snow.
This trip was lead by Radka and Chris, a couple of instructors with the Mountaineers glacier ski and snowboard travel course. This was the second year that they had agreed to lead a trip for recent graduates of the course like myself, and I had to take advantage of the opportunity. (See C&R’s turns-all-year trip report)
Mt. Baker made me a little nervous as a ski objective. There were a lot of “news” associated with this trip: first time summiting a glaciated peak, first time skiing on a glacier unroped, first time wearing crampons with my ski boots, first time climbing on steep snow as a rope team. Most of all, I was concerned about my admittedly not awesome skiing ability when considering the “Roman Wall” on the upper mountain. I had skied to 30 degrees steepness on Mt. Adams with no trouble, but under icy or hard snow conditions, the 35 to 40 degree Roman Wall would be some of the tougher skiing I’d ever done outside the resort, and with pretty terrible consequences in the event of a fall. This kept me thinking twice about whether I should join the trip, but ultimately I resolved to go along, knowing that I could hang out at the summit crater and wait for the rest of the group to summit and come back down if I didn’t like the looks of the conditions.
This weekend I enjoyed some “luxurious” backpacking at Blanca Lake, located north of Skykomish along Highway 2.
Blanca Lake is a glacier-fed alpine lake. It has a milky turquoise color due to the glacier-ground rock dust (known as “glacial flour”). In 3 miles crossing two wildernesses (Wild Sky and Henry M. Jackson), the popular trail to the lake gains a little over 3000′ before dropping another 300′ down to the steep shores.
Our group of six decided to take along some unusual (heavy) supplies for this trip due to the short distance; this included swim trunks, a dozen eggs, bacon, steak, barbecue sauce, and iPod speakers. We paid the price for these on the 30 switchbacks up to the pass, but they were so worth it once we made camp.
The trail tops out at Virgin Lake before descending down to Blanca: breaking out of the trees here, we caught a great view of secluded Glacier Peak.
The next 300′ downhill was on muddy trail but soon enough we broke out into a clearing with a view of the lake from on high.
At the head of the lake, dozens of hikers crowded the beach; I was amazed to encounter such a zoo after quite a lot of elevation gain. We crossed over the log jam (trekking poles were handy) to the next beach, which to our amazement had no tents set up yet! We claimed it as our own.
After starting up the new job and sorting out my living arrangements here in Seattle, I’ve gotten a bit behind on the blog, so here’s a twofer:
August 3rd, 2014
Class 2/Steep Snow
Vesper Peak is located in the Mountain Loop Highway area, in the southern part of Washington’s North Cascades range. The area has fascinating geography. A far cry from the crumbly, volcanic rock often found elsewhere in the state, the MLH peaks often expose large granite faces perfect for technical rock climbing. That was not our objective today: we were happy with the normal hiking route. However, in typical Washington fashion, we knew to expect snow in the upper reaches of the mountain, so we came prepared with ice axes for steep snow and helmets for a couple areas of loose rock. The helmet was probably not necessary, but we were glad to have the axes in several places.
The hike starts out at the end of the Sunrise Mine road, and passes through a lower stretch of forest with several lovely creeks and rivers. The Stillaguamish River crossing was no problem at this time of year; we crossed with dry feet.
The next portion of the hike criss-crosses the scree and talus field of Wirtz Basin. The trail is quite easy to find through the boulder field on the way to Headlee Pass at the head of the basin. This section was actually quite hot on this August day.
The trail ascends steeply up a narrow gully to Headlee Pass. We didn’t see anyone close above us, but had there been, we would have donned the helmets for rockfall.
From the top of the pass, Vesper Peak is finally visible. Traversing the shoulder, it is not far from the pass to Lake Elan, in the basin between Sperry Peak and Vesper.
It was clear that we would have some snow climbing to do near the top. But first, the trail winds its way through a brushy meadow. Because of the snow melt, the trail is full of running water and slick mud (probably the only spot where we fell on the entire trip).
We used axes instead of poles once we hit the snow; either would have worked, except that we ended up off route on 40 degree snow. The surface was soft enough to kick steps in hiking boots, but it would have been a potentially fatal slip and fall down the snow slope onto the rocks below.
We should have traversed further left (foreground in the photo above) where some exposed rocks provide easier passage to the summit (wasn’t visible from our spot).
A few more steps on the summit rock pile and we were there! The summit itself is pretty pointy – not an easy one to stand upright on. The view to the North and West is spectacular: an alpine lake bounded by steep walls and Mt. Baker in the background.
With all the rocks melting out, glissading would have been a poor move, so we heel stepped down the softening slope, avoiding the steep section from earlier.
We had considered combining Vesper with Sperry Peak, but Sperry’s normal route was still covered with steep snow (visible in the above picture) with a horrible runout (at least spotted from afar – a slip would send you over the cliff). It’d be a nice excuse to say that’s why we didn’t attempt, but we were also not in a peakbagging mood. We elected to take it easy at Lake Elan before heading home. Good choice.
The mesmerizing blue ice of melting alpine lakes is one of my favorite features of the Cascades.
July 26, 2014
Class 1 (Walkup)
Some friends and I hiked Mt. Dickerman on a beautiful Saturday. The trail was pretty packed, and the summit was even worse, but I’m impressed so many people were attempting this formidable day hike. I hiked up with them, then ran the descent and back up to meet them on the switchbacks (didn’t make it very far – they’re fast hikers and I’m a slow runner!)
Good views on a physically challenging, yet very approachable trail.
I did fall one time when I got caught up in some brush – even though the trail is nicely graded, it is pretty rugged for a trail run.