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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Honoring the National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness Area at Cache Col

As promised, I am sharing some of my trip reports from this past summer.  Normally I'd blog about the wonderful ski trips I've taken this winter, except there haven't been any ski trips because there hasn't been any snow, at least not at low-mid elevations.   Snowpack is about 50% of "normal" at elevation, and dreadful lower down.

Any way, I went to Cache Col last summer to celebrate the North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness--this is the very spot where they meet.  Little did I know I would end up blogging this in remembrance of a couple of people responsible for this well-deserved recognition and designation:  Patrick Goldsworthy and Phil Zalesky.  Let's get straight on with it.  Oh, and I prefer to camp on snow, as it is the ultimate "Leave No Trace" camp, there are fewer bugs, and water is easy to come by!  I'll sprinkle a few photos in to the trip report, but you can also view the gallery

10 Years After—Revisiting S Mountain (July 2, 2013)
There is a common misconception of weather in the Pacific Northwest, and in particular, the North Cascades, when it comes to the Fourth of July.  Most people pan the weather around this important day celebrating  freedom, wryly noting that “summer doesn’t start until after the 4th “ and “it’s lousy on the 4th
In reality, I’ve been climbing on the days surrounding the Fourth of July for some 30 years now, and in general the weather has been great for days at a time.  This year would be no different.
I was supposed to visit Mount Degenhardt, but I haven’t done a single high elevation trip to the mountains this year, and I knew I was in no shape to take on the Pickets by myself.  Too much beer and late night snacks, and not enough full-pack trips meant I had to find an alternative that would be easier on the approach, yet still provide maximum alpine splendor.   For the first time in a long time, conservation was not the principal factor in determining the place to explore—I made a conscious effort to go where I thought I would see the most dramatic landscape, have a chance at an actual North Cascade summit, and have fun doing it (eg. not swimming through devil’s club and slide alder for hours at a time, and then clinging to a vertical face of ice and snow wondering how to get down).
It struck me that I hadn’t been to Cache Col and the amazing northeast face of Mount Formidable in 10 years.  You might ask how I could “explore” a place I’ve already been.  Well, consider that in my entire life, I’ve spent all of two nights at Cache Col—it’s kind of like saying that because we’ve landed a dozen men on the moon we know all about it.  It seemed do-able, and the passage of 10 years would provide a good evaluation of me, and of the glaciers in the area.
Cache Col is a very special place—formed by the jagged arms of Magic Mountain and Mix-up Peak, this tiny piece of relatively “flat ground” (not vertical rock fangs) sits at 7,000 feet elevation atop the diminutive Cache Glacier on the crest of the range. 
Magic Mountain (L), Cache Col is the tiny gap center left, a bit of Mix-Up Peak (R)
The col proper usually sports a nice cornice—perfect for camping as long as it’s not a summer weekend/holiday, as this marks the north end of the famous “Ptarmigan Traverse”—a popular climber’s route through the crystalline core of the North Cascades, replete with hanging glaciers, lakes, crags and deep forested valleys for dozens of miles in every direction.  Nobody wants to camp on a thoroughfare…so I planned to go on the Saturday before the Fourth of July, of course!
As usual, the weather played a huge role in the planning.  In the days leading up to June 29, forecasts called for thunderstorms to intensify on the 29th!  I scrambled through my library, trying to find places I’d be protected from lightning—it seemed the Olympics would be free of lighting, but my knowledge of that range is woefully inadequate.  I would have to stick with Cache Col and S Mountain.  I should mention that the most frightened I’ve ever been in the hills, including a couple of falls and some avalanches, was when lightning was present…suffice it to say I’ve been touched by St. Elmo’s Fire.
I was out of bed at 04:50 Saturday to beat the heat.  But wait!  Instead of record highs in Seattle, it was sprinkling!  If it was wet in the whulge—it would be beyond scary in the Cascades—and a glance to the E confirmed my fears—a black wall of T-storms.  Um, the T-storms were supposed to show up in the afternoon and evening—not at 5 in the morning!  I almost turned around three times as I drove to Cascade Pass.  Indeed, I’m not sure why I kept going, but I’m sure glad I did.  As the pictures can attest, it ended up being one of the great atmospheric displays of orographic lift, subsidence, and all that comes from the interaction of the largest fetch of water in the solar system, the air we breathe and the improbably jagged landscape that is our North Cascades!
There were crowds by my standards on the trail to Cascade Pass.  A family of five (three kids around 12) had a wide-eyed expression of fear as they hurried down the trail—I asked if they’d had any lightning—yep, and more was on the way, so they were headed home!  Then there were the four young men I met at Cascade Pass as they came off Sahale Arm. .  These 20-somethings were loaded for bear—anchors, pickets, the works!  I asked if they’d summited Sahale, and had there been lightning?  No, and yes.   They were getting out of there!  At this point the route to Cache Col gets very unpleasant:  a steep traverse around the north side of Mix-Up peak features objective dangers (avalanche snow and falling rock at random from above) and subjective dangers (cliffs below such that one misstep can result in an end-of-life fall).  To my amazement at the crux point of this traverse, here comes a solo guy on his way home!  Our encounter was comical given the situation—I’m perched on the front-points of my crampons, ice axe rammed in as an anchor, visiting with this guy from Orcas Island in the same stance as though we’re in an aisle at the grocery store.  “Seen much lightning?” I asked.  "Everywhere and all around" was his reply.  We both looked skyward as the rain intensified.  He’d been in since Thursday, and the weather was only getting better now (if you wait for the weather to get better, you'll never go mindset).  We wished each other a happy holiday, and onward and upward I went!  It occurred to me if I’d seen this many people already, and the weekend was just getting going…well perhaps camping at the col was not in the cards regardless of lightning.
The ascent of the Cache Glacier to the col is lovely.   Alpine strolling at it’s best—not life threatening, just a rolling terrain of ice that steps up to a tiny notch in the otherwise continuous wall of fins and vertical rock on all sides.  The cornice at the top of the glacier was about five times larger/higher than it was 10 years ago—this would be an interesting challenge with a full pack on!   The upper section of the glacier has a real bergschrund (melting out quickly in the record heat I should note)—this marks where the glacier ends and the cornice of snow begins, and where the vertical portion of the climb is.  The slope angle to the ‘schrund was about 30 degrees, but at the interface to the cornice (a widening gap that one can fall in to and never come back) it steepened to about 70 degrees for two and a half meters, and then another 2 meters of vertical!  The snow was in great shape, but as I front-pointed up, I wondered how I was going to get down.  No time to worry about that—I had to get over the top lip.  I cut a small V with my ice-axe and hefted myself over!
Camp was set on the cornice, as the surrounding rock crags offered some measure of protection from the expected lightning.  Truth be told, as soon as I got to the col and could see south (where the weather was coming from), I could tell the storms were done—I was up on high and safe!  It took me 4.5 hours to do the route 10 years ago—and took me 5 hours this time.  While the tent was on the Middle Cascade River side of the cornice, I pulled my drinking water from the side overhanging the Cache (Stehekin headwaters).  In one step I was going from waters bound for the San Juan Islands to water bound for Astoria, Oregon.

As fate would have it, not another person made it to the col for the next three days (at least)—I lived at the top of a glacier, surrounded by high peaks, low valleys and some of the most remote country in the lower 48.  I lived at the interface between North Cascades National Park and the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, my only neighbors a couple of Ptarmigans and one mosquito.  There were signs of goats, including fresh tracks all over the place, but none visited while I was there.
I mentioned the interplay of ocean, atmosphere and landform.  Saturday evening provided some of the best interactions I’ve ever seen—living on the crest between the Cascade River and the Stehekin River will get you that.   I was fortunate to film and photograph some of this dynamic, glorious expression of planetary science, though pictures hardly do justice to the profound beauty of water fluxing through all of her life-giving forms.   As the sun went down, the air cooled, causing clouds to form right at the surface as winds pushed the air over the peaks.  Lenticular clouds were on all of the summits, with mists and vapor forming right there on the snowfields (orographic lift).  Clouds (moisture) that had been high in the sky in the form of building convective cells now settled and flattened, lowering to the levels of the summits (subsidence) .  Thus, I had clouds forming at my feet at the same time other clouds were saucering in from above.  I was living in a gap between clouds, the wind pushing both layers by at great speed—mountains and glaciers visible near and far in the gap!  Sunlight reflecting off the snowfields and glaciers was tinged orange, which in turn illuminated the clouds with all the shades of alpen-glow—I was literally living in the fuzzy stuff of which great sunsets are made.  After sunset the clouds filled in at my elevation—I could see out of the clouds by looking straight up.  Perfect timing for darkness, rest and sleep.   

Oh, the icefalls off the NE side of Mount Formidable avalanched pretty much continuously the entire time I was there.  Heck, there was more (consistent) action than what I saw off Johannesburg (should be called Cascade Mountain) this Spring!
Summit day Sunday dawned brilliant—not a cloud in the sky.  The ascent to S Mountain (aka Hurry-up Peak) was pleasant, most of it done with crampons (note to self, Asolo leather boots are terrible on snow—Lowa and Raichle are better).   I should note that 10 years ago there was less snow, and not just because the climb then was done July 10.  The winter of 2003 was terrible--I drove to the end of Sunrise Mine road that year in February--this year there was two meters of snow from January to April…
This increased snowpack was reflected in the large cornice at the top of the Cache Glacier, and also on the summit towers of S Mountain.  Where 10 years ago was a delightful chimney of rock for some class 3 stemming, this year saw the chimney choked with water ice and snow for a class 5 ascent (and more importantly, descent) on a 70 degree slope of snow and ice.  It was only for about three meters, but one slip here meant certain severe injury, and likely death due to vertical nature of the knife-sharp rocks below the chimney, and the fact there wasn’t another human being for miles, nor would there be on this crag...   And then just below the summit, there was an area of simple friction climbing—not up, but sideways across a smooth rock face.   Simple except when the rock is covered with about half an inch of water ice!  I ended up hooking the pick of my ice-axe on the top of the plate of ice and swinging across the face.  I was so concerned about how to get down that I only spent about 45 minutes at the summit—I usually spend at least one hour, and hopefully two or more.  Not so this time—it was game-face all the way—get pictures of the amazing north face of Spider Mountain, views down the deep valley of the Middle Fork Cascade River, and across the crest to the deep valleys feeding Lake Chelan.  Marvel at how Johannesburg (should be renamed Cascade) Mountain is steep on ALL sides, and the grandeur of this most incredible landscape.  In a glance, I could see from Chelan to the Olympics, and from Tahoma (Rainier) to Canada.  How can so many mountains fit in such a “small” (about 5,000 square miles) area?  Then it was time to leave, to take on significant mountaineering descents, complete with legs shaking from fatigue—a time in which I found NO enjoyment.  Obviously I made it.
The photo goal of the trip:  Spider Glacier on the N face of Spider Mountain.  Note waterfall lower left and consider the face is 4,000 feet of vertical.

Thus ends my climbing career, at least for the most part.  I go to the hills to have fun and live, not to put life and limb at very real risk.  I’ve come to find/realize/accept that climbing is a young man’s game.  Consider this:  professional athletes lose effectiveness in their 30s.  In their various playoffs they have to perform for one hour of actual game time, and really focus for three hours per event.  Events/games take place every other day at most.  In climbing, the mental and physical challenge runs from four to ten hours per day, and usually goes for two, three or four consecutive days at a time, with eating and sleeping there only to “break even” for calorie loss.  Also consider that when a baseball player makes an error, the result is a run, or a base, or a mark on a paper.  When a climber makes a mistake, the result is usually measured in broken body parts, and even death.  Now in my fiftieth year, I guess it’s time to finally act my age, at least in one venue of life.  I recognize that to do summits like this at this stage of my life (which before I didn’t consider that big a deal because my physical ability gave me the freedom to take chances and “get away with it”) I need to be in training all the time to not have doubt or fear.  But I do things other than backcountry travel (I know it’s hard to believe, but true), so can’t dedicate my entire life to preparing for the next summit.  That’s not to say I/we won’t hike and explore—I just need to modulate exposure to/on those really pointy places.
Middle Cascade Glacier sits between Spider Mountain (L) and Mount Formidable (R).  Headwaters, Cascade River.
It took eight hours to do the climb in 2003—this year I did it in six hours, though I only spent 45 mins on the summit—I think I was on the top for 2.5 hours last time.  I know I’ll never trade the real world for the virtual world.  I will, however, dial down the level of difficulty.
I am so very thankful to live where I do—this area of the United States of America offers so much opportunity!  To be able to explore the North Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula and Pacific Ocean, the San Juan Islands, all within sight of our metropolitan home is a blessing.
View E. to the Bridge Creek/Chelan trench--next stop, Astoria Oregon..

View W down the Middle Fork Cascade River valley, and on to the San Juan Islands and Kulshan (Mount Baker).
Oh, and on a somber note, my world-famous $20 Fred Meyer kiddie tent that was purchased during the 2004 NCGCP field season as an effective light-weight bivvy dome, is done.  The door was torn out during a bit of wind and me trying to unstick a zipper in the dark of the second night, and while the “tent” could never have stopped rain or animals, it did keep the bugs out.

Some scientific notes:  the fires that came through the middle and south forks of the Cascade River some seven years ago really ravaged the middle fork!  I’d say 50 percent of the valley forests are gone and have not started coming back, so steep is the terrain.  I’ll chat with NCCC board members Kevin Geraghty and Rick McGuire to get their take—they know much about forest history in the area.
There were ladybugs all over the summit area—something of a common occurrence in the North Cascades.
The family of ptarmigans still lives on the W flank of S Mountain—I scared them out at midday.  They visited camp both nights, the second night was great.  They were flying well after sunset, almost dark.  I saw one backlit above a ridge—it went inverted as it crossed the ridge, and it was pretty windy!
The guy from Orcas Island made a point of describing the Cache Glacier as “covered” with ice worms on the cloudy, cool wet days.  I saw quite a few on my first day (mostly -> partly cloudy), but none once it got sunny and warm other than a few in the evenings/after sunset.
I have never seen so much red snow.  The algae is everywhere, and in far greater density than I have seen in 30 years of travel in the range.
The Middle Fork Glacier is both narrower and thinner at the ice-fall—comparisons of photos confirm this is substantial.  The lower glacier still displays blue ice, but there was too much snow to get a firm grip on the true terminus situation.
The Spider Glacier is really two pieces (E and W) though the link between the two appears to be the same (snow cover may hide the truth).   The big square “cutout” on the W section terminus/icefall is still visually about the same as 10 years ago, while the glacier is thinner and does not extend downslope as far (not a big change).  The waterfalls at the base of Spider Mountain are some of the best and highest in the entire range.
The S Glacier appears to be much thinner on the section running N.  Indeed, it is a tapered (longitude) ridge of ice now, and the top has pulled away from the E flank of the N arm of the peak for some distance (longitude).
Close to the end of the expedition, just as I was finishing that terrible traverse of the north side of Mix-Up Peak, I fell on steep snow as I entered forest—I ended up with a raspberry/road rash on my left arm!  Glad that didn’t happen close to the summit.
The record heat has continued, with a series of lovely summer days.  The meltoff of the snowpack has the rivers at flood stage across the range—the Cascade, Skagit, Sauk and Suiattle were all raging like it is October or April!
It does not bode well for glacier mass-balance for the North Cascades this year.

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