Seven days of alpine adventure through the heart of the North Cascades

Seven days of alpine adventure through the heart of the North Cascades

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alpenglow at Camp Friendly
Story and photos by Jason Griffith

It’s hard to find a place in the lower 48 as wild as the tangled valleys at the head of the Baker River. Brush below tree line isn’t penetrated by trails and alpine ridges go years between visitors. In an area known for wild corners, I think a traverse from Baker River to Ross Lake crosses the longest section of rugged terrain you’re likely to see in all of the Cascades.

While off-trail travel in North Cascades National Park (NCNP) is unforgiving, the rewards are immense. Solitude is one such reward – on our trip last summer we didn’t see anyone for seven days at the height of July.

Day 1 :
The altimeter read 800 feet at the trailhead and the temperature was climbing past 80 degrees. So began a soul-crushing day of hauling eight-day packs up the fisherman’s “trail” to Blum Lakes. The trail has no beginning or end, but a followable middle. We had aspirations to go beyond Blum Lakes, but the sun took its toll and we were wrung out by the time we arrived. Swimming and napping sapped our desire to hoist our packs for another climb.

The views from this camp were the worst of the trip, which is saying something considering how good they are; Mt. Blum reflected perfectly in the water in front of our tent.

Day 2:
Up early to beat the heat, we packed and headed over the col between Mt. Blum and Hagan Mountain, down past Berdeen Lake, up onto Mystery Ridge (we climbed Mystery Peak), and then were forced off the ridge to avoid a difficult section of scrambling. We finished the day with an exhausting scree climb back onto Mystery Ridge where I promptly plopped down to rest and swat flies while Tim and Steve searched for a camp with water. A distant shout confirmed they found a nice spot and I staggered the final 100 vertical feet to our home for the night.

Day 3:
As the sun rose, we could see North Despair. We left our heavy packs in camp, climbing quickly and unencumbered to this aesthetic summit. The final snow arête guarding the summit was worth the long walk and we enjoyed every step as the exhilarating exposure grew. Making it to our first real summit of the trip, we lingered at the top, scouting the way ahead and marveling at the terrain we’d already covered.

After returning to camp in the late morning, we dropped to Jasper Pass, battled up the brushy ridge toward Pioneer Peak and climbed easy rock to its summit. As the sun sank, we dropped to the col between Pioneer Peak and Mt. Crowder, then made a short climb to a spectacular camp on heather benches on the west side of Crowder after about 12 hours of constant effort.

Day 4:
We moseyed up Crowder, where we dried out the summit register entries and added our own scrap of paper to the handful of names going back decades. It isn’t uncommon for years to pass between ascents of obscure peaks in NCNP, which is part of the appeal. Some peaks have had fewer than 20 recorded ascents. Ever.

We ran into two ptarmigan along the summit ridge, calling back and forth as they hopped from rock to rock, trying to avoid taking flight; they blend in so well that it is harder for predators to see them on the ground than in the air. Back at camp, we stuffed our packs and then carefully backed down a 45-degree snow gully to a sloping bench that led around the north side of Crowder on a somewhat forgotten route. A USGS survey party discovered this intricate route around Crowder in 1967, but the guide they produced (Routes and Rocks in the Mt. Challenger Quadrangle by Tabor and Crowder) has long been out of print.

Despite this unearthed beta, we still had some shenanigans, including a couple of brushy rappels. After finally emerging onto easy snowfields, it was an easy slog up 1,000 vertical feet to Pickell Pass and my favorite camp of the trip.

Day 5:
Rest day! Well, sort of. Swiss and Spectre peaks were on the agenda, but we could leave overnight gear at camp. The first stop was Swiss Peak, a broad 7,988-foot summit in the center of the Northern Pickets. Our route consisted of straightforward third-class scrambling up a strange fault from camp, then up and along an exposed knife-edge with a 2,000 foot drop to Luna Cirque to our left. Mist swirled about the crest, dissipating as it spilled east. Rainbows surrounded our shadows on the clouds below (a phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre).

We admired the drama for several hours before setting off for Spectre Peak. Unsure of which spire was highest, we ended up climbing both Spectre and the next spire over, Apparition – very fitting names on this ethereal day. Both peaks had a bit of mid-fifth class (roped) rock climbing on the way up and one 30-meter rappel to descend. The view down the sheer Haunted Wall on Spectre across to Phantom Peak through the scudding clouds was one of the most intimidating sights I’ve ever seen in the Cascades.

Day 6:
The daily grind of battling brush, loose rock, and route finding was wearing on me. Steve was all for climbing Crooked Thumb Peak, but Tim and I talked him into a low stress day of going up Mt. Challenger and camping on Eiley-Wiley Ridge. Secretly, Tim and I were hoping to get out in seven rather than eight days, which meant trimming our peak list. It’s easy to have eyes too big for your stomach on long trips in the North Cascades, and Tim and I had had our fill.

Still, Challenger is hardly boring, with interesting glacial problems and solid rock climbing on the summit pyramid, and Camp Friendly on Eiley-Wiley Ridge was up there with Pickell Pass for the best of the trip. Fourteen hours after leaving starting the day, we staggered into camp with little time to enjoy the view before dark.

Day 7:
With a long brush bash and hike out to Ross Lake ahead of us, we started before dawn. This was extra painful since we were long out of whiskey and our bodies were beat. Mosquitos swarmed as we side hilled across Eiley-Wiley Ridge through slippery meadows. Meadows led to forest and eventually we emerged scraped and sweating on the Big Beaver Trail, 13 miles from Ross Lake.

A trail, finally! But a trail can still pound your feet silly, especially after seven days of cross-country travel. Gradually our team strung out along the trail, each of us lost in our own world of trying to minimize the pain while continuing on.

Then the lake burst into view. What a relief to strip off our tattered clothes and dive in, swimming off the accumulated grime while waiting for the water taxi. The taxi saves six additional miles of hiking from the mouth of the Big Beaver to the landing just below Highway 20.

The trip wound down as the boat sped back across to Ross Lake Resort after dropping us off. All that remained was the short but painful hike back up to the car at the Ross Dam trailhead before beer, pizza at Annie’s Pizza Station in Concrete, shower at home and bed.

I was struck by how savage this section was, despite 25 years of climbing in the North Cascades. A lifetime of adventure is just a short drive away.

Based in Mount Vernon, Jason Griffith is a fisheries biologist, member of Skagit Mountain Rescue, husband and father of two young boys. In other words, accidents aren’t allowed when he heads to the hills with the Choss Dawgs.