Scrambles in the North Cascades
By Aubrey Laurence
scram•ble: (noun) A mountain climbing route that involves low-level rock climbing. The grade is low enough that ropes are not necessary, but the consequences of falling can be deadly.
Before moving to Washington from Colorado in 2010, my wife and I had scrambled on mountains throughout the United States and in many countries, but for some reason we were unaware of what the North Cascades had to offer. Since living here, I have come to greatly appreciate these mountains, as they offer beauty and challenge far beyond what I ever imagined.
Below are some favorites that I have discovered thus far.
Shortly after moving to Washington, a friend of ours from Vancouver invited us up to climb Mt. MacFarlane with him. He said it would be a long slog, but it was only “a mere six-er,” so it wouldn’t be too difficult.
Five minutes into the hike, I was beginning to wonder if the word difficult meant something different to Canadians.
After climbing mercilessly for many miles, we finally broke out of the dense, light-absorbing forest and reached the shores of lower Pierce Lake. It was the first time we got a view of Mt. MacFarlane’s upper reaches, and it still looked impossibly far away.
We continued on the trail to the left of the lake, crossing meadows and avalanche paths, and found the ledges that traversed up the headwall.
After five hours of hard hiking, we finally made it to the turquoise-hued upper Pierce Lake with excellent views.
From there, we ascended the defined ridge to Mt. MacFarlane’s summit, staying close to the ridge crest most of the way. The short scrambling sections were only class 2, though I might have gotten slightly off route and made a couple of class 3 moves.
Forty-five minutes after leaving upper Pierce Lake, we gained MacFarlane’s summit and relished the jaw-dropping views of Slesse Mountain, the Cheam Range, Chilliwack, the rugged border peaks and countless other mountains in every direction. The views changed my opinion of “mere 6,000-foot mountains.”
I realize how subjective a route’s exposure and class rating can be, but almost every Mt. Pugh route description and trip report I have read has made my heart race and my palms sweat. One guidebook describes it as “extremely difficult and taxing,” and “downright frightening.” Some hikers I once met described it as the scariest hike they had ever done.
Even though I feared the mountain somewhat, it intrigued me even more. “You know how everyone interprets mountains differently,” my wife told me. “Let’s just go and check it out for ourselves. If it’s too sketchy, we’ll just turn back.”
The hike to Stujack Pass was uneventful, though it took much longer than expected. Above Stujack Pass, things got much more interesting. Even the “easy” sections of trail crossed steep, grassy slopes that dumped over cliffs. When we finally got our first good look at the upper mountain, it was intimidating. I couldn’t believe the route went up that wall
After some fairly easy but exposed hiking along the narrow ridge, we made it to the col just below the class-3 wall. Once we started up the rock, it wasn’t as bad as it looked from below, and the scrambling turned out to be relatively easy class 3. The exposure, however, was a bit insane.
Above that wall, the route eased up a bit, though we still had to contend with cliffy sections of trail and one nasty, pebble-covered slab.
Upon reaching the summit, 360-degree views of jagged mountains extended into a serrated horizon. Glacier Peak dominated the east, Sloan Peak captivated us to the south, Three Fingers saluted us from the west and we could even see Mount Rainier in a haze to the southwest.
Meanwhile, the North Fork Sauk River glistened a whopping 6,100 feet below us in the valley.
It was a long hike back to the car. By the time we made it back down to Stujack Pass and the easier trail, my mind and body were spent. Unfortunately, we still had to descend 3,800 feet back down to the trailhead. But it felt so good to have faced my fear, I really didn’t mind.
Tomyhoi Peak is a grueling mountain to climb. It is brutally long, has lots of elevation gain, features cliff-hugging trails, has route-finding challenges and its summit block requires some dangerously exposed scrambling. On top of all that, it also requires a short glacier traverse.
Perhaps there is something wrong with my wife and me, but Tomyhoi piqued our interest, and we finally gave into its allure last summer.
At a junction about three miles into the hike, we left the horde of Yellow Aster Butte hikers, descended to the tarns and began climbing north-northwest up the middle of Tomyhoi’s broad slope.
As we climbed, amazing views continued to emerge all around. I had to remember to steady myself before admiring the views because many sections of the trail skirted steep scree slopes and sheer cliffs.
After hours of hiking along an undulating ridge, we came to an imposing gendarme. This was where we made the short and relatively easy traverse on a glacier. We had to take care, though, as there was a deep moat to our left and a steep and icy slope to our right. We used ice axes for added safety, but did not rope up.
Once on dry rock again, we started scrambling in earnest, and it wasn’t long before we got our first look at the 150-foot-tall summit block. It was a menacing sight and it looked impossible to climb.
From the col, the scrambling was relatively easy at first, but after passing to the right of the small pinnacle, it became much more difficult and much more exposed.
Somewhere in the crux section, I ran into a rock problem that I just couldn’t seem to solve. I had one good handhold and one good foothold, but it wasn’t enough to make the next move. Without exposure, I probably could have popped up without a problem. But there was a lot of air directly behind me, so there was no room for error.
With some help from my wife, I managed to find a foothold, which involved stemming with my left arm, mantling with my right arm and hoping to hell at least one of my footholds held. Clearly, this is not an easy section for height-challenged climbers.
Just above that section of rock, we emerged onto a ridge with even more exposure. I could feel huge voids on both sides of me, but I kept my attention on the rock.
My mind screamed for me to turn around, and I even expressed my intention out loud a few times. With encouragement from my wife I concentrated deeply and made careful, deliberate moves. By the time I reached the knife-edged gable section, I was so focused that the exposure didn’t faze me anymore.
The final obstacle was an awkward, slightly overhanging ledge about 5 feet tall. Then it was just a short walk across a steep, scree-filled gully and a quick scramble up a rocky ridge to the summit. The summit dropped away abruptly on all sides, and it was so small that there was only enough room for one or two people at a time.
The phenomenal views from the top offered an unimaginable amount of eye candy. High above the Chilliwack Valley and less than two air miles from the U.S.-Canada border, it felt like we had front-row seats to Canadian Border Peak, American Border Peak, Mt. Larrabee, Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker.
North Twin Sister
Route descriptions of North Twin Sister’s west ridge route are vague, but it was clear to my wife and I that we were off route. Lured by seductive cairns and my reluctance to follow a friend’s advice to climb to the ridge shortly after passing the obelisk, a distinctive tower of rock, we ended up traversing too far to the right. When we realized our mistake, we decided to climb directly up to the ridge instead of backtracking across the airy ribs of rock and sketchy chutes we had just crossed.
High up on low-fifth-class rock, with my toes gripping a small ledge and my fingertips jammed in a crack, my mind raced and I began to sense fear creeping in.
I have experienced this mental battle while climbing many times before, but this time it was different. Fear and doubt gripped my mind, and I was right at my threshold for unroped climbing. Just to get to this point, we had already walked up logging roads and overgrown trails for more than three hours, so I knew I had to get a grip (no pun intended) before my muscles burned out.
Pushing through the fear and suppressing my doubt, I took three deep breaths, refocused my mind on the rock and ignored the air below me.
Fortunately, the rock was very grippy and most of it was solid, especially for Washington standards. As I learned, this high-friction rock, called dunite, is only found above the earth’s crust in a handful of places in the world, and the Twin Sisters Range happens to be one of them.
After doing lots of zigzagging, we eventually found a way back to the ridge crest. Getting to that point was among the toughest unroped climbing I have ever done.
Even though we made it to the ridge, route-finding was still a challenge. When we encountered headwalls, we traversed to the opposite side of the ridge. Whenever possible, we stayed on the ridge crest, crossing some short knife-edges along the way.
Almost six hours after leaving our car, we finally gained the summit with a wonderful feeling of freedom and accomplishment. After drinking in the incredible views of Mt. Baker, South Twin Sister and the San Juan Islands poking through a low deck of clouds, we enjoyed the summit all to ourselves for a few more minutes before beginning our long descent. Mentally and physically drained, we made it back down to the car 11 hours after we began.
Elevation: 6,889 feet (2,100 m)
Route: Pierce Lake, Class 2-3
Round-trip distance: 13 miles (21 km)
Total elevation gain: Estimated 6,300 feet (1,900 m), including gains and losses
Directions to trailhead: From Sumas, take the Trans-Canada Highway 1 east to Chilliwack. Take exit 119A, go south on Vedder Road for 3.4 miles (5.4 km), and turn left onto Chilliwack Lake Road right before the Vedder Bridge.
On a long stretch of straight road after passing the fish hatchery and driving up a steep hill, about 14 miles (21 km) from the Vedder Bridge, look for a turnoff on the right with a sign for Pierce Creek Trail. Turn here and drive in a few hundred meters to the parking area.
Drive time from Bellingham to the trailhead: About two hours (including a border crossing in Sumas)
Elevation: 7,201 feet (2,195 m)
Route: Mt. Pugh Trail, Class 3
Total elevation gain: 5,300 feet (1,615 m)
Round-trip distance: 11+ miles (17+ km)
Directions to trailhead: Note: State Route 530, the traditional route to Mt. Pugh through Darrington, has been closed indefinitely due to the tragic Oso landslide.
These directions use an alternate route. From I-5, take exit 199 for WA-528 E towards Marysville/Tulalip. Turn left onto WA-528 E and drive east for 3.5 miles (5.6 km). Turn left onto WA-9 N and drive for 1.3 miles (2.1 km).
Turn right onto 84th Street NE and drive for 4.7 miles (7.6 km). Turn left onto WA-92 E and drive for 1.2 miles (1.9 km). At the traffic circle, take the second exit onto Quarry Road, and continue straight through the next two traffic circles to stay on Quarry Road a total of 2 miles (3.2 km).
Turn left onto Mountain Loop Highway and drive for 40 miles (64.4 km), then turn right onto Forest Road 2095. Drive 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the trailhead. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Drive time from Bellingham to the trailhead: 2.5-3 hours
Elevation: 7,451 feet (2,271 m)
Route: Southeast, Class 3-4
Round-trip distance: Approximately 12 miles (19 km)
Total elevation gain: 5,000 feet (1,524 m)
Directions to trailhead: From I-5, take exit 255 to SR 542E (Mt. Baker Highway). Stay on 542 for 46 miles (74 km). Turn left onto FR 3065/Twin Lakes Road, 13 miles (20.1 km) east of the Glacier Public Service Center. Veer left at the first fork. Continue 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to the Yellow Aster Butte trailhead at a tight switchback with a privy. A Northwest Forest Pass is required.
Drive time from Bellingham to the trailhead: 1.5 hours
North Twin Sister
Elevation: 6,570 feet (2,002 m)
Route: West Ridge, Class 4
Total elevation gain: Approximately 5,500 feet (1,676 m)
Round-trip distance: Estimated 15 miles (24 km)
Directions to trailhead: From I-5, take exit 255 to SR542 E. Stay on 542 for 16.7 miles (26.9 km) and turn right onto Mosquito Lake Road. Drive almost 5 miles (8 km) on Mosquito Lake Road, and then turn left onto Middle Fork Road (aka Forest Road 38).
Follow Middle Fork Road for almost 5 miles (8 km), and turn right (going downhill) at the fork. Park near the gated bridge.
Begin your hike (or bike) up the logging road. Follow the main logging road for a few miles (4-5 km) to the first main fork in the road, and go right. Ascend through the large clear-cut, cross a bridge over a stream and then take the next fork to the left.
Continue on the main road and try not to be lured by spurs. After the road levels and begins to descend slightly, start looking for a path on the left. You might see a log and a cairn at this spot. Take this trail. It’s narrow in the dense woods, but it eventually opens up to an old road, which switchbacks up the slope.
About where this road fades and trees open up a bit, head up and left, and find a bushy, overgrown trail that leads through a forest to the ridge. Navigating to North Twin’s west ridge can be confusing, so it’s best to consult multiple guidebooks, topographic maps and online route descriptions before attempting the journey. It is roughly 6 miles (10 km) or so from the gated bridge to the ridge.
Drive time from Bellingham to the gated bridge: 45 minutes to 1 hour. x