North Cascades Climbing Trip

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Trip Report by Sam Alden

Photos by Peter Green

Trip Report - - - Trip Photos: In Chronological order

"Hey you guys, theres a stairway we could have taken right here"
Hmmm. I wonder if this would be a good place for a smoke break...
We arrived at the Watson Lakes trailhead with the subtlety of a school bus in the wilderness
These packs are kind of big, arent they?
Watson Lakes: Our campsite was on the shore of the far lake.
I dont remember that spaghetti sauce being there... is this a joke or something?
This place is kind of nice after all
Im sure I was wearing shoes on the hike in...
Our dedicated trip staff
Morning at Watson Lake
Base Camp
Were climbing a mountain today? I dont think we got that memo
The intrepid team
"Mountain climbing seemed easy, at least on paper. And where did I put that helmet?"
Mt. Watson from Watson Lake
Mt. Shuksan
"Is anyone else seeing these clouds coming in?"
"You know, this is a good place"
Roping up on the glacier
"you know, I dont really miss the homework"
"This place is very different from my home"
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
"Just how deep are these crevasses you speak of?"
Climbing would be such a fine and glorious sport if it werent for all that climbing
"Trees at the top of the glacier. Go figure."
"No, I think it would be best if I just waited right here while someone else leads the summit pitch"
"These cotton pants work really well when its not raining"
No, dont worry about me. Ill just lead the summit pinnacle wearing these oversized plastic boots and maybe a light sweater and some gym shorts. Im sure it wont rain"
Patience is the watchword on climbing expeditions
"The rope is running through the heather. Im climbing on bushes"
"So, its pretty much raining"
"What better way to experience the true greatness of the North Cascades!!"
"Im sure it will let up any second"
The rain didnt deter the group: Everyone summited!"
"You know it is getting kind of cold. Why not build a fire?"
Sometimes a fire needs a little help
"If I dont make it home, tell my brother he can have all my possessions, but not my room"
Making our way to the west summit
The route wasnt so obvious, but we made it to the top of the west peak too!
"This is the kind of thing I try to avoid"
"Youre right, I think it is beginning to clear up. I can see my hand"
And the rain let up!
Off with the harnesses
Almost home
Basecamp is a good place


North Cascades Mountaineering Trip:

The confessions of a non-climber

By Sam Alden

My first twinge of fear occurred watching the instructional video that would prepare us for our backpacking trip into the North Cascades. The video explained how to walk across a glacier, catch yourself from sliding down an incline, et cetera. Judging from the first fifteen minutes of the movie, one would guess that scaling a mountain entailed mostly light hiking up gentle, snowy hills. The next segment of the video, however, dealt with crevasses. I watched in horror as the actors cheerfully hopped over gaping, icy ravines, before turning towards the camera to remark, “That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Clearly, I realized, I was approaching a steep learning curve.

Nevertheless, I showed up at Catlin the day of the departure, ready to take risks and expand my horizons. We loaded our equipment onto the bus and set off on the six-hour drive into Washington. The ride would have been intolerable if not for Ian’s thoughtful purchase of a cassette by ‘The Cars’, which repeated over and over until we finally arrived at the trailhead. After I received my fair portion of the food and gear to carry, I started off with everyone else up the trail. I felt, momentarily, free of cynicism. I was excited about this trip, and I would come out of it with a completely new life experience. Predictably, though, it was replaced with the sensation of a Beluga-sized pack crushing me from above, and the knowledge that this hill wound upwards for miles more. I groaned to myself and struggled on.

Hours later, we arrived at our first campsite, situated picturesquely on the shores of Lake Watson. Slapping away mosquitoes, we assembled our tents and ate a surprisingly good dinner (Peter urged us to eat more than usual, because we had brought too much food) and went to bed. Having survived the strenuous backpacking, I counted the day a success.

The next morning, we set out to summit Mount Watson. Loading up small day packs with our snow clothes and helmets, we began to hike through bushes and mud towards the mountain. At some point, the trail we followed fizzled out, or else led in the wrong direction, because soon we were pushing our own paths through the tall grass. The greenery abruptly ended at the foot of a massive, steep incline of skull-shaped rocks. Climbing up, our feet twisted underneath us as rocks shifted, and more tumbled from above, disturbed by other hikers. At the top I caught my breath with the rest of the hikers, trading energy bars and gulping water. We had come to a clear transition point. Behind us, a sharp descent into the treeline- ahead of us, ending at our feet, was a giant glacier sloping up towards the top of the mountain. We hefted our ice axes and began to tramp up the shallow slope. It reminded me of the first half of the instructional video, and hoped that this would constitute the rest of the way to the top. But, as we reached the crest of a hill, we suddenly saw the peak of the mountain ahead of us. Stretching between us and the summit lay an open glacier, angling down gracefully to end in a dizzying cliff. This was exactly what I had feared from the beginning.

The group roped up into three groups and started slowly off. Once I got directly over the drop-off, I abruptly became aware of the delicacy of my predicament. How long could I keep from losing my footing on this white, slippery hell of a glacier? It became harder and harder to breath normally. Inside, I cursed Emily Jones for encouraging me to move outside of my comfort zone. I had never experienced such intense, pulse-pounding terror in my life.

“Hey, I can hear running water underneath us!” somebody yelled conversationally from up ahead.

“It’s probably nothing,” said someone else behind me. I started to write out my will in my head.

At long last, I reached the cap of rock at the peak of the mountain where the rest of the hikers had gathered. We weren’t far from the summit, but it was all vertical distance and so we had to wait while Olivia went up to secure a rope. We waited there on the rocks for over an hour and slowly consumed every scrap of food that we had brought with us. I lay comatose on the ground for much of it, trying to dream up some situation that would require a helicopter to airlift me off the mountain. I had stretched enough horizons for one day, and I wasn’t planning to rush up to the summit any time soon. At this point, a cloud swept over us from the west and it began to rain. Frankly, things looked grim.

Peter Green, bless his soul, agreed to make the ascent up to the summit alongside me. It was less of a rock climbing ordeal than a crazy scramble over slippery boulders and underbrush. At one point we paused to inspect a microwave-sized rock suspended over our heads, by some miracle of erosion, with nothing but some mud and loose stones. Truly, this trip opened my eyes to the constant wonders of nature. Finally, we made it up to the summit, a rocky crown surrounded by cloud on all sides. The fact that I was now on top of the highest object for miles around mattered less to me than getting under the yellow tarp someone had brought up and trying to sleep. I waited there for about an hour before we could go back down again, I found the descent much less terrifying, although I refused to admit it. I had by now entered a sort of pessimistic sulk, and would not allow myself to think of this as anything better than the most miserable experience of my life. And so I sat at the bottom of the rock peak, waiting for everyone else to summit Mount Watson, and froze and was crabby. My mood improved briefly as Peter lit a fire using the soggy twigs at our disposal –after failing to light it with a lighter alone, he held the open flame over a stream of bug spray and created a miniature blowtorch. But even that entertained me only briefly. I’ll admit it- I had a very bad attitude about this trip already, and it was only the second day.

Finally, we packed up and began the trek back down the glacier. I maintained my composure better this time, due in large part to the cloud cover blocking my view of the cliff. By nightfall we had returned to camp, and quickly ate dinner and fell into bed.

In the morning, we discussed our next course of action over breakfast. We could wake up at four the next morning and then march on to summit Mount Bacon, a twenty-hour round trip. The other option was to move camp one day and then summit Mount Tomyhoi the day after. After my ordeal that day, I opted for the less arduous of the trips and voted for Tomyhoi- the majority of the campers agreed with me. It meant, though, that Day Three passed by relatively uneventfully. I went on a short day hike with about half the camp, and then returned for dinner. I admit to spending much of the time contemplating that the trip was almost half-over.

The beauty of the wilderness
"I am very full"
"Whos ready for another?"

The dishwashers: Now where was that lake?
The master drummer
Rest day and a picnic at Anderson Lakes
Some went on a day hike even on their rest day
The sun came out and the gear got dry
Knot tying for fun and profit
Oh, look at the little bunny.
Let me see now, does a straight beat a flush or is it the other way around? Wait, all the spoons are gone!
On Day 4 we MOVED CAMP and set ourselves a new obective: To hike into Yellow Aster Meadows and attempt Mt. Tomyhoi.
It was hot and the hike was kind of hard - but you cant keep good people from smiling and having a good time

The next day, we packed up all our tents and food and headed back down the trail towards the bus. I found that the backpacking aspect of the trip was growing more and more natural to me, and I no longer struggled to keep up with the others. I found that I could sustain a certain pattern of breathing and walking for considerable lengths of time without tiring, and I actually enjoyed the walk back. After loading the gear onto the bus, we piled in and drove off to another trailhead. The hike was aggressively uphill, and the sun had taken this opportune moment to leave its cloud cover and beat down upon us with unprecedented fervor. The trail leveled out for a while as it wound around a valley basin, before leading up again into sparse, dry countryside. Gasping for breath, we abruptly paused in our climb to find ourselves at the top of a cliff, with the campsite far below us. An amazingly steep cutback trail led down the cliff face to the rocky terrain where we would pitch our tents. I dumped my pack on a boulder and ran off to join the rest of the hikers in a small pool of freezing mountain water.

This campsite was situated on a little grassy area in the midst of a field of stones. On one side loomed the cliff we had come down, while on the other a series of hills rolled off into the distance. We started up the hills the next morning, off to summit Tomyhoi. Unlike our experience with Watson, the hike to the mountain itself took up a major portion of the day. We paused at one point to look over into Canada on the other side of a mountain ridge.

Ah, Mt. Baker, our constant companion
Taking a break
Its a breathtaking trail
Not a bad basecamp for our attempt the next day
You know, I kind of like this climbing thing...
"Bro, can I tell you something? I dont really know what to do with myself if I dont have homework"
"Swimming in lakes, climbing mountains, this is what growing up is supposed to be"
Dinner time
"Why dont I just go ahead and finish this off?"
"Tell me again why were leaving?"
"Youre right, we dont need to stake down the tents"
Starting the climb, looking back at basecamp

At some point we came upon Mount Tomyhoi, and were confronted with- yes- another glacier. This one was bigger, and the cliff much farther off- but at the same time, the slope we would cross it at was closer to vertical than horizontal. I stomped through it with some amount of confidence. Eating snow, I found, distracted me enough from the matter at hand to keep me from panicking. Mount Tomyhoi rose up in a ridge, rather than the traditional cone. As a result of this, we found ourselves moving up from point to point along the mountain, with ropes stretched in between. Sometimes the other station was not even visible, around a corner or over a ledge. In between climbing we waited for hours in the wind and sun, receiving only a faint idea of what lay ahead from the intermittent radio signals. I had little problem, for the most part, until we arrived at the foot of a large rock face. The climbing looked relatively easy for the majority of the ascent, but at the very top we would have to clamber over a boulder that jutted out over the edge. I waited for my turn t come, again wary of the climb. Once again, however, Peter Green was kind enough to go up with me. I admit to being a complete wuss about climbing. When I finally screwed up my courage and began it, though, I managed to get up the entire cliff with very little effort. I felt like turning to a non-existent camera and remarking cheerily, “That wasn’t so bad!” And bolstering my confidence still further was the fact that now, for the first time, I could see the summit. Peter and I scrambled up the short path up to the top, and suddenly we were there.

The only way I can describe the sight is by saying that for the first time, I became truly aware of the limitations of my eyes. Set into sockets in my skull, they reveal to me only about 180˚ of vision- less than that, even. The panorama in front of me (and to the left, and the right, and behind me) was just too vast to take in from only one vantage point. I needed duel IMAX screens in my head. I could see Canada to the right of me, and way in the distance the Puget Sound on my left. Behind me were nothing but mountains, and in front of me they ended abruptly in green hills and farmland. Mount Tomyhoi seemed to be a convergence point of sorts, geographically and politically. I clambered back down with genuine confidence.

We crossed the high alps for over a mile
What a team!
Higher and higher toward our goal
Getting ready to rope up
Taking a wee rest as we near the final ridge
Now it gets a little complicated... we must be climbing!
Investigating the glacier as a possible descent route. No go.
Climbers on the summit pinnacle
The summit of Mt. Tomyhoi - July 18, 2005
On the summit!
Waiting, waiting, waiting at the col. Perfect weather for a nap.
Roped up on the summit ridge
A disreputable pair on the top of this noble peak
Seth regains the summit ridge. He is wearing an orange pack on his back.
"Wow, I cant believe places like this exist"
A pleasant walk back down to basecamp
Mt. Shuksan
Alpenglow on Mt. Baker

On the way back to camp, we faced some significant setbacks. Someone dropped Peter’s pack off a cliff, and it took both ropes and a few hours to climb down and retrieve. As if that weren’t enough, when we finally arrived at camp two of the tents had blown away in high winds. One of them (mine, thankfully) got snagged in a cluster of trees and didn’t fall into the ravine. The other tent, however, landed squarely in the stream at the bottom. However, the day ended well as we used up all our food in one fell swoop, gorging ourselves on a sprawling bonanza of ramen, pasta and soup.

I came away from the trip with a real appreciation of the exhilaration of hiking and rock-climbing, despite my initial anxiety. I found that it really does pay off to take risks and broaden horizons, and I recommend this trip to anybody not interested in climbing mountains.