This wilderness has a past life: Cascade River to Rainy Pass

Trevor Kostanich near the summit of Mt. Logan, North Cascades National Park

A cold spray of rain blew through the col above, shaking the thin walls of our temporary shelter. Huddled into the moat of a gray wall veined in black, we waited, hoping for a break. Storm King stood impassively, head in the streaming clouds. Trevor gnawed on a block of cheese, grinning. Cold nylon clung to my thighs, and I shivered; we skied all morning in the rain to gain this unusual vantage. But I felt warm with the simple joy of finally arriving in this place that I had watched for so long from afar. 

The well worn miner's path to Boston Basin

For years this region remained a blurry spot on my map, a place I filled with conjecture and fantasy. I looked into that place from many angles: from Black Peak, from Goode, from Booker. From the glaciers above the Cascade River, the mountains spill eastward in a poignant, nameless sprawl of spires and deep valleys. It’s a wasteland in the best sense. And from the orange towers of Washington pass, that same country shimmers with anonymous ridges stacked up against the roiling ice of the Boston and Inspiration glaciers, the glowing hoard of the richest winter on earth. 

Sharkfin Col is a col because it's made of funky, friable rock.

Lowell Skoog gave me the idea to ski from the Cascade River to Rainy Pass. He called it the Thunder High Route, since it skirted the headwaters of the enormous Thunder creek drainage. With Dan Nordstrom and Jens Kieler, he skied from Silent Lakes to Eldorado Creek in 1987 (That was likely the first ski foray down to Moraine lake and back up to the Inspiration Glacier—essentially two thirds of what we now call the Forbidden Tour). 

Trevor rappels onto the Boston Glacier.

When I ran into him at Outdoor Research recently, Dan described that trip as formative and eye-opening, a crash course in Cascadian ski alpinism. Forced deep into the valleys by the snow conditions, they struggled up and down steep brush and timber again and again. “It just crushed me,” Dan said, laughing. Lowell did another version of the tour he called the Logan High Route, ending with a dogleg south around Booker and over Cascade Pass. For brevity, we began our tour with a direct start over Sharkfin Col.  While the route would take Trevor and I over Mt. Logan–a high, massive peak where I had never been–the real attraction for me lay at Fisher Pass and the ridge just east of it–Spectacular Ridge. This would be the most unfamiliar part of the voyage—and the wildest. 

Taking a right after Sharkfin Col: new country for both of us.

Each time I go to explore some corner of the North Cascades, I go with a new sense of what a wilderness is, of how it came to be, and what it means for our society. On top of that glacier I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a place of greater privilege, a landscape more pregnant with aspiration and ideology than this windswept col. The very idea that this place belongs in part to me is overwhelming. Not long ago this valley rang with the din of iron striking rock, and of men working hard to find mineral wealth. But it’s silent now, and their imprint can be hard to find. My illusions of exploration are priceless, but they also betray the nature of this carefully crafted wilderness.

Heading across the Thunder Glacier toward the north slope of Park Creek Pass.

The name Spectacular Ridge was coined by a 1970 party who made a traverse from Cascade Pass to Rainy Pass on foot. Many of the names in the area came from recreational explorers around the time of the Park’s establishment in 1968—notably Indecision, Muelefire, and Repulse peaks. But the older names harken back to earlier times, when the destiny of the land was seen quite differently. Surveyor Lage Wernstedt named Logan and Black peaks during his years-long campaign to map and catalog the vast Northwest Forest Reserve, a name which itself suggests the perceived value of these lands in his era. Mt. Buckner commemorates Henry Buckner, who managed the company operating mines in Horseshoe Basin; the name Goode remembers Richard Uruqhart Goode, one of the topographers who carried out the Transcontinental Railway Survey. Fisher Pass, with its two identically named Fisher Creeks flowing down either side, no doubt recalls the animals that brought people up these valleys in search of valuable furs. The last grizzly in the park reportedly perished at the hands of a hunter on Fisher Creek in 1967, leaving the newly imagined wilderness impoverished and yet, conveniently, safer for humans. The name of Grizzly Creek reminds us of that vanished predator—and of the possibility that it may yet return

 All kinds of terrain. 

All kinds of terrain. 

It’s not only place names here that suggest the former identity of this wilderness. I spoke with geologist Peter Jewett, who recalls flying over the North Fork of Bridge Creek in a helicopter. At the time he was inventorying old mining claims for the Park Service. One adit sat near the Goode Glacier, not far from the start of the classic Northeast Buttress route. The outline of old building foundations on the valley floor stood out clearly from the air; “There was a town there,” Peter says. Historic mining operations litter this part of the North Cascades, and the legacy of industrial projects continued long after the establishment of the park. 

 Trevor styling the crux of the south ridge of Mt. Logan.

Trevor styling the crux of the south ridge of Mt. Logan.

According to Harvey Manning’s account, the owners of the Skagit Queen mine extorted a hefty price from the NPS by threatening to build a road up Thunder Creek to access the claim. Also overlapping with the Park era was a proposed hydroelectric project on Thunder Creek. The waters would have reached far up the valley; Park Creek pass would have been a short hike from the head of the lake. But most of the claims in the region have been systematically acquired by the NPS, and most of the mining artifacts and buildings removed. Cascade Pass, where native peoples camped out in the summertime to quarry stone tools, is now a busy crossroads at the edge of the rugged alpine uplift of the park. The landscape has been redesigned and re-designated as a wilderness—more empty of humans now than it likely has been for hundreds or even thousands of years. 

Skiing down the Douglas Glacier on the east side of Mt. Logan, Mt. Goode in the distance.

I spent this winter researching the history of the Picket Range for an article in Alpinist, delving deep into this history of intentional re-wilding—of reclamation and dispossession in the name of an abstract idea of wilderness. But far from leaving me disappointed with the fantasy nature of wilderness, this history has given me hope. Scholar William Cronon has complained that wilderness is an unnatural idea, suggesting that wilderness and especially Wilderness are mere fabrications that don’t correspond to a meaningful ecological reality. And he is right that there may be problems with how we manage it and mythologize it. But the solace of these wild places is palpable; the value for individuals is real and documented, even if the value for society is difficult to measure and define. Many valuable social institutions rely on “unnatural ideas:”  free public education, child protective services, the justice system. None of those institutions is perfect, but they are good ideas worthy of the effort required to improve them. Wilderness may be a man-made idea, but it serves many purposes, each of which we must continue to question, hone and explore. 


*    *    *

Cruising along Spectacular Ridge.

Two days after our rainy stalemate with Storm King, we labored up beneath Black Peak and a goblinesque glacier of blue, streaked in dirt and banded with rock. Young larch trees, hardy colonists of the east-side moraines, raised their spindly arms out of the thinning snowpack. The rain never let up on Storm King, but we had dried out over night and continued east. In the spirit of exploration, Trevor and I had decided to veer off of Lowell’s Silent Lakes route. Instead we climbed into this haggard little cirque, brimming with the hum of mountains slowly being ground into life-giving soil. 

Nearing camp in the NW cirque of Black Peak.

Who had been here? We didn’t know, and in fact we had purposefully neglected any research on this leg of the trip. In the morning we waded up steep rotten snow to gain a rib of equally rotten rock. Daylight roared out of the east as I threw a few loose rocks down, and crawled to the crest. This pass—named “Dead End Pass” by the 1972 Mountaineers party who tried to cross it on the second recorded traverse from Rainy Pass to Cascade Pass—marked the first familiar place for me since Sharkfin Col. But even as I begin to know the park, its dimensions may yet change. Dead End Pass also marks the boundary between the National Park and one of the proposed additions of the American Alps Legacy Project.

Climbing toward Dead End Pass.

We stopped at a set of wolverine tracks by Wing Lake and enjoyed some food and water. Already fighting waves of stress at the thought of returning home, I struggled as I always do with the idea that wilderness might just be an escape–just a dead end. But gazing out along those tracks, I thought of that animal whose being, like mine, is bound up in the urge to roam amid quiet mountains. As our world continues to change, we have the chance to steward as best we can the landscapes that give us what we need, that make us who we are. I won’t presume to speak for the wolverine, but Wilderness, for us, is not a dead end but perhaps the very opposite: the living beginning. 

Odyssian Claws?

Contagious Magic

In memory of Carol McBrian

It's noon on an unseasonably warm January day and I am going to the Pickets, alone. The light strains to make it through the canopy of Goodell Creek—even leafless, the trees block out the sun with swarms of moss and hanging lichen. But I know that if I walk fast enough I will get some of that afternoon sun where the trail climbs toward the alp slopes. I know this trail, I remember this trail. My pack is light—even with skis it's scarcely the weight of a summer overnight pack. I've no rope, no avalanche gear. It feels good, it feels simple like the first time I came here. 


 The Southern Pickets from the summit of West McMillan Spire, January 2014

The Southern Pickets from the summit of West McMillan Spire, January 2014

In the summer after college I moved briefly to the Skagit Valley. I lived on a farm and looked up the valley each morning at Eldorado and the Marble Creek cirque. Between brief stints of work I wandered the trails of the North Cascades, short on partners and long on time. After a leisurely day climbing Forbidden I surprised a black bear on the road as Johannesberg shuttered the last orange rays of the afternoon; I was happy.

When I decided one day to hike toward the southern Pickets, I was in a hurry. My stepmother was coming up from Oregon the next day, which meant a lot to me. Neither she nor my father had come to visit since I moved to Washington, and I was grateful now. I wanted her to see this place, a place for which I had no words, a place that meant everything to me. But I also wanted to go to the top of a mountain in the Picket Range—of course I did.

 Lounging above Goodell Creek, 2003

Lounging above Goodell Creek, 2003

On that first visit, I slowed as I neared treeline. Distances stretched out in the July sun, and the peaks seemed further and further away. As I hiked my ambition drained away, and the huckleberry meadows enticed me. I was disappointed by how easily these simple things distracted me. How was I supposed to be a great explorer if I only wanted to sit in the sunset and wait for the stars to rise above these mountains? I dragged my feet, I sang to myself. I realized I couldn't be late meeting my stepmother at the train station; I stopped. I did watch the sunset, and I did wait for the stars. 

 Carol and Forest getting goofy in 2012

Carol and Forest getting goofy in 2012

I met Carol at the train station and drove her proudly up the Skagit to the farm. I took her on a drive up the Cascade River Road. There, near the center of my world, she could look up from the side of the road at the hanging ice of Johannesberg and, maybe, understand. Carol was a serious activist and a serious christian, and her faith led her to work for an unusual cocktail of causes: hunger, poverty, old growth conservation, closing  the School for the Americas, and on and on. She encouraged my love of the mountains, but she also worried after my spiritual well-being. "Forest," she said, "you need to find a place of spiritual renewal closer to home than the wilderness; someday you may not be able to go to the mountains every time you need to reconnect." She was right, and I ignored her.


My beater Volvo died halfway up the road. The view was blotted out by towering maples and nameless, wooded ridges. A tow-truck came from Marblemount to defeat me. Carol knew I wanted her to see the mountains, and she wanted to see them as well—for my sake. I was never able to share them with her.




Ten years later, a deep, hollow sound resonates through my skull as I climb toward that sunlight amid the salal and the doug fir. It's the sound of a shovelful of earth hitting the coffin lid. We buried Carol two days ago, and now I am doing the only thing I know to do.


 Working on West McMillan in 2010

Working on West McMillan in 2010

I walk to free myself from the chill of a bone-white Oregon fog. When my father tossed in that first spray of dirt, the sound of it shook him and he convulsed with sobs. My brother and I rolled up our sleeves and with the help of the rest of the family we moved darkness into darkness. When we were done, one of the gravediggers looked at me urgently and held out a tupperware: "If you want to take some of the dirt home."

Since that first time in the Pickets I haven't become a great explorer, but I have learned to do the math and today I make it to camp. I sleep deeply beneath the last great hemlocks, then rise long before dawn. I get a kick out the ridiculous cliff bands and deceptive rolls and gullies of this place. I watch the stars wheel around and watch the half moon drag itself over the southern sky toward Triumph and Despair. I listen to the scratch of my skis as I fly toward that peak I wanted to climb all those years ago. It's easier now, but I know it means less. 


Anthropologists sometimes talk about contagious magic, or magic based on the belief that once things are in contact they remain somehow permanently so, no matter how physically separated they may later become. It's the principle behind so many of our symbols and gestures: a stone from the beach that connects us to our honeymoon; a boyfriend's t-shirt; the driving cap that my friend inherited from his father; the dirt you bring home from the grave. It may also underly the feeling we get when we return to a place, or go to one that others have visited. When I travel a familiar trail to a familiar summit, I am communing with the self who walked there years ago, and with so many faceless and friendly others. The summit has been touched by so many, and when we go there we touch them as well. The whole affair, from the road to the lonely summit, is a distillery of contagious magic, of all our desperate longing for connection to one another and to something greater. And maybe it's  also the principle that drives exploration—the notion of going somewhere clean of all contagion, a place waiting for our magic.


I stand on top of West McMillan spire, the most visited summit in the range, and I look at these big dark walls to the west. Maybe Carol is down in that shady cirque at my feet—maybe this is the threshold with that other world. I hold in my heart this primitive sense of magic that buoys me up, an endless need to go where so many—or so few—have gone.  I hope someday I will find that place she spoke of, a place of renewal far from this wilderness. But if I should go no further, I will be grateful that she showed me how to search, and that these wild places were here for me to find. 

 The southern Pickets from Luna Col, West McMillan second from the left

The southern Pickets from Luna Col, West McMillan second from the left

Speak Now

Margaret Wheeler taking in the views of the Aiguille de Bionassay.

The old man teetered up the ridge toward us, a ski pole in either hand, his jeans tucked into big wool socks , his hiking boots shifting disconcertingly in his crampons. At 14,000 on the Gouter ridge of Mont Blanc, a fall to either side of the ridge would be fatal.We'd passed him and his younger partner earlier, and now we were heading down from the sunny, windswept summit. His partner was also walking with ski poles, though he had two ice axes strapped to his pack.  They had no rope. I stepped out of the track to let them pass; I made eye contact with the old man and he lurched toward me, his feet suddenly forgotten. I steadied him and turned to watch them go.  Then I was relieved to hear myself speaking.

It's difficult sometimes to speak up in the mountains, perhaps especially so for guides. I find myself irrationally afraid of offending people, of being taken for overbearing or arrogant.  I hesitate to invite rancor and conflict into the beautiful mountain experience for which my client has hired me. But I'm even more afraid of how I would feel if an accident happened and I had been silent. It's the same principle that would make me act if I saw a drunk person sitting down behind the wheel. Maybe, too, the same principle that urges me to say the most important things I have to say to the ones I love: what if this is my last chance to say anything at all. 

Heading down from the Gouter Ridge after a summer storm. 

"I think it is a good idea for you to turn around now," I said. The man tilted his head back and grimaced appraisingly at the ridge ahead. His partner said, "We will use the ice axes from here." I said, "Your friend is very, very tired, and it is a long way down. If he stumbles again the way he just did, he could fall and die." I told him again--please turn around.

We kept walking down the ice carapace that hovers above the busy valleys of Savoie. A rip curl of cloud rose up over the summit from the Italian side--the weather would change soon. We piled into the Gouter hut and ate pasta, tea, cookies. We collapsed into our bunks.

I was relieved to see the old man in the hallway that evening. Judging from the time, I guessed maybe they made it to the summit. I felt too embarrassed to approach him and ask. Of course I had not reason to be embarrassed. It was not wrong to speak up--reaching the summit did not change that he had been in real danger when I spoke. They had merely managed to stretch a little bit of luck a very long way.  

But their luck ran out. In the morning we watched the gendarmes pick the old man's body off the mountainside. We tried to focus on our own descent down off the Gouter ridge. It had snowed over night, dusting the rock and obscuring the most beaten path. He probably fell shortly after beginning the descent. He came to rest in the Grand Couloir, the famous funnel of rockfall one must cross to gain the route. His limbs drooped at the wrong angles as the helicopter lifted him through the air; they came back for the young partner a little later. Someone said it was his son. 

In the same way that their summit didn't prove me wrong, their accident didn't prove me right. I find myself looking to these events for reassurance, for evidence that I am doing things the right way in the mountains, that I am safe.  But the only conclusion I can fairly draw is that we don't step out of society when we go to the mountains. Especially on popular, crowded routes, I have all the responsibilities of a citizen. 

I more committed than ever to speak up. And why wouldn't I want to bring my best, my most human self to the places I love?


Sunset on Mont Blanc from downtown Chamonix.