The rain finally came in Luna cirque, the rain I had always feared in the Picket range. We could see it coming out of the north, black wall of a thunderstorm rolling closer as we toiled onward: we could not afford to stop short of the col high above. The steep heather hillsides and lichenous rock of the Pickets are notoriously treacherous when wet, and we'd be making slow headway if the rain continued.
Our packs seemed impossibly dense, as if filled with the metallic ore that gleams from the rocks of the moraines below. And yet what could all our impedimenta do against a storm? I draped a flimsy raincoat over my head and backpack; I wiped beads of moisture from the lens of my camera and snapped murky frames of the climb. In a boulder field I sensed a chance at shelter and we tucked in beneath a leaning face of gneiss .We snacked and laughed at the absurdity of our situation; we laughed in satisfaction. I came here to guide a mountain holiday, the same kind I myself enjoy, and which would not be possible without these unique mountains. Soon we left our dry roost, and on the long grind toward the ridge I asked myself: what is this place--this refuge, this living prehistoric monument both to an extraordinary ecosystem and to the restraint and self-knowledge of a society--what is this wilderness?
Named for the water endlessly moving on their steep flanks, the North Cascades would not be what they are if it were not for these storms. In the Pleistocene, ice swarmed out of the Pickets in massive streams, a continuous sheet from Little Beaver to Big Beaver over Beaver Pass. In the Holocene, the glaciers peeled back, advanced, then shrank again, faster and faster, raking moraines across the valleys in a zen pebble garden of stripes and crescents; the rivers wore down their v-shaped beds. And now, in an age some propose to call the Anthropocene, the shaping forces of this range are not rivers of ice or water but federal laws. The Wilderness Act defines this place, woven invisibly through the land like a magnetic field.
The unseen forces of bureaucracy became visible for a moment when an NSA helicopter buzzed us at Perfect Pass. This wilderness is also border country, a no-man's land in more than one sense, and the Federal government keeps a number of eyes peeled on it. But we are not the the object of their surveillance. We signed into our trip at the little station in Glacier with no hassle, only a backcountry camping permit administered to us by a friendly ranger named Magenta. In contrast to some busy parks, North Cascades charges no entrance fees and runs just a handful of reservation-only campsites. If I were to handle the crown jewels in London or to stroll around the halls of the White House, I would expect a thorough security screening and constant armed escort. But the national treasures of the Picket range are ours in total freedom, the trust of the state and of society weigh on us. As visitors we simply agree to a few basic rules: neither trample nor hunt living things, build no fires, build no anything, and pack out what you pack in. It is a simple idea with powerful consequences.
We left the hiking trail four day days before, launching up the faint track of Easy Ridge. The ridge gets its name from the travel beyond, which is not easy. When we passed the remains of an old fire lookout, the change was abrupt. The tread petered out and we began descending cross country, over snowfields and across boulder-strewn gulches, sneaking around waterfalls. Our destination loomed tantalizingly close: the wide paradise of Perfect Pass, a perfect green frame for the shapely hulk of Mount Challenger. But just as it seemed that the way was clear, the earth fell away at our feet. The straight-sided chasm is known as the Imperfect Impasse, an eroded dike typical of the pickets. Having been here before, I knew the correct strategy: waffle a lot and look concerned. One can either descend 1,000 feet to get around the chasm(and of course regain that elevation through talus and steep trees), or climb through the Impasse on a series of ledges.
Climbing through the chasm, I was reminded how easily the mythology of the place can get to you. Even though I have been here before--in summer and in winter--I hesitated for a long while at the edge of the Impasse. I can't explain why: the place was more than the sum of its mineral, inanimate parts. This chasm is something of a threshold, a doorway to uncertainty. Knowing the way--either as a line on a topographic map or as rehearsal--is not a thorough antidote to adventure. Once I tied in and began climbing up the ledges it was all business, a mountain guide at work. But the feeling would return again and again on the trip: "We are OUT THERE."
Most citizens will benefit from this wilderness indirectly--through cleaner air and water, through species diversity, through the maintenance of the dialectic between wilderness and civilization that seems so vital to human cultures. But some will actually come to visit. And for them, the wilderness of the Picket range has a well-established tradition of mountain adventure.
In the mid-sixties activists successfully lobbied to include the Pickets and adjacent mountains in the National Wilderness Preservation System (and soon after in the proposed North Cascades National Park). As a result, the USGS mapped the area and catalogued its mineral potential. Tabor and Crowder, two geologists involved in this project, in turn produced the enchanting 1968 book and companion map from Mountaineers Books, Routes and Rocks in the Challenger Quadrangle. ('Challenger Quadrangle' refers to the United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute map containing the Picket range). Interwoven with wit and playfully enigmatic travel advice, the book is an invitation to enjoy the Pickets on their own terms. Directing the reader along the Goodel creek route, the authors note,
"Many handholds are available, including loose rock, dirt, and very small trees."
The book inspired decades of Pickets adventures, and still presents a valuable resource for climbers. When Nelson and Potterfield described the route to Eiley Wiley ridge from Beaver Pass nearly 30 years later in Selected Climbs in the Cascades, their travel advice read almost identically to that offered in Routes and Rocks. The notorious brush of the North Cascade valleys can swallow up all but the most furiously trampled climber's trail, clearing the slate for future explorers.
As a young person of relative privilege, I struggle at times to remain cognizant of the freedoms I enjoy and the struggles that secured them. My great-grandfather would no doubt be emphatic: the world of the forty hour work week is not a given, but a victory won through years of organized labor campaigns. The owners of the coal mine where he worked in West Virginia could demand whatever hours they chose--unrestrained capitalism at its most callous. He also worked as a logger (his profession is listed as "woodsman" on his son's birth certificate). He made a living off the opportunity presented by wilderness, the raw world offering up its riches to the appetites of industry. I don't know if he was aware of the passage of the Wilderness Act, or what he thought of it. But as an outdoorsman--as a woodsman--I think he couldn't have failed to see the wisdom of this visionary law. Just as the forty hour work week protects the time of working people against the energetic ambition of capitalism, so does the Wilderness Act protect the space, the physical world of the people, against this same ambition; and it protects, in some small measure, the biodiversity with which we co-evolved and upon which we depend.
It's fair to ask: wouldn't more people enjoy the Pickets--and defend their existence--if they could visit it on, say, hiking trails? It's easy to imagine where the trails would go, and to imagine the Pickets as the most celebrated mountains of the country (the Grand Teton would hopefully be a good sport). It would be the alpine climbing center of the lower 48, the ski mountaineering mecca of the continent. And there would be enormous social good in such development--more people would see this place, more people astounded and awed by the power and beauty of it. But then how would it differ in quality from other national parks? We have parks with incredible access to scenery, inspiration, and renewal for people of all ability. If your only strategy to protect wild nature is to invite everyone in on paved paths so that they can appreciate it, then you are left with a solipsism. Though they may be imperfect or at times seem arbitrary, we have to draw lines and say, "We won't build a trail in this valley." It's precisely what remains unknown that may be most valuable about wilderness.
Wilderness has its problems. It is an investment that we have made as a society, an investment whose dividends are hard to calculate and without doubt unequally distributed. The lands we idealize as free of human presence were in many cases inhabited by native people for thousands of years before european settlement--how is it natural for humans to be absent from these lands? These problems are real and difficult, but can perhaps be resolved in time, and perhaps without irrevocably altering the integrity of the ecosystems protected by wilderness. When it comes to wild lands, it may be best to measure twice and cut once.
As we reached Luna col near dusk, the ridges to the south appeared, embattled in cloud and the red glow of a dying storm. The peaks of the southern Pickets eluded us, wrapped in mist--neither Terror nor Inspiration confronted us as we made our meek little camp. I wondered if it would rain again, if we would have any visibility for the crossing to Access Creek, if we would find a good way down that wild valley. So much remained--and remains-- out of sight. And that, it seems, is precisely the point.