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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.