Challenge of the North Cascades

On Halloween I set out with two friends to visit another wild corner of the north Cascades. Hiking once more to Cascade Pass, this time we continued east, through bear tracks and the dwindling howls of an autumn storm. We set up camp among larches and hoped that the weather would clear as forecast; it was a good 12 mile wander from the car, so we had made our wager.

We woke up at 4am and made our hot drinks. The stars shone, and the snow glittered with new facets. Soon we were crossing through a high col and dropping onto a very lonely glacier and moving even further east. We headed for a line we had seen in a Scurlock photograph.

We found a face far bigger and more complex than we had expected. It was three mountains folded into one another, whole faces and cirques hiding around each bend. Our photo became meaningless. Suddenly  I felt quite alone, and I looked around at the valley. What an abandoned place, and what a desolate season!

Thin snow let show dead leaves and brush; it curtained the dark shards of the boulders and talus. I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't be laying eyes on this place. This was a moment that was meant to pass in total wildness, with no men for miles and miles. And yet I realized how seldom I had come to the mountains at just this time, at the very threshold of winter, and I was so glad to have come.

By the time we knew we had failed, the spindrift had calmed and the day had begun to dim. A 100 foot vertical waterfall barred the way, the thin ice barely masking the running water behind.We rappelled a steep buttress right of our couloir, linking 70m raps off tiny trees, ledge to perch to ledge. We hit the glacier, barely, and wove back through the bergschrund toward our tracks.

The new bear tracks led back up into Pelton Basin. The paws nearly filled the center of an old boot mark. In one place, I thought I saw a print smeared by paws slipping where the trail crossed a frozen seep. Again and again I am surprised by the nature of the seasons; to my untrained mind, a bear should have no business left up here so late as November. But then neither should I. I keep wanting to know more about the unlikely errands done by all the creatures who wander these mountains.