Forbidden Peak, Photo by Lowell Skoog
  North Cascades
National Park
  By Kelly Bush, Wilderness District Ranger  

The year 2003 marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of a climbing ranger program at North Cascades National Park. In 1983, two seasonal rangers were the first to be assigned full time schedules with duties of mountaineering and overseeing projects that were concerned with resource management in the off-trail areas of the park. Despite an unseasonably wet and cool summer, that climbing team began to look at the patterns of mountaineering around the park, and began planning a reduction of approach impacts in Boston Basin (by designating only one route to Forbidden Peak). They also performed climbing patrols. (This is not to discount the efforts and adventures of the pioneering rangers of the 70s; some of the most interesting reports and photos in the park archives are of remote, interior areas documented by rangers in the late 1960s and 1970s not long after the establishment of the park.)

The 1983 climbing team patrolled eight peaks (with a total of 11 routes): Mt. Shuksan (Fisher Chimneys), Forbidden Peak (W Ridge; NW Face), Mt. Buckner (N Face, SW Face), Sharkfin Tower (SE Ridge, S Face), Mt. Redoubt (S Face), Mt. Spickard (N Face), Black Peak (S Face), and Mixup Peak (E Face). The 1984 team expanded to three climbing rangers out of a crew of 14 backcountry rangers.

Shuksan & BakerPhoto by Lowell Skoog.
Shuksan & Baker
© Lowell Skoog.
2003 saw a banner year for warm, clear, and stable weather. Records were set for low annual precipitation as well as the number of consecutive clear days. While the clear weather was a benefit for the mountaineering season, the low winter snow pack and fires in the park and surrounding area negatively affected the environment. Smoke caused poor visibility in the mountains for much of August and into September and visitation for climbing dropped during this typically peak time. The main areas affected were peaks surrounding Thunder Creek, the upper Cascade River, and Big Beaver Creek by fires in these drainages.

Staffing and Training
Continuing from an approach similar to 2001-02, staffing for climbing patrols pulled from a variety of the wilderness rangers. While two or three rangers have extensive mountaineering backgrounds combined with SAR skills, they often patrolled separately and sought partners from Skagit Mountain Rescue or Bellingham Mountain Rescue, other park staff, and volunteers. For several years now, all the wilderness ranger staff have been on more of a roving patrol schedule, which includes the climbing areas. This is a response to an overall decline in wilderness ranger staffing from the 90’s, in an attempt to maximize coverage with fewer rangers. Having rangers with superior climbing backgrounds based at fixed patrols such as Cascade Pass and Copper Ridge has helped ensure coverage for patrols and SAR needs.

SAR Training: One ranger was sent to the 40-hr Technical Rescue at Canyonlands National Park. Several sessions were held at the Gorge Creek cliff, which included sessions with Wilderness District staff in-house and Conterra Systems (Rick Lipke instructing) for Seattle City Light. An 8-hr helicopter training session (power-on landing techniques) was held for 8 rangers.

Climbing Visitation

Number of Parties in selected Cross-country Areas, from backcountry permit data:

  2001 2002 2003 (*)
Boston Basin
362 (3.4)
Eldorado 268
265 293 (5.5)
Sulphide Glacier 352 281 268 (4.5)
Sahale Glacier 291 276 303 (2.6)
Logan 41 36 30 (3.4)
Goode 40
50 50 (2.7)
Terror Basin 64 73 74 (2.0)
Davis Peak 21 8 9 (1.7)
Prophet 1 6 4 (2.0)
*Average party size.

2003 Projects in Cross-country / Climbing areas

Impact Monitoring
Rangers and resources management staff completed route and campsite impact surveys for the following zones: Boston Basin, Eldorado Creek, Blum Creek, Torment Basin, and Dee Lakes. Geographic Information System (GIS) maps were also completed for these zones. Of note are the 43 Boston Basin campsites documented, mapped, and marked with GPS coordinates.

Waste Management
Due to the light snow pack of Winter 2002/2003, all composting toilets survived in good shape and the two new ones purchased the prior year are still available for the upcoming 2004 season. Rangers dutifully maintained 16 composters in park wilderness sites. The likely candidate for replacement in 2004 is the Sahale Glacier composter. Additionally, nearly 800 blue bags were issued from the Wilderness Info Center in Marblemount, the permit desk at Headquarters, Sedro-Woolley, and from Glacier Public Service Center. Rangers also totaled 89 instances of improper waste disposal (feces on the ground or snow), and only a few of those were found in blue bags.

Other Wilderness “Clean-up”
A climbing rope that has hung near the East Ridge on the South Face of Forbidden Peak was removed in 2003. Collective memory has it that the rope has been there since a fatality accident in the 1970s, but this has not been confirmed.

A report of aircraft debris in the basin west of Perfect Pass prompted a search in this area. While sounding very likely to be from the crash of a NAS Whidbey SAR helicopter in 1980 at Perfect Pass, the caller reported the debris as being new in appearance. A wheel and connecting parts were collected and later confirmed to be from the NAS Whidbey helicopter.

  “Over 50 percent of [year 2003 Search and Rescue] incidents involved hiking injuries and/or medical emergencies that happened in the backcountry.”
Search and Rescue
Rangers responded to 16 incidents in 2003, two of which were assisted by the Whatcom and Skagit county Sheriff’s offices in USFS areas. The total un-programmed emergency cost to the National Park Service was $21,118.

While in most years climbing accidents are the majority of SAR incidents, in 2003 over 50 percent of these incidents involved hiking injuries and/or medical emergencies that happened in the backcountry.

In addition to these 16 incidents, an incident involving the recovery of two large packhorses that fell to their deaths in a gorge near Ross Lake was one of the more technically challenging responses. Also, a fall resulting in a fatality of one climber occurred on Reynolds Peak; the recovery was handled by the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.
Some of the 16 incidents of 2003 are summarized in the sidebar.

Projects and Outlook for 2004

Search and Rescue
The Wilderness District Ranger attended the annual National Park Service Shorthaul Working Group meeting. Through this and other efforts, the “lifenet technique” of shorthaul was recognized and approved at the NPS Director level for emergency SAR needs at NCNP. A direct (from the harness) shorthaul program is being explored and is the desired tool, but administrative hurdles remain in the aviation arena.

Permit Reservation System
Public comment regarding the permit system for backcountry camps and cross-country zones has influenced the Wilderness District to explore the implementation of another reservation program. (Reservations were available for permits from 1990-93 but this was discontinued due to the high percentage of cancellations and other administrative difficulties.) Permit records show that only certain high-use camps and cross-country zones have greater demand than permits available for the majority of the season. In 2004 staff will evaluate how a program could be designed to meet the interests of hikers and climbers and be administratively feasible without requiring the need to charge for actual permits. The goal is tentatively set for implementation in 2005.

Access to the North Cascades Wilderness

After the record-setting mild winter of 2002/2003 and a pleasantly clear, warm summer of Summer 2003, an intense storm hit in late October. Torrential rains and flooding altered the landscape within and outside the park. From the Wilderness perspective, what we have seen afterward are “storm effects.” However, from the perspective of human access, “storm damage” has been extensive. We expect that the 2004 season will be affected in terms of visitation (probably lower) and certainly in terms of shifting priorities for project and staffing needs for trail and road work.
2003 Statistics
2003 Most Visited
• Boston Basin
362 parties, 3.4 average party size
• Sahale, Sahale Glacier
303 parties, 2.6 average party size
• Eldorado
293 parties, 5.5 average party size
• Shuksan, Sulphide Glacier
268 parties, 4.5 average party size
Search & Rescue Highlights
• Tomyhoi Peak
Medical emergency / fatality (assisted by Whatcom County)
Trapper Peak
Cliffed-out lost hiker (shorthaul evacuation)
• Ross Dam
Medically impaired lost hiker below Ross Dam (technical lower to boat to ambulance)
• Mount Logan
Climbing fall (critically injured patient shorthauled to Airlift NW)
• Koolaid Lake
Leg injury (helicopter evacuation assisted by Skagit County)
• Cascade Pass
Lower leg fracture (helicopter evacuation)
• Mt. Shuksan
Fall from SW face, leg and internal injuries (helicopter evacuation from Curtis Glacier)
• McAlester Pass
Medical emergency (helicopter evac by Medstar Air Ambulance)
• Icy Peak / Nooksack Cirque
Successful search for overdue climbers/researchers