View of the Pickets
  North Cascades National Park, 2004  
  by Kelly Bush, Wilderness District Ranger  

Ohe 2004 backcountry season was anticipated to be greatly affected by the October 2003 storm that produced record flooding in the Skagit Basin and other major rivers within the North Cascades National Park complex. Backcountry trails and bridges as well as notable road access points such as the Stehekin Road were either destroyed or damaged to an extent that made travel to many remote areas more difficult and time-consuming. Repair of this trail and bridge infrastructure will take several years or longer, depending on funding.

Moonrise over Mt. Fury.
Moonrise over Mt. Fury. Enlarge Photo © Lowell Skoog
Following that dramatic storm, the winter produced a below-average snowpack. Winter itself seemed to arrive early again, in the third week of August, reducing the number of visitors in an already low-visitation season. While hiking trip statistics were expected to be low for 2004, numbers of mountaineering trips were surprisingly and dramatically down through the year. (See climbing visitation, below.) However, analysis of permit and patrol data combined with anecdotal observation of public website trip reports seems to show that, while numbers of mountaineering trips overall may be on a (at least short-term) decline, the diversity, depth, and variety of alpine traverses and mountaineering ascents has broadened. Put a different way, climbers are going to the remote reaches of the park, farther and faster than many might have believed possible a decade ago.

Staffing & Training

A staff of ten rangers patrolled 24 cross-country zones in 2004 at least once. Patrols focused on standard high-use areas such as Boston Basin, Eldorado Basin, Inspiration Glacier, Triumph Col, and Mount Shuksan zones, but also made exploratory or resource focused trips to Bacon, Icy, Prophet, Teebone Ridge, Goode, and Spickard zones. Continuing on a largely roving schedule (only Cascade Pass and Copper Ridge had dedicated patrols), climbing patrols were optimized by often pairing one of three climbing rangers with Wilderness Information Center staff, Skagit and Bellingham Mountain Rescue, and other volunteers.

One ranger was sent to the 40-hr Technical Rescue training at Canyonlands National Park. One climbing ranger was sent to the 40-hour Helicopter Crewmember S271 training. SAR 101 training (8 hrs) was provided for new staff and conducted by NOCA climbing rangers. The SAR team participated in two days training at the Newhalem cliffs with Conterra Systems and two days training on technical raises and lowers at Gorge Creek cliffs, with a rescue scenario off Thunder Knob.

In addition to this Search and Rescue training, the Wilderness District Ranger became a member of the Interagency Short-haul Working Group and attended the annual meeting in January, 2005. North Cascades National Park intends to establish an approved DOI short-haul program and is planning the first steps in its implementation in the 2005 season.

In June 2005, SAR team staff will hold bi-annual helicopter step-out landing training and certification; if the above are accomplished it is the hope to also start with short-haul training and proficiency testing with pilots and rangers.

Climbing Visitation

Number of parties in selected cross-country areas, from backcountry permit data:

  2001 2002 2003 2004(*)
Boston Basin 400 394 362 198 (3.4)
Eldorado 268 265 293 135 (4.0)
Sulphide Glacier 352 281 268 171 (3.9)
Sahale Glacier 291 276 303 174 (2.4)
Logan 41 36 30 12 (2.2)
Goode 40 50 50 10 (2.1)
Terror Basin 64 73 74 15 (2.4)
Challenger n/a 48 22 19 (2.7)
Luna N/A 39 30 23 (2.5)
Triumph Col n/a 46 43 26 (2.3)
* Average party size

2004 Projects in Cross-country/Climbing Areas

Glacier Study
Climbing rangers participated with park geologists on a glacier mass balance study, assisting on the Silver, North Klawatti, Noisy, and Sandalee Glaciers.

Slings removed from Triumph
Slings removed from Triumph.
© Paul Klenke.
Wilderness Clean-up
A memorial site with large signs and other development at Vulcan Lake (which is along the approach route to the Banded Glacier on Mount Logan) was reported by a climbing party. The subsequent investigation located the family members, who had hired a helicopter to transport them and the memorial materials to the site. Two rangers cleaned the site and carried out everything in multiple trips in September, 2004.

A push was resumed to clean excess climbing webbing from anchor points on one or two routes per season (these were Sharkfin Tower and Mt Triumph in 2004) and encourage a visitor effort for this in future seasons.

Waste Management
Light snowpack and good luck resulted in another year of 100% winter survival of the park’s composting toilets. None required replacement and rangers maintained 16 composting toilets (as well as lower elevation pit toilets) in subalpine or alpine sites. Rangers documented 43 instances of improper waste disposal in patrol reports (feces on snow primarily in Eldorado and Sulphide Glacier zones, down from 89 in 2003) and the Wilderness Information Center (and other permit issuing centers) gave out approximately 600 blue bags.

Search and Rescue
North Cascades National Park personnel responded to 17 incidents in 2004, of which 9 were major SAR incidents. The total unprogrammed emergency cost to the National Park Service was $20,978, of which $11,685 was for helicopter flight time.

Some of the 17 incidents of 2004 are summarized in the sidebar.
2004 Summary
• Fall 2003 storms damaged access
• Overall 2004 climbing trips down
• Diversity and depth of climbing up
• Ranger rescue training up
Search & Rescue Highlights
• Mount Shuksan
Ski mountaineer fell from near the summit to the base of summit pyramid, suffering back, pelvic, and hand fractures. Patient was litter-winched into US Navy SAR helicopter.

• Mount Shuksan
An overdue climbing register initiated the search for two on the Sulphide Glacier route. Poor weather and visibility, no map/compass/familiarity led to an off-route descent. The pair were found in the Swift Creek drainage disoriented, exhausted, without food, and cliffed-out. Helicopter evacuation.

• Mount Shuksan
A party of four on the Sulphide Glacier became disoriented after the onset of a storm, resulting in an unplanned bivouac on the glacier. They requested assistance by cell phone. The party was revived from mild hypothermia and assisted from their bivy to the trailhead.

• Rainbow Creek Trail
A knee injury led to immobility. The patient was carried out by litter over three miles to Stehekin Valley Road.

• Luna Cirque

A ground-level fall while descending into the cirque resulted in fractured ankle. The climbing partner hiked out and notified the park. The patient was evacuated by helicopter.

• Forbidden Peak
A climbing leader fall from the North Ridge route into an east facing gully resulted in serious open fractures of both legs. After initial stabilization from two partners, the climber overnighted alone. A helicopter short-hauled the patient to a landing zone and was transferred to a medevac helicopter.

• Jerry Lakes / Jack Mountain
Two cross-country day hikers became lost while carrying no gear, food, or map. They were located on the second search day in lower Devils Creek. Technical helicopter extraction from deep forest.