Banking the airplane, photo by John Scurlock
  Flight to Desolation  
  by John Scurlock  

On this cold, clear afternoon, I depart east-bound from the airstrip at Concrete, Washington. I am the pilot, am alone, and intend to photograph, as I have before, the great winter peaks of the North Cascades. The light of late afternoon, when shadows are long and contrast deepens, is perfect. My opportunity is short, defined by weather and remaining daylight. Another Pacific storm will sweep in tonight, with perhaps weeks of un-flyable and restless weather ahead. Already, thin cirrus sweeps the sky and a grey haze of thicker cloud rises to the west. The sun is low above the Finney group to my right, and about two hours remain before dark. A light wind blows straight down the runway, hinting of possibly stronger gusts higher up.

Austin Post and John Scurlock
Austin Post (l) visiting with John Scurlock. © John Scurlock
The checklists are complete; the airplane is heavy with fuel and survival gear; the engine idles smoothly, the prop a blur. With a steady advance of the throttle, the familiar push begins. The runway rushes at me and the bump of the pavement quickly gives way to the smooth sway of flight. I quickly cross the Skagit River and bank slightly to the right. Glacier Peak rises immediately into view, its volcanic form completely swathed in white. This mass is my landmark until I climb enough to see Dome Peak and Spire Point. I will visit these first, then turn north towards the Canadian border, fifty miles away. After triming the controls for a steady climb, the GPS shows a ground speed of 130 miles per hour, a compromise – not the best climb but a speed which will get me into position over the Suiattle River in ten minutes at an altitude of about 8000 feet. Behind to the left, Mt. Baker and Shuksan; Mt. Rainier sits on the distant southern horizon. Ahead, mountains rise up in an unbelievable panorama of snowy peaks.

Although alone in the air, someone accompanies me on the ground. I have discussed my plan with Kelly Bush, Head Backcountry Ranger with North Cascades National Park. She knows the terrain, has traveled most of it by foot and air, and is compulsive about the geography and nomenclature of the peaks. I can quickly run through my itinerary, and she can visualize the route without need for a map.

Her knowledge is insurance for me that cannot be purchased at any cost. If I become overdue, she would likely say, “Well, he said he was going here first, then here, and here...” Now I am compelled to follow the plan without deviation, not to put myself, in a blink, many miles from the places I said I’d be.

As in climbing, the outcome depends purely on good judgment. Nobody is out there now – no hikers, no skiers, no climbers. No radar is tracking me. Below 11,000 feet, I cannot call Flight Service for assistance.

On the phone, Kelly jots down the plan. Spire, Dome, Spider, Formidable, Boston, Buckner, Logan, Jack, Hozomeen. Maybe a turn to Mesahchie. The huge and distant peaks of the North Cascades. “That is certainly ambitious,” she tells me. Yes, I agree, but still tentative because of what cloud and wind allow. I tell her, I’ll be back at dusk and will call. “Yes, well, you know we won’t be able to come looking for you until morning anyway...”

“Can you swing by Desolation and check the door?” she asks. We have discussed this before: Late-season hikers have pulled down the storm shutter on the door of the fabled lookout at Desolation Peak so they can look inside. If the shutter is off and the door exposed to the blasts of winter hurricanes, a helicopter mission will be arranged to replace it, a doubtful mission in its own way. The story reaches the Park, and now I will be passing directly over Desolation. Of course, I will attempt to look at it. Having never visited the lookout, I ask which side has the door. “The southeast corner,” she says, “we think the lookout stays clear of snow, too.” So Desolation is in the plan, a quick diversion on the flight between Jack and Hozomeen mountains.

As I climb through 4000 feet, the airplane rocks in sudden turbulence, a northeasterly wind rolling across the peaks, eddying and twisting. Too rough and I will have to stay high in smooth air – above the mountains, not down among them. I am minutes from Dome, up through the turbulence, level and cruising along at nearly 190 miles per hour. My mind separates the sound I am hearing into two parts – the steady roar of the engine and the wind of forward flight rushing over the canopy.

I flip the radio over to the international distress frequency. Should I need it I won’t have to fumble. I listen, as pilots everywhere do, for anyone seeking aid. The odd pop of static is all that stirs.

Setting up for photography, I reduce the power and slow down, a process that takes a minute or two. I will try to circle each target peak at perhaps 140 miles per hour, sometimes slower. Being too fast and too close results in blurred images and wastes flight time.

Nine minutes after takeoff, I am nearing Spire Point, a pale pinkish-orange pinnacle, the earliest hint of alpenglow. Spindrift snow pours over it and away to the south. I will attempt to fly lower, so the peaks will stand against the sky rather than be lost in a mountainous jumble. But the turbulence will be costly. With no time to experiment with exposure times and camera settings, I expect many images to be blurry, but hope for the best.

I descend into the bumps – tolerable, it seems. Circling counter-clockwise allows me to shoot out the left side of the canopy.

I am dressed in black with thin black gloves, a black cloth drape in place, everything covered except the airspeed indicator and altimeter, all to eliminate image-degrading reflections off the Plexiglas.

Spire is completely and impossibly frozen; no bare rock is visible – all the cliffs and crags caked in pale ice, the narrow ridges and arêtes tufted and piled with rime and cornices, no surface untouched by the preceding storm. The weather is clear, but the wind still drives snow against it as if to demand that Spire become icier yet. Putting the airplane in a steep bank to keep the wing out of the image, I shoot photo after photo. After four passes, I turn to Dome Peak, close ahead to the east. Everything is as completely bound up in snow and ice as Spire. Glaciers are smooth, mid-slopes are white, brush is frosted, snowy dark trees fall away to empty valley bottoms of heavy winter in the North Cascades. Behind me the sun draws down towards western clouds.

Now level at 9000 feet, I am flying northward towards Jack Mountain. Less than half an hour remains until a turn towards home. Making my way from peak to peak, I complete the Ptarmigan Traverse, south to north, in perhaps four minutes. At the notch of Cascade Pass, wind has been throwing clouds of snow out into the north fork valley of the Cascade River. Buckner, Logan, Mesahchie – a difficult foot journey to all three, are soon receding behind me.

The winter-abandoned North Cascades highway is a thin line through the darkening valley of Granite Creek. Ross Lake stretches away towards Canada. Cold pale sunlight barely touches endless mountains both sharp and rounded. To the west, Mt. Baker sits before the gray frontal clouds. I begin circling around Jack, huge mushrooms of snow standing on the summit ridges. The headwall of the Nohokomeen glacier rises steeply runneled with pastel snow. Three quick turns, then I fly north again. Ahead, below dark cumulus clouds, the frosted mountains of British Columbia stretch to the horizon.

I reduce power and fall towards Desolation. From a distance it is not hard to see – at first a white dot on a snowed ridge, but quickly resolving into a tiny hut. Drawing closer, I see it completely covered with snow – an exquisite sculpture of rime sitting in a circular drift with thin ranks of ghostly stunted trees stretching towards it. I circle around just to look, but to see the door I need a close pass. Banking first to the north and turning towards Ross I then quickly turn back and come in just above the ridge to the south, level first, then a quick dip of the wing as I pass overhead. Is the door shutter in place? I cannot tell, but the door is clearly visible, so I set up for photography which will answer the question.

Desolation lookout
Desolation Lookout. © John Scurlock
The light is dim and the results will be uncertain – the camera defaulting to a slow shutter speed. At least 1/250th of a second is normally needed to overcome speed and vibration, but a quick glance shows the camera at 1/100th or less. These images will not be the sharpest. Level again, a turn, a bank; the camera snaps five or six times. I turn again for another try, four times in all, sometimes panning the camera a bit to compensate for the difficult conditions. Finished now, compelled to stay but urgent to leave, I turn again northward and climb. With less than ten minutes of viewing one of the most legendary spots in the North Cascades, at its most remote and isolated condition, I know I am very fortunate. I hope my photographs turn out, because I may not return for a long time.

The sun sits on the horizon, blinking through clouds caught by the ragged edge of the Picket ranges. I make one circle around Hozomeen. Its memorable dark form is now pale with ice and snow. I doubt photos of it will be useful – better to have been here earlier. This place is hard to get to, even by air, requiring a well-thought-out determination to probe this far.

Turning to the south above Ross, I run for home. I am cold; the cockpit heater is overpowered by drafts of fifteen-degree outside air. Checking the GPS tells me that I am thirteen minutes out. Thirteen minutes from the head of Ross Lake! The ground speed tells the story, more than two hundred miles per hour with a tail wind. Smooth at this altitude, I have no great sense of speed and can relax. The magnificent alpine scenery and fairy-tale sunset are pure enjoyment. Straight down Ross, a bank to the right over the Skagit canyon, the lone and snowy mountains are slipping past. In a gradual descent past Sauk Mountain, the lights of evening are twinkling sparsely on the ground.

The sun is down now but dusk hovers; colors dim, hues wane to gray and darker gray. The tail strobe flashes down on the wings. The runway is in sight. I am much lower and seemingly faster, an illusion created by nearness to the ground; the landing lights brush the treetops. I float just above the pavement; then I am down and rolling. I turn towards the hangar; the sky is half covered with high grey clouds, then the darkest blue to the east.

I look at my watch: Five minutes late. I am quickly on the phone to Kelly – “How was it?” she asks. Not bad, I’ll be over with a few pictures to show you later.

I ponder the wonderful things I have seen. The easterly breeze is stronger and colder now –no flying will be done tomorrow. Turning to the warmth of the car, I am already thinking of another flight – when next will I catch a glimpse of these hidden winter mountains?

About John Scurlock

John Scurlock loves mountains, flying and photography. Cold, clear winter days find him especially busy on a big project of his own making, photographing the snow-clad peaks of the North Cascades during those rare winter moments of sunshine. He seeks aerial intimacy with these familiar peaks, flying low and close among them.

John Scurlock very rarely takes passengers, but he shares his flights with the world through his pictures, as his friend, mentor, and role model, Austin Post of the U.S. Geological Survey, has also done. His pictures have been available on his website less than a year, but they are now enjoyed and researched by hundreds of Northwest climbers and many others. Scenes formerly known by just a few seasoned mountaineers have inspired the broader community with the beauty and possibilities of winter mountaineering in the Cascades.
flight to Desolation Scenes
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Jack Mtn (from the NW)
^ Jack Mtn (from the NW).
Sunset behind the Pickets
^ Sunset behind the Pickets.
Cascade crest from Spire Point to Dome Peak
^ Spire Point to Dome Peak.
Mt. Hozomeen in near darkness
^ Mt. Hozomeen in near darkness.
Formidable from the southeast
^ Formidable from the southeast.
Jack Mountain
^ Jack Mountain.
Dome Peak
^ Dome Peak.
Mt. Goode and Logan
^ Mt. Goode and Logan.
Katsuk and Mesahchie
^ Katsuk and Mesahchie.