Cache Col in winter. Photo © Sky Sjue
  North Cascades National Park 2005  
  by Kelly Bush, Wilderness District Ranger  


he 2005 season for wilderness operations in the North Cascades National Park was notable for what it lacked: snow, major lightning-caused wildfires, and major search and rescue (SAR) incidents.

The 2004-05 winter snowfall was one of the lowest on record, and for the third year in a row the park’s glaciers recorded a negative balance, losing more snow and ice in the summer than they gained in the winter. Cool June weather perhaps saved the glaciers from melting even more. However, glacier surface ice was observed by rangers and park geologists much earlier than in the past. During one glacial monitoring session on the Sandalee Glacier (on the north side of McGregor Peak), a geologist recorded that the glacier was only 15 feet thick in places—much thinner than expected. In the last 150 years, the park’s glaciers have lost 40 percent of their mass. An interesting, though less scientific, observation made this year was that the large (formerly regarded as “permanent”) snowfield just outside the Copper Lookout, staffed by fire crew or park rangers since the 1940s, completely melted away by late summer. The snowfield is the lookout’s water source, and this is believed to be its first disappearance.

Mt.  Shuksan. Photo © Kevork Arackellian
Mt. Shuksan. Photo © Kevork Arackellian
Trail and Bridge Access Restored, But Not Stehekin Road

Park trail crews spent much of 2005 rebuilding the major bridges lost in the October 2003 floods and patching up many sections of flood-damaged trails. As of this year, all major bridges slated for replacement have been completed, including Stillwell, lower Thunder Creek, Fisher Creek, and Thunder Creek at McAllister. The Stehekin River Road remains partially closed, however, due to severe flood damage. In September 2005, the road was repaired and re-opened as far as Car Wash Falls (about two miles upriver from High Bridge, or 12.8 miles from Stehekin). The park recently released a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the upper Stehekin Valley Road, outlining four alternative road actions. The park’s preferred alternative (and the environmentally preferred alternative) is to close the upper road at Car Wash Falls and turn the remaining 10 miles of road into a foot and stock trail. More information on the Upper Stehekin Valley Road EA can be found here.

In 2005, 11 rangers plus four full-time volunteers, almost all seasonal employees, patrolled 610 documented hours to 28 different cross-country zones. As is standard, many of these multi-day trips were to popular weekend mountaineering objectives—the standard routes on Mount Shuksan, Boston Basin peaks, Eldorado Peak, and Mount Triumph. Other patrols included both the North and South Pickets, the “Inspiration Traverse,” the Chilliwack Range (Mount Spickard, Mount Redoubt, Bear Mountain), Bacon Peak, Mount Blum, Colonial Peak, Davis Peak, and The Triad.

Climbing Visitation
This year’s data is presented as number of people, rather than number of parties (as was submitted to last year’s edition of this journal), because this better reflects the actual number of feet hitting the ground. Interestingly, while trends in the number of parties do show a decrease for some zones over the last few years, the same is not consistently true for the number of visitors, which has actually increased for some areas, or remained about the same. This indicates that the average party size has increased for some areas. In Boston Basin, for example, evaluation of average party size shows a gradual increase from 3.0 in 2001 to 3.6 in 2005. This doesn’t suggest a huge difference in mountaineering trends in our estimation, but is likely a result of a slight increase in both commercial and organized group use of such areas. This statistic varies by cross-country zone, however, so no overall trend is readily apparent.

  2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Boston Basin 627 628 631 668 630
Colonial 52 104
47 36 87
Eldorado 458 493 435 467 359
Goode 57 51 75 21 17
Klawatti 133 94 86 44 28
Logan 67 56 57 26 27
Sahale Glacier 626 517 617 415 613
Sulphide Glacier 789 638 607 685 628
Terror Basin 67 45 55 36 56
Triumph Col 44 68 66 61 46

Fee System for Backcountry Permits
In 2005, permit system managers at North Cascades, Olympic, and Mount Rainier National Parks were directed to design a fee system for backcountry permits that was consistent with park operations and that carried the same fee in each of the three parks. While both Olympic and Mount Rainier already have fee and/or reservation systems, this was to be a big change for operations and for visitors at North Cascades National Park. After reaching consensus about a fee program for the three parks, management direction changed; any new program is now on hold until at least 2007. The three parks continue to “do their own thing,” with distinct fee/reservation programs in place at Mount Rainier and Olympic, while North Cascades continues using a system with required, but free, permits.

This management discussion has stimulated an effort at North Cascades to get the word out about the reason for the backcountry permit requirement, through the park’s annual handout, publications such as Climbing Notes, various backcountry and climbing websites, and the park’s own improved website. The North Cascades National Park backcountry permit system is focused on wilderness management and data collection and, at least through 2006, is not a revenue generation system. It remains required, but free.

Mountain Goat Study
Wilderness rangers assisted the start of a mountain goat research project designed to improve the park’s ability to estimate mountain goat populations and detect future population changes. Mountain goats are native to the North Cascades. Over the last few decades, goat populations have declined substantially in many parts of their native range, including within the park, but a lack of data has hampered researchers in assessing the magnitude of declines. In 2005, the park started a joint research project with Olympic and Mount Rainier National Parks, as well as the United States Geological Survey and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Currently 21 goats are radio-collared in Washington, including four collared in the northern end of North Cascades National Park in 2005. The collars on the goats enable researchers to track the goats’ movements and develop a better research model for tracking goat populations.

Waste Management
2005 had no composting toilet casualties, but the Thunder Basin composter was replaced. Rangers maintained 16 composting toilets in subalpine or alpine sites. In various areas without toilets, particularly at the Sulphide Glacier camp on Mount Shuksan’s south side before toilet melt-out, rangers dealt with 63 incidents of improper feces disposal. The permit centers gave out nearly 1,000 blue bags for use in carrying out waste in early season or from climbers’ camps without toilets. Staff noted a trend in recent years toward familiarity and acceptance of the blue bag system—i.e., most climbers know what blue bags are and are comfortable using them. Just a few years ago, blue bags were received with many puzzled or disgusted looks. Several major guiding companies now supply their clients with commercial versions of the blue bags, which probably helps increase the public’s general awareness of human waste issues.

Glacier Study
Again in 2005, as for at least a decade, climbing rangers assisted the park’s geologists with the glacier mass-balance study, traveling to the Silver, North Klawatti, Noisy, and Sandalee Glaciers. As noted earlier, the year was not good for glaciers.

Search and Rescue Training and Incidents
In June 2005, six rangers and three pilots practiced and certified for STEP landings (commonly referred to as one-skid, hover, or power-on landings) in preparation for helicopter exits to rough or technical terrain. The standard refresher courses were held for high-angle rock rescue. Climbing and patrol staff also used Mount Baker’s Easton Glacier as a training site for crevasse rescue.

Magic Mountain Summit. Photo © Rosemary Seifried
Magic Mountain Summit. Photo © Rosemary Seifried. Enlarge
The North Cascades National Park SAR program continues to work toward establishing an Aviation Management Directorate (AMD)-approved helicopter short-haul program certification, tentatively slated for June 2006.

Another effort to increase SAR program effectiveness has been the addition of two high-quality volunteers, a paramedic and an emergency room physician who is also the medical program director for Skagit County. In addition to medical expertise, the two have strong mountaineering backgrounds. They began involvement with the National Park Service through volunteer patrols with climbing rangers, eventually being on-call for SAR. Even when unavailable to physically respond, the benefit is great to rangers and patients to have “medical control” by telephone or radio dispatch to a physician familiar with mountain rescue conditions. North Cascades National Park rangers involved with SAR are certified as EMT-B.

All in all, the 2005 season was very odd in terms of search and rescue activity. While the number of incidents was significantly low for the season, the highest fatality mountaineering accident in park history tragically occurred in July 2005. Then, after an unusually quiet August, one of the most difficult helicopter evacuations in recent memory was successfully undertaken responding to a fluky accident on flat ground. A long-recognized tenet of the search and rescue business is to make no assumptions about anything.

Nine incidents occurred which required an evacuation or field response by rangers. These were almost all minor knee or leg injuries, involving litter carry-out or helicopter evacuations. Three incidents are briefly summarized in the sidebar.

Search & Rescue Highlights

Sharkfin Tower, July 10
A party of six attempting Sharkfin Tower’s SE Ridge ascended a non-standard approach gully, then attempted to traverse high to the tower. Party-inflicted rockfall hit one member, resulting in a non-critical injury, and forced the party to retreat. On the top rappel, down the same gully used for the approach, two climbers rappelled individually without incident. Catastrophic anchor failure then occurred as the next two climbers began a rappel with the injured climber attached between them. A fourth climber, meant to rappel last, was tied into the anchor. The anchor rock either slid or overturned and the four climbers went with it to the bottom of the gully, approximately 300 feet. The two mid-gully climbers partially witnessed the fall and were not hit. Three climbers died in this fall; one was critically injured. The rescue response was hindered by poor weather and notification near sunset, but completed during the night and into the next day. This accident is believed to be the first multi-fatality climbing accident in the park in a couple of decades. It also provoked a great deal of after-incident analysis and reconstruction by ranger staff, more than any incident in recent memory, to determine what exactly happened and why. A full analysis was submitted to Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

Copper Ridge, September 11
After a full week of trail and cross-country exploration across the north unit of the park, a party of two was on the last night of their trip, camping on Copper Ridge. Just before dawn, one stepped out of the tent, tripped, and fell onto a tent stake, which impaled several inches into muscle below the knee. Carrying a satellite phone, the physician in the party requested evacuation, reporting profuse bleeding, pain, and immobilization. Serious weather complicated the evacuation, with the helicopter setting down at several locations due to potential stranding in fog. After a day-long effort to reach the patient, he was evacuated to a Bellingham hospital. There he spent a week, enduring two multi-hour surgeries to repair the damage from the head of the T-shaped tent stake wrapped around leg arteries.

Mount Shuksan, September 27
Two climbers were reported two days overdue from Mount Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys route. Rangers searched by helicopter and found the climbers’ camp gear at the base of the chimneys, but a thorough aerial search of the intended route found no sign of the climbers. Upon expanding the search area, the climbers were found walking the Baker Laker road, on the opposite side of the mountain. A follow-up interview found that while one climber had early season experience on Mount Shuksan, they were not prepared for the significantly different conditions of late September. The leader stated that the ascent was “dangerous and scary” for them and it was “over their heads” to descend to their camp, so they followed the moderate Sulphide Glacier down.