Silver Star from the north.  Photo © John Scurlock
  A Ridge Too Far  
  Passing the Torch on Silver Star
Part 1, by Geof Childs


Ohe view from Washington Pass is one of the transcendent images of North Cascades mountaineering. In every direction, golden brown pinnacles claw at the inevitably blue skies of the Okanogan and give testimony to what made you want to become a climber in the first place.

At its centerpiece is Silver Star Mountain—a peak which, at 8,876 feet, is not only the highest summit in the area, but one whose western façade leaves an indelible impression upon the memory. Its abrupt appearance between Cutthroat Peak and the towers of the Early Winters Spires has, for generations, enraptured climbers headed east on US Route 20. Or, as Fred Beckey has so ably described it: “Gables of rock strike and dip in seemingly planned directions, each in some manner imitating the other in a repetitive scheme” that seems almost specifically designed for climbing.

Yet, a full appreciation of Silver Star’s true scale and complexity requires driving down into the small hamlet of Mazama and, from there, making the nine-mile journey to the base of Goat Peak. From a parking lot on its northwest flank a short hike leads to both an open summit and an astounding perspective on the peaks of the upper Methow. To the north, the round-backed summits of the Pasayten lead toward Canada. To the west, the Cascades spread out in jagged profile for as far as the eye can see. And jutting across half the southern horizon is Silver Star. Seen from this perspective, the mountain appears more as a series of interconnected ridges than a single, triangulated mass. Snow-streaked gullies diagonal across precipitous faces; sharply etched pinnacles form crowns above a half-dozen perfectly shaped cirques and, rising in a series of sawtooth steps above the maw of its glaciated north basin, the east ridge stretches over 3.5 miles from the confluence of Cedar and Early Winters Creeks to the mountain’s highest point.

That so prominent a feature has stirred so little interest among climbers is remarkable. While queues form on many of Silver Star’s other outlying features, the east ridge—whether owing to its lack of visibility from the road or its relative remoteness—has remained seldom visited and rarely ascended in its entirety. This oversight becomes even more puzzling given the ridge’s pedigree. For among its early suitors were Wernstedt, Ulrichs and Beckey—three men who constitute not only the Holy Trinity of North Cascades mountaineering but upon whose accomplishments our sport continues to build. Indeed, despite its obscurity, the east ridge serves as a kind of model for the way in which each passing generation of climbers bequeaths to the next their vision and expertise and, thereby, lays the groundwork from re-imagining the possible.

Lage Wernstedt with camera. Photo ca 1926. From Wernstedt collection, © John Roper on rhinoclimbs.
Lage Wernstedt with camera. Photo ca 1926.
From Wernstedt collection, © John Roper on rhinoclimbs.
No history of climbing in these parts could possibly be called complete without first mentioning Lage Wernstedt. Cited by no less an authority than Harry Majors as “one of the most remarkable individuals ever associated with the North Cascades”, Wernstedt is credited with having made the first ascents of seventy-seven Cascade peaks, the majority of which he climbed wearing cork boots and a cowboy hat, toting surveying tools, an 8” x 10” camera, witness plaques and other recording instruments, but rarely with any mountaineering equipment other than a few meters of hemp rope.

Born in Sweden in 1878, Lage (pronounced ‘Loggy’) graduated from the Royal Technological School in Stockholm at age 19. Immigrating to the U.S. the following year, he completed a master’s degree in Forestry at Yale University and subsequently moved to Portland, Oregon, where, in 1908, he found a job with the United States Forest Service. Over the next 25 years he worked as a surveyor and map-maker throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. During that time he also made himself expert in fields as diverse as photogrammetry, silviculture, geography, botany, horsepacking and parachute-assisted firefighting. Yet, despite having climbed, mapped, photographed and named peaks such as Logan, Black, Lago, Osceola, North Gardner and Silver Star (which he ascended via its southwest couloir), it is unlikely that Wernstedt ever thought of himself as a mountaineer. Quite to the contrary, his ascents were largely based on the simple fact that the highest ground provided the truest perspective from which to conduct his cartographic studies.

Not until 1932 did someone who considered himself a true climber venture onto Silver Star’s imposing flanks. Hermann F. Ulrichs, a music teacher at Seattle’s Cornish School, was 30 years old by then and a well-known figure in the local climbing community. Tall, slender, highly cultured and possessed of enormous physical energy, Ulrichs had joined the Mountaineers in 1927 and resigned some five years later in protest over the club’s restrictive policies regarding exploratory mountaineering. Among his earliest of objectives after leaving the club was the south face of Silver Star. Remote and little-known, he felt certain this 1,800-foot swell of broken granite was, nevertheless, climbable by “fair means” (i.e., no use of pitons). Joined by Oscar Pennington, he approached the mountain via the Twisp River Road in the fall of 1932 and made their way over Abernathy Pass to a bivouac beneath the south face. And while, as Beckey states, it is “not totally clear where [the] 1932 party climbed,” it is generally assumed that their eventual route ran more or less directly up the right-center of the face to a point “somewhere above a prominent tower” where it intersected the east ridge and made a dizzying traverse to the mountain’s true summit.

Fred Beckey. Photo © John Roper.
Fred Beckey. Photo © John Roper.
This astounding accomplishment would go unrivaled until some 20 years later when a climber of equal ability and enthusiasm to Ulrichs finally appeared on the scene. Born Wolfgang Gottfried Beckey in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1923, this new climber, known as “Fred” to his friends, had immigrated to the U.S. at the age of three and begun climbing with local Boy Scouts while still in his early teens. By the time of his visit to Silver Star in the fall of 1952 he was approaching the height of his powers and was already well on his way to establishing a record of first ascents that would ultimately make climbing history. And while no single route could possibly be called emblematic of his entire career, Beckey’s first visit to Silver Star does a good job of representing his indefatigable energy.

Like Ulrichs, Beckey and companions Joe Hieb, Herb Staley and Don Wilde began their trek from the end of the Twisp River Road. But rather than hiking over Abernathy Pass, Beckey’s party chose the more arduous route over Copper Pass and down Early Winters Creek, where a side stream helped guide them to the larch bench we now call Burgundy Basin. Placing their camp beneath a set of spectacular pinnacles, the four climbers arose early the next morning and scrambled up a long scree gully to reach Silver Star glacier. Climbing on hard packed snow they quickly reached the notch separating what appeared to be two summits of equal height. They climbed both, retraced their steps to the col and then traversed the jagged ridge running north from the largest spire.

After that, Beckey returned often to Silver Star, grabbing many of the mountain’s best lines and learning much about its unique topography. With the opening of the North Cascades Highway in 1972 the area lost much of its wilderness appeal, but—ever the pragmatist—Beckey returned again in the fall of 1986 to tick off a final project.

Partnered with Dave Beckstead, Beckey approached the mountain via Varden Creek and placed their bivouac near the east edge of Silver Star glacier. Rising early the next morning, the two men traversed bullet-hard snow to the toe of a prominent spur and then climbed “clean, white granite” to an intersection with the upper portion of Silver Star’s daunting east ridge. Here, making a right turn, they scrambled several hundred feet of easier ground to “a huge, blank monolith” that ultimately forced them onto the south face. Following cracks, ledges and chimneys, they eventually found their way back onto the ridge only to be forced back down onto the south face by yet another gendarme. A long traverse and more climbing then led them to a juncture with the Ulrichs route and the appallingly narrow comb of granite blocks that led to the mountain’s east summit.

Like so many of Beckey’s routes, the northeast spur of the east ridge turned out to be a magnificent accomplishment snatched from memory and put up in impeccable style at an age (62) when most of his peers were sitting at home in their Barcaloungers. Still, the route made little stir and soon faded into undue anonymity.


Silver Star Mountain
8,876 feet

• First known ascent
via Southwest Couloir
Lage Wernstedt
Estimated 1926

• Second ascent
via South Face & East Ridge
Hermann F. Ulrichs
Oscar Pennington
September 8, 1932

• Third ascent
via Silver Star Glacier
Fred Beckey
Joe Hieb
Herb Staley
Don Wilde
May 31, 1952

• Northeast Spur & East Ridge
Fred Beckey
Dave Beckstead
Grade III, 5.8
September 12, 1986

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