Short Hauling
  North Cascades National Park, 2006  
  by Kelly Bush, Wilderness District Ranger  

Ohe glaciers of the North Cascades, so often visited by mountaineers, have become yet another measure of climate change. Their changes have become especially noteworthy of late. Park researcher Jeanne Wenger recalls glacier travel on the Sandalee and Noisy Glaciers when she began seven years ago: negotiating the crevasses was straightforward, and she and her team could navigate quickly with little worry. Now, she says, not only must you negotiate many more crevasses, but you can look into some and see bedrock at the bottom. Each year, the park’s research team visits four glaciers within the park and measures the rate of ablation (melting), among other factors, to determine the “health of the glaciers.” Wilderness rangers often assist during the summer field visit, when an experienced rope team is needed to cross the glaciers and reach the study sites. Spring and fall visits are made via helicopter.

Mt. Challenger “Cub Scout Salute.” Photo © Mike Layton
Mt. Challenger “Cub Scout Salute.” Enlarge Photo © Mike Layton
The overall trend for park glaciers is described as negative mass balance (shrinking), but sometimes in individual years, the glaciers actually grow – or accumulate mass balance. However, 2006 caps four consecutive years of negative balance in the Park’s glacial mass. 2005 was the single worst year in terms of glacial melt since the park began keeping records in 1993. In 2006, the negative balance trend continued, although not quite as sharply as the year before. For 2007, the snowpack has been average to above average—but whether the glaciers will grow or shrink will depend a lot on spring and summer weather patterns. You can learn more about the park’s glacier monitoring program, and view graphs and comparative photos of glacial change by visiting here.

Staffing & PATROLS

2006 Wilderness District staffing held steady with 2005 levels: 11 rangers and four full-time interns (volunteers). All but three of the staff work seasonally. The staff continues to be very experienced in the park, however: both the patrol and information center supervisors have worked at the park over 10 years; two rangers tied at eight seasons of work at North Cascades this year; and other seasonals have returned for three to five years. Considering the short seasons and modest (or nonexistent) pay, every year that staff return is a wealth of experience that helps the Wilderness District better protect the park and serve visitors.

Wilderness park rangers patrol to a number of the high-use easily accessed cross-country areas routinely each season. In addition, rangers are assigned climbing patrols to select remote, or less frequently visited peaks as impact monitoring patrols and to maintain a staff that is knowledgable and experienced with a variety of mountaineering objectives and areas of the park. In other words, rangers ought to range the entire park. Among others, cross-country and climbing patrols in 2006 included, north to south, the Redoubt group, Shuksan Price Glacier, Luna Peak, Southern Pickets, Mount Logan, Panther Tail, Black Peak NE Ridge, Dorado Needle, and N Face Mount Buckner.

Crowded Pickets & Climbing Statistics

This year, rangers at the Wilderness Information Center were surprised to hear climbers who came from Terror Basin complain about crowds and lack of a composting toilet in an area of “high use”. A check of permit records for the weekend showed an unprecedented 5 out of the 6 area permits had been issued. Extremely rare, Terror Basin XC almost exceeded the permit quota, hapening only once before on July 4 in 2006. The Pickets do appear to be growing in popularity, or at least familiarity. A recent article in Backpacker magazine featured the Picket traverse, and the area sometimes gets extraneous mention in other park features (i.e. an “adventurous” side trip from Whatcom Pass). In contrast to Terror Basin, however, Boston Basin filled 18 times (followed by the small Triumph area at 12 times, Sulphide at 5, and Eldorado, which filled only twice during the year). The table below lists the number of climbers in 2006 compared with previous years.

  2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Boston Basin 628 631 668 630 629
Colonial 104 47 36 87 47
Eldorado 493 435 467 359 500
Goode 51 75 21 17 35
Klawatti 94 86 44 28 55
Logan 56 57 26 27 43
Sahale Glacier 517 617 415 613 514
Sulphide Glacier 638 607 685 628 530
Terror Basin 45 55 36 56 81
Triumph Col 68 66 61 46 75

2006 Projects in Cross-country/Climbing Areas

Wolverine. Photo © Daniel J. Cox
Wolverine. Photo © Daniel J. Cox
Wolverine Study
Wolverines, very elusive and rare forest carnivores, are being documented roaming within the park. This past winter park biologists, working with an interagency team of researchers, radio-collared and tracked an unprecedented three wolverines. No previous field studies of wolverine distribution and ecology have ever been conducted in Washington, and the opportunity to learn about this animal’s home range, preferred habitat, and possible residency has researchers very excited. A few interesting facts have already been gleaned: one male wolverine weighing a mere 29 pounds tripped one of the traps and is presumed to have escaped by lifting the 150 pound lid! Another animal was tracked moving through the southern part of the park, with reliable locations established near Reynolds Peak, Rainy Lake, Grizzly Ck., Memaloose Ridge, Park Creek, and across the terrain of Mount Logan and Ragged Ridge, covering distances of 11 – 14 miles at a time as the crow flies. Such movement through such severe topography is quite remarkable as any climber familiar with the area can attest.

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.

Search and Rescue Training
Early and mid-season, a range of rescue trainings were held to cover situations ranging from trail carry-outs by litter to high-angle raises/lowers. One ranger was sent to the NPS Technical Rescue 40-hr workshop at Canyonlands National Park. The rescue program and helicopter vendor renewed the certification for STEP landings (commonly referred to as one-skid, hover or power-on landings) in preparation for helicopter exits to rough or technical terrain.

A big step was taken with the approval of a North Cascades National Park helicopter short-haul program in June 2006. After the 1980 crash of a military helicopter during a difficult SAR, along with the development of a more active climbing and rescue ranger program, park staff increased involvement with helicopter rescue in the 1980s. This occasionally included the evacuation of injured climbers with short-haul type methods in the past two decades, although the park had never developed a true Department of Interior approved short-haul program. In 2006, after administrative approvals were complete, two rangers were certified as short-haulers through the Sequoia-Kings Canyon program in June 06, followed by the NOCA program training and testing later that month. It is hoped that next and subsequent seasons will certify more rangers and the program broaden to include possible river rescue options.

Some of the 17 incidents of 2006 are summarized in the sidebar.

Waste Management
A new generation of composting toilets is being developed to meet the needs of snow load and the wet climate of the North Cascades. Romtec Company stopped making current style backcountry toilet but the park was able to purchase six of their last models. Over 1,600 blue bags were given out at information and permit centers in 2006. Wilderness rangers maintained 18 composting toilets through the season, and also cleaned up 109 instances of feces and/or toilet paper on glaciers, snowfields, and other camps. Of particular concern is the popular camp near the base of Eldorado Peak’s east ridge at a rock outcrop in the glacier. While permits for this zone always are issued with the offer of a blue bag, rangers and climbers unfortunately find human waste frequently in or near this camp. A toilet is being considered for the area, but options for a good site are limited.

Flooding on the Stehekin River, 2003. © National Park Service.
Flooding on the Stehekin River, 2003. © National Park Service.
Upper Stehekin Road Officially Closed

Repeated flooding of the Stehekin River in 1989, 1990, 1995, 1997 and a 500 year flood in 2003 caused severe damage to the upper Stehekin Valley Road. The flooding and landslides have removed sections of road or filled it with woody debris and sediment. The park completed an Environmental Assessment and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) that documents the park’s decision to officially close 9.9 miles of the Upper Stehekin Valley Road from Car Wash Falls to Cottonwood. The road between Car Wash Falls and milepost 15.3 (near Bridge Creek) will be decommissioned and partially rehabilitated. The road between milepost 15.3 and Cottonwood Camp will continue to be maintained as a non-motorized, non-mechanized trail. Road rehabilitation began in 2006. Shuttle service will continue to operate as far as High Bridge, after which hikers, climbers, and stock parties should take the Old Wagon Trail (PCT), paralleling the road, to Bridge Creek.
2006 Notes
Upper Stehekin Road Closed

No Permit Fees 2007
Backcountry permits will be issued without fee in 2007. Future fee discussions are on hold.

New Web Site for Climbers
Wilderness District staff can now directly update pages on the park’s website, and hopefully resulting in improved information to climbers seeking conditions, information on cross-country areas, and general climbing information. Park rangers welcome input from climbers on both the content of the pages and conditions reports for climbs in the park. Check out the new pages. We encourage climbers to use the links provided there to email Wilderness District Staff.
Search & Rescue Highlights
• Mount Shuksan
July 16, 2006. A ski mountaineer on the north side of Mount Shuksan fell approximately 100 feet on icy slopes, hitting a rock outcrop before coming to a stop, fracturing a leg and losing consciousness. The remaining party stabilized the injury and prepared for a rescue requested by cell phone. A nearby Whidbey Naval Air SAR helicopter responded, hoisted the skier off the mountain and transported him to a Bellingham hospital.

• Ptarmigan Traverse
August 7, 2006. Three climbers on the Ptarmigan Traverse were ascending the south side of Mt. Formidable. The party was scrambling un-roped up an exposed rock ridge at around 7,000 feet on class 3 and 4 terrain. One member of the party was moving around a boulder when it dislodged and he fell with the boulder at least 300 feet. The other two climbers descended to their partner and determined that he was likely deceased. They hiked out to Cascade Pass where they contacted a ranger who radioed a report. Park Rangers recovered the body of the fallen climber via helicopter that evening.

• Ptarmigan Traverse
August 27, 2006. A party of 4 was descending a snow gully between Mt. Formidable and Spider Col when one of the members fell. The climber was unable to self arrest and slid down the gully into a pile of rocks, injuring his leg in the fall. The remaining party members descended to the fallen climber and determined that his leg was unable to bear weight. The party stabilized the injured man’s leg and used ropes to lower him to a level area. A request for assistance was made by cell phone. Rangers responded by helicopter and evacuated the injured climber as an assist to Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.