wo thousand feet above Park Creek Pass, I look down through a tangle of impossibly steep slide alder, and make out a solitary hiker striding through the meadow. His gait, even from this distance, betrays a relaxed and jaunty attitude. Wanting to desperately switch places, I force myself to reconvene my thoughts around the present situation: I’m making a free-hanging rappel over a cliff band running with water. My rappel anchor consists of a two alders, none thicker than my wrist. My harness is a 48” long 8mm thick improvised strand of cord, wrapped painfully around my waist and thighs. As the rope runs through my munter hitch, water is forced from its soaked sheath and sprays everywhere. Rappel finished as the sun continues to set, I pull my rope and commit to the unknown descent below me. Mentally reminding myself that nobody knows exactly where I am, I don’t want to be here.
How does one get from pleasant hikes and fly-fishing trips, to this degree of self-induced suffering? What kind of red-blooded 19-year old male abandons the ice cream sandwiches and bikini-clad tourists of Lake Chelan to spend a hard-earned vacation trekking alone through one of the most remote sections of the contiguous United States? I asked myself these questions after finally arriving down at Park Creek Pass. While making sandwiches in the local bakery a few days earlier, I had run my route idea past a veteran Stehekin climbing partner. In between bites of sourdough bread he had nodded skeptically, and eventually replied with the irrefutable statement of fact: “It’s some big country out there.” From Logan’s summit at 2 p.m., a 13 mile hike and 17 mile bike ride separated me from my cabin in Stehekin. While staggering out of bed for work at 5 a.m. the next morning, his words sunk in.
I learned the basics of climbing in the summer of 2004, using all hip belays, munter hitches, chocks, and hexes. In this way, my climbing progression is backwards from many of my generation. By 2005, I had upgraded to a belay device, and even had a few of those new fangled “friends” which I used while climbing on the Index town walls during my school year. That summer provided the first opportunity for me to pair my over-sized ambitions with modest skill set.
The East Ridge of Tupshin peak is formed by a kilometer-long sawtooth of gendarmes leading to a seldom-climbed summit in the North Cascades National Park. This ridgeline had caught my eye, and I ‘scoped’ the climb, 7,000 vertical feet above me, on my daily bike ride to meet the ferry in Stehekin. After canoeing across the Stehekin River from a friend’s cabin, Tim Halder and I hiked from the valley floor to the toe of the ridge on our first day. The next morning began with several hours of simul-climbing, becoming progressively more difficult and exposed as the ridge steepened. We eventually belayed eight to ten pitches of mid fifth-class and overcame a few notches or blank sections that had initially made our passage appear dubious. Thumbing through the summit register, we found entries dating back to the first ascent in 1939, and I wondered how many “will-it-go?” moments the initial signatories had similarly faced. This route confirmed to me that prominent lines were potentially still awaiting exploration.
The following winter, I lived in New Zealand for five months and my climbing was further influenced there by the local reliance on resourcefulness, judgment, and fitness, rather than fancy gear or instant internet beta. The summer of 2006 found me again working in Stehekin, and able to take multiple trips to climb long new routes that had caught my eye on two of the range’s giants.
While windsurfing on Lake Chelan one day, I looked up-valley and noticed the ridge extending down from the summit of Mount Buckner, cleaving the peak’s namesake glacier in two. Inspection in my ‘Green Beckey’ guide and local word-of-mouth inquiries confirmed that a party from Stehekin had attempted the ridge, but was forced off the crest early on, and continued their climb on the Buckner Glacier and SE Face. After a few partner inquiries via email, I learned that Gordy Skoog had also noticed this unclimbed SE Ridge, which remained on his project list for years.
The logistics of this route were particularly intriguing, as Gordy and I, who had never climbed together, planned to approach from opposite side of the range. I had briefly met Gordy’s brother Lowell earlier that year and was eager to climb with such a renowned first ascentionist. After a series of email conversations regarding weather, gear, route thoughts, and approach options, we decided that I would approach alone up the Park Creek Valley from Stehekin while Gordy would leave a car at the Cascade Pass Trailhead, hike up Sahale Arm, traverse through upper Horshoe Basin, and eventually downclimb several hundred feet from the Booker-Buckner Col to the Buckner Glacier. Here we planned to meet at 3 p.m.
After arriving at the base of the glacier, I waited until 4:30 p.m. before resigning myself to the fact that Gordy must have had route-finding delays (or worse) and was not going to show up. But much to my surprise and excitement, I noticed the distinct silhouette of a person atop Booker-Buckner Col at 5 p.m. After watching Gordy scope out the potential descent from a few different spots, he cautiously began face-in downclimbing with just one tool at his disposal. I knew he could not rappel because I brought the rope. Reminding myself that I could do nothing should he fall, I fearfully watched him inch his way down, often stemming between rock and remnant ice. My foreshortened angle made the face look impossibly steep.
Eventually Gordy and I met at the toe of the glacier, and after a brief introduction, we started up the ridge. We made an open bivy at the highest available patch of snow, and began climbing early the next morning. After topping out on the first few pinnacles of the ridge, we were forced to rig anchors and rappel down the backsides. We were both relieved to find a feasible method of circumventing the highest tower, via a leftward traverse at its base. We topped out on Mount Bucker in the early evening, and after descending to the SW, parted ways as the sun set. The climb itself was long and loose, but never provided sustained difficulties. The outrageous position between two halves of a glacier, and the height above the Park Crek Valley highlighted the climb. Not every day can one complete a new alpine route and truthfully note in the summit register “I can see my house from here!”
Shortly after Buckner, Tim Halder and I met in Stehekin again, this time for a three-day climb of Needle Peak, the previously unsummited Anonymity Towers, Dark Peak, and Bonanza Peak via the NW Ridge. We knew this massive north-to-south ridgeline was going to prove a challenge for us, and had decided to attempt the route without tent or sleeping bags in order to speed up the climbing.
The second night of this trip was spent at 8,500ft atop Dark Peak where we found that one-pound down jackets and an 8oz tarp don’t allow for the quality of sleep one hopes for on a Grade V route. After a few hours of rest interspersed with hot tea and frequent pushup breaks for warmth, we happily departed our “shiver-bivy” and began climbing the long NW Ridge of Bonanza.
Following a few hours of ridge climbing, we reached Bonanza’s west summit in early afternoon. Here we perused all two entries in the register (1952, 2003) before following the 600ft summit crest, largely au-cheval, to the true summit. Determined to spend some of the next night actually sleeping, we pressed on down the Mary Greene Glacier by twilight, and by headlamps to the sleepy mining ruins of Holden Village late on day three.
Standing on a valley floor in the North Cascades, and realizing that the summits are six, seven, or even eight thousand feet above is amazing to me. This kind of vertical relief is unmatched in the continental U.S. The challenge of travelling and climbing in this territory are what first sparked my alpine interest. The entire area between Highway 20 and Highway 2 has grown increasingly remote and neglected by climbers as damage to roads and trails goes unrepaired and attention shifts northward. Often a strong party needs two days of backcountry travel just to arrive at their intended route, making climbing trips more like mini-expeditions. Within this area, I have found my most personally rewarding climbs.
After graduating from Western Washington University in June of 2007, I decided to delay employment for a hard-earned summer vacation. The first planned destination was the Gunsight group in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. This series of white granite spires separates the Chickamin and Blue Glaciers, and features a rock quality more reminiscent of British Columbia’s Bugaboos than Washington’s Cascades.
After an exciting yet short foray up the unclimbed East Face of South Gunsight Peak, Dan Hilden and I put the pieces together and set out for a traverse of the four major summits of the ridge. This traverse had been on my mind since the idea was first bandied about among Craig Gyselinck, John Frieh, and me. That had been two years earlier, when retreating from my first trip to the region in the face of a strong August snow storm.
On the day of our climb, Dan and I left our camp on the east side of the ridge and crossed onto the Chickamin glacier before travelling north to begin with a beautiful pitch of clean granite at the ridge’s start. We climbed from north to south, and the skyline climbing along this obvious crest provided some of the most memorable pitches I have ever done. We allowed ourselves one shady break, where we took turns using a zip-lock baggy to funnel some percolating snow melt into nearly-depleted bottles.
By leaving crampons and bivy gear at camp we were able to complete the route with just one backpack, worn at all times by the follower. However, our decision to climb without headlamps gave us doubt as we rappelled off the South Peak as sunset was replaced by starlight. North Gunsight was another peak still home to the original summit register, complete with the names of REI’s founder Lloyd Anderson, Fred Beckey and Jim Nelson. Flipping through its entries on a sublime July afternoon will remain one of the endearing memories of this trip.
Attempting a new route provides a rare opportunity to step beyond the limits of known difficulty and pre-determined level of ability. Suddenly, meeting unforeseen challenges becomes necessary. While any traditionally-protected pitch of climbing requires overcoming mental and physical difficulties, only on committing and personally difficult routes with a partner does all aspects of climbing converge. I find the most satisfaction through logistically-complex climbs that combine the gymnastic moves of sport climbing, the self-reliant protection of trad climbing, the versatility to deal with snow and ice, and the single-minded teamwork of a 60m partnership. I enjoy climbing classic routes such as the NW Face of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades, or the SW Ridge of Mount Aspiring in New Zealand. These are the kind of fantastic routes appreciated by anyone who likes climbing mountains. But even in the middle of winter I still get most excited about the prospect of exploring new faces, ridges, and peaks. My obsession over a new route, once piqued, is hard to escape. The East Ridge of Mount Goode was one such route.
Dan Hilden and I first attempted the East Ridge of Mount Goode as the start of an extended linkup of North Cascade peaks. The scale and technical difficulties of the ridge went far beyond our expectations, and our trip became in an unplanned descent/escape during which we burned through most of our climbing gear rappelling back to terra firma. Armed with a bigger arsenal and a more appropriate sense of the scale of the route, I talked my friend Sol Wertkin into joining me for round two.
As the highest peak in North Cascades National Park, Mount Goode was a surprising candidate for a first ascent in 2007. We carefully scoped out aerial photographs, personal recollections, and seasonal observations when determining itinerary and gear choices. From pictures and descriptions of the serrated crest, Sol had remarked upon its resemblance of some finned monster, and hence the ridge was dubbed ‘The Megalodon’ in homage to a prehistoric shark which gave Sol nightmares as a small child.
Day one of the trip had us hiking the 12-mile trail approach and fording Bridge Creek before we bivied above a short step of fifth-class rock. We started out on day two with several liters of water each and the understanding that we would need to climb very quickly in order to reach more water or flat ground. After encountering some steep and surprisingly good climbing in the middle of day two, we were lucky to skirt the late-season glacial ice by stemming through the moat atop the ridge crest. After agonizing over the decision to climb without ice gear, working through this obstacle provided a sweet moment of vindication. Atop the SE peak, we took our only break of the day.
The final pitch of difficult climbing featured a surprise crux of the climb. From our exposed perch on the crest, we could see the Black Tooth Notch, another shark-themed feature which I knew was only a few pitches of easy climbing from the summit. However, between us and the notch stood a section of rock requiring one to climb downward and across to the reach the sought-after notch.
After I backed off the lead, suggesting that it “would not go,” Sol volunteered for the sharp end. Under my nervous belay, Sol made his way across this short section, which featured 5.10 climbing with surprisingly good protection. After shouting instructions from across the gap, Sol belayed me down to Black-Tooth Notch where I gave a triumphant holler. We next joined the NE Buttress for the last three rope lengths to the top. A beautiful sunset and bivy atop the highest point in the National Park capped the day.
The urge to seek out new and untrod locations has always pushed the sport forward to new levels and locations. With the volume of information about known routes available from fantastic guidebooks and the internet, and the trend toward gym-only trained climbers, I wonder if we are losing some exploratory attitude. I encourage everyone, myself included, to look beyond the most popular “trade-routes” and choose to step into the unknown (or lesser known) with their climbs. In the alpine I’ve found that traits of good judgment, fitness, durability, and resourcefulness can take you where technical ability or dogmatic procedural adherence will not. With some luck and creativity, a vast array of adventure awaits any “moderate generalist” such as myself, who cares to look.
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