Southern Picket Range from the Luna Peak high route. Photo © Leor Pantilat.
Southern Picket Range from the Luna Peak high route. Photo © Leor Pantilat.
  North Cascades
National Park, 2008
  by Kevork Arackellian  

I n 2008, the North Cascades National Park (NCNP) climbing ranger program marked its 25th year. Significant changes have taken place in that time. Budget cuts in the 1990’s significantly reduced ranger staffing levels, but better patrol management and more experienced staff have kept the wilderness district effective and efficient. Under the leadership of District Ranger Kelly Bush, the search and rescue helicopter short-haul program has been firmly established at this park. Three years ago, the NCNP was approved for helicopter short-haul rescues, enabling rangers to rescue hikers and climbers from remote and hard-to-reach places in minutes or hours instead of days. These faster rescues maximize the chances that injured parties can receive prompt medical care to help save life and limb.

Climbing Statistics
In the past seven years visitation to ten cross-country zones has been tracked based on overnight permits issued. For the purpose of permitting, quota allocation, and collecting data, North Cascades National Park is divided into trail segments and two types of cross-country zones. Trail segments have established campsites and maintained trails while cross-country zones are left undeveloped and pristine. These management classes were established in the park’s first Wilderness Management Plan. Cross-country zone size and quota allocation was determined by a variety of factors such as historical use, potential for impacts in the area, remoteness, and the need to meet the mandates of the Wilderness Act.

The table below (showing the number of registered backcountry users, not the number of parties) reveals some interesting developments for the 2008 climbing season. The most noteworthy change was the relative increase in the number of climbers going into the Terror Basin and Sulphide Glacier cross-country zones. Boston Basin, Eldorado, Klawatti and Logan cross-country zones showed a decrease in overnight users. Overall, 2008 was the second lowest year in overnight backcountry use, with only a small increase over 2007.

  2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Boston Basin 628 631 668 630 629 542 481
Colonial 104 47 36 87 47 81 86
Eldorado 493 435 467 359 500 498 449
Goode 51 75 21 17 35 18 21
Klawatti 94 86 44 28 55 75 59
Logan 56 57 26 27 43 60 41
Sahale Glacier 517 617 415 613 514 374 431
Sulphide Glacier 638 607 685 628 530 463 657
Terror Basin 45 55 36 56 81 52 96
Triumph Col 68 66 61 46 75 51 54
Totals 2694 2676 2459 2491 2509 2214 2375

Ice climbing on Mount Shuksan. Photo © Chris Kouba.
Ice climbing on Mount Shuksan. Photo © Chris Kouba.
  Camp on Teebone Ridge. Photo © David Svilar.
Camp on Teebone Ridge. Photo © David Svilar.
  Rock climbing on Forbidden Peak. Photo © Troy Rutledge.
Rock climbing on Forbidden Peak. Photo © Troy Rutledge.
Ice climbing on Mount Shuksan. Photo © Chris Kouba.   Camp on Teebone Ridge. Photo © David Svilar.   Rock climbing on Forbidden Peak. Photo © Troy Rutledge.

Staffing and Patrols
In 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Using funding from the NPS Centennial Challenge Initiative, the Wilderness District was able to hire one new seasonal ranger, bringing the total number to 16 rangers. One permanent, one term, 10 seasonal, and four SCA (Student Conservation Association) rangers conducted 145 patrols of trails and cross-country zones for a combined total of 369 patrol days.

Impact Monitoring
An important patrol objective is the monitoring and documentation of physical impacts from recreation and other sources in the wilderness. This is especially true for cross-country areas that have recently experienced a marked increase in popularity. The route into Terror Basin is prime example. While a decade ago map reading, navigation skills, and sheer determination were essential for reaching this remote area, in recent years a well established route has been developed. As part of their patrol objectives, wilderness rangers have documented routes and camps developed by climbers in cross-country zones. In 2008, the Wilderness District funded one ranger position with the goal of documenting physical impact in six separate cross-country zones. Utilizing GIS mapping technology and rapid site approach to collect data, the ranger was able to survey routes and sites at Mount Blum, Torment Basin, Crescent Creek, Ruby Mountain, Trapper Lake and Stout Lake. The new findings will help rangers monitor future changes to these and other sites.

Voluntary Climbing Register
The voluntary climbing register program has been used for over 30 years at NCNP. Distinct from the required backcountry permit, the climbing register is offered for (primarily) mountaineering parties to register for a trip, leave information about destinations, expected return date, and contacts for further information and emergency notification. This year discussion in underway to evaluate whether the climbing register should continue to be offered, or discontinued. Changes in the methods of rescue activation (cell and satellite phones primarily) have caused the register to be less useful.

In 2008, 352 parties filled out the voluntary climbing register form at one of the ranger stations. Of those, 15 were incomplete, lacking important information on time of return and/or routes to be climbed. Roughly one third left out information important for rescue operations, such as an emergency contact person. Fourteen parties did not check back after completing their trips. Despite these shortcomings, the program and its costs are deemed to be justified if even one rescue initiated for an overdue party results in a life saved.

Marijuana Growing Operation
Given the ruggedness of North Cascades terrain, the discovery of a marijuana growing operation in the North Cascades National Park Complex was a surprise to park staff. A helicopter flying through the Ross Lake Recreational Area spotted rows of plants high off the East Bank trail that looked inconsistent with natural vegetation. Further investigation revealed five marijuana growing plots totaling 4.7 acres. This was a first for a National Park in the state of Washington. Federal and State law enforcement officers raided the sites and destroyed 16,742 plants with a street value of over $48 million dollars. Park resource damage was caused by terracing of steep terrain, cutting trees, building fences, spreading of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, installing wildlife traps, impounding creeks and installing irrigation systems, and building living quarters and areas of human waste. Over 1000 pounds of garbage was flown and hiked out. According to NCNP plant ecologist Mignonne Bivin it would cost the National Park $88,000 to rehabilitate the affected sites. The appearance, location and techniques used here are consistent with Mexican drug cartel organizations and are similar to marijuana cultivation plots recently discovered in several National Parks in California. No other grow sites have been discovered to date and the rangers at North Cascades National Park are determined to prevent a recurrence.

Search and Rescue (SAR) Training
New and returning staff participated in a wide range of SAR training. These included snow travel and crevasse rescue (held on Mount Baker’s Easton glacier), low and high-angle litter carryout and patient packaging, and a high-angle training exercise conducted with rescue volunteers from Seattle City Light in Newhalem. Other training included the use of GPS receivers in a four-hour mock search. Two pilots and all five climbing rangers were certified for STEP (one skid, toe-in and power-on-hover helicopter exit and entry). This technique is used in rough or technical terrain where landing would not be possible. One pilot and all climbing rangers were certified for short haul operations, which are used when steep terrain or severe conditions preclude a STEP operation or when the patient needs to be evacuated in a litter from remote cross-country areas. These techniques enhance the ability of NCNP staff to perform SAR operations. Selected 2008 search and rescue statistics and incident descriptions are in the sidebar.

2008 Notes
Visitation Patterns
More climbers at Terror Basin and Sulphide Glacier. Fewer climbers at Boston Basin, Eldorado, Klawatti and Logan. Second lowest year in overnight backcountry use since 2002.

Voluntary Climbing Register
Discussion is underway on whether to continue the register as climbers increasingly use cell and satellite phones to initiate rescue.

Search & Rescue Highlights

In 2008, North Cascades Park rangers responded to 11 serious incidents. The total unplanned emergency cost to the National Park Service was $32,957.

Four of the incidents were mountaineering related, and these accounted for roughly one third of the total cost.

It is noteworthy that $1,800 was spent on the search for two climbers who incorrectly stated their expected return by two days on the voluntary climbing register.

• Eldorado Glacier
On July 18, rangers were notified of a climber who suffered head injuries in a fall on rocks below the Eldorado glacier. Two rangers flew in to the site, short hauled the patient to a landing site, and transferred the patient to an Airlift Northwest medivac helicopter.

• Klawatti-Eldorado Col
On July 26, a party of two was traversing from Austera Peak toward Eldorado. Late in the day they encountered the Klawatti-Eldorado col. Having difficulty recognizing the way through, they started climbing, unroped, through an exposed rock section south of the col.

One climber fell 20 to 30 feet into the moat. Her climbing partner was able to extricate her and perform first aid. Unfortunately, overnight her condition deteriorated and she died the day after her fall.

The victim’s partner left alone to traverse all the way to Eldorado and down to the trailhead to notify rangers of the accident. While crossing a logjam on the Cascade River, he fell into the water, was pinned beneath a log, and lost his pack in the strong current. He was found, in shock and hypothermic, by another climbing party.

Rangers were first notified of the accident by satellite phone from a group passing through the area that came across the deceased climber in her tent. The victim’s body was recovered by two rangers and flown back to Marblemount.