hen one’s work is rangering, life is backwards. Normal is the
9-to-5 existence of the working stiff who muddles about town all week
dreaming toward the weekend, when he can race off to the mountains for a
fleeting visit and if the weather cooperates, a brief, intense
mountaineering adventure. John and I were on the opposite schedule; our
summer was a series of climbing trips punctuated by brief descents to the
valley to resupply our packs and wash our socks before turning around and
climbing right back up into the mountains. Our groove was a backcountry
groove, and our daily meditations were camping, climbing, and rangering.
Seeing the backcountry through the eyes of a ranger is different in many ways from seeing through the eyes of a casual park visitor. As we travelled, we carried the responsibility of our jobs, and the “look-fors” involved protection of both the visitors and the resource. In fact, it often meant protecting the visitors from the resource and vice-versa.
Every climbing patrol starts with writing down the make, model, and license of the vehicles at the trailhead. Frequently, the first step in investigating overdue climbers is checking the trailhead for their vehicle. If I received a radio call from park dispatch on day two of a three-day patrol about whether a vehicle was at the trailhead, I needed to know those details. I carried a little firefighter’s notebook in my shirt pocket for this purpose. When I look back at my old notebooks, they’re filled with lists of vehicle identifications and games of battleship that John and I played when tent-bound on rainy days.
My notebook also contains lists of “visitor contacts.” Rangering is a people job, and the working term for a climber or hiker in the backcountry is a “visitor.” We tracked visitor contact data to measure human impact on the wilderness resource, as well as to ensure visitor safety. As the Boston Basin patrol ranger on a busy summer weekend, I could identify by leader name every party registered to camp and climb, including their intended climbing objective, and the make, model, and license plate information.
A visitor contact can be a big event in the day of a backcountry patrol ranger. It can get lonely out there sometimes, and a lone ranger in an isolated outpost can go a long time without seeing another person. Usually, I’ve been happy to see and speak to visitors, and I think they’ve been glad to see me. National Park rangers tend to be viewed positively by the visiting public as stewards of our national wild treasures.
That being said, when I made a backcountry visitor contact, I was sizing up the individual or party. I wanted to know what they were doing, what their level of experience was, where they were camping, and sometimes where they were going to the bathroom. Visitors probably wouldn’t know that these questions were running through my mind as we chatted, because I came off as a friendly guy. But if I had concerns regarding any of these issues, our conversation touched on those concerns.
Part of the art of rangering is fostering compliance with park regulations and promoting minimum-impact travel and camping through education, rather than strong-arm enforcement tactics. In order to control damage to fragile meadows, the patrol ranger strives to educate visitors regarding campsite selection. Visitors are encouraged to use established sites on snow, rock, or bare ground, rather than on heather. Sedge, a grass-like ground cover found in alpine meadows is very resilient, and makes a good campsite if snow or bare ground or rock is not available.
I’ve often seen hikers and climbers pitch their tent on snow or bare ground, but then locate their camp kitchen in a heather meadow. Time spent kicking around the camp kitchen, with heavy boots scraping and scuffing the vegetation, can be very damaging. Walking off of established trails or constructing stone windbreaks or other “improvements” in subalpine campsites degrades the natural appearance of the landscape. The cumulative effects of many visitors practicing impactful behaviors—whether due to ignorance or laziness—cause unsightly and lasting damage.
In the North Cascades National Park, fires were generally not permitted in the subalpine zone because what little wood existed would be rapidly depleted by campfires. So our goal was to find and erase fire rings so that the next hiker passing through would never detect that a fire ring had been there (see “Rangering 101” sidebar in Part 1). On one trip to the Challenger Glacier area, we searched out and found an old fire ring that we had seen in a photo in one of Bob and Ira Spring’s books on the North Cascades. The photo shows climbers gathered around a robust campfire with Mount Challenger providing a scenic backdrop. We managed to locate and remove the fire ring that appeared in the photograph. Climbing rangers, like elephants, have long memories.
Summer’s last climb
Our route ascended the western margin of the Quien Sabe Glacier to the scramble chimney leading to Sharkfin Col. From there, we rappelled down to the Boston Glacier where we roped up for the glacier crossing. Finding a route through the visible crevasses was straightforward, and we marched northwest toward the low spot on Forbidden’s North Ridge that allowed access to the Forbidden Glacier. From the ridge crest, we finally saw our objective. Though the sun had not reached the Northwest Face, we could see that the ice coverage was ample for climbing. We paused to dig food from our packs and study the route.
In 1978 the Sierra Club published Yvon Chouinard’s manual for ice climbers, Climbing Ice. The book traces the development of the sport from its historical roots in the mountain ranges of Europe and the Scottish Highlands, complete with a vocabulary of quaint French terms that describe crampon footwork and ice axe technique. According to this book, some French guy named Armand Charlet had invented ice climbing. Any climber in the 70’s and 80’s worth their salt knew all this stuff. And since I wasn’t very good at yodeling, I used to give a shout out to the masters at opportune times, such as when I was having my picture taken perched on a rock face or a snow arÍte. In a guttural faux French accent, I’d yell out “Gaston Rebuffat!” or “Armand Charlet!”, except it would come out sounding more like “Our Man Charlay!”
As I studied the steep ice face, I did a quick inventory of the techniques I would need to employ to keep from sliding off the mountain. I’d start out crossing to the base of the climb in “pied marche, piolet canne”. Then, as the snow steepened approaching the bergshrund, I’d change to “pied en canard” (French for walk like a duck). Above the schrund, it was looking pretty steep, so I’d probably have to bust out some “piolet panne” …or maybe even some “piolet manche.”
The other thing John and I needed to work out was whether or not to belay. We carried ice screws, snow flukes, and a rope. But from our vantage point it didn’t look like there was any water ice on the route, but snow all the way. We discussed our options and decided to proceed unroped as long as it felt safe, reasoning that belaying on the steep snow would give the leader a false sense of security. In reality, if the leader fell, he would likely pull the belayer off. We decided that neither one of us would fall.
We dropped off the ridge and crossed to the base of the face. The snow was in perfect condition - like Styrofoam. We ascended to the bergshrund, which we crossed easily on a snow bridge. We climbed side-by-side, marveling at how easy the climbing was. The snow was very firm, and our toes only penetrated a couple of inches with each kick, but the resulting foothold felt very secure. In order to maintain at least two points of contact at all times, we fell into a rhythm of “axe placement, kick step, kick step,” repeat. This required our complete attention, because a fall would be potentially fatal. There was no way we would be able to arrest a slide on this steep slope, and we were feeling the exposure.
I stopped at about the halfway point to take some photographs. Sinking my axe into the snow above, I clipped the axe leash to my harness and stomped a platform. I took a series of shots of John climbing past me, with the dramatic ice face behind him. I kept snapping photos as he climbed above me.
The sun was just beginning to appear over the crest of the ridge, and as I looked up, a gust of wind blew across the ridge crest, picking up ice crystals which sparkled in the sunlight before they fell to the face and danced down like illuminated diamonds toward where I stood perched with my camera.
When we talk about the rewards of climbing, we speak about challenging ourselves and accomplishing success, or camaraderie with fellow climbers, or even the raw fun of the physical act of climbing. But when I think about climbing in the North Cascades, my memories boil down to a collection of moments that captured a sense of being in that place. It’s the stunning beauty and feeling of being able to stand on that face, in such an improbable and inaccessible location, with a thousand feet of air under my feet.
I turned and looked over my shoulder at Eldorado Peak, the Inspiration Glacier, Klawatti, Austera, Primus, and Tricouni Peaks. I could hear a very slight hissing sound as the spindrift ice crystals bounced down the slope past me. This was a perfect day, and if John hadn’t set his alarm for three, I’d have spent it moping around the basin and missed this moment. I put my camera away and shouldered my pack. Reaching for my axe, I stepped upward and started again into the rhythm of climbing.
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