When I lived In Seattle, Nelson and Potterfield’s ‘Selected Climbs in the Cascades’ was essentially my climbing bible. So many magnificent climbs, summits, and remote approaches that made the North Cascades this mythical wonderland of relatively unknown and great ascents. I flipped through some of my favorites, Early Winters Spire, Washington Pass, The Pickets, Glacier Peak, Rainier, Forbidden, but there was one, this one summit when I had dog-eared, bookmarked, and probably flipped to more than any other.
The East Ridge of Eldorado Peak.
The East Ridge of Eldo Peak is a wild, almost Himalayan-like pyramid, which traverses a thin, snowy knife ridge to a magnificently pointed summit. With year-round cornices, it takes on the appearance of a delicate, ready-to-collapse at any moment patch of snow which combines some wonderful snow climbing with a long, rough approach, campsite on a sprawling glacier, and a relatively easy ascent for the work that you have to put in to get there. In other words, this is North Cascades mountaineering at its absolute best.
Ever since I moved to Colorado, and found the best of Colorado’s mountaineering and alpine climbing, I’d always held a soft spot and a longing for the North Cascades and I was itching to get back as quickly as I could. Since I moved, I was still looking to get back to the Cascades again, and after a year of walking back and forth between dates, I finally decided on a climb with my friend Stacia, who I’d known through Facebook’s Washington Hikers and Climbers group.
Stacia and I had yet to meet in person before she came and picked me up at the airport but her reputation is very solid, with climbs ranging from Nepal to the Bugaboos, and of course a variety of climbs around Washington. I just could not have asked for a better partner on this climb.
We left Tacoma late on Friday night and drove into Marblemount. Our plan was to try and hit Eldorado, Dorado Needle, and Klawatti Peak in one go. The three summits share a glacier, bit involve extensive travel between the three. We carried a full rack, which would never be used, and a rope so heavy that it could only be described as ‘industrial’. (Thank you, Jon)
Waking up from our first campsite in front of the ranger station, it was raining early in the day so our timing in getting on the trail was thrown off by a couple hours. By the time that we started hiking late in the day, we wouldn’t have time to to Eldo in a day. Still, I was just stoked to be back in the Cascades and I would have happily climbed anything. Still, I was suddenly reminded at just how heinous North Cascade approaches are.
North Cascade trails are unique in that they are rudimentary jaunts through the woods which involve equal part bushwhacking, treacherous stream crossings, and hiking on unmaintained fallen trees, boulders, branches, and uneven, muddy paths. The trail to the Inspiration Glacier immediately starts with a crossing of a rushing stream on fallen trees and bushwhacking through a dense bush before immediately starting a steep uphill switchbacking climb not unlike Mailbox Peak’s trail. (Side note: I refuse to acknowledge the new trail, there will forever be only one trail on Mailbox for me. Tangent over.)
After several hours of switchbacking, we hit the real meat of the approach: the long and foreboding talus field which cascades down from the glacier, involving big boulders, long steps across gaps, and rocky, tough hiking. This was made more daunting by the fact that Stacia was doing this all with a broken foot.
The North Cascades are one of the most northern National Parks in the United States and yet their number of visitors thankfully as still well below the crowds that a place like Yosemite or Yellowstone may see. In the Cascades, you really have to work for your views and many of trails are long, remote, and involve a lot of elevation gain in a very, very short distance.
At the top of the talus field, after several hours of rock-hopping and some short scrambles, the trees fall out of sight, and we cross over to the the beginning of the snowfield, cut with small crevasses and flanked by towering walls which separate Eldorado Peak from the nearby Boston Basin. Behind us, the spectacular face and couloirs of Johannesburg Mountain rises in the distance, a craggy, intimidating face, which provides some of the most technical routes in Washington.
Rope in tow, We ascended the long, steep glacier, following several roped up NOLS’ groups, and late in the afternoon, we came around the corner and came upon the Inspiration snowfield with the long Eldorado Peak massif rising mightily in the background. With mountains sprawled out for miles behind us, the scenery couldn’t have been more perfect.
Since my Colorado legs were used to relatively high and easy approaches, as we got to our campsite, I was nearly completely wiped out. We set up our tent and as soon as the poles were up, I crawled into my sleeping bag and as soon as Stacia had finished cooking and I finished my pasta, I knocked out. Snoring. Which I’ve never heard myself doing. Stacia meanwhile stayed up to watch the sunset, which by description, was very beautiful.
I was gunning for an alpine start, as I’d done with every peak I’d climbed ever, my 4 AM idea turned out to be wildly unpopular by a vote of 1 to 1 (2 people in the tent and vote split down the middle), so as soon as Stacia was up around 9 AM, we strapped on crampons and ice axes and started making our way up.
Eldorado Peak is 90% approach and 10% climb. The actual climb from our tent to the ridge only took just over an hour. While we were roped up, many of the crevasses were closed and we found ourselves moving steadily upwards. The late June sun beat down on us, and even climbing on snow, we could have easily just climbed in T-Shirts.
The climb ascends a long snowfield before gaining the famous east ridge, and although the boot path was trench-like, I was no less than stoked to see that thin triangular summit with the long, thin path which walked right up the center. At the top of the ridge, the obvious cornices add another degree of adventure and create an incredible mountain ambiance. I was thrilled to finally be here.
The true summit sits on a small rocky ledge overlooking thousands of peaks spread all the way to Canada. Any view in the North Cascades can be described as unthinkably beautiful, but for me, this was a personal favorite.
After a lunch, chocolate, and candy break, we started our way back down, with the descent becoming an adventure in itself as we had to re-find the trail, navigate the boulder field, get lost, bushwhack down a steep hill and regain the trail back to the car. We drove out of the Cascades under a soft, late-afternoon light, and although we had only managed to bag one of our three summits, it was a fitting return to my favorite mountains.
I can’t wait to be back.