“The views from here of ice-chiseled peaks and peak-chiseling glaciers are the most extensive and impressive of any trail in the west.”
– Harvey Manning, Hiking the Great Northwest
North Cascades National Park is home to countless high and lonely camps, tucked away in rocky enclaves above tree line. But the highest established camp in the Park is found perched on a barren moraine beneath the Sahale Glacier, 2200’ above Cascade Pass. This is our destination on a flawless summer’s day.
The trailhead at the end of the Cascade River road is undoubtedly the most scenic trailhead in the park – and the most popular. We maneuver into a parking spot in the crowded lot and shoulder our packs beneath the great and complicated face of Johannesburg, rising 5,000 vertical feet above us. Waterfalls stream from the high places and glaciers gleam in the morning sun. An auspicious beginning.
We join the throngs of hikers heading up towards Cascade Pass through the sun-dappled forest. After three miles we emerge from the trees and traverse the beautiful open slopes to join the alpine pilgrims in various stages of blissfulness that cover every rock at the pass. And with good reason: a stupefying jumble of spiky peaks surrounds us on three sides – Magic Mountain, The Triplets, Formidable (no kidding!), Pelton, etc., etc. On the forth side, Sahale Arm rises in a most precipitous manner toward the summit of Sahale Mountain. We leave the gaping crowds behind and head up the Arm, climbing steep heather slopes brimming with blueberries.
With each step, new peaks join the chorus line of mountains that crowd the horizon. The grade relents a bit and far below us Doubtful Lake appears in its austere alpine cradle. A tremendous waterfall plunges down from Sahale Mountain, joining the aquamarine waters of the lake. We pause briefly to admire the scene and browse among the blueberries, then continue the ascent up steeply-tilted meadows, a lustrous green-gold in the afternoon sun.
We pass a small watercourse brightened by the delicate blue blossoms of tiny penstemon and leave the meadows behind, climbing now on scree and boulders up a series of glacial moraines. Atop the second moraine we arrive at our destination, the Sahale Glacier Camp, 7600’. We pitch our tent atop a rocky knob in a little patch of dirt surrounded by a circular rock wall built by climbers to mitigate the wind. The view is stupendous. The serrated ridge of The Triplets provides a dramatic foreground to an infinity of jagged summits. In the distance, Glacier Peak rears into the cloudless sky above the sea of peaks.
We filter water from a stream issuing forth from beneath the glacier. The water is surprisingly clear and unsurprisingly ice cold. We sip the water slowly to avoid the dreaded alpine “ice cream headache.”
A mountain goat appears on the rocks and nonchalantly makes its way past our camp. The goats here are infamous – rapacious for salt, they will chew up anything left out that has a trace of sweat on it. The grips of trekking poles are apparently quite a delicacy.
Avalanches cascade down Johannesburg, filling the mountains with their thunder. The sun retreats to the west and a waxing moon hangs in the sky over Dome Peak. We make dinner beneath sparkling stars, listening to the rock-shuffling of passing goats. The air is still, an unusual situation in this generally wind-swept place. It’s a perfect night.
Getting enough sleep in the high country is always a problem for me – not because the rocky ground beneath my Therm-a-Rest pad is uncomfortable, but because there is so much to see. I never eat dinner until the last sweet light of twilight has completely faded into darkness. In these northern latitudes, that makes for a late dinner indeed. And by the time the bowls are washed, the food stashed, and an hour or two is spent writing in my trusty junior legal pad, it’s midnight – or later. It seems a wink of an eye and dawn is upon us.
And what a dawn! I crawl out of the tent and stretch the stiffness out of my bones as the rosy light illuminates the mountainscape. The surrounding summits are washed in purple and the nearby glacier is bathed in incandescent pink. The goat is back to see what’s for breakfast. We drink coffee and watch a Golden Eagle soar effortlessly below us in great wheeling circles, rising on the thermals without a flicker of wing movement.
Rocks tumble down periodically from the cliffs above camp and roll down the glacier, seeking that elusive angle of repose. After a respectable amount of time lazing in the morning sun we set off to explore the immediate vicinity, climbing loose scree to the toe of the glacier.
A crevasse is bisected by a curvaceous blue ice bridge. Countless tiny streams curl gracefully over, through and under the ice. Beneath the hot sun in the all-too-brief summer, the glacier is liquefying it’s assets with a vengeance.
We follow the margin of ice to the east, clambering over the rubble. A little scoured plateau is covered in magnificent rocks, swirled with yellow and orange and etched by intricate fractures into fanciful and elegant patterns, each one an objet d’art. Beyond is a tiny tarn, nestled in a stone basin. The tarn’s surface reflects glacier and peak, blue sky and white cloud. We strip off our clothes and submerge ourselves in the icy clear water. Afterwards we sprawl on the smooth rocks, drying in the warm sun.
My companion wanders off, exploring among the rainbow-hued rocks and I sit beside the tarn, enjoying the picture-perfect reflection of Horseshoe Peak in the still waters. Clouds are gathering among the peaks and a river of mist flows beneath us through Cascade Pass. It rises atmospherically up the steep valleys like dry ice in a low-budget monster movie. A quintessential North Cascades spectacle.
We make our way back toward camp, completely alone on Sahale Arm. Not even any goats this evening. As the sun sinks toward the jumbled horizon, the landscape is bathed in impossibly golden light. In the distance Mt. Logan shines like a beacon. The sun gone, we lean back in our Therm-a-Rest chairs beneath a nearly-full moon that bathes the rocky slopes below us in elegant gossamer light. Except for the occasional groaning of the restless glacier, the only sound is a thousand melodious variations on falling water, punctuated by occasional rock fall above camp as the mountain rearranges itself. The constant here (like everywhere else, actually) is change. Endless, relentless, inescapable change.
To sit, comfortably and quietly atop this stone parapet on a moon-sweetened night in the heart of the North Cascades is for me an extravagant joy. It’s a surprisingly warm evening but of course, it won’t be long before another fleeting summer has passed. Before you know it, the snows will return and this rocky moraine will be isolated from the world below, left to the melancholy wind and the goats. As it should be.
Here and now the world is simple, comprised primarily of rock, ice, wind, silent stars, the scuttling of rockfall. I want to remember this night and keep it under glass beside a little red hammer for emergencies to come in my life. Reluctantly, I zip myself into the tent and welcome whatever dreams may come.