TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Getting off the agenda in the North Cascades

In 10 or more trips I’ve made into Washington’s North Cascades Mountains over the years, I think I can safely say that nothing has ever gone quite according to plan. On the other hand, things have always turned out well—pretty much.

My long-running track record of modifying plans in the North Cascades includes an overnight backpacking trip a couple of summers ago with my wife, Penny, to celebrate our 10th anniversary. I figured we’d hike 32 miles and about 9,000 vertical feet on the notoriously steep, rugged Chelan Summit Trail—and finish within 27 hours, in time to catch a return ferry across Lake Chelan. It was, in retrospect, perhaps slightly overambitious. We ran much of the last several miles (and crawled across one half-collapsed bridge over a raging whitewater creek), reaching the ferry landing with 20 minutes to spare. She limped for days with blisters, but I’m happy to report that, two years hence, there appears to be no lasting damage to our marriage.


That same summer, a buddy and I attempted a somewhat obscure mountaineering traverse of several peaks and glaciers between Thunder Creek and Cascade Pass; we packed food for five days. But after a brutal 4,200-vertical-foot bushwhack in two miles—scaling a mountainside so steep we jokingly called it “5.4 forest”—we discovered that the Borealis Glacier had receded so far since our map was made that it looked nothing like we’d expected. We couldn’t see a route onto or across it that looked safe. So, not eagerly, we descended the way we’d come up, plowing through clouds of mosquitoes as thick as the brush. It took six hours to backtrack those two miles. We were stupendously knackered after that one. But we rescued the trip by hiking the next day up to Sahale Glacier Camp—which has one of the most amazing views I’ve ever had from a tentsite—and enjoying an early-morning climb of the Sahale Glacier, with a 100-mile vista over a sea of snowy, jagged peaks.

Several years ago, a friend and I were backpacking off-trail from Whatcom Pass to the very misleadingly named Easy Ridge when we found ourselves standing at the top of a cliff not mentioned in any guidebook description I read. It looked like we’d have to turn back, retracing many miles of hiking and steep scrambling. We hadn’t seen anyone that entire day, but as we stood there chewing on the bitter nut of disappointment, two women walked up with climbing gear and lent us their harnesses and rope to rappel the cliff. I decided that day to reconsider my disbelief in miracles and angels.

In the winter of 1998-’99, Mt. Baker received a single-season world record 95 feet of snow. In late July the following summer, two friends and I skied 9,131-foot Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker’s neighbor and one of the most aesthetically beautiful mountains in the country, with steep faces, rows of spires, a distinctive pointed summit, and ice and snow cloaking its slopes. Unfortunately, we stopped just a few hundred feet short of the top, turned back by dangerously undercut, collapsing snow. Still, it was hardly anticlimactic skiing thousands of feet all the way back down the Sulphide Glacier.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

Given my history here, I wasn’t very surprised when, once again, things didn’t go precisely according to my plans on a recent family backpacking trip to the Hannegan Pass area. After we hiked in four miles and pitched our tents just below the pass, exactly zero members of my family leapt at my suggestion that we hike Hannegan Peak that afternoon. Instead, Penny hunkered down with her book and our nine-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex, headed off for the stream gurgling through our campsite to engineer a dam.

My perfect record of imperfect planning remains intact.

But the next day, our team rallied for a hike out to Copper Ridge. From open meadows where big patches of wet snow lingered from last winter, we looked out over the iciest and snowiest and possibly the steepest U.S. mountain range outside Alaska.

North Cascades summits commonly rise at least 6,000 feet above adjacent valleys. Staring up at these peaks from below hurts your neck; looking down from up high makes you dizzy with vertigo. The range supports more than 700 glaciers, almost two-thirds of the total number in the Lower 48. Fed by abundant moisture coming off the planet’s biggest ocean, the North Cascades may be the snowiest mountains on Earth: If that aforementioned world record doesn’t provide sufficient creds for that claim, Mt. Baker also averages 650 inches of snow a year. I know a lot of backcountry skiers who would make a pact with the Devil to live in a place that got 54 feet of snow in an average winter.

That snowfall history makes the future climate outlook for the North Cascades particularly unbelievable. The most extensively researched glaciers in the world, rivers of ice in the North Cascades have followed a steady shrinking trend for three decades; 53 have disappeared since 1971. With a forecast for average Pacific Northwest temperatures rising a half-degree Fahrenheit per decade through 2050, researchers expect many more glaciers in the range to be gone by mid-century. I’ll explore the science behind that prediction and write about our family backpacking trip to Hannegan Pass and Copper Ridge in my book “Before They’re Gone,” to be published by Beacon Press.

For now, there’s still a lot of ice and snow covering the North Cascades. From Copper Ridge, we looked out on one of my favorite American mountain ranges, seeing the stark, icy north face of Shuksan, Whatcom Pass and Easy Ridge, the bed of stone nails known as the Picket Range, and a host of other spots where I’ve seen plans go awry. View a photo gallery of images from our recent trip and other past adventures, and check out this story at describing my favorite dayhikes in the North Cascades, and a gallery of photos of those hikes.


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