I had scarcely heard of the North Cascades until I planned to spend a summer in Portland. My previous Washington climbing knowledge had been limited to some of the volcanoes. The state has a reputation for nasty weather and ugly bushwacks. But this weekend I encountered some of the most enjoyable and varied climbing of my life.
Dee Booth and I climbed the East Ridge of Eldorado Peak, the Becky Route of Liberty Bell, and the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak on July 29-31. We were joined by Jim Tschanz and Haydar Kutuk for Forbidden. The routes are more than adequately described in Smoot's "Climbing Washington" and Nelson and Potterfield's "Selected Climbs in the Cascades." Becky's three-part Cascade Alpine Guide is the definitive guide to the region, though it includes the crud piles of little interest to out-of-staters. So this trip report will focus on some impressions of the routes.
The East Ridge of Eldorado Peak culminates in a 200 foot long snow fin overlooking one of the largest glacier-filled basins south of Canada. The climb is a 6700-foot grunt from the Cascade River canyon, off Highway 20 near Marblemount (about two hours from Seattle). Like much of the North Cascades, the lower part of the mountain is covered in nearly impenetrable forest: snags of fallen trees, slide alders, and tall ferns on steep slopes. Though there is no official trail and no path shown on the map, a brutally efficient climber's trail ascends directly through the forest at an angle well beyond the usual guidelines. It begins with a promising log across the river and 50 yards of bushwacking to keep out the riff-raf, then becomes very well-trodden. It eventually ascends a long talus field, then breaks into a magnificent basin near tree line at 5000'. After crossing a rib into the next basin west, the route ascends the Inspiration Glacier. The lower part of the glacier was showing bare ice in places but the crevices were not too large. The upper part is nearly flat and joins the Eldorado Glacier to span an enormous high plateau. The East Ridge is easy but narrow and dramatic with steep snow dropping off each side. We reached the 8800' summit in seven hours at a moderate pace with plenty of breaks along the way.
Liberty Bell is reminiscent of some of the granite domes in the Sierra. It is at the north end of a row of spires on a ridge; the south Early Winter Spire at the other end is another classic climb. Becky's route ascends from just below a notch on the ridge for four pitches of 5.6. The first pitch is short and easy. The second pitch ascends some cracks to a chimney that looks difficult but has plenty of holds inside to keep it exciting 5.6. The third pitch has a short finger traverse to bypass an overhang. The fourth pitch scales a short slab and some broken rock. Again, there were great views from the top. The east face is much taller and features several classic Grade V climbs.
Forbidden Peak is usually climbed from Boston Basin, a spectacular cirque ringed by Forbidden, Boston, and Sahale peaks and their glaciers and moraines. The trailhead is three miles up the Cascade River road past the Eldorado trail. Getting a permit is very difficult on the weekends because they cannot be reserved in advance and are only obtained from the ranger station on the day before or day of entry, so they are usually gone by the morning of the climb. We hadn't expected to be able to get a permit and thus had packed to dayhike Forbidden, but Dee and I picked one up on Friday morning on our way to Liberty Bell.
Jim and Hydar met us back at the Boston Basin trailhead late Friday night, where there was a zoo of climbers camped for early departures. They were packed for a dayhike as well, so we decided to depart at 4:30 am and not take advantage of the permit; unfortunately, we had no way to notify the ranger station that it was freed up. The trail is similar to Eldorado Peak, climbing steeply through dense forest, ferns, and a tumble of trees on an avalanche slope. We began in the fog and worked up quite a sweat before the sun rose. The clouds began to clear as we reached Boston Basin and headed for a small glacier below the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak. At the camp around 6400', we met a ranger who asked us if we were camping. We told him that we had a permit but were not using it. He radioed back to the station to free it up for a lucky group of climbers. He emphasized that we absolutely must not camp without a permit. From the glacier, we ascended a tongue of 40' snow until reaching a 10' pillar of ice that we had to bypass on nasty low 5th class rock on the left. We were stuck there behind two parties; the one immediately in front of us caused some rock fall. We eventually climbed around them on more nasty 4th class rock in the gully and reached the notch at noon. By this time, I was worried about our rate of ascent.
The ridge above us is listed among the 50 classic climbs of North America. It is a classic knife-edge of excellent granite. Difficulties are readily bypassed on the left (north) side. Dee and I kicked into simulclimbing overdrive, climbing the eight-pitch route with just one intermediate belay. The route can be protected by almost anything. We used a set of nuts and four cams; slings around horns would also work well. As we pulled the 5.6 crux, we realized that we'd forgotten to change into climbing shoes in our haste to get going, but we were having too much fun to care. We passed two other parties by veering onto the north face and reached the summit in an hour and a half of spectacular climbing. Overall, I thought the route was much like climbing the Swiss Arete twice, but without the thin air.
After enjoying the summit for an hour and a half, we started back down the ridge to find Jim and Haydar. They'd been belaying each pitch and got stuck behind slow parties. In the interest of time, they stopped at the west summit and we all began rappelling and downclimbing the ridge. We avoided the nasty crowded gully by a series of single-rope rappels down the face directly to the south. That route was tedious as well, but we reached the glacier around 7pm. A helicopter was circling and the ranger at the high camp said a climber had broken his leg in rockfall on the North Ridge. He checked again to be sure we were really hiking out that night. We retraced our route, reaching the woods by dark and the cars by 11 pm after a long but splendid day.