Contributed by Michael Restivo of Mike off the Map
In Northern Washington, just on the Canadian border, is a park taking the green valleys of Yosemite and combining them with the snowy granite spires of Patagonia, and creating a stunning landscape, an alpine playground, and some of the best climbing in Washington. The North Cascades rise dramatically into snow capped granite spires that cover over 500,000 acres of gorgeous mountain terrain. For its size, beauty, and accessibility, it isn’t as visited as its more famous counterparts. In 2011, it only registered over 19,000 visitors compared to the 3 million that visit Yosemite. The peaks themselves are spectacular; capped by Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and Glacier Peak, it offers climbing and high mountain hiking for every skill level. There are so many peaks and opportunities that due to their remoteness, some first ascents weren’t made until as late as 2001. The North Cascades remain a proving ground for alpinists and feature some world class high altitude climbing.
As the road to the entrance of the national park winds through green pastures and farmlands, the dramatic landscape opens up almost immediately. Passing through the gates, the grey granite spires, capped by incessant snowfall, peek between pine tree-lined hills as the roads wind around a gaping valley. Deeper into the park, heading towards the tiny western-themed town of Winthrop, the road takes a sudden downward hairpin turn, and the hill rolls away, revealing Washington Pass and the Liberty Bell Group, which includes Liberty Bell Tower, Lexington, Concord, and North and South Early Winters Spires. Their impressive heights dominate the roadway and include some of the most classic climbing routes in the park.
The quality of the rock is exceptional, and the climbing lends an alpine flavor usually found in places like Patagonia and Switzerland, where climbers face scree, rockfall, and unpredictable mixed conditions of snow and ice. Many of the spires in the park can be climbed in a single day and all include the need for multi-pitch and trad climbing equipment. Smaller single pitch walls and sport walls can be found at Fun Rock, which is a crag site just up the road from the tiny town of Mazama. The North Cascades are dominated by several major peaks including Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Shuksan, and subsidiary peaks such as Forbidden Peak, Bonanza, Eldorado, and Goode Mountain.
The history of climbing in the North Cascades is credited to legendary climber Fred Beckey who established a majority of the routes in the 1950’s and 60’s. Three of the 50 Classic Climbs can be found within the boundaries of the park: the West Ridge on Forbidden Peak, the Price Glacier on Mt. Shuksan, and the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell. The routes are considered moderate by modern standards, but proper training on glacier travel, alpine rock climbing, and the use of an ice axe and crampons are standard know-how for a majority of the year.
For non-climbers, the North Cascades cover a wide range of hiking options. One of the most popular leads to the base of Mt. Shuksan is its 9,131 ft. face reflected onto Highwood Lake in the Mt. Baker Wilderness Area. Another pass is just under the Liberty Bell group on the way to Blue Lake, a scenic alpine lake sitting between the five peaks. A majority of the camping requires little more than a northwest pass and a small upkeep fee around the towns of Mazama and Winthrop. Backcountry permits, necessary for camping in the Boston Basin under Forbidden Peak, are required but free and can be picked up at any of the ranger stations, such as the one in Marblemount.
Although it doesn’t have the prestige of larger and well-known national parks, the North Cascades are a playground for serious hikers and climbers looking to take their crafts to new heights. For the climber looking to branch out onto bigger peaks and more ambitious objectives, the peaks of the Cascades prove to be the ultimate training ground as many of the moderate routes lay a foundation for learning essential skills. For hikers, the peaks guide some of Washington’s classic trails and provide an experience for every skill level.