Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part II: Landscapes of Experience

Window in the Storm: A North Cascades Memoir

A clap of thunder jolts me awake and a blue-white flash lights the tent like a flare. Another clap peals and rumbles against the peaks and seems to shake the ground beneath me. Wide awake, I burrow into my bag and huddle even tighter on my foam pad. In the silence between strikes I can hear the sound of my heart.

I'm camped with two friends in a shallow snow basin just below the crest of the Cascade range. Our tents are perched on a rocky outcrop—an island in a sea of snow—as the storm blasts away at ice-streaked summits less than a thousand feet above us. I hear the zipper on my partner's bag jerked tight as he too retreats into a nylon cocoon, shuts his eyes to the lightning bolts, and tries for a bit more sleep.

Earlier, as we descended the broken summit of Mount Formidable, wending our way in and out of slanting, rocky gullies, we stopped to watch small, high puffs of cloud waft gently in from the east. My friend and longtime climbing partner Chuck Easton, who grew up in the Skagit Valley and had been traipsing these mountains since he was a boy, joked offhandedly. "Something about those high, puffy clouds from the east," he said. "I remember they mean something—but I forget just what."

Now, I can barely count 2 seconds between flash and thunderclap. As if reading my mind, Chuck whistles from his bag, "That's close!" "Maybe Le Conte," I suggest, but it doesn't matter, really. We both know there is nowhere to go—we are days from the nearest road, or trail. There's nothing to do but hunker down in our bags as the first wind-driven raindrops thwack against the tent fly like shots.

Though I'm loathe to admit it, experiences like these, as much as those stunningly sunlit days spent strolling the high meadows, are what lure me to the North Cascades. The range's volatile mix of coastal and continental weather, its varied, rugged topography, massive ice fields, and cascading streams have given birth to a complex wilderness ecosystem unique to North America. Here, the rumble and clash of forces that have shaped the earth remain vivid, and the collision of climate and geologic process is immediate and profound. In the wildlands of the North Cascades, the archaic gods of creation and destruction whirl together on a knife-edge ridge.

Too often in the lowlands I'm lulled by the scrim of blacktop and concrete into thinking the earth lies still for us, a passive tableau for any human ambition or design. The high mountains allow no such illusion. Traveling in alpine country, a necessary attentiveness and respect sharpen my awareness of the earth we live on and nurture an understanding as old as thought—that the earth is vast, dynamic, and long lived and we are small and momentary on its face. It's an awareness that heightens my appreciation of these wild mountains and rivers and deepens my sense of who I am.

I live and work in the foothills of a sister range to the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains. On clear winter days I can look out from the foothills across the glacier-carved trough of the Puget Basin and mark the snowbound summits of the North Cascades, sharp as cut glass against the deep blue of the winter sky. The Olympics themselves are a remarkably diverse and complete ecosystem and my work as a poet, writer, and conservation activist has been deeply nourished by them. I know that in my lifetime I'll never exhaust their possibilities, yet several times each year I'm pulled across the inland waters to join old friends in exploring those mountains of the mainland. To me the North Cascades represent a wilderness at once harsher and more rugged than my home mountains, a range hewn in granite, gneiss, and schist, studded with active volcanoes, and scored with steep northern walls. The North Cascades is not a contained, islandlike ecosystem like the Olympics, but a wilderness tied to vast stretches of wild country to the north and east, a region where wolves and grizzlies still haunt the landscape. Though its valleys have been more heavily roaded, logged, and mined than the Olympics, its mountains remain rougher-edged, more difficult of access, and vastly grander in scale.

Twenty-five years ago, it was wildness that first brought me to the Pacific Northwest—forests reaching back from rocky shorelines, rivers alive with music and light, and nearness of mountains wearing their ice like tattered robes of the past. I found in the mountains a chance to scuff off the patina of late twentieth-century life and let something of my deeper self breathe through.

I was lucky. Within a year or so of coming to live here, I got to know a few of Chuck Easton's old boyhood friends. They had stayed close through high school and college largely due to a common passion for their home mountains. Several had worked trails and fire crews, were accomplished climbers, and knew the North Cascades well. Tagging along on frequent high-country trips, I picked up the basics of mountaineering and began to discover firsthand the rugged and pristine beauty that is the North Cascades.

There were moments of epiphany in those years of discovery, moments that I can conjure vividly today: my first close-up look at the northern Picket Range from the top of Mount Challenger; a snowy bivouac below Buckindy Peak; a moonlight climb of Eldorado. There were long hikes through misty valley forests, hurried fords across roiling streams, and countless late-night cups of tea as the stars wheeled over snowy peaks. Returning to my favorite places over the years, I've developed a relationship with these wilderness mountains, and learned a quiet reverence for the community of beings that live here.

As my friends and I extended our explorations of the North Cascades high country, one remote area of rugged, glacier-shrouded peaks continued to hold our imaginations. The crest of the range between Cascade Pass and Dome Peak struck us as the very heart of the wilderness mountains. Isolated from roads and empty of maintained trails, the mountains crested into sheer ridges and peaks cloaked in ice and cut by steep hanging valleys and cirques. Traversing the area from either end put climbers within striking distance of some of the least frequently visited summits in the range, and travel across upper glaciers and narrow, windy passes took hikers through some of the most spectacular alpine country in the Northwest. Each spring, when we got together to plan summer trips, the Ptarmigan Traverse ranked high on our wish lists.

The route is named for an adventurous group of young climbers from Seattle who dubbed themselves the Ptarmigan Climbing Club. In the summer of 1938, Calder Bressler, Ray Clough, Bill Cox, and Tim Myers parked their Model A in forest shade at the end of the Suiattle River road and struck out for the unexplored high country north of Sulphur Creek. The four had been climbing together since their scouting years, and for the next 13 days they put their combined mountain skills to the test. The weather held for them during that summer of runaway wildfires, and the four traversed the crest as far north as Mount Buckner before dropping back to the lowland forests. Along the way they reached the summits of all the major peaks, sometimes scaling three in a single day. Six were first ascents; another four, seconds. Only a small circle of mountain enthusiasts followed such exploits in those days, but by the time a second party completed the traverse fourteen years later, the name "Ptarmigan Traverse" became synonymous with the route. Since then, climbers and alpine travelers have been drawn to this wild stretch of mountains as if to a wilderness mecca.

After a few years of juggling schedules and weather, and at least one false start, three of us climbed the trail to Cascade Pass, jubilant beneath the weight of ten-day packs. We camped that night on a bench above the pass and cooked dinner in a cluster of subalpine fir. Thick fog rolled in from the west, sifted through fir boughs, and dripped like rain on the packed snow around us. "We crawled into our bags with more than a little foreboding," I noted in my journal (we'd been weathered off the traverse the year before), "and pulled our hats down over our ears." But sometime in the middle of the night, I heard Jeff Langlow "whoop" from his tent. The near-full moon had risen wide and luminous, floating over the eastern peaks "like a misty pearl."

Early the next morning we climbed through late June snow and crossed the small glaciers that clung to the north-facing slope below Cache Col. Easing our packs off, we gazed toward the magnificent array of peaks, ridges, snowfields, and glaciers that comprised the traverse and thumped each other on the back. Somewhere south of all this lay the Suiattle River road, less than 18 miles as the raven flies. But to us, the vast, steep, and broken country that lay between was as full of wonder as an unexplored pole.

Mount Formidable

There's a sense of freshness and discovery in the Cascades in late spring and early summer. Snow lends an impression of untracked wilderness. Weather is often unstable but the dawns seem to gather themselves from both earth and sky. Days are punctuated by the shrill calls of marmot, the hoarse clucks of ptarmigan, the cronks of passing ravens. Sunsets reflected in snowy basins can be stunning, and nights freeze hard under windy stars. The rhythm that comes of matching breaths to kicked steps up long snow slopes yields to an almost meditative calm, and the cool rush of wind at a pass is invigorating.

It was our general consensus then that the first few days of a trip were necessary to shake out the wrinkles and burrs of what we jokingly referred to as "real life." Typically, by the third night out, even the most broke, lovesick, or work-harried among us had slipped the ties of the world below and become fully alert to the moment, to what Buddhists might call the suchness of the mountain world. It was a state we lived for, but the problem of juggling work and schedules made stretching trips past long weekends difficult and taking off for more than a week, rare. A full 10 days in spectacular, unexplored country was a gift that might well have brought us to our knees in gratitude.

I worked in the woods in those years, planting trees on cutover lands in the Olympic and Cascade foothills. It was an occupation that dovetailed perfectly with my passion for the mountains. The work was deeply satisfying, the conditioning rigorous, and the higher peaks were nearly always in view for daydreaming. By the time conditions became too dry for planting, usually in early June, the mountains were just opening up. Chuck, a jazz guitarist, pursued a fairly late-night workweek in Seattle. When the summer mountain season arrived his schedule snapped wonderfully into reverse. Chuck kept his fingers limber in the mountains by packing along a small copper flute, and his evening improvisations rose and fell with the cadences of mountain streams. Jeff Langlow was a sculptor who kept body and soul together through carpentry, "Maurice," as we called him in the mountains (after his woolen beret and reverence for various French alpinistes), was ever alert for the right feather, stone, or weathered bit of wood that would become part of a future assemblage. With Chuck's music, Maurice's sculpts, and my continual jotting of images and scraps of poems in my journal, the mountains animated our creative lives and lent resonance to our daily lives as well.

Our third day was magic. We traversed the upper Middle Cascade Glacier, then ascended steep névé fields to the narrow notch of Spider-Formidable Col. The view to the south rose to meet us as we approached. Framed within the gatelike rock walls of the pass, it was strikingly beautiful. The alpine summits of Le Conte Mountain, Sentinel, and Old Guard peaks rose from broken glaciers and snowfields and raked the windy sky. The broad white flank of the massive Le Conte Glacier gleamed in afternoon sunlight and Dome Peak, Sinister, and Spire Point rippled off beyond it to the south. Glacier Peak floated in the distance, remote and hazy as a cloud. Streams and waterfalls plunged into the deep valley of Flat Creek, which wound through the spring green of avalanche meadows. We lingered longer than we should have amid the splendor that Fred Beckey called "the core of the North Cascades heartland." Before dropping down to camp, we promised ourselves that we'd save the next day for a climb of Mount Formidable, whose icebound northern face had loomed above us throughout most of the day.

We left camp at dawn the next day, and by late morning celebrated Chuck's thirty-first birthday on Formidable's blocky summit. The view in all directions was splendid, encompassing most of the country we had traveled through and much of what lay before us. We whiled away the afternoon and kicked back on our rocky perch while the sunlight warmed our toes. I tried to capture small bits of the scene in my journal:

From the summit,
     a mandala of peaks, etched white
          against the empty sky,
and a smoky haze down the Skagit.

That evening, as clouds built ominously along the ridges above camp, we joked that there were worse places to be weathered in, but measured out our cheese with a good bit of care.

The storm raged all night, and the next day rain and thick clouds kept us pinned in camp. With visibility less than 25 feet, and little hope of route-finding over cliffs and crevassed glaciers, we had no choice but to read, savor the cloudscapes, and warm ourselves with endless cups of tea. I had brought along Kenneth Rexroth's translations of poems from the classical Chinese. As the visible world emerged and receded into drifting clouds—a cluster of shaggy mountain trees, an outcrop of rock cliff and heather—the Buddhist sense of the transient, floating, "dewdrop world" seemed poignant. It's a sense that comes to me often in the mountains, and it attunes me to the present in a strangely liberating way.

We speculated there were few places left outside Alaska where you could get this lost, and what a shame that was. By now the wild mountains had worked their magic on our spirits and we found delight in the smallest occurrences. A marmot bounding down a snow slope, a pair of ptarmigan uttering their preposterous call (begeek GOCK), brought gales of laughter. With lots of time to take notes in my journal, I tried to catch the moment in a poem.

Those thunderheads
we watched drift in from the east,
     —high, billowy mounds
     that banked up over the crest,
          feathered and lovely—

all broke loose past midnight,
and we woke to bolts & flashes, a downpour,
like the mountains were at war with themselves.

Now, days from the nearest trail,
we sip tea and wonder
how we'll get our silly asses out of here,
while low clouds & mist spill down
over glaciers and cliffs
like a Sung scroll...
many cups.

     "The problem with transcendence—
          the higher you get,
               the longer it takes to cook your rice."

And another tree slips whimsically into the void.

The next day the void lifted just enough to navigate, and we climbed rock and snow to the crest north of Le Conte Mountain. Cloud and fog blew up out of the South Fork Cascade, and the peak drifted in and out of mist. The weather was clear east of the crest, and as clouds boiled over the divide they were torn to shreds and blown off in little puffs above us. The steep gneiss flanks of Mount Goode dominated the northeastern horizon. Delighted with at least half a clear sky, we struck out across Le Conte Glacier toward the summit of Old Guard Peak. Unlike Le Conte Mountain, which greeted us with a blanket of cloud, Old Guard yielded spectacular views—a dizzying circle of snow-streaked summits adrift in swirling mists. That night, from a camp on the shoulder of Sentinel Peak, I watched the ranges down valleys to the west fade from pale blue to gray, then vanish in cloud-cover white. I coiled the rope and hung it from my ice axe to dry. In the morning, if the weather held, we'd climb Sentinel for a last view south toward the monolith of Dome Peak rising above the broken ice of the Chickamin and Dana glaciers, and the serrated ridge west to the turrets of Spire Point now shrouded in evening cloud.

Steeped this deep in the heart of the North Cascades, the mountains and streams seemed endless. Wildlands rose around us like a stormy sea whose waves crested above deep-green tides of forest. Traveling day after day we felt as though we were carried along in their wake. From our windy perch there wasn't another sign of human presence, yet we knew all too well that these wildlands were hedged by roads and clearcuts on all sides, and each season the machines pressed closer.

"Too many people," was how Chuck put it, "and not enough mountains to go around." Maurice was more circumspect, "Let them continue to muck up Tacoma, Seattle, Bellingham, if it makes them happy," he intoned over his tea, beret swapped for the warmth of a balaclava, "but give the mountains a break." In the larger picture, we were certainly the odd lot out, huddled around the glow of a small stove, our wet gear stiffening in the wind. We were all outspoken advocates for wilderness: Chuck and Maurice had written letters and attended hearings in defense of wildlands; I was doing grassroots work to secure federal protection for wilderness lands throughout the state. We recognized wilderness was as much a spiritual as a recreational concern, and our relationships with the wild, while shared, were also deeply personal. But a deeper question underlay many of our mountain discussions, one I've chewed over countless miles.

What is wilderness but another human artifact, "an invention" in historian Roderick Nash's words, "of civilized man." Sure, legislated wilderness is a legal mechanism by which we section off untrammeled landscapes and protect them from what apologists for a paved earth euphemistically call development. That's fundamental. But in a sense, the term suggests a landscape valued as much for what isn't there as for what is. In contrast, what infuses my soul in the North Cascades is not the absence of roads, clearcuts, shopping malls, and pollution, but the immediate experience of the immense power, presence, and diverse natural beauty of the living earth. The spontaneous eruption of joy my friends and I experience in the midst of wild country is a natural human response. It transcends cultural biases and imperatives and issues straight from the heart.

"In wildness is the preservation of the world," Thoreau wrote. A century later, the poet William Everson equated Thoreau's "wildness" with the mystery of the natural world. Wildness, according to Everson, is the essential nature of an animal, a plant, or a landscape, and it is the wildness at the heart of our own human nature that responds. Wildness precedes human culture, but it informs the best of human aspiration—philosophy, music, literature, art—it is a quality of mind that makes us who we are.

To climb a trail, a pack on our back, step by step into the wild is to be one with wildness in an ancient and primary way. Kenneth Wyatt proposed an optimal rate of sensory stimulation for the human organism, the same rate one experiences in wilderness. Perhaps it's as simple as that, but I don't think so. The North Cascades and all wild mountains, stand apart from the day-to-day world and have always captured the human imagination. The native people of the Skagit, Nooksack, and Chelan Valleys wove legends of the mountains that towered above them. As far back as ancient Mesopotamia and throughout the long traditions of India, China, and Japan, mountains were seen as places where the worlds of earth and sky merge, abodes of gods and goddesses. From our earliest history, mountains have been charged with religious meaning. Our modern temperament sees mountains as both the symbol and embodiment of natural process—makers of weather, sources of rivers, last bastions of primeval forest—but the old flavor lingers. We know now that the most ecologically significant parts of ecosystems are often found in more productive lowlands, beyond the boundaries of wilderness areas and parks; but mountains remain the human focus for those larger self-sustaining systems, dwelling places of the wild. Though I'm surrounded by the mystery of nature virtually everywhere, it's on foot in the mountains that I best awaken my capacity to see.

It was near the end of our traverse—actually during our last minutes in alpine country before we descended into Istwoot Lake basin and the trail out Bachelor and Downey Creeks to the Suiattle—that my friends and I stepped momentarily into the mystery at the heart of wildness. Nearly twenty years later, the memory remains as vivid and immediate as breath.

In retrospect, we had overextended ourselves that day, and we were fortunate events hadn't taken a different turn. Traversing south from the frozen basin of White Rock Lakes, we didn't begin to climb the long slope of the Dana Glacier below Spire Point until well into the afternoon; it was after 6:00 P.M. when we reached the 7,700-foot pass at the head of the glacier. The weather was deteriorating and we still had a couple of thousand feet to descend to camp. From there it was all downhill, 14 miles out to the road. But here were the splintered granite towers of Spire Point just a few hundred feet above us, and there went what was left of our good sense.

The route, as Beckey described it, was a short one, one moderate 60-foot pitch and a scramble to the summit. Had it been earlier in the day we might have made it up and back in an hour or so. But it was no longer early, and our fortunes were further compromised by a party we met earlier in the day. They advised us to avoid what looked like the crack Beckey described; it led off route into a dangerous cul-de-sac. Instead, they told us, bear farther right into the true crack. By the time we realized just how bad this friendly bit of advice was, we were far too committed to an utterly nonexistent route to down-climb. Maurice, the most dexterous rock climber among us, led a last, painfully slow, 75-foot pitch to the summit ridge while Chuck and I shivered on a belay ledge below. After what seemed an hour, a "whoop!" and some incomprehensible shouts in French told us he had made it. I followed and within minutes understood the long delay. Even with a secure upper belay it was fingernails and boot tips for forty feet as the wall went blank before me. I clawed my way to the ridge and was sputtering effusively at Maurice on his spectacular lead when he gestured with a thumb over his shoulder. To the west, the sky was an angry shroud of blue-black cloud swallowing nearby summits and bearing down on us with the malice of a runaway freight train. Here was the other side of the mystery of wildness. Now it wasn't reverence but a baser instinct that inspired me. I lost no time scrambling to the summit and rigging a windy rappel.

We descended quickly, intent on getting off the face before the storm reached us. We hit the true route then, as clean and straight-ahead as a staircase. As I gathered up the rope and worked down the last bit of rock to the upper snowfield, I could hear the wind rasp above me, and the rock was flecked with blowing rain. Glancing up, I saw the summit swallowed by clouds. Then, as we were about to step thankfully onto the snow and beat tracks back to the pass, the mountain world opened like a shell.

A flourish of setting sunlight underlit the storm cloud in a swirling pattern of salmon and smoke blue. Almost simultaneously, the snowfield and glacier became infused with a deep, almost liquid rose light. The rocks, our faces, even our clothes glowed in an almost otherworldly light. I had occasionally seen such intense alpenglow flare up momentarily on a distant peak, but never before or since have I stood in the center of such brilliance.

The storm held still as we stepped silent as acolytes onto the burning snow and stood as if blessed by the light. It was Maurice who first came to; "The camera!" he whispered, and dropped his pack to the snow to retrieve it. But that simple gesture broke the spell. The light switched off and dark clouds fell over us like a curtain. No cameras now but parkas, mittens, and wool hats were pulled from packs as sharp wind and stinging hail sent us hurtling down the snow slopes howling like blessed madmen. We made it by flashlight to a sheltered snow basin, where we had camped the year before, and piled wet and exhausted into a single tent. The storm raged throughout the night yet we remained exuberant, almost deliriously happy. When we woke to an impenetrable fog the next morning, we met it with a gladness worthy of the most promising of mountain dawns.

There are moments that stand out in memory like stars. When seen from a distance they form constellations around the places that have shaped our lives. When I think of the central place wild country holds for me—when I ponder my desire to speak for it through poetry and prose and to work for its protection—I understand this impulse is born of those rare encounters with the wild. I see my work as a writer is not necessarily to try to share those moments of clarity; words continually fall short of that. Rather, it is to render the wild corners of the earth I know as clearly and honestly as I can. With luck, a poem or essay might send others into their own wild neighborhoods to linger late and look more closely, might lead them through a window of granite or grass to their own moments of epiphany.

TIM MCNULTY is a poet, conservationist, and nature writer who has a long and intimate acquaintance with the North Cascades. His books include Olympic National Park: A Natural History Guide (Houghton Mifflin), Washington Wild Rivers: The Unfinished Work (The Mountaineers), and Mount Rainier: Realm of the Sleeping Giant (Woodlands Press). He is a contributor to The Enduring Forests (The Mountaineers) and Our National Parks (Reader's Digest Books). His poetry collections include In Blue Mountain Dusk (Broken Moon Press) and Pawtracks (Copper Canyon Press). Tim lives with his family in the foothills of Washington's Olympic Mountains.

Previous Contents Next
North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980