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Advice for First Timer to N Cascades

Tom MacD

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First time headed to the Cascades, and looking for some honest and helpful advice on suggested routes for a father (me) and son (aged 16) three week trip into the N Cascades.  We are both capable rock climbers (I comfortably lead trad up to 5.10a, have lots of anchor building and gear placing experience, and we have climbed long multi-pitch sport routes together) but are inexperienced in the alpine environment (no glacier or crevasse experience).  The three weeks will be broken up with a wedding, family visit in Seattle, and two college tours, so I'm looking for suggestions that include moderate hikes in and camping from anywhere from 2 to four nights in one spot (or two).  A little more info:

I do NOT want suggestions that include:
• glacier travel (I want no possibility of crevasse falls - we do not have the sufficient skills and experience for successful self-rescue)
• mega-hikes in and out (I'm 52 and don't think I can get away with making my son carry ALL of the heavy stuff - but he will, of course, get the watermelon hidden in the pack)
• routes with notoriously loose rock or other objective hazards (while I have at times wanted to kill my son, I think it best to not do so, and I don't want to be featured in the next ANAM)
• routes that are only hikes up a path (I'd like some class 4 and low class 5 roped climbing)

I DO hope to get suggestions that include:
• beautiful campsites - especially sites that allow multiple climbing objectives from one campsite
• moderate to easy climbing routes with fantastic summit views
• fairly straightforward route finding, especially on the descents
• sound rock with good pro (I'm fine with run-outs on low class 5)
I think you all get the idea (and I apologize if this is a redundant post, but I haven't seen a recent post similar to this in the forums).
And yes, I have all three of Fred's CAG books and have spent too many hours (according to my wife) pouring thru them.  My thoughts right now (having never set foot in the Cascades), include the list below - please add comments and advice on them if you wish.  I'd like to know if any of these are in fact much more difficult or loose or confusing on the descent, etc., than Fred's books indicate.  Also, I have heard from many sources that Fred's approach info is notoriously difficult, so any tips on best approaches would be most appreciated.  

Here's what I was considering:
• Mt. Adams South Spur or South Chute (will pass by that way to visit family - not sure if we want the big slog, though)
• Guye's South Rib
• The Chair, The Tooth and Mt. Bryant - the easy routes
• Colchuck Lake for: Colchuck Balanced Rock N Face, Jabberwocky?, Dragontail's W Route from Colchuck Col or Colchuck Buttress or E Face of the NE Towers, Colchuck Peak's N Buttress or NE Face
• Ingalls Lake for:  Easy routes on Ingalls N and E Peaks, Mt. Stuart's W Ridge
• Blanca Lake for:  Columbia's NE Face or S Ridge, Kyes Peak's S Ridge, maybe also Monte Cristo's SE Ridge
• Sloan Peak's N Ridge or SW Face (but I suspect this climb may be more committing than we should try to bite off???)
• Boston Basin for:  Mt. Torment's S Ridge or SE Face, Forbidden's W Ridge, Sharkfin Tower's SE Ridge
• Wing Lake for:  Black Peak's E Buttress or S Route or NE Ridge, Corteo Peak's E Face
• Twin Sisters:  N Twin's W Ridge and S Twin's W Ridge (heading to Vancouver to visit UBC, so it's on the way)
• Reynold's Peak's NE Face or NE Ridge along with Rennie Peak's E Ridge
• Gilbert Mtn's E or N Ridge and Crescent Peak's N Ridge
• Kangaroo Temple's N Face or NE Face and Little Finger's N or S Faces
• The "easy" routes on Early Winter Spires, Liberty Bell, Lexington and Concord (no need to list those)

I realize this is an enormous request for info - so thanks in advance.  Again, I have never been to the Cascades, so any advice is welcome.  

Oh - I should have added that we will arrive in Seattle on May 27 and leave from Seattle on June 18 - so please keep that in mind regarding advice on expected snow and ice conditions on approaches and the routes.    Obviously, I don't have any real perspective on how realistic these routes may or may not be given expected snow conditions for this time of year.  Also, it is worth noting that my son has ZERO crampon and ice axe and self-arrest experience, and my experience level there would be honestly classified as beginner (I live in Mexico, after all, and we don't get much snow and ice down here!). I am also wide open to recommendations on guides who could give us a day of instruction on snow and ice travel (glaciers too) if you think that essential prior to trying to get out there so early in the season.  Thanks.

Edited by Tom MacD
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I’m not local but have made many trips to the Washington Cascades.  I’m sure others will have more detailed advice.  That said:  I understand the snowpack is normal this year, which means approaches and camping in many listed locations will be on snow.  Few thoughts on your list:

Mt. Adams south side routes are a slog but if you’re in the neighborhood it is a worthwhile outing to get up high and enjoy the view.  Can be done in a day and is a safe choice for beginners on snow.  The road will probably be open all the way to the trailhead in your time frame.  You need a volcano pass to climb Mt. Adams.

Colchuck etc.  – You need a permit for overnight camping in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from May 1 – Oct. 31.   These are allocated by lottery far in advance.  You would need to take your chances with the daily lottery to get an overnight permit. 

Ingall’s Peak – good choice.  A few fun easy routes on good rock.  Relatively easy approach.  West Ridge of Stuart –might still be snow on the route early season.  The standard descent is down the Cascadian couloir, which absolutely sucks without snow.  You’ll have plenty in early season but this long descent is probably not the best choice for a novice on snow.   

Boston Basin – alpine wonderland.  You’ll have to score a permit in Marblemount.  Can’t go wrong with Forbidden (West Ridge or slightly more challenging East Ridge).  However, there is a small glacier to cross.  It is a tame one and there will likely be a boot track but if you don’t want to set foot on a glacier, Forbidden is out of bounds. Same for Torment (small glacier).  I think Sharkfin Tower is reached on a snowfield, without setting foot on the Quien Sabe glacier. 

Washington Pass – probably your best choice for easy to moderate, glacier-free approaches and great climbing on solid rock.  Good roadside camping.   

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Thanks AOC!  What I've found in Becky's book and online (mountain project) seems to say the W Ridge of Forbidden can be gained via snowfields or rock (I'm OK on mildly steep snow) without having to cross a glacier.  Can you give me a little more detail?  Just how "tame" is the glacier approach?  I'd be a fool to get into any situation with my son where a possibility of a crevasse fall exists, but if that is nearly impossible (or the glacier depth is super shallow, which one report seems to say) then I'd like to at least explore the idea more.  Thanks for the other recommendations.  I won't be disappointed if this trip turns into a cragging trip, but I was really hoping for some wilderness and class 4/low 5th tall peaks.


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You might be reading about the access couloir, which is snow until later in the season and then can be climbed on rock.  The glacier just below Forbidden is about as tame as they come.  It is disappearing and won't be around much longer. Poke around for photos of Forbidden "Unnamed Glacier" (actually the name) to get an idea.   

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Good advice above.  Most of the high peaks in late May/early June time frame will involve steep snow to access the routes.  There is a lot of snow in the hills now, but maybe it will come off quick if we get a warm spell?

Aside from maybe the West ridge of Forbidden, and south face of Ingalls all of the routes will have your typical loose rock of the alpine.  I would take Guye, Gilbert, Reynolds, Crescent off your list, they don't get much traffic and will have more loose rock.  Given your experience and comfort on rock rather than steep snow I think focusing on the Stuart range and WA pass might be the best.  But even those will likely have steep snow at that time of year.

Lastly, the weather is likely to be challenging.  There is always cragging in the Icicle or Goat wall for longer multi-pitch if the high peaks are socked in. 

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Thanks Jason.  I'm praying for clear skies, for what that's worth, because I'd really love to get out into the wilderness with my son (away from cell reception!).  And thanks for the notes on the peaks with loose rock.  I've had a lot of experience with loose rock putting up routes near where I live in central Mexico, but definitely I don't want to risk sending anything down on my 16 year old son, so I'm ruling those out.  I'm sure I'll find plenty of stuff for us to do without that level of risk.  I'll check out Icicle and goat walls.  

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Great question and post. This is a complicated topic, so I'll try to give some guiding principles:

Given your May/June timeframe, many of the "alpine" objectives will covered in a lot of snow and your approach may be a physical slog. On the plus side, there is little bushwhacking early season, moats haven't formed yet, and chossy gullies are snow-filled and much more fast and friendly. That said, you'll need to be comfortable in a pack on steep snow slopes to do any of these. Moreover, with high snow rock routes may be wet even if they are snow-free. Something to keep in mind. Footwear is important in snow. A stiff boot can make steep snow feel easy whereas sneakers will make it feel desperate (and wet).

Again, given your timeframe, weather is everything. We could have a storm that dumps snow and/or rain on your objective, so it's good to have researched multiple options and be ready to change plans as needed. Generally, one dry side option and one wet side option would be wise.

Don't push too many envelopes at once. 10a on the S Face of Forbidden or 10 on the SW Face of Sloan are very different endeavors than 5.10 at your home crag. Choose something spectacular that maybe has an easier rating. 

Not all glaciers are equal. Some are huge with crevasses that can swallow King Kong. Others are small and early season you won't even know you're on a glacier vs snowfield.

Here are some ideas that will get you into spectacular terrain. Go research them to get a flavor.

All that said, here are some ideas for you to consider/research:

Top choice would be the W Ridge or N Ridge of Stuart if conditions are good. The former involves significant route funding issues up high, the latter may still be snow-covered so check reports. If things melt fast this year, or toward the end of your trip, I'd put the N ridge on your list. It's a 50 classic for a reason. The glacier is mellow and can be avoided if you go w the Full N Ridge. That said, you need to be able to simul easy fifth class to do any route on Stuart, otherwise you will move too slow..

There are other routes to consider in the Enchantments IF you can get a permit. Valkyrie, Acid Baby, Prussik. Some can be done in a day. This is a truly spectacular setting.

The Vesper Morning Star area is lovely and safer than some other areas. Mile High Club should be melted out and is all bolted, no glacier. There are multiple routes on Vesper, but there is steep snow on the way to Hedlee Pass that presents a hazard. Learn to use crampons and ax and you'll be fine. Might be fine wo them but why risk it? 

E Ridge of Forbidden is truly spectacular, and you don't have to cross glacier to get to it, but the descent on the NE ledges is pretty exposed and will be snowy. I'd say Forbidden is probably out for you.

I agree you should have lots of choices in the WA Pass area that could work. There will still be a lot of snow as these are high (8k).

Tooth is OK but isn't going to make you shout for joy. Other peaks in the area (e.g. Thompson, Bryant, Chair) are pretty chossy and/or likely to have a lot of snow on them.

Sahale Peak via Sahale Arm is truly spectacular, has some of the best views in the range, and doesn't really have glacier travel. That said, this will be a long snow walk with 50 feet of low 5th class. Bring a short, thin rope and figure out exactly what gear is needed to protect the final moves to the summit (see internet). You can camp on the arm above Cascade Pass or do this in a day. Avoid the Quien Sabe Glacier given your experience level and the more serious crevasse hazards there.

Sharkfin could be good, should be dry if there haven't been recent storms (watch freezing levels) but it is a LONG, physical approach with steep snow in places. I'd say not worth the effort for you.

gotta run. Will edit later...




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Wow.  SUPER helpful, Rad - thank you.  I think you said it in many fewer words than I did:  

16 minutes ago, Rad said:

something spectacular that maybe has an easier rating

That is EXACTLY what I'm looking for with my son.  Also, on the subject of glaciers, I suspected what you said about some being perceptibly barely different than a snow field.  I would feel comfortable crossing or climbing those assuming they aren't too steep and don't have crevasses we can fall into.  I have a little bit of experience on steep snow using crampons and ice axes (Donner Summit and a failed attempt on Pico de Orizaba), some waterfall ice climbing experience too (but no desire to do that on this trip) but my son has exactly zero experience.  It will be his first time in crampons and holding an axe.  I'm looking more and more at Vesper and feel comfortable with the approach (Headlee Pass) assuming it's not super hard snow or ice (the runout sounds dodgy?).  I'd love to do Forbidden and Sharkfin - maybe wait and see how conditions play out?  And I'll look at Sahale.  I'd prefer more roped climbing but a big part of this adventure is the hiking in deep, camping, and taking in the beauty of the wilderness.  We can get a fair amount of crowded crag climbing here where I live, and perhaps you could recommend a good hike/climb to give my son some easy warm up using crampons and an axe?  I was kind of thinking the approach to Vesper would be good for that if snow covered.  But I certainly don't want to get us into something unpleasant or downright dangerous given our experience level.

Edited by Tom MacD
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If you want spectacular, put Sahale at the top of your list.

Fun fact, my first trip to Sahale is where we actually conceived the idea for this site. Also first time and only time I've been buzzed by a Prowler from Widbey, as well as seeing the Northern Lights at full blast.

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6 minutes ago, jon said:

Fun fact, my first trip to Sahale is where we actually conceived the idea for this site.

That's really interesting @jon!  A great spot to get inspiration.  We stopped to watch two ptarmigan in white browse the melted out bits yesterday, after passing a bear munching on new growth down below.   Clouds were blowing by the peaks.  It was a magical day.

We didn't see anyone on our tour- it was a great reminder of why I stay in the Skagit, year after year (although I sometimes have to go during the week to find solitude these days).

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Based on your comments, I'd suggest you consider the following:

1 - N Ridge or W Ridge of Stuart if you are really fit. If not, aim for Ingalls S Face. 2 days, 1 night. Ingalls would be your best crappy weather option of these. Could be done in a long day.

2 - Sun Chips in the Colchuck Lake area if you can get a permit for Colchuk or Stuart Lake area. (Do not glissade descending from Asgard Pass in early season, people have died here)). If you luck out and get a core Enchantments permit go for the easy route up Prussik. It's classic. 2 days, 1 night.

3 - Go camp up near Vesper and do one or more of the routes on Vesper (Ragged Edge, True Grit) and Mile High Club on the way out. Scramble up Sperry. Possible multi-day outing.

4 - Sahale via Sahale arm. 1 night, 2 days. Very little climbing gear. This will give you an amazing alpine ambience.

5 - Snow Creek wall has Outer Space and Orbit, which both go at 5.9ish but are not soft for the grade. Day trip from Icicle Creek. Avoid weekend. Watch out for goats and ticks. 

Hope you get good weather!

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In your time frame your going to hit a lot of snow for many of these choices. Some will  require ice axe and light crampons for sure because of steep snow. You say your boy has no self arrest ice axe experience? Perfect time to learn it. Have him read 'Freedom of the Hills', youtube or whatever, then first day go find some steep snow with safe runout and practice. Now your ready to climb mountains.

Sahale is a good climb in a fantastic setting. Ruth Mountain close to Baker is good. Day climb with very easy short glacier. I took my kids there to learn glacier snow travel. At Washington Pass, South Early Winter Spires, South Arete. Snow hike with 3 pitch mid 5 rock.  Liberty Bell, Beckey  Route, I would  bring ice axe and crampons for the short steep gully to gain the start of route. It can be icy because of shade. Cuthroat  Peak on the other side of road. North Twin Sisters fun class 3-4 scramble, helps to have mountain bikes. 

I love reading Fred's books but beware, if your not familiar with North Cascades mountains they can be a bit vague  for route description and approach/descent.





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Thanks Guys!  Rad, I'm thinking pretty much the routes you laid out (hope I can snag that Colchuck permit) plus a mandatory stop-over at Early Winter/Liberty Bell.  I might do the Tooth and Chair as well.  What do you all think about the Twin Sisters (I'm heading to Vancouver anyway and will pass by the area)?  And holy crap, Jason!

14 hours ago, JasonG said:

I was just up skiing next to the summit block yesterday 

Is there really that much snow still up there on Sahale?????  

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6 hours ago, Whatcomboy said:

first day go find some steep snow with safe runout and practice. Now your ready to climb mountains.

Thanks Whatcomboy!  We can both use the practice, so I might as well take advantage of the snow, right?  And I was considering Cutthroat - I'll take another look at it.  

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...and another question for everyone:  Given Becky's notorious approach descriptions, got any advice other than studying the approaches on maps? (Google's maps with terrain feature on has been helpful as has been www.Alltrails.com).  Am I wrong in assuming that the Sahale, Tooth & Chair, Vesper, and Ingalls Lake approaches are pretty straight forward?  If I do the Twin Sisters, that one seems the most confusing.  Will it be possible to drive in close to Dailey Prairie in mid June?

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2 hours ago, Tom MacD said:

What do you all think about the Twin Sisters

The west ridge of the North Twin is an uber classic, but with a very long approach (road gated down at the river).  I would recommend it, but it is a lot of elevation gain. Push a bike!  And if you don't want to deal with steep snow, downclimb the route instead of descending the North Face.  It is steep and has been the site of many accidents over the years.


3 hours ago, Tom MacD said:

Is there really that much snow still up there on Sahale?????

Oh yeah.  There is probably 10' of snow at Cascade pass maybe closer to 20' up by the summit.  It was a good winter.  But don't worry, some of the campsites on the moraine are already melting out and the snow will keep the hordes away for awhile.  The road has been heavily damaged by the winter storms so it will likely be a walk of a couple miles to the TH.  This will make getting a permit much easier (they are often hard to get).

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Todd "Kabob" fell descending the N Slope of N Twin Sister, solo, got impaled by his ice axe, rode his bike out, drove to the Welcome Store on SR542, and collapsed and almost bled to death on the floor in front of the horrified cashier.  He didn't really know what had happened to himself (in shock and all).  Point with that is that the N Slope descent can be steep and tricky under certain conditions.  I think it is six miles in from the gate to the start of the West Rdige.

Edited by Choada_Boy
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1 hour ago, Choada_Boy said:

Todd "Kabob" fell descending the N Slope of N Twin Sister, solo, got impaled by his ice axe,

I've seen his scar!  Crazy. 

I've also watched my wife cartwheel uncontrollably past me down that slope.  Definitely pay attention at the top, and face in if you are wondering.

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Like everyone said, everything is going to involve snow.  You should have ice axes and figure out how to self arrest.  Once you do that lots will be opened up for you.

You mentioned Dragontail from Colchuck Col.  That is pretty fun.  To get to the Colchuck Col you go up the Colchuck Glacier, but it's a sad dying glacier so no crevasse worry.  It should be a big wideopen snowfield that time of year, so it would be a great place to practice self-arrest.   The route from the col goes up a snow finger, but you can probably scramble on rock most of the way.    The nice thing about this option is if you aren't able to score a permit you can camp just South of Colchuck Col which will put you (I think) out of the restricted permit area.

You can also bag Colchuck (walkup) from the col.

Consider the West Buttress of Exfoliation Dome (http://www.mattsea.com/darr/dome.htm ).  You could have some fun there.  Other good scenic multipitch stuff in Darrington that should be melted out.

West Ridge of Stuart is awfully fun, but high chance you'd epic on it. Almost everyone does.

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Thanks Chuck - I'll check out those options - and I had no idea that there is an option to hit the Colchuck Lake area without a permit - I'll call the Ranger Station to confirm.  And I'm open to some glacier travel that is safe, meaning no crevasse risk.  My inexperience is an obvious issue, so I want to avoid any chance of a crevasse fall.  And I've been assuming that any glacier has that risk.  I can't help hearing the word "glacier" and immediately picturing a giant yawning crevass lying hidden under a thin bridge of snow. I want no part of that without being tied into someone who knows the drill!

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