Mountains and Mist
Almost 11 months ago I spent four days getting my first real taste of the North Cascades*. It was a challenging trip in many ways, and somewhat frustrating, but I certainly came home with many good photos. Please forgive the massive photo dump, but I’ve been sitting on these too long. I also shot a number of black and whites which I’ll be posting later. Please forgive the rather pedestrian trip report, but enjoy the images!
*There are a variety of opinions regarding what counts as the North Cascades. Washingtonians, many of whom seem rather foggy on the existence of other states, call this area the “Central Cascades,” as if Oregon weren’t there. I favor respecting the geology, which changes dramatically once you get north of I-90. If the bedrock is mostly metamorphosed terranes with plutonic intrusions, as opposed to all recent volcanics, it’s the North Cascades.
It’s a bit of a long slog up the trail to Buck Creek Pass, and the hike began humid and hot. Within a mile I was stickier and smellier than I’ve ever been backpacking in the California desert. Mountain views were limited to teasers through the trees, and the trail seemed pigheadedly determined not to spend any time near the creek. I hadn’t planned on hiking all the way to Buck Creek Pass my first day, but campsite possibilities were highly limited in the valley and the few I passed were occupied, so I pushed on.
Every Washington photographer needs a few of these images, right?
Views, temperatures and my mood improved as the trail pushed up towards 6,000 feet. There were plenty of people camped at the pass ( it was Fourth of July, after all), but there were lots of campsites spread through the glades and while it hardly felt isolated, neither did it feel crowded.
The big, young, active volcano Glacier Peak is undoubtedly the star of the show at Buck Creek Pass, and I had some great views of it in the morning even as fog began rolling up from the west.
Glacier Peak is a rather obscure mountain compared to other big Cascade volcanoes, but it’s massive.
After a mellow morning ramble out to Flower Dome, which was disappointingly flowerless and limited in views, I had a nap and lunch, then started up the trail towards High Pass to explore and wait for evening. Moisture from the Salish Sea was continuing to stream up into the high country.
Summits poked their heads out of the sea of clouds:
Glacier Peak Wilderness geology in a nutshell: The bedrock was hard schist, gneiss and granite, but much of the ground was strewn with pumice pebbles from recent volcanic eruptions.
It was only barely summer, but some meadows had wildflowers making their best efforts:
I did get a brief clearing with a view back towards the pass and Buck Creek’s headwaters, with Helmet Dome, Fortress and Chiwawa Mountains presiding.
The break in the weather was short lived. I drank tea as rain began spitting and the upper Suiattle River Valley began boiling with mist like a witch’s cauldron. I managed to keep my lens dry for a few images before the clouds closed in and I retreated to camp.
The next morning broke dank and dreary. I slept in a bit, but eventually rallied to head back towards High Pass in the hope of some clearing. It was not immediately forthcoming. I rambled on in near white-out until I started entering more complicated terrain of bare rock and steep snow near the pass. I parked, made tea and amused myself making abstract images of mist, rock and snow (black and white work will be forthcoming).
This was essentially my view for several hours. It’s a color photo.
Finally, finally, the fog began to break up a little. A couple more intrepid groups with ice axes passed by and headed across the snowfields to High Pass and Napeequa Valley (a place I’d love to see someday). I was very tired of being still, so I headed up a nearby ridge to a not-very-significant peak called Mount Cleator. It proved to be a wonderful easy perch with fantastic views of the huge north face of Buck Mountain.
There was still lots of mist around, but the sun was breaking through. I watched a herd of rather indolent mountain goats a few hundred feet below me (just visible lower left in the photo above) and soaked it in.
Clouds stayed stubbornly parked on the Cascade crest, but I had glimpses of sunny peaks to the northeast. This view almost literally is the Cascade rain shadow:
Views back towards Buck Creek Pass were also wonderful:
Despite a little sunlight breaking through, Glacier Peak was not coming back out, and the atmosphere was thickening again. I took reluctant leave of the summit and left to get a good night’s sleep before an uneventful, unphotogenic and hot hike out.
All the mist definitely limited the hiking I was able to do, but it also provided many truly beautiful moments. Carrying a stove during the day to make tea helped a lot. I also learned some lessons, viz. that viable campsites in the Cascades may be scarcer than one would expect; that just because a Washington trail follows a creek doesn’t necessarily mean you get to see or enjoy the creek; and that in the future I’ll definitely be preferring steep approaches to long approaches. It’s substantially harder to reach truly alpine terrain in Washington than in the Rockies or the Sierra, but it’s very impressive once you’re up there.