Eldorado Peak

  • Date: August 5, 2018
  • Start: Cascade River Road (mile marker 20)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Duration: 15 hours 30 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: The Mountaineers

Just one more hill. Just one more hill and finally, after 5,000+ feet of climbing (over three miles I should add), we’d finally get a glimpse of the Queen of the Cascade River herself.  My mind and body seemed to forget about the morning’s intense vert once my boots hit the snow of Eldorado Glacier. I scampered up the long incline with a surprising pep in my step, overcome with excitement and impatience. The North Cascades just have that effect it seems, no matter how difficult the journey. Despite getting eaten alive by mosquitos all morning while navigating steep, technical trail with heavy mountaineering gear on our backs; despite the fact that the blue skies were choked with wildfire smoke and a veil of haze transformed many of the surrounding peaks into mere sihouettes; despite being hours away from finishing and another several hours from home, I felt nothing but pure, unadulterated joy as I stood on the edge of Inspiration Glacier and gazed in wonder at the classic East Ridge of Eldorado Peak.

When Ali threw out the idea of climbing Eldorado together just a few days earlier, I didn’t think twice before enthusiastically responding ‘yes.’ So what that we’d just driven all the way up here the weekend before for a Dakobed C2C? So what that we had a week-long California trip to plan for starting three days later? Mountain conditions were looking fantastic and there was no way I was going to turn down a North Cascades alpine adventure, especially another C2C of a peak I’d been dying to climb for over a year. On Saturday night we met up for dinner at Marblemount Diner following a long afternoon on the road, then caravanned up Cascade River Road to the familiar lot at mile marker 20. We set our alarms and braced ourselves for the early morning wake-up.

Shortly before 5 am we found ourselves carefully scrambling across the slick log over North Fork Cascade River and making our way into the dense forest by the light of our headlamps. As anticipated, the trail was incredibly steep and covered in thick tree roots that snaked across the narrow boot path, creating something of a staircase in sections. Reaching the boulder field and exiting the darkness of the forest was a relief, especially with views of Johannesburg, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets to greet us. Of course this section wasn’t without its downsides. If navigating the boulders wasn’t slow going enough, we also had vicious, persistent mosquitoes to contend with.

Soon enough though we were back on actual trail, hiking past waterfalls and continuing up a slope of mountain heather and granite slabs. Completely unobstructed, jaw-dropping views to the south made it difficult to leave Eldorado Basin. I probably could’ve spent all day sprawled out on some granite staring at the mountains surrounded by pink mountain heather blooms with only the sound of rushing water to keep me company. Instead, we followed the path up to the ridge on our left, then traversed and dropped down into Roush Basin via a class 3 gully. At least the first half of our approach was officially complete.

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Looking out toward Cascade Pass
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Easier going up than down
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Sunbathing, hoping for food scraps, or both?

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Johannesburg from Eldorado Basin

After a bit more scrambling at the base of the gully we crossed into the basin and dropped our packs upon reaching a flat section to sit and enjoy a well deserved snack break. It was mid to late morning now and we still had close to 3,000 feet of gain and a glacier to cross. I refrained from dwelling on it too much and savored my chocolate GU, as well as the view of the surrounding landscape. Large swathes of crevasses appeared scattered in patches on Eldorado Glacier. I observed the group ahead of us heading onto the glacier, taking note of their path for when we reached it.

No longer on steep terrain, we moved quickly across the granite basin, donned our crampons at the edge of the snow, and began another uphill stretch. The snow was already quite soft but it was thankfully still possible to kick steps without sliding backward or expending more energy than necessary. Johannesburg was back in sight behind us, a pleasant distraction from the continuous incline whenever I did turn around. Most of the time though, I kept my eyes on the horizon in front of me, eagerly anticipating the first view of Eldorado. One final climb above the ice cliff  and my wish was finally granted.

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Setting up the timer on my camera
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Snack break in Roush Basin
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Hiking up Eldorado Glacier
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Mack and the ice cliff
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Admiring the East Ridge

We all paused for a moment as we stood at the meeting of the two glaciers, soaking in the scene, knowing it would only become more magical as we neared the summit of the peak before us. I could also see Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak further north across Inspiration Glacier. Another reason to plan a future climbing adventure in this area. We enjoyed the flat-ish traverse across Inspiration to reach a gap on the East Ridge where we got off the snow and took another break to eat, reapply sunscreen, and rope up for the final push.

Through the gap and back on the snow it was all uphill again. There were only a handful of visible crevasses and the boot path skirted around them easily enough. Part of me wished we hadn’t roped up with what seemed like little crevasse fall risk, but I knew I’d probably appreciate it once we were on the exposed knife edge. After what felt like a relatively quick ascent (although it probably took us longer than it felt), we were standing at the base of the infamous knife edge, anxiously waiting our turn to ascend while a pair of climbers ahead of us finished their descent.

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Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak
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East Ridge
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Ali and Brad on Inspiration Glacier with Moraine Lake far below
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Climbers descending the knife edge

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Although not as terrifying or intimidating as I thought it would be (granted it had been packed down significantly at this point in the season), the traverse of the knife edge was by far the most exhilarating part of the entire climb, especially with the long runouts on either side of us. At the top of the edge, the route plateaued and widened all the way to the rocky summit at its conclusion. The group ahead of us was just starting to traverse back across and descend, so we lucked out with the summit to ourselves! It was around 1:30 pm when we finally dropped our packs on the summit, just over 8.5 hours since crossing North Fork Cascade River in the dark!

The sky was still hazy as ever, but the “endless sea of peaks” view that I’ve come to find typical of the North Cascades had not been tarnished. Just like I had on Sahale, I dreamt of future climbing endeavors as I stared off into these isolated, rugged ranges, wondering what challenges and mysteries they held. Maybe one day I’ll see for myself. We took some obligatory summit photos, grabbed another quick bite to eat, then booked it down (carefully of course ) the knife edge and glacier, looking forward to unroping back at the gap. My absolute favorite view of the entire approach was on this section of Inspiration Glacier: Moraine Lake, a delightful turquoise gem, with the towering Torment-Forbidden traverse watching over it from high above.

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Best part of the climb hands down
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Summit!

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Ali and Brad descending the knife edge

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Not even the smoky haze could ruin this view

Back at the gap we packed up the glacier gear and (surprise, surprise) ate more snacks. We still had a ways back to the car afterall! Mack and Ali also took advantage of the composting toilet here. Although I didn’t see it with my own two eyes, they both swore it provided one of the best backcountry bathroom views either of them had ever experienced. Better than digging a hole or packing it out, too! We were all pretty exhausted now, especially with the heavy afternoon sun beating down on us, but at least the snow was easy on our joints as we lost elevation quickly. We made it back to Roush Basin just after 2:30 and, with how quickly we were moving, thought that we might actually make it back to our cars by or before 7 pm! Naturally, I was wrong.

Navigating back through Roush Basin to scramble up the gully and regain Eldorado Basin wasn’t terribly difficult, but I was starting to feel some aching in my knees and even moreso in my poor toes getting shoved to the front of my boots. Ali suggested I take some ibuprofen but I said it wasn’t that bad and I could probably make it back to the car without too much pain. Wrong again of course. The unforgiving nature of granite took its toll on my body almost immediately as we started through the dreaded boulder fields. I struggled to keep up and eventually asked Mack (read: chided him for not noticing how far behind I’d fallen in the first place) to stay closer or hike behind me so I didn’t get separated from everyone.

Ali and Brad continued on down, seemingly unaffected by the steep grade after so many hours spent on our feet. I envied their energy but kept putting one foot in front of the other as best I could, cursing the entirety of the final half mile. Once the river came into view though, the pain seemed to diminish. Ali and Brad had finished a few minutes earlier and were now soaking their sore feet and legs in the water, celebratory beers in hand. It was just around 8:20 pm, and a six hour drive back home (as well as work the following morning) awaited all of us. Steep climbing and marathon driving. Signs of another exhausting but perfect North Cascades weekend, this time made even better by the presence of friends who also find  joy and worth in long, challenging days in the mountains. Now to plan our next North Cascades double date alpine adventure…

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Back in the beautiful Eldorado Basin

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