Sunday, July 28, 2019

Cascade Pass and Sahale High Camp

Sahale Peak above a rushing stream at a high camp in North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Sahale Peak above rushing stream.
Cascade Pass is one of the most beautiful hikes in North Cascades National Park.  The views actually start right from the parking lot!  It's also known as one of the most historic passes.  Originally known as Skagit Pass  by some, it was originally used by Indians and later, explorers.

Today it is quite popular amongst hikers, backpackers and climbers, and one should not expect solitude.  Hikers enjoy the incredible views from the pass itself, and even continue up Sahale Arm, where the views get even more superlative with each step.

Backpackers continue up Sahale Arm to Sahale High Camp at 7,600' (a 4,000' ascent from the parking lot), or as a starting point for a much longer trek down thru Pelton Basin and Cottonwood Camp (former road end from Stehekin) to Stehekin or up to Park Creek Pass and out Thunder Creek to Highway 20.

Climbers use Cascade Pass as a starting point for the incredible Ptarmigan Traverse, traversing the crest of the Cascades south to Dome Peak and exiting via Downey Creek.  They also use it to climb the peaks in the immediate vicinity of the pass, such as Sahale Peak or Mount Buckner.

View from high camp in North Cascades National Park looking south along the Cascade crest, Washington, USA.
View from Sahale High Camp in North Cascades.
I've enjoyed all these trips mentioned and would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.  Each one offers something special and unique.

For this trip, I had my sights set on Sahale High Camp, and if my recovering injuries allowed, Sahale Peak.

I got an 8:30 am start at the TH and worked my way up the reported 33 switchbacks to the pass, arriving at 10:00.  After a brief break, it was up the trail to Sahale Arm and eventually, Sahale High Camp, arriving just after noon.

Doubtful Lake and North Cascades from Sahale High Camp in North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Doubtful Lake and North Cascades from Sahale High Camp.
The views were as incredible as I remembered them.  I was the first overnighter to arrive, so I had my pick of campsites.  I quickly chose my home for the evening, pictured above.  Yep, that's my tent!

As the afternoon wore on, more people began to show up and the place filled up by evening.

I was also visited by a mother goat and her kid, looking for salt deposits.  Eventually I would learn there were actually two different mothers and kids!

I enjoyed evening photography from a rock bluff just above camp, then returned to my tent for the evening.
Stars and the Milky Way above the North Cascades.

I set my alarm for midnight and awoke to do some night photography and hopefully, capture the Milky Way.  As I set up my camera, I was surprised to look down and see several headlamps coming up!  Who the heck would be coming up this hour?  Following the now cairned route (no trail) would be very difficult in the dark.  I returned to my tent and waited for them to arrive and get settled before I continued night photography.

The group wandered around for a considerable amount of time, likely struggling to find an open site.  It took about an hour for the headlamps to stop lighting up my tent, and I got up and continued my photography.

View from Sahale High Camp at dawn, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
View of North Cascades at dawn.
I then set my alarm for 4:30 am to catch sunrise and tried to get a couple hours more sleep.

Dawn is a time of tranquility and peacefulness, and is my favorite time to photograph.  Usually I am alone or nearly alone, but I was surprised how many others also rose at the early hour simply to experience it for themselves.  I'm pretty sure they enjoyed it as much as I did.

I usually start photographing about 1/2 an hour before sunrise, sometimes more.  These early shots usually turn out to be my favorite.

View of the North Cascades at dawn from Sahale High Camp, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
North Cascades at dawn from Sahale High Camp.
Soon first light began hitting Dome Peak in the distance (snow cap) and shortly thereafter the peaks in front me.  I watched the shadows begin to grow darker and creep down the mountain sides, drawing an end to my early morning photography due to the increased contrast and ever growing harsher light.

I retreated back to my campsite for some coffee and breakfast, and deliberated how to spend the remainder of the day.  I had a permit for a second night, but was strongly leaning toward descending.  My legs didn't have Sahale Peak in them, so it would simply be another leisurely day around camp.  I made the decision to descend after waiting for light to hit Doubtful Lake for one last photo opportunity.

View of North Cascades at dawn from Sahale High Camp, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
North Cascades at dawn from Sahale High Camp.
While packing, I notice a couple descending the route below very slowly and surmised they must be having a problem.

By 8:00 am I was packed up and ready to go, and was nearly the last to leave camp.

About 3/4 of the way down the moraine I came upon the couple I had seen from above.  Sure enough, one of them was "butt scooting" down the path, which meant he was injured.  His ankle had been wrapped in foam and immobilized.  A rock had rolled out from underneath his foot, and he had turned it badly.  I asked if there was anything I could help with, to learn that the woman with him was with the park service, and was actually the same woman who had issued me my permit!  She assured me that more park service people were on their way up with a litter.

Sunrise on North Cascades, viewed from Sahale High Camp in North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Sunrise on North Cascades, viewed from Sahale High Camp.
I wished them the best and continued on my way.  As I descended near the pass, I passed another park service employee on her way up with crutches strapped to her pack.  Sahale Arm is not a place for crutches, and it left me scratching my head how they could possibly make that work.  I spoke with her briefly before descending to the pass.

I arrived to find the large guided group gathered that had camped next to me.  I learned that the injured hiker was actually their guide, and that the injury had not taken place during his descent, but rather the previous afternoon above camp!  The headlamps I saw at midnight were actually his replacement and park service members coming up to help!  Things were now making a lot more sense.

Doubtful Lake and Mt. Formidable from Sahale High Camp, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Doubtful Lake and Mt. Formidable.
I also learned that as a result of the ranger presence at camp, the idiot flying his drone around was indeed cited.  That's another story!

I continued my descent down to the car, expecting to pass the litter carrying party at every bend.  I was nearly to the parking lot before I reached them.  It was going to be a long day for all involved and I hope the outcome was a good one. Having had Mountain Oriented First Aid (MOFA) training and helping out on a rescue near Leavenworth, I can tell you that getting a litter down a trail can be a long, slow process.

Photo Advise:

This is a weight sensitive trip due to the elevation gain and steepness of the trail (especially towards the top).  Having learned that a couple bears and the goats had been reported in the area, I brought my "bear lens" and 2x teleconverter.  But when it was time to decide on whether to pack it in, I said heck no - not worth it.

My lens of choice was my 24-70mm, and my 14mm Rokinon wide angle for night photography.  These would be my recommendations.

There are lots of flora options near Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm, with lots of potential of putting peaks behind them in your composition.  Above the meadows, it's just moraine up to camp and a world of rock and ice.

I hope this report helps in your own planning.  Feel free to contact me with any questions.  Always happy to help!

If you wish to see more images from this area, please feel free to visit my North Cascades Gallery.

See you on the trail!