Seeking The Unknown
“Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.
We belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do.”
~ David Whyte
In the record 97 degree heat of late June, I walk out my back door near Silver Lake and amble slowly through the shade of young alder trees. I am scouting some DNR land on the lower flanks of Black Mountain on mostly game trails looking for a linkup from my house to more established trails near the town of Maple Falls proper along the Hwy 542. Sometimes I luck out and the way is obvious. This time, I drop into a section where no apparent way through can be seen. With nothing on my person but a pair of shorts and some toe shoes, I am faced with tall ferns, snags of downed trees, salmonberry bushes, nettles, and even native blackberry. The ground drops away from sight in these thick tangles, promising to swallow me up, or at least spit me out with significant scratches.
I feel a tinge of panic, wondering if I should backtrack and start over from a more familiar vantage point. As I calm down, I realize this strong emotional reaction is likely minor PTSD from last summer’s adventure over Stetattle Ridge, where steep bushwhacking through unknown territory had much higher potential consequences than this jaunt just two miles from my backyard. In tense moments like these, retreat seems like a reasonable solution in the fear-gripped mind, but when you set yourself up like I did in August 2020, with a committing loop off the west bank of Ross Lake, it becomes harder and harder to abort mission. Sometimes the only way out is through.
It was mid-pandemic in peak backcountry camping season, and as many outdoor enthusiasts remember, all mountain trailheads were jammed with eager hikers. Ironically, as we were all trying to avoid crowds and get some fresh air, we created crowding on popular trails (at least in the first few miles). My adaptation was to get more & more creative with my route planning. After successfully completing a loop from the Nooksack Cirque to Icy Peak to Ruth Mountain and down from Hannegan Pass (with a mountain bike stashed at that trailhead), I was inspired to plan a big culmination route for my summer of solo scrambling with a dash of originality: steep bushwhacking off Stetattle Ridge through unknown territory to link up an already remote climbing route, then finished with a bike self-shuttle.
Flash back to the Summer 2019 issue of Mt Baker Experience magazine where Jason Griffith wrote about his recent discovery of a reasonable scrambling route up Mt Prophet via a narrow rib of rock they dubbed Jacob’s Ladder. In all the available literature on climbing in the North Cascades, including ubiquitous internet trip reports and the inimitable Beckey guides, no evidence existed this route had been done before. Once these two middle-aged guys determined no technical rock climbing was needed (aka Class 3), I knew I could likely handle it without a rope or partner. It seemed like a “bold enough” adventure that would stretch my personal limits hopefully without breaking them.
However, since the route had already been described and no longer a first ascent, I had to spice it up a bit further with some unknown variables. Stetattle Ridge sits proud and prominent immediately opposite the Big Beaver Valley from Mt Prophet running the same length as the lowland trail approach from Ross Lake. What if I traversed the ridge, descended to the base of Mt Prophet, and made a loop of it? As no literature existed suggesting this was possible, I found it original enough and therefore worth doing.
Let’s talk about climbing alone, aka “soloing” when moving on rock. According to statistics compiled in Accidents in North American Mountaineering from 1951 to 2006, less than 7% of incidents list “Climbing alone” as a contributory cause. More common causes are weather, inadequate equipment or clothing, poor protection, or climbing unroped. The most significant factor appears to be “exceeding abilities” at 15%. We mammals feel safer in groups, but that could be a false sense of security. The mountain does not tally a vote if you should die or not, with majority rule overriding our mortality. It’s really up to good, humble decision making to stay alive and uninjured. I find those abilities are amplified when you’re the only one making them. A team of 3 or 4 can be a strong asset for escorting someone out when injured, or sending some for help while one stays with the injured party. It does not guarantee success, however. Your friend could die in your arms from a head injury due to rock fall with no helmet, or trauma from sliding down a snowy slope and impacting trees below, or slipping into a raging river. It is really safer to never fall, and when you’re alone, you simply cannot fall. There’s no peer pressure and no blind ambition. To me, it is the purest form of movement.
There’s another reason I don’t always invite a friend or good climbing partner on a particular adventure. It could just be too unknown and too gnarly — in other words, an acquired taste — and I couldn’t in good conscience invite them along. The descent I targeted off Stettatle Ridge to “shortcut” to Mt Prophet fits that bill perfectly, with Class 3 to 4 vertical bushwhacking.
The hike to Stetattle Ridge begins by rising steeply from the town of Diablo towards the Sourdough Mountain lookout, then veers quickly to the northwest on a faint, steep climber’s trail through forest brush to gain the ridge — about 5000’ gain in 5 miles.
Most climbers who traverse this long, jumbled ridge with views in all directions of North Cascade gems — Jack Mountain, Colonial and Snowfield Peaks, for starters — are accessing the Southern Pickets for remote and challenging peak objectives. Within a few miles, they veer west towards Torrent Creek, Elephant Butte and Azure Lake. I found no digital evidence anyone had proceeded strictly along the ridge after its northern high point at 6,728’, although it has a nice spine-like appearance until it drops off on all sides and would be attractive to someone with the time and inclination. To descend north from there towards McMillan Creek and reach an established trail near Big Beaver Creek at the base of Mt Prophet was the real exciting part to dream about. I pored over the satellite layer on Google Earth and obsessed about the spacing of topographic lines overlaid with images of rock and brush. I was imagining a “reasonable” bushwhack without trip-ending cliffs. The only helpful passage came from Steph Abegg, one of the most prolific North Cascades adventurers who meticulously documents her findings for the climbing public. She writes on the SummitPost.org page dedicated to the Picket range:
“The Southern Range is noted for slender spires of rock rising above small glaciers on the southern slopes, and is visible from the North Cascades visitor center in Newhalem. The northern walls of the Southern Range are truly awe-inspiring. The basin defined by these walls is one of the most remote places in the continental U.S… From the saddle, it is possible to traverse into Terror Basin or traverse under the northern faces of the Southern Pickets via McMillan Cirque, one of the great hellholes of the North Cascades.”
That basin below McMillan Cirque was my exit strategy, and somehow I read “most remote places” but missed the section on “hellhole.” Only once I arrived there did I understand what she meant, and yes, I can corroborate this description.
After locking my bike to a tree in the forest near a trailhead overflowing with cars 600 vertical feet above the Ross Lake Dam, I parked in the “town” of Diablo (really a Seattle City Light employee village) and begun hiking up the Sourdough Mountain Trail. It is notoriously steep, and despite being near the crescendo of an explosive hiking season, few people were on it. I was traveling light with no tent and minimal food, hoping to complete the loop in 3 days of a solid weather window and by finding plentiful water along the way. I did bring an ice axe and strap-on crampons for Mt Prophet, although these were (spoiler alert) never used. I wasn’t sure how far I could get each day and where I would camp, but I aspired to reach Luna Camp in one day, climb and descend Mt Prophet the second day, and have an easy third day walking out to the shores of Ross Lake on relatively flat trail.
After five miles of boulder hopping along the gorgeous ridge line, staring often at the prominent spine of Jacob’s Ladder looming ever closer, I realized my schedule was ambitious. Gratefully, water sources were plentiful in the form of small tarns, or ponds of melting snow, keeping me hydrated and allowing for camping almost anywhere I desired to call it a day.
I wanted to get close enough to my planned descent terrain just east of Elephant Butte to get a glimpse of it and wrap my head around this proposed link up. Would I be getting through, or returning to the car the next day dejected? I found a beautiful flat camping area near good water as the crimson colors of evening sky appeared, suggesting my 10 hour day was done, and decided to sleep on it. Bugs were light and, thankfully, they retired soon after I did, as I had no protection other than the flap of my sleeping bag.
I rose early expecting a challenging day in order to make up time and get back on schedule. I was also highly intimidated by my choices. I could descend now and reach a high saddle connecting Stetattle to Elephant Butte then pick my way down a steep creek bed (which could be wet, mossy, and cliff-ridden) or stay on the knife-edge ridgeline until the last possible moment and turn left to pick my way through obvious cliff bands on drier terrain. As I debated this crux decision in my mind, I caught glimpse of a furry creature scampering quickly out of sight amongst the thick heather and boulder fields. My mind immediately projected a wolverine onto the scene. A great deal of my motivation as a backcountry, off-trail explorer springs from this tenacious and elusive creature, as they eat this kind of terrain for breakfast on the regular. I realized later it was much more likely a big, fat marmot, but the specter of my spirit animal at exactly the moment my fear and indecision was peaking gave the precise nudge I needed. I followed the mysterious animal’s direction down the steep brushy spine, and never saw it again.
The 4,000’ drop from Stetattle Ridge to McMillan Creek over 4 miles would prove to be one of the most difficult and terrifying downhill hikes of my life. It began with steep, brushy terrain and only crumbly rock to hold onto, rotten snags to climb over and avoid impalement upon, and worst of all, a phenomenon I call the death needles. These are dried fir needles sprinkled on hard packed forest floor. Imagine tiny ball bearings lightly magnetized to a roller skate rink floor, then tilted to a 45 degree angle. The only way to walk on this petrifying surface is to grip onto the fir trees themselves. When the trees are spaced too far apart, the moves feel as exposed as unprotected climbing moves on rock. I survived a few hours of this, then moved into the slide alder nightmare. As I left the ridgeline, picking an exit point I thought least likely to terminate in cliffs, I soon encountered impassable brush growing horizontally. I could most efficiently glide along it in the downhill direction, sort of floating on 2” stalks like a scene from a martial arts movie with warriors levitating on mature bamboo, but I needed to be side-hilling to evade unsuspecting drop offs. Trying to move through slide alder sideways with a pack on is like climbing through dozens of flexible wooden fences in immediate succession but slightly offset. There is no reasonable way through. I had to slide down in the plants’ natural direction of growth and accept the consequences, only because turning back at this point by climbing up to the ridge seemed like a worse option.
Once I finally punched through the brush without major incident and saw a steep, dirt embankment above the raging glacial creek and snow fields below, I was elated. Surely, I could just step into the loose dirt and quickly reach the end of my steep suffering within moments. I regretted my rash decision instantly, as the soil had the characteristics of a lateral moraine, scraped hard and very compacted with only tiny rubble embedded in it for texture. I pictured sliding 70 feet at speed, shredding my hands as I feverishly grasped for futile purchase, only to be dashed into a field of boulders. I was totally gripped, which in the climbing world means frozen: unable to move and too frightened to make a decision. I wanted my ice axe, but it was too late to fetch it from my pack. I was forced to make precarious and delicate moves from loose pebble to loose pebble, holding my breath and praying they didn’t break loose.
I was able to reach the creek bed and relax a moment, but the situation was still dire. I was miles from real trail, four exhausting hours had passed covering only two miles, and now I faced a new challenge. First: a slippery, bumpy snowfield; loose, ankle-twisting boulders; more unforgiving brush hugging a roaring McMillan Creek; and then a stretch of fairly flat old growth forest on the opposite side. I felt my prospects of climbing Mt Prophet evaporating as the heat of afternoon encroached. Worst case scenario, if I could navigate this next bit of unknown without incident, I would be hiking out Big Beaver Valley the next day, dejected but in one piece. To my highly driven and goal-oriented self, that outcome was worse than finding some way to press onwards yet suffer. The objective danced back and forth in my mind between possible and impossible.
The steep, rocky creek bed soon met the banks of McMillan Creek and a new dilemma dawned on me — this is a raging river! It was boiling and gurgling with frigid snowmelt and certain to dash me and my weighty backpack amongst very large boulders, likely pinning me in place. The only alternative was not much more attractive, especially after my experience on the mountainside above — that is, bushwhacking through tall alder on the shoreline until I found a suitable log strewn across the banks (if I ever did). My quandary seemed truly oppressive, until I walked just 20 yards downstream and found a miraculously placed log over the river, supported in the middle by a large boulder.
It was precariously wet and my toes dipped in the frigid water, but I was able to slowly shimmy down its length and reach the other side. Surely this was a good omen and my venture would succeed!
The next two miles of old growth forest were idyllic, like a scene from the James Cameron epic Avatar, with lush forest springing forth in magical forms all around (minus the aggressive wildlife). My hope was that with the massive trees shading the forest floor, it would be fairly brush free and easy walking. I was, once again, underestimating the ruggedness of the Cascades and facing a further humbling. I was now climbing over rotten logs four feet tall, jumping or falling off their crumbling sides into thick patches of Devils Club. The understory was occasionally quite dense with tall plants. Fallen trees would tempt me use them as bridges to make better forward progress, only to reach a dead-end when they terminated in airy moves I could not make safely with a pack on and had to backtrack. A visit to Mt Prophet’s summit was slipping away once again. I tried to appreciate the probability that no human had ever traversed this particular patch of land in recent history. That’s why, when I saw a bright piece of plastic littering the forest floor, I was quite surprised. It was a mylar balloon, likely escaped from a birthday party far west of here. Unfortunately, despite my herculean efforts to escape it, the human imprint is everywhere on this planet.
Of course, despite my ethic of hiking with minimal trace, I still bring many pieces of civilization with me — a stove, a sleeping bag and pad, food, water filters, and more. I track my progress on my smartphone app with the planned route preloaded and GPS satellites showing me the way. I pack extra batteries to charge up at night. I wear a smartwatch that tracks my heart rate and lets me know when I’m pushing too hard and running late, like I was today. When I finally emerged onto the well-worn Big Beaver Valley trail maintained by the North Cascades National Parks system, I knew I would be physically okay, but I had a psychological decision to make. Do I call it quits now? It was late in the day — almost 4pm — and I hadn’t even reached the base of the Jacob’s Ladder route. I was more than a half day behind, and if I didn’t exit on the fourth day to notify friends of my condition, the rescue crews could be called in. I certainly wanted to avoid that, but without giving up the dream of summiting. I tricked my very tired body into proceeding to Luna Camp just to check out the scene. Perhaps I would camp with the modified plan of summiting Mt Prophet and exiting partway to Ross Lake, then finish early enough the next day to make that key phone call. The campsites looked nice and peaceful tucked in the trees near Big Beaver Creek, but with no one around except the buzzing and abundant mosquitos. Sunset was hours away, and any daylight hours were precious in completing a route this long. I decided to press onwards up the route, hopefully reaching a high platform with better views and a light breeze to keep the bugs off my face sleeping out in the night air as I did the night before.
The air was still hot late into the evening. The trail-less climb through the forest was steep and unrelenting, involving more scrambling over dead trees and constant navigation for sure footing. My mind was tired from a full day of attention to delicate footwork, but the biting flies egged me onwards. I could not even rest as long as I liked, nor drink freely from my water supply. The two liters I carried may need to supply my hydration requirements for the next 24 hours, including cooking two meals, while high up on ridges possibly melted free of snow. I sipped it only to appease my parched mouth and offer some reward for my continued efforts.
My supposition that a flat bench could be found with those awe inspiring Southern Pickets entertaining me from across the valley came true around 9pm after 2500’ of steep, technical hiking, so I called it a day. It had been 14 hours of near constant movement covering only 12 miles. I was exhausted, but also hopeful that Day 3 would be a more victorious one with fewer surprise obstacles, as I was now on a published climbing route. I enjoyed the unparalleled view of a sunset over the Southern Pickets, and the bugs relented soon after dark leaving me in peace in my sleeping bag.
I awoke at dawn, made my coffee and breakfast, and packed up my tiny camp. There was a bit more dense forest to deal with before getting on the rock ladder, the occasional wall of sub-alpine fir obstructing my passage, but the desire to reach more open terrain was strong, as well as to stay ahead of the blaring sun creeping above the dominant ridgeline south of the Prophet. I attained the proper route above treeline by 9am, looked upwards, and was intimidated. The further I climbed on the occasionally loose and often steep rock, the more doubts crept in. What if those guys were much stronger climbers than me? They had protection if they needed it, but I do not. Did they really not need any of it? The exposure in a few spots along this knife-edge creation of geologic forces was daunting. I wore a helmet, but a long fall would certainly injure me and put me out of range of a quick rescue. I moved with the greatest of precision, testing every hold for security before pulling too hard. The sense of isolation was powerful in this grand setting, like a true pilgrimage to the heavens as dreamed about in the Book of Genesis. The rocks on the face of Mt. Prophet loomed over me shaped like the tallest cross, and fully shrouded in my relative powerlessness and puny stature in this awesome place, I felt closer to God.
The final scrambling moves involve some loose scree amongst ominous dark towers, adding mystique to the final few steps. It was not clear to me which was the highest, so I picked the easiest prominence. Suddenly, I was perched on the proper summit, affirmed by the presence of a summit register. I cracked the tiny, yellow book marked “Mt Prophet, 7640+” and knew my dream was realized.
This is an emotional moment on any challenging summit, but a bit subdued with no one to celebrate with, other than the names of a few recent climbers entered in the register. With a still unfamiliar descent ahead of me and a very long day remaining, my respite was short-lived. I still hoped to find a water source on the descent ridge, but not so much snow as to be risky and require pulling out extra safety gear. I wanted to move fast and make up for lost time! The total mileage so far, after two full days and a long morning of scrambling, was 24 miles and over 10,000’ of elevation gain. The remainder, if I reached my bike at the Ross Dam TH tonight, would require hiking 16 more with a 5,500’ descent for a 40 mile loop.
The next mile to a nearby false summit was not exactly a cake walk, with more delicate rock movement and a few menacing-looking scrambles that had me questioning this as the standard descent route off Mt Prophet. A handcrafted rock wall fashioned in the shape of a small tent platform offered some reassurance, unless the team who pitched it was way overdue as I was becoming.
The only boost to my water supply came in the form of snowballs added to my half-filled bottle and leaving it dangling on the side of my pack in the intense sunshine. I never found anything flowing strong enough to pass through my filter, so I pressed on and conserved what I could. Soon the mountainous terrain dropped off again through heather and forest. The sign of bear scat and abundant berries reminded me to not surprise any ursine residents, so I would shout occasionally to frighten probably no one.
The descent was continuously tricky in that the climbers’ trail was faint, made of compact dirt with loose sand on top, and very steep. I was using every muscle from my feet through my shins and knees to my quads to prevent a nasty tumble forwards. My patellar tendons decided this was enough only halfway down and shouted at me through the medium of pain, yet I pressed on. My thirst was stronger, and the sense of urgency of completing the loop in three days as promised.
After two miles going sharply downwards with much fretting, cursing, and struggling but only a little falling, I reached the flank of the next prominent river drainage. It was funneling all that snowmelt from the fields I crossed above into a beautiful, cold creek below. I noticed a game trail heading downwards through loose dirt. I ditched my pack and practically tumbled my way to the creek, plunging in with my shoes on. My legs immediately cramped from the shock of cold, but my thirst was quenched and I was extremely satisfied with audible sighs echoing in the narrow canyon.
After popping out onto the Big Beaver Valley trail — basically a highway compared to where I had been so far — my knees were less angry, but my body was severely fatigued. I could shuffle along and try to find joy in the views, the enormous old growth trees surrounding me, the bright glacier-fed creek flowing by, but the heat was still oppressive and the biting flies were becoming incessant. I swatted away at them with my ball cap and kept hustling. It occurred to me I could reach the Ross Lake boat shuttle and shave tedious miles off the ending, but it was unlikely to work without a reservation, and I had no notion of their schedule. It motivated me forwards like a carrot on a stick strapped to a horse. Tiny tree frogs littering the trail offered some distraction as I avoided stepping on them. Six miles clicked by in two hours or so, and I was near the western shore of Ross Lake. I walked right past the turnoff to the shuttle dock to prevent temptation. My stubborn mind decided it could handle five more relatively easy miles to avoid dealing with pesky insects at an ordinary backcountry campsite so close to the finish. The only unknown remaining was if permanent damage would be inflicted, as I had never hiked this far at once. What happens to the body when you ignore pain and suffer through? Typically injury.
Darkness fell and the headlamp came out. The tiny frogs occupying the trail were supplanted with massive toads, along with abundant bear scat. When I saw a fairly fresh pile of this, my pace quickened yet again. Encountering a bear alone in the dark seemed like a bad way to end this nearly successful epic.
I limped across the concrete rim of Ross Dam under intense spotlights to find the final 3/4 mile ascent trail to Hwy 20 where dozens of more timid hikers would pass in the daylight hours. I reached my bike stash spot with so much joy but hardly any strength or sense of normalcy. At first, I couldn’t even find my bike tucked in the forest and had another short panic session. Eventually, I climbed into the seat with some agony (wearing an overnight pack on a bike is never fun), pedaled a few arduous miles to where the road drops down quickly to Diablo Lake, then finally coasted into the sleepy town under the watchful eye of a security guard around midnight. I had been moving for 16 hours this day and covered 50 miles total on the full loop.
I tallied the number of people encountered in three days: a half dozen on the first two miles of the Sourdough Mtn lookout trail on Day 1, absolutely none on Day 2, and only a pair of hikers fetching water near Thirtynine Mile Campground on Day 3. If attaining isolation just miles off the highway in a popular National Park was my main objective, I was highly successful. Summiting Mt Prophet via Jacob’s Ladder was a total bonus, as I was on the precipice of failure for an entire day. Determining that the linkup from Stetattle Ridge is — and maybe always will be — a completely unreasonable passage might be valuable in its own right, as it’s comforting for me to know there are still places on this planet where humans simply don’t belong. Or, to feel our purest sense of divinity, perhaps we need to occasionally descend into a seemingly inescapable hellhole of hubris only to rise again with humility.
Awaking the next day in my tent pitched on a random side road near Newhalem, messages already sent to friends that I exited okay, I continued west towards home. After consuming a double breakfast in Concrete, I found backroads leading to the shores of Lake Shannon where I could take a dip in cool waters to begin healing my poor legs. Fortunately, the physical recovery required only weeks of lighter activity. My mind, on the other hand, would be reluctant to pick Class 3 descents through dense brush off tall mountains for much longer. This reservation only lasted one year, however, and summer 2021 brought another interesting linkup with a bike shuttle off Hwy 20 in the vicinity of Diablo Lake. It’s amazing how the memory of traumatic experiences can fade until you are back in that scenario again. Stay tuned for that tale!