Moving With Your Mind In The Land
How a solo traversal of two mountains in the North Cascades helped connect me with the land where I live.
All humans evolved within complex land based cultures over deep time to develop a brain with a capacity for over 100 trillion neural connections of which we now only use a tiny fraction. Most of us have been displaced from those cultures of origin, a global diaspora of refugees severed not only from land but from the sheer genius that comes from belonging in symbiotic relation to it. In Aboriginal Australia, our elders tell us stories, ancient narratives to show us that if you don’t move with the land, the land will move you.
~ Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk
I consider myself to be a very “place-based” person, meaning I have strong connections to a particular landscape or environment. I have lived my entire life, now 43 years, in the Pacific Northwest, also sometimes called Cascadia Bioregion, defined by the boundaries of the Columbia River watershed. Half of that time was spent near my hometown of Coeur d’Alene, ID running around in the fragrant Ponderosa Pine forests and swimming in the big, beautiful lake by the same name. I was taught the name means “heart of the awl” in French, perhaps like how we currently say “eye of the needle.” An awl is a leather punch, which evokes the long era of fur trade that brought the first Europeans into this area for trade:
Beginning well before 1600, the North American fur trade was the earliest global economic enterprise. Europeans and, later, Canadians and Americans, hunted and trapped furs; but success mandated that traders cultivate and maintain dense trade and alliance networks with Native nations. Native people provided furs and hides as well as food, equipment, interpreters, guides, and protection in exchange for European, Asian, and American manufactures.
Indicative of its deep time span and remarkable continuity, the North American fur trade and the Indian trade were essentially indivisible from roughly 1540 until 1865. A primary object of the terrestrial fur trade was beaver, the soft underfur of which was turned into expensive and sought-after beaver hats.
Ambitious young men (younger than me, anyways) would travel up the network of rivers feeding the Missouri River on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, over the Continental Divide, and down the “Clark’s Fork of the Columbia” (now just the Clark Fork) via canoe all the way from St Louis. It was not uncommon for these traders to intermarry with indigenous women to cement trading relationships with tribes, or even to purchase them in a non-consensual manner. The most famous of these women, taught to us in our 4th grade Idaho history lessons, was Sacagawea (Bird Woman). She was purchased or “won” at around 13 (the age of my daughter now) by Toussaint Charbonneau, a French trapper who later became a member of the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition where he was valued mainly for his relationship with her. She was the only woman on the expedition and obviously highly valuable as an interpreter, as it is extremely rare for indigenous women to make it into the history books used in our public schools.
Sacagawea was born around 1788 into the Agaidika (‘Salmon Eater’; aka Lemhi Shoshone) tribe near the town of Salmon, ID, about 300 miles southeast of where my immediate family was born. Another 30 miles further is Lemhi Pass where Lewis & Clark crossed the Continental Divide in the Beaverhead Mountains. Any rain falling west of this point will find its way to the Salmon River then the Snake River which feeds the mighty Columbia River near the Tri-Cities area in Washington. This network forms the longest Pacific sockeye salmon migration route in North America. In the late 1800s, between 25,000 and 30,000 sockeye salmon swam this way en route to the Stanley Basin and Redfish Lake, but as dams were thrown up across their migratory paths, the sockeye’s range and population were drastically reduced. As of August 2020, just 16 fish survived the journey.
The town of Coeur d’Alene (Cd’A, for short) has been drastically over-developed with classic urban sprawl since I moved away in 1999, and even before then. Most of the neighborhood woodlots where I built tree forts and pretended to hunt animals or reenact a G.I. Joe cartoon with my friends are now packed with single family homes, and the prairie land where I took my first drives down rough dirt roads now hosting mini-malls. This transformation fractured my connection to the town by wiping away the places filled with my most positive childhood memories. Fortunately, the most central place in my personal outdoor story— Tubbs Hill — is preserved by the City of Cd’A as a 165 acre natural area, so I rest assured my heart will not be completely broken. It’s also hard to build on top of a lake, so I hope to jump off lakeside cliffs there until I can no longer walk!
My mother was also raised there, first in St. Maries (population 2,400) where my grandfather owned a lumber mill, then Cd’A after he died at age 30. I believe it would break her heart to see the changes there, even since her passing in 2017. We are not “native” North Idahoans in the strictest sense of the word (that would be reserved for people like the Coeur d’Alene [Schitsu’umsh] and Spokane [Sqeliz] tribes, not some Irish immigrants), but when you become multi-generational tenants of an American landscape as a European descendant, it begins to feel like the place you have always belonged. As more people pour in to the Inland Northwest from less desirable places in the U.S. to live due to climate change induced storms & wildfires, extreme heat, overpopulation, ballooning housing prices... it stops feeling like the place you belong, as it becomes unrecognizable.
Then, in my early 20s, as many youth do to become independent adults, I migrated yet again. This chapter brought me to NW Washington — aka The Fourth Corner — for the classic draw in our culture that separates us from place and family of origin, namely “higher education” and “career opportunities.”
The second half of my tenure on Planet Earth has been spent in or near Bellingham, WA. This post-industrial port town of approx. 80,000 residents is now known for my alma mater (a Latin term for ‘nourishing mother’), Western Washington University, and among outdoors aficionados for its excellent mountain bike trails close to town, relatively gentle access to the Pacific Ocean via the serene San Juan Islands, and a sort of gateway community to the awe-inspiring North Cascades National Park (NCNP) via the Mt Baker Highway (the mountains featured in this story are both located within the park boundary).
When you click “About” on the Google Maps pin for the NCNP, you get the following description:
Huge wilderness of mountains, glaciers & ancient forest, undeveloped but for backpacking trails.
Your map location should also be centered between Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan on the west, Hwy 20 to the south, and Ross Lake to the east. Zoom in on Mt Shuksan (derived from the Lummi word [šéqsən], said to mean “high peak”) which is also just inside the western park boundary. You will notice a large river basin on its eastern side draining to the northwest. The river is called the North Fork of the Nooksack River, the terrain surrounding it called the Nooksack Cirque, and this place is the heart of this story. According to the trail description:
Follow this primitive trail of the North Fork of the Nooksack River to its headwaters in a steep-walled cirque at the base of Mount Shuksan. It’s beautiful, but not without it’s challenges, the first of which is at the trailhead: Ruth Creek has no bridge.
Wade the creek, or cross on a log if one is available. Keep in mind that due to quickly rising water, a log that is crossable in the morning may be under water in the afternoon. In early summer Ruth Creek waters may be too high to wade.
Once across the creek, follow the old roadbed for two miles to what was the original trailhead. Another mile through second-growth trees will take you to the Mt. Baker Wilderness boundary, then you will wind through old-growth forest for about a half mile and emerge on the bank of the North Fork of the Nooksack River at the end of this well-defined trail.
After crossing a tributary stream, the route continues by way of either gravel bars during periods of low water or bushwhacking through riparian vegetation alongside the river.
The North Cascades National Park boundary is about a mile away. Past the park boundary, you can continue through fierce brush as far toward the cirque as your cross-country travel skills allow. Pushing past the boundary to 2950 feet of elevation at 5.1 miles from the trailhead is a sight to behold — Ruth Mountain, Icy Peak, Seahpo Peak, Jagged Ridge, and Mount Shuksan spread out for you to enjoy.
The best time to hike the Nooksack Cirque Trail is in the fall. During cool weather the water levels are low, allowing easier travel on gravel bars. If it’s not readily apparent, this trail receives limited maintenance.
This trail description has several of my calling cards — limited maintenance, fierce brush, waters maybe too high to wade (see my first Medium story from February in the Gila Wilderness), sights to behold — but chief among them is “as far towards the cirque as your cross-country travel skills allow.” For me, that would be all the way to the base of Mt Shuksan, and further still up the back side of Icy Peak, traversing to Ruth Mountain, descending to Hannegan Pass in the next valley over, and returning via the dirt road back to my base camp in the gravel bars on the North Fork.
Unlike the suggested timing of autumn, I would be attempting this ambitious 24 mile loop on the first weekend in August, when the last of the high mountain snowmelt is still raging downhill to cool off the main fork of the Nooksack River with cold, glacial silt charged waters. This is after the South Fork has lazily wound through farmland near the towns of Acme and Van Zandt, filling with agricultural runoff and sun-soaking, beer guzzling inner tubers.
Before that highly contrasted merger, the North Fork has already been joined by the Middle Fork with its equally wild origins on the SW flanks of Mt Baker and NE drainages off the Twin Sister range. Both mountains are very popular among climbers, scramblers, and skiers, yet crossing the Middle Fork in the spring for the first overnight backpacking trips of the season in these zones can be a mixed bag, such as this one in early June (as soon as Washington went to Phase 2 opening which includes camping):
Hearkening back to my lumberjack roots, I loosened the massive tree in the photo from the logjam upstream and floated it down to these rocks hoping to provide a bit of a handrail (or hip rail) for my exit from an overnight snow camp at Elbow Lake. My crossing the day before was slightly more conservative to try & keep my gear dry — a shimmy on a log over one braid, followed by use of a handline strung across a second braid — but that required several hundred yards of bushwhacking along the stream, so I skipped it when the risk of hypothermia from a night in a wet sleeping bag was no longer an issue.
More permanent log bridges have been attempted here by trail building organizations, but they rarely last. The power of the glacial snowmelt blasting through these valleys would be unmatched by most human engineering feats, let alone something fitting of a wilderness trail entrance. It seems likely both of these rivers will remain untamed for eons, only accessible those willing to work on their cold river wading skills. So that is what I have done.
My limit to river depths I will attempt since beginning this approach to hiking in February seems to about crotch deep. I use two hiking poles or stout branches for support, one for stability (like a tripod) and one for probing your next step. It seems the most likely way to go down is stepping in a hole or unsteady rock, so I take each step with the greatest of intention. It can even help to move in a diagonal path upstream. When stepping sideways the power of the water wants to sweep your leg out and that’s a more vulnerable position. I face upstream and really hunker down with knees bent, like a linesman in football ready for the big play, because this river wants to tackle you!
I’m wearing Merrell Choprock “shandals” lined with neoprene socks, preserving my hiking boots for later in the day. These have great traction, drain well, and the added socks prevent chafing from sand & gravel as well as add a layer of warmth. These rivers are cold! I try to pick a spot that is wider or has a side braid to make it shallower and less forceful. I look for larger rocks or trees that can act as a backstop if I slip. Then you steel your nerves, get in, and just get fierce! I have even found shouting or grunting helps me keep my game face on and not relax a muscle until I’m through the deep section. Yaarrrgggh!
About 9 miles downstream from this crossing for the Elbow Lake trail, one of the more prominent dam removal projects in the U.S. currently to restore salmon & trout spawning habitat is underway on this river:
Built in 1961, the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam helped supply drinking water to the City of Bellingham. However, the 24-foot tall dam was built without a fish ladder or other fish passage structures that would allow migrating fish to pass by it. Threatened spring Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and bull trout were left unable to access the vital habitat behind the dam. They rely on that habitat for spawning and rearing.
The Nooksack River and the salmon it supports also serve as important spiritual and cultural resources for the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Nation. Removal of the dam is an important step in restoring these culturally significant resources.
So, back to the North Fork crossings required to reach the end of the cirque. Since I am planning to finish this loop in a day, and the weather is significantly warmer than on the Middle Fork in June, there is not the risk of soaking all my overnight gear or getting too cold. I did have some mountaineering gear — an ice axe, crampons, warm clothes, a snow picket — so I had a bit of weight on me. The main concern in crossing the river each time is just getting swept away. The idea of bouncing off a couple rocks and scrambling for shore to start out a big, ambitious day is really unappealing. I’m sure I don’t have to sell you on that one. I looked for land-based alternates wherever I could. I tried to stay on the sand and rock river bed as long as possible, picking my way along steep, loose bluffs on its edge. Eventually, I would resolve that the river must be crossed yet again. I would pick a spot of least concern, concentrate my resolve, and plunge in yet again. It wound up being five or six fairly serious fords to finally reach the base of Mt Shuksan.
The name of Mt Shuksan in the Nooksack language, from the tribe of people indigenous to the river valley inland from the more coastal Lummi people, is Shéqsan (“high foot”) or Ch’ésqen (“golden eagle”). In the Salishan languages, there is a dialect spoken by the Sto:lo or Lower Fraser Salish people called Upriver (Sto:lo is the Halqemeylem word for river). The Upper Sto:lo was spoken from the Matsqui First Nation on upstream to Yale, Sumas, Chilliwack, Pilalt, and Tait. The Matsqui are closely related to the Nooksack people, and were bilingual in the Halqemeylem and Nooksack languages due to the range of their territory, featuring a system of trails, streams, and lakes that connect the Fraser River to the Nooksack River.
Looking back at your Google map, you’ll notice the Chilliwack River is the next major drainage to the north of the Nooksack, fed off the northeast slopes of Ruth Mountain and collecting fresh wilderness-based water from remote mountains on its northerly way down to Chilliwack Lake on the Canadian side of the international border. Visualizing rivers and their connections in this way, before a colonial presence tried to eradicate tribal cultures by removing natives from their traditional grounds and enforced linear boundaries on people, you realize it was in human nature to follow watersheds. Human languages evolved within that setting, sometimes crossing over as a raindrop falling off a cedar tree on a ridgeline near a major saddle might fall one way, while the next rain drop might fall the other way. These boundaries are remote, and they are hard to access but they are soft in their definition.
As I made my own pilgrimage to the source of so much energy & excitement in my community — from the photographers gathering at the bridge near Welcome every January to capture golden eagles feeding on spawning salmon, to the raucous and famous Ski-to-Sea relay race with hundreds of teams in canoes racing each other 18 winding miles from Everson to Ferndale each Memorial Day Weekend (except 2020) —and thinking about the relationship the Nooksack people might have had with this place, I couldn’t help but imagine their youth having their own rite of passage in this way. What if reaching the headwaters of their home river was the most sacred & wild journey they could embark upon, so it became a way to attain the status of “adult” in their culture? It did not seem like an unreasonable projection onto their culture (although I am certainly placing my imagination into their story), so I kept this picture in my mind as I walked across sections of sand with only one other pair of boot prints visible all day, and no other signs of human presence for many hours to come.
I should give some credit where credit is due for the idea to climb Icy this way. My friend Scarlett Graham is an accomplished endurance athlete and mountain runner. Two years ago she climbed Ruth Mountain with a group of friends into eco-challenges and navigation-based adventure racing, traversed to Icy, and exited out the Nooksack Cirque. The title of her Strava recording was “Adventure racers: making a type 1 fun day (Ruth to Icy Traverse) into a type 2–3 day via the Nooksack Cirque downclimb. 16 hrs.” (Type 1 fun is normal fun. Type 2 is when you are suffering but it’s still fun. Type 3 is no fun, but you chose this). It stuck out in my mind so much that when I glimpsed Icy recently on a drive up to Cougar Divide on the Wells Creek Rd. (a logging road recently repaired with great views of Mt Baker and peaks to the northeast), I thought about repeating it. Then when I got on the phone with her to ask for beta from her recent completion of the Ptarmigan Traverse in under 19 hours (a 35 mile technical high mountain traverse), I asked her about Ruth-Icy as well. She said, “You should do that one! But I would do it in the reverse direction we did.”
I followed that advice, downloaded their GPX track from Strava, loaded it into the AllTrails Pro website (which synchronizes to the app on my phone), and I followed it religiously. I also added one more twist to make it slightly more friendly (less Type 3) — I stashed a mountain bike at the Hannegan Pass trailhead the night before. This would allow me to cruise 5 miles downhill at the end of the day, rather than hike up it like they would have. Tedium and exhaustion are not a great pairing for fun having! They also tackled a very technical section much later in the day — that is, the river bed. I can imagine making poor choices about river crossings when tired, or taking a misstep and rolling an ankle on a loose rock. I handled this 4 mile stretch while I was still fresh in the morning, and my balance was on point.
One other advantage of going in this direction was the ability to look up at the crux sections on Icy and choose the safest line. Their group was standing above unknown cliff bands and snow features that would have stymied them for a while and caused debate about route choices. I had no one to debate, but I also had no one to belay during a sketchy repel (for that matter, no rope). I also had no one to bandage me up if I tumbled off something significant, no one to send for help if I broke a bone or went unconscious. In fact, if I got hurt back here, no one would come along for days, if ever! This is just not a route people take to reach Icy Peak. That adds to its mystique as well as to the seriousness. I could not afford to make a major misstep, not once, for hours on end.
So how does one achieve this state of mind? How do you maintain focus on each one of approx. 40,000 steps a long day like this requires? How do you keep taking steps after fatigue sets in at 5 or 10 hours, but you still have hours left to go? I relied on two mantras, and I will break down their meaning for me individually.
Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.
This is like a Zen koan, in that is intentionally paradoxical in order to confuse your mind and help you focus on the present moment. It can also make logical sense if you handle each of the parts separately. Obviously, moving slower helps one make more careful choices and focus on every crumbly rock stepped upon, each prickly shrub grabbed for more purchase, all the slushy sun cups one chooses to ascend a steep, precarious snowfield.
When you contrast that pace with the length of the day ahead, it makes the journey seem impossible. However, the mantra helps me remember that efficiency is key, and conservation of energy will also make completing the objective more possible. It also means that making a mistake could be very costly. An injury like a sprained ankle or a bad cut could slow me down considerably, not to mention a head injury or broken bone from taking a tumble down a boulder field or over a cliff. Waiting for a professional extraction (if one was even possible) or some unlikely hiker to happen across my bivvy where I hunkered down injured is very slow, so the principle holds.
Mind over matter. The land is my mind. My mind is in the land.
This is the key concept I wanted to share with this story. Mind over matter is a classic saying used by people pushing their bodies into uncomfortable positions. If you just think hard enough about something else, your physical self and its grumblings about pains and limits can be completely ignored. This is an expression of the ego self, the intellectual being who sets goals, achieves things, earns notoriety & reputation (i.e. becomes known for his or her individual successes), and is then expected to repeat those exploits for satisfaction of his fans or followers.
I decided that’s not a power I wanted to tap into for this expedition. For one, I think it’s dangerous. It leads to injury and death, because its not humble. Fear has a role and pain has a role. So how do you capture the essence of Mind over matter without disconnecting from reality or the moment? What if we thought of our wisest or most capable “mind” as wider than ourselves? What if my intelligence in movement and decision-making is enhanced by connecting more intently with the ground beneath my feet and the beautiful surroundings all around me? I believe the catch-phrase for this nowadays is Flow State, but I want to give full credit where it’s due. The environment makes me who I am and gives me strength. I am not separate from it, as our culture has taught and pays a heavy price for currently. As the opening quote from Australian Aborigine Tyson Yunkaporta says, we are:
severed not only from land but from the sheer genius that comes from belonging in symbiotic relation to it… if you don’t move with the land, the land will move you.
I did not want to be “moved by the land” in the sense he is speaking of. To me, in this setting, that means an avalanche or a bad fall. I wanted to move with the land, in symbiotic relation to it. Mind over matter sounds like our Western culture’s classic relationship with Nature where humans are separate and somehow above the other inhabitants of Earth with our superior intelligence. That world view has gotten us in a load of trouble, and the land is beginning to move us with extreme droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. In fact, as I write this, Texas and Louisiana is about to get slammed by Category 3 Hurricane Laura after Tropical Storm Marco hit the mouth of the Mississippi River just days earlier bringing heavy rain and localized flooding. According to this article on CBS News on Aug 26, 2020:
Hurricane Laura is expected to become a Category 4 storm and slam into the Louisiana and Texas coasts as a major hurricane Wednesday evening. At least 20 million people are in the storm’s path and over half a million have been ordered to evacuate.
The hurricane, currently a Category 3, was “rapidly intensifying” over the Gulf of Mexico early Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said. It warned of potentially catastrophic and life-threatening storm surge, extreme winds, and flash flooding Wednesday night along the northwest Gulf Coast
“Steps to protect life and property should be rushed to completion in the next few hours,” it said early Wednesday morning.
California, meanwhile, is on fire yet again and at the same time dealing with rolling electricity blackouts forcing people to turn their air conditioners off during a historic heat wave. Oh, and of course we have this whole coronavirus situation, making it harder for people to move about freely without infecting each other. This news doesn’t even sound surprising anymore. It seems this type of news repeats every summer now — the Earth giving humanity a good, hard beatdown. How many of these events will people withstand in these hardest hit — and hottest — areas before they start shopping for land and homes in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (at least the ones privileged enough to do so)? In other words, the Pacific Northwest — my home.
I cannot prevent the great migration to cooler and wetter places, and higher ground. I am grateful I already made that move 20 years ago, and in January 2014, I went one step further and purchased land just south of Silver Lake, near Maple Falls, WA. Situated halfway between Bellingham and the Mt Baker Ski Area, this rustic cabin was originally intended as a ski retreat so I could teach my young daughter to ski without driving another 45 minutes down the Mt Baker Highway at the end of the day. After two major remodels and a few other significant life events, it has now become my full-time home, and I’ve never felt closer to patch of forest in my life, not since Tubbs Hill.
The soil upon which I currently type is relatively porous compared to the glacial silt clay that predominates in the Nooksack Valley flood plain west of Sumas Mountain (the farm-based towns of Ferndale, Everson, Sumas, and Lynden recently dealt with a bad flood event in Feb 2020 from rain swelling the Nooksack River and nearby streams). During any major rain event I’ve witnessed here, the water drains nice & quickly into nearby Maple Creek which falls quickly from Silver Lake into the North Fork of the Nooksack just three miles from my home. The Nooksack called this area Pekosy, or “white face place” for the limestone cliffs nestled high above the valley on Black Mountain, which I have also found power in migrating to visit. Really tapping into my connection to this place, as the large year old trees all around my house have done for their entire 80+ year lives, is a tangible relationship.
Whenever I was tired or losing focus, I put my mind in the land. I would think of my feet as a tree would think of its roots — not really thinking, just being rooted. My toes strain to grip each little pebble-strewn ledge through my boots. My heels sense a sizeable boulder is about to tip downhill under my weight, and I hop to another one slightly more stable. I was high above the treeline now, walking on mainly rock and snow, which sometimes feels like an alienating landscape. No shade to hide in, no streams to drink from, hardly a stable rock to sit upon… everything about the environment screams “You are a visitor here. Move along. Get lower down!”
In the indigenous worldview described in Sand Talk, even the rocks are infused with spirit and should not be moved about thoughtlessly. Moving the wrong rock can even lead to the experience of curses. This seemed like a good principle to hold onto, as well. Kicking rocks loose is especially dangerous when climbing in a team — helmets are often worn to mitigate this — but even doing this alone, moving without care for what is attached to the ground and what is not attached would add risk to my already high-risk situation. I decided zero rockfall from my movement would be a great goal, and I mostly achieved that.
As I reached the 6000' rocky saddle between Icy Peak and Ruth Mountain (pictured) after about 10 miles and 5 hours of moving, the first phase of fatigue begin to set in along with some serious concern about the route ahead. I believed I had passed the two more technical bits of the route (aka the ‘crux sections’) — namely the river crossings and the unknown climb of Icy — but now I was staring at an intimidating southern face of loose looking rock and steep snow fingers. I had summited Ruth twice previously from the north several times, both times with skis, so I knew that side of mountain and what was ahead, after my second summit of the day, fairly well. My strategy to travel this direction included saving the “easy” part for the end: a fairly straightforward (and known) descent from Ruth (about 3 miles), then just walking down the popular and well-maintained 4 mile trail from Hannegan Pass to my bike locked to a tall bush in the woods. This way, I could just plod along in a daze of exhaustion without as much chance of severely hurting myself. Instead, the section of rock I was now sizing up from about a mile away appeared beyond my ability, but I tried not to panic. Rock faces are often foreshortened from this distance, with the easier “Class 3" routes between cliff bands flattened into one apparent wall. I certainly did not want go back the way I had just come. It was possible, but really unappealing. I would rather face the fear and press onward, but I tried to not look up and think about it. My primary job was still at hand, since the chance of taking a slide down a snow slope and ricocheting into a field of boulders, tumbling off a cliff, or bruising & cutting myself in a slip off a loose rock was still significant. Each step on rock or snow required all of my attention.
The dilemma I was experiencing is inherent in the design of my day. I often plan hikes & mountain scrambles with full loops or point-to-point traversals with a self-shuttle element on the road (as opposed to out-and-back). I enjoy seeing unique terrain for the entire route and like completing circles as a symbol of the continuity of life. Each time I take this approach on a challenging route, there comes a key transition or “moment of truth” where I have to cross over an uncertain midpoint and push through to the other side to complete the adventure as planned. It forces me into an uncomfortable, visceral place of finding the courage & resolve to match my ambition (why I do this will be the topic of my next piece, where I attempt to find a trail-less link through the forest from Stetattle Ridge to Mt Prophet in the North Cascades National Park).
Fortunately, the climbing route from Ruth to Icy is much more commonly traversed by humans than the way I came out of the Nooksack Cirque. I could make out a trail of a few crampon-clad boots in the snowfields ever since descending Icy, and I followed it closely but without crampons this time. Their spikes chopped up the afternoon snow just enough to make my steps a bit more secure, and I could move faster by combining quick steps with a bit of sliding where appropriate, like skiing but just on the soles of my boots. In the mountains, I now have a practice of walking with one standard hiking pole and one whippet, which is a ski pole with an ice axe blade for its head. This allows me to self-arrest if I fall at any moment (even in slippery snow-free meadows), not just when conditions dictate fetching an actual ice axe off my pack (such as when ascending Icy).
I clung to a desperate hope that a climber’s trail would exist off Ruth that did not require a rope rappel (meaning I would require a rope belay and anchors placed in the rock as protection to climb it). I had none of that gear with me, nor a belay partner to make it useful. Scarlett and her team may have used these techniques. A photo from high on Ruth in her Strava recording (reproduced here) suggest they had a team of four, and they were equipped with climbing harnesses and rock protection gear. This also means they very likely had ropes. I was obviously saving weight by leaving all this equipment at home, and thereby adding speed, but it only takes one section of questionable rock to stop you in your tracks completely, or kill you. The GPS recording from their successful attempt in the other direction that I was referencing often suggested they gave some serious pause at the top of this pitch, or even got off-route and had to backtrack to find another way. This is apparent because GPS tracks will often jump around when your device is holding still for a period of time, as the satellite-based system that triangulates your position is not perfectly accurate. I could visualize them delayed above these steep cliffbands (pictured below) trying to find the best way down. I did not want to free climb anything 5th class, nor loose and 4th class, nor exposed steep snow in my current condition of waning energy. I continued forward with great trepidation.
The closer I got to Ruth’s summit, the more apparent a climbers’ trail became. I soon discovered cairns, which are several small rocks stacked in a pile to indicate to other climbers their path is correct. This is a very encouraging thing to see when you’ve been on your own with no trail for hours! It began to dawn on me that a common extension of climbing Ruth, which is fairly non-technical, to reach Icy would not be so popular if an advanced climbing section was mandatory. Sure enough, as I reached the final pitches on this steep southern face, the easy path became clear. You could see the worn tread from many boots choosing the same line through the rocks and fragile alpine heather. Before that, herds of mountain goats likely established the same line. Game trails are often the foundation upon which climbers place their faith, since these animals have been navigating these mountains for eons, each generation teaching the next where the easy paths lie from summits where they prefer to rest to water sources down below.
After this third ‘crux’ of the day, another simple section of snow followed with a very obvious trail of boots and crampons. It was Sunday afternoon on a busy summer weekend in early August. I had not seen another human since leaving my basecamp in the Nooksack River basin at 7am, where several other small groups had camped. They had all likely headed out the other direction today. These climbing groups likely camped near Hannegan Pass on Saturday night, summitted Ruth then Icy much earlier today, and had already descended to their camps and further onward to their cars for the drive home tonight. When I finally summited Ruth proper, my fatigued quads pressing up the last 100' section of loose but well-traveled rock just as a small plane flew overhead, I looked out gleefully over much more familiar terrain. I could see the popular Copper Ridge, where I had hiked with a friend two years prior in another big push in the 20-mile range, out and back:
The descent from here was not easy by most people’s standards. This section of Ruth is often used by more novice mountaineering groups as practice for roped travel. In the past, I have passed people coming up this way, frustrated with the snow balling up in their crampons and stressing their ankles. There is one obvious crevasse that is easily avoided, yet somehow a team of two managed to lower themselves into it intentionally for “practice” but with only one snow anchor, which failed. Fortunately, a close friend of mine named Aaron Miller and his climbing partner — accomplished mountain photographer Alan Kearney — soon came along and helped to extract them and initiate a rescue since they sustained injuries. This highlights the false sense of safety one can get into when in a group. Teams are not always without their bonehead moves! Sometimes it exacerbates them.
I slid quickly but carefully down the well-trodden snow. Once again, the tracks left by more sure-footed climbing techniques (i.e. crampons) had allowed me to get by without them. I could sort of lean back and ride the heels of my boots, catching myself in each little slushy cup where dozens had stepped over the weekend. I used my poles to catch myself when this balancing act tipped over behind me. The option to self-arrest with one of them adds a fair amount of confidence, but I still did not want to pick up a bunch of speed on this descent by sliding out of control on my butt. Only once did I test this scenario out. This late on a hot day, now almost 4pm, the surface of the snow is quite soft and much easier to stick a steel blade into for an emergency brake. That is not always the case, so it should not be relied upon as a foolproof way to prevent a disastrous fall. It was hypothetically possible for me to cascade down this snowfield and plummet off the cliffs into Ruth Creek far below, so this was no day of fun out on the local sledding hill. I was still deep in the Cascades, and no one would be passing by later this evening to bail me out if I screwed up.
I finally reached the well-established trail in the alpine zone on the ridge extending north from the summit of Ruth. I was certainly in a safer place now, although the connection to this high, flat terrain from Hannegan Pass via steep, unofficial trail surprised me. I had not seen it oncovered from snow in a decade or more, and it is now the worst case of hiking trail deterioration I’ve ever seen. I pictured it like some crux sections in a gnarly motocross hare scramble after getting hammered by hundreds of spinning, knobby tires. It is likely the annual cycles of snowmelt and heavy rains have found the rut created by thousands of eager boots in relatively fragile sub-alpine soil and accelerated the erosion process. I tried to find sure footing without adding my own stamp of damage, but my tired legs and feet did not have the agility they did 9 hours ago when I started this hike, so I occassionally relied upon a small tree or shrub for extra security. The impact of humans on the earth, even when traveling on foot, is very apparent here, high up on the western boundary of the North Cascades National Park:
Hannegan Pass is a favored gateway to multi-day trips in the NCNP. The trail immediately descends into the Chilliwack River valley, which I discussed previously in the investigation of indigenous language connections to this place. Western naming conventions give the unfortunate titles like Indian Creek, Red Face, Copper, and Mineral to nearby topographic features, evoking a time in our collective history when Native Americans got confused with inhabitants of the East Indies, the potential for valuable mineral extraction was a primary motivation for white settlers to explore these rugged areas, and peaks were named for British surveyors and military officers, some who likely never even came up here.
Banning Austin and R.M. Lyle made the first ascent of Hannegan Peak in 1893 while surveying for a possible road across the Cascades over Hannegan Pass to Whatcom Pass. This peak was named in association with Hannegan Pass, which in turn was named for Tom Hannegan, State Road Commissioner at that time.
~ Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide
Descending back towards Ruth Creek below Hannegan Peak on a meticulously maintained trail, I finally encountered fellow humans for the first time today. A man-woman couple, along with their two dogs, ambled downhill just below the pass. I saw ice axes and helmets on their backpacks, and a bandage on the woman’s head. I tried to scurry by out of respect for the pandemic rules (my handkerchief/mask was not easily accessible), but they had questions for me. They had summited Ruth also, and have been up the Nooksack Cirque to where I camped on a different day, so were curious about the connection I made. I learned the woman had just slipped on a bridge in the trail and hit her head, highlighting the fact that you never know when you could lose your footing. Letting my guard down now could certainly lead to injury, even on easy trail. I stopped for water at the first creek draining off Hannegan Peak and never saw the couple again, nor anyone else until I reached the trailhead around 7pm.
When I dropped my bike near this picnic table around 9pm on the night before, a few younger backpackers were sitting around a fire and became curious about my adventure. I explained my intended route beginning the next valley over, on the southern side of 7,200' Mt Sefrit which now separated it from our view. A young woman asked eagerly, “Whatcom Pass?” No, that is much further to the east. I explained that where I was headed, there is no trail; only rocks, snow, and hopefully much less thick foliage than where we standing now (and to which I locked my bike). They seemed a little surprised at this concept, and offered to guard my bike as long as they were there. I counted over 60 cars as I left late on a Saturday night to establish my basecamp, which means including day hikers, this trailhead might be seeing 100 cars on a busy day. Meanwhile, the actual parking lot (designed for 30 cars) is not accessible due to a washout.
I was of course grateful to find my bike still locked to a bush that could easily be cut with a handsaw. Saving a few miles of hard road walking makes a difference at this point in the pain cycle. I was able to cruise easily downhill and avoid most potholes, just enjoying the fresh breeze on my face after a hot day climbing in the sun. I soon reached my car at the Nooksack Cirque TH where I could stash all the heavy climbing gear for the last four miles back to my tent, and even grab a few snacks! I encountered another couple of hikers just coming out to their awaiting car, garnering more curiousity and surprised looks when I explained my mission. I knew it was likely I would not reach my camp until well after dark, but the going was pretty easy and I was feeling okay. I decided to save even more energy and time by carrying my bike across Ruth Creek (about calf deep) and pedaling the two miles of old road now made inaccessible to cars due to absence of a bridge. Well before the Mt. Baker Wilderness boundary, where bikes are forbidden, I stashed the machine once again and continued on foot. Now hiking this section for the second night in a row in complete darkness, I was getting that feeling of complete solitude again. Once back at the sandbar, there were no more tents remaining, and I moved my gear from the place where I stashed it to the flattest, sandiest spot nearby, pitched my tent, and began making a hot dinner. It was 9:40pm, just under 14 hours after I started.
I did not rest easy at first — the body enters a strange state of hyper alertness after moving that many hours, almost an overdrive — but I was happy to sleep in on the sand and just savor the magical setting I had chosen for starting and finishing this pilgrimage. Rather than rush back to civilization for a big steak and a beer at local restaurant in the first little mountain town, Glacier, I cemented my connection with the river by dreaming beside it with the powerful sound of water flowing over rocks lulling me to sleep.
The next morning, I took my time walking back out to the trailhead, stopping for a moment to pick some mountain blueberries next to the river and stripping down for a frigid dip in these sacred waters. I left feeling a much stronger connection to this place, my home, by reaching the source of the waters that feed my life here, high in the mountains, followed by researching the indigenous place names for this story back in my house nearby. From the description for the book Nooksack Place Names: “Place names convey a people’s relationship to the land, their sense of place. For indigenous peoples, place names can also help to revive endangered languages.”
The Nooksack River is the heart of this mountain rimmed valley and all of Whatcom County as it winds enthusiastically towards Bellingham Bay. May we all take the opportunity to remember where our water comes from and re-establish a close relationship to our rivers as a source of life, meaning, and language. That would be Laq’álh: right, correct.
I take some comfort in knowing the headwaters are mostly inaccessible to people. I wondered about the one other boot print I saw up there in the sand. Was he also on a pilgrimage that changed him significantly? Perhaps the places most sacred should be hard to reach.
When I think of healing a landscape, I think that it needs solitude. We can name monuments, we can name parks, but what it really needs is nothing. It needs nothing. It needs to be able to grow its plants, let the sun hit it, and let the water trickle down through it and not be disturbed, and we’re disturbing it.
~ Heidi Redd, Indian Creek, UT
If you would like to learn more about the tenuous relationship our culture has with wild rivers in the context of fisheries and hydropower (i.e. dams) and swim in other thoughts on this powerful connection, I highly recommend the excellent documentary films being produced by Patagonia on YouTube, such as:
Artifishal: The Fight To Save Wild Salmon
DamNation: The Problem With Hydropower