Down the Barrel of North Despair
North Despair | North Cascades National Park | Washington State, USA
It was the fourth day into our journey to reach North Despair in the Cascade Mountains. The previous three had involved hauling our gear up through the forests, and the hills that rise above Baker Lake. It was a different scene now, in contrast to the waves of sweltering, muggy air that rung me out like a rag; the sweat on my brow mixed with spider webs, dirt and fir needles.
The first party on skis came to this area in 1989. It consisted of North Cascade National Park rangers John Dittli and Scott Croll. In their pioneering adventure, they crossed from Bacon Peak through the Picket Range. After they crossed Mystery Ridge, Ditti wrote in his journal, ‘… the place has an ominous feel to it; partly due to the physical characteristics, but mostly due to perception; it was late in a long day, shady and cold. I looked at Scott and asked, “If you think your time is up we probably shouldn’t go.” We went.’
Two years later, Cliff Leight and Dana Hagin retraced Dittli and Croll’s path from Bacon Peak and Mystery Ridge. Beyond there, they diverged and traversed the shoulders of North Despair and Mount Triumph and exited near Highway 20, Washington’s northernmost trans-mountain highway. Since these skiers, no others are known to have returned, and North Despair had yet to be skied. This combines two of my favourite pastimes: retracing ski tracks and making new ones.
Our group was a generational melting pot. The four of us were born in different decades. Woods the ’60s, I was from the ’70s, Adam the ’80s, and the youngster, Tim, the ’90s.
I left the tent and shouldered my pack. The snow crackled with each step. Unlike the previous two days, we would not be continuing our traverse. Instead, we would be making a detour with only day-packs. This was the day we’d point our skis toward my ultimate goal, North Despair.
At a pass a mere 500 feet above camp, Woods, our sole splitboarder, decided to return the way he had come. Two things concerned him – the icy snow and slowing us down. He’d have to boot every step of the way while we quickly and efficiently scooted across the slopes on our narrower skis. From the pass, we bade Woods best of luck. He returned the sentiment and that was the last we saw of him before he melted into the shadowed slopes behind us.
It was a different scene now, in contrast to the waves of sweltering, muggy air that rung me out like a rag; the sweat on my brow mixed with spider webs, dirt and fir needles
As I rotated 360 degrees, I took a moment to appreciate the mountains, with no cities or roads anywhere to be seen – just layer upon layer of wilderness. Magical. Mystical. Momentous. Mine.
During that long ago exodus to Baker Lake, two of three flashlights died. Cold, wet and lost, we struggled off route through rain that was half as much snow as water and over terrain that was half as much cliff as fallen trees. When we arrived at the bottom, I kissed the dirt of the Baker Lake trail, jokingly. But it was no laughing matter. It isn’t a particularly dangerous place to be, especially on route. My trouble has usually come because I’ve tried to descend in the dark and in a hurry.
The route was hidden by the thick haze, some occasional views offering very little in the way of relief. Holding onto the unknown and the fear, I smiled widely. This is what I seek out. It is what I crave. If I knew the way, all the secrets, then it would be sport, not adventure.
My fascination couldn’t have been more stoked or my mind more on fire. It roared into an inferno as I climbed to the top of Full Pack Peak and gazed eastward. The fog had sunken into the valleys. The sky was as blue as an alpine lake and my view beyond was unhindered. Gazing freely toward my mountain, not that any mountain could ever be mine, I wondered, ‘did Mount Despair recognise me?’ I would like to think that she did.
Atop Full Pack Peak, now above the fog, I gathered in my placement among these towers of earth. As I rotated 360 degrees, I took a moment to appreciate the mountains, with no cities or roads anywhere to be seen – just layer upon layer of wilderness. Magical. Mystical. Momentous. Mine.
Mystery Ridge, as the name suggests, has underlying mysteries to be sleuthed out. The greatest, when it concerned us, was to find a way from Mystery Ridge to the base of the West Face of North Despair. It was the crux.
Our route looked better than expected. We crept by a massive cornice and then descended in a long, slanting traverse to a point where we climbed a hundred feet to a break in a ridge. This ridge seemingly offered a route from the hanging valleys, whose surrounding cliffs hung below, and down to the snowfields. With each progressive turn, questions turned to certainties then back to questions.
I find in some wild places that shadows grow like wheat in a field. They are treacherous places, foreboding. This was such a place. Cliffs towered overhead, broken snow gripped onto bedrock that threatened to lay waste to everything below if so much as a breath of an excuse passed its way. Those bergs of snow only highlighted the need to hurry. We didn’t hang around as I’ve always felt that shadows have souls in places such as this.
Soon, my figure outlined the North Ridge of the North Peak of Mount Despair. It silhouetted the line I saw from Mount Degenhardt a decade ago. The memory forced a grin onto my face and the moment couldn’t be more perfect. The wind silenced, the sun posed and I half expected to hear echoes of rocks falling or a hawk caw-cawing from miles away. Instead, our only company was heartbeat and breath.
Stopping near the top, my eyes scoured the terrain; I was aghast. The place was a medieval fortress, as I knew all too well. But, even so, the broken rock and leaning towers, ancient weather-worn trees, uncultivated valleys and the much guarded secrets welled up in me, a sense of awe I couldn’t tame. I screamed as loud as I could from the top of North Despair. Only a few instances I recalled have ever been its equal. It was a crack in my soul. It was my happiness untethered from my body.
This is why I adventure!
Slithering clouds stole our sun and blue sky. Waiting for it to clear, I laid on the summit rocks. Nearby the others found their own cubby of stones. The weather eventually broke. It was all too soon.
We lined our skis on the summit, staring down into the barrel of Despair.
I pushed off first, then Adam and Tim. There was no stopping us now. We skied all the way down. Just like that, three days of effort were compressed into a few seconds. Some may ask was it worth it? My answer is another scream – my thrills, it seems, are measured in decibels!
As the sun crossed the horizon, the snow froze and shadows grew near the top of Full Pack Peak. One second it was soft, spring corn and then, moments later, rock-hard ice. From my vantage, blood-red clouds seared the sky over Mount Shuksan. They attracted me. At first the view was mesmerizing. That quickly changed as I edged closer to a cornice and searched for a better angle to photograph it. Suddenly, I stopped. I put my camera away. I knew that it was unwise to draw closer to the edge, like a fly to the flame, but risk is high while in reverence. I still looked, though, but instead just allowed my eyes to record the moment. That was best, to simply allow my vision to be harnessed, and dragged across the sky.
Fourteen hours since we had left, we strolled into camp. A light blinked on, and Woods rolled out of bed.
Sitting on our island’s ledges, we shared highlights. At the same time, Adam began peeling the skin from a blister on the heel of his foot. We all cringed, laughed and then slipped into bed, exhausted, but contended. A day lived to its fullest, no doubt, is best capped with thrill-glinted eyes closed upon star-glinted heavens.
Jason Hummel is originally from Morton, Washington, and was raised on the foothills of Mount Rainier. He graduated from Western Washington University, earned his finance degree and later became a financial advisor. After 8 years working in the field, he realised that he no longer wanted to be tied to an office chair, and in 2009 I quit his job and bought a professional camera and one lens. Five years later, he now works as a full-time photographer.
Jason has recently published his first book: Alpine State of Mind which includes the full version of this story plus many other stories, photographs, anecdotes and poetry.