Eldorado Peak (8876′), NCNP
“For me, the icefields surrounding Eldorado are the spiritual center of ski mountaineering in the North Cascades,” writes emeritus PNW ski historian Lowell Skoog. “One of the grand peaks of the North Cascades…an individual aloofness above the rivalry of adjacent peaks and ridges,” writes Fred Beckey. On whosever authority you take it, the high, wild country near Eldorado Peak (8876′) in NCNP is a special place. Its flanks are adorned with the largest non-volcanic ice sheet in the lower 48. Nearby Cascade Pass was the site of the region’s most recent confirmed grizzly sighting, in spite (or because?) of its summer throngs of day hikers.
As I try to make sense of the endless tangle of valleys and ridges, rivers and glaciers that define the North Cascades — as I try to imbue a map that defies easy comprehension with lived experience, and create a place that means something to my heart and legs and spirit, as well as my mind — Eldorado beckoned as a powerful place to start. Jake and Jonas joined, and on a brilliant May Sunday we climbed and skied the mountain, bushwhacking and schussing, rock-hopping and cramponing. It was a fairly extraordinary day, both in the sheer pleasure of the descent and as a preview for years of exploration.
It was also a glorious referendum on the efficiency of skiing. This stands in contrast to a large part of the allure of ski mountaineering: its defiant pointlessness. The labor and risk associated with what, ultimately, is simply playing can have no convincing justification. “Backcountry skiing is for anarchists and coyote angels,” wrote C.L. Rawlings. Maybe less true than it used to be, in our era of good gear, social media beta, and the endless commodification of experience (I am as guilty as anyone). But the quote continues to sing to me.
At any rate, in the North Cascades, the sport reaches a nice medium between this countercultural sentiment and utilitarianism. Skis really are the best way to travel in the range’s higher reaches, even if you do need to haul them up through 3000 vertical feet of rainforest to reach snow. When, shortly before noon, you clip into your bindings and in minutes soar down miles of snow and ice that took hours to ascend — or point them towards a col on the distant horizon, and effortlessly contour a mile above the valley floor, chasing sun and shadow — you will feel there is no other way to travel.
The sweep of the Eldorado Glacier, with Hidden Lake Peak visible far left, and the Triad center skyline.
Jake ascends Eldorado’s east ridge, on the margins of Inspiration Glacier. Among the endless sea of peaks arrears, Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, and Sahale are prominent, draped with the Quien Sabe, Forbidden, and Boston Glaciers.
Klawatti Peak (center right), lone nunatak of the Cascades, with the Tepeh Towers to its left. My favorite English loan word (borrowed from the Inuit nunataq), nunataks are rocky spires completely surrounded by glacial ice.
Jake demonstrates the ease of packing featherweight Hagan skis at 8K’.