Tim Halder pauses on the Torment-Forbidden Traverse. Photo © Jason Griffith.
Tim Halder pauses on the Torment-Forbidden Traverse. Photo © Jason Griffith.
  North Cascades
National Park, 2009
  by Cori Conner, Wilderness Ranger  

T he summer of 2009 was a busy and challenging season for wilderness rangers at North Cascades National Park. The season was notable for its hot and sunny weather, a dramatic increase in wilderness visitation, and an intense period of search and rescue (SAR) incidents.

June brought unseasonably nice weather, leading into one of the busiest Fourth of July weekends on record. July and August continued the trend of hot and sunny weather. The above-average snowpack melted quickly, yet many routes remained in great climbing shape late into the season.

An unusual number of powerful thunderstorms moved across the Cascades during the summer, chasing climbers down mountainsides and causing a flash flood on Boston Creek that washed out a section of the Cascade River Road. Despite the unstable weather and dire predictions, there were fewer wildfires in the North Cascades than expected. The Panther Creek and Brush Creek Trails were closed for part of the summer due to wildfires, and small fires of short duration were observed on Castle Rock, Luna Peak and near Boston Basin and Newhalem. In addition to the Brush Creek Trail closure, a large avalanche on Forest Service Road 32 (Hannegan Pass Road) prevented the road from opening until August; this made access from the west to Whatcom Pass and the North Pickets problematic for much of the 2009 season.

Climbing Visitation
The Wilderness Information Center reported a 24% increase in visitation to the office and a 34% increase in the number of submitted voluntary climbing registers over the previous season. For the past ten years, visitation to ten cross-country zones has been tracked based on overnight rermits issued. The table below (showing the number of registered backcountry users, not the number of parties) illustrates increased visitation to all zones except for the Sulphide Glacier. For the past several years, rangers have been noting increased visitation to the Southern Pickets, a trend that continued in 2009. (Note: This table includes data published in previous issues of the NWMJ that has been corrected.)

  2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Boston Basin 667 626 628 631 668 634 632 562 492 529
Colonial 35 52 104 47 36 87 54 83 90 95
Eldorado 471 460 493 435 467 358 499 536 443 538
Goode 72 57 47 75 21 17 35 18 21 46
Klawatti 76 98 76 60 42 28 55 76 61 96
Logan 58 67 53 57 26 27 43 54 41 77
Sahale Glacier 449 626 515 612 416 612 520 375 437 484
Sulphide Glacier 779 795 638 607 685 628 540 468 691 624
Terror Basin 23 67 45 55 36 57 81 52 98 113
Triumph Col 50 44 68 66 61 46 75 51 54 61
Totals 2680 2892 2667 2645 2458 2494 2534 2275 2428 2663

Climbers cross the Inspiration Glacier. Photo © Lowell Skoog.
Climbers cross the Inspiration Glacier. Photo © Lowell Skoog.
  Mount Logan from the summit of Black Peak. Photo © Dan Hilden.
Mount Logan from the summit of Black Peak. Photo © Dan Hilden.
  Steph Abegg on the summit of Mt Buckner. Photo © Jason Hummel.
Steph Abegg on the summit of Mt Buckner. Photo © Jason Hummel.
Climbers cross the Inspiration Glacier. Photo © Lowell Skoog.   Mount Logan from the summit of Black Peak. Photo © Dan Hilden.   Steph Abegg on the summit of Mt Buckner. Photo © Jason Hummel.

Staffing and Training
In 2009, two permanent, one term, 11 seasonal, and three full-time Student Conservation Association rangers conducted patrols of nearly 3,000 miles of wilderness trails and off-trail terrain in the North Cascades. Climbing rangers patrolled routes on Mount Shuksan, Eldorado Peak, Mount Logan, Goode Mountain, Terror Basin, and the Boston Basin peaks.

All wilderness rangers participate in two weeks of early season training on topics including search and rescue, low-angle carry-outs, high-angle technical rescue, snow and glacier travel, Leave No Trace principles, trail and camp maintenance, and toilet maintenance. One ranger was sent to the 40-hour National Park Service Technical Rescue training at Canyonlands National Park, and two climbing rangers participated in an interagency rope rescue training drill at Mount Erie.

Resource Monitoring
Each year, wilderness rangers conduct monitoring surveys of cross-country zones, climbing routes, and campsites to identify areas in which human use is leaving long-term, visible impacts upon the landscape. The purpose of these surveys is to identify areas that may require future efforts to restore them to wilderness standards. In 2009, rangers surveyed the following cross-country zones: Torment Basin, Terror Basin, Inspiration Glacier, Sourdough Mountain, and Mount Arriva.

Waste Management
Over the course of the 2009 season, rangers documented and removed 139 occurrences of human feces and/or toilet paper from the wilderness. Improperly disposed human waste was most commonly found on the Sulphide Glacier route of Mount Shuksan and on Eldorado Peak. To address the on-going human waste problems on Eldorado, the National Park Service installed a new composting toilet in the fall of 2009, located on a rock outcropping at the base of the East Ridge (near the popular bivy site at 7200ft). Wilderness rangers maintained 19 other composting toilets throughout the park as well as countless pit-style toilets. North Cascades National Park continues its free blue bag program, and rangers are investigating the potential for including alternative waste disposal methods into its human waste management program in the future.

Glacier Monitoring
For the seventeenth consecutive year, the National Park Service monitored four glaciers in North Cascades National Park for mass balance (net loss or gain of ice). Jon Riedel, park geologist, reports that 2009 was one of the worst years for glacier mass balance since the project began in 1993. All four of the monitored glaciers—North Klawatti, Sandalee, Noisy Creek, and Silver—lost far more mass to summer melting than they had gained by snow accumulation during the winter of 2008-2009. The long term trend for all four glaciers has been rapid recession caused by lower winter snowfall and higher rates of summer melting.

Search and Rescue Incidents
Rangers at North Cascades National Park responded to 18 incidents in 2009, of which 10 were considered major Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. These included the evacuation of seven injured or stranded climbers, one climbing fatality, one response to a personal locator beacon distress call, and a multi-day search for a missing hiker. In addition, rangers followed up on 27 climbing parties believed to be overdue because they did not sign out after filing a voluntary climbing register. The total emergency cost to the National Park Service was $42,454, of which $15,401 was for helicopter SAR operations.

Five climbing rangers and two local pilots completed annual training and proficiencies in helicopter short-haul rescue. This program, in its fourth year at North Cascades National Park, enables rangers to efficiently rescue patients in mountainous terrain. The short-haul rescue program proved to be instrumental in 2009, with seven operational short-hauls used to rescue injured climbers in remote areas. Notably, most climbing accidents were reported quickly in 2009. That, coupled with the constant availability of an on-call helicopter in Marblemount, provided unusually rapid and efficient rescues throughout the season. In most cases, injured climbers were rescued from technical and remote areas within a few hours of the injury occurrence. Selected search and rescue highlights are in the sidebar.

Search and Rescue Highlights

• Mount Shuksan
On May 23, a guided group of three fell an estimated several hundred feet while descending a gully on the summit pyramid without protection. One of the climbers injured her ankle during the fall. The other two climbers were not significantly injured and began a slow descent of the Sulphide Glacier with the injured climber. Climbing rangers on routine patrol of Mount Shuksan were notified of the incident and picked up by helicopter lower on the mountain. They located the injured climber and flew her off the mountain; she was then transported to the hospital for treatment.

• The Triad
On July 1, two unroped climbers were descending steep snow slopes when one took a sliding fall of approximately 100ft, likely due to his crampons balling up with snow. Unable to self-arrest, he slammed into a rock at the bottom of the snow slope, which resulted in an open leg fracture but stopped him just short of a large cliff below. Due to the exposure of the site and limited options for helicopter landing sites, responding rangers were short-hauled into the site and out with the patient to a staging site on the glacier below. He was then flown in the helicopter out of the backcountry and transferred to an ambulance.

• Mount Terror
July 5-9: See feature story in this NWMJ issue.

• Cascade Pass
On July 25, park rangers on patrol at Cascade Pass were alerted by a climber that a party beginning the Ptarmigan Traverse needed assistance. One climber had slipped on rock, injuring his ankle, while a second climber had turned back and was showing signs of hypothermia. A ranger accompanied the reporting party along the alpine route to the injured climber, while another ranger located and assisted the hypothermic man. During patient assessment of the injured climber, a thunderstorm with heavy rains developed, necessitating a delay of helicopter evacuation until the following morning. With bystanders caring for the injured climber, rangers hiked out for mission planning but found that the Cascade River Road had washed out in a flash flood, stranding dozens of visitors at the trailhead. This unusual event required a “road rescue” with rangers and road crew clearing enough debris to safely get a few people out and supplies in to accommodate those that were stranded. Early the following morning rangers short-hauled the injured climber out of the wilderness. Follow-up showed the climber had multiple fractures in his foot and ankle, and the hypothermic climber had fully recovered. The road remained closed for repairs for several days.

• Mount Torment
On August 9, two climbers beginning the Torment-Forbidden Traverse had ascended most of the Taboo Glacier on approach to Mount Torment’s southeast face and were negotiating a huge gap between two sections of ice. When the lead climber moved onto the upper section of glacier, a massive piece of ice broke off taking the climber with it. A single cam device held his 40-ft fall, but he was fatally injured by falling ice. His climbing partner was also hit by icefall but was able to scramble to a location where he could call 911 with a cell phone. Park rangers were transported to the scene via helicopter and proceeded with a recovery of the deceased climber.