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Fred Beckey: Mountaineer and Author (1923-2017)

October 31st, 2017 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

“Man used to put himself on the line all the time. Nowadays we’re protected by the police, fire, everything. There’s not much adventure left. Unless you look for it.” — Fred Beckey

Perhaps no living human is more associated with the untamed allure of the North Cascades— a blend of fear, awe, agony and ecstasy— than mountaineer Fred Beckey.

In the celebratory, life-spanning book Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs, his friends and climbing partners from the last seven decades lavish Beckey with accolades: “The most prolific mountaineer of the last 100 years,” “the undisputed sovereign of American dirtbag climbers” and “grandfather of the road trip.” These claims would be unbearably rich were they not actually true.

Beckey immigrated to Seattle from Germany with his family in 1925 and began climbing the mountains visible from the city with the Boy Scouts and local mountaineering clubs. He ascended Boulder Peak in the Olympic Mountains by himself at age thirteen, beginning his life’s trajectory of climbing remote rock—and later achieved the summit of Mount Olympus with his troop.

Beckey began exploring the North Cascades next, making first ascents up Mount Despair in 1939 and Forbidden Peak in 1940—rugged mountains deemed unclimbable by the local mountaineering club. Over the ensuing summers, he pioneered routes up dozens more Cascadian peaks, sometimes with his brother Helmy in tow. Staring out across the sea of peaks, Beckey recounts feeling “a kinship with the noble almost unbelievable peaks and tumbling glaciers.”

In 1942, the brothers made their way towards Mount Waddington in British Columbia’s Coast Ranges, a dark, sulking massif cloaked in glaciers and surrounded by miles of impenetrable coastal rainforest. After weeks of rain, snow, rockfall and avalanches, the two teenagers achieved the summit, only the second humans to stand atop the peak, and the first up the foreboding south face approach.

Mt. Waddington from the north, by John Scurlock

» Continue reading Fred Beckey: Mountaineer and Author (1923-2017)

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The Big One

July 2nd, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Calvin Laatsch, the Institute’s Conference and Retreat Coordinator. Calvin originally posted this to his personal blog, Live Close. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

I notice that my knuckles are raw and chaffed from stuffing my fists into the wide crack leading up into an endless wall of granite. I pause to note how vibrant my blood looks against the rock. I’m hyper aware of this moment, but am quickly snapped back to my precarious position on the side of El Capitan. Glancing at my last piece of protection, a stuck cam 20 feet below me, and I feel completely overwhelmed…

“Jonathan!” I yell into the wind. “I’m scared!”

There is a pregnant pause, before he hollers back, “Me too!”

That was 5 years ago. Jonathan and I decided to retreat after another night halfway up the Nose. With that experience seared in my memory, I have spent countless hours dreaming of a return, trying to identify and improve on my weaknesses, wrestling with the feeling that I was not ready. Fear can be incredibly motivating. Whether in climbing, in work, or in love, facing fear is an experience that all people can relate to.

» Continue reading The Big One

Camping at Lightning Creek on Ross Lake

10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades

June 29th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Saul Weisberg and Christian Martin for The Seattle Times

Canoe the Skagit River
The Skagit is one of the great rivers of the west, supplying nearly 40 percent of the fresh water and wild salmon entering Puget Sound. A multiday trip down the Skagit River is a real gem. Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978, the Skagit drains an area of 1.7 million acres, including the most glaciated region in the Lower 48. I like to put my canoe in at Copper Creek in North Cascades National Park and paddle to the mouth where it empties into the Salish Sea. This trip takes three to four days and involves camping on gravel bars and beaches. The river gains momentum after the Cascade, Baker and Sauk rivers add to its flow, and you can finish a great journey by paddling up the Swinomish Channel for dinner in La Conner. Shorter day-trips can be made by paddling from Marblemount to Rockport or Rasar State Park.


Copper Ridge by Andy Porter

Backpack from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake
There are several long backpacking routes in the North Cascades. One of my favorites begins from the Mount Baker Highway, climbing Hannegan Pass and continuing north along Copper Ridge before descending to the Chilliwack River, climbing over Whatcom Pass and finally over Beaver Pass and down Big Beaver Valley to Ross Lake. A fire lookout, incredible views of the Picket Range and one of the best old-growth cedar forests in the range — this trip is hard to beat. Other great long hikes include the Devils Dome circumnavigation of Jack Mountain, or dropping into Stehekin via Bridge Creek from Rainy Pass.

Explore the Methow Valley
There are many different ways to explore this valley flowing off of the east slope of the Cascades. You can look for great birds and butterflies in Pipestone Canyon, cross-country ski in the winter, or mountain-bike on dozens of backcountry roads in the summer. Try Sun Mountain for beginners, Buck Mountain for a challenge.


climbing desolation

Paddle Ross Lake and climb Desolation Peak
Perhaps the most famous literary spot in the North Cascades is the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. This is where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 working for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he later recounted in “Desolation Angels” and “The Dharma Bums.” The lookout is still there, perched atop the 6,102-foot peak and commanding one of the best views in Washington. The Desolation trailhead on Ross Lake can be reached by canoe, by renting a small powerboat from Ross Lake Resort or by hiking the East Bank Trail from Highway 20. The lookout trail is steep — carry plenty of water — with views around every corner.

Hike to Hidden Lakes Peak
I was a backcountry ranger at Cascade Pass in 1979, and that trail and the view from Sahale Arm are close to my heart. However, to avoid the crowds I like to turn off the Cascade River Road before reaching the Cascade Pass Trail, at the short spur to the trailhead to Hidden Lakes Peak. It’s a beautiful trail to an old fire lookout, which is open to the public, and fabulous views of Cascade Pass and Boston Basin looking east across the valley. Hidden Lakes are surrounded by a veritable rock garden of giant talus boulders. Sibley Pass, accessible by a short scramble from the trail, is an amazing place to watch the fall migration of raptors overhead by the hundreds.


Mt. Baker, WA, USA. Mt. Baker Wilderness Area. 10, 778 ft / 3285 m. Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers. Black Buttes on the right. Lupine and Mountain Bistort Wildflowers on Skyline Divide. 4x5 Transparency ©2000 Brett Baunton

Explore around Mount Baker
There are many ways to explore Komo Kulshan, the northernmost Cascade volcano that looms ever-white over Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. Great trails start from Heather Meadows, but to avoid crowds I suggest you explore the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness or hike the lowland old-growth forest on the East Bank Trail of Baker Lake. Drive a bit farther to access Railroad Grade, the Scott Paul Trail and Park Butte. From this alpine wonderland, you’ll see the Easton Glacier and the Black Buttes up close and personal.

» Continue reading 10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades

mt.stewart Dylan Harry

Seeking Spirituality in the North Cascades

December 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I watched quietly as each bend in the road revealed more of the steep, inaccessible wilderness that looms above Highway 20. It was my first couple of hours in the North Cascades and I wanted to get up high, to see around. From Washington Pass I glimpsed Silver Star Mountain through the swirling clouds as the other tourists and I chuckled at the futility of an overlook in a raincloud.

The terrain and weather of the North Cascades are renowned amongst alpine climbers. Four or five years ago I thumbed through the legendary climber Fred Beckey’s three volume guide to North Cascades climbing and filled my head with images of peaks and glaciers, as well as stories of loose rock and freak snowstorms.

Yet I hadn’t come here to climb. Instead, I was here for an internship, to live and learn how to teach ecology to a bunch of crazy kids with the naturalists and educators of the North Cascades Institute. Well…maybe I was here to do a little climbing. Living just down valley from the Institute, in Newhalem, put me less than ten miles south of one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the Lower 48, the Picket Range. I at least wanted to go and look at it.

Picket Range Dylan HarryA Cascadian fence: The Picket Range, a climber’s paradise, as seen from Trapper’s Peak. Photo by Dylan Harry.

As I began to work and play with the residents of the Upper Skagit valley, I experienced a distinct shift in my experience of the outdoors. Standing in that cloud in Washington Pass, I knew that my climber self would be able to connect to the North Cascades. Over the course of a rainy September, however, I was forced to seek new ways to connect to the landscape and community. In reflecting on this change in myself, I found the fourfold path of Hinduism to be a useful lens, despite my near complete ignorance of Hinduism.

» Continue reading Seeking Spirituality in the North Cascades

Peaks in Place

October 12th, 2011 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Lately, on these cool autumn mornings at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, I’ve taken to gazing south from my porch as the first, angled rays of sun illuminate the buttress of Pyramid Peak across Diablo Lake. Since our first torrential weather event passed through a few weeks ago, the steep walls of Pyramid have glistened with snow dustings in the early light, giving relief and texture to the bare, sculptured rock. I breathe deeply, savoring my gratitude for these moments to welcome the day.

Sometimes I wonder at how lucky I am to be living in the presence of such rugged giants as Pyramid, Colonial and Sourdough peaks in the heart of the North Cascades. In my first month of being here as part of the M.Ed.Graduate Program, I have sought to learn the names and scale the slopes of these and other mountains in my new backyard as a way to understand, and become attentive to, the stories written on this landscape. Some peaks — Desolation, Logan, Hozomeen, the McMillan Spires — appear as glimpses on clear days if you stand in the right drainage, at the right angle and distance. I still shout and point when I see them, for their glaciated summits rise as silent, colossal forms into the sky.

» Continue reading Peaks in Place