Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trails: Hannegan Pass in May

The trail to Hannegan Pass, about 10mi south of the Canada border in the North Cascades, was my first introduction to this range and is still one of my favorite places to visit, in all seasons.

Ruth Creek

This year I decided to see if I could get up to the Pass and bivy near the summit of 7100' Ruth Mountain.  This is a very doable trip in the summer, but much more difficult and dangerous in the off-season.  The view from the summit of Ruth -- looking at the East face of Mt. Shuksan and across the Nooksack Cirque -- is one of the finest in the North Cascades.

When I called to check on conditions, the NPS rangers told me I would probably be the first party back there this year, and asked if I would please note the trail and road conditions, reporting back to their office in the town of Glacier.

First, I shoveled out a section of FS road 32 on my way in.

Brute force solution
When I rounded the next bend, however, I saw that it was fruitless.  The road is blocked about .5 mi from the trailhead.

Some nut tried to drive over this
The signs at the trailhead were crushed to bits by a fallen tree.

At the end of May, this valley is only starting to melt out.  These photos look really dark ... but ... it really looks like this!

Mt. Sefrit
By July, these slopes will be covered in jungle-like brush, false hellebore, flowers, stinging nettles, salmonberry, and slide alder.

At this time of year, the hike up the valley crosses a series of steep, exposed snowfields.  You need an ice axe and great care to cross them safely, or risk sliding several hundred feet to the valley floor.

As the snowfields melt-out, they rot out from underneath and become even more dangerous.  I have fallen through them before, into a roaring, hidden creek below, and it is no fun.  But not on this trip.

My first good glimpse of Ruth Mountain.  Her glacier is a shimmering cloak of immaculate whiteness.

Ruth Mountain
First animal sign, looks like a bobcat track.

Bobcat print in the snow
In the shade of the trees, the snow can be hard-packed and very slippery, time to slip into something more comfortable, like these crampons.  Crampons and an ice axe extend a hiker's range considerably.

Accept no substitutes

I followed the route pretty well and only got into trouble once on a dicey snowfield, which was dangerously melted out from underneath.  When I got to the meadow below the Pass, I knew I was all alone up here.

Or was I?

Was another party just here?  These tracks look fresh.

Oh shit.

It's a big kitty!  Looks like I'm not alone after all.  He just came over the Pass, and is probably watching me right now.

I don't think I can make the summit of Ruth today, but I still need to sleep back here, and now I don't want to be anywhere near the Pass.  But the snow conditions above me are very dangerous, heavy loose snow slides everywhere, so I need to be careful where I go.  I ascend the steep slope immediately south of the Pass, to camp in the snow around 5800'.

Home for the night -- my bivy sack in a hole I dug.  I made dinner and relaxed with a flask of single-malt scotch, looking out at Bear Mountain and over toward Whatcom Pass.

Here's a look back down the valley I came up today.  These are the North Cascades in May.

Ruth Creek Valley
When I returned home, I checked Fred Beckey's classic Cascade Alpine Guide for this region and found a specific warning about slide conditions in this valley in the spring.  I was pleased to know that I recognized these same conditions and did not put myself at risk trying to push it up to Ruth.  The crux of the approach has a large cornice that can be dangerous even in the summertime.  

Certainly, there would be no one around to help me out if I got into any trouble, well, except for that hungry cougar.  An excellent trip!


Bryan Franco said...

Stunning. I'm trying to get my wife to move out to the Pacific Northwest. She says it's too far from our family in the mid-west. I respect that, of course, but, gosh we are also expecting our first child... would love to raise him/her out there. Bummer!

Christian Gustafson said...

Only a few miles from where I was are the magnificent alpine Picketts, some of the most rough and remote terrain in the Lower 48.

I moved from Chicago to Seattle in 2000. The PNW is an outstanding place to raise kids in nature, with all of its attendant lessons.

We even like our public city neighborhood school.

I never thought I would say that.