How Climate Change is Affecting Washington’s North Cascade Range

The sky is still pitch black when my dad and I arrive at the trailhead. There is a thin cloud cover that prevents even a glimmer of moonlight from reflecting on the hood of the burgundy Subaru. Dawn is still hours away.

I check my watch. 4:30 am. My dad already has his GoLite pack on--aluminum crampons and ice axe dangling from the back. It looks alarmingly light and small considering the day we are about to embark on. He starts out ahead of me, soon nothing more than a darting headlight on the rocky trail. I scramble to get my things together and head after him. We have 18 miles and over 9,000 feet of elevation to gain today.

The approach to Mount Stuart is a beautiful five mile trail through dry, sparse, ponderosa pine and larch hill country. This terrain is drastically different from the stereotypical vision of the Northwest - no damp, dense rainforests here. Mount Stuart is in the eastern part of the North Cascade Range and the landscape is more comparable to the high Sierras; hot, dry air and dusty earth. At the moment, I can only see what my headlamp illuminates a few feet in front of me. We walk in silence, waiting for morning sunshine to cut through the northern wind that bites at my wind jacket and pricks through my fleece jacket to reach my bare skin. As we near the lake, the first fingers of warm, pale light streak the sky. Ingalls Lake is a stunning alpine lake circled with black and white speckled granite boulders and offers a beautiful view of Mount Stuart.

Stuart from this angle looks terrifying; dark, massive, sharp, exposed granite. No visible way to easily ascend. I stop and catch my breath. The sun is finally poking over the eastern horizon. Pink, purple, and yellow shadows stretch across the skyline in front of us and I take in the sublime stillness of the alpine morning. 

My favorite thing about the North Cascades is how truly wild and untouched they feel. These mountains are rugged, exposed and appear very remote. I can name over a dozen trips to this area where I have not encountered even a sign of another human. They are among the most pristine mountains in the lower forty-eight states. Despite the facade of isolation, the North Cascades are actually only an hour or two from the Seattle area. The fact that this pristine mountain experience is accessible by driving only a few hours from a major metropolitan area is incredible.  

Mount Stuart is described by legendary climber Fred Beckey as “the crown peak in the central Cascades of Washington.” Standing at 9,415 feet above sea level, Stuart is the largest single piece of exposed granite in the United States and the second tallest non-volcano in the Cascade Range. The North Ridge of Mount Stuart is listed in “The Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.” It is a milestone for many climbers around the country. The surrounding area is also a revered destination for many local hikers and families.

Mount Stuart contains three major glaciers that act as a source for numerous creeks and streams surrounding the mountain. The glaciers of the North Cascades have been shrinking significantly over the past 100 years. Rising region temperatures will lead to accelerated snow melt, which will result in an increase in both drought and flash-flooding, impacting farming and fisheries.

Around a third of all glaciers in the lower forty-eight states are located in the North Cascades. They have retreated an estimated 40% over the last 150 years.
These glaciers are essential in mountain hydrologic systems and complex aquatic ecosystems. They also are a major source of fresh water during the summer months and their disintegration will affect the streams and rivers that they drain into. (For information on the glacial loss in the North Cascades National Park – but not the whole range – click here)

By late morning, we have left the dry pine forest surrounding Ingalls Lake and traverse through granite boulders to the Stuart Glacier. The North Ridge is a jagged, exposed ridgeline that reaches upwards almost 3,000 feet. It is almost 20 pitches of climbing from here to the summit; a “pitch” is generally one rope length of climbing. The North Ridge is not considered very hard climbing, but it is a long haul and the exposure is enough to get my heart racing and pump hot adrenaline through my veins.

We reach the summit around 4:00 in the afternoon. I am exhausted and collapse in a flat spot just under the summit point, protected from the wind. I put on my red down jacket and reach into my pack for my Snickers bar. As I look out over the horizon I can see hundreds of peaks. Washington’s tallest mountain, Mount Rainier, stands majestically to the south; Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood are visible in the distance. This string of volcanoes is part of the Southern Cascades. There are endless points and snow-capped peaks to my north and west that make up the North Cascades. To the northwest, I can see Glacier Peak and Eldorado Peak, the latter containing two of the largest glaciers in the range: Inspiration and McAllister. In the distance, almost to the Canadian border, I can see Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker. Mount Shuksan also contains two of the largest glaciers in the North Cascades: Sulphide and Nooksack.

The North Cascades offers something for every level of outdoor enthusiast. Even just driving the North Cascades Highway provides a spectacular way to view these mountains. Easy, beautiful, family-friendly hikes to waterfalls and alpine passes are also accessible throughout the range. I think this part of the country is one of the most beautiful and diverse regions and it is already being drastically affected by climate change. Retreating glaciers are just the beginning of the deterioration of this region due to climate change. That’s why I think it’s important for us to protect wild places like the North Cascades. We also need to look at ways to help these places become more resilient to the negative effects of climate change so that future generations can experience and enjoy them like I do today. 

Photo of Stuart Glacier by Katherine Walker