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TR: Cascade Pass/Cascade River Road Washout

Posted by gck Tuesday, August 13, 2013

I still owe trip reports from the Canada trip, but this weekend was so exciting that it seems like I need to get to this one first.

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left: North Cascades National Park sign
right: hike options from Cascade Pass trailhead

We chose a really bad weather weekend to camp in the North Cascades. Thursday night was fine, but thunderstorms started while we were sleeping Friday night and were intermittent through the rest of the weekend. As of Sunday morning, these storms were just annoyances that got our stuff wet and interrupted dinner, but that was about to change really quickly…

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left: rocks and low clouds above
right: rocks and low clouds below

We got off to a late start because of rain in the morning and breaking down camp. Getting to the trailhead took longer than I expected. We had to head back west about 30 miles to Marblemount, then there was another 23 mile drive east on Cascade River Road. The road was pleasantly paved for 10 miles, then the rest was primitive road, but it was in better condition than other forest roads I’ve experienced. It’s a very pretty drive, full of beautiful trees framing the road, creeks and waterfalls, and at the end of the road (and the trailhead for our hike), a great view of Johannesburg Mountain and its glaciers. There’s a picnic area there, which is a nice stop for people driving up for the views.

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left: USGS marker at Cascade Pass
right: Cascade Pass

Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm is supposed to be an amazing hike. On a nice weather day, it’s easy to see how it would be. However, we got hit with low clouds that didn’t let up at all on the way up, only affording us brief glances at Johannesburg Mountain and Cascade Pass. Monotonous switchbacks with nothing to look at are really boring! It’s just switchback after switchback heading up to the pass, but they’re pretty long and not that steep. Cascade Pass was very pretty (prettier than my camera could capture). We ate there and listened to a ranger talking to people. It didn’t feel like this was enough and there was still time in the day, so I suggested that we press on towards Sahale Arm and just hike as far as we had time for, hoping that we’d hit the views down towards Doubtful Lake. The name should have tipped me off.

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left: pretty pink flowers
right: pika!!!!

We started climbing what the book promised would be “800 feet in one mile” when things started to look ominous. A group of people came back towards us, making it pretty clear that they had turned around before their destination because of weather conditions ahead. At first I thought that they might have been mistaken, since we’d been seeing the low cloud layer all day, but the thunder put an end to that thought. I did get a glimpse of a pika (also checking out the weather?) before we turned around. It didn’t take long for the rain to follow the thunder. We had three pieces of rain gear for four people, and one of my brothers was in cotton, so I gave him my poncho and immediately got drenched. Then lots of hail started falling and probably pieces of ice with it because all of my exposed skin was stinging from the assault. I had to keep reminding myself that this hike was my idea. Fortunately, the lightning was pretty far away, as it had been during our camping nights.

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left: brothers on the trail after the first thunderstorm
right: Johannesburg Mountain with glaciers and waterfalls

Once we made it to Cascade Pass, the rain had stopped and we were even seeing some blue sky. I wondered if we should have just continued, since we would have gotten wet no matter what. But the second thunderstorm followed not long afterwards, this time with a heavy downpour. The switchbacks section had many trees, but they were tall and thin and useless for sheltering us from the rain. Finally, a bolt of lightening immediately followed by a clap of thunder so loud that I covered my ears got me pretty scared, and I told my brothers to descend as quickly as possible without injury.

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left: hourly ranger meeting
right: supply-bearing helicopter

We made it back to the trailhead without incident, and I was waiting in line for the bathroom to change into dry clothes when someone casually mentioned that a bridge washed out on the road and we might be here for many days. Uh, what?! We changed and decided to see what was going on, but we didn’t even make it out of the parking lot before being stopped by someone who told us the same thing. So we went back to our parking spots and stayed in the car, stepping out during breaks in the rain to see if anyone had any updates. It became clear that we had no evidence that anyone on the other side of the washout had knowledge that it had happened. Later in the evening, someone figured it out and radioed two rangers we had seen on the hike that day, and they rushed down to take care of things. They got people counts and phone numbers of contacts who needed to know that we were stranded, and they also made sure that everyone had enough food and water to make it through the night. Only one group didn’t, though many people had no dry clothes or sleeping bags/blankets. Our food supply was pretty meager, but it was enough to get us through, and we were well equipped otherwise.

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left: Cascade River Road Refugee Station
right: waterfall along the side of the road

Once it got dark, we pulled out chairs and sleeping bags and looked up at the stars. It was way colder here than at the campsite the nights before, but the view was amazing. So many stars, Milky Way visible, and we spotted some stunning meteors from the Perseid shower. Sadly, clouds coming in didn’t let us keep the view for as long as we wanted. We waited in our (warm) cars for the first round of clouds to pass, but the second round came in pretty quickly, accompanied by a few drops of rain, so we called it a night and settled in for some quality car sleeping. We had two cars because David couldn’t come up until Friday night, which seemed wasteful before but came in handy for sleeping because we each got a front seat.

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left: culvert and washout before repair
right: temporary road a few hours later

The next morning, the rangers started holding an hourly meeting on the half hour to give us any updates and answer questions. These guys were really great about taking care of things and keeping everyone calm. However, the morning news wasn’t great. They knew we’d be here for at least the first half of the day, and it was possible that they’d figure out a way to shuttle people out but not cars. Daniel and I took a hike down to the site to check it out. It was a little over a mile from the parking lot, but it was pretty steep downhill, which made it unfun coming back. There were people on the other side examining the situation, and they also threw over some crucial supplies – toilet paper. All of the rolls made it across! You can see one roll toss in my video below. When we got back, the ranger gave us a positive update: the ETA of getting us out WITH our cars was 5-7pm! Still looked like the twins were going to miss their flights, but at least we wouldn’t have to spend another night out there.

Video: washout site, supply transfer, and washout repair

After lunch (and by lunch, I mean some BBQ chips and half of an energy bar), all four of us walked down to the washout site again, since we’d heard they had started construction around noon. The walk was a pretty one, with several waterfalls and creeks and views of Johannesburg Mountain. Some people had started harvesting salmonberries and huckleberries along the side of the road, too. We missed seeing the supply helicopter land at the parking lot with a drop of food, water, and medicine, but we did see it circle the washout site a few times. We watched the construction vehicle pick up logs and debris and dump it in the washout, and a dump truck full of rocks also filled in some of the area. By the time we started walking back, the vehicle was able to drive over to our side, and by the time we made it back to the parking lot, we were being told to pack our cars because they’d be ready for us in 15 minutes. The temporary road probably took only a little over 3 hours to complete, which is amazing. The helicopter drop included sandwiches, which tasted like the best thing ever.

more pictures from the washout

And now we’re all home, safe and sound. Sounds like storms were pretty crazy all through the Cascades, and we heard about the mudslides that took out a section of Highway 20 where we had just driven the day before! This weekend was a lot more adventure than any of us had bargained for or care to repeat in the near future, but at least there were high points and a good story to tell. Thanks to the amazing rangers and other people involved in getting us out of there! I was really impressed by how well things came together.


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