Eldorado, Queen of the Cascade River, beautiful, wondrous, simply incredible. It is known as a classic climb, a great beginner’s mountaineering objective. But to me, it means so much more. It’s stolen my heart in so many ways. I’ve felt a deep, somehow profound, connection to this glorious mountain.
Rewind back to 2017, 4 years ago. Filled with naive excitement of my newfound joy of peak bagging and hiking for 360º views on summits, I embarked on my first mountaineering adventure with a few friends. I was just stoked to be climbing a peak that had a knife edge – I already loved the thrill of exposure.
A little background: this would be my first mountaineering experience. Although I had once used an ice axe and crampons, I had never set foot on a glacier. I had little idea what it meant to “mountaineer”. Roping up to cross glaciers or ascending a climber’s trail was completely foreign to me. I hardly knew what I was getting into, but I was just so excited that my friends were down to take me on an adventure. In contrast, they all had been climbing and hiking mountains the whole summer already. For me, I had only backpacked 3 times or so, had hiked perhaps just under 5000 ft gained, and had never really bushwhacked.
Well, Eldorado was quite the experience as you’ll see. And despite all odds and all the misery I endured, climbing Eldorado the first time somehow made me more resilient and allowed me to realize my newfound passion: exploring the alpine.
Although my glaciated climbs have been relatively few and far between, I have since sought different ways to get above tree line, into the alpine zones of mountains. I’ll let the story unfold here as I reflect back on that fateful first trip and this most recent mission up Eldorado. Rather than storytelling in 2 trip reports, this will be an interwoven storyline. A tale of past and present. This second time around, it was cool to see how much I’ve grown as an alpinist or mountain wanderer. The whole way up, I’d reminisce on my past experience on each part of the climb as much as my memory let me. So here goes, a journey up Eldorado, a journey of my mountaineering experience.
Getting to the Trailhead
The North Cascades National Park usually closes the gate to the park at mile 18 when snow starts building up and they won’t open it till late spring/early summer. As snow melts on these forest roads, it’s common for people to bike up as far as possible to quickly move through the Cascade River Road. After all, Road walking isn’t much fun. This spring, Christie, Colie, and I all wanted to do a sort of multi-sport adventure where we’d bike and then ski (and maybe climb). Several options were considered, especially along the Mountain Loop Highway, but Eldorado was highest on our list. Christie had never climbed it, and both Colie and I wanted to enjoy it again. And then Tyler also wanted to climb it so he tagged along our plans.
Upon arrival at the gate closure, we were surprised to see so many cars parked and wondered how many people we’d see on route. We quickly packed our bikes and headed off to sleep so we could get an early start of just before 4am. It was truly restful until I woke up to other climbers’ headlamps. There was a 1am start, a 2am start, and a 3am solo person. Ha, the solo one was Tyler who needed a head start to our bikes. Biking in the dark for 2 miles was honestly more pleasant and less difficult than I had imagined it to be. There were some downed logs to go over/under but otherwise the road was pretty easy going. Gears are key! At the bridge before the standard parking lot, we met Tyler and stashed our bikes away.
In 2017, we started straight from there climber’s parking lot after noon. It was boiling hot already that July day.
The Climber’s Trail
To get to the climber’s trail, you must cross a raging river (at least it’s raging in the spring) and navigate through the thick brush. Directions are less intuitive in the dark, but it was quite the adventurous start to the grand adventure itself! After crossing the Cascade River, it’s always still an enigma to find the start to the climber’s trail, marked by the NPS sign that says the trail is unmaintained. Funny how that nice sign is placed after the treachery of the river.
Like most climber’s trails, the elevation gain here is relentless. But what gets you the most is getting stuck on branches. I remembered even with an overnight pack it was just as annoying when your ice axe would get stuck. This time around, it was our giant skis and the width of the boots. It’s nontrivial and sure makes you work for it. About 300 feet vertical of battling the branches, the trail opens up a bit more. Though there’s less annoyance to deal with, it becomes just a case of the stair masters. And then it’s pretty straightforward to follow the well beaten path.
Back then, I remembered thinking how I could make this go easier, could I use someone’s poles or offload any weight, but never said anything. My friends were patient and waited for me for each big break, although I took many tiny breaks. One of my friends, an engineer turned full-time mountain guide, would tell me it’s more efficient to take breaks every 30 min and keep a steady pace. Something, I’ve kept in my mind since! It truly does help to keep a slightly slower pace so you can go for longer.
My pack this year with skis and avalanche gear was around 40 lbs. My overnight trip with glacier gear was probably just under 30 lbs. What a difference! As I stated earlier, my greatest regret on the first trip was not bringing hiking poles. I definitely enjoyed the help from them this year.
Aside: I used to think hiking poles were for weaker hikers. But I stand corrected. They’re for smart hikers, those who want to save their knees, those who want more balance. And of course, they’re great for distributing some 20% of your weight from your legs.
The Boulder Field
Boulder hopping is one of my favorite things to do in the mountains! I like how it makes you think and balance. After hiking the steep forest, you emerge onto the boulder field. There’s multiple ways of getting up, and apparently there’s an actually trail climber’s right of the field that skirts in and out of the boulders. I have no recollection of how we made it up this field the first time except for entering the bottom of the boulders and crossing a little waterfall. But since we went early season this year, the majority of the boulder field was covered in snow, making it more straightforward to simply walk straight up the snow without navigating the boulders. However, we may have picked an overly adventurous method to get to the snow from the bare boulders. We found some wonderful alder to bushwhack through with the muddiest footing. Pretty sure there are other ways around that particular set of alder, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable in the Cascades.
Whether or not you enjoy boulder hopping, remember to look behind you. The views of Johannesburg never cease to wow me! It’s a beautiful mountain and I can never get enough pictures of it. Knowing that we might get some nice morning light on Johannesburg, I probably kept a faster than normal pace going up the forest. I think it was worth it, don’t you?
Eldorado Creek Basin
Flashback to 2017, I was already so incredibly tired at this point and didn’t even have a clue how long we were going to go till camp. Back then, I didn’t look at GPS for navigation. It was a slow, very mental game of getting further up the snow. There was always a new knoll, a new false summit to camp. And even when I saw our potential bivy spot, every step took all the focus I had to keep moving.
On the snow, it wasn’t totally a breeze since it’s still a lot of uphill after all, but at least it significantly felt easier this year. It amazes me what a difference it makes to have been consistently hiking vs only hiking a few times a year. And the shift in mindset knowing that I’m more physically capable too.
I was really excited to get to the ridge and figure out where I last camped. It was this camp that I enjoyed alpenglow and sleeping under the stars the same night. As cliché as it sounds, it was indeed life changing. I didn’t know what being above tree line was like. What it’s like to be surrounded by mountains with the glorious pastel colors at dawn and dusk. And to see these peaks up close with all the detail and intricacies of rock and snow. These novelties still never cease to amaze me. It’s what gets me excited every time I climb a mountain.
We got up the ridge line and started looking for our way down into the next basin. I was most certain we passed the infamous notch once I recognized my old camp site. But Colie was also passionately certain it was further up. So we continued to explore further and eventually ended up backtracking down to that notch. Thank goodness for the 2 other skiers who caught up to us. They helped us navigate the boulder and shrubs since we couldn’t see what cliffs or holes laid beneath us. My memory was weak, though I remembered my friend wandering in that direction when I camped there.
The gully was straightforward, but it definitely looks different in snow than rock. On the ridge, we had transitioned from our trail shoes to ski boots, which was quite helpful for the down climb. I was glad to have brought my ice axe for this part since I’m still getting used to steep, solid snow. But I definitely just took my crampons out for a walk this day.
Rousch Creek Basin
In my mind, this is the boring section. It climbs and climbs and it’s just a big giant snowfield. Late season, we found running water under the snow where it showed gaps. Knowing that wasn’t an option, this year I brought 2 liters of water. That is unusual for me because I normally bring 1 L for upwards of 9-12 hour trips even. But given the heat, I figured 2 L would be easier than making the snow melt (although this hot of a day, it would have worked). Here, we saw some people start to descend who had camped at Inspiration Glacier. That’s a long ways to carry overnight gear, but the views there are unarguably stunning. Turns out I knew some of the people in that group from another trip last year!
Although I now know that a c2c (car to car/one day) summit attempt of Eldorado is quite common, I didn’t know realize that before. So when a couple started to pass us that morning in 2017, I was completely amazed that it was even a possibility. But somehow, in the back of my mind, I made it a goal to do Eldorado or something similar c2c. It seemed cool, seemed fun, so why not? And here I am making it happen!
But like before, this basin was difficult. It takes a toll on your mental game. How well can you deal with monotony? You no longer see the summit of Eldo. Steps are starting to feel a bit heavier because you’ve already gained 4000 feet. Somehow we were still booting, and I was really starting to feel how heavy my legs were. Knowing I could be efficient at transitioning, I let everyone else keep going as I put my skis back on. Yes, my legs still felt heavy but at least I could now drag my feet instead of picking them up to use the boot pack. I joined everyone else who just transitioned to skis some 100 feet above me. I think everyone started to move at a better pace!
We quickly found ourselves on the Eldorado Glacier, a sort of flat area of the mountain. It’s a nice change in pace! I remembered that we started to rope up around here last July, though there weren’t crevasses to be seen on our route. 1400 feet more to go to get to the summit now that you can see it. Somehow it looks closer than it is, until you see the tiny people on top. We saw a few other teams descend. Some on skis (I think the 2am group) and some on foot, the 1 am start group. As we saw the skiers zoom down from the Inspiration Glacier onto the Eldorado Glacier, we figured we should follow suit. It would get you over the flats better than the more roundabout way that you use to ascend.
Pushing forth, we started the climb up Inspiration Glacier. I don’t think it helped that I kept remembering the huge wall I hit when I reached 8000 ft last time. I’m not sure if altitude had anything to do with it, but I had shortness of breath real bad. Like every step I had to breathe 3 times to recover. Normally 800 feet isn’t much, but somehow that was. I know now that most of the time, hydrating and eating would solve issues like this.
This time I made sure I was on guard, eating and drinking. But my legs were still heavy. After all, this was a 7000 ft climb from the car and I had not climbed that much in a day since last the summer on Mesahchie and Logan. It’s a big day.
After much rallying my mind and my legs, I made it to the last knoll before taking my skis off. Knife edge was steep and I didn’t care to ski straight from the summit. I’m not that big of a skier anyway and like to play it safe! We all booted up to the top and enjoyed the summit to ourselves. The two other skiers from the gully had just come down and were soon on their way out. We were the last ones up, but we made it before our turnaround time! Under 8 hours since leaving the cars, including basically an hour+ long break and detour.Not terrible!
Oh boy are skis awesome. I’ve worked my butt off at getting better or at least more comfortable with skiing in all sorts of conditions and it has paid off. Using skis to get down a mountain is not only fun, but it’s fast. I remember I’d use to be scared of glissading down because how fast you’d go and how little control you get sometimes. Plus your bum would be frozen. So even on the downhills last time, I was still slow. Not gonna lie but I’m still the slowest skiing down in my group of friends, but it’s probably less waiting for them now. The beauty of Eldorado is that it’s mostly a blue run the whole way down. And when the sun has soften the snow, it’s perfect corn and easy skiing.
We were the last ones off the mountain because it seemed like everyone else knew better to avoid the slushy snow. We found the gully again and booted up, possibly faster than we down climbed it. The last ski descent was much less enjoyable. The Eldorado Creek Basin was completely slush. 100% slurpee. Thick and that sort of breakable crust feeling too. It was nearly impossible for me to control my turns, so I defaulted back to consciously doing pizza turns.
Eventually, we started to just side slip traverse skier’s right around the boulder field maximize the snow. Thankfully this took us all the way back to the trail with just some 30-50 feet of bushwhacking in and out of alder. Bonus – we saw people ahead of us on trail, which was a good sign! Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the forest floor is main trail or side trail till you see it. Only 2000 feet left to descend.
The Last Bit
In 2017, I had new boots that weren’t broken in. Bad choice, but I had no other option. So in addition to my feet being in pain, my knees were killing me too. This is why poles are great. They save your knees!2000 feet descent is not huge in the grand scheme of things, but when everything hurts and every step something aches, you have to keep your mind distracted. I remember everyone had sort of left me to my own devices. It was nice to suffer alone, but also sometimes worrisome when I lost sight of them. And the last few feet back to the car, I was still dragging my feet along, ready to sit in a car again for the ride home. Heart full, but body so weak.
With poles this time around, it was way easier to descend down the climber’s trail. Not to say that it was still rough on the knees, but at least it wasn’t deadly painful each step. Plus having trail shoes was nice for the ankle mobility rather than boots that are a tripping hazard. However, it was also difficult since our skis would hit the back of our legs or would get caught on each large step down the trail.
I always look forward to the end of a hike, so when the trees showed the slope flattening out, I did a little dance inside. One last hurdle – the creek crossing and we were out. It was much easier to figure out the creek in broad day light and with the trail leading straight across. And we were back on the Cascade River Road! Time to bike down to the car. I was most looking forward to this, the easy way out! Actually the road is flat enough that you still need to pedal at times. But what a fun ride!
We made it back around 12 hours total, survived the bushwhack with tall skis, made it up and down safely and it was indeed a big day in my books. It was one of those coming full circle moments where you looked back and remember the suffering and how much less suffering happened this time and doing it in a cool way! As much as I enjoyed camping above tree line, reaching my goal of a c2c summit of Eldorado and skiing it, that was just beyond my wildest dreams. This trip has given me more confidence and shined light into what I’ve accomplished the last few years.
I am so thankful for all my friends who’ve had the patience to wait for me as I struggled behind them on every uphill, for teaching me new skills, and giving me the space to push my limits (safely). And most importantly, for bringing me to the mountains where I would not have experienced on my own or out of my own will.
Don’t forget to remember how far you’ve come in any endeavor and I’m sure you’ll be proud of yourself too!
No map because this is already well traveled and well mapped! The standard route works well.
If you can, bring a gravel bike if the gate isn’t opened yet! It’s efficient and the road is pretty packed so you don’t really slip. It’s overall fairly flat of a ride, a gentle up and down at times. I locked my bike to a tree, but it’s easy to hide it somewhere too.
You need a wilderness permit if you’re staying overnight (obtained at the Marblemount Ranger Station)
Cascade River crossing: There are 2 giant logs solidly bound. They aren’t slippery when wet. The next crossing is straight across, either by log or a rock hopping across. Then follow the trail best you can to till you find the trail sign.
This was mid May and snow line was 4000 ft. You can ski all the way to about 50 feet above the trail in the woods if you stay skier’s right. But for going up, climber’s right might be best.
Eldorado Creek Basin will probably get mushy no matter what, but the Roush Creek Basin is pretty good if you time it right.