meet me in the afterglow | eldorado peak overnight
August 23, 2022
9 miles . 6700 ft gain . 8868 ft high
North Cascades National Park
This marks the third time up and down the heinous boulder fields for me. Personally I love boulder fields, but this one has always punched thoroughly each time. Eldorado remains a special peak in my heart because it was the first glaciated peak that I summited, not knowing very much and being in quite poor fitness compared to my partners. Last, year I came full circle to ski tour Eldorado car-to-car in a day. You can read more about the comparison between those two trips in that blog. This year, I’m coming out of an ACL injury and my friend happened to be visiting late summer. She had eyes only on Boston Basin, but I believed there are more beautiful spots than the famed Cascade Pass (although I still haven’t been there, oops). In a series of misfortune and miscommunication, I did not snag the Boston Basin XC Camp permits. I had misguided hopes for snagging walk-up permits for Sahale Glacier Camp. Nonetheless, I was determined to give Marisa the alpine experience.
Eldorado Peak was a great choice for a weeknight. It’s a very popular peak and most people tend to go over the weekend since it is easily accessible and many also do it in a single long day. I personally don’t gravitate towards repeating hikes and climbs, but I’ve felt so much regret the last two times for not fully capturing what the experience is like getting to the summit from the glaciers. This time, we would stay at high camp and enjoy the sunrise and sunset over the famous Moraine Lake beneath Forbidden Peak.
We ended up getting walk-up permits at the Wilderness Information Center at Marblemount. You’d have to stop there to pick up permits in person anyway and from their online reservation system, I knew there were still plenty of spots left. With permit in hand, we quickly made our way over to the trailhead. Unfortunately, the log bridge I had been on was no longer there. From what I know, the river crossing changes every year as new logs get lodged in place. I’m not sure how it works because sometimes it looks like people will secure the logs. I didn’t go searching for a different crossing for long and we ended up wading in the water. It was not too cold if you could walk across quickly enough.
Pro tip: For major stream crossings, use 2 poles to help balance and get across quickly. Tie your shoes to your pack or chest strap.
Soon, we made our way across another set of logs that were semi-permanent at this point and found the trailhead sign. It’s amazing how far into the forest trailhead signs can be. Shows that the entrance from the actual trailhead can vary widely until that point. Thus began our long ascent through the forest. Surprisingly, it went by relatively quick, but we both felt fatigue in our bodies already. Marisa had just done a few sections of the PCT over the past month and I was just gaining my mountain fitness back from surgery.
I kept telling myself, just to the boulder fields! And little did I know how long the boulder field section was. From my first trip, I must have put it all into a black box. And from my ski trip, half of it was in snow. So I didn’t realize that the boulder field went up about a thousand feet! At least after that the views came in more and we’d enter some pleasant meadows.
That is, until we realized the meadows were infested with these giant biting bugs. After the fact, I looked them up – I think they’re horse flies. They look like giant house flies but they are not so friendly. Bites are more painful than mosquito bites and you can’t feel that they’ve landed on you until the pain. Super icky.
Anyway, it was incredibly beautiful to be up in the Eldorado Creek Basin. Johannesburg was quite back lit unfortunately. It was really easy to get lost in the views and time quickly passed as we found ourselves at the notch to cross the ridge and onto the Roush Creek Basin. We started roping up rather quickly as soon as the rocks ended just for a dry spot to set up everything. Lots of people were heading down roped up this time of year. During ski season, the crevasses are very filled in so there is little need to rope up. And the first time I came up we primarily roped up the flat section since you travel parallel to the cracks.
It’s an interesting question to see who ropes up when and where, though it really is all a matter of risk tolerance. Since this was my first trip being the primary lead, I opted to keep everything more cautious. Better safe than sorry here! The night before, I had quickly ran through rescue situations just to be on the same page. We set up the ropes, coiled and knotted everything that needed to be done. 1000 more feet to the top of the flats.
Honestly the snowy section went by so much fast than all the previous sections this day. Perhaps it was the snow cooling me off or maybe the straightforwardness of snow travel made it efficient. Marisa kept taking in all the sights and I tried to point out different peaks in the distance. Soon we arrived at the Eggplant and we joked that we could try it if we had more energy. So I’m still down 1 out of all the peaks in this region. Maybe one day I’ll do the inspiration traverse and tag more peaks here, but for now, I think I’ll be done with the whole forest-boulder field section for a while.
Crossing the Eldorado Glacier is surprisingly long. Something closer to 3/4 mile. You’d think you’re a 5 minute walk away, but it’s much longer. You can’t tell distance with the snow or the rock. There is no reference point. At camp, we realized we were the only ones there, which is pretty cool considering that there’s almost 10 different campsites there.
Little did I know that a lot of alpine climbs actually have composting toilets all the way up by campsites. This one has a great view of Moraine Lake and also of anyone crossing the Eldorado Glacier, ha! We picked our campsite to be closest to the dripping water and the toilet and views of the lake. We got good beta from other hikers coming down and we barely found the running water downhill from camp. It was just enough that I could use my Katadyn pump filter.
I was glad to have brought camp shoes because it was so dry and you can easily scramble the rocks. Plus if you’re on snow, you’re probably on a glacier, and you probably should rope up. Once we set up camp and made dinner, 2 other people showed up. We actually saw them at the parking lot but turns out they like to make YouTube videos, so it takes them extra long to get anywhere. Pretty amazing dedication to getting the tripod selfie videos.
We waited a little longer in the tent before popping out to watch the light show happen. It was honestly less magnificent than some other sunsets I’ve seen. I suspect there were some could out west blocking the sunlight. It was interesting watching the alpenglow come in and out almost like a slowly flickering candle. At least the sky was really pretty! I scrambled up a bit higher in my Chacos to get a good view of Glacier Peak. Pesky Eggplant kept being in the way of a clean view of Glacier Peak. At the low camp near the ridge notch, there’s a really good view of both Johannesburg and Glacier Peak. I guess you can’t win them all.
The afterglow came and then it started getting to dark for a hand held camera shot. So I retired to camp and slowly made it to bed. We were getting up early after all. Marisa and I are both late night owls, but we can both appreciate a good sunrise. So we compromised by waking up well before sunrise, with plans to watch it on the way up to the peak. There was no way we’d wake up early enough to be on the summit when the sun rose.
4:15am our alarms went off. We snoozed for 15 more minutes and dragged ourselves up to make breakfast before getting our harnesses on. 5:00am start time turned into 5:20 walking. We made it off the glacier and onto the rock scramble bit just as the sun rose. Marisa kept asking to keep moving, but stubborn me with my camera, didn’t want to budge at all. As soon as the warm colors turned into blue, I agreed to head up. We didn’t bother taking off our harnesses for efficiency so we were annoyingly short rope/tied to each other for the scramble section. Meaning we had to move at a similar enough pace to make sure the rope didn’t catch on the rocks. We took the rocks as high as we could until it started flattening out and it was easy to get onto the snow again.
The last pitch up was as lovely as I remembered in the past. Steep on both sides of the knife edge, but relatively low consequences. We took our sweet, sweet time to soak it all in and at last reached the dry end of the summit. We spent at least 1.5 hours on the summit, which seemed fitting. That’s how all summit climbs should be! Enjoy the top for all the work it took to get up.
We figured that we should get back down to make it back to the car at a reasonable time. The other two were going to stay another night and head up that evening. What a relaxing way to do this! Once we left camp (after another 1.5 hours of slow packing and lounging), we didn’t see another soul. As much as I wanted to enjoy the meadow, we couldn’t stay long because of the bugs. We hustled down the boulder field, trying to swat at the bugs while maintaining balance and switching between holding rocks and holding our poles.
The forest was our saving grace. I’m not sure if I had been as happy to see a steep forest trail than that moment. We would be free of the sun and the bugs. And even more surprising, the downhill went by so quickly. Perhaps it was breaking it up mentally into small chunks. Here’s 200 feet down, 80% left. Another 200 and then 400, you’re about 50% of the way there. Usually I’m complaining about sore knees and feet, and while yes they were fast approaching discomfort, we made it to the river just in time to give my feet a good ice bath.
There’s always new beta and trip reports out there, so go check them out! Here’s things I liked knowing/wish I knew:
The Cascade River crossing changes within a season and by years. Look upstream and downstream for logs to cross. There may be bushwhacking involved to get to the main trail which is not well marked. The other option, if it’s late season and low flow – walk through the river at a low crossing. We went straight across from the parking and to the island next to the bridge just before the trailhead.
Yes the climber’s trail is steep, but there are many others like it around Washington. If you’ve done Mailbox old trail, you have nothing to fear.
The infamous trail next to the boulder field is actually not the greatest. Yes, you may be off boulders, but yes you’ll get whacked in the face by bushes too. The cairns will generally take you towards the trail, which is climber’s right of the field and weaves in and out of the bushes. If you’re in a forest, you’ve gone too far.
There’s many trails leading up the basin, but the notch is fairly clear (to me at least) and the trail tends to peter off especially if there’s still patches of snow.
This time of year, water is plentiful in both basins. I only brought a 1L bottle (intended to have 2 but it worked)
Campsites: All along the Eldorado Creek Basin (esp if snowy), the ridge between the two basins, many many sites just across the Eldorado Glacier (there’s one to the left up high), and I saw at least one on the ridge as we climbed up the Inspiration Glacier, and lastly there’s a small bivy site at the summit. Makes me want to come back and camp there.
Eldorado Glacier: There are cracks and the trail is so well traveled that it’ll shift as people start to see new crevasses open up. You do travel parallel to them.
Inspiration Glacier: It’s basically zero actual glacier travel this time of year. You can bypass the big crevasses/moats by hopping on the rock early on. The snow bridges looked fairly solid, but the gaps are huge! Can’t believe you can ski it a few months prior.
Permits: reserve them at least 2 days in advance or risk walk up permits at Marblemount
Food storage: bear cans not necessary, but critter-proof containers or bags required