Every journey to Washington's North Cascades crest follows a sequence. Each trail moves vertically from evergreen forests to terrain more common to the Arctic Circle; each trek ascends from a realm of abundant life to a landscape
of boreal austerity. At times it seems the ice age ended only yesterday. Glacier polish still shines.
On a windless morning, I light out toward Torment Basin, the silence disturbed only by the Cascade River's music and the groan and crack of tiny glaciers perched on rocky bowls high above. Droplets of water quiver at the tip of each thistle needle and pool atop huckleberry leaves. Spiders and beetles work below the threshold of hearing. Deep in the forest, moss draperies block the valley's dim light. Humus sops up the thud of my footfalls.
Thickets of devil's club glower, guarding either side of shallow streams. Bouquets of red berries dangle at their tops. Their broad, flat leaves appear furred, hiding cruel barbs along the branches.
Hours pass as I gain elevation, and then the forest ends abruptly, as if the trees beyond this point were mown down by a scythe. Gardens fill the bottom of Torment Basin, ringed by moraines, scoured rock, and living ice. The glaciers pulsed to treeline a few generations ago, but life recaptured the terrain as the ice withdrew. Now, gaudy flowers crowd the brooks-paintbrush, gentian, columbine. Heather holds sandy moraines together, its pink and white bells shivering in a breath of breeze.
Across the valley the mute, cloud-shrouded buttresses of Johannesburg Mountain wait like ghosts. Creeks slalom down the hillsides, quicksilver strands woven through the forest, while above the swatch of dark greens, cloud and rock speak in a lexicon of grays. A cold breeze streams from the glaciers, an echo of katabatic winds that howled when ice held sway. I can feel the Pleistocene on my face.
Adapted from North Cascades Crest: Notes and Images From America's Alps (Sasquatch Books, 1999).
In 1968, the Sierra Club helped win national-park status for the North Cascades. You can enjoy the fruits of those labors on a Sierra Club outing: From June 24 to July 1, hike, bike, raft, and ride horses in Stehekin Valley; from August 3 to 9, join a special family trip in the remote valley. Other treks visit alpine meadows, ice fields, and rushing streams (August 4-10), and hike to waterfalls that give the range its name (September 22-28). Call (415) 977-5522 or go to www.sierraclub.org/outings.