I’m a fan of guidebooks. In fact, I’m a little infatuated with them, having a large collection covering most of North America’s mountain ranges and climbing areas, along with a few other corners of the globe. I love them for their history–both the regions’ and their contribution to mine–their pages still leaking bits of granite and sand from our time in the mountains together. These guidebooks, full of the experiences of others, can save you a whole lot of wasted time, boost your chances of success, and even increase your safety margin considerably.
However, there are also times when too much information (a.k.a “beta”) can suck a lot of fun out of your trip. It was only maybe 20 years ago that the most you could find on a given area was a map and a guidebook. These days, no matter where you want to go, you can find a mountain of information before you even open your front door. You can find extensive trip reports, photos and more on just about any inch of the planet worth visiting. Frankly, it’s gotten a little out of hand.
I’m here to contend that in the mountains, less info can indeed mean a much higher quality experience. All of that information is robbing us of the experience of seeing things with our own eyes, and experiencing these places at a much deeper level.
So, if this overwhelming amount of information is what’s making everything seem like we’re all just repeating someone else’s trip, why not just remove it from the equation? After all, most of us are seeking adventure out there, so why not just get a little more bang for your buck?
Fred Beckey called it the “largest contiguous ice sheet in the lower 48.” It is a truly a massive sprawl of four named glaciers draped over jagged summits in Washington’s North Cascades. That was alluring enough to keep a traverse resurfacing in my mind. On one end was the well-traveled Cascade Pass area, hosting such famous peaks as Eldorado, Forbidden, Torment, Boston, and Johannesburg. At the other end was Lake Diablo and the North Cascades Highway. All of the peaks in between had been climbed and I’m sure the path that my partner and I were about to travel had seen crampons and boots before. However, after a brief search for a description of the traverse came up empty, I suddenly realized what I had found. This was that rare chance to stop looking for more information, leave all of that mental clutter behind and just go for it. We would carry a paper map in hand, enough gear to McGyver our way out of anything we anticipated getting ourselves into and just the right amont of mystery for a real adventure.
We left early on a Thursday to drop the shuttle, and stopped in to register at the Marblemount Backcountry Station for our trip in North Cascades National Park. Here, we were informed that two bridges we’d need were washed-out and that the trail we would end on was officially “closed.” (We were, however, “informally informed” that we could legally travel at our own risk.) We took this as just another interesting development in an already organic excursion and sped off to our trailhead.
We climbed steeply to the base of Eldorado Peak that night, and slept in the spectacular, glacial glow of a full moon.
We woke early and climbed Eldorado’s stunning snow arête to the summit, passing a small NOLS group as we descended back to camp. These would be the only people we would see the entire trip.
We packed up camp and stepped quickly across the massive Inspiration Glacier to avoid the incoming rush of weekend warriors headed to Eldorado and finished the day with a quick, low fifth class romp up a broken ridge on Klawatti Peak. We rappelled off the summit as the sun was setting, and bivied at its base, again nestled under granite giants and a sea of stars.
The next morning brought a push into the truly unknown portion of our trip, where a little beta could have made our day far more straightforward. We began by ascending the glacier and climbing onto the ridge at a low notch. We lucked out and a single rappel off the other side gave us access to the N. Klawatti glacier and Austera Peak, with its intimidating and jagged ridge that we’d need to somehow get around.
Though showing promise on the map, every gully was too long for a single rappel and too loose to imagine the chaos that pulling a rope would cause. We kept descending, pausing occasionally to assess one rotten couloir after another. On the map, the jam-packed topographical lines showed real potential for stranding us, or forcing us some 2,000 feet into the valley for an end run on the ridge.
Almost resigning ourselves to the knee-bashing descent, we miraculously linked up with a set of benches around the toe of the ridge that took us perfectly to the terminus of the Primus Glacier. We continued up and over Primus’ talus-heaped summit and down to the Borealis Glacier, which would prove to be the sting in the tail at the end of a long day.
Shortly, we found ourselves cliffed-out on a seeping, sloping, rotten bench of rock and were forced to slither back up and onto the bullet-hard and heavily crevassed black ice of the glacier we’d been trying to avoid. With two ice screws, a lot of hope and the waning, 10 p.m. light of a North Cascade summer, we picked and kicked our way down the icefall. Reaching soft snow just as darkness enveloped us. We descended blindly to an improbable stream crossing below the glacier’s snout and, just as we were turning delusional with exhaustion, an oasis of sand amidst an endless field of talus seemed like the gold at the end of our rainbow.
We slept almost immediately and hard, relieved that we’d finished the most challenging portion of our traverse.
Our final day would be mostly trail miles, but we still had to get to the trail and deal the complications of two washed-out bridges. It began in a classic, elevator shaft-like Cascade descent. We dropped 4,000 feet into the Thunder Creek Valley in less than two miles, lowering ourselves by branches and getting stung by angry yellow jackets along the way. In the valley, we emerged from the forest directly in front of massive downed tree, giving us passage across the raging creek and to the trail we needed. Another 10 miles and some more luck took us across a debris pile that was the second missing bridge, one very close bear, and the NPS “Bridge Out” sign at the trailhead that marked the end of our adventure.
As we soaked our bodies in the icy water of Lake Diablo, the gratification began to well up from within. This had been one of the most satisfying trips either if us had ever taken into the mountains and it was right in our backyard. It had been everything I hoped for and more.
For a couple of precious days, we got to feel like explorers of an unknown land.
Untethered from route descriptions and expectations of where we “should” be, we were free to enjoy every step of the journey because, after all, you can’t really be off-route if you’re not entirely sure where you are going.
Tips for a Successful Beta-Free Adventure
Set your own challenge.
You should choose an environment and terrian you are comfortable in. Don’t come out to the Cascades for a beta-free adventure after only ever climbing in New England. You must be able to accurately estimate terrain challenges and the time and techniques involved in moving over them. Figure out your plan B and C and make sure achieving those are also well within your technical skillset and fitness level. A love of “Type 2” fun is a prerequisite.
Set your own level of information (in)tolerance.
The less you know the more challenging it will be. The gold standard is a just a map and compass on the trip, but I often plan with Google Earth or other map programs to locate high alpine areas that are ideal for long, cross-country traverses. Finding trailheads (and making sure they are accessible) is also key. Still worried? Bring your phone or a GPS if you need occasional assurance for cross-country travel. Add whatever info you need to feel reasonably confident, knowing that the feeling of being unsure of certain things is what really makes this so fun. Reduce your information consumption as your comfort level increases, but NEVER overestimate what your capable of tackling on such a trip. Start easy.
Be Responsible for Yourself.
Being self-sufficient is mandatory. Your cell phone is not a helicopter ticket. You are responsible for setting an acceptable level of risk for yourself. Accidents happen, but know your first aid, tell others where you are going, when you’re due out, carry the ten essentials, and do all the other prep and stafety stuff you should be doing on every trip. If you’re prone to making a phone call to get out of an uncomfortable situation in the backcountry, this is not your style of fun.