IT’S REMARKABLE HOW a place you once barely knew can transform your life forever. For me, North Cascades National Park, one of Washington State’s three great national parks, is such a place.
Like many Seattleites, I’m a transplant. I was born and raised in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes and zero mountains. At that time, I knew little of the Cascade Range stretching across the Northwest, let alone the North Cascades — the “sea of peaks” north of Glacier Peak.
After moving to Seattle in 2013, I discovered the mountains east of Puget Sound. A single day hike turned into regular hikes and backpack trips. Within a year, I wanted to explore farther and higher into the range, so I joined a mountaineering course.
The North Cascades particularly captivated my mind. By 2015, I wanted to make these mountains a big part of life. So, I left my original career in the law and transitioned into outdoor photography. It was an unconventional move, and I was exhilarated by this new path in life.
In late 2017, I learned that my beloved North Cascades National Park would celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to celebrate the park’s anniversary in a special way: by climbing 50 peaks inside the park during the 2018 climbing season.
This wild idea led to much research and deliberation. The range is known for unpredictable weather and savage conditions. In any given year, there might be only several months’ worth of favorable climbing conditions. Fifty summits in one season was questionable, at best. But I was up for the challenge.
By May 2018, my project began. I started with a variety of moderate climbs but eventually launched into bigger ones in remote corners of the park. Many of the peaks included Class-3 or Class-4 scrambling or glacier travel, and some involved more technical Class-5 rock. I tackled a variety of classics, including Eldorado Peak, Buckner Mountain, Mount Shuksan and Forbidden Peak.
By early August, I surpassed the project’s halfway point. But the going got tough. Wildfire smoke blanketed the range. A thick haze filled the mountain air. The hot and dry season melted many snowfields that normally made for quick travel. I encountered unforeseen challenging terrain. Early fall brought cold weather systems that coated the high peaks with fresh snow and ice. One thing was clear: The mountains were reminding me who was in charge.
By late September, with 10 peaks and a few weeks of fair weather left, I took a step back to reflect. My project involved a physical challenge of climbing 50 peaks. But its purpose was greater. More than anything, I wished to celebrate this unique park that changed my life. I wanted to support the park and raise funds for its benefit. I also hoped to shed light on the personal connections we can make with our public lands. After all, it’s these connections that lead to public land advocacy.
With a renewed sense of purpose and determination, I marched forward and ticked off my remaining climbs, one by one. In mid-October, five months after peak one, I stepped onto my 50th peak, in the remote Whatcom region of the park, as part of a final 50-plus-mile trip. After the final summit, I walked out of the park on tired legs and with a full heart. I had never felt more humbled. And never more certain that the range’s myriad forested valleys, jagged peaks and age-old glaciers promised a lifetime of adventure in this special place.