ost people who even know where Ragged Ridge is think of it as the desolate, snaggletooth ridge of geo-shrapnel towering over them to the north as they hike the Fisher Creek trail; a baked, waterless hell fit only for black flies, alpine weeds, and Bulgero-masochists. The latter, those ticking off the ‘Bulger’ or Washington’s highest 100 list, tend to dispense with the four major peaks of Ragged Ridge as rapidly and, given their preference for south side traversing, as painfully as possible. Guessing from their summit register entries, the experience is akin to getting four impacted wisdom teeth extracted, sans nitrous.
In fact, Ragged Ridge is one of the most scenic, varied, and unsung alpine traverses in the Cascades. The peaks themselves; Cosho, Kimtah, Katsuk, and Mesahchie, aren’t as nearly as rotten as their impacted wisdom teeth reputation would imply.
They are so much worse.
Into the Time Machine
James and I change into our backcountry garb. I project a high level of readiness in a pair of Ex Officio shorts with more patches than a Microsoft new product launch. James looks over at my well used microfibre T and asks, “Does that come in white, too?” James, as always, announces his Value Village sponsorship with a blue button-down shirt, a wide brim hat that seems to ask “I say, could that be a bohemian waxwing?” and a new pair of very red boots. I look at his polyester khakis that are too short and too big at the waist. He shrugs, “I never bother to try them on.”
We step off Highway 20 and onto the Panther Creek Trail, which promptly takes us straight up 600 feet over a small rock outcrop and all the way back down to the brushy creek bottom. Perhaps the Thunder Creek alternative would have been a better choice. Once we reach Fourth of July Pass, we turn east and head up steep but relatively open forest. By now, the midsummer heat had penetrated the canopy and trickles of sweat begin to sting my eyes. I still have a few swallows of water left, but I would need to find more soon. My mind drifts across the languid monotony of the ascent. It soon runs aground on that ancient, answerless question.
Why do I come here? Why does James? Why does anyone?
This place is where the digitized rhythms of modernity; the Monday mornings, the “True Strength for America’s Future” bumper stickers, the Qwest Holiday Catalogs, are abstractions. This place is where my presence, along with its cargo of worries and joys, is largely irrelevant, although lighting a forest fire might change that. Here, I can finally step away from myself and become lost in a phantasmagoria of non-human scale. The stories here can last a hundred million years or the microsecond a serac takes to collapse. Here, the nearest star, gravitation, water, and a handful of simple rules that assemble leftover scraps of carbon into a pallet of infinite beauty and complexity are everything. Nothing here gives one flying fuck about me or my issues. It’s a place of grand indifference. I like it that way.
I’d like it more, however, if I wasn’t out of water. We break out of the forest onto an alpen ridge with a view of what seems like the entire Cascade Range in all directions. Waterfalls, glistening ribbons thousands of feet high, boom in every direction, and nary a drop to drink. Half a day into this and the place is already fucking with me.
The idea of sudden climate change should come as no surprise to anyone who climbs mountains. In just a few feet, forest has given way to alpine tundra. Some imperceptible tipping point has changed everything. Once a handful, or perhaps just one, key organism is pushed too far, the entire biome collapses into something completely different.
We continue up the ridge, finally camping at a pretty little lake among larches.
The following day we continue up and over Ragged Peak before dropping down to the post-glacial basin on its northern side. Here, the environment has been stripped of biological trappings and reduced to rock, sun, and water in its various incarnations. When an environment is pushed to the extreme like this, the ecosystem bottoms out where it began: lichens.
Every step above the firn line brings a climber closer to the kind of raw world where life began. Up here, lichens reign. I become lost in thought pondering lichen’s role in the ecosystem. I try to avoid stepping on them, but they are everywhere.
JESUS H. CHRIST, THAT FAWKING HURT! Clutching my right hand, I pick myself up. While lost in lichenland, I tripped and drove my palm into the edge of my ice axe shovel with my full body weight. The fleshy base of my thumb and wrist, now sporting a new crease, is already swollen and bluing. I can barely dangle my axe from that hand. We have yet to climb a mountain or traverse a glacier.
After lunch, we climb a steep snow slope to regain the ridge. I follow James’ steps, my gimp arm dangling uselessly. Throbbing seems to be the only job it can handle. We cross the ridge and head for the col just east of Cosho, beginning the only south side traverse of the trip.
I begin the only south side traverse of the trip, that is. James sprints ahead, over the top of the ridge. I traverse about a half a mile and wait for him. He catches up, and rabbits forward again in his natural, paddleball pace. Like the mountains, he is anything but linear.
We climb up to the col; a rotten affair. Once there, we cross to the north and step onto the Kimtah Glacier, which conveniently tops out right at our feet. From there, Cosho, our first objective, is a fifteen minute scramble. Deciding that it’s too late to attempt Kimtah, we descend and camp on a spectacular glacial bench a couple of hundred feet beneath the col as the fog creeps in.
On Little Cat Feet
I follow James up into the fog. This ethereal spirit softens the billions of tons of loose rock we pretend cannot possibly rain down upon us. We traverse Kimtah’s south side across several gullies, encountering a few stray cairns along the way.
Cairns are constructed by one of the following three beings: 1) Ancient Astronauts, 2) people who know where they’re going and 3) morons who don’t. James is militantly anti-cairn. I’m more of a cairn-moderate; destroying only those that are blatantly unnecessary, off route, or scenically disruptive. The fog softens our politics. A trail of freshly stacked cairns marks our ascent.
Several hundred feet below the summit, we emerge into the sunlight like the first amphibians. The jagged silhouettes of Mesahchie and Katsuk breach the vapor sea. This will be, by far, our most beautiful summit.
I stow my camera after a few shots. What happened to that damn cairn?
JAMES! IT MAKES MORE SENSE IF THE LAST GUY DESTROYS THE CAIRNS, BUDDY!
We descend the Kimtah Glacier, skirting a large bergschrund, and down-climb to a gravely bench beneath the Katsuk Glacier at 6000 feet. After terraforming a campsite, we head up towards the Mesahchie/Katsuk col. We skipped Kimtah yesterday, so we’ll try to climb all three remaining peaks today.
The lower Katsuk is strewn with rockfall; the snaggletooth skyline directly above us is a wall of teetering boulders perched above an ice face. Pinball Alley. We ascend quickly. A few small rocks come down, but nothing alarming. Half way to the upper glacier, we climb a short, steep rock slab in crampons to gain the Katsuk’s upper lobe.
After crossing a glacial flat we ascend towards the Mesahchie/Katsuk Col. The transition from glacier to rock looks challenging, but foreshortening always does that.
After passing an impressive bergschrund, we find ourselves staring into the deep, wide moat that separates glacier from rock. Pulling out our twin 7mm ropes, we prepare to rappel using our two ice axes as anchors. The drop is only about 15 feet, but overhung.
“Hope we can prusik back up.”
45 minutes later we’re standing on the summit of Katsuk. The climb begins as a relatively solid, slabby ridge before dropping its pilgrims into the chippy gully beneath the true summit. On the way down, James and I agree on a 6:00 turn around time, but I sure as hell don’t want to come all the way back here just for Mesahchie.
The route up Mesahchie follows a series of narrow, shrapnel strewn gullies. It’s quite possibly one of the crappiest in the Cascades, but at least it’s direct. In half an hour we’re watching the evening fog roll in from the summit.
Once back at the moat, I try to prusik up our twin 7mm ropes. I can’t slide the knot upward, so James hangs on the rope to provide tension while I try to avoid cramponing him in the face. After 10 minutes of our sharing the same ice water shower I’ve ascended about 18 inches. We’ll either need to try something else or decide who gets eaten.
We notice a snow ramp to the right. Our top rope won’t provide much security given the swing, but it looks straightforward. The ramp takes me high enough to reach over the lip with my injured hand, which will have to do as an ice axe. Fortunately, it has healed up considerably since yesterday. I dig in a heel hook over the lip. Only one more obstacle between us and camp: Pinball Alley.
The play of light and fog and sudden drop in temperature give the descent an extraterrestrial feel. Nothing comes down the Alley. It must have frozen up already. Soon we’re back at camp surrounded by water rushing under the deepening blue of nightfall.
As we begin our descent to the world of Chelan-bound Dodge Rams laden with corn fed youth and 24-oz Tecates, the fog, which has been our ethereal spirit totem during this trip, finally bids us farewell and dissipates into, well, the ether, I guess.
We traverse under the Katsuk glacier’s snout and several spectacular waterfalls. I think of global warming and 24-oz Tecates. James rabbits ahead, his elfin red boots skipping across the talus. From there we follow mostly dry streambeds to Panther Pass, where we stop for a bite.
To our happy surprise, the descent from Panther Pass doesn’t require much bushwhacking. Well, to my happy surprise, anyway. Early in the descent, James dives into the brush to skier’s left of the creek. I demure and backtrack to check out the slope on the creek’s opposite side. It’s steep but goes well until flattening out onto an alder choked boulder field. I re-cross the creek, and soon I’m jogging through open old growth singing Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn.” Why fight an earworm? It only makes them stronger.
I begin to hear James calling “Hay-oh!” for his partner from somewhere across the creek. Apparently, he diametrically decided to re-cross about when I did. Same wavelength, different phase. I answer, but his calls grow muted until they are finally extinguished by the dense stands of slide alder and willow he is apparently enjoying. Sure, I feel bad…like a bomber pilot watching his wingman go down in flames.
It sucks, but it sucks a lot worse if you’re the other guy.
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