Alpine Primer: Where to Escape the Crowds in the High Mountains

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Hike-in, backcountry climbs off the beaten path 

After two days of bushwhacking, runouts and choss, Christian Cattell, a backcountry ranger intern at Yosemite National Park, settled in atop Megalodon Ridge, a committing, 4,000-foot 5.10 deep in the North Cascades of northern Washington, for the longest sunset of his life. He thinks his was the fourth recorded ascent of the Megalodon.

Megalodon Ridge summits Mt. Goode, the tallest peak in North Cascades National Park. Despite its grandeur, the mountain can’t be seen from any road, and if you draw a ring around the region, it looks a bit like a hand, flipping you the bird. Which is a bit how the Cascades feel, to climb in, Christian said. They’re often wet and always demanding. Everything about them seems to push humans the other way.

"The sense of isolation, of self-reliance—that’s something I will carry with me for a long time."

Now, atop Mt. Goode, with thousands of feet of exposure below, he got the panorama he’d imagined. He watched the sun dance its way down, angling to the horizon. The golden light illuminated the seemingly endless wilderness ahead.

“They’re the wildest mountains I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They’re huge and jagged and mean and beautiful, all at the same time.”

High above the valley floor, he didn’t much think about the 20-mile hike that awaited him the next day.

“When you’re out there and you’re completely on your own, you feel it,” he said. “That’s something I’ve taken away—I try to maintain that sense of isolation, of self-reliance. That’s something I will carry with me for a long time.”

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Every climber should experience that "something" at least once, so I spoke with alpine addicts like Christian to figure out what alpine climbing areas are just under the radar enough to provide that experience.

And, with that, know that this alpine primer isn’t full of intricate beta—part of the joy of alpine climbing is figuring out each hike, each pitch, each movement, for yourself. But this will help you cut to the chase. Below are five alpine areas renowned for their solitude, bullet-proof granite and sublime beauty.

The Cascades, Washington

With a variety of peaks and only 28,000 annual visitors to the National Park proper, it's easy to find solitude. 

Like in any alpine area, Christian said climbers need to be wary of the weather, and especially of rain. Famed journalist John McPhee put it a little more poetically: “Everywhere, from every slope, the Cascades cascade,” he wrote in Encounters with the Archdruid. “Water shoots out of cracks in the rock, it falls over the edges of cliffs, it foams, sprays, runs and plunges pure and cold. Enough snow and rain fall up there to irrigate Libya, and when water is not actually falling from the sky the sun is melting it from alpine ice.”

Sunrise from Eldorado Peak in North Cascades National Park | Photo submitted by Mountain Project user ccmski body

Christian said to expect a long, arduous approach, full of bush-whacking. Expect rain and bad weather, being stuck in a tent for hours or days. Expect to see few other souls. Expect panoramic views of beauty you’ve never seen, have never before imagined.

“Don’t have any attachment to an outcome,” Christian said. “Be safe, be smart and just go for it.”

Alpine season is heavily weather-dependent and runs roughly from mid-July until early September. It begins when the snow melts and the days get longer, and ends when temperatures drop, days shorten and ice begins to form.

Trailheads, permit requirements and bivy situations vary based on the objective, so be sure to do your research before venturing into the wilderness.

First-trip Ticklist

North Ridge, Mt. Stuart — This Cascades classic offers 20 pitches of superb climbing, up to 5.9.

Northwest Face, Forbidden Peak — Some say it’s even better than its sister climb, the West Ridge—one of the “50 Classic Climbs of North America.”

The Bighorns, Wyoming

Welcome to Wyoming's least-trafficked adventure-climbing area

Dougald MacDonald, executive editor at the American Alpine Club, first saw the Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains from a plane.

“I was flying from Denver to Calgary and looked out the window and saw all these huge cliffs,” he said.

Although the trailhead lies within spitting distance of Ten Sleep, a popular sport climbing locale, the area has seen very little traffic. The last guidebook was published in the 1970s, and the hikes in are 10 miles, minimum.

“Most climbers like things that are a little more accessible and they definitely like information,” Dougald said. “They don’t actually like to explore. The good side of that is it does leave areas that are pretty untrammeled.”

Black Tooth Mountain and Mt. Woolsey, Cloud Peak Wilderness | Photo submitted by MP user Sarah Meiser

Two peaks in the area summit over 13,000 feet, and the some of the spectacular Bighorns rock faces shoot up more than 1,000 vertical feet from the earth. The Cloud Peak Wilderness, with its lack of documentation and abundance of adventure, is the perfect place for Dougald.

“To me there’s nothing quite like the adventure and the puzzle of not knowing what’s ahead,” he said. “It’s also scary. Making the effort to go someplace that few other people go to is almost always worth it.”

Dougald said there’s tremendous potential all over the country, even right in our backyards. All you have to do is keep your eyes open.

“There’s this assumption that you have to go halfway around the world or buy a plane ticket to Alaska or the Yukon or whatever,” he said. “But you don’t. You can find these landscapes and go into the semi-unknown really close to home. And that’s an experience that a lot of people would really enjoy if they tried it.”

Although hikes vary to some degree, most trails start from West Ten Sleep Lake. There’s a $16-per-night campsite available at the lake, but plan to bivy once you’ve made your hike in.

First-trip Ticklist

South Arete, Mt. Woolsey — 600 feet of climbing up to 5.5 and a summit just shy of 13,000 feet. It’s a little mind boggling to think this one was first climbed in 1933.

Super Fortress, The Merlon — For those seeking something a little harder, this one boasts 1,300 feet of climbing on solid granite and seven 5.11 pitches.

The Deep Lake Area, Wyoming

Experience the grandeur of the Winds with fewer crowds 

As you drive the long dirt road into Wind River Range, your psych may fade once you see the trailhead, Shannon Davis, Editorial Director at REI's Adventure Projects said. At times, especially holiday weekends, you may be hard-pressed to find a parking spot amidst the legion of Sprinters and Tacomas.

“The parking lot at Big Sandy trailhead has grown to Wal-Mart proportions,” he said.

But there’s good news: The vast majority of those climbers are making a beeline straight for the Cirque of the Towers, a mecca of Patagonia-style granite made famous by Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s 50 Classic Climbs of North America. But hang a right just north of Big Sandy Lake, venture a little farther and you can find the solitude at Deep Lake, Shannon said. Its beauty and rock quality rival that of its neighbor, the Cirque.

“The rock is like a more remote and weather-beaten Tuolomne,” Shannon said. Enormous granite domes, walls and spires erupt from the earth, surrounded by idyllic alpine lakes.

Steeple Peak and Lost Temple Spire above Deep Lake | Photo submitted by MP user cor

“I dream of returning there even more than I do the Cirque,” he said. “You feel like you have the place to yourself, with good campsite selection, fresh water and ridiculously short approaches on Haystack. It feels almost like cragging.” The days are cool and the nights are crisp. Shannon recommends bringing a fly rod for rest days. Even more than weather, bugs can limit your fun in the range.

"Think about face nets and the purest DEET you can stand,” Shannon said.

The climbing’s best from mid-August to mid-September. During this window, the people are fewer—and, more importantly, so are those mosquitos, he said.

“Early September in the Winds is basically my version of heaven,” Shannon said.

First-trip Ticklist

Central Corner, Haystack Mountain – This one goes up the obvious corner to the highest bulge on Haystack Mountain. Guidebook author Joe Kelsey calls it the finest pitch of rock in the entire range.

North Ridge, Steeple Peak – If you had any company around Haystack, they’ll be gone out here. The North Ridge’s five pitches feature a lengthy chimney, Yosemite-style corner climbing, and a tiny summit with a gorgeous view.

The Sawtooths, Idaho

Find rock-quality rivaling that of the Winds or Yosemite

Doug Colwell, owner of Idaho Mountain Guides, started climbing in the Sawtooths, a majestic mountain range in central Idaho, in the 1980s. At the time, he said, he’d moved to Boise, and there just wasn’t much else nearby. But the mountains quickly grew on him.

The mountains are pristine, quiet and wild. They’re home to the headwaters of the Salmon River, one of the country’s last undammed waterways. Plus, Doug said, the rock quality’s often even better than the granite out in the Wind River Range. The Sawtooths are only a couple hours from Boise. However, no guidebook exists. Doug said eager climbers can make photocopies of hand-drawn topos at Elephant’s Perch, a gear store in Ketchum, Idaho.

Elephant's Perch | Photo submitted by MP user CThornton

The gem of the range is Elephant’s Perch, a 1,000-foot hunk of pristine alpine granite situated at nearly 10,000 feet. However, the ease of access means the occasional crowd, Doug said. For only $17 climbers can take a round-trip boat shuttle across Redfish Lake, cutting off five miles of grueling hiking. From there, only a steep, three-mile approach remains. It’s the glamping of the Sawtooths.

But there are abundant fine lines outside the Perch, he said. Doug himself has put up over a dozen new routes in the Sawtooths over the years. One of his favorites, he said, was a memorial route on the 10,480’ Mt. Sevy. The route featured eight pitches of glorious 5.8/5.9 climbing in total isolation. He called it the “Meity Abro Arete,” after his friend, avalanche forecaster Doug Abromeit.

“[Abro] would’ve loved it,” he said.

Hikes and bivies depend on the objective, but many hikes start after Redfish Lake and venture deep into the mountains.

First-trip Ticklist

Mountaineer's Route, Elephants Perch – While sometimes crowded by Sawtooths standards, I couldn’t neglect this classic, seven-pitch 5.9 up perfect, golden granite.

SE Face, Warbonnet Peak – Dubbed the “Grand Teton of Idaho,” this remote peak features a multitude of beautiful and exposed lines. This one boasts tight, alpine squeezing and perfect crack systems at 10,000 feet. It’s only 5.7, but be prepared for some heavy breathing.

The Cowen Cirque, Montana

Venture to the best alpine you've never heard of

Inspired by all these stories of solitude, adventure and wilderness, I went in search of my own alpine paradise and turned my eyes to Montana. I’d seen a mention in a guidebook that the Cowen Cirque is home to some of the best alpine climbing in the country. I was skeptical since I could find very little documentation. But I wanted to check it out.

The Elbow Lake trailhead starts about an hour and a half from Bozeman, in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Before the nine-mile hike began, I thought I was in decent shape for the alpine. But halfway to our objective at Elbow Lake, I found myself laying in the shade of a tree, lungs on fire. Even exhausted, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lush landscape around me.

Cowen Cirque | Photo: Nick Mott

Finally, from our bivy at Elbow Lake, I could see Mount Cowen. The peak shoots to the sky like the Great Pyramid of Giza from Elbow Lake, and summits at 11,298 feet.

That night, I sat at camp and watched puffs of cloud twist and turn like smoke as they floated behind Mt. Cowen, lit neon by the setting sun.

Huffing my way up steep, talus slopes the next day in search of a rumored 5.9 line, the potential around me seemed limitless. The granite sparkled white in the sun, and the rock seemed nearly perfect.

I never saw another climber, and I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

Weekend Ticklist

Northeast Arete, Moe — A fun alpine romp, with a thousand feet of climbing up to 5.6.

Montana Centennial Route, Eenie — More than 1,500 feet of brilliant climbing on perfect rock, including a splitter, 5.11 crack.

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