CLIMBING SAHALE MOUNTAIN.
Have you always wanted to climb a mountain?
Sorry, Portland residents. Just because it has "mount" in the name doesn’t mean Mt. Tabor qualifies.
I’m talking about a bona fide mountain, with glaciers and rock climbing and marmots and such. Want a taste of what such a mountain is like without quivering in your Salomons and fearing for your life the entire way?
Then, my adventurous friend, Washington’s Sahale Mountain is for you.
At 8,681', Sahale is no Everest. But, to reach its summit, you need to climb over 5,200 feet, a larger elevation gain than is required on many Colorado Fourteeners. Sahale boasts a glacier climb, an exciting Class 4 summit scramble, and absolutely astounding 360-degree views of the heart of the North Cascade Range. To paraphrase renowned mountaineer Gerry Roach, it’s “always interesting but never desperate.”
At the end of July 2016, two friends of mine and I set out for Sahale. We camped in a very unusual, privately-run, Trailer Park Boys-esque campground in Marblemount, WA the night before, then woke up around 4:30 AM to drive to Sahale’s trailhead. We reached the end of the road just about the time the sun would have been coming up. Unfortunately, the surrounding peaks and valleys were completely socked in with clouds, so we had to wait patiently for the dramatic views the mountain promised.
After 3.7 miles of easy, gently ascending trail, we reached Cascade Pass, and took a left on the Sahale Arm trail. Still in the clouds, the trail got steeper and rockier, switchbacking its way to the top of the Sahale Arm. The Sahale Arm is a giant, gentle, long, serpentine ridge leading from the valley below directly towards Sahale’s upper slopes. At the top of the arm, the clouds broke for the first time, offering us obscenely gorgeous views of peaks like Bonanza Peak, Mount Formidable, and Glacier Peak.
From here, the route leads directly onto the Sahale Glacier. We contemplated putting on our crampons, but quickly realized that the snow was soft and slushy. So, we opted to carefully dig in with our boots as we ascended the steep snow slope. Although we passed several roped-up teams of climbers, we decided to take our chances with crevasses and climb the glacier unroped. We only saw two visible crevasses, and were able to easily circumnavigate them. After the initial incline abated, we made a long, sweeping glacier traverse, exiting the top of the glacier close to Sahale’s sharp summit horn.
Pressing on, we climbed ever-steepening orange rock, crossed another small snowfield, and ditched our packs at the base of Sahale’s summit block.
We’d read wildly disparate reports on the difficulty of scrambling required to climb Sahale, ranging everywhere from Class 3 to low Class 5. After climbing it, I would, in my unprofessional opinion, say that the majority of the summit block climb is Class 3, with about 20 feet of Class 4 climbing right at the top. The route corkscrewed around the summit, and we traversed some delightfully solid Class 3 ledges to reach a Class 4 exit crack leading directly to a notch in Sahale’s summit rocks. We made a couple challenging Class 4 moves in the notch, then popped out onto Sahale’s tiny summit.
Upon arrival, we were struck by two things: the insane beauty all around us, and the fact that someone had lugged a watermelon up to the summit, leaving half of it on a rock.
The summit itself is probably the most exposed part of the entire climb. There’s barely room for three people on its jagged rocks.
We snapped pictures of nearby Boston Peak, as well as the innumerable Cascade summits around us. We high-fived. I took my shirt off. Then, we turned around to head home.
Downclimbing the Class 4 notch and crack proved to be the spiciest part of the climb. Once down off Sahale’s summit block, it was smooth sailing all the way back to the car. The clouds had opened up, affording us the views we’d missed out on on the way up, so we stopped to snap pictures virtually every other minute or so. The Sahale Arm proved to be even more gorgeous in the sunlight, as we walked the airy, alpine ridge through fields of vibrant wildflowers.
Finally, some 15 or 16 miles later, we arrived back at the trailhead, and piled back in the car to make the long drive back to civilization.
While Sahale may lack the elevation, technical difficulty, or name recognition of some of its neighboring peaks, I couldn’t recommend this mountain more. It offers unparalleled views, a diversity of ecosystems, and a thrilling summit.
It will leave you breathless, and not just because you’re out of shape.
Live in the Northwest? Go climb it immediately. Like, right now.
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