Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Mount Dickerman

Three Fingers, Whitehorse, and Baker from Mount Dickerman
8.6 miles round trip, 3950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous with enough elevation gain to be strenuous by Virginia standards.
Access: Northwest Forest Pass ($5 daily, or $30 annual) required; paved road to trailhead. Hike best from July to October.

White Chuck, Pugh, Sloan, Three Fingers, Whitehorse- these peaks line Washington State's Mountain Loop Highway and are some of the most regal summits of the North Cascades. Mt. Dickerman, an impressive peak in its own right, offers an unparalleled view of these stately summits and of the more distant great volcanoes. The hike to the summit is tough, demanding an incredible investment of stamina for nearly 4000 feet of uphill climbing with over two-thirds of it through thick forest, but the final rewards more than compensate for the effort. Anyone capable of meeting this hike's physical demands should rise to the challenge: it is hard to imagine a more jaw-dropping view anywhere. This hike is generally recommended just during the summer, as deep snow coats the trail for much of the year. This hike description details a visit in February during a drought winter; you should not attempt to hike this trail in February or any month that isn't July through October.

I hiked this trail with three friends on a incredibly clear and reasonably warm February day during a rare Northwest winter when the count of sunny days far outnumbered the count of feet of snow that had fallen on the Cascades. Getting to the trailhead was fairly simple: from Seattle, we head out to Granite Falls via I-5, US 2, and State Route 204, 9, and 92; once we were in downtown Granite Falls, we turned left from State Route 92 onto the Mountain Loop Highway and followed it past Verlot and along the South Fork Stillaguimish to the Big Four Ice Caves. The trailhead for Mt. Dickerman was another mile further down on the left hand side of the road, but we decided to visit the ice caves before we headed up our destination peak for the day.

Our Big Four Ice Caves stop was fairly brief- we spent an hour walking the two-mile round trip path to the foot of the north face of Big Four Mountain. Here, we approached but did not enter a large cavern melted out into a pile of permanent snow created from avalanches that tumbled down the face of Big Four. The cave was large but the ice in the area seemed generally pretty melted out; it seemed that the extraordinarily mild winter had prevented any new snow from accumulating the caves, which seriously threatened their continued existence. It's important to not enter the caves, ever: a few months after our visit, the entrance of the cave collapsed and falling ice killed a visitor and injured a number more. At the time of writing, the Forest Service had closed the caves to public access due to that incident.

Big Four Ice Caves
After our brief ice cave stop, we drove the additional mile to the Mt. Dickerman/Perry Creek Trailhead to start our hike. Mt. Dickerman was a grueling switchback workout: there's really very little to say or describe about the first two and a half miles of the hike, which simply climb steadily and continuously up a forested mountain slope through a countless number of switchbacks.

The good part of two hours of ascent and well over 2000 feet of uphill brought us to a flatter shoulder on Mount Dickerman and the beginning of the snow. The switchbacks ended and were replaced by a flatter segment of trail that winded uphill along the shoulder of the mountain. We chose to lunch here, although we were still quite far from the summit. Gaps in the trees provided views of Del Campo and Sperry Peaks across the valley of the South Fork Stillaguimish. The trail began ascending in earnest again once it reached the ridgeline that defined the north face of Mount Dickerman, about 2800 feet above the trailhead. Here was the first grand view: we could see the valley of Perry Creek laid out beneath our feet. To the right, still high above us, we saw the pyramidal summit and sheer north face of our destination peak.

The summit of Mount Dickerman
The rest of the hike was the reward for our long switchback ascent. We donned microspikes as we headed into more areas of deeper and more hard-packed snow. The trail itself was at this point entirely obscured by snow, so we followed the footprints of others along the ridge and then out into an open meadow. Incredible views emerged: Big Four, Sperry, and Vesper dominated the skyline across the valley. The Washington Trails Association hike description claims that these meadows are filled with blueberries during the summer: unfortunately, any blueberry bushes would have been buried under three to five feet of snow when we visited.

Big Four from the meadows
The bootpath through the snow passed by a remarkably scenic mini-ridge on the south slopes of the mountain. Behind the snow-covered knoll was a panorama of snow-covered peaks of the Monte Cristo Range. After passing the bump, the bootpath turned steeply uphill and cut directly through the snow towards the summit. It's possible that the actual trail takes switchbacks up this slope: however, with no discernable trail due to the snow, winter hikers took this ascent in a more direct fashion.

Monte Cristo Range
A final long push brought us to the summit ridge and the thrilling dropoffs of the north face. Winter hikers must be aware of cornice danger: snow builds overhangs at dropoffs. These cornices may be difficult to discern when viewed from above but can collapse any time; cornice collapse deaths are not rare.

Below our feet were some two thousand feet of air; all around us, the snowy North Cascades. We made the final walk along the ridgeline to the true summit, where we had a 360-degree view except for a few trees that rose just south of the summit.

Summit of Mount Dickerman
To the west, we could see the direction from which we came: the Mountain Loop Highway, winding its way through the valley of the South Fork Stillaguimish. Above the valley soared Big Four, Pilchuck, Three Fingers and Whitehorse. To the far north, the snowy eminence of Mount Baker was coupled with the pointed cap of Shuksan. Closer in, the bulwarks of White Chuck, Pugh, and Sloan formed a craggy eastern wall of the Sauk River valley. East of Sloan, Glacier Peak donned its winter robes of snow, hiding long-dulled fires beneath its mantle of white.

Mount Baker and White Chuck Mountain
Glacier Peak and Sloan Peak
The southern view included the jumbled peaks of the Monte Cristo Range and the closer summits of Del Campo, Vesper, and Sperry. Far in the distance, the Willis Wall and the Winthrop Glacier of Rainier reflected the late-day sun northward to our cold and lonely peak.

Atop Mount Dickerman
We wandered around the summit area for a bit and enjoyed the views before heading back down to try and reach the trailhead before dark. I tried glissading down some segments of the trail but found the snow too soft. The descent took slightly longer than expected, forcing us to finish the hike under the light of the stars, headlamps, and cell phones.

This was a difficult but incredibly rewarding hike. Few feelings can match the sensation of standing above a thrilling drop of many thousands of feet with a few of a hundred miles in all directions, or the satisfaction of having summited a fairly large mountain. Yet prospective hikers should realize that Mount Dickerman's 4000 feet of elevation gain is nearly double of that encountered on more strenuous Shenandoah hikes like Old Rag. Fit hikers will find this hike enjoyable; others may find its endless switchbacks excessive misery.

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