Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Green Mountain (North Cascades)

The North Cascades viewed from Green Mountain
8.5 miles round trip, 3300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous due to snow conditions; moderate after snowmelt
Access: Long, bumpy gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Buried deep in Washington State's North Cascades, Green Mountain is a much more exciting (and unique) destination than its generic name would suggest: the summit lookout boasts a dizzying panorama of peaks that is unforgettable even for a state packed with impressive views. The hike to the summit passes through the many open meadows that give the peak its name and ends at a historic fire lookout. Early season hikers who arrive before the snowmelt completes face a trail-less climb to the summit through the snow but also the opportunity to glissade the better part of a thousand feet down the south face of the peak. Midsummer hikers will find fields full of flowers, while early autumn visitors are welcomed by sprawling patches of huckleberries on the mountain's upper slopes. This hike was long inaccessible due to the washout of the Suiattle River Road; even with the road restored, it's still a long, bumpy drive from Seattle to this spot in the heart of the Cascades.

I've made two trips out to Green Mountain: the first was on an early autumn day a few years back, not long after the Suiattle River Road reopened. Although I found beautiful autumn color in the meadows and some ripe berries, the mountaintop was socked in all day and I missed out on the lookout's views. On my second trip, I found both blooming wildflowers and a snowy summit in early June; cloud cover was high enough on my second visit for me to see much of the vast sea of peaks surrounding Green Mountain, but overcast skies still blocked out views of Glacier Peak, Dome Peak, and Mount Baker.

I headed out to Green Mountain from Seattle with three friends, following I-5 north to Arlington and then Washington Highway 530 east past Darrington. After crossing the Sauk River bridge on Highway 530, I turned right at the Suiattle River Road and followed it 19 miles, first on pavement and later on decent gravel, to the junction with the road to the Green Mountain trailhead. The final six miles of the drive followed an even bumpier road up the forested slopes of Green Mountain; while there were some potholes along the way, the road was generally in passable condition and I made it to the trailhead in a sedan with no problems. The trailhead itself is not particularly well marked and is noticeable only due to a widening in the road on the right; the trail starts to the left of the road.

The trail set off into the forest and immediately began a steady ascent. At one point, the trail approached a small, tumbling stream and at other points we passed by some stately trees, but otherwise the first mile and a half of the trail was fairly nondescript. One exception was the trillium that lined the trail at the upper reaches of the forest, just before the trail entered a large meadow: white, pink, and violet trillium were in full bloom on the forest floor.

Trillium blooming in the forest
We crossed the first snowpatch on the trail just before exiting the forest; a hundred yards later, we found ourselves at the edge of an expansive meadow running down the slopes of Green Mountain. Although clouds still covered most of the nearby mountaintops, we spotted both White Chuck and Whitehorse Mountains to the west.

Open meadows of Green Mountain
The drooping yellow petals of blooming glacier lilies filled the meadow. As we hiked uphill through the meadow, we ran into a few small patches of snow nearing the end of their melt; here, we spotted eager glacier lilies that had emerged to blossom even while the ground around them was still covered in a thin layer of ice.

Glacier lilies
The next two-thirds of a mile of trail consisted of pleasant hiking through open meadows with views of far-off peaks. The trail required a few easy creek crossings at a few points and at other points seemed eroded after a winter buried beneath the snowpack but was overall easy to hike.

Lower meadow along the trail
After switchbacking uphill through the meadow, the trail turned to the north and reentered the forest while also entering Glacier Peak Wilderness. We encountered deeper snow here; the trail was snow-covered from this point on to the summit. Donning our microspikes and gaiters, we followed tracks through the snow past a small clearing to the top of a low hillock, from which we spotted Green Mountain Lookout ahead of us for the first time. While this stretch of trail is easy to follow during the summer, hikers arriving early in the season when the trail is still under snow should come with a map and reasonable navigation skills to avoid losing the route.

The trail descended down the hill into a basin holding a small pond, which in early June was still mostly covered by five or so feet of snow. Continuing a little further in the snow, we arrived at a basin at the foot of the south face of Green Mountain, about a thousand vertical feet below the summit. In the summer, these open slopes are filled with heather and other blooming wildflowers; in late summer and early autumn, the mountainside turns into a berry buffet. When we arrived, the steep slopes were snowbound, which made for promising terrain for a post-summit glissade.

Perfect glissading terrain
From the bowl at the base of the summit, the summer trail winds up to the southern ridgeline of Green Mountain and then follows the ridge to the top. The winter route that hikers before us appeared to prefer instead directly ascended the snowy slopes to a saddle on the western ridge: a number of glissade chutes descending from the saddle and steps kicked into the snow suggested that this was a common route for both ascent and descent. We followed the glissade chute up, checking to make sure that the chute would be an appropriate path for descent. The slope was quite steep in spots, approaching 40 degrees in spots, and the snow was slushy, slowing our ascent. Our effort was rewarded with ever-widening views of the snowbound Cascades to the south.

View from atop the glissade chute
Atop the west ridge, we were welcomed by views to the north and the sight of the lookout towering above us atop a set of stern cliffs. From the saddle, we followed a social trail along the ridge towards the summit through patches of heather. After crossing a final steep snowfield, we gained the south ridge and followed it a short distance to the summit lookout. We took care to stay off the cornices on the north side of the east ridge: although the snowmasses at the edge of the ridge seemed solid, they were unsupported underneath. Cornice collapses are a frequent cause of death or injury during winter hiking; avoiding cornices is an important safety consideration.

Final approach to the lookout
We hiked up to the boarded lookout and ate lunch on the leeward side of the structure. Green Mountain Lookout is one of a series of former fire lookouts in the Cascades that has been preserved for their historic significance. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a station for Forest Service rangers to monitor wildfires deep in the North Cascades, the Green Mountain Lookout was subject of an intense battle between wilderness advocates and historic site preservationists over whether such a structure belonged in Glacier Peak Wilderness. The controversy stems from the federal definition of wilderness in the United States, which bans roads, commerical activity, and buildings from federally designated wilderness. Wilderness advocates argued that the Green Mountain Lookout was a building within a federally designated wilderness and should thus be removed: they won their argument in the courts, with a judge ruling that the lookout needed to go. However, political action by Washington State's congressional delegation birthed a bill saving the lookout, which President Obama signed into law in 2014.

Green Mountain Lookout
From the lookout, we had a stupendous view. Although the tops of many high peaks were covered by the clouds, we could still see peaks of the North Cascades surrounding us on all sides. Views to the north and east were most impressive: we could see many of the jagged and glaciated peaks of the Ptarmigan Traverse. On a clear day, Glacier Peak would have lay directly to the south of where we stood. An unbroken snow slope dropped well over a thousand feet down the east face of the mountain. The rugged northern ridgeline of Green Mountain connected the summit to the pointed spires of Mount Buckindy.

Much of the peak's viewshed is encompassed by Glacier Peak Wilderness, which covers over half a million acres in Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. Combined with the Henry Jackson and Wild Sky Wildernesses to the south and the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth and Stephen Mather Wildernesses to the east, Glacier Peak Wilderness is part of the largest roadless region in Washington State.

Green Mountain
We returned to the snow bowl below the summit by glissading. Two of my group decided to glissade down the south face from a spot just below the summit, completing what appeared to be a fast run down a very steep but slushy snow slope. Another friend and I chose to glissade down the chute that we had followed up, which was a little less steep. We brought ice axes and poles for controlling our descent; I generally recommend bringing an ice axe whenever you choose to glissade, although we found that poles were more than sufficient for control in the slushy snow on the day of our hike.

Glissading down from the summit
We ran into just a handful of other hikers along this trail, even though we came on a Sunday with reasonable weather in late spring.

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