A Harbinger of Summer

Climbing Sauk Mountain

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

At last, after several years in a row of late-lingering snowpack in the North Cascades, it looks like we might just catch a break.

An average snow year, followed by a so far unusually warm and dry spring, are the ingredients that make for an early—and long—hiking season. Keep your fingers crossed, but this could be a banner year for wandering among the peaks.

A good place to start is Sauk Mountain. This strategically placed minor summit rears up above the Skagit River and has what it takes to satiate your early-season hiking jones. It’s south facing, so the snow melts quickly once the sun comes out. Although it’s only 5,300 feet high, it rises higher than the surrounding ridges, affording stunning vistas—starting at the trailhead parking lot. 

If snow blocks passage upslope, you will still get lots of jump-for-joy beautiful views out over the glorious country of the upper Skagit.  And it’s easy, only 4.2 miles roundtrip and 1,190 feet elevation gain to the summit, perfect for shaking off the cobwebs and reintroducing winter-wobbly knees to the concept of elevation gain. If you have eyes for the top, bring an ice axe. It might come in handy.

Here’s a funny thing about the snow on Sauk: The switchbacks melt out sooner than the trailhead, so sometimes when access to the parking lot is blocked by snow, the trail to the ridge is nearly snow-free. This might necessitate a short walk on the road to the trailhead, but hey, big deal.

From the parking lot the trail negotiates a short stretch of trees and immediately emerges out onto the open slope that leads upward to the summit. The aforementioned switchbacks make the climb gentle and the views (already splendid) get better with every step.

Depending on the snow, you may be able to zigzag your way all the way to the top, traversing lush, luxurious greenery. If you do encounter snow, take pause. If you don’t have an ice axe—and the requisite knowledge to wield it—turn back. There are many places on this slope where a slide would be extremely unpleasant, and the emergency room is no place to spend a spring afternoon.

If this is the case, just find a comfortable place to sit back and watch the clouds fondle the North Cascades. Sometimes it is good to be “becalmed” in the mountains. Take time to gaze and think. Most of us don’t have enough of that.

If, by chance, the snow is gone, the switchbacks will carry you to the ridge crest and you’ll find yourself a supplicant beneath the sky-crowding volcano called Baker by us newcomers. Koma Kulshan. The Great White Watcher. Turn the tables and watch it.

The crest will undoubtedly be covered with snow in early season but the terrain here is more forgiving, so traversing the ridge is generally not a problem. The last bit to the summit requires crossing a steeply pitched snowfield. Again, the consequences of a slip could be severe indeed, so those without ice axes should think twice (or perhaps three times).

And for God’s sake, don’t tag the summit and run. Linger and enjoy the spectacle. Life is short. Turn off your phone. Listen to the wind.

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