Eldorado: ‘The Guilded One’ in Spanish. Very true.
I remember once seeing at the ranger station off good ol’ Ranger Station Road in Marblemount how the National Park Service considered the view from the summit to be the best in the North Cascades. It’s an hour-long haul down the Cascade River Road but the scenery unveiled at the end is like no other. There are so many glaciers. Yet it wasn’t that which originally drew me to climb Eldorado.
It was the spectacular knife-edge ridge leading up to the summit.
Like nothing else in the North Cascades, I saw a photograph years ago of a climber ascending it in evening pale light, shadows long, and knew immediately I had to climb it. But in order to get to that three hundred feet or so of exposed, Himalayan-like ridge there is a lot of necessary work.
For those already accustomed to climbing in the North Cascades, Eldorado will not disappoint. For those not yet initiated the climb is a great primer. Not only for its one-of-a-kind summit, Eldorado is a classic North Cascades climb because it throws in most of what a climber can expect of this small, close-knit but incredibly wild range of glaciated peaks. Suffice it to say, right from the start the epitome of North Cascades climbing will become immediately apparent with having to first cross an unmarked log (‘The Log’) draped over the north fork of the Cascade River followed by bushwacking through valley floor just to find the start of the trail. And then the ‘trail’ itself – not really ‘trail’ in the traditional sense – as it instantly heads straight up the Eldorado Creek drainage for a non-stop two-thousand-foot climb. No thirty-seven switchbacks like the freeway-of-a-trail blazed to Cascade Pass a few miles to the south. And where trail meets talus, the climber is greeted with the all-too-familiar sight of Devil’s Club and Slide Alder mixed in with the thousand vertical feet of talus to be negotiated – good times in dry weather, even more so when the granite is slick with rain or mist that had rolled in the night before.
But at the top of the talus, a hidden basin opens up and I recall my surprise coming across it during a climb a few years back in August and being mesmerized wandering through in the evening light with views straight across the valley to the stunning and terrifying north face of Johannesburg. Eldorado Creek meanders through before its three-thousand-foot drop to the Cascade River. This makes for a fine place to camp when thawed out (which it was not in early July – still a snow-covered, bleak wasteland). After realizing the ordeal it is to get to this point, many camp here and turn around without continuing higher up.
For those that are aimed for the even more spectacular views at the high glacier camp nearly three thousand feet still higher, another six-hundred feet are climbed to a ridge separating the Eldorado Creek and Roush Creek drainages and a search is made there for the notch in which to drop down onto the Eldorado Glacier (it’s pretty self-explanatory when up there – it’s easily the most accessible route down to the glacier). For us it was still snow-covered, so we reached for ice axes and descended carefully – climbing onto slick rock to avoid the gaping moat at the bottom of the hundred-foot cliff.
The Eldorado glacier is tame by North Cascades standards, and I have noticed in my several times climbing it that few parties bother to rope up – instead hugging the cliffs along the side of the glacier as they make their way. This time around, my climbing partner had never climbed a glacier before and I was showing her the ropes so-to-speak – so we donned harnesses and gear and tied in for the eighteen-hundred-or-so-foot ascent up the fairly gently-sloped, sprawling glacier to the high plateau where the Eldorado and Inspiration glaciers meet to fall their separate ways – the Eldorado back towards the Cascade River and the Inspiration west towards Thunder Creek.
Carved out on a small, mostly-level patch of rocks sits the high camp at around 7600’ (there is also a composting toilet like at the more popular and more-easily-accessible Sahale Glacier camp). There are not too many flattened sites and this spot is popular among climbers headed off in various directions across the Inspiration ice plateau. The views are to die for. Southeast to Forbidden’s incredibly-impressive north face and – far below – Moraine Lake. Mountains in every direction and supremely alpine the setting well-deserved for the haul it took to get there to finally dump pack and set up camp.
From there, the summit looks nearly touchable by outstretching ones arms and realistically is an easy thousand-foot climb up the headwall of the Inspiration Glacier to – yes – that fantastic knife-edge (read: highly-exposed) ridge. I notice most climbing parties heading to or coming back from the summit roped up and I would suggest it as well – a fall along the summit ridge unroped could be bad.
Once on top – North Cascades National Park and beyond spreads out in every direction. South to all the peaks of the Cascade Pass region and the Ptarmigan Traverse. West to the impressive Logan and the peaks on the east side of the crest. North to the Colonial group and beyond to the elusive Pickets. The park service isn’t kidding about the view.
And it’s all downhill from there.
Make no mistake Eldorado is a well-earned summit and an excellent barometer of any climber’s routefinding skills (besides the talus and bushwacking necessary down low, I’ve been stuck in a whiteout on the expansive Inspiration ice plateau literally walking with compass and map held out in front of me) and willingness to put up with just about everything the North Cascades has to throw at them. But on the same token, is spectacularly alpine and epitomizes this impressive range of mountains that I, for one, call home.
The stats –
– Just shy of 7000’ elevation gain – 3000’ to the basin where camping can be found, about 6000’ to the high camp and another 1000’ to the summit
– Can be done car-to-car in a day (allowing not having to carry as much gear) but the views from either the basin or the high camp will make you wish you had packed bivy gear
– Bring ice ax, crampons and glacier gear and know how to use it all – Eldorado is a great beginner’s glacier climb but the mountains are, well, the mountains
– If you leave early enough and move quick enough, you can easily get to the high camp, relax a bit and head up for an evening summit (it’s a relatively straightforward descent back to camp and could quite easily be done by headlamp if necessary)
– You MUST register for a permit at the Marblemount ranger station to camp overnight as Eldorado is in North Cascades National Park – there is no quota (at this time) like for the more popular Boston Basin and Sahale Glacier camp so you can self-register outside if it’s afterhours, but this route is heavily-patrolled (umm, the reason I know it can be done in a day is because my climbing partner and I were forced to do it as such as we had not realized the necessity of that permit)
– There are a couple of cheap campgrounds ($12/night a couple weeks ago) along the Cascade River Road for camping the night before (or the trailhead serves as a great camp spot if necessary)