| MacFarlane - one tough 6er
Location: Skagit Range (subrange of the Canadian Cascades), British Columbia
Trailhead elevation: ~1,050 feet
Summit elevation: 6,885 feet
Total elevation gain, including many losses and regains: about 6,300 feet
Round-trip distance: 13 miles
Hiking time: about 6 hours up and 4 hours down, not including a couple breaks / time spent on the summit (overall, we were on the mountain for about 11 hours)
Terrain: mostly Class 1 with some overgrowth and deadfall; some Class 2 and easy Class 3; light exposure in a couple spots, and many slippery surfaces to contend with (slick mud, greasy roots, wet rocks, moss)
Route description can be found in this guidebook (not available in the U.S.): "Scrambles in Southwest British Columbia," by Matt Gunn
Drive time from Bellingham, WA, to the trailhead: just under two hours, including a 10-minute border crossing
"The Cascades are nice," people would tell us, after learning that we were moving to Washington from Colorado, "but they're not as high as Colorado's mountains."
This is true. But as I've learned, even though these high-latitude mountains lack the high elevations of Colorado, they more than make up for it with seriously steep vertical relief, glaciers and prominence. Many mountains in the area lord over their valley floors by 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
When Jen and I were in Vancouver, B.C., a week or so ago, our friend Pavel (a guy we met while climbing in Ecuador earlier this year, who lives in Vancouver) asked us if we wanted to climb Mt. MacFarlane with him and a couple of his friends. We had never heard of the mountain before, but we said yes because we were eager to climb. And because of our recent move to Bellingham, Washington, we haven't had a chance to climb or hike for at least a month.
After reading MacFarlane's specs and taking into account the fact that we haven't been active in a while, we knew this climb was going to spank us hard. But, I mean, how difficult could a 6,800-foot mountain be? And how great could the views possibly be?
At 7:30 a.m., we began our hike up the relentlessly steep trail through a damp and richly green forest.
At times, we had to hurdle fallen trees.
Even though it was a bright day, the forest was dark, and I couldn't believe how much light it absorbed.
Living under the shadows of massive Douglas-firs and Western Hemlocks, ferns and vines struggled to reach the few rays of sunshine that made it to the forest floor. Many plants encroached across the trail, and as I passed, my bare legs would get wet as they brushed up against them.
For at least three or four miles, the mercilessly steep trail never let up. There were some switchbacks, but they didn't switch back much. Adding to the difficulty, we encountered many sections of elevation loss, which had to be regained both ways. Plus, we had to navigate across some streams and carefully step through sections of slick mud, greasy roots and mossy rocks.
Even though temperatures hovered around 45 degrees all day long, I spent most of my time sweating because of the high humidity and strenuous nature of the hike.
Eventually, the trees broke up and we could see water. It was Pierce Lake, and on the other side of it, MacFarlane's upper reaches could finally be seen.
From there, the trail continued to gain elevation through more trees, across overgrown avalanche paths, and up water-carved slabs of rock.
Pavel, Mike, Eric and Jen crossing one narrow section of rock:
Pavel photographing a series of cascades:
Me, with Pierce Lake in the background:
After about five hours of tough hiking, we made it to Upper Pierce Lake.
Here's a pan of the area (our route went up the ridge to the right):
The higher we climbed, the better the views became.
The ridge from Upper Pierce Lake to Mt. MacFarlane's summit was mostly easy, though it did require a couple Class 2 moves – maybe even an easy Class 3 move here or there. When hand holds on the slick rock couldn't be found, I used tree branches, and found them to be pretty handy.
New, jaw-dropping views unfolded every time I turned around. The water in Upper Pierce Lake was unreal, like the dyed water you see at Disney World.
Unlike Colorado, the Cascades don't seem to have a consistent timberline. I could see some scrappy trees above 6,000 feet, but it seems like most areas thin out around a mile high.
MacFarlane's airy, northwest face towers over Pierce Lake:
The following photo is a pan of the mountain's upper ridge (Pavel can be seen on the summit and Jen can be seen on the ridge).
Within 45 minutes (from Upper Pierce Lake), we gained the summit.
Even though MacFarlane is only 6,885 feet high, I would still put it among the top-10 toughest non-technical climbs I've ever done.
To add, the 360-degree summit view was surprisingly amazing, and I'd put it among the best views I've seen in Colorado and Switzerland.
Striking our summit poses:
The pointy spire on the right is Slesse Mountain (Slesse is a native word for fang):
Interesting side story about Slesse Mountain (aka Mt. Slesse): In 1956, a DC-4 crashed into it, killing all 62 people on board. There's even a book about it, with an interesting teaser on this page.
Getting down was a bit challenging at times, especially with all the wet and muddy rock, and gravity working against us. I slipped on my butt at least a few times.
Then it was just a long, slimy hike out …
Here's an elevation profile from my GPS:
And a post-climb selection of beers waiting for me at home (Caldera was my favorite):
Get this: I bought those beers at a gear store called Backcountry Essentials in Bellingham. Yes, there's actually a store that sells gear AND beer! It's my new favorite place.
Jen and I still haven't tapped into the North Cascades in our own backyard, but our first experience with a nearby mountain was much better than expected, so I'm very excited.
I think we need to do some easier hikes for a while, though, just to get back in climbing shape. Even though it's been a few days since MacFarlane, I'm still hobbling around with some seriously sore quads.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):