We had arrived at the Boston Basin trail two days earlier after a two-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle along Highway 20, a mostly two-lane stretch of pavement that winds through lush mountain valleys as it parallels the bends of the Skagit River. The highway is the gateway into the prominent peaks and lost-in-time towns of the North Cascades.
The towns along Highway 20 convey a broken-in ambiance that is all rugged toughness, pride, and honesty. There are no Seattle-ish pretenses or upscale shops; the cafes are havens of strong coffee and food that's hot, good, and generously dished out. The proprietors always open their doors to climbers, no matter how haggard or sorry looking they appear after tangling with the nearby mountains.
Marblemount is one of those towns, a place to make last-minute food grabs before a climb or to decompress afterwards. A presumptuous sign at the town's west entrance greets drivers: Welcome to the North Cascades, America's Alps.
From Marblemount, we drove up Cascade River Road, a windy thread of roadway that takes drivers high above the Cascade River. We reached the trailhead after 21 miles.
Although the Boston Basin area has a history of human visitorsNative Americans, explorers, and then minersit feels remote and somewhat hostile. Even standing at the trailhead, climbers can get spooked by the huge blocks of snow and ice that break loose from the hanging glaciers of nearby Johannesburg Mountain. The glaciers are clearly visible, and the sounds of the ice crashing against the rock faces seem to shake the whole valley.
After ascending about two miles up the steep, forested Boston Basin trail, we set out on a half-mile of bushwhacking through dense alpine fir and alder. Our effort paid off when we found a campsite in a group of old-growth Douglas fir. Bushwhacking hadn't been our original plan; it was a tactic to avoid park rangers who were in zealous pursuit of climbers who weren't carrying Boston Basin permits.
Only six overnight permits are issued for the basin and by the time we got to the ranger station in Marblemount early Saturday morning, they were gone. We could abandon the climb or play hide and seek with the rangers. "They are up here like bloodhounds on the weekends," a local guide told us in a brief conversation on the trail. "They are totally into busting people."
We camped the first night hidden in the trees. By seven the next morning we were on the unnamed glacier that stretches toward the south face of Forbidden Peak.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication