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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

On the Ledge Continued

Even the names of the peaks in the North Cascades testify to the unforgiving nature of the climbs: Forbidden Peak, Mount Fury, Mount Terror, and Mount Despair.

North Cascades park rangers typically assist in 10 to 15 rescues every season, and last year was no exception. A week before Sofich’s climb, Craig Luebben, a renowned guide from Golden, Colorado, died when an ice bridge he was crossing between Forbidden Peak and Mount Torment collapsed. A few weeks before that accident, Sofich’s closest mountaineering friend raced to the top of Mount Terror to phone in a helicopter rescue for a Navy Prowler pilot on his climbing team who had suffered injuries so severe during a 60-foot fall that he had been left dangling unconscious from the end of his rope.

Sofich

Reed instructor Rodney Sofich teaches rock climbing and backcountry navigation and has led students on wilderness expeditions since 2002.

Sofich’s climbing partner that day was Chad Anderson, a dialysis nurse and climbing aficionado who over the years has cultivated a penchant and talent for scaling frozen waterfalls. Anderson was training for an expedition to the Moose’s Tooth, a notoriously difficult climb in Alaska that’s interspersed with steep ice couloirs and sheer faces of crumbly rock. To practice for the rock-climbing portion of that trip, Anderson had picked a route up the southwest buttress of Dorado Needle with similar terrain, and had invited Sofich, a longtime friend, to follow him up the face and coach him through the climb.

“The idea was to kind of push the envelope for Chad so he could mimic what it’d be like climbing in Alaska,” explains Sofich. “If he got himself in a pinch, I could take over and transition out.”

The two climbers arrived at the Eldorado Glacier trailhead on the morning of August 16, shouldered heavy backpacks, and set out for distant Dorado Needle. Just getting themselves in the neighborhood of the spire would be a physical feat in itself.

“The approach is more than a passing matter, because in many ways it symbolizes the wilderness of the North Cascades and the manner in which many appealing climbs are ‘protected’ by unsavory obstacles,” Seattle mountaineer Peter Potterfield writes in guidebook Selected Climbs in the Cascades. “In this case, one approach goes straight up from the road and gains 5,500 feet of elevation before high camp is reached…Newcomers to the range may find these approaches unreasonable, if not brutal.”

Sofich is in peak physical condition with the aerobic capacity and musculature of an elite athlete; he exercises every day and has summited Mount Hood more than 100 times. Nonetheless, even he calls the trail to Dorado Needle “an ass-kicker.”

After tiptoeing across the roiling Cascade River over a fallen log, the pair trudged up a steep wooded trail, quickly gaining 2,000 feet in elevation, the equivalent of climbing the stairs of the Empire State Building—twice. Emerging from the forest, they navigated up two talus fields, scrambling around and sometimes over car and house-sized boulders, then switchbacked up a path marked with rock cairns, traversing meadows of trampled heather and slabs of slippery granite to a moraine at the lip of Eldorado Glacier, where they donned harnesses and roped themselves together. Wielding ice axes, they marched on crampon-studded boots up a 30-degree snow field, leaping over yawning crevasses a yard or more across and hundreds of feet deep. They traversed around Eldorado Peak, a pyramid of ice and snow resembling a mini-Everest, marched up a snow slope to an island of exposed rock that cleaved two glaciers like a woodcutter’s wedge where, after eating dehydrated meals out of foil pouches, they unrolled foam pads, pulled a tarp over their sleeping bags and, as stars began winking overhead, drifted off to sleep.

reed magazine logoMarch 2010