Eldorado Peak with a Wedding on Top
DATE HIKED: 7/16/19-7/17/19
TOTAL DISTANCE/ASCENT: 8 MILES AND 6,800 FT
HIGHEST POINT: 8,868 FT
DIFFICULTY: VERY DIFFICULT/ TECHNICAL SKILLS REQUIRED
REQUIRED PERMIT: CAMPING YES/ IN A DAY, NO
DOG FRIENDLY: NO
LOCATION: NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
RECREATION PASS: NORTHWEST FOREST PASS
Where do I begin with one of the wildest adventures I’ve done to date? Well about a year ago my good friends Nikki and Shawn got engaged and since day one they knew they wanted to get married on top of Eldorado Peak. This isn’t some roomy summit that all your friends and family can easily walk up to. This is a technical mountain climb with the infamous knifes edge and a rocky outcropping barely big enough to fit a wedding party. But this is where they knew they had to say I do and commit their vows to each other. The rest of us were obliged to come along for the ride.
As the year went on Nikki kept bringing it up to me that this was still the plan and that they would love to have me there and take photos as well. I said if I could get up the terrifying peak, I would do it. The week came and nothing but rain was in the forecast for the ever gloomy summer of 2019. I had requested the dates off from work months in advanced and we were all crushed to have it rained out. Some back up plans came about, but they were still set on Eldorado. The weather forecast for the following week was much better and we somehow got the whole group of 7 to pull it together and commit to the new dates. Eldorado wedding was back on. Next step would be to obtain the new permits for the new date. Scott went out the day before and was at the ranger station at 7AM when they opened to get them and he did with no problem.
We packed up our gear and set out for what was supposed to be a relaxing three 3 trip to the mountains. Well the day before rain and thunderstorms showed up for our third day, so going into the trip we had to cut off the last day to get all the good weather that we could. What else could go wrong? This wedding had to go on!
That Monday we left Seattle at about 3:30 AM and drove to the North Cascades. We dialed in as much group gear as we could and distributed that amongst the 7 of us in the parking lot. My pack weight for this trip was around 35 lbs, which is pretty light for a mountaineering set up!
There is nothing easy about Eldorado, and that would prove to be true within the first five minutes of leaving the parking lot. The first obstacle is crossing the river. There used to always be a reliable tree to cross but it does not exist anymore. I hiked out in my Chacos and then we hung our shoes on the other side of the river. What a way to wake up with a calf deep ice-cold river!
This climb can really be broken down into three sections- steep trees, steep boulders and steep snow/glaciers. The next section would be steep trees. People warned me that this would be like old mailbox trail, and they weren’t too wrong. This section really didn’t feel too bad going up in the cool morning. Less than 2 miles and ~2,000 gain went by rather quickly.
We were over the tree section and emerged to the boulder field. This was by far the WORST section of the entire climb. It was hard to stay “on route” and if you got off the route you were scrambling big boulders with a heavy pack. It was now in the heat of the day and miserable. It felt like it took forever to get through this section.
We made it to the top of the boulder field and finally got our first source of water. There is a good stream up here. We filtered for a long time and had lunch. It was depressing to see we hadn’t gotten super far with how the elevation gain made us go a crawling pace. We still had so much to climb. The wedding couple had their goal on a sunset ceremony this day. Only time would tell to see if we would make it. After the water break we pressed on.
I take it back when I say there are only 3 sections of this climb- trees, boulders and snow. There is one more section and that is the alpine meadow section. The gain through here is more gentle and the views really start to open up.
In the next section, the terrain changes greatly. We wandered up this ridge with two points to descend into the next basin we needed to get into. The one closer to Eldorado is the best option. It involved some steep scrambling that wasn’t too bad with great hands and feet. Once we were past that, it was more boulders and rocks that slowly transitioned onto snow.
We made it to right before where the glacier started. I learned where the rocks end is a good indicator of where the glacier starts. We could also see crevasses up ahead. We all stopped and put on our crampons, harnessed and roped up. We had an all girls team and an all guys team to lead us up.
We made it to the start of the camp area at around 5 PM. We still had to find camp, make camp and then climb another 2,000 feet if we wanted to make this wedding happen for sunset. Nikki and Shawn ran up to see if any of the rock sites were open for camping. They didn’t end up finding anything so we began to dig platforms for our tents in the snow. This took awhile with only one shovel for the group. Everyone was tired. It was decided it would be a better experience for the wedding for sunrise. Once tents were set up we had dinner and took in the sunset before going to sleep. We didn’t get to sleep until after 9 and had a 2:30 AM wake up call (if I remember correctly).
I got an unrestful, cold nights sleep and the alarm rang all too soon. I was the first out of the tent and was greeted by perfectly clear skies twinkling with stars. This was a good sign for the morning to come. The rest of the gang got their stuff together and we did our glacier safety checks and we were off by 3:30AM or so. Nikki led our team up in the dark illuminated by headlamps. The route was mostly straightforward. Nikki walked quite fast (I think she was excited to get married or something like that). Every alpine start my stomach seems to not agree with the frozen bar I try to inhale and early exercise on no sleep. I felt nauseous. I had us slow down and rest before the final push up the knife’s edge. The light was just coming in now. Shawn’s group went first and he set a running belay to protect against the high exposure of the knife's edge. This means if someone fell we would have some backup to catch us. This was the part I was most nervous for. I’d never done anything like this before. I hated exposure. What if I fell? What if I couldn’t make myself do it? I took it one step at a time and I surprised myself by how well I did. One section in the middle was the narrowest with only room for your two feet and no where to place your ice axe. That part wasn’t fun, but the rest not so bad. We all got over the knife’s edge safely and found the nice snow free rock pile on the other side. The bride quickly got on her dress and the groom put on his shirt and bowtie. It was time to have a wedding!
Going up the knife’s edge I really did fine. Going down was a different story. During the most narrow part was the most terrifying for me. I couldn’t really place my ice axe for support and I had to land my feet just right to not tumble off the side of the mountain. I said out loud many times “ I don’t like this at all” but kept slowly walking. With extreme focus and concentration I made it through. After that moment, I felt like I grew tremendously as a mountaineer. I did something that scared me and pushed through it and found the grit to keep going.
It would all be smooth sailing from here. Or you know, still almost 7,000 feet to decline for the day. It’s fine.
Me made it back into camp and passed many others going up for the summit. Many cheers and congratulations were passed to the newlyweds. We ate food, took down camp and slowly made our way out.
The hike out was rather long and painful. It was easy going on the snow part and then we got back to some rock and climbed up the scramble section. We made it down the meadow section rather fast and then braked and filtered water at the water source again. The boulder field was awful coming down and slow. There was a steep wet slab section that involved taking off packs to make it down safely. I was totally over it. The last section of trees was not super fast either as there was a lot of loose, steep dirt. I was cursing and yelling the whole way down. We finally got back to the river crossing and put our sandals back on. This time it would be almost thigh deep instead of calf deep. A refreshing way to end the climb at least. The parking lot swarmed with mosquitos so it was a quick departure to the infamous Cascadian Farms for ice cream. An end to a successful climb and more importantly, a successful wedding.
This climb and wedding will be days I remember for the rest of my life. Seeing my good friends commit to loving each other with the most breathtaking background is something that is of a mountain fairytale. Cheers to you Nikki and Shawn and may you keep adventuring together all of your days.