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alpenglow wonders | ruth mountain overnight

13 miles . 5800 ft gain . 7115 ft high

When I’m in charge of planning a backpacking trip, I capitalize on my one goal in life: find and capture that alpenglow. This means I look for areas that have fewer clouds, campsites that are above tree line and have extensive views of mountains. I could care less about any other summit objective, distance, or gain so long as I have my alpenglow views. The weather was perfect everywhere so my mind zoomed in onto the North Cascades, also known as the American Alps for the rugged, rocky summits it boasts of. Everywhere else I crossed off my list.

Hannegan Pass has long been on my list of a place to explore (along with Cascade Pass) when I thought that passes were the epitome of backpacking trips. And this was back before I did anything more technical, like glacier travel. A 3-day trip is best used for loops, but finding difficulty creating a reasonable loop by Hannegan Pass, I opted to map out a couple out-and-back trips from the pass. This time of year, snow persists well into summer trails so keeping mileage and gain relatively low is key for happier campers who might be post holing through the snow.

Shuksan
Ruth Creek

Originally, I planned to head out to Ruth Mountain and Copper Ridge for the excursions. And smartly, my friends asked about where we’d camp since this trip hugged increasingly close to the North Cascades National Park boundary. You need a permit to camp within the National Park. But to avoid dealing with that, I selected potential spots close to the boundary but still clearly outside the park. Thankfully, I found a knoll on Ruth Arm that was perfect for the first camp and we could camp on top of Hannegan Peak the second night. But if you caught on by the title of this trip, it was a solely Ruth trip. Read on to find out why!

Heading to Camp

We drove all the way to the Hannegan Pass Trailhead (technically you park some 50 feet from the true parking lot due to massive damage). I found it pretty neat that the TH has a couple picnic benches and camp spots for anyone wishing to just car camp there! We took our time to repack some of our bags before heading on the trail. 1 minute into hiking we already saw some snow next to the trail and maybe a mile later we started crossing some avalanche debris snowfields. These are snow deposits from the winter that have yet to be melted out and completely cover the trail. Sometimes these crossings scare me a little just cause the snow can be slippery and a slide would send you quite a ways down.

First sight of Ruth Mountain

It was relatively easy to follow the footprints over to the other side of each snowfield and pick up the trail again. In and out of forests and snow crossings. We all had our fair share of slips and falls. Those snow bridges and weak snow patches lurk, waiting to swallow any leg that dares step on it. We’d avoid major snow bridges that thinned but sometimes you can’t tell if you’ll post hole deep because a shrub below created a gap or not. Eventually we got on consistent snow, some 4 miles into the hike. We’d ask people coming down about their trips and it sounded like many people got turned around due to the wet loose avalanche activity going on. I even witnessed one going off a chute above us. And all around, you can see where the snow had released. It’s natural for snow to avalanche on a warm day after a snow storm, so it was expected.

At Hannegan Pass, we were already excited to make camp soon. But unfortunately for my friends, we’d only climbed 2000 of the 3000 feet I wanted to do for my spectacular campsite. Looking up at the next section, it was no longer an easy elevation gain but a steep boot track up to the knoll on Ruth Arm. There was a lot of hesitation from worries about slipping down and being unable to stop ourselves; and also the potential of snow to move above us in an avalanche.

Concerned about the well-being of all of us, I didn’t want to push too hard because that would not make for a fun trip. However, I was also keen to have a good camp spot rather than the tree covered pass we were standing on. After much deliberating, we cautiously headed up the steep slope. I think it was key that we all understood that at any given moment, were someone to feel too uncomfortable, we’d all be okay heading back down to where we felt safer. The traverse was honestly fairly short and only a small section that seemed scarier (the kind where the slope continues forever). The last section was over some fairly gentle slopes (so if you slipped you wouldn’t slide too far). What helps me overcome some of these sometimes unrealistic scares is knowing that worse case isn’t actually as bad as my mind makes it out to be.

Soon we were on the little knife-edge like ridge of the knoll. The summer trail would traverse more to go up a less steep slope. But we preferred less traversing so we continued following the boot track up to the top of the knoll another couple hundred feet higher. Sadly, for a short person like me, most boot tracks are spaced out too far for me to use comfortably. I’ve gotten used to kicking in my own steps, which can be easier than pretending to be a giant and take huge stair steps.

At the top of the knoll, there was a short snow-less section, much to my friend’s dismay. But she did awesome and made her way up the scramble-y bit and back onto the snow. I was happy to see that the knoll was as flat as I had expected and snow covered. This would make it easy to set up our tents! For a cloud-free, low wind snow camp, there are many options, including cowboy camping under the stars, but best if you built a little wind shelter.

Luxury camp

Camp

With so much time to spare before sunset, we designed and built a kitchen area, something I had never done before. I guess I had never luxury snow-camped previously. One of my friends, an architect, informed us that chairs are best designed when the back and seat are at 105 degrees to each other and then titled 10 degrees back. So we did our best to carve out seats that way in our kitchen. It was also complete with stairs leading to the dining table.

It turns out we only brought 2 used tiny fuel cans for 4 people and 2 nights. Boiling water for dinner and water bottles quickly used up all of one can. This presented us with a pretty large problem: we needed a lot of water for each day and clearly could not boil it all for another day and night with the fuel we had. But we had options. Since this wasn’t a loop, we could just head down the next day and camp elsewhere. Or we could do iodine purification and find a stream lower down so we could save fuel for dinner. A future problem, at least we now have sufficient water.

And even after eating our dinners, the sun wouldn’t set for another hour, so we just lounged around in our tents. Getting bored of lounging, I started to take more pictures and within 5 minutes, the sun started painting the sky in warmer tones. Shuksan and the corner of Kulshan were simply stunning to watch the sun set on. And all around us the colors kept changing and changing. You couldn’t even figure out where to look at or take a picture of. It was all so amazing. Alpenglow never ceases to bring me joy. I think we were all dancing with that giddy glee, happy beyond happy, thankful that we decided to brave the steep slopes to get up to this knoll. Alpenglow happens in only a few minutes, but the overall sunset lasted quite a long time, ending with a spectacular orange show by the sun. I couldn’t even wait to get up early and do this all over again for sunrise.

Alpenglow on Shuksan
Sunset blue hour
Dawn
Pretty in pink

This time of year, the days are long, nights are short, making these sunset/sunrise expeditions harder. I honestly did not sleep too well between the wind blowing the tent (the rain fly was not taut enough) and the chirpy birds. So when 4:30am rolled around, I was already half awake enough to get out into the cold air. I’ve done enough sunrises now to know that I can start taking pictures 30 minutes before true sunrise without a tripod. That’s when the colors really start to change in the sky and then on the mountains. One by one, my friends started to emerge from the tents, each taking their own time to enjoy the display.

Sunrises and sunsets are unique to each other. I used to think them similar, but you can truly tell a difference when camping. Sunrises are gentler. It does feel like a wake up. And sunsets are a bit bolder, almost like a diva making a dramatic departure from the stage. But both are incredible to witness in person, let alone 360 views in person! I loved this morning’s alpenglow on Ruth. It was so warm and loving and made me smile (whereas sunset made me do a happy dance instead).

Sunrise

Summit of Ruth

Reaching the summit of Ruth requires less than 1500 ft gain in a short distance, so we were in no rush to get there. Our only limiting factor was the warming snow. Slushy snow is both annoying to walk on and can be dangerous if it also elicits wet loose avalanche conditions. But still, we had time between sunrise and when we should head up, so we all took a little nap prior. Well rested, we started going up. From camp the path looked a bit steep, but once you’re on the slopes it feels way less steep. Funny how that works! I continued to kick steps in, sometimes following the skin and boot track, but mostly determined my own steps was easiest.

Generally, this felt like a pretty straight-forward climb as you follow the ridge. At the top, we found some nicely built rock shelters for bivy sites. This would be another awesome spot to camp on one day! From here you can see all the way down to Mt Rainier and Glacier Peak. It was awesome to be able to identify more mountains this time around. The coolest part was seeing the open glaciers around us on Shuksan and the Nooksack Cirque. On Icy Peak, its eastern glacier is so broken that you can see the rock underneath. Definitely don’t want to be there when the glacier breaks up.

Open glacier
Nooksack Cirque

After soaking in all the summit views, we leisurely descended the mountain. It was amazing to see everyone more confident and energetic going down as opposed to the nerves when we would go up the mountain. As we made our way closer to our tents, we started passing people who’d come for the day. I was surprised no one wanted to stay overnight, but makes sense that most skiers would want to do this in a day. I found it odd that everyone started so late since the snow was already thick and slushy when we were coming down mid morning. Later, I found out many people turned around early, though I did see a few tracks of people heading at least close to the summit. I wonder if the party on foot made it to Icy Peak!

The rest of our trip was fairly uneventful. We packed our bags and slowly traversed back to the car. We were a bit weary and unanimously decided that it wouldn’t be the worst decision if we just headed home instead of keeping the trip long. No harm in relaxing at home and catching up on errands and chores! My heart was completely full already so a trip cut short was no problem. We bagged a summit and caught the alpenglow twice! What more can I ask for?

Back at the trailhead

Notes

  • Risk dependent, Ruth can be done without glacier gear if it’s early enough in the season
  • In the spring, it’s both easiest and annoying to take the summer trail, but it provides a good track for getting to Hannegan Pass
  • Anywhere from Hannegan Pass to the base of Ruth Mountain is National Forest land, no permits required
  • We camped at Point 5930, but you could also camp at the pass or on Ruth Arm.
  • Skiers talked about how each turn set off some small wet loose runs
  • Not including a map because this is fairly straightforward.

Photos shot on Canon 5D Mark IV

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