This national park has the highest mortality rate in the country

“A very dangerous park”

Hikers, guides and Bush, the former North Cascades ranger, described the nearly 800-square-mile park as a magnificent and rugged wilderness, a place of dramatic ridges and valleys, hundreds of glaciers, almost no infrastructure and, at least for the lower 48 , an unusual distance. Unstable weather and an unstable landscape magnified by climate change can also make it dangerous.

Part of the North Cascades website is dedicated to warning visitors of the park’s many dangers and providing advice on how to navigate them safely.

“It’s a very dangerous park,” said Bush, the former ranger who also oversaw the park’s climbing program before retiring nearly a decade ago. “It would be easy to die in this park.”

Bush said that in her 36 years working in the North Cascades, most of the deaths she encountered were among “very” experienced climbers.

“He’s the one going to the North Cascades,” he said.

Some climbers pointed to the park’s ban on bolted anchors as another potential source of danger.

The rule, which echoes a long-standing debate in the climbing world about how much people should be allowed to change the wilderness, means visitors must rely on other, less secure anchors, such as nylon nets, said Erik Murdock , vice president of policy. and government affairs for the Access Fund, a non-profit organization that supports climbers and supports the use of screw anchors.

Asked about the ban, Hernandez pointed to the park’s long-standing “concept” of policies, which says fixed anchors are prohibited in the North Cascades Wilderness Area.

According to the park’s website, the ban is designed to “maintain a wilderness experience that reflects a raw climbing style.”

The goal of the policy, Bush said, was to avoid turning the wilderness into an “all-mountain bolt-climbing gym.” He declined to say whether he supported the use of bolted anchors in the North Falls.

Murdock said visitors should aim to leave as little behind as possible, but that in an area like the North Cascades, a properly placed stainless steel bolt is much more durable and reliable than mesh.

The longtime guide with the ominous warning said there appeared to be few rules for temporary anchors, describing it as a “free for all.”

People “end up in dangerous places because they see anchors in the middle of nowhere,” said the guide, who has been visiting North Falls since the late 1990s and asked not to be identified for fear of punishment by the park, which issues empty .

Another guide, Josh Cole of North Cascades Mountain Guides, said he routinely sees “near misses” in the park because of the lack of high-quality fixed anchors.

Hernandez, the park spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment about potential dangers associated with the temporary anchors. He said protective gear that doesn’t require drilling and changing physical characteristics — such as webbing — can remain in place.

A death on Forbidden Peak

Murdoch pointed to a pair of incidents from about a decade ago that highlight the issue.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak.B. Ducay / NPS

In August 2012, a guide replaced what Murdock described as an old, insecure two-bolt “sling” anchor on the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak, one of the park’s most popular routes. At the time, there was no documented policy on the matter, and the guide was trying to protect climbers from falling rock by establishing a safer route, Murdock said.

Bush said he notified the park’s top official about the bolts. Within days, North Cascades rangers had removed — or “cut” — the anchors. They also removed a second, older set of bolts along the route, he said.

The driver who installed the bolts did not respond to requests for comment. Bush said the driver never asked for permission from the park, nor did he mention wanting to create a safer route to two rangers he encountered just before setting them up.

After they were removed — and without public discussion — the North Cascades superintendent added the regulation to the park compendium that prohibited screw anchors, Bush said. (Hernandez said public notice is required for summary actions; no public comment period is required.)

A month later, the guide, who asked not to be identified, questioned the descent of Forbidden Peak’s West Ridge and complained to the Access Fund about how dangerous the route had become after the bolts were removed – and how exposed it was to falling rock.

“It still amazes me that they would do anything to make this dangerous descent more dangerous,” the driver wrote in an email Murdock provided to NBC News. “In my professional opinion this is just an accident waiting to happen.”

A year after the removal, on Sept. 14, 2013, a climber descending the West Summit of Forbidden Peak was struck by falling rock and fell 300 feet to his death, according to a report Bush wrote three days later.

His climbing partner told climbing magazine Rock and Ice that before the football-sized rock hit him, he was forced to remove his rope and cross a narrow ledge to try to reach an old anchor.

“Because the bolts weren’t there, it pushed him into a zone where there was a rock fall,” Murdock said. “Does that mean she caused his death? I don’t think you can say that.”

For the driver who gave the dire warning, the death proved the potential danger in the North Cascades — and “probably won’t be the last if this descent doesn’t change,” he said.

Hernandez said, “Climbing has inherent risks, including the risk of falling rock, which could happen at any point during a climb.”

The bolts were removed in a manner consistent with park policies and laws, he said, and Forbidden Peak’s West Ridge has been climbed for years without fixed anchors.

“Every time a climber puts on their harness, it is their personal responsibility to assess potential hazards and determine an acceptable level of risk they are willing to take,” he said, adding that officials encourage visitors to check park policies and ensure that they are familiar with “clean” climbing techniques.

Before the fatal fall, the Access Fund and other groups were pushing the park to develop an authorization process for fixed anchors, including bolts, Murdock said. He pointed to National Park Service guidelines from 2013 that say wilderness sites must do just that, while also ensuring that fixed anchors remain rare.

Cole, of North Cascades Mountain Guides, said there are pros and cons to allowing bolters in the park. But, he said, “ultimately the decision is made by a small group of people without input from the climbing community.”

Murdock said park officials promised to address the issue in a review of the wilderness management plan that would allow for public input.

“They said in 2014 or 2015 it would take a couple of years,” Murdock said. “They haven’t even started it.”

Hernandez wrote that the park plans to conduct a public planning process for climbing and wilderness management in the “near future.”

“Until the park can meet this design requirement or approve a permit, fixed anchors (bolts) remain prohibited,” he said.

A near fatal fall and a daring rescue

Jason Martin, the executive director of the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington, a climbing school and guide service, pointed to other factors that are likely to make the park prone to danger. A warming climate, for example, is putting a strain on the region’s glaciers, sending them into retreat and destroying the landscape they’ve long helped hold together.

The shift has made permanent snowfields looser and caused more rock falls and ice, he said. One of the park’s most popular routes, Price Glacier, is barely climbable now, he said.

“It’s falling apart,” Martin said. “There are these giant car-sized chunks of ice falling down.”

Steven Trent climbs in North Cascades National Park two days before his fall in 2009.
Steven Trent climbs in North Cascades National Park two days before his fall in 2009.Steph Abegg / NPS

For Steven Trent, a commercial pilot who has been climbing in the park since the 1990s, a near-death experience ended up on loose rock on a seldom-used trail.

On July 5, 2009, he and a partner were simultaneously climbing a peak called Mount Terror when he hit the rock and broke down and fell down the mountain. Trent said he plunged dozens of feet, bouncing off the mountain, and stopped only when he reached the end of the rope that connected him to his climbing partner, Steph Abeg.

According to an account Abegg posted on her website, what followed was a desperate attempt to help — one that included first aid during the flight down a mountainside and a dangerous rescue in which Trent was picked up by a ranger. hanging from a helicopter in the blowing winds.

Trent had torn his Achilles tendon, broken his left femur and suffered a nasty head injury. Seeing the approaching pilot, he said, was like seeing Superman.

Trent made a full recovery and went on to climb the same route again without incident a few years later. But if a member of their climbing party hadn’t brought a cell phone — and if they hadn’t found a signal deep in the desert, a stroke of luck that allowed them to call for help — things could have turned out differently, Abeg said.

“We would have hiked and they would have taken him,” Abeg said. “But he might not make it.”

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