North Cascades, the Aurora, Thunderstorms, and a Rescue

Above: The Northern Lights show themselves behind Sahale Mountain and Boston Peak. Clip was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on July 16th.

I didn’t know the Northern Lights were supposed to make an appearance the weekend Brendan and I were heading up to Sahale Mountain. I think he mentioned it on the way up, and it would influence the direction I would point my camera on the second night. We were originally going to do Glacier Peak, but road closures and the desire to take more pictures and do less hiking turned us towards Sahale.

My plan was to camp on the Sahale Arm the first night, and camp on the summit the second night. I’d seen pictures from the summit of Boston Peak and the surrounding area and it looked beautiful. When you pull up to the trail head you’re already treated to spectacular sites such as the hanging glaciers on the north face of Johannesburg Mountain. In the parking lot we spoke with some skiers returning from a day trip just as an ice avalanche rumbled behind us off of one of these hanging glaciers.

The approach starts out through a beautiful wooded area full of moderate switchbacks that open up often to gorgeous views east and west. We crossed several sketchy moat/streams that would soon collapse under some poor soul’s feet sending them into the creeks below. As night approached we crossed some sketchy hard, slippery snow-filled gullies which we’d later cross using crampons. We pulled ice axes out mid-gully after realizing a fall with a heavy pack would have severe consequences. We avoided a second crossing higher up by bushwhacking straight up towards the Sahale Arm. It was pitch black by this time, and we kept seeing flashes we assumed were our headlamps out of our periphery. When we reached the Arm and had a view of the summit, we saw that the flashes were lightning from a very active storm that appeared to be just behind Sahale’s summit, which was probably 2-3 miles away. The storm seemed to be almost level with us, so it freaked me out a bit to be on a ridge so close to it. If it floated over towards us it felt like we’d be smack in the middle of a lightning storm. This all said, we heard no thunder so the storm must have been extremely far away and it just looked close. The lightning would light up the entire valley, however, including the mountains behind us every few minutes. 

Anyway I setup a time-lapse of our tent with Magic Mountain behind it and a bit of the Milky Way then went to bed. Brendan was getting some cool shots of the lightning behind Sahale. I told Brendan I would collapse the tent if the storm started to come our way. We picked a lower part of the ridge that seemed to have plenty of higher objects around. I had just read about a bunch of people dying in the Tetons from a lightning storm, and they included a bunch of warnings about staying off ridges and summits.

The next day we made our way up toward the Sahale Glacier, passing several friendly-looking marmots along the way. The glacier looked pretty small and roping up seemed like overkill, but we did it anyway. We saw a few parties half-way up the steep section just before the summit sort of linger there for a while. I couldn’t understand why they were staying in one place for so long vs. moving towards or away from the summit block. Finally one party came down and passed us. Someone had dislodged a large rock at the summit block and it had broken a woman’s leg pretty badly. The passing party had a way to “satellite text” the Marblemount ranger station to initiate a helicopter rescue. We then passed the woman who was being assisted down by a man, her leg was done up in a makeshift splint. I have a picture that includes her in the frame if she wants it, but I won’t post it here as it feels like bad form. We kept going towards the summit with our heavy packs with a possible plan to sleep as close as possible to the top. Another man was down-climbing and I noticed his knee looked really bloody/battered. He was near the rock as it dislodged and it had hit him before the woman. We offered assistance, but they had everything they needed. Continuing towards the summit, we made it to the rocky area at the very top where the accident occurred. I wanted to chop out a platform and set camp, but Brendan wasn’t very excited about the idea. I’m glad he wasn’t because—while I’m fairly sure no one has ever camped that high on Sahale therefore the photos would be original—we would’ve missed the northern view of the Aurora. 

Before we left I scrambled up to within about 30 feet of the summit. It’s definitely 4+ class rock. I didn’t feel comfortable down-climbing the last section, so I bailed and we headed back down to some flat terrain on the glacier to take pictures. We noticed the glacier indeed was crevassed, we had narrowly avoided some larger crevasses on the way up without even seeing them from our POV. 

We setup camp and began taking pictures of the setting sun as a helicopter arrived to evacuate the injured party on the glacier. The helicopter made several trips over the course of a couple hours, sometimes baffling us as to what it was actually up to due to seemingly strange flying behavior. Night came and I had found my time-lapse location. I took a few test pictures and noticed purple and green colors in the sky via the camera LCD. I though my white balance was messed up. It wasn’t. The Aurora was approaching and you couldn’t yet make it out with the naked eye.

I thought about being on El Dorado (El Dorado can be seen from the lower Sahale Glacier) the year before the Aurora had appeared before my eyes on the summit just after I had setup once of my favorite motion-controlled time-lapses of the iconic knife-ridge El Dorado summit. The Aurora can definitely be seen with the naked eye, but like the milky way and starry night, a long exposure on a good DSLR depicts the scene in much more vivid detail.

In the morning thunderstorms surrounded the mountain and we could hear frequent rumbling as we descended. I retrieved my equipment that had been rained on, but was undamaged. The images I flipped through were amazing to me. I was so glad for the opportunity to capture such vivid pictures of this rare site for WA state. As the morning progressed, we captured a few pics of the awesome clouds surrounding Buckner Mountain and the adjacent valleys, then set off into the clouds below. 

I had thought I lost my 70-200 lens the day before and had backtracked searching everywhere. Upon returning to the car a note was on my windshield. Someone from the party of the injured climber (I believe) also named Luke had found my lens on my hitch and took it to the ranger station. A big thank you for doing that, I was a little distraught at losing a $700 lens on that trip. Positive Karma hopefully comes your way in future climbs.

Finally, I should say that after posting my time-lapse of the Aurora on Vimeo, someone from the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams discovered it and asked if it could be shown on that night’s broadcast. It was featured on July 16th for their audience of ~7 million viewers. Kind of cool. What a great end to an exciting weekend adventure in the mountains. I only wish I could’ve seen a bear which I understand are often spotted in this area, including one post I always read about where a grizzly was spotted. 

A study in tent emergence on the Sahale Arm on the first night. I recorded a time-lapse of Magic Mountain behind us as the Milky Way floated past. Lightning from behind Sahale Mountain would frequently light up the entire landscape, including all of the mountains around Magic Mountain (e.g Johannesburg).

…when most people are already fast asleep….:)

A spectacular drop (2,000+ feet?) to a heavily crevassed area below (Horseshoe Basin?) that approaches Buckner Mountain, the ~10th highest mountain in the state.

Mt. Baker at sunset from above the Sahale Glacier. 

A helicopter rescue of a woman with a badly broken leg takes place around sunset (Helicopter just above center frame, injured party on the glacier just left of center frame). A rock had come loose on the summit block and landed on her leg. We passed them on the way up and thankfully someone had a satellite device that could be used to alert park rangers.

Boston Peak behind the Sahale summit, with Buckner to the right. The starts are coming out and the effects of a solar flare from a few days ago on the sun are about to manifest themselves in the most beautiful way in these dark skies.

Midnight stroll from a lonely camp on the edge of a cliff.

The aurora creeps in behind me.

Did I get scared and run and try to hide from the Aurora? No comment.

Peak aurora around 2:30 AM just before the moon rises. No Photoshop or color changes here, I know it looks almost fake, but this is pretty much straight out of the camera.

Dark, strangely shaped clouds pass between Sahale and Boston Peak as we sleep.

Another shot from the Sahale Arm. I later learned you should not camp here.

Some spectacular clouds appeared everywhere in the morning before we left (Buckner Mountain here). Thunder rumbled all around us as we descended the Sahale Arm. I could see no lightning, but ominous clouds were everywhere. 

Setting up a time-lapse for the Aurora with Kessler Crane equipment. I carry all of this on my back up these mountains in a backpack that is usually ~70 pounds. Photo by Brendan Dore.

Stubai Crampons, a ton of random camera equipment in a waterproof bag, a Kessler pocket dolly with motor and controller, a Gitzo tripod, and Brendan above the Sahale Glacier near the summit.

Our path up to the summit block. 14 miles round-trip with ~5700ft of gain. 

Rescue map.


  1. lukeallenhumphrey posted this