Mutchler Creek Cirque

North Cascades, Washington

A mature stand of mountain hemlock gradually replaced the towering Douglas-firs as we climbed a path up the steep forest slope. Wispy hanging lichens draped the rough, furrowed bark and where massive, twisting branches had formed the dark veins of a layered, green canopy, the sky now began to reassert its place in the landscape.

Moving through a ridge saddle and up toward a higher crest the forest fell back suddenly. Ahead, rolling contours of blooming heather and cascade blueberries led steeply to a sky of bright, sweeping clouds. Broken, wind battered islands of hemlock, subalpine fir and drooping yellow-cedar dotted the meadow as brilliant outcrops surfaced in fault severed blocks highlighting the contours of a ridgecrest parkland.

We lowered our packs on a wonderful high knoll. Immediately below us vertical walls dove through the still surface of a large, round lake. Light scattered through the water as chunks of broken ice floated over a translucent abyss nebulously bordered in deep sapphire. Across the knoll a more distant lake filled a glacial depression below polished cirque walls tenuously overhung by a creeping ice apron. Scored and fractured rock rose above in a looming mountain backdrop spreading massive shoulders to either side. Every part of the weathered landscape seemed to share an aspect of character, wild and ruthlessly exposed, that bore witness to the effects of countless passing seasons. The fury of potent Pacific storms had shaped over eons what lay before us now under a benevolent summer sky: the resilient beauty of a mountain paradise.