Mount Chiwawa (2,578 m/ 8,459 ft) is one of Washington State's most popular peaks to hike up and around.
Name: Chiwawa Mountain
Height: 2,578 m (8,459 ft)
Location: Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Washington, USA.
First Climbed: 1921 by Lorenz A Nelson (unconfirmed)
Climb Time: 2-3 days
Best Time to Climb: June-September
INTRODUCTION TO CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
Not to be confused with the miniature breed of dogs that share this mountain’s pronunciation, the main attraction of this peak is the picture-perfect glacier which elevates this mountain above its loftier neighbours.
Once much larger, the Lyman glacier flows down Chiwawa Mountain’s north-east flank. To the north-east and south are long, wide valleys that were carved out by glaciers in the distant past. A number of cirques and glacier-fed lakes also draw hikers and nature lovers to this designated wilderness area, which reaches out to include the eponymous Glacier Peak to the south-west.
With abundant wildlife, idyllic meadows and a range of hiking adventure options, Chiwawa Mountain will show you that it packs an interesting challenge far above its height.
HISTORY OF CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
Chiwawa Mountain is named after the valley that leads up to its southern flanks. Chi-wah-wah is the local indigenous word attributed to this valley, meaning ‘the last canyon next to the mountain’.
The indigenous population were hunters, fishers and gatherers. Situated between the main Native American populations in the Columbia River Basin and the Pacific North-west, their knowledge of the terrain was important to the wider Native American population. The Chiwawa area was an important part of east-west trade routes. They were used expertly by the Chelan peoples, who lived in the valley to the north-east of the mountain.
The challenge of passing through the rugged North Cascades was also clearly understood by the early settlers. During the 1800s, their initially cordial relationship with local Native Americans suggested an appreciation of wanting to learn and share these trade routes with those who had cut them long before.
The Chiwawa area began to be populated by settlers more fervently in the late 19th Century. This was spurred on, as so many early American population centres were, by the discovery of natural resources. Here, it was iron and copper, along with small deposits of other precious metals.
First spotted by the red stain of oxidised iron high on the hills, by 1896, a trail had been cut to Chiwawa and Phelps Basins and the Trinity mine was opened (today’s Standrard Route trailhead). Arguably, the cost to this area was far less than was caused by the Holden mine, to Chiwawa’s north-east.
This largely deserted valley, from where the Lyman Lake hike begins, has been left covered with a yellow residue and carved sections. The mine was the largest producer of copper during its twenty years of operation, drawing $66.5 million worth of copper and precious metals from the ground between 1938 and 1957. The long-term legacy of such actions surely outweighs the short-term profits, but unfortunately this is far from a unique story.
This history of mining is also writ in the names of other nearby peaks such as Red Mountain andCopper Peak (2,732 m/ 8,964 ft).
GEOGRAPHY OF CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
Found in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, Chiwawa Mountain is the 64th highest independent summit in Washington.
Nearby Fortress Mountain ( m/ 8,760 ft), found to the west, is the highest peak in the Chiwawa Mountains. A fitting name, this rugged, steep-sided mountain is harder to scale than its eastern neighbour. In the past, various maps interchanged the names of the two peaks, a mistake that now seems to have been rectified in modern records.
Centred around snow-capped Glacier Peak (3,213 m/ 10,541 ft), the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area is a 56 km (35-mile) long, 32 km (20-mile) wide area in north-west Washington. The wilderness area was designated by the US Forest Service in 1960.
All these mountains are part of the North Cascades, a sub-range of the Cascade Range that stretches from Canada to northern California.
It has two long ridge lines leading from the summit. One leads to the north and north-east, the other to the east leads to the northern tip of Phelps Ridge (2,331 m/ 7,648 ft). To the east of this arm of Chiwawa Mountain is Spider glacier, a 0.8 km (0.5-mile) long and narrow glacier, climbed as part of the Red Mountain Route (see below).
The Lyman glacier is on the opposite side of this east-west ridge and, while better known, is significantly shorter (0.4 km/ 0.25 miles). In 1890, it was far larger, but has steadily retreated since then, losing 75% of its length, 86% of its area and 93% of its volume.
Despite this, it remains the mountain’s key attraction (along with the wildflower meadows), winding through the dark grey rock of Chiwawa’s north-east flanks. It is popular as an alternative descent route too, with skiing available down the glacier towards Lyman lake.
This lake, fed by the glacier that hangs above it, lies to the north of the mountain at the bottom of the valley. It is site of another popular hike (see both below).
The deep U-shaped valleys that carve through this area, the largest being Chiwawa Valley, were created by repeated periods of glaciation. It is believed that three such periods occurred during previous Ice Ages, dating back around 300,000 years.
At lower elevations the sharp V-shaped valleys are the work of rivers that flowed beyond the reach of glaciers. But in the valleys that border the mountain, the creeks and streams are mere trickles that barely affect the valleys’ shape.
The summit of the mountain itself is marginally split between two summit rocks. Almost identical in height, you could stand on top of one while a friend is on the other and both claim to be on top of Chiwawa Mountain!
The broken rocks that make up the top of this mountain would suggest that these summit rocks once lay beneath another higher summit, which has long since tumbled of the top.
WILDLIFE OF CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
The valleys that lead to Chiwawa Mountain are characterised by flowing creeks and streams bordered by thick forest.
This forest consists primarily of fir, hemlock and red cedar. On the eastern slopes, pine and douglas fir predominate, with vegetation found at higher elevations in this area.
Wildflowers and grasses populate the meadows found to the south-west and south-east of the mountain, most notably in the picturesque Spider meadow.
Of this array of colour, which is in bloom early in the hiking season, lupines stand tall. Deep purple, they are like miniature Christmas trees, with a series of small bell-shaped, colourful flowers lining the stalk. They are abundant in the fertile meadows. These places are common camping spots for hikers and present a very attractive environment in which to wake.
Given the lush surroundings of this habitat (at least the lower elevations) it will come as no surprise that many animals also reside below Chiwawa Mountain.
These include deer and elk as well as the big cats of cougar and lynx. Smaller mammals such as martens and field mice are also found between the forests and fields.
On the mountains, mountain goats and black bears roam wide territories (though the latter actually live mainly in the forest). Gray wolves and wolverines can be found here too. In the rivers, cutthroat trout are the main inhabitants.
However, one animal that you probably won’t come across is a grizzly bear.
Grizzly bear sightings in the North Cascades are very rare indeed. The last was photographed in 2010, while the last confirmed sighting in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area was back in 1996. Given that they are described as “like vampires”, it really wouldn’t do to get your hopes up of seeing one!
FIRST ASCENT OF CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
No definite records exist for the first ascent, but the earliest recorded ascent was during an exploration led by Lorenz A Nelson in 1921.
Given the 19th Century settler explorations and historical trade routes in the area that made use of high passes since the early 19th Century, as well as the indigenous presence long pre-dating this, it is likely earlier ascents occurred.
This first ascent probably followed the south-west route, as it is the simplest ascent route. Again, without a more definitive account, this can only be logical conjecture.
CLIMBING GUIDE FOR CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
There are several attractive reasons to climb Chiwawa Mountain. One is the challenge of a significant ascent and decent distance covered from trailhead to summit. Another is the panoramic view from the ridge line of the glaciers, surrounding peaks and wider wilderness area.
Finally, the varied kinds of activity each route presents—straight-forward hiking, crossing a river, scrambling up boulders, ice climbing and even skiing—ensures that there is interest for even the most experienced adventurer. All the routes are rated class II and above.
For many, the view of the Lyman glacier on the mountain’s north-east is no doubt motivation enough to continue the summit, or at least up to Spider Pass.
There are two standard ascent routes: the Chiwawa Basin and the Red Mountain Routes. Both are discussed below.
Another route up the Lyman glacier is often used by skiers, who obviously make the descent much faster than the ascent! Scaling the north and north-west faces are far rarer, with no existing routes found during our research.
Standard Route (Chiwawa Basin Route)
From the trailhead (853 m/ 2,800 ft) at the end of Chiwawa River road near the abandoned mining town of Trinity, take the Buck Creek trail up the valley. Sticking to the right side of the Chiwawa river, you arrive at the junction with the Red Mountain trail after 6 km (3.7 miles). This fork is located at the south-eastern foot of Chiwawa Mountain.
The Standard Route takes the left route, known as the Chiwawa River trail. This trail heads towards the Fortress-Chiwawa Col (1,676 m/ 5,500 ft) for around 2 km (1.5 miles) through forest and meadows. It also includes one shallow creek crossing, so be prepared for this. This section descends at first first, before climbing steeply towards the col between the two summits.
On this ascent, stick to the areas with less trees, typically along the east of the ridge. From the Upper Basin, as the terrain becomes slabs, gullies and slopes, also choose the scrambling route up the left side towards the ridge. This is considered the most difficult section of the whole climb, and heading to the right only makes it harder!
Gaining the ridge (1,890 m/ 6,200 ft) the going gets easier. Head north to the top of the Col (or saddle) then turn east towards the summit. 30 m (100 ft) from the summit, traverse around to the west of the peak to find a simple final approach, then choose which summit rock you believe is the true summit!
After a total ascent of 1,725 m (5,659 ft), you will be standing on top of Chiwawa summit (2,578 m/ 8,459 ft).
Descent is typically via the Standard route.
Red Mountain Route.
The alternative choice follows the same approach from Trinity trailhead until you reach the fork with the Red Mountain trail at the south-eastern foot of Chiwawa Mountain.
Here, take the right-hand route (Red Mountain trail), heading up switchbacks to traverse around the bottom of Red Mountain. With some more difficult climbing ahead to gain the ridge line, it is also possible at this point to take a route along ledges toSouth Face and join the Standard Route for the final section of scramble.
If your experience and route conditions permit, climb up to the Red Mountain summit (or aim for the ridge line to the north) and traverse the ridge line north then west to reach the Chiwawa summit from the east.
Unfortunately, most references suggest this route, which requires some ice climbing experience and difficult, technical terrain, is out of reach to most of us. This is similar to the North Face of Chiwawa Mountain.
From the Phelps Creek trailhead (north-east of Trinity up an access road) take the Phelps Creek Trail along the eastern foot of the Phelps Ridge towards Spider Meadows. The lower meadows are reached after around 8 km (5 miles).
After 2.5 km (1.5 miles) and a couple of creek crossings, you reach the end of this valley. The ascent begins by the sign for Spider Gap and at 1,615 m (5,300 ft) you meet the switchbacks and rocky terrain that will carry you to the foot of Spider snowfields.
Here, at 1,875 m (6,150 ft) you can find some great camping spots (other bivouacs can be found higher up also). Heading up the snowfields, you reach Spider Gap (2,164 m/ 7,100 ft), a pass to the right of the early arm of Chiwawa Mountain. It is here you get your first look at the Lyman glacier.
From the pass, descend 200 m (660 ft) and traverse to the centre of the Lyman glacier. Head up the glacier’s right flank to gain the ridge line (2,393 m/ 7,850 ft) to the north of Chiwawa summit. From here, it’s a simple scramble to the top.
As those in this account show, one option for descent is to ski. Otherwise, hikers typically head back down the same way or via the Standard Route.
INFORMATION ON TREKKING AND CLIMBING AROUND CHIWAWA MOUNTAIN.
If one mountain is not enough, then why not bag four peaks?
This account describes a four-day hike that climbs Chiwawa, Fortress, Red and Ruth Mountains. Camping in meadows and enjoying panoramas of nearby peaks such as Glacier Peak, this is an adventure for anyone feeling the need for a multi-day, multi-mountain challenge!
The Lyman Lakes are two lakes (Upper and Lower) that lie north of Chiwawa Mountain. A hiking route that takes in both, as well as heading up to the Lyman Glacier begins in one of the remotest trailheads in the state.
To reach it, you take a boat up Lake Chelan and a steep climbing bus up to Holden village (a summer camp near the old mining town).
At 32 km (20-mile), this route usually requires an overnight, with a prime option near Lower Lyman Lake. The route takes you past the two lakes, up the valley and, if desired, over Spider Gap to the wildflower meadows south of Chiwawa Mountain.
Further out still, there is some excellent climbing and hiking in the Glacier Wilderness Area and Washington State.
The Bulger list is the 100 highest peaks (with qualifying prominence). It proposes hiking and climbing up an array of peaks, with challenges ranging from walk-ups to class IV hikes and graded climbs. So whatever you’re after, Chiwawa Mountains and its surrounding area will likely have a desirable adventure option for you