Jennifer and Vadim were planning their elopement in Washington’s Northern Cascades and they were having a hard time finding a photographer who was up for the challenge. Luckily, I’m always up for a grueling hike and an adventure. So I was game, and, boy, did it deliver!
They originally wanted to hike up to the glacier on Sahale Arm for their elopement but ended up changing the location to Neve Peak, which has spectacular views of where Vadim proposed to Jennifer on Snowfield Peak. While not the tallest or most difficult peak to scale in Washington’s Northern Cascade region, Neve still comes in at a formidable 7,500 feet. The trail to the summit requires a burly 6,500 feet of elevation gain over a mere five miles, making for one steep climb.
The first couple miles were deceptively easy, winding up switchbacks on a well-defined trail at a fairly comfortable grade. Internally, I thought, “This is all you’ve got!?” However, once we hit Pyramid Lake, the whole complexion of the hike changed and my cockiness melted away. The route quickly turned into what Vadim referred to as a “climber’s trail,” an unmaintained trail cut through the forest by experienced alpine hikers and skiers. The switchbacks were soon done away with in favor of the shortest route possible over steep scrambling ascents. Tree roots were often necessary as handholds and feet easily slid under loose soil and rock. It was a challenging trail indeed, especially with a large pack and the added weight of camera equipment.
Once the trail turned to knee-deep snow, we kicked steps in slopes to stair step our way up. Some ascents were so steep all you had to do was lean forward about a foot to rest your chest against the snow. It was also fairly common for the snow to completely give way. On more than a dozen occasions I sank up to my waste or fell into a tree well and had to dig myself out. It was a quad burner for sure, but when we cleared the forest we were rewarded with gorgeous 360 degree views of the surrounding snowcapped mountains as we traversed the rolling ridge line to our stopping point for the day.
We had hoped to cover more ground, but we had reached an avalanche field that had become active in the afternoon sun. We literally watched avalanches fall from the highest nearby peak and wash over the trail we had plans to cross. So instead of trying anything risky, we dug tent platforms in the snow and set up camp.
The new plan was to wake up at 2 a.m., put on crampons and headlamps, and cross in the dead of night when the snow had firmed up. This early start would also give us enough time to make our return before the snow would soften, making crossing back to camp unwise. We definitely didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the avalanche field for a cold night without shelter and food.
This was my first time using crampons and an ice axe, but given the scenario I picked up on things quickly and got into the rhythm of plunging the long end of the ice axe into the snow with every step. This provided a well-anchored handhold in case of a slip. After several hours of nerve-racking traverses over icy, crunchy, sloping terrain we finally reached the summit of Neve Peak. The sun was just cresting the mountains across the way, washing the jaw-dropping cascade range in brilliant, warm light.
Jennifer and Vadim, the champions that they are, brought to the top their formal attire with a tent to change in. While they changed, I had to stick my frozen feet into a sleeping bag I’d brought to stave off any risk of frost bite. While I wasn’t too worried about it, I figured better safe than sorry.
We were at the summit for about 30 minutes when Jennifer emerged from the tent in her wedding dress miraculously looking as though she’d just been prepping in a city hotel for hours. She and Vadim did their first look right then and there and then hiked down to a small rocky landing where they said their vows with Snowfield Peak rising in the background. We followed up with a short and sweet portrait session for about 20 minutes. Then before starting our return trip, we signed the hiker’s log stored in a PVC pipe buried in a cairn.
When we reached the avalanche field, again, the sun was high in the sky and the snow had softened considerably. We crossed in complete silence concentrating intently on each step and the placement of our ice axes. Halfway across, a very small slide was triggered about a hundred feet in front of us. We all froze and waited, and I was reassured that it was minor. We pushed on.
Back at camp I admittedly breathed a huge sigh of relief and took a much needed nap in my tent. Meanwhile Jennifer and Vadim threw together delicious French toast with whipped cream, eggs and bacon. It was the most delicious breakfast I’ve had in recent memory.
Fully fueled, we began our return trek. Down hikes are always less entertaining, but it was just as challenging. By the time I reached my car I had a visible limp and it felt as though my pack straps had worn down to my clavicles. But it all made me that much more excited for the next adventure elopement I get to photograph! 🙂 — KC