Snow and Spire: Flights to Winter in the North Cascade Range

Early afternoon beginning of December. Sat by myself in a comfy chair, no TV on, no radio, no phone, no computer screen. It's misty outside and cold, the view out the front window above Bradwell and across the Hope valley to Stanage is hidden. Silence apart from a crackling fire.

I turn pages slowly, pausing at each image. My pupils follow lines up sharp aretes that split snow covered glaciers up to summit spires and back down ridges. Twisted cornices made of whipped ice-cream teeter above heavily laden slopes broken by dark avalanche fractures. Tolkien-like spires poke their heads above cloud inversions one face lit by alpen glow, the others faces dark, menacing and iron cold.

Mount Despair, Mount Fury, Mount Redoubt and Mount Triumph, unusual names new to me.

Places I have never been and perhaps never will.

Cornices On The Southeast Ridge Of Cloudcap Peak, 140 kb
Cornices On The Southeast Ridge Of Cloudcap Peak
© John Scurlock

I shut my eyes and imagine being there. The cold, the exertion, the overheating turning to a clammy cold as my sweat evaporates and I lose heat. The pain, the fear. The joy of being there. It could be the European Alps, Antartica or the Karakorum.

Just as I like watching climbing videos for motivation and inspiration I enjoy looking at large format climbing and mountain books for similar reasons.

Snow and Spire is large format hardback book showcasing the aerial photography of John Scurlock who for the past nine years has flown over the North Cascades in winter in his home-built airplane, a Van's Airctaft RV-6. The result is breathtaking, and documents a winter alpine wilderness that few have witnessed.

Snow and Spire by John Scurlock, 99 kb

Author:John Scurlock
Hardcover. Large Format 12"x12": 192 pages
Published:by Wolverine Publishing: November 2011.
Edition: First
ISBN: 978-0-9826154-7-8
Price: $59.95 USD

For more information or to purchase this book

This book should be available direct from the UK soon.

The North Cascades is a mountain wilderness covering 11,000 square miles in the American West stretching from British Columbia in the north down to the Suiattle River in Washington State just north-east of Seattle. The whole of the Cascades reaches down to through Oregon and into Northern California and includes more familiar peaks such as Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Rainer.

John Scurlock's aerial photographic journey focusses on the North Cascades near his home in Washington State. The North Cascades is a remote area, few roads penetrate it and towns are few and far between. It's most famous peak is Mount Baker (3,286 m), one of the snowiest places on Earth; in 1999, 30 metres of snow was recorded. In the summer the Cascades experiences a damp maritime climate. It is known for its wet weather in summer and heavy snow in in the winter. With over 700 glaciers winter never really leaves.

In spring, summer and autumn there are many fine hikes and climbs on its peaks, ridges and through its narrow valleys. Its most famous climbing protagonist is the octogenarian Fred Beckey who, still going strong, has explored the area since 1939 with hundreds of first ascents and he is the author of several meticulously researched guidebooks to the area.

But as the golden leaves of the larches fall from the trees and the days shorten, the snow begins to fly and the area gets shut down. The North Cascades Highway that traverses the northern part of the range is closed because of heavy snow and and extreme avalanche danger. This is when John Scurlock, a climber and skier, who knows the area well explored the range in his small plane, solo, carrying a Canon 5D mk II digitil SLR. He took the images whilst flying at over 100mph between 7,000 to 11,000 ft with his hands off the steering wheel!

The North Cascades are far from the tallest mountains in the United States (altitudes from 6000-10,000 feet), but because of the few roads, long approaches through deep snow and with high avalanche danger, savage weather, and the precipitous nature of the terrain, many of area's peaks have still not been climbed in winter — despite being stunning in their alpine glory.  Most winter mountaineering activity has taken place in low snow years or on the more accessible peaks. One epic ascent of Mount Slesse's (8,002 ft) North Buttress by Jim Nelson and Kit Lewis, described in detail in the book, used a helicopter to get to the base of the buttress and took eight days.

Scurlock's photographs have been available on the internet since 2004 and have opened the eyes of alpinists in the USA and Canada to this untapped gold mine of winter ascent firsts. In the last 9 years significant ascents, by alpinists such as Colin Haley, Dave Burdick and others have taken place and the area is becoming more popular and talked about. The publishing of Snow and Spire, by Colorado based Wolverine Publishing run by ex-pat Dave Pegg will also help increase this exploration of the North Cascades in winter I am sure.

The image reproduction is immaculate, the book design clean and uncluttered. There are extensive written chapters on the cultural history of the area, geology, climbing and skiing history (that chapter by Lowell Skoog is amusingly called 'Burglars in a Crystal Fortress'). The introduction to the book written by the author also includes a section on aerial photography in the range. I was heartened to read about the aerial photography pioneer Austen Post, one of Scurlock's mentors, as I had long been an admirer of Post's glacier photography taken when he worked for the United States Geological Survey. I actually got permission to use a photo of Post's of Mount Whitney in California for a guidebook and some greetings cards I worked on.

John Scurlock and his home-built airplane, a Van's Airctaft RV-6, 27 kb
John Scurlock and his home-built airplane, a Van's Airctaft RV-6
© John Scurlock

To the images. Breathtaking, words do not do them justice. You want to be there. As anyone who goes out into alpine regions at anytime of the year knows, it fills the soul, heart and mind with a pure joy, makes you feel alive.

Here are a selection of images from Snow and Spire: Click on the images to make them bigger.

Lincoln Peak, Looking To The Southwest., 118 kb
Lincoln Peak, Looking To The Southwest.
© John Scurlock

Extended caption: The east side of Lincoln Peak, facing Mt. Baker, has seen no ascents. In summer, its weak volcanic rock crumbles. Now, ice and snow cement the peak, but also turn it into a highly technical winter climbing objective. The southern Sisters Range is at center background. January 9, 2011, 9:59 am. Mt. Baker Wilderness.

Nooksack Tower, 145 kb
Nooksack Tower
© John Scurlock

The spectacular Nooksack Tower cedes nothing to its huge neighbor, Mt. Shuksan. Its north face, at center/right, stands as one of the most difficult climbing routes in the entire range. The East Nooksack Glacier tumbles into Nooksack Cirque on the left, while the margin of the Price Glacier is at right. December 6, 2010, 9:06 am. North Cascades National Park.

The West Peak Of Mt. Fury, 76 kb
The West Peak Of Mt. Fury
© John Scurlock

"More than any other peak, Mt. Fury epitomizes the grand alpine wilderness of the amazing Picket Range." Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide, Vol. III. November 10, 2010, 4:06 pm. North Cascades National Park

Hozomeen Mountain, North Peak, "Zorro" (West) Face, 160 kb
Hozomeen Mountain, North Peak, "Zorro" (West) Face
© John Scurlock

The Zorro Face, at left center, may be the greatest unsolved climbing problem in the North Cascades. Unapproachable in winter, but with every detail revealed by snow, it sits untouched. Summer offers scant improvement, with afternoon lightning storms and lack of drinking water magnifying the difficulties of its steepness. December 3, 2010, 3:30 pm. Ross Lake National Recreation Area.

Cornices On The Southeast Ridge Of Cloudcap Peak, 140 kb
Cornices On The Southeast Ridge Of Cloudcap Peak
© John Scurlock

"On this particular morning, I've observed numerous avalanches, but huge cornices such as these on the southeast ridge of Cloudcap peak (east of Mt. Shuksan) show no signs of collapse. February 9, 2011, 8:11 am. North Cascades National Park.

You can view more of John Scurlock's aerial photography at

See also: The Alps - A Bird's Eye View by Matevž Lenarcic and Janez Bizjak

Marmolada, 3343 m, Cimon Della Pala, 3184 m (ITALY) N 46 11 31 E 11 45 32 (taken at 3365m), 128 kb
Marmolada, 3343 m, Cimon Della Pala, 3184 m (ITALY) N 46 11 31 E 11 45 32 (taken at 3365m)
© The Alps - A Bird's Eye View /Matevž Lenar/PanAlp

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