Horses, Hikes and Cascade Sherpas

By Lara Dunning

Horses and mt baker

When The Crossing Guide editor called me up and said, “I have an assignment for you with Cascade Sherpas. Are you into it?” it didn’t take long to respond. As a lover of all things camping, hiking into Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and having my gear trekked up by someone other than me sounded like pure heaven. My reply: “You had me at Sherpa.”

At this point you might be asking, “What is Cascade Sherpas?” It is run by Monica Uruchurtu, an equestrian, backcountry guru, and the only permitted outfitter for Sherpa services for the Mt. Baker District. From July 1 to October 31, she and her team of horses‒Lightfoot, Magi, Loki, and Missy‒provide individuals, couples and families backcountry freighting services.

Lightfoot

“I like the idea that it allows more people to get into the mountains,” said Uruchurtu, whose had years of backcountry packing experience. “It’s great for anyone. Maybe someone has a bad back and isn’t able to carry their own gear, but can still hike, and people with families can bring their kids and not have to worry about carrying all the gear and their kids.”

Whatever the reason, Cascade Sherpas helps get you into the backcountry. A four-pack string can carry up to 500 pounds, which means you can pack more than freeze dried backpacker food, and indulge in items that you normally wouldn’t bring backpacking, like coolers and thicker sleeping pads. Also, it means you have more time and energy to explore the wilderness. The base price starts at $250 (which includes one horse and one hike); each additional horse is $150.

Hut at Mazama Camp

Before my trip, Monica and I talked extensively about details and destinations. With her extensive knowledge of the area she helped me pick out the right route and camping local—Mazama Park Horse Camp.

My Cascade Sherpa trip began in the early AM. The night before, I’d packed the necessary camping gear‒a sleeping bag, sleeping mat, camp stove, matches, a cooking pot, utensils, toilet paper, water, food and layers of clothes. Camping gear can also be rented at REI in Seattle and the American Alpine Institute in Bellingham.

I met Monica in Sedro Wooley and followed her to the trail head. (Be aware the 30 minute drive up the gravel road is full of pot holes and a Northwest Forest Pass is required.) At the parking lot, seated at an elevation of 3,250 feet, the temperature pushed the upper 40s. Mt. Baker, which is visible on a clear day, remained shrouded in clouds. I prayed the weather prediction was right and tomorrow it’d be clear and sunny.

Normally, those who hire Cascade Sherpas drop off their gear, check off their inventory, sign a liability wavier and begin their hike. I, being the curious writer, watched the entire backend process. Lightfoot, Magi and Missy‒my Sherpas‒were shoed and harnessed. Bags were packed and weighed and loaded. Then, with the horses in the lead, we began the trek up the mountain along a portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Mazama Horse Camp

The trail crossed Sulfur Creek, Schreiber’s Meadow and Rocky Creek, which requires a water crossing. Then it switch-backed up the southern side of Mt. Baker to Morovitz Meadows and at 4,860 feet, crossed Cathedral Pass. From here, Park Butte trail continued to a historic fire lookout. The glacial moraine that makes up Railroad Grade Trail stood bare in front of Mt. Baker. About 500 feet below was Mazama Park Horse Camp, with its three-sided hut sitting in a wide green valley.

I have to admit, the 1,610 foot ascent wore me out, and the roots and rocks on the trail made for very focused hiking. Every step of the way I was beyond grateful my gear was being hauled up. By late afternoon my tent and supplies were set up for my stay. After dinner, which consisted of extra helpings, the clouds rolled out and by evening Mt. Baker gleamed in the moonlight.

 

Sulfer Creek Crossing