Benchmark glaciers were established in many alpine areas during the 1960s as part of the International Hydrological Decade to represent ‘typical’ mass and energy processes on glaciers in different climatic regions around the world. These glaciers have received new interest in the past decade because they are used to infer the contribution of alpine glacier wastage to global sea-level rise. We compare South Cascade Glacier, the benchmark glacier for the northwest contiguous USA, and four other secondary glaciers, against the topographic, area and mass changes of 321 glaciers in the surrounding region. Results show that South Cascade Glacier is unusually large, of lower slope and much larger area and had mass losses greater than most other glaciers in the region. Three of the four secondary glaciers were much more typical. Year-to-year variations in mass balance were highly correlated between all five glaciers, and any of these glaciers, including the benchmark glacier, could be used to infer temporal mass variations in the region. However, the use of South Cascade Glacier to estimate area/mass losses for the region would result in overestimating the area/mass changes by a factor of three. Local differences in the magnitude of annual glacier mass balance control cumulative mass changes and area changes. There appears to be no way to select a representative glacier a priori, and knowledge of changes over the region is required. Therefore, there may be great uncertainty in estimates of sea-level rise from the wastage of alpine glaciers based on the benchmark approach. We recommend re-evaluation of regional glacier mass changes inferred from benchmark glaciers in critical regions.