- Date: July 15-18, 2017
- Start: Sloan Creek Campground
- Distance: 34 miles
- Duration: 4 days
- Type: Out-and-back
- Map: Nat Geo Trails Illustrated: Glacier Peak Wilderness
- References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; The Mountaineers
I first laid eyes on Glacier Peak during a NOLS Trip Leader Seminar back in 2015. At the time, it was only my third backpacking trip, mountaineering was still a distant dream, and I’d never even heard of Glacier Peak when we began the hike in. Once that beautiful, isolated–the most isolated of all the Cascade volcanoes–came into view on the third (maybe fourth?) day of the trip, I promised myself I would come back to climb her. Fast forward to July 2017, Mack and I had seven volcano climbs under our belts and the rope skills to cross glaciated, crevasse-ridden terrain without a guide. It was time to attempt our eighth volcano (and the fourth out of five Washington volcanoes).
Day 1: Sloan Creek Campground to White Pass (9.2 miles; 6 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
After a later-than-desired departure time and unexpected traffic (at 3 am!!!), we finally pulled into the trailhead/campground parking area a little after 8 am. Perfect timing since we managed to snag the last obvious parking spot before the need to get creative. By 9 am we were on the trail, already groaning under the weight of our packs, which were definitely not within the usual 20-30 lb range. It didn’t help that I’d pulled a muscle in my shoulder the night before when I’d attempted to swing my pack onto my back to feel out the weight. For the first time ever, I had to have Mack help me get my pack on because I was in so much pain before we started hiking. Not a good way to start a long, strenuous day (especially with a 9 am late start). Our goal was to make it all the way to high camp at Glacier Gap (about 14 miles in), but I was already having doubts.
Despite pain and discomfort (on my end mostly, but probably on Mack’s as well), we enjoyed the lush forest scenery on the North Fork Sauk Trail. We did experience a couple of downed old growth trees that required some time to maneuver and climb over with our packs, but that was all near the beginning. Most of our hike to Mackinaw Shelter (5 to 5.5 miles from the TH) was smooth sailing. We stopped at the shelter to eat lunch and relieve our bodies of our burdensome packs for a short while. Being here brought back fond memories. Mackinaw Shelter was the first place we camped on my NOLS trip two years prior. It also reminded me that the hike was about to get strenuous.
The switchbacks up to the junction with the PCT were the most difficult part of the day. We were starting to make our way out of the forest, which meant more exposure to the hot sun while we adapted to the steeper incline. It was slow going to say the least and made me contemplate upgrading our gear (particularly our packs and tent) to more lightweight brands. Although the heat wasn’t doing much for our spirits, the transforming landscape definitely helped to reinvigorate us. Hillsides carpeted with wildflowers. Numerous mountains on almost all sides of us. It was perfect.
After the junction with the PCT we continued on to White Pass about a half mile away. You can actually see it in distance because you walk along an exposed ridge line. Despite a few sketchy snow bridges we had to cross (in our regular boots), this last stretch was far easier than the three or so miles of climbing. We reached White Pass at 3:30 pm and followed the trail leading down to the campsites, traversing one more large patch of slushy snow (and snow bridges) along the way. After setting up camp, we hiked back up to the pass to take pictures, enjoy the views, and savor the feeling of walking without our packs. We hadn’t made it to our high camp (still another five or so miles away), but we both agreed it was for the best.
We spent the rest of the afternoon napping, listening to Crimetown podcast, and “cooking” instant mashed potatoes–how have we never brought these along before???– for the first time. It was exactly what we needed after a long day of driving and hiking. As Mack began to fall asleep, I decided to step out of the tent to take in the cotton candy sunset colors highlighting the surrounding peaks before turning in myself.
Day 2: White Pass to Glacier Gap (5.25 miles; 5 hours, breaks included)
We started our hike on the Foam Creek Trail at 10 am in a cloud. Along the way we passed several climbing parties who had attempted the summit that morning. Apparently, the forecasted clear skies and sunshine had failed to make an appearance. Many climbers turned around after getting blasted with high winds, rain, and, apparently, snow. I guess it was better that our summit bid had been pushed back a day by not making high camp the afternoon before. The weather gradually improved as we continued on the trail. After two miles or so, the trail petered out and we ascended the ridge to our left.
Climbing over that first ridge brought back memories of when my NOLS group hiked this exact section. I remember we were all kind of nervous as we carefully picked our way down the steep slope of loose rock, especially with heavy packs on. Mack and I were in a similar situation, except this time the slope was covered in snow and there was a pretty decent boot path etched into it. The carved out steps made climbing down a hell of a lot easier. The traction on our mountaineering boots–no regular boots today–helped, too. After that descent we followed the trail to the base of another steep slope a short ways ahead. At the top was a saddle that I knew would give us our first view of Glacier Peak if the clouds cleared. As we made our way up to the it, I resolved to take out my ice axe once we reached the top. I should’ve taken it out before we started traversing these ridges.
Once at the top, we dropped our packs and took a lunch break. It was around noon and we’d only hiked a little over two miles. My penchant for taking lots and lots of pictures tends to slow us down. Clouds still loomed overhead, so Glacier Peak had yet to make her grand appearance. As we ate, we watched a few marmots peek out from their dens or their hiding spots in the grass, eyeing us and waiting for an opportunity to snatch some of our food. Fortunately, they never got it. We reluctantly strapped on our packs again and traversed across another snow slope. Below lay the valley (or basin?) that my NOLS group had camped in on our third and fourth nights. There was no snow here in August 2015, so it looked completely different this time around! We ascended another slope (this one far less steep than the previous two) and dropped into the White Chuck Glacier basin.
The boot path cut through the mountainous basin and led us to a steep slope of scree and larger rocks. Another climb of course, and on my least favorite terrain. We stopped about halfway up to refill our bladders and water bottles in a glacier-fed stream flowing over the rocks. We looked out over the basin we’d just crossed and admired a couple of the turquoise-colored (but still snow covered) tarns dotting the landscape. There’s nothing but mountains for miles and miles it seems. Absolute perfection. Once we topped out, we crossed one final snowfield and made one more steep snow climb up to the counter known as Glacier Gap. We’d finally made it to high camp. It was 3 pm.
To our relief (since I decided not to bring a snow shovel in order to keep my pack somewhat lighter), Glacier Gap was completely free of snow. Similar to Lunch Counter on Mount Adams, there are several half circle rock walls up here so you can shield your tent from the wind. We found an empty one and set up camp. The clouds still hid Glacier Peak from sight, but I decided to climb up to the ridge above Glacier Gap in order to scout our route for the following morning. It felt so nice to run up a hill without my pack on. A smile spread across my face when I got to the top. Although the summit was still obscured, the rest of the mountain was visible. First glimpse of this beautiful mountain at last! Made the long slog worth it. I was able to make out a majority of our climbing route, too.
Back at camp, we enjoyed another dinner of instant mashed potatoes, got most of our equipment packed up for the next morning, then turned in early while the sun was still out. We slept a little off and on, but at some point (after the sun had gone down) Mack noticed there was something wrong with the rainfly zipper on his side. When he tried to fix it, the teeth refused to seal again. After a few more frustrating attempts, I dug out my safety kit and we used safety pins to close the fly. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain on us! Unfortunately, we had a difficult time falling asleep after that little debacle.
Day 3: Glacier Gap to the summit and back (5.1 miles; 8 hours, breaks included); Glacier Gap to White Pass (5.25 miles; 3 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
Our alarms were set for 2 am (with the goal of starting our climb between 3 and 3:30 am), but after a restless night, we decided to sleep in. We finally forced ourselves out of the tent just before 4 am, getting ready as quickly as possible so we could start moving and warm up. At 5 am we set off. Yesterday’s clouds were nowhere in sight and there wasn’t even a breeze. Today’s weather was going to be perfect. I could feel it. We hiked up to the ridge above Glacier Gap (where I’d been the day before while scouting) and stood in awe of the mountain before us, now completely unveiled, bathed in the light blue-purple hue of the pre-dawn sky. I don’t usually like starting this late on any climb, but I’ve got to say, it’s probably the most incredible time to see a mountain.
From the ridge, we descended to the base of the rocky spine leading up to Disappointment Peak, a smaller sub-peak on Glacier. The sun rose behind the mountains to the east, illuminating Gerdine Glacier, which we’d soon be traversing. Two other climbers followed close behind us. We were the only four on the mountain that morning. Another perk to climbing an isolated volcano on a weekday. Once we made it to the first gendarme on the ridge, we roped up and cut to the glacier. (Note: If you want to avoid glacier travel, you can continue on the ridge and scramble up Disappointment Peak to reach the final ridge leading to the summit of Glacier)
We didn’t encounter any crevasses on the first part of Gerdine, but rockfall hazard was very evident. Now that the sun was up, we’d have to move quickly. At one point, Mack shouted “rock!” I was so preoccupied scanning the ground for potential crevasses, I didn’t even see it when I looked up. Apparently, it tumbled by me, just a few inches from my right leg. It wasn’t a large rock and probably wouldn’t have done any significant damage, but the fact that we were experiencing signs of rockfall now made us a little nervous about the descent. We picked up the pace until we reached a rocky outcropping high on Gerdine. We breaked here to hydrate and get some food in our stomachs before moving through the next section, which would require some crevasse navigation.
Just below the saddle bordering Cool Glacier is a heavily crevassed section on Gerdine. Snow bridges still seemed to be in tact, but the crevasses, which had probably been filled with snow a couple of weeks earlier, were now very much open. I would’ve loved to take pictures or some video as we wound our way through this section, but for safety reasons I decided against it. We needed to move quickly and taking pictures presented a potential hazard and distraction. Thankfully, this section was short and only took a few minutes to ascend. Afterwards we walked along Cool Glacier on a relatively flat path leading to the saddle above Disappointment Peak.
Since the final climb was going to be on a pumice slope, we untied and stashed the rope for the descent. The two climbers behind us caught up as we were doing this. One of them was visiting from the Midwest and decided this was as far as he was going to go. His partner decided to continue on to the summit, charging up the slope. We stayed behind at a more leisurely pace. The slope was very moderate and didn’t present any technical challenges. It ended at a final steep snow climb up to the summit ridge, but the boot path here made it so it was just like walking up a frozen staircase (granted there is some exposure). As I neared the summit ridge, the other climber began his descent, letting me know that I was almost there. Mack followed a few yards behind. I waited for him just below the summit ridge and took the opportunity soak in the incredible mountain views, especially the one of Mount Rainier to the south.
We ascended the ridge together and dropped our packs on the western side at 9 am. Just to be certain we stepped on the actual summit, we walked the entire summit ridge. I’m still not entirely sure which side is higher. We stayed up there longer than we intended (about 30 minutes), but I’m happy we did. With all the work it took to get to this point, why not savor it for awhile? Plus, the views from the summit were hands down the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced of all the volcano climbs we’ve done so far. When you’re enamored with mountains, being surrounded by them while standing on top of one is the dream. I could’ve stayed up there for hours completely content.
Now that the sun was high in the sky and temps were warming up, we moved quickly down the mountain. Getting over the crevassed terrain on Gerdine wasn’t too nerve-racking this time around, but when we reached the bowling alley (i.e. the rockfall area below Disappointment Peak), my heart began to pound faster and faster. Before we started through it, I told Mack we needed to keep an ear out for falling rock. Literally, as soon as I said this, huge chunks of rock came crashing down, rolling over a giant swath of the snowfield we needed to cross. As soon as everything came to a halt, we started running–well, more like power walking/jogging since we were in crampons and roped up. We didn’t stop until we were walking alongside the rocky ridge we’d ascended that morning. After catching our breath, happy to be out of danger, we continued the descent. We were a few yards away from where we could untie and get back on the ridge when Mack said nervously, “Uhhhh, Teddy?” I turned around. “One of my crampons is missing.” Crap.
“Any ideas where you lost it?” I responded.
“I’m not sure.”
I was livid, especially since we’d just come through the most dangerous part of the route and there was a good chance it had fallen off while we were running through it. Mack untied and decided he’d walk back up as far as it was safe to to see if he could find it. I plopped down in the snow, anxiously awaiting his return and listening intently for rockfall. Minutes seemed to drag on and I became more nervous. I couldn’t see Mack in the distance anymore and worse case scenarios were plaguing my mind. After 30 minutes, he crested the slope above me, waving the missing crampon triumphantly in his hand.
Since we were close to the ridge, we decided to untie and pack up our crevasse rescue gear for the remainder of the descent. Our hope of getting back to camp by noon was definitely not happening after the crampon mishap. And I pushed us back even more when my bowels informed me that they needed to be relieved. We finally stumbled into camp at 1 pm.
We rested at camp before packing up and didn’t start out until 3 pm. Getting back to the car was still a possibility, but we agreed to play it by ear once we reached White Pass. Since our hike out was mostly downhill, we figured we’d be moving pretty quickly. I was wrong. Due to the afternoon heat, the snow was no longer packed down and firm. Descending steep snow slopes with our loaded packs was incredibly sketchy. Going down the scree slopes was even more terrifying! Mack was moving surprisingly fast through a lot of these sections, but I was less comfortable and picked my way down super cautiously. Getting back to the ridge above Foam Creek Trail took way longer than anticipated. We compensated by hiking as fast as we could once we were back on Foam Creek Trail. We reached White Pass at 6:30 pm (still an hour and a half faster than when we hiked in the day before). Getting back to the car would mean hiking in the dark for the last hour or two, so we decided to stay another night at White Pass and hike out early the next morning.
Day 4: White Pass to Sloan Creek Campground (9.2 miles; 5 hours 30 minutes, breaks included)
We awoke to another morning of nice weather and started out at 7:40 am. As we were switchbacking down the North Fork Sauk Trail, two literally earth-shaking ‘BOOM!’s went off within a few minutes of each other. What the hell? Mack and I exchanged confused (but nervous) glances. “I think it was a gun,” said Mack, probably trying to reassure me and himself. It sounded like a war zone. We put the situation in the back of our minds and continued on to Mackinaw Shelter. We arrived at 9:40 am and walked down to the river to soak our hot, tired feet and eat a snack. We were pretty ecstatic that we only had 5 or 5.5 miles to go.
After Mackinaw, the trail was mostly flat and gradual downhill, so we moved quickly. Less than a mile out from the trailhead though, I slipped on a loose rock and rolled my right ankle, the one that I’ve injured nearly four times this year. So much for moving fast now, but at least we were almost finished. Then, when we were only a half mile from the car, we ran into a USFS trail crew. Now we knew who was responsible for the massive ‘BOOM!’s we’d heard earlier that morning. They were using explosives to clear the trail of the larger down trees that couldn’t be taken care of with a crosscut saw. Funny how you can’t bring machinery (like a chainsaw) into Wilderness, but explosives are okay. We had to walk back with them almost a quarter of a mile because they were about to blow up another obstacle just ahead of us. We were so close!
Although we were pretty bummed that we wouldn’t be able to get back to the car for another half hour or so, knowing we were close to the blast zone was kind of exciting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard “Fire in the hole!” come through one of the crew member’s radios, but the ensuing sound is one I will never forget (and one I’d prefer not to experience again). The earth and trees violently trembled, and the shock waves created visible movement in the air. I couldn’t hear anything for a second or two after, and the forest went eerily silent for several moments, as if to recover from the disturbance. We thanked the trail crew for their hard work on the way out, staring in awe at the blast zones we walked through. What a way to end an already epic trip.
Back at the car, we packed up and changed into clean clothes. The gear we’d set aside to climb Mount Baker (part of our original plan if we finished Glacier Peak quickly) stared up longingly at us, and I was tempted to still give it a go the following morning. The pain in my ankle quickly reminded me that it would probably be a terrible idea, and both of us were incredibly exhausted from the three and a half day climb we’d just completed. We still needed to get home and pack up for another backpacking trip that we were leaving for two days later! We called it good and headed home, stopping only for our usual post-backpacking/climbing Red Robin food and milkshakes.