References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost
“Rock!!!” The sound of my voice felt so small and helpless against the vastness of Wy’east’s intimidating northeast flank. I looked behind me to make sure Mack had actually heard my warning. Here we were, practically crawling up the mountain’s “deadliest” route, hoping to not be crushed or thrown off it’s side by the watermelon-sized boulders that were tumbling down in sporadic intervals. Despite the fact that we were together, I’d never felt a greater sense of solitude on a mountain. It was both beautiful and terrifying.
Long before I dreamed of climbing other mountains and even the standard south side route of this mountain, I dreamed of climbing the Cooper Spur route. When we first began hiking more regularly in 2014, the trek to Cooper Spur was my favorite day hike and was the highest I’d ever been on Wy’east at the time. I hoped that the next time I was back up in the same spot that it would be to complete the final 2,000+ feet to the summit. Just under four years later, I was back to fulfill that promise to myself.
After a failed attempt two days earlier due to an accidental long nap at the Cooper Spur shelter on the approach, we decided to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and return for another go. We set off from Tilly Jane Sno Park shortly before midnight, moving through an eerie landscape of skeleton trees (remnants of a wildfire that swept through several years earlier), passing the Tilly Jane A-Frame, and finally breaking treeline at the Cooper Spur shelter a couple hours later. It thankfully wasn’t nearly as windy as it had been two days earlier so we didn’t feel the need to take shelter like we had then. We decided this was still a good time to stop for a snack and make any adjustments to clothing before pushing the rest of the way to the base of the snowfield, which still required another 2,000 feet or so of climbing.
We navigated with surprising ease and swiftness through the steep, boulder field leading up to the spur. I remembered how slow, difficult, and never-ending this section had felt under the hot afternoon sun back in 2014. Definitely a stark contrast to how we were faring now. It made me smile to realize yet again how far we’ve come since our out-of-shape, cotton-wearing, lack-of-ten-essentials-carrying days outside. Upon reaching Cooper Spur, we took another snack break and traded a trekking pole for an ice axe in order to traverse the narrow ridge before us safely. The sun was just starting to rise now and we had a front row seat (well…whenever we turned around at least) as we made our way to the base of the snowfield.
The entire northeast face was engulfed in the warm and radiant light of the now risen sun once we reached the end of the ridge. The salmon pink glow of the steep snow climb before us seemed inviting at first, but the longer I stared at it, allowing my gaze to move upward to the summit, the more that facade began to crumble, forcing me to face the reality of what we were about to attempt and the consequences if we made a mistake. I take every climb I do very seriously, but this was the first time I was filled with more fear than exhilaration. I turned to Mack as I stood there paralyzed and put on a brave face. “You still want to do this?” I asked. Part of me hoped he’d be so scared and nervous that he’d want to turn around, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about backing out. Instead, we took our first steps up the 2,000+ foot climb.
For a short while we were able to walk upright, but it quickly turned into a comparable grade to that of the Hogsback on the south side. We were still a long ways from the summit. Rock crumbled from the bands high above us. The sound stopped us dead in our tracks each time and I could only hope we weren’t directly in the fall line. It was difficult to see the rock cascading down until it was a couple hundred feet away from us. Although we brought along pickets and rope in order to set up a running belay as the slope steepened, we decided against using it when we saw how frequent the rockfall was. Better to move separately and quickly in order to get out of the bowling alley we were stuck in.
It’s not very often that we have to kick steps on the routes we climb because they’re usually so well worn that we’re almost always following in someone else’s tracks. This was not the case on Cooper Spur. I expended nearly all of my energy kicking steps for us until we reached the first rock band a few hundred feet or less below the summit. By this time, we were mostly out of the danger zone (in regards to rockfall), but now we were on the steepest part of the climb and the snow quality was less than ideal since the sun had been warming it for a couple of hours. One slip could easily send either one of us rocketing down into the Eliot Glacier a couple thousand feet below. One slip could easily mean death.
I pushed past my physical and mental exhaustion to stay as focused and cognizant as possible, acutely aware of the quality of each kick step and ice axe purchase. I could only hope that Mack, who was now in front of me kicking our steps through the Chimneys, was doing the same. Above the Chimneys, the end was now in sight. Despite being far easier than what we’d just come through, we were both moving pretty slowly up the final part of the slope. After nearly ten hours, we meekly pulled ourselves up and over the rim at the feet of some skiers eyeing the line we’d just ascended. Damn were we looking forward to descending the south side.
After a few words with the skiers, we realized our south side decent was not going to be the cakewalk we were hoping for. Maybe an hour or so before we summited, three roped climbers had fallen on the Hogsback and a rescue was underway. (Side note: all party members survived) We stayed on the summit longer than planned while deciding which way to descend (and so Mack could take care of some altitude-induced bowel movement). In the end, we opted for Pearly Gates. Neither of us was in the mood to traverse the knife edge leading to the Old Chute.
Unfortunately, the gates were not in the excellent shape they’d been in two weeks prior. The consolidated snow and kick steps were almost completely worn away, leaving crumbling ice instead of firm platforms. Once past the gates, we could see the rescue taking place below us. I decided to climb down facing into the slope so I wouldn’t be able to see what was happening. The last thing I wanted was to get freaked out, make a mistake, and cause another accident for PMR to deal with. We made our way down extra slow now that the snow was complete mush and we had a gaping bergschrund to contend with. On the way down, we passed off our handwarmers to the group of rescuers who were seeking out resources to warm one of the patients as they waited for a helicopter. I felt bad there wasn’t more we could offer.
Just below Devil’s Kitchen, we finally took a more relaxing break and were able to breathe again (a little ironic if you’ve been to Devil’s Kitchen). We removed our crampons, but I kept my axe out since the rest of the way down looked unpleasantly icy and not at all ideal for plunge stepping. We hiked the rest of the way down at a far slower pace than we’d hoped due to the conditions. Numerous, well-equipped rescuers were now making their way up to the Hogsback as we descended and once we were within a half mile or less of Timberline, we heard the whirring blades of a helicopter overhead. We stumbled into the parking lot dazed and dehydrated but extremely happy to have made it through our climb unscathed. Cooper Spur was maybe a little more than we’d bargained for (mainly due to the rockfall that intensified the exposure), but I was absolutely ecstatic that we’d pushed and supported each other through it, and that we’d completed the most “out-of-our-comfort-zone” climbing route so far. I’m not sure we’ll be back to do this one again for awhile, but I have to say I’m pretty excited for us to try many more routes on this incredible backyard mountain of ours.
The sound of low rumbling shook me from a deep sleep. Bursts of light cast shadows of the surrounding trees on the walls of our tent. I jumped at each rumble and crack. “So much for our summit bid,” I thought. As if running/hiking/climbing 34+ miles and 10,000+ feet of gain in a day didn’t terrify me enough after barely recovering from a recent injury, the thought of venturing out in a thunderstorm was further proof that it wasn’t going to be our day. Feeling defeated before even stepping out of the tent, I curled back up in my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep again.
The storm eventually passed, but we ended up sleeping through our original start time to avoid being in the storm. The 7.5 hour drive through heavy Friday traffic may have also played a part in our decision to sleep in. By the time we started around 6 am–three hours later than our planned start!–we’d already come to terms with the fact that we weren’t going to summit. This was just going to be a scouting run to get beta for our next attempt. We hit the trail with absolutely no expectations.
With the exception of two runners that passed us early on, we didn’t encounter another human being for the first nine miles. We moved quickly while still enjoying the early morning sounds of the waking forest and the peaceful lull of the rushing North Fork Sauk. The trail appeared to have already been cleared of fallen trees, as well as brushed of overgrown plants, so there was no need for climbing over giant logs or bushwhacking through face height shrubbery. An improvement from last year! The daunting climb from Mackinaw Shelter to White Pass (about 3,000 feet of gain in 3.5 miles) was also much easier this time around with small daypacks. Last year we suffered immensely under 40-50 pound climbing packs and it took us over six hours to reach White Pass! This time, we were there in less than three. We celebrated with a burrito (Mack) and Gushers (my new fave running treat besides Mamma Chia squeeze snacks).
Although it was nice not to be scorched by the sun, the overcast skies were making us question how much further we’d be able to go. Nonetheless we took advantage of the relatively flatter Foam Creek Trail and finally got our legs running again after the previous miles’ climb. This section of the approach, with its sprawling wildflower covered slopes, mountain views in all directions, and enjoyable singletrack, is easily one of the most idyllic parts of the entire route! Even the pouring rain that started to come down as we neared the end of the trail couldn’t dampen our spirits. We turned off the trail to gain the saddle above us where we met a climbing group on their return trip. Due to the early morning thunderstorm, they’d decided to bail on their summit bid and were now hiking out. Fortunately for us, though we were still standing in the pouring rain, Dakobed was completely visible against a backdrop of clear blue skies in the distance. Pleasantly surprised and filled with excitement, we quickly dropped down the steep slope, climbed back up another saddle, and were greeted with an even greater view of the incredible mountain before us. Maybe we still had a chance.
The “trail” ended after Foam Creek Trail, but there was a heavily used boot path in the snow through White Chuck Basin. We ran (i.e. slipped and slid over the semi-soft snow) then scrambled up and over various rock bands, growing more and more excited as the mountain became closer. Just before noon, we hiked the final steps up to Glacier Gap, the high camp we’d stayed at before climbing Dakobed last summer. We were 14-15 miles in now with just a couple more to reach the summit. I turned to Mack. “I think we owe it to ourselves to keep going.” Without hesitation he replied, “Let’s do it.”
After scarfing down more burritos and filling up on water, we began the final stretch of our long approach. We hadn’t made the summit yet, but the feeling of accomplishment was already there for me. After a peroneal tendon injury forced me to drop out of my first 50 mile race back in June, and subsequently kept me from running at all for nearly a month, my dream of completing a Dakobed C2C just kind of slipped away until a few days prior to our attempt. I’d only started running again two weeks prior, and it was only once or twice a week for 7-10 miles, not exactly the best preparation for an undertaking like Dakobed. Despite the low running mileages, I’d still been doing some hiking, and we’d just come off a 60-mile backpacking trip in the Wallowas. I could feel my body growing more strong and capable, and with limited summer vacation time left, I wanted to take advantage of my confidence and availability. So here we were, 15+ miles in now,–my longest “run” since June 16th.
We traversed beneath Disappointment Peak through a “bowling alley” section, stopping every couple of minutes to keep our eyes and ears peeled for falling rock. After our ongoing battle with rockfall on Cooper Spur back in May, sections like these put Mack on edge, even though this traverse is far more mellow. Although we ended up only hearing rockfall but not seeing any, I could tell he was a bit shaken once we finished the traverse. Both of us felt better once we made it through the following crevasse-riddled section and were heading toward the final slope leading up to the summit.
After a short mix of scree and steep snow, we stood on the summit of Dakobed for the second year in a row. It was just before 3 pm, nine hours since we’d started; a big difference from the 2.5 days it took us last summer. We looked out over the North Cascades, wishing we had more time to sit there and identify as many peaks as we could, but it was a long journey back to the car and we still needed to make the tedious descent off the mountain. Mack signed the summit register for us, we took a few photos and ate a few more snacks, then down we went after a mere ten minutes. Nothing like climbing a mountain to remind you that it’s all about the journey!
The going was slow until we made it past the crevasses, then we sprinted through the “bowling alley” until we were out of the rockfall path. Around 5 pm we dropped back down onto Glacier Gap. We’d now covered around 20 miles and over 10,000 feet of gain, but it didn’t physically feel like it. We expected a one day push to be far more demanding than our 3.5 day climb, but this was turning out to be so much easier! We plopped down on some rocks to change our sopping wet socks (which turned out to be a stupid idea since we were about to run through another snowfield) and eat some dinner (you guessed it! more burritos!) before heading out. To the east, storm clouds were gathering. I’d barely finished switching out my socks when I heard it: that low rumbling that shook me awake earlier that morning. Mack and I both looked at each other. He probably saw the fear in my eyes even behind my sunglasses. “Let’s eat fast and get off this mountain,” he responded.
Now that we were mostly moving downhill, we were able to pick up our pace. We passed several groups heading onto the basin to camp. I hoped the weather wouldn’t become as terrible as it appeared for all those staying the night in the area. Then again, thunderstorms terrify me to no end, so maybe it wasn’t as big a deal to the people we passed. As we neared the end of the basin, I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked over to the other side of the saddle where Foam Creek Trail lay. The skies were still clear and we wouldn’t be entering any nasty weather systems once we crossed over.
I turned around often as we neared the saddle, knowing these would be my last views of Dakobed before we dropped down to Foam Creek Trail. She was more beautiful than ever bathed in the light of the early evening sun. It was difficult to turn away each time. We carefully maneuvered down the steep slope from the top of the saddle. Last summer, this section almost had me in tears because I had so much trouble balancing with my unnecessarily large pack. I honestly thought I would end up toppling over and tumbling down hundreds of feet through snow, dirt, and mountain heather. This time, it wasn’t much of an ordeal at all and my fear from last year never resurfaced. We climbed back up the opposite side, where we’d talked with the other climbing group earlier that morning, then dropped down to Foam Creek Trail.
It was just past 7 pm now. Golden hour made one of the most beautiful sections even more enchanting. Being back on singletrack prompted us to start running again. We sped through those magical wildflower covered slopes, ecstatic about reaching White Pass with a single digit number of miles left. We made good time and the sun had not yet gone down. My knees were starting to ache though, and we were just about to start a 3,000 foot descent to Mackinaw.
On the PCT and back on North Fork Sauk, I did my best to run and push the pace, but my knees just weren’t having it, especially once we hit the steeper, more technical downhill sections on North Fork Sauk. All the elevation gain and loss of the day was finally catching up to me. We strapped on our headlamps shortly before reaching Mackinaw Shelter as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the distance. Now it was time for me to face my next big anxiety trigger: running through a forest in the dark.
Yes, I’m a grown-ass woman and, yes, I am absolutely terrified of being in the dark. My mind (well, my imagination) tends to go to horrible places, especially in a dark forest where I can’t see what might be lurking behind the trees or within the bushes. Mack doesn’t really have this fear, and just as I was there for him when he was freaking out about potential rockfall beneath Disappointment Peak, he did his best to be patient with me as I whined about how many miles were still left to cover in the dark. Although I didn’t feel comfortable running outright with all the roots and rocks covering the trail, we still managed to power hike and jog, averaging 3+ miles an hour. Time seems to move far too slowly when you’re anxious and ready to be done with something, but we were covering these last miles in good time. In addition, the only wildlife we came across on our night miles were numerous Cascades frogs that hopped out onto the trail and never failed to scare the shit out of me.
We finally stumbled into the parking area around 11:20 pm. We were exhausted (and my knees felt like they were on fire!), covered in sweat and dirt, and probably smelled like ass, but we were beyond happy and grateful to have completed an adventure we didn’t think would be possible to finish when we started out 17 hours earlier. As I lay in the tent, unable to fall asleep and scrolling through the iPhone pictures I’d taken throughout the day, I reflected on how different this summer was shaping up to be. Things were looking pretty dismal after my injury in June. But now? Now this was becoming the best summer yet.
“1…2…3…4…” I counted my steps silently to myself as I trudged up the steep snow slope. Cassie bounded alongside me, stopping to sniff something only marginally fascinating every few seconds before running to catch up. It was her first time on this big, beautiful mountain (and only her second Cascade volcano adventure) and I was overjoyed to see her having so much fun. Two years ago, when Mack and I first climbed Helens, we were slightly under prepared (no ice axe or crampons) for the winter conditions and just starting to toy with the idea of hiking up giant, snowy hills. Now, in 2017, we had two seasons of climbing under our belts, and we were finally returning to the one that started it all (very literally for me; Helens was my backyard mountain growing up!) and sharing the experience with Cassie, as well as a few human friends!
Our morning started off as most mountain adventures do: cold and in the dark. Mack, Cassie, our friend Ryan, and I moved quickly on the packed down snow of the Swift Ski Trail so our bodies could warm up. Helens had yet to reveal herself and remained shrouded by the dense forest for awhile longer. As I’d hoped though, we reached Chocolate Falls (located mostly out of the forest) just as the night sky began it’s dazzling transformation into the coming day. Vast swaths of pink and orange stretched across the dark, starlit sky, making it difficult to keep my eyes straight ahead as we hiked. I turned around every few seconds, never tiring of the scene unfolding behind me.
The easy-going gradual ascent of the Swift Ski Trail came to an end once we started up one of the ridge-like lava flows for which the route is named . Though not technical, I was quickly reminded that this stretch between timberline and the crater rim (another 2,000 feet or so higher in elevation) is indeed an ass-kicker. After all of our summer climbing adventures I’ll admit I thought Helens would feel easier. It was a humbling experience to say the least. We took a break while still on the ridge to strap on our crampons and eat some snacks. Just as we were about to start up again, I looked back and saw two vaguely familiar individuals quickly making their way up. After a few more seconds of squinting, I realized our friends Caylee and Kyle had caught up to us. Despite having not seen each other since our first–and only–adventure together more than a year earlier (Enchantments thru-hike), I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed that we’d only been acquainted once. The ensuing hours spent as a group felt more like being with old friends.
Following our navigation of the lava flow, we made it back onto a snow slope and continued the relentless ascent to the crater rim. At least we were able to conserve energy by not having to kick in or cut our own steps. The numerous boot paths leading up basically laid out a long, winding staircase of foot steps for us to follow. I was incredibly grateful to have friends, beautiful weather and views, and an energetic dog to distract me from the seemingly endless and somewhat monotonous final push to the summit. When it did finally come into view, we were actually pleasantly surprised because we thought we were still a bit further away.
One at a time we slowly picked our way up the final traverse, fatigued but incredibly happy that the hours of elevation gain had finally paid off. Ryan and Kyle (both climbing Helens for the first time) made it to the rim first. In true holiday season fashion, Kyle donned a santa hat then pulled out some beers he’d packed in for him and Caylee, walking one down to her once she was in a few yards of the rim. I was too excited to eat or drink anything and went straight to snapping pictures of everyone, especially Cassie.
It was relatively warm at the rim, with no wind and the sun beating down. We spent some time traversing it–I still don’t know if we ended up walking onto the true summit or not–and basking in the gorgeous view of the crater, Spirit Lake, the Mount Margaret Backcountry, and Mount Rainier. For being a bluebird day, it wasn’t very crowded up at the top. In fact, we were probably the largest group up there. Lack of Disneyland-esque crowds is definitely one of the perks of climbing Helens in the winter (in addition to free permits and snow climbing rather than scree climbing).
To expedite the long descent back to the car, we glissaded as often as possible. Our first one was directly from the crater rim, too! Although icy in some spots and a little too deep in others, the snow pack was just the right amount of depth and consistency for glissading for the majority of our descent back to treeline. Once we were most of the way down, Caylee and Kyle forged ahead while the rest of us hung back and took our time. Cassie was pretty tired by this point after the long climb and subsequently chasing us down the slopes, so she was moving a little slower.
Once we were back in the forest it was easy to pick up the pace again. I reminisced about our last time out here and how we were practically running back to the car in order to beat the setting sun after getting lost on the descent and having to wade through thigh deep snow on the Loowit Trail in order to reach Swift Ski Trail again. I laughed to myself thinking about how different this adventure had been. No stressful situations whatsoever. Completely Type 1 fun. Back at the car we celebrated with a couple of beers (and Cassie with her favorite dog treats) before heading our separate ways. I spent much of the drive home combing through the pictures on my camera, reliving an incredible Summit Sunday with an amazing crew.
Being a Washingtonian who grew up less than an hour and a half from Mount Rainier National Park, you’d think Rainier would’ve represented something significant in my life. Oddly enough, it didn’t, for many, many years. Mount St Helens was the only volcano that dominated the skyline of my hometown as a child, and it’s the only mountain my parents took us to see when we had out-of-town relatives and friends come to visit. According to my mom, we did make one visit out to Rainier, but I was probably too young to remember it. Last year, at 25 years old, I had the opportunity to hike up to Camp Muir with a few ladies from Cascadia Women’s Mountain Group. It was my first (memorable) visit to the park. As I drove to Paradise, winding my way up the last few miles after entering the park boundary, Rainier suddenly burst through the trees, taking me so much by surprise that I actually considered pulling over just so I could gaze upon her. In that moment, even before I’d reached Paradise (where I’d finally see Rainier in all her glory), I felt this instant connection to, and sense of longing and heartache for, the mountain I’d never known.
I never in my wildest dreams thought Mack and I would be ready for Rainier with only a single climbing season under our belts, but after going over the climbs we’d completed, recalling all of the skills courses we’d undergone over the past year, and realizing that we were truly in the best shape of our lives after this year’s non-stop ultramarathon training, my doubts began to transform into determination. At the end of July, I submitted a Camp Muir reservation request for the week of my birthday. As luck would have it, we were approved to camp on August 9th and make our summit bid on August 10th, my 27th birthday. It was really happening.
Day 1: Paradise to Camp Muir (4.5 miles; 4 hours 45 minutes, breaks included)
My previous visit to Mount Rainier was in early June of last year, so all of the trails starting from Paradise were still under deep snow. Not this time though. This time, I was treated to carpets of wildflowers filling the lush, green meadows along Skyline Trail. In addition to being mesmerized by nature’s incredible color palette, there was Rainier, completely unobscured now, standing powerful and majestic as the reigning peak in all of the state. Not even the hazy, smoke-filled sky could taint the beautiful landscape around us. Mack sure was getting lucky on his very first visit to the park!
After 2.3 miles hiking up the Skyline Trail, we crossed Pebble Creek and reached the base of the Muir Snowfield. Although it was only 10:30 am (and we’d only been hiking since 8:55 am), we decided to refuel with our PBJ sandwich lunch. Our plan was to be ready for bed at 4:30 pm, which meant dinner at 3:30 or 4 pm. Yeah, a 10:30 lunch actually made sense with this in mind.
The final 2.2 miles to Muir is brutal, especially beneath a hot afternoon sun. The mileage may be small, but you gain nearly 3,000 feet while dealing with altitude (between 7,000 and 10,000 feet). Finding a pace that worked for both of us was impossible. Power hiking up hills at a brisk pace is something I feel pretty confident about, even at higher altitudes. Mack is typically faster than me at running and hiking, but once he’s above 7,000 feet, the altitude begins to take its toll. Our hike up to Muir was a lot of me getting impatient and pushing on, and Mack getting frustrated and disheartened by my pace, as well as the ever increasing gap between us. Achieving a balanced pace and/or work-rest strategy is still something we’re improving on as we climb. We were relieved when we finally topped out at Muir, situated at 10,100 feet. It was 1:40 pm.
Camp Muir was bustling with the activity of day hikers, climbers, guides, and rangers, but, to my amazement, there were hardly any tents set up on the snow. Weekday camping for the win! We found a relatively flat spot that only needed a little bit of smoothing out with the snow shovel. The mild weather made setting up our tent a quick and painless process. Before we knew it, our sleep systems were all unpacked and inside the tent, and we were melting snow for our early dinner. A climbing ranger came by to greet us/check on us while we sat around the Jetboil and suggested that we tie our guylines to some of the heavier rocks lying around. A few tents had already been blown into crevasses earlier that day.
As we ate, we discussed potential start times for the climb. On the way up the Muir Snowfield, I’d spoken with several descending climbers to find out when they’d started and how long it took them to reach the summit. The average answer was somewhere between 11 pm and midnight, and six to seven hours to reach the summit. (I wonder how long it usually takes when the route is more direct?) We decided to aim for leaving at 11 pm. I definitely wanted to get back to camp early in order to rest before the sufferfest that is Camp Muir back down to Paradise. After finishing up our meal and enjoying some cocoa, we melted more water to add to our hydration bladders and Nalgenes, packed up a few things for the climb later that night, and crawled into our sleeping bags at 4:30 pm. It was too early, and we were a little too excited, to fall asleep right away, but eventually we drifted off to the sounds of people singing and conversing at the other campsites.
Day 2: Camp Muir to the summit, then back (8 miles; 12 hours 30 minutes, breaks included); Camp Muir to Paradise (4.5 miles; 3 hours 20 minutes, breaks included)
I don’t remember what time my alarm went off, but it definitely hadn’t been dark for very long. Both of us were still groggy. Waking up at a time that we’d usually be falling asleep by was disorienting to say the least. A large guided group of at least 20 people (divided into multiple rope teams of course) led by RMI Expeditions was already gathered on the bootpath when we arrived roped up and ready to go. A couple of their rope teams had already started, so, to be courteous and respectful, we decided to wait until the last of their teams headed out before starting ourselves. At least we’d get to follow a professionally led group! Our official start time was 11:25 pm.
After a relatively short traverse of the Cowlitz Glacier, we climbed up and over Cathedral Rocks, one of the sections on the climb where short-roping is imperative to avoid rockfall caused by rope drag. We walked and hopped over a few crevasses on the Ingraham Glacier. We couldn’t yet see the gaping mouths that these seemingly small cracks fed into because it was still dark. I did make out a few tents on Ingraham Flats, another popular (but more solitary) place to set up base camp. Following the traverse of Ingraham came my least favorite part of the entire climb (on both the ascent and descent): Disappointment Cleaver. The cleaver is a massive rocky ridge between the Ingraham and Emmons Glaciers. The route ascends the cleaver in order to gain Emmons. Although there’s no crevasse risk (unless you tumble off the ridge), the chance of rockfall is high, especially when there’s a large number of people on the route at once (i.e. our current situation). In addition, walking on loose, rocky terrain with crampons never feels very stable. We moved quickly up the cleaver behind the other rope teams and stopped for a break once we were back on the snow.
The remainder of our climb was on snow, traversing both the Emmons Glacier and Winthrop Glacier. We crossed several crevasses through this section. Most we just stepped over and moved quickly. One we had to leap over–it was probably four feet wide–and another had a long, 10-12 foot ladder stretched across it! After descending a little more, we began a long series of switchbacks up Emmons to eventually gain Winthrop for the final 600-800 feet of climbing. The groups in front of us took a break somewhere up these switchbacks and allowed us to pass, so we were able to move a little faster heading onto Winthrop. Hints of dawn started to show as the darkness of night began to lift. Aside from a gnarly crevasse (maybe a bergschrund?) crossing (pictured below), the final climb up Winthrop to the crater rim was straightforward. We crested the rim just as the sun was coming up.
Another guided group who’d summited a few minutes earlier was making their way back along the rim as we headed toward Columbia Crest, the highest point on the mountain. We exchanged “Good morning”s and “Congratulations!” before we continued. By the time we reached Columbia Crest at 6:05 am, the group had descended from the rim and we were the only two people on the summit. No wind. No biting cold. Not a single cloud in sight. Just a golden sunrise while standing atop the highest point in my home state with my best friend by my side. Doesn’t get more magical than that. I can’t imagine I’ll ever experience a more perfect birthday.
With the sun now warming our cold faces and extremities, we decided to drop our packs and bask in our achievement a little while longer. I wanted to savor the summit as long as I could while the conditions were optimal. Plus, we were both pretty famished at this point. However, before I could finish pulling out my food bag, Mack quickly whipped out a surprise he’d carried up to the summit for me. “Happy Birthday, Teddy.” He handed me a miniature berry cheesecake. Nothing like a delicious birthday treat to complement the best birthday gift ever. We sat for awhile longer, enjoying the cheesecake together, then began our descent at 6:45 am. It was difficult to leave it all behind, but with the sunrise comes increasingly warmer temps and increasingly less stable terrain conditions. Making the summit is only half the journey.
If we didn’t remember that Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 before this trip, we definitely realized it on the way back down now that our surroundings weren’t shrouded in darkness. It was like walking through a different world. Even though Rainier isn’t nearly as remote as other mountains (Glacier Peak, for example), its vastness makes you feel otherwise. Crevasse-ridden fields stretched for miles it seemed, and we finally got to peer inside some of the larger ones along the bootpath! Spiky ice formations known as penitentes armored the glistening white and glacier-blue slopes. Little Tahoma, a sub-peak on Rainier at 11,138 feet, was finally visible, too. It’s jagged rocky spire appeared to rise directly from the glacier(s) at its base, somehow adding to the breathtaking, yet alien and hostile, nature of the landscape.
The traverse and climb back to the DC wasn’t nearly as strenuous as I thought it would be. We were still within the morning hours, so the heat was completely stifling yet. We made our way over the same crevasses we’d crossed just a few hours prior. The one we’d originally leapt across now had a ladder in place to our relief. We pushed on until we reached the top of the cleaver then stopped for one final break. Although I’d been leading the entire time up to this point, I asked Mack to lead us down the cleaver. He’s always been far more calm, confident, and sure-footed on loose, rocky terrain, so I knew he’d find the safest spots to step. Similar to our climb up the cleaver, we moved as quickly as we could (while still being cautious about our footing) in order to avoid being right below the guided group that was also descending.
Once back on the Ingraham Glacier, I could relax a little bit because we were off the loose rock. Of course, I was all nerves again once we ascended Cathedral Gap and had to descend more rocky terrain to reach the Cowlitz Glacier. At least we could see our tent now. After a short, easy traverse across the Cowlitz, we were finally standing in front of our tent at 11:55 am. Managed to make it back before the official start of the afternoon! We removed our packs, undid all of our glacier gear, and collapsed inside the tent. I fell fast asleep within seconds.
I slept longer than I’d anticipated and awoke to a throbbing pain in my knees. Mack, who ended up not really napping because it was too hot in the tent, was already mostly packed. The hold up was all on me. Mack melted more snow for water while I moved at a snail’s pace getting my things meticulously packed and put away. We finally started the hike down at 3:10 pm. Hoping to quicken our pace, we decided to try glissading down the steeper sections of the Muir Snowfield sitting on garbage bags to protect our softshell pants from abrasion. We looked absolutely ridiculous and received more than a few eye rolls and laughs from other hikers and climbers we passed. My butt was almost completely numb by the time we reached the base of the snowfield.
The remainder of the hike down Skyline was slow and painful, particularly due to the trail’s staircase-like formation. Thankfully, the brightly colored meadows provided a welcome distraction from the soreness in our feet and limbs. Lupine, Indian paintbrush, white pasqueflower, asters, and other blooms were even more vibrant in the late afternoon sun. At 6:30 pm, we descended the final staircase to the parking area and slumped down on some nearby benches. Our adventure was officially over. On the drive back down Paradise Valley Rd, I thought back again on my first drive up, when the thought of climbing Rainier had yet to cross my mind. One year and two months later that non-existent thought became reality.
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.