Location: Mountain Loop Highway
Length: 36+ miles RT
Elevation: 11,000+ feet
Summit: 10,541 feet
At 10,541 feet, Glacier Peak may not be the tallest of the Washington volcanoes but it is the most remote. With the washout of the Whitechuck River access and destruction of Kennedy Hot Springs in 2003, the shortest access route in is via the North Fork Sauk River trail – a mere 18 miles and 11,000 cumulative vertical feet from trailhead to summit according to my GPS.
July 1, 2016: Day 1 – The Trek In
We had planned a three day trip over the 4th of July weekend and opted to start early Friday and come out Sunday to avoid some of the crowd. This proved to be a wise move as we nailed a perfect weather window between some very wet and grey systems.
Due to some logistical hiccups, we ended up getting a later start than planned and weren’t on the trail until 9:10 am on Friday morning. We’d planned to be underway by 7 but that didn’t happen. Our destination for the day was Glacier Gap, approximately 13ish miles away.
Aaron, Kim, and I set off along the North Fork Sauk River trail and meandered through the woods at a leisurely pace. Kim had about 80lbs in his pack due to all the climbing gear as well as his winter tent and sleeping bag – each heavier than needed. Aaron was recovering from a chest cold and not feeling 100%. I felt fantastic and with a gossamer 36lbs on my back, I skipped along at the back of the group to prevent me from driving a pace that would kill my partners.
The trail is very well maintained and follows the N. Fork of the Sauk River in a shaded, woodsy valley. Some sections of the trail passed through thick foliage that was in serious need of a trim, but other than that, it was a leisurely, if not unremarkable, 5.5 miles to the Mackinaw Shelter and the real beginning of this adventure.
We took a lunch break at the shelter and met up with a group of climbers out of Portland. They were planning on camping at White Pass that night and then move camp to Glacier Gap the next day with a summit attempt on Sunday. We were planning on hitting Glacier Gap that evening, although I began to have my doubts as to if we would make it due to the late start; the Gap was still a good 9 miles and 4400 feet in elevation away.
From Mackinaw Shelter, the trail switchbacks steeply and blasts up the ridge toward White Pass with a vengeance, covering 3000 feet in elevation in just under 3 miles. The majority of the climb is sheltered in the forest and the last mile or so levels out as it exits the treeline.
I was moving a bit quicker than my companions and the distance between us grew until I made the decision to just keep heading up and wait for them at the top of White Pass. As I trudged up the switchbacks, I’d pause to take some pictures or chat with other parties heading up the trail. At one point, I rounded a switchback and saw a blur disembark from a nearby tree and rocket toward me a few inches off the trail. In a flash, the kamikaze hummingbird was upon me and crashed into my shin! It quickly bounced off, hovered for a second, and then took off back toward the tree it came from. I’m not sure what his motivation was, but that’s definitely the first time I’ve touched a hummingbird!
Despite nature’s attempts to take my legs out, I reached White Pass around 3:45pm, dropped my pack, and marveled at the view. And what a view it is! The open mountainside alternated between green, flowery slopes and sweeping patches of snow. Marmots littered the hillside, foraging for supper and whistling at each other. The air was cool and the chilled wind brought with it some cloud cover. I zipped up my pant legs and threw on my OR Radiant Hoody and propped myself up against my pack for a quick cat-nap.
30 minutes later, I was eyeing my watch and wondered how far behind my companions were. It was getting late and we still had about 5 miles to go to Glacier Gap. Doubt that we would actually tackle the summit began to creep in my mind. 15 minutes more and still no sign of Aaron or Kim. At this point, I had resigned myself to just suggest that our group camp at White Pass for the night and then head back out to the cars the next day.
I stood up to shake the chill off and walked back up the trail to see if I could spot my pals. A full hour after I had reached the pass, I saw Kim reach the junction with the PCT. He was with a few other hikers and I couldn’t quite see which one was Aaron.
Finally Kim reached me and expressed his frustration with the climb. Apparently Aaron realized he wasn’t up to the ascent as a result of his still-lingering sickness and decided to call it a day.
While a bummer in itself, it was a double-bummer for Kim as he was carrying camp gear for two in his pack!
So the intrepid trio was down to two. I chatted with Kim about just camping at the Pass and calling the whole ascent off but he wasn’t having any of that. We both decided to forge on another mile or so and find camp a bit closer to the peak.
We headed off along the Foam Creek spur trail inching closer to Glacier Peak. We followed a little behind the three gentlemen Kim had connected with coming up to White Pass, and passed them as they made camp in a clump of trees along the trail.
We were both pretty tired at that point and agreed to drop our bags and make camp at the next suitable place we could find. A bit further down the trail we snagged a flat spot that was somewhat sheltered and made camp.
The mist rolled in and out around us as we set up and the light faded as we slurped down our late dinner. Chatting in the tents, we made the plan to be up at 4am and head out for the summit at 5am. Heh.
Sleep came easy that night.
July 2, 2016: Day 2 – Summit Day!
My alarm went off at 4am and I immediately hit snooze. On the trail by 5? I can sleep ‘til 4:30! Of course, 5 am rolled around and I was still snug in my sleeping bag. I could hear the wind whipping against the rainfly of my REI QuarterDome 1 [love, love, LOVE this tent! It’s only a smidge heavier than my bivy sack but provides quite a bit more room. I wish I had this with me on my PCT trip the previous year].
I could see lots of moisture on the outside of my tent, and, combined with the wind, I feared the worst in weather was going to greet me outside. Unzipping my tent revealed otherwise: a gorgeous sunrise over Tenpeak Mountain.
I threw on my pants and boots and hopped out of my tent and up the hill to check out the area. As the mist rolled in and out, I caught sight of our target of the day looming over the ridgeline and was instilled with a renewed sense of summit fever. We were going to bag this one!
Eyeing the ridge from above camp, I made a mental note of our route into the basin on the other side and then bounded back down to eat a quick breakfast and grab my gear.
By the time we headed out, it was about 6:30am and the fog had again settled on the ridge, obscuring the route. Relying on my GPS and memory of what I had seen earlier that morning, I pointed us up the ridge and aimed for a saddle between White Mountain and an unnamed high point. A steep sidehill riddled with snow prompted us to don our crampons and blaze a trail. We followed an old set of bootprints until they petered out and then climbed straight up to the ridge.
We descended the other side carefully, relying on our crampons to keep us connected with the steep slope. Visibility was limited to about 20 feet and we followed my trusty GPS, assuming it would keep us on track.
As we made our way up through the snow covered and fog-choked basin, the mist would occasionally thin out and give us a tease of the surrounding peaks. At one point, I caught a glimpse of blue sky and high clouds and remarked to Kim that we might actually get lucky and this weather would burn off.
I was right. Sometime between the lower basin and the area below Glacier Gap, the mist dissipated and blue skies prevailed. Glacier Peak smiled down upon us, although still miles away.
Soon after the clearing, we met up with two guys on planks – one skier, one splitboarder – who were looking for some early summer turns. We chatted with them a bit until we were joined by a leathery older gentleman with his mountain climbing corgi! No joke, this stubby little dog was rocking some doggles and bounding around in the snow along with his owner. The older gentleman conversed with us for a bit and then took off toward Glacier at an impressive pace, corgi in tow. Pretty sure he wasn’t born and instead had been carved out of the mountains.
We continued on up the basin toward Glacier Gap, our original planned camp. After trudging up and down the various snow-filled levels, I’m positive it would have been well past 10pm before we would have arrived at Glacier Gap if we’d continued on the day before.
From Glacier Gap, the summit is still a few miles and 3000 feet in elevation away. The route again goes up over another ridgeline before dropping onto the snowfield on the lower part of the Cool Glacier. The sun was out in full force and the snow was slushy. Kim kept having to knock the snow out of his old crampons while the antibott bottoms of my Petzl crampons kept me from clumping. Definitely some great technology after seeing them in action!
As we made our way up the edge of the snowfield, we met two climbers on their way out. They gave us some great beta on where to rope up – the saddle east of Disappointment Peak at about the 9000 ft mark is where the crevasses started.
We stepped our way up slowly, eyeing the frequent rockfall coming down from Disappointment Peak. The soft snow kept the rocks from rolling too far from the wall.
Once we reached the icefall, we took a break and roped up. The route immediately crossed a snowbridge which we carefully crossed. Once past that, we again headed up toward the summit, awe-struck by the giant layered cornice looming above us.
At the top of the Cool Glacier, the route once again meets solid dirt. We dropped the rope and slowly ascended the dirt ridge. Just below the summit, we met up with a group of climbers who had just summited and were taking a break. We stopped to chat with them a bit before making our final approach.
The last pitch led us up a steep and slushy snowfield and we made liberal use of our crampons and ice-axes to keep us glued to the mountain.
At 2:22 PM, Kim and I reached the summit of Glacier Peak, elevation 10,541 feet.
A wave of elation and exuberance mixed together and the gravity of what we’d just accomplished brought a bit of emotion to both of us. After a few whoops and hollers, we settled down to take in the ridiculous view. We made it and we had the summit all to ourselves.
Even at only 10,500 feet, it felt like we were standing on top of the state. Rainier and Stuart stood tall to the south and Baker poked it’s head above the clouds to the north. Adams was obscured by the haze, leaving us with a three-volcano kind of day (even if we were standing on one of those volcanoes!).
We spent about 20 minutes up top, enjoying a delicious and well-earned summit beer and the unending view.
Knowing we had a long slog back to camp, we bade goodbye to Glacier’s summit and downclimbed off the summit.
The trip back to camp was uneventful although long. We passed about a hundred people who were on their way in to Glacier Gap with hopes of summiting the following day. I couldn’t believe the sheer number of people coming in and I was glad we had the fortune of an empty summit!
We arrived back at camp around 7pm to a crowded hillside. 13 hours after our summit bid began, I was back in my tent, boots off, and beer flowing. We were both exhausted and yet absolutely ecstatic with our climb.
Sleep came even easier that night.
July 3, 2016: Day 3 – Let’s Go Home
No alarm set, I awoke around 7am once again to the sound of wind whipping against my tent. This time, however, it was accompanied by rain. I laid in my sleeping bag for a bit just listening to the weather beat against my shelter. It would have been soothing had I not known I’d need to pack up camp and head out into the wet.
Finally willing myself to move from my cocoon, I unzipped my tent and was greeted with a dreary, foggy, rainy morning. We quickly packed up our camp, watching as other groups slowly shuffled off the hill, disappointed that the weather did not cooperate with their summit tries.
As we made our way back over White Pass, the weather began to clear and the sun once again showed it’s face. We stopped at the Mackinaw shelter to take a break and shed some layers. Up the trail we had passed a couple whose husky was running loose, completely enjoying herself and the hillside. At the shelter, we found they had lost her and wondered if she had gone down the trail to the parking lot. I told them I’d keep an eye out, but I was sure their pooch was back up the hill near White Pass. I really hope someone found their dog and she made it home safely.
I switched to high gear and made the 5.5 mile trek from the shelter back to the parking lot in about an hour and fifteen minutes and dropped my pack at the Jeep with a sigh. Kim arrived shortly after and we were delighted to find a cooler full of cold beer and sandwiches in the back of his Pathfinder. Aaron had dropped his car back at the trailhead and left us a gift. Bless his kind soul!
The group who had summited just before us arrived in the parking lot in waves and we chatted with them for a bit enjoying our victory beers before heading home.
This marked the first major climb for me and success felt great. Glacier Peak, while not the most technical mountain, is still one that is well earned. Doing this again, I’ll be sure to go fast and light and aim for an early start and a camp at Glacier Gap. One more off the bucket list!
NW Forest Pass required