I had a last-minute opportunity to climb Glacier Peak with Jamie Wise from PNW Peak Baggers and my Sloan Peak group trip. On the Sloan Peak climb, Glacier Peak was prominent as we climbed the northern slopes and glacier on Sloan and it was a very inviting view, so much so that Jamie was inspired to organize an outing and due to some last-minute cancellations, I was afforded the opportunity to climb my final Washington Volcano and exercise my last remaining demon of unsummited peaks. Like my Sloan Peak climb, I carried my trusty Benchmade Adamas Automatic Knife Desert Tan G-10. I never climb without it! It’s my current EDC.
Quick Stats per AllTrails: 35miles round trip, 11,229ft gain, 19 hours moving time, 24 hours total time plus our unplanned bivy.
Glacier Peak is a very significant mountain for me personally as it was the first mountain I ever attempted back in 1995. I recall shopping at the North Face on First Ave downtown Seattle when they actually sold real climbing gear – I was super excited for my first mountain climb complete with crampons, ice ax, rope, and a harness. I purchased this awesome blue Northface jacket and had some rocking yellow pants that made a swooshing sound when I walked, and red OR gaiters that I still use today! – I thought I was the coolest looking mountaineer ever!
I purchased The Freedom of the Hills from the Mountaineers and read it thoroughly. I never took any climbing courses and did nothing to train or condition, figuring a young man in his mid-20’s was up for the effort. We attempted the Boulder Basin route via the Sitkum and Scimitar Glaciers accessed from the White Chuck River road which washed out in 2003. I recall a pleasant hike in and a visit to Kennedy Hot Springs and soon learned what a boot path was – a straight-up, faintly detectable route (no trail) up a series of steep dirt paths in the forest, and challenging rocks which I learned were called talus – soon past the tree line I began to develop severe cramps in my thighs – a pain so intense that I began to wonder what the hell I was doing. I struggled as we continued upwards and thought the stabbing pain in my quads would never end. Blessedly we made camp on a snowy ridge. I immediately crawled into my sleeping bag, assumed the fetal position, and shivered the night away. Needless to say, I was sore from all the cramping upon waking early in the AM and was not mentally in the mood to continue upwards. Given it was my former father-in-law who was leading this outing and did not want to widow his daughter, he agreed to call off the climb. I am very mindful of being a good climbing partner these days and never want to hold anyone back so I ensure I can climb, am sufficiently fit, can safely bivy, or find another route down. I never want to end someone’s climb prematurely due to poor preparation on my part and work hard to ensure that fitness never will play a role in my lack of future summits.
The hike in…
Jamie and I hit the trailhead about 9AM. It was a long drive from Seattle, to Darrington, the Mountain Loop Highway, and finally FS49. The bugs were out in full force, but fortunately, once we hit the trail, they were no longer present. The initial portion of the hike follows the North Fork of the Sauk River and is mostly flat. The river is beautiful and I enjoyed the sounds of the rushing, clear waters as they cascaded down many rocks and logs along the path. There are many old-growth trees here and also many large blowdowns, fortunately, unlike Sloan Peak, none of these blocked the path which is well maintained given it provided access to the PCT.
Switchbacks and Hike to White Pass and PCT Junction
After 5 miles of fast, flat hiking, we encountered the dreaded switchbacks – there is a lot written about how hard and miserable these are, and while ascending the switchbacks, we encountered a hiker who said we were entering the suffer-fest. I think that given we hike a lot in the I90 corridor on hikes like Mailbox Peak and Teneriffe Kamikaze, and I recently did a few car 2 car summits, and both of us climbed Sloan Peak the prior weekend, that this was not so bad – a bit dusty and the heat was rising, but fortunately much of it was in the shade. We still maintained a sub 30 min mile up the 2000+ feet and 3+ miles. Once through the switchbacks, we hit the long traverse to White Pass. This part of the trail was a small teaser of the alpine beauty yet to come. The hillside was carpeted in wildflowers and mountain heather and was absolutely stunning.
Disappointment Cleaver/Gerdine Ridge
From White Pass, we connected with the Foam Creek trail that takes one to Foam Pass in two miles. The trail continues to traverse the hillside and only continued to get more beautiful with even more wildflowers. We encountered numerous marmots guarding their homes burrowed in the trail. As we ascended the steep slope up to Foam Pass, we were greeted with thick cloud cover. Another hiker said that this view is why people make this climb.
Without discernable landmarks, we lacked the perspective to really appreciate the scale of our environment, and also had no clue where the destination was from a visual perspective. The clouds created an otherworldly wasteland-like atmosphere with the rocky terrain, semi-melted glacial tarns, red algae, and terribly interesting rock formations. In retrospect, Jamie and I were glad it was cloudy as the visuals of the terrain were unique and led to an air of mystique and wonder of what was veiled within the clouds.
Unplanned Bivy at High Camp
As we traversed the Disappointment Cleaver Gerdine Ridge trail, we made our way through a mix of rock, snowy bootpack, glacial melt, mucky glacial clay, and made our way to a high camp at about 7300 feet, where we planned to rest, eat, and commence a bid for the summit at midnight, in time to catch the sunrise, allow for a descent at a reasonable time, and a proper meal in Seattle the next evening. Unfortunately, the weather was not cooperating. The cloud cover was dense and the temperature was dropping into the 30’s. Colder and less visibility than forecasted. I did want to camp, and also was planning to keep my car 2 car streak of volcanic summits intact, so I only brought minimal emergency bivy gear. After eating a warm meal and my new goto mountain meal – a grilled NY steak, we agreed to bivy, wait a couple of hours to see if the clouds would dissipate per the forecast, and reassess the climbing situation.
I wore all my layers, including my hat, gloves, a sleeping quilt which had no toe box and my feet froze – I advise always to bring a sleeping bag in the future for such situations as I shivered all night and was worried my feet were too cold to climb. We woke at midnight, 1 AM, 2 AM, and 4 AM – finally the clouds parted and the skies were clear. We finally rose at 5 AM, made some hot coffee, ate some Pop-Tarts, and packed for the climb!
The Glacier Climb
We were not the first party up which was fortunate as we let them guide the path, navigating the snowfields, rock outcrop transitions, and eventually the path up through the crevasses. There was a 4 person rope party ahead of us, and a 2 party and soloist who we joined and leapfrogged through the climb.
We made our way up the glacier and onto the final summit ridge which was melted out. A 700 foot steep, slippery, and unstable path of pumice, gravel, and soft volcanic sand led us to the summit!
The Climb Down
After signing the summit register and taking a few photos, we opted to not loiter and descend quickly, given that the temperature was rising, and the threat of increased opening of the crevasses was ever-present and increasing by the hour.
We had the good fortune of super weather on the descent and were able to take in all the natural beauty we missed hiking in the previous evening. As advertised, the views were stunning and it is truly an embarrassment of riches in the scenery. So much so that, many people do this climb only once as it is truly a long way in, but I think that a repeat visit, albeit maybe two nights so I can bring my Nikon Z6 and take hundreds of photos.
Return to White Pass and the PCT
We made our way through the Disappointment Cleaver/Gerdine Ridge trail to Foam Pass and prepared to make our way down through the alpine meadows.
Jamie and I made fast time down the mountain. As we initially descended the glacier, we passed the party of two on the way down who commented that we “really knew how to descend a mountain” – this is good as I am slow up and need the fast time to maintain my average pace for all my metrics – LOL. We cruised the trail to White Pass, past the PCT cutoff, and down the switchbacks. It was hot and exposed on the traverse and I really wanted out of the sun and into the shade of the forest below. My Garmin Fenix 6X tracked our total descent from the summit to just over 9 hours!