Before a climb you read old trail reports, make lists, pack and organize, prepare mentally. Even if you prepare and get ready it is usually never how you imagine it. My last climb was hotter, steeper, longer and so much more of everything. Less trained than usual, with a cranky knee, but with more experience and wisdom since last climb, my friend and I met up with a guide company to climb Glacier Peak last weekend. Glacier Peak (10,525ft/3,207m) is the most remote and isolated volcano in Washington State. It is in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Since it is isolated and far out, it is a long hike in to climb the mountain, which makes it less popular to climb than for instance Mt Rainier and Mt Baker.
My friend and I left early on Thursday to meet up with the guides and the rest of the group in Darrington, a couple of hours to drive. We’ve had hot weather the past week and it was already heating up when we started to unpack the car before 8am. Our backpacks felt heavy. We got some extra gear to carry for the group, stoves, fuel, tarps etc. My pack was filled to the top, but I managed to squeeze the helmet in there before we took off to the trailhead. It felt heavy and chunky, and was rubbing against my back and neck. It’s been a while since I did a long hike with a pack like this.
The hike started out at North Fork of Sauk River trail head. We walked through deep forest with Douglas fir and Western red cedar, we crossed the river and worked our way up almost 4000’. With the heavy pack and the extreme heat, it took most of the day. It was hot and humid, and the pack was over 40lbs. The trail starts out pretty mellow but after a few hours it turns into a climb. We cover switch back after switch back, and then it opens up and we emerge from the trees. The views are stunning, green hills, wildflowers, snow, streams, marmots, birds. We made it to White Pass and set up camp for the night.
It is almost impossible to sleep. It is so hot. You hear noises, little critters, birds. We had a grouse calling out all night. A little bit uncomfortable, a little bit hard against your back, a little bit crowded… It’s been a while since I spent a night in a tent. And suddenly it is morning and time to stretch out and pack up. A quick breakfast and we all repack our packs and get ready to go. Your body feels a little bit stiff after carrying a heavy pack uphill for close to 10 hours.
The day start relatively easy with some ups and downs. We hike over White Pass and Foam Creek and descend into Glacier Peak meadows. The trail is still covered in snow on many places and an easy traverse turns in to a sketchy and shaky one. The chutes are filled with snow and ice and one wrong step would be quite awful. We traverse the White Chuck Glacier and the heat is almost unbearable, the sun is burning and reflecting on the snow. You can feel the burn through your clothes and the pack feels heavier and heavier.
We reach Glacier Gap Camp at 7300’ that is next to the Suiattle Glacier, set up camp and unpack. The sun is burning, and we are trying to escape the heat. You cannot find shade anywhere. We drink water from the stream, lay in our tent and chat, eat a little, talk about tomorrow and try to get ready for the climb up to the summit.
It is so difficult to sleep when you know you are getting up around 2am. We woke up before our wake-up call and chatted for a bit. I do not even know if I slept, it felt like I just waited, looking at the stars all night. That is usually how it is before a summit. It felt a bit chilly for the first time since we started our trip. I get the puffy on and eat a little and drink coffee. Everyone is quiet, moving slowly, looking a bit nervous. We all know it will be long day moving.
We get our gear ready. Crampons and axe accessible with harness and helmet/headlight on. It’s dark outside, the sky is full of bright stars. The stars feel so close you can touch them. The moon is almost full, shining and leading the way. We all walk slow in on long row. Quiet, head down, step after step uphill, deep breaths. We stop after an hour and get our crampons on our boots, get roped up, it is getting steeper. We work our way over Gerdine and Cool Glaciers. We pass some crevasses, hear some rockfall, see big rocks roll over the ice. The sun is working its way up, the sky is magic, and you just want to bottle the feeling of the world’s greatness. I think this is the part that is the most beautiful in every climb.
We stop and prepare for the last push up to the summit. Drink some water, eat a snack, trying to visualize what it will be like. The wind is picking up, the sun is up, and it’s morning. We move through dirt that glides down when you take a step, it feels like moving in thick syrup. We reach some snow and ice and more dirt and rocks. The wind is picking up. And then, the final part up a chute, full of snow that is getting slushier every minute the sun is up. It looks like a steep wall and I am trying to think positive thoughts and holding on to my axe so hard I can feel my fingers cramp. All those feelings of fear come over me, irrational thoughts, and tears. Every time I get close to a summit. Big steps, really steep and I punch through the snow with every step. Axe, step, step, axe, step, step, axe, step, step… using the pole in my other hand to lift myself up. I look back to make sure the rope is on the right side and look down. How on earth am I going to get down? Panic, axe, step, step… and we are up. It is windy, cold and absolutely wonderful. The view, the mountains, the blue sky… I am speechless. Rainier, Adams, Baker… every mountain in Washington in full view. Absolutely gorgeous.
After a short time on the summit, we prepare to head down. We are five on the rope, my friend leads the way, and I am second. The plunge steps down work like a charm and I forget how steep it was just stepping my way closer to more comfortable terrain. We work our way down the mountain and after hours with crampons and a few without we are back at camp in the afternoon. A quick cup of coffee and we break camp and continue our trip over glaciers and down the mountain. It feels endless, so hot with the sun burning the skin under the clothes.
We get back to the long traverse that now melted more and got even more complicated to finish. After a few scary moments and some try hard times, we get our crampons on. We have been up since 1.30am and it is getting closer to dusk. When we reach White Camp again, we are all tired. We get our tents up, get some food in our tummies, and get some rest before the last day and the big hike back to the trail head.
We decide to head out early because of the heat. We all feel fried after a long weekend with high temps up high with all snow and ice reflecting the sun. I am burned on my neck, ears and in my nostrils even if I applied sunscreen every hour and wore a sun hoodie. We pack up and leave camp at 7.30. It turns out to be a long day again. The first hours we pass a few snow and ice filled chutes that are a bit sketchy, and it takes us some time. Better safe than sorry. It is hot, long and surprisingly hard but we are back by our cars in the afternoon. Dry clothes, car AC and water never felt better.
Glacier Peak was a beast of a mountain. You always think that Rainier is the toughest mountain in our state but this one really kicked my butt. Long days, the extremely hot weather and a heavy pack made it challenging. It was absolutely gorgeous. The views, the air, the company – 100% good times.
Photos: Olivia Race and Charlotte