Glacier Peak IAD attempt

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The part of the North Cascades I’ve spent the most time in is Glacier Peak Wilderness, having knocked out long loops on both the west and east sides of the crest. A special place for me, its eponymous volcano has long held a magnetic pull, not only in its beauty and setting, but in its remoteness. Glacier Peak is the only volcano in the Washington Cascades with no road reaching its flanks, and even the most straightforward route to the summit is 33 miles and nearly 13,000′ of climbing round trip. It remains, per Volken, the volcano for “those of who would rather tour across wolverine tracks than other human tracks.” Prior to 2011’s improbable Cascade Pass photo, it was also the site of the most recent confirmed grizzly sighting in the North Cascades ecoregion. Climbing Glacier was a not-if-but-then proposition. I suppose I was waiting for an excuse.

In a high pressure spell earlier this winter, North Bend, WA skier / runner Will Thomas provided one, attempting to climb and ski the mountain in a single push. I had an abstract sense of the effort involved — a gee whiz, that’s a long day! understanding of his trip — but, as it turns out, no real feel for how hard just reaching the mountain can be. Nonetheless, the idea started percolating again, and seeing yet another weather window open, I asked around to see who was interested. Regular partner Peter and new friend Richard ended up joining. Peter is the kind of guy who picks up running on a whim and 6 months later wins his first race, and Richard has bettered my Wonderland Trail record and been up Denali. It was, if you’ll permit me, a strong team.

We left Seattle Friday evening, and were on the move up the north fork of the Sauk by 12:30. There was a giddy elation to those early miles. Richard lead out the gate jogging, 24-lb skis on his back, which had me laughing, at least until it became clear he wasn’t joking. We alternated hiking and running as the terrain dictated until the base of the first major climb, 6 miles and 1:40 into the day, our world a surreal vision of illuminated slivers of the buttresses of old grow cedars. And then it was endless switchbacks up the slide path, in and out of the margins of forest. We struck snow around 4300’, fresh and low density, and cutting our headlamps marveled for a few perfect still moments at the glimmer of frost on its surface, the moon, the piercing starlight above the opposing ridge. We marveled at the novelty of winter in a year marked by its apparent absence.

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Eventually, we stashed our shoes and began skinning, hoping they’d be left alone by any well-meaning hikers following in our footsteps. We weren’t far above above treeline before making our first navigational error of the day, misjudging the route east in the dark. To regain a clear line of travel, we were forced to climb several hundred feet of steep snow up the fall line. My light, bellowed boots failed to seat a kick in the icy crust, making for some tense moments as I switched to crampons and spidered my way to where Peter and Richard waited. Relieved to be clear of cliffs and slide alder, we then skinned up to the col east of White Peak, noting and avoiding reactive windslab on concave southerly aspects. There, at 6500’, the day’s first light began to silhouette the peaks to the east, and as we stripped skins and ate, turned pink, gold, and violet.

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We descended into the basin, painting one small corner of its endless white canvas with our tracks. Angling right, we struck a second patch of worrying stability, a northwest slope with a 5 inch storm slab that sheared cleanly on a buried crust, though not propagating much. Dropping to the basin, we avoided the aspect for the remainder of the day, which wasn’t particularly difficult given the route’s bearing.

The climbing traverse to Glacier Gap was perhaps the day’s highlight, the sort of high, horizontal ski mountaineering anyone who has Lowell Skoog’s website bookmarked dreams of. It struck me more than once, glancing behind me at our skin track snaking away for miles and at the looming summit ahead, that the privilege of falling asleep and waking up here was an end in an of itself.

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We cleared Glacier Gap, and, 9 hours after leaving the car, finally felt to be on the mountain itself. The wind picked up, and we climbed, slower and slower. Reaching the base of Disappointment Peak, we struck east towards the base of Cool Glacier. Skirting an obvious crevasse, we regrouped at 9200’. There wasn’t much discussion before we reached a consensus that pushing on to the summit in current conditions would be using up too much of our safety buffer of time and energy, with 15 miles of skiing and hiking and several climbs between us and the car. Content, and already feeling gassed, we stripped skins and soared away down the Gerdine Glacier.

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Retracing our tracks took more transitions than we’d hoped, but was relatively straightforward until we once again stood on the saddle below White Mountain, looking down into the Sauk River Valley. Intending to avoid the navigational snafus of the morning, we stayed high and traversed west. But this too proved a poor choice, as the steep, exposed slope rolled over into oblivion, offering no evidence of safe passage. Richard scouted here and there for a line that would drop us into the meadow where the trail emerged from the trees, Peter and I jumping from island of safety to island of safety behind him. It was a bit of a nightmare — hop turns, debris-filled chutes, worrying roller balls, a botched kick-turn and timely self-arrest — but then we were through, and all too soon back at our shoes. A relief and a shame, all at once.

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Somehow, we ran almost the entire trail out. Peter, stoically trotting at my heels as he closed out his first all-night adventure and longest day ever, would whimper a little now and then (okay, not really). I kept seeing imaginary cars through the trees and would say nonsensical things. We would sing the refrain from “Bad Blood” in raspy, off key voices.

Richard, for his part, beat us out by a solid 15 minutes despite hauling the heaviest equipment by a long shot. We met him at the car, boots off and generic lite beer in hand, after almost 17 hours on the move. Our only decision left was where to inhale 1000 calories of fat and protein.

The Burger Barn in Darrington did the honors.

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11 thoughts on “Glacier Peak IAD attempt

  1. This was fun to read the whole story. I was curious as to why you guys chose certain routes and this answered that. After 30+ miles, its hard not to call this a success even if the summit wasn’t reached. The masochist in me says, I want to try this light & fast in a day again, then the other side of me says, I’d love to give it the time and respect it deserves and spend a few days up there touring and exploring. Well done guys!

  2. No shame in that trip! Smart decision to turn around and get out safely. Way to keep on trucking’ Let me know if you ever need a partner for such an adventure.

    • Always nice to have a decision validated by later experience, although I don’t think we’d have had any regrets even if it were an easy trip out. And absolutely — feel free to drop a line anytime via TAY or elinck at uw dot edu.

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