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Glacier Peak: Desperate for Sweet Turns

After a grueling drive out of Portland, we finally rolled into the TH at 830pm on Friday night. The winding road leading out of Darrington had turned into a pothole-riddled, muddy, slippery, swamp and I was relieved that my poor Susierolla managed to get through it without any damage. With a dry night forecasted, we sat down, made dinner, and blew up our sleeping pads- ready for a night spent sleeping under the stars. Minutes after I laid out the double-wide sleeping bag (the best car-camping investment EVER), fat rain drops began falling.

So much for a dry night. We’d elected to not bring an extra tent and with the backpacking tent shoved deep into the depths of Andy’s pack, we had to quickly dig it out, through our now-wet pads and sleeping bag into the car, and find a legitimate place to camp. Thankfully, the tent is easy to pitch and we were able to be in bed, warm and dry, before long.

The next morning, we awoke around 6am, re-packed everything while we broke down camp and made breakfast, and readied ourselves for the long approach to our intended “high camp” at Glacier Gap. In the month or so since we climbed Cooper Spur, I’d managed to forget how stupidly heavy packs become when skis and ski boots are attached to them. I tried to think of it as training weight as we set off up the trail, enjoying the relatively flat approach to the Shelter. We took a quick water/snack break here before started up the grueling. “never-ending” switchbacks to White Pass. I tried counting them as we climbed up the trail but lost track after 16… I am sure, however, that there were well over 20 by the time we got through them.

Throughout this entire hike, we were completely socked-in. Visibility beyond the trail was no more than 100’ and everything was covered in dew. Around the time we reached the 10th switchback, I became concerned at how much I was sweating. My baselayers and my hair were completely soaked. A quick reassuring conversation with Andy helped me rationalize the situation: I was wet because EVERYTHING around us was wet. We passed through long stretches of “jungle” where the trail was so overgrown that I had to use my trekking poles to see the ground in front of me. Each step into these areas left me saturated with droplets of water. I probably could have stayed hydrated by drinking off of the vegetation we were passing through.

At the top of the switchbacks, we ran into 2 women who had elected to head back to the TH without pushing for the summit. Visibility, it seemed, was not going to improve once we were above the treeline.

The sections of the trail above the trees and before white pass were stunning. Wildflowers dotted the trail and mountain streams ran here and there across the trail. Visibility was still pretty poor but we were happy to be out of the trees and were excited to know we were out of the switchbacks.

Once we reached White Pass, we ate a quick lunch, stashed our hiking shoes, and got set up on skis. The sky began to clear up and we were finally able to see the surrounding area. It. Was. GORGEOUS. We were encapsulated in a sea of snowy peaks. Despite the miles we’d already covered, I found myself breathing in the beautiful area and, as I did, my psych was amplified.

I felt a renewed sense of energy course through me when I shouldered my newly-lightened pack and we started across the snowfield. We could see a small guided group traversing towards us and we stopped and said a quick ‘hello.’ One woman, when I asked her how the trip had gone, immediately complained that it had been ‘wet and miserable.’ I was so sad to hear that response. The mountains aren’t a spa day. The weather is shitty some days, and gorgeous the next. To sound completely cliché, it’s all about the process. Summit or not, if you don’t enjoy being out in the high places, pushing your body and mind, then why the heck would you do it? Mountaineering sucks if you aren’t excited about it!

That interaction aside, we could see the area from which they had come and decided to try to find a quicker shortcut. Andy had seen a couple TRs from people cutting up and over the ridge early so we decided to try to do the same. We picked a point we could skin to and made our way up. I relished in the frequent sightings of Marmots and their furry little faces and enjoyed the clear skies and sunshine as we gained elevation.

Once we reached our projected “up and over’ point, visibility had shrunk down to what it had been before. We had maybe 200’ of good visibility and this point. Looking at the GPS, we slowly negotiated our way down and into the “meadow,” trying not to lose more elevation than we needed to. A few fields of vegetables and rock outcroppings blocked our direct path so we packed our skis down the hillside- traversing as much as possible. Once we reached the snow and were able to get back on our skis, we began traversing around the low points. Visibility continued to shrink and we became progressively more reliant on the GPS as we moved forward. At this point, we were out of water. The 1L we’d each packed in was now gone and I became fixated on the sound of running water that was echoing around us, just out of sight. I hadn’t peed in a couple hours at this point and became pretty concerned that I would see the effects of dehydration if I wasn’t able to get to water in the next hour or so.

Eventually, the sound of water was so loud and we were so thirsty that we knew we needed to detour. Snow was melting in droves off of a large rock formation and I quickly stripped my shirt off and filled up my bladder, drinking over a liter in a matter of minutes. The water was frigid and my hands went numb every time I went in for a refill. It was glorious.

After a few minutes, we headed back in the direction of Glacier Gap, crossing paths with 2 guys who had turned around due to poor visibility. At this point, our window was maybe 100’ and I had difficulty leading us into the soup. I’m pretty prone to vertigo and have simply fallen down in whiteouts when I’ve been up skiing. Basically, without a point of reference, I become a complete spaz that struggles to determine which direction UP is.

After hours of slowly making our way through the sea of fog, we reached our intended high camp. Still unable to see Glacier Peak, we resolved ourselves to the fact that the clear skies that had been forecasted might not join us until the next day- if at all.

We multitasked easily, pitching the tent, melting snow, blowing up sleeping pads, repacking our packs, and making dinner. We (intelligently) forgot a utensil so we ate off of 2 spare tent stakes. We fell asleep early, ready for 9 hours of sleep, and listened as the wind rolled in…

We woke up to pee at 1am and discovered CLEAR SKIES. Our campsite, it turned out, was in the middle of a gorgeous sea of peaks and Glacier Peak looked stunning- perfectly silhouetted on the skyline only a few miles away. After a few more hours of sleep, we hit the snow and headed up toward our objective.

We decided against climbing the direct line up Disappointment Peak after seeing evidence of some recent big slides and knowing that we wanted to ski the Cool Glacier. There were a few small cracks but they were easy to avoid and our glacier travel gear stayed buried in our packs, acting as nothing more than training weight for the trip.

The final push up to the summit was really neat- the terrain steepened a bit but with a clear fall line and perfect crampon’ing conditions, our ice axes stayed on our packs- more training weight, right?We had the summit entirely to ourselves and with no one in sight, we enjoyed our time above 10,000’ in total peace- one of the few times this has happened to us. Several rounds of snacking later, we headed down- me on foot since I’d left my skis down lower to avoid skiing the icy upper crust, and Andy on skis.

Off the ice, I stepped into my bindings and joined Andy for a very memorable, very corny, very AMAZING ski down the Cool Glacier. We ran into 2 skiers who were resting below the glacier and chatted with them a bit about conditions. At that point, climbers came toward us in droves- rope teams heading up into crevasse-free territory ascended the snowfields like small groups of ants. We skied by them, enjoying our gleeful descent, and wished them all an excellent journey to the summit. They smiled and waved, happy to be out under the clear, blue sky.

Eventually, we stepped out of our bindings and packed our skis up to Glacier Gap to breakdown camp, enjoying a few more minutes of rest and silence before commencing the long journey back to the TH.

The crazy part about being so socked in during the approach was that the entire way out was brand-new to our eyes. We saw the beginnings of Alpine lakes forming in low points and even filled our bladders up in one- carefully avoiding the weak points and the icy dip that would result from it.

Glacier Peak was GORGEOUS. From Glacier Gap, we could see no one and we had been certain that we would be among few teams to have attempted the summit that day. But, as we rolled up and over another roll, we saw 10 or so tents pitched in small groups and were happy that we had pushed through the zero vis to find our private campsite.

On the way out, we elected to take the “Standard Approach” – whatever that means- and followed boot pack up and out of the small valley.

PSA: A large group of people decided it would be a fun idea to completely wipe out the skin track left by the skiers who came in for the weekend. Please, please, please, do NOT walk in the skin track. It’s rude and unnecessary.

Turns out, this way was long, much longer than our crazy shortcut, and we ended up spending at least an additional hour or so losing and gaining elevation. The terrain was certainly easier to navigate but the repeated gain and loss was not worth easier travel- at least in our opinions.

Sometime later, we found ourselves back at White Pass happily stripping our ski boots off of our feet to dry out while we ate lunch. We drained the remaining water in our packs before we set off, trying to lighten our heavy loads as much as possible and knowing that there would be plenty of accessible, probably-clean water on the way out.

The hike out was long. So very long. After doing the approach in a haze, the trail seemed completely new, which was great, but it made tracking our progress toward the trailhead very difficult. More often than not, my optimism had me thinking we were a mere mile or two away and we would get the GPS out, check our location, and see that we still had several hours to go. By the time we made it down the never-ending switchbacks, my feet and knees were screaming.

And we still had miles to go.

By the time we reached the car, we were ecstatic. I quickly stripped my sweaty, dirty, zinc oxide-soaked clothes off and we jumped into the car, munching on chips and pounding water with a vengeance. It was a long drive back to Portland….

Portland, OR, USA

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©2020 BY CORIE L. TRAYLOR. CREATED AT SEA LEVEL.