Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Glacier Peak Trip Report - July 16-19, 2015

We have run two Glacier Peak Climbs in the past two weeks and both groups reached the summit and had enjoyable trips. This trip report describes the ascent via the White Chuck, Gerdine, and Cool Glaciers, the most common ascent route these days.

Getting to the trailhead: Most parties these days start their Glacier Peak climbs be driving to the Sloan Creek Campground (2100'), also the trailhead for the North Fork Sauk Trail (#649). To get to the trailhead, follow the Mountain Loop Highway 17.0 miles SE from Darrington to Sloan Creek Road (#49) and turn left and follow road 49 6.6 miles to the trailhead.

North Fork Sauk Trailhead - Glacier Peak

Common Glacier Peak Itinerary:
  • Day 1: Start at the North Fork Sauk Trailhead (2100') and follow this 5.0 miles to the Mackinaw Shelter at 2950'. Then follow the trail NE as it ascends nearly 3000' in 3.0 more miles to White Pass (5904'). Camp on the bench in established campsites a few hundred feet below the West side of White Pass. (8.5 miles, 6-7 hours, 3800' elevation gain)
  • Day 2: Climb back to White Pass and head North to the junction between the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Foam Creek trail.  Use the Foam Creek Trail to travel out to the end of the trail and climb a very visible climbers trail to a small col at 6600'. From here the trail drops a bit and leads you over to a second Col overlooking Glacier Peak Meadows and provides access to the White Chuck Glacier basin. Ascend the lower White Chuck Glacier briefly and work your way up to Glacier Gap at  around 7300'. Camp at Glacier Gap. (5.25 miles, 4.5-5.5 hours, 2350' of ascent and 835' of descent)
  • Day 3: Climb the short snow or scree slope right of point 7739 and drop into the basin containing the Gerdine Glacier.  Use short snow crossings and a climbers trail on the ridge climbers left of the Gerdine Glacier to around 7830' where you step out to the Gerdine Glacier and switch to crampons. Ascend the Gerdine Glacier to the Col East of Disappointment Peak at around 9150'. Cross through a small broken area and then ascend the Cool Glacier to 9640', and follow the pumice ridge up the final snow and scree gully to the summit. We then usually descend to camp at Glacier Gap, pack-up, and hike back down to White Pass to camp. (3.8 miles, 4.5-5.5 hours up, 2-3 hours down, 3475' of ascent and 300' of descending on climb to top)
  • Day 4: Wake up early at White Pass and hike back to the trailhead. (8.5 miles, 3800' descent, 4-5.5 hours)

Day 1 Detail: We met at the Darrington Ranger Station.  There is a voluntary climbers registration.  If you fill this out, be sure to remember to check back out at the end.  There are no fees for climbing Glacier Peak.  We worked pretty hard to trim our gear down to the essentials and then drove to the trailhead for the North Fork of the Sauk (#649). Until 2014 the Sloan Creek Road was washed out near the turn off the Mountain Loop Highway and we had been using mountain bikes to finish the last 6.5 miles to the trailhead.  We were pretty happy to skip this step and be able to drive right to the trailhead. The hike into Mackinaw Shelter took about 2.5 hours. This first 5.0 miles slowly ascends through super impressive old-growth stands of Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar and the trail is in great shape. We used running shoes all the way to Glacier Gap and carried our climbing boots. Plenty of places to collect water on the hike to Mackinaw shelter and we topped off our bottles here for the climb to White Pass.

Mackinaw Shelter - North Fork Sauk Trail

The climb up to White Pass follows a series of switchbacks to about 5300' and then makes a broad traverse up and east eventually joining the PCT at 5970' before the final traverse to White Pass. Due to the low snow this year the Huckleberries were already ripe, typically more of a late August event. I used to run programs on Glacier Peak that combined environmental education and climbing for high school aged students and love the variety of plant life seen.  Particularly interesting to me at the White Indian Paintbrush, something we see much less often in the mountains than the usual red ones. All of the wildflowers were months ahead of schedule this year with some of the flowers I am used to seeing only in the fall in full bloom in mid-July.

In a month of so this area will get a lot more traffic from people making their way North on the PCT, but on this trip we did not encounter anyone that had made the trip up from Southern California yet. Bernie hopes to one day complete the whole PCT.

Junction of North Fork Sauk Trail and Pacific Crest Trail

When we got to White Pass we found a good camp just below the pass.  You can't camp at White Pass proper, but there are good campsites a short walk below the pass to the West and 2 pit toilets. There was still good water in several streams just below the camp.  It is useful to have something like a cup when collecting water as the streams are not deep enough to easily dunk your entire bottle. Dave Heinbach had reported finding tons of black flies at this camp the week before, but our day was cool enough that they were not out.  The trip in took us 6 hours. This crew moved pretty well and we took relaxed breaks. I could easily see it taking closer to 7 hours. If you have the energy, there are a bunch of nice hikes around White Pass, including the ascent of White Mountain (7043'), which has phenomenal views of Glacier Peak. We opted for a more relaxed tour on the Pass itself.

Western Anemone Seedpods at White Pass - Glacier Peak Wilderness

Day 2 Detail: We had a semi-leisurely wake up and were underway a bit after 9 am. To get back to the trail we climbed up to White Pass and headed a few hundred yards North along the PCT before turning right (East) on the Foam Creek Trail.

Junction of Foam Creek trail and PCT at White Pass - Glacier Peak Wilderness

This traverses for about an hour until you get to one last small group of trees where you turn left and head up the climbers trail to a small pass at the head of Foam Creek.

Climbers trail climbing to ridge at end of Foam Creek Trail - Glacier Peak

After a short climb you get to the ridge and have great views of Glacier Peak. The climbers trail down and then back up to the next col is plainly visible. The hiking is still super easy with one short section that requires care along the way.

View from end of Foam Creek Trail looking toward Glacier Peak

Once you gain this last col you are looking down on what people call "Glacier Peak Meadows." The descent lures you in with a very obvious trail and then it disintegrates into what you will experience for the rest of the trip to Glacier Gap; visible trail in spots, cairns sometimes leading you in the right direction, sometimes leading you astray, but a relatively easy route to find if you have good visibility. You are still a long way from Glacier Peak and the hike is interesting. Initially granite dominates and then as you get closer to Glacier Peak you start to encounter more volcanic rock and eventually reach a spectacular small lake. In most years this would still involve significant time in snow and boots would be the ideal footwear, but this year all the snow was melted and we stayed in our running shoes.

Josh and Bernie at lake just beyond Glacier Peak Meadows

It seems to work best to bypass the lake on the west side and then traverse slightly down.  We found this cool rock with a spider pattern in it to be a useful landmark, but in higher snow years this might be covered.  In here we had to cross a more significant stream and found it easiest down low where it as a bit more braided.

Spider Rock - Time to head up and cross the White Chuck Glacier

As you will have read in other trip reports, the White Chuck Glacier has receded radically from what you see on the USGS maps. The trip to Glacier Gap can be made a lot easier if you hit the right line, which tends to stay high and hug the cliffs on the right side of the valley coming into Glacier Gap.  The key to making this work out is to get on the White Chuck Glacier and follow it up and left to cross over the rock island at about 6800'. This allows you to traverse in rock a bit more firmly held in place by glacier silt and then follow a steep scree climb on a faint climbers trail up into the basin that leads to Glacier Gap. We crossed the White Chuck Glacier unroped, in our running shoes, but a bit ore care would be required if the glacier were still covered with the previous seasons snow as there are a few small crevasses to negotiate.

Best line for traversing toward Glacier Gap - Glacier Peak Climb

The photo below was taken on the descent, but you can see the location of the faint climbers trail above and slightly left of the the climber's right shoulder. It very much avoids the cliffs and follows the slight drainage facing you as you look at the photo. This is a bit left of center.

More detail on traverse to Glacier Gap on Glacier Peak Climb

Once you gain the ridge you traverse at about 7150' all the way to the last climb into the far south end of Glacier Gap where there is a pretty well-defined climbers trail.  This traverse has you on and off the edge of the glacier until the final scree climb to camp. We camped at the South end of Glacier Gap (7300') near a good source of water coming off the the Suiattle Glacier. Of note: many climbers camp lower, down by the spider rock at around 6600'.  This would work fine, but will add a good three hours round trip to the summit day and you would negotiate the trickiest route finding in the dark.

Glacier Gap Camp on Glacier Peak - Suiattle Glacier on Right

We made it from White Pass to Glacier Gap in 4 hours and 40 minutes.  I could easily see this dragging into something like 5.5-6.0 hours if people are not good at walking on scree or if much of the route is snow covered and punchy. I scrambled up a small ridge to the south of camp in the afternoon to get good views of Glacier Peak and a better view of the Suiattle Glacier.  There were really nice views over to the Honeycomb Glacier and Tenpeak Mountain (8281'), which I added to my mental list of interesting objectives from the White River drainage beyond Lake Wenatchee.

Suiattle and Honeycomb Glaciers with Tenpeak Mountain in background.

Day 3 Detail: The camp at Glacier Gap would probably feel a bit exposed in bad weather.  We had ideal conditions and woke up at 3:30 am and set-off at 4:30 am. We switched to climbing boots and followed a good climbers trail to the North alongside the small snowfield that leads up to a saddle at 7540'. From here we descended on snow and felt it was prudent to use crampons.  After about 10 minutes of descending we took our crampons off again and continued on mostly dirt trail.

Detail of small snow slope you descend after climbing unto col above Glacier Gap Camp.

From here followed the climber's trail on the East side of the Gerdine Glacier to 7830' and descending a short sandy slope to the edge of the Glacier. We put our crampons back on and then followed the let edge of the glacier up to 8400' where we started to traverse up and right to the col between the Cool and Gerdine Glaciers (9150'). This is East of Disappointment Peak (9755'). The glacier was uncrevassed, low-angle, and the main hazard was rockfall from off Disappointment Peak.

Josh and Bernie on the Gerdine Glacier - Standard Glacier Peak route

As you cross from the Gerdine to the Cool Glaciers there are generally some crevasses.  This year, with the early snowmelt, things were pretty broken up, but still very easy to navigate as everything is visible. We crossed over this section easily and ascended the Cool Glacier to the saddle between Disappointment Peak and Glacier Peak proper.

Josh and Bernie on Cool Glacier - Glacier Peak

At the top of the Cool Glacier we took off our crampons and managed to make it the rest of the way to the top without them.  In most years they would be needed for the steeper snow slopes leading to the summit, but it was pretty nice walking this year.

Pumice ridge between Glacier Peak and Disappointment Peak

The final climb to the top is in a steep scree and snow-filled gully that leads almost directly to the summit.

Josh and Bernie near top of Glacier Peak's final section

When we hit the top it was generally nice with fantastic views in all directions. With the opening of the Suiattle River road and the planned maintenance on the the Milk Creek trail we are looking forward to once again guiding Frostbite Ridge from the North at some point next year.

John Race, Bernie, and Josh on summit of Glacier Peak - July 18, 2015

It took us 4.5 hours to climb from Glacier Gap to the summit and about 2.5 hours to descend.  On the descent we took a good hour at Glacier Gap to pack up and then moved down to White Pass for a total day length of 12 hours and 45 minutes. It would be possible to have exited from Glacier Gap the next day, but we wanted a shorter exit day as the temps were forecasted to be near 90 in Seattle.

Day 4 Detail: Not much to report here.  We woke up early and hiked back out the 8.5 miles to the car.  The trip down took 4.5 hours.  We were walking by 7 am and this allowed us to miss most of the heat on the hike out.  Thanks Bernie and Josh for such great company on this trip. Our upcoming climbs are filling nicely and we are looking forward to spending more time in this amazing Wilderness.

About the Northwest Mountain School: We have guided Glacier Peak since 1996 and it is one of our favorite destinations primarily because it is so remote and beautiful. NMS is owned by IFMGA tides John & Olivia Race and based in Leavenworth, WA. We run set-date and custom climbs of Glacier Peak.  Most guided climbs take 4 days.  

Glacier Peak from ridge above Glacier Gap
Remaining 2015 Glacier Peak Climbs with space:
  • July 30-August 2, 2015
  • August 13-16, 2015
  • August 27-30, 2015
  • September 5-8, 2015.

For full details visit our Glacier Peak Climbs page on our website or give Olivia a call at 509-548-5823 if you want to join a Glacier Peak trip with us.