A few years ago (2009, to be precise), we headed out west to try and climb
a scenic giant of the Pacific Northwest - the volcano known as Mount Baker. Mount Baker, a 10,700-foot cone of volcanic rock, snow, and [big] glaciers, is a dramatic sight from miles around, including the towns and cities all along the pacific northwest seaboard, from Seattle through to Vancouver and beyond. Naturally, we wanted to climb it. Unfortunately, we didn't make it that time, and vowed to return sometime soon.
Fast-forward to 2015, and we were ready to try again. After much planning, we agreed on an end-of-July 3-day climb of Baker with myself, Arn, Brian and Arn's friend Rosty. End of July is normally quite a good time to climb - snow conditions have stabilized but there is usually still enough to cover a good portion of the various glaciers' crevasses, and the weather is typically good. However....
2015 was a scorcher for the west coast of North America. Even way up in the normally wettish Pacific Northwest - Oregon, Washington, British Columbia - temperatures were well above normal and precipitation was down - way down. In fact, snowpack levels in June on most mountains were more like what you'd normally encounter in September. This presented a bit of a problem to us, since this meant that negotiating a route up Baker's glacial flanks would be more tricky and more circuitous. Not impossible, just more of a challenge. At least that 'clear and dry weather' part would be nice.
So, off we went, flying out on a nice sunny day across Canada, headed west for Vancouver, and then a short hop further to Seattle. Even though Vancouver is closer to Mt Baker than is Seattle, we were meeting up with Arn's friend and Seattle resident Rosty, who was joining us and had graciously offered the use of his house, his SUV, and his local Whole Foods store to assist us in our climb attempt.
We had some fantastic, moody views of Mount Baker as we descended into Vancouver. We even got a neat lined-up view of Mt Baker with sister Cascade volcano Glacier Peak, hovering mysteriously above a cloud layer in the farther distance. Veru nice. Hopefully, some scenic and fun climbing awaited us...!
Shortly after our Dash-8 greased the pavement at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, we were shaking hands with Rosty, who again had been more than generous by coming to the airport during his workday's lunchtime and giving us a ride to his house.
Personal Taxi to Seattle
After a scenic drive past the heart of downtown Seattle to Rosty's modern house (situated in a hilly district of Seattle's suburbs called the Queen Anne neighborhood), Rosty returned to work - but not before directing the rest of us to the nearby Whole Foods so that we could stock up for our climb.
Later that evening, Rosty took us out into his neighborhood to experience a once-every-thursday farmers market, which included a large array of quite excellent food trucks, sporting all kinds of excellent high quality fare of various types and ethnicities (several of us chose the Peruvian food from a company called Don Lucho's).
Queen Anne Farmers Market
I'll stop here and back up a little, because a little bit of pre-story needs to be told: during the last few days leading up to our trip, we had (of course) been monitoring the weather closely. While it had been solidly sunny and hot for weeks and weeks up to this point, it was looking like some sort of system would be moving in to the area during the time of our climb. We pored over various weather websites, consulted different weather models. And, as time drew closer to the start of the climb, the forecast continued to get worse: at first it was just a bit of sun and cloud with a chance of showers; the final night before the climb, it had deteriorated to solid cloud, rain and even a heavy snowfall warning for the higher elevations of Mount Baker - more than a foots' worth of wet snow. Ugh and blech.
We cast about for alternatives. No views, miserable wetness and the difficulties and dangers associated with a bunch of wet summer snow did not make Mt Baker look very attractive. One option was to head way south, almost into Oregon, to climb the 12,300-foot cascade volcano of Mt Adams. The weather looked better there. It also looked better further inland, and another somewhat closer volcano - 10,500-foot Glacier Peak - was situated there and looked attractive. We soon decided to switch our object to Glacier Peak, especially since none of us had ever visited the mountain or the area around it. A bit of research and planning revealed that a longer but technically easier route was doable in our 3-day timeframe. So, Glacier Peak was a go.
In order to assist with an early trailhead start, we elected to stay in a motel in a town an hour or so closer to the trailhead, where we pre-packed our gear in order to achieve a good getaway time in the morning.
North Fork Sauk Trailhead
With our pre-packed backpacks sitting by the door, we were up and away quite early, at 4:30 a.m. We soon discovered that Rosty's primary objective - or, perhaps I should primary, unstoppable imperative - was a good quality cup of coffee. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks right around the corner from the motel, and by some strange coincidence, it opened at 4:30 a.m.
Sufficiently infused with caffeine, Rosty drove us west, towards the rugged Cascade Range. After passing through the sleepy little forestry town of Darrington, we continued south, up a wide forested gravel road known somewhat grandiosly as the Mountain Loop Highway. The landscape had become quite rugged, with steep slopes leading up to bare peaks, but the forest alongside the road was of such thickness that we only caught a glimpse or two of anything high above. We soon turned off onto a twisty and narrow forest service road, and after less then an hour of driving, we pulled into the North Fork Sauk River trailhead.
Trailhead for #649
It was still well before 7a.m. - a nice and early start time. During our initial planning, we didn't have such an early start on the agenda, but with the switch in itinerary to Glacier Peak, it became necessary. Glacier Peak, unlike most of the other Cascade volcanoes, is buried deep inside the wilderness of the Cascade mountain range (note that the Cascade volcanoes and the Cascade mountain range are two completely different things). Being buried deep within a roadless wilderness meant we had a significantly longer approach to get to the base of Glacier Peak, and we wanted to allocate extra time so as not to feel overly rushed.
Last minute trail info
There are in fact several approaches to Glacier Peak. The one we chose approached from the southwest, along the North Fork of the Sauk River. Trail #649 - the North Fork Sauk River trail, heads east along bottom of the North Fork Sauk River's valley, mostly on the flat, for about 5 miles (8km). It then finally decides to gain some real elevation, switchbacking north up 3000 feet to an alpine ridgeline at a spot known as White Pass. From there, a mostly trailless alpine route led north, towards Glacier Peak itself.
As a side note, the other western approaches to Glacier Peak would have been preferable to the North Fork Sauk River approach - had they been usable. However, big storms and mudslides from 2003 so damaged the other [western] approaches that they are to this day (2015) still not reopened. So, this was the most reasonable approach for us.
Minutes before 7 a.m., full of anticipation and high spirits, we set off along trail #649. Despite the unsettled weather forecast, conditions were - for the moment, anyway - good: there were patches of blue above and everything was dry. The temperature was cool and pleasant.
Immediately we plunged into a mesmerizingly beautiful old-growth cedar forest. Large, mature trees - of which there were many - were dwarfed by the regular appearance of truly massive giants. The understory was dense and lush but not tangled and messy-looking. The tread immediately underfoot was wide, flat, and pleasantly strewn with acorns and pine needles. Soft and loamy, the trail could have been constructed out of cork, for all I knew. Class A1++ trail quality.
The next hour or so passed quite pleasantly. Despite our heavy multi-day mountaineering-gear filled packs, the relatively flat trail and soft tread, along with a near complete absence of boulders or roughness, meant progress was easy. By 8:20 a.m. - only 80 minutes after setting out, we had already travelled over 4km (2.5 miles).
Excellent rustic trailwork
We continued to make good progress, heading up the gently sloping valley bottom of the North Fork Sauk River. The trail, although it parallels the course of the river, stays far enough away from its banks that we rarely got a look at it, although there were one or two idyllic-looking glimpses.
The weather actually started to improve as we neared mid-morning, with frequent bouts of direct sunlight aesthetically filtering down through the branches of the huge old trees lining the trail. Might we have dodged a bullet, weather-wise?
At the 3.5 mile (6km) mark, we passed a beautiful section of wide flat soft ground beneath huge old trees, perfect for tenting (in fact, later I learned that this is in fact an officially designated camping area known as Red Creek), along with a pit toilet. We then crossed Red Creek itself on a very nice wooden bridge constructed entirely out of logs (in fact, in most spots where you might even have a passing thought about needed a boardwalk or a bridge, there was one).