So, hey... remember that trip two years ago, back in the summer of 2015, where me and Arn and Rosty and Brian attempted to climb remote Glacier Peak
in Washington State? We managed to pick the only rainy weekend in an otherwise sunny summer - and we were pretty disappointed that conditions caused us to turn around without summitting. We resolved to come back and give it another go.
Our ranks were a little reduced this time - only myself and Rosty - but we were up for it just the same with just the two of us. We scheduled this outing for mid-June, somewhat early in the summer mountaineering season, because we wanted to ensure a snowier approach. Back in 2015 snow levels were incredibly low.
Rosty put me up in his Queen Anne suburb (Seattle) house for a few days over the course of my visit / trip. It was Saturday night when my flight arrived in Seattle, but with some smooth logistics, we were ready by 10 am the next morning, packed up and ready to make our way to the trailhead.
I reviewed the forecast as Rosty drove his beloved 4-Runner to the North Fork Sauk River Trailhead (the same start point as last time). Compared with our July 2015 forecast, it looked better this time, with at worst sun-and-cloud conditions and with clearer skies at higher altitudes (in fact clear, above 2500m / 8000 feet).
Rosty had scouted out the trailhead the week before and had reported that the forest road leading to it had been washed-out and closed by the forest service. Could be trouble, I thought, but we'd just have to see. I needn't have bothered to worry; upon reaching the "wash-out", it was clear that someone was suffering from a case of CYA-itis: one half of the two-lane gravel road was slumped away, but the other half was effectively fine. I got out to spot just to be sure but it was nothing, really.
Surmounting the "landslide"
After helping some dude with a dead battery at the trailhead (he'd been stuck there with his dog for a few days - the road closed sign had ensured his ongoing privacy), we suited up for our hike in. We were starting later than on the last trip, so our plans were to camp sooner, probably at White Pass, about 15km (9 miles) in.
With only one other car at the trailhead, traffic on the trail was sure to be light. Trail #649, the North Fork Sauk River Trail, was as beautiful as ever. Huge old growth trees, a delightfully gentle and soft path, and a lush understory. We did encounter a few more obstacles than last time, though - the previous winter's blowdown had not yet been cleared, and there were four or five huge trunks crashed across the trail, and one of the little side creeks was rushing to overflowing, requiring some careful crossing maneuvers.
In case we get into trouble
Excellent rustic trailwork
About 7km (4 miles) in, we reached the bridged side creek of Red Creek, and a couple of clicks beyond that, the ratty old log structure known as the Mackinaw Shelter. We stopped at both places for good rest breaks in an otherwise fast-paced walk (3 hours total to Mackinaw shelter). So far, so good.
After the Mackinaw Shelter, the North Fork Sauk River Trail begins to climb. And climb. And climb. About 2800 feet it climbs in about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) worth of distance. It's all very well switchbacked, though, and we trudged up it at a pretty decent pace, greater than 1500 ft / hour. We were in the groove!
A few open patches at about 4000 feet revealed some very nice scenery indeed - and a fair bit of blue sky too, something which I was very relieved to see. The views also revealed snow... lots and lots of it, above us. In fact, I was wondering when we were going to hit "first snow" - it would probably be not too far above.
Open patches at 4000 feet
First snow was indeed not far higher - a small patch just off the trail at roughly 4350 feet. A few tens of minutes later, our first patch across the trail, and then, by 4750 feet, mostly continuous. Fortunately, it was reasonably firm and we were able to walk on it with ease. The trail became a bit harder to follow, though.
More continuous snow
As the trees gave way and snow-covered sub-alpine meadows opened up above us, we heard some voices ahead. We soon came across a couple of young guys with those split snowboard/ski thingies on their packs. They were sitting across the trail cooking up some hot food. Surprised that they had carried all of that heavy ski gear along such a length of dry trail (and over some troublesome blowdown), we had a short chat with them. "Yeah, lots of snow this year! We're heading to Glacier Peak and were just feeling a bit tanked, so we stopped to get some energy before continuing. Hoping to hit Glacier Gap for our camp tonight".
Hm. Glacier Gap, eh? Another 8km and almost 2000 feet of elevation gain from where we were. And it was already 6pm. Seemed ambitious to us. We wished them luck and continued on. White Pass was only another 2km ahead of us, and I was looking forward to relaxing there for a bit before the sun went down.
We were now at about 5400 feet, and the North Fork Sauk River trail here begins a high traverse, angling gently up towards 5900-foot White Pass. Normally this is a very scenic and quite easy bit of hiking, along a nicely-defined sideslope trail that cuts across steep subalpine meadows.
This year, however, things were a little different. With this exceptionally big snowpack, much of this traverse was underneath snow. And that snow was steep. And frequently with not so pleasant runout below: either some boulders or a stand of trees, waiting there for you to smash into if you slipped. It looked like our mountaineering activities would have to commence a day early. Out came the ice axes.
We carefully kicked steps and self-belayed with our axes across each of the many tongues of snow covering the southern slopes of White Mountain. There was only a very faint and ill-defined previous boot track, so we essentially had to make new steps ourselves. It was surprisingly slow going, but we needed to take care, so there was no rushing it. Time ticked by as we slowly stepped our way towards White Pass.
It took us nearly two hours to cover the last 2km to White Pass, and I was mighty glad to see it when it slid into view. It was certainly living up to its name today (being nearly totally white). Would we have to camp on snow even here at this relatively low elevation?
As it turned out, fortunately, the answer was no. Right next to the Pacific Crest Trail (the last few hundred metres to White Pass are actually along the PCT), there was a 30-foot round patch of alpine meadow-ground. And even better, the upper part of it was flat. It was even mostly dry. I shouted back to Rosty (who was just arriving at the pass himself) that we'd super lucked out. Around us the scene was beautiful, if with a little more clouds than I would have liked.
Setting up the tent on soft alpine grasses was an easy delight, as was walking around in sock feet on the dry ground. Being near the summer solstice, we had good light until nearly 10pm, plenty of time to eat and unwind after a rather rushed day. Day 1 had gone... relatively well, with the only real quibble being that the snowpack was perhaps bigger than we'd been hoping for (too little in 2015, now too much, agh, it's never perfect, is it?).
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Glacier Peak Day 1 - click map to view
Glacier Peak South Route Day 1 - Climb Data
* : +/- 75 feet