Glacier Peak was to be our final volcano in Washington – there are five of them: Baker, Adams, Rainier and Helens (climbed in that order) and Glacier would be our last. It would also be Kyle’s and my first peak as a married couple, which is an important milestone when you’re something of an addicted-to-adventure couple. We would be climbing the peak with our intrepid and dedicated friends, Sarah and Carl. Carl, Kyle and our friend Phil had attempted the peak a couple of summers before but had been turned around thanks to the low snow pack. Sarah and I were secretly gleeful because it meant they would have to return with us. And so we found ourselves at the trailhead sleeping in the car, looking forward to the next three days of beautiful landscapes and long miles.
To be quite honest with you the jury is still out on the exact mileage to and from Glacier Peak. Thirty four hard miles to the summit and back is often quoted with a mild 10,000ft of elevation gain. But man did it feel longer than ten miles to base camp. We started early up the trail, the first couple of miles are fairly flat to the Mackinaw Shelter at the base of the switchbacks. Then comes a steep zig zag up to the high alpine. We cruised along, trying not to let the smoke from Canadian forest fires that has been plaguing Washington for the past week burn our nostrils and our lungs as we gulped down thick smoggy air. Our expansive views were greatly hindered but that didn’t stop us from exclaiming over every tiny wild flower and gasping at the incredible slopes that our trail hugged.
Eventually the trail traverses up to the PCT, meeting with it for a short distance to White Pass, one of Kyle’s and my favorite spots during our thruhike. We stopped for a nostalgic second before continuing along our new path and leaving our old one behind. From there the trail to Glacier traverses underneath White Mountain, dipping in and out of wildflower covered slopes and hopping over ice cold creeks that cascade down from snow patches. At one point a fist sized dirt clod seemed to roll along with Kyle for a couple of feet more than happenstance would have had it. We all laughed hard at the resemblance between the dirt clod and Kyle’s beard – perhaps it had recognized its next of kin and decided to join the hike! Our mockery stopped the dirt clod mid roll and we left it sulking in the trail. It is important to embrace seemingly small moments – they are the seeds of monumental inside jokes.
At the end of the traverse we cut up to a little pass. When the boys had walked through here two summers ago someone had spelled out SEX in rocks on the ground at this spot. Since this pass didn’t have a name it was, of course, now Sex Pass. Names are, after all, necessary to reference things. This was also our first view of Glacier Peak and it looked so far away. After as much walking and climbing and hiking as we had already done it still seemed impossibly far away.
From Sex Pass there was dusty steep downhill, only to go right back up to another little pass on the other side (see, we never named this second pass and it caused endless referencing problems). This was a grassy little spot with a stiff breeze and a beautiful view of a basin down below us. The basin was filled with giant boulders and lakes, snow patches and little islands of pine trees. There was enough snow that we could still see the clear boot pack heading over to yet ANOTHER pass. Snow hiking was a welcome respite to the hard, rocky trail though so we set off. At the top of the next pass we could finally see the final pass that would lead us to Glacier Gap where people usually set up their high camp. Although first we would have to go down and then back up and then across another basin.
Luckily we ran into a group of climbers who had just gotten back from the summit. They had started at 4:45am that morning and had summited and returned in a solid eight hours. We had been planning to start our summit bid at 2:00am so a little simple math told us there was no need to head all the way to Glacier Gap. We didn’t need a lot more convincing, we found a nice little flat spot amongst the boulders and quicksand and set up tents. We were all in the mood for a nap.
With the tent doors open and the breeze blowing in we dozed but I couldn’t sleep very well. The mountain was staring me in the face and not knowing much about the way up it all I could do was imagine all the things we might encounter. What was making me nervous was my footwear choice. I strongly believe in pushing boundaries, and my boundary for this trip was trying a summit in my trail runners. With crampons of course. Carl highly recommended it and I could see the appeal of light and fast on a summer climb like this one, with such a long approach. So Kyle and I had said okay and left our mountaineering boots at home. He was in approach shoes and I in my trusty Altras, which I had tested on Sahale. But would they be okay on something icier? On something steeper? Would the crampons twist right off and go shooting into a crevasse at the slightest slope? I got out of the tent to test them to ease my mind, tied them as tight as they would go and gave them a nod of approval. It was my only option at that point.
We had a very eventful dinner where Sarah and Carl enjoyed their dehydrated meals and Kyle and I swore like sailors about bringing an untested dinner into the backcountry. Many terrible and contorted faces later we had managed to finish most of our dinner and were ready for bed at the late hour of 7:00pm. Alarms set for 2:00am we crawled into our tents, the light breeze creating the perfect temperature for sleeping. My earplugs went in and I slept better than I had ever slept on a mountain. Of course we weren’t actually on the mountain yet, still a long ways away, something that would become especially clear to us the next day.