Glacier (North Sauk, 12h)

Glacier in the distance

Glacier in the distance


Despite its name, Glacier Peak has far less glacier than its volcanic neighbors Rainier and Baker. However, it is the Cascades’ only wilderness volcanic peak, buried in the center of the north Cascades. Massive flooding in 2003 destroyed the roads and trails to its west; after a bit of research, I found that the new standard route is via the North Sauk and Foam Creek trails, then cross-country to the peak’s south ridge, mostly avoiding glacier travel. This is a classic north Cascades trek, starting in an old-growth forest, then crossing alpine meadows and a long snow-plain before finally slogging up a glaciated volcanic choss-heap.

Entish forest

Entish forest

Since this is normally a multi-day endeavor, I got a suitably early start at 4:15 AM. Figuring that I would reach the peak around mid-day, I brought an axe but no crampons. Hiking quickly along the well-maintained North Sauk trail, I passed through a downright Entish forest, with huge trees over 6 feet in diameter, ferns, and moss growing on everything. Reaching the Mackinaw Shelter, I passed two men just waking up in camp, then left the river to climb several thousand feet up the north side of the valley to the PCT.
Tiger lily

Tiger lily

The climb starts through subalpine forest and avalanche paths, then emerges into flower-infested alpine meadows near the PCT between Red and White passes.
PCT junction

PCT junction

I have seen sections of the trail from near the North Cascades Highway to San Diego, and this seems like one of the best, traveling through wide-open meadows with spectacular peaks to either side.

Foam Creek junction

Foam Creek junction

I found more campers at White Pass, where I turned off onto the Foam Creek trail (signed, but not shown on the 7.5′ quad) and started crossing intermittent snow. Growing impatient, I left the trail to cross the ridge to its north at a low saddle, and finally saw my objective, still distressingly far away across barren snow-flats and the White Chuck glacier. Following the ridge farther east seemed tricky, so I dropped down onto the snow for a long march.

Endless snow traverse

Endless snow traverse

Partway across, I spotted an old boot-track made by someone wearing crampons on the flat, soft snow. This track eventually led to the saddle between Glacier and Ten-Peaks, a barren strip of dirt between the Suiattle and White Chuck glaciers decorated with a half-dozen wind-breaks. Crossing an intermediate ridge, I found a well-worn trail leading up the broad lower part of Glacier’s bare south ridge.

Glacier from above high camp

Glacier from above high camp

As the ridge narrows and steepens, it turns into volcanic hell, with jagged, loose rock on top of dirt that becomes ankle-deep tan muck when you add water. At this point, the route sensibly strays onto the edge of the Gerdine and Cool glaciers. Not sure exactly where to go, I took a line just east of “Disappointment Peak”, finding some steep snow and crappy 3rd class in crossing its east ridge.

From there, I crossed the top of the Cool glacier to reach the bare, windy, cold ridge between Disappointment and the summit. Here the trail reappears in truly wretched form, climbing volcanic sand near its angle of repose. I slogged on, warm enough in my t-shirt despite the wind, finally crossing a bit more snow to reach the triple summit, where a faint remnant of the caldera is visible to the northeast.

Upper peak from near Disappointment

Upper peak from near Disappointment

It was surprisingly cold when fully exposed to the wind without the double-baking effect of being on snow, so I spent only a few minutes admiring the view before huddling in a moderately sheltered spot to eat and rest while curled in a ball. Still, seeing everything from Baker at the northwest corner of the range to Stuart at the southeast had the salutary effect of making the range seem smaller, much like my backpacks up the center of the Sierra last fall.
Leavenworth fire blowing up

Leavenworth fire blowing up

I also saw no fewer than four wildfires blowing up on the east side of the range, from near Leavenworth to possibly near Winthrop.

I made my way down as quickly as possible, trying to escape wind. Rather than retrace my steps over Disappointment, I veered lower on the Cool Glacier, staying near the right-hand margin to avoid some crevasses, then made my jogging, sliding way down to the lower ridge trail. After an endless slog across the White Chuck, I followed the boot-pack to the normal ridge crossing, and picked up the Foam Creek trail east of where I had left it.

Sloan from return trail

Sloan from return trail

On the long hike/run back to the trailhead I passed a couple coming back from the peak, then several more parties on their way out, including one huge Mazamas group. All were loaded with ropes, pickets, boots, crampons, and the usual accouterments of Serious Mountaineering, dooming themselves to several days en route. Running the downhills and most of the flats on the return, I reached the car in almost exactly 12 hours. Having been somewhat intimidated by the Cascades’ mystique in the past, I am gaining the confidence to “trust the math,” as Brett would say, for these longer outings. Distance and elevation are no different here than in the Sierra, and traveling alone and light works just as well.

9 responses to “Glacier (North Sauk, 12h)

  1. congratulations! it is amazing you could finish the climbing in 12 hours. I am thinking about doing it myself but in 3-4 days. BTY, I heard it is a bit tricky to navigate the route, did you use a GPS to track your trip? if so, could you send me a gpx file for the trip?
    thanks for the help!

    • Thanks! I don’t own a GPS, so I can’t help you there, but the route is not that hard: North Sauk Trail to PCT, south to Foam Creek Trail, keep going to below saddle next to white peak, then head cross-country to the saddle and you’ll see Glacier. From there you can make better and worse choices, but no terrible ones, and there will probably be a boot-pack. You basically want to follow the obvious south ridge, going east onto the snow/glacier when the volcanic rock becomes too irritating.

  2. “JMT” on the way to Glacier Pk? Believe you mean “PCT”

  3. Good write up. A couple of us are gonna try a similar deal this weekend – fast-pack/slow-run. What footwear did you use? Or would have chosen based in the slop-meter? Was considering bringing kathoola microspikes. Thanks in advance.

    • I had my standard trail runners, which were just fine. My feet got wet, of course, but it was warm enough, and I just wrung my socks out when I got off the snow. I’d probably bring bread bags for my feet in colder weather, but still use the same shoes.

      I would bring the microspikes, because I would guess you have a decent chance of running into bare glacial ice this late in the season.

  4. Sean, 12 hrs on that long route is splendid. It’s a shame that the old standard route using the Sitkum Glacier from the White Chuck Trail is no longer an option. You could probably knock an hour or two off the FKT of 7:54 ( c2c). I did that on this, the most beautiful volcano in the Cascades, in the late 1990s.

    • I knew I recognized your name from somewhere. It’s great to hear from you here! I doubt I could knock an hour or two off your time: White Chuck still looks like 8k’ gain and a fair amount of distance, and I probably couldn’t go as crazy-light as I did on Adams. But I was definitely interested in such a long-standing FKT, and disappointed that the old approach is apparently gone for good.

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