Glacier Peak In-a-day Attempt

Saturday was a flash flood that followed a week and a half of severe adventure drought. After spending all of last weekend in the library, Ethan asked me if I wanted to attempt to climb and ski Glacier Peak in a day with him and Richard Kresser the following weekend. Will Thomas, a friend of Richard’s, had attempted the route solo a week before only to turn around 2000′ below the summit. Will suggested an earlier start than his would likely put us at the top. I said yes, mostly out of blind ambition. Although I knew it was going to be a long day, at the time I didn’t consider the specifics of the suffering.

Suffering can be beautiful.

Ethan thought a midnight start “had a nice ring to it”, so we forewent sleep and found ourselves at the North Fork Sauk Trailhead when the clock struck 12. Twenty minutes later we were jogging down the trail by headlamp with packs and skis on our back. When Richard took off down the trail, I thought he was having a laugh, employing a short-lived tactic to wake the body up, but nope, he kept jogging. Ethan shuffled in behind Richard and I kept up as best I could. A glance left or right illuminated five-hundred-year-old cedars and firs towering over us in the darkness. I thought of my friends partying in Portland and was struck by the absurdity of running through an old growth forest at night with skis on my back.

Two hours of jogging flat trail and hiking up steep switchbacks brought us to a much-celebrated transition to skinning. What followed was a demoralizing attempt to route-find our way in the dark across a steep slope peppered with cliffs and trees to the saddle below White Mountain. After what seemed like hours of traversing blindly, gaining vertical only to lose it again, we eventually boot packed straight up the slope and topped out on the pass just as the first hint of day sparked the sky above Indian Head Peak.

From here we glimpsed our first view of Glacier Peak.  It was jaw dropping and daunting, as its goliath form seemed impossibly far away. We were invigorated by the coming sunrise and made our first turns down from the saddle in the driest snow I’d skied since an early-season day in Colorado. The pure joy of skiing powder amidst the growing dawn was a much needed to reprieve to the previous hours of struggle.

Our first view of Glacier Peak at dawn. So far to go.

As daylight took hold I found myself surrounded by a vast sea of peaks swathed in alpenglow. This was my first venture into the North Cascades and already it was turning into quite a memorable introduction. We skied to the bottom of the basin on a downward traverse and muddled with some murky avalanche hazard.  At the bottom of the basin we transitioned to skis to start the climb back up and out to the south flank of Glacier.

Ethan and Richard are once again greeted by Glacier Peak as they exit the basin’s shaded recesses

As we exited the basin via Glacier Gap, I looked back to gauge our progress. The thin and lonely line that was our skin track swooped across an expansive, rolling meadow above a frozen lake. We had already come so far. I looked ahead to the summit, still very far away. Then I looked down at my skis and put one foot in front of the other.

High winds and heavy legs made for slow going as we approached the summit via Gerdine Ridge, shown here.

When we reached the foot of Gerdine Ridge, the summit didn’t seem so impossibly distant anymore. We had come over 10 miles and maybe had two miles and 3000 ft of climbing left. Our route was straightforward. The only problem was we were all starting to feel worn down and were quickly approaching our somewhat-flexible turn around time of 10am.

After slogging for another hour against strong winds we grouped up and considered our options. We still had plenty of daylight and estimated the return trip would take five to six hours. We pushed on and traversed east from Gerdine Ridge below a band of cliffs to the Cool Glacier, making it to 9200′ before finally deciding it was in our best interests to turn around. A push to the summit seemed feasible, but we did not want to completely deplete our safety buffer of time and energy.

Smiles alight at 9200′ before we transition and begin the 15+ miles back to the car.

The snow up high was variable and wind affected. Breakable crust here, dense pillows there, and icy patches just below the ridge. The skiing wasn’t great, but it was such a relief to be making turns that we wore smiles on our faces (the views weren’t bad either). The best turns of the day came as we dropped down thru Glacier Gap over a steep, short rollover. High above an ocean of white and shadows we each painted the blank canvas with 20 steep turns.

Richard gets the goods below Glacier Gap
Richard gets the goods below Glacier Gap. Note Mt. Rainier in the upper left.
Our lines coming down Glacier Gap. From L to R Ethan, Me, Richard.

The sun baked us as we began a sleepy slog back across the meadow. Several transitions later we once again found ourselves in the bottom of the basin below White Mountain. Ethan broke trail and zig-zagged up a moderate ramp towards the saddle, while I delayed my pursuit and appreciated the silence around me. When I did follow, I found movement enjoyable once again. The feeling of my sore and heavy feet dissipated in the vast basin, and my focus became finely tuned to each step and every kick turn. The clarity was refreshing, and I felt a strong sense of thankfulness wash over me. At that moment there wasn’t anything else I would have rather been doing.

Ethan headed towards White Mountain
One last view of the day's objective. We didn't make it to the top but were still amazed by how much ground we covered.
One last view of the day’s objective. We didn’t make it to the top but were still amazed by how much ground we covered.

The descent from the saddle to the trail was prolonged and tense due to moderate snow instability. Roller balls had amassed in several steep chutes, and any serious weighting of my skis at an angle released small blocks (~1-2 sq. ft). We traversed high across the 40-45 degree slope that had given us much trouble in the early darkness and began picking our way down one at a time from one island of safety to the next.

Richard led the way and was able to scratch out the safest route possible given the circumstances. At one point I watched in silent horror as Ethan started to made a kick turn only to have a small tree trip him up and send him sliding fast. A moment later he arrested himself and exclaimed “that’s why we carry whippets!” Indeed.

At the bottom we all let out a long sigh of relief. Such tense route-finding had required complete awareness, and at hour 14 it took a toll to summon such effort. Our feet thanked us when we swapped ski boots for running shoes, and before I knew it Ethan and Richard were cruising down the trail with skis on their backs and flames under their feet. My knees weren’t terribly excited about trying to keep up with them, so I took my time down the switch backs to the valley floor where the speedgoats were waiting.

Richard took off once again, and Ethan and I followed in hot pursuit. My body had warmed up to the concept of running, and amazingly we ran nearly the entire 5 miles back to the car. It certainly did not feel good, but it became bearable when I finally convinced myself I wasn’t doing any real damage to my body.

With spears (ski poles) in hand, we felt like two hunters trotting silently through the forest at the end of a long hunt. We were somewhat delirious, as Ethan mistook boulders in the river for cars in the parking lot, and I kept thinking I was hearing voices. I recognized the final 200m of the trail by its flat and windy nature. Ethan was already at a full run, whooping loudly. I summoned what I had left and took after him. The parking lot came into view and Richard welcomed us: “You did it! You don’t have to move anymore!” Packs off, light beer in hand, potato chips, happiness, disbelief.

Despite not tagging the summit, this was a personal-record-breaking adventure for me (previous longest day being the 4 passes loop in the Maroon Bells, CO) and one I will not soon forget. In total we were moving almost continuously for 17 hours, covering over 30 miles and nearly 12k vertical ft. It expanded my idea of what is humanly possible, and more specifically, what I’m capable of.  I’m thankful to have friends that invite me along on adventures such as this. People like Ethan and Richard inspire me to keep testing my limits. Without friends like these, my success in the mountains would certainly be limited. After all, I wouldn’t have been running with skis on my back if I’d been alone.

In the car we blasted T. Swift and Kanye until we pulled up to The Burger Barn in Darrington. We had been hoping for beer, but their blackberry milkshake was hands down the best I’ve ever had.

Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingRunningSkiing


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