Glacier Peak – Colliding with the Wilderness
To climb Mt. Rainier, the largest mountain in the Cascades, be prepared to navigate trails, snowfields, some small rock fields and massive crevice scarred glaciers.
To reach Mt. Olympus, the largest mountain in the Olympics, you’ll have to walk in about 17 miles with a 50 lb pack on your back. Most of the trek there is on level ground.
To climb Glacier Peak, you’ll have to do both. And much of the approach hike is uphill.
Last week, a team of nine climbers and three superb guides from Alpine Ascents headed out on the Mountain Loop Highway to the most remote strato volcano in Washington – one covered with more glaciers than any other mountain in the continental United States, but so tucked in among the north-central Cascades, that it’s only visible from I-5 at the Highway 2 exit in Everett – even though it’s practically as high as Mt. Baker.
Glacier Peak is not in a National Forest or a National Park. It’s in a federally designated Wilderness Area. There are no ranger stations on it or near it, no rescue shacks, in fact, no climbing rangers or personnel at all that we could see. Once you hike up to White Pass (it intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail), and head east for the mountain, you are unlikely to encounter many people. We saw maybe a dozen, mostly from a distance, over three days from our camp at the base of the melting White Chuck Glacier.
When I say “remote”, I mean it literally. Glacier Peak Wilderness, at 570,000 acres, is 10 times larger than the city of Seattle. The vastness is astounding. Smaller peaks, spires and hills roll out in front of you looking south until crowned by Mt. Rainier. To the northwest lies Mts.Baker and Shuksan. Further to the west is the Pacific Ocean and Canada. Over to the East, well hidden beneath other peaks, Lake Chelan.
Glacier Peak offers the most complete mountaineering experience available in the Northwest. You will hike, backpack and eventually climb through trails, rocks, boulder fields, snowfields, soft soils and glaciers. It is not easy – our group covered about 38 total miles over parts of five days, and much of it with weight on our backs, but it was all the more rewarding for the effort required to make it.
And make it we did – all of us, thanks to some superb guiding assistance from our head guide Devin Bishop and his team from Alpine Ascents. First was his decision to have us hike a little further than initially planned to set up camp on Day 2, with an eye to having us attempt a sunset summit. It was a smart move, and it helped all of us summit by giving us extra time on summit day. Oh, what a view!
There is a special esprit de corps that drives the participants from the Climb to Fight Cancer, and it was present in climbers who battled illness, altitude nausea and exhaustion to make it to Glacier Peak’s 10,541 elevation. It strengthened a sense of camaraderie that develops from a shared experience marked by exertion and sacrifice. We ranged in age from mid-20s to early 60s, some urban, some suburban, some from the hills, some of us experienced climbers, some occasional alpinists, and one on her first ever climb. But we shared a personal connection to cancer, and deciding we needed to do something – anything – to help eradicate it in our lifetime. Progress is being made, but much needs to be done. So another peak will soon beckon.
We eagerly await the call.
~ By John Carlson
Photos by Michelle Miller