Adventure Travel in Washington State - Climbing Glacier Peak by Katie PaulsonYvon Chouinard once said,

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”

I heard it repeated on the film 180 Degrees South and it reminded me that many of my most enjoyable adventures had, in fact, been riddled with unexpected twists.  One that stood out was my trip up Glacier Peak in Washington’s North Cascades, my first summit.

I’ve wanted to climb real mountains since I was a preteen. I’ve scrambled up my fair share of craggy Cascade peaks, but had never stepped foot on a glacier or strapped on crampons before this summer.  In August, Peter and I decided to climb Glacier before I moved to Oregon.

Glacier Peak is the most remote of the Cascade volcanoes. Partially, because it is nestled deep into the crest of the Cascades and more so due to recent road washouts. From the North Fork Sauk access, it is roughly 20 miles to the camp at Glacier Gap. Her summit only stands at 10,541 feet, but she doesn’t give it up easily.

Late in August, we put 4 days aside for the climb. We planned to drive to the road closure late on a Sunday night, sleep there, and get an early start for our next 4 days of climbing. This is where the first thing went wrong.

Adventure Travel in Washington State - Climbing Glacier Peak by Katie Paulson

Sunday, I had finished my typical week of waitressing and headed home to pack for the trip. I sent Peter to get gas so he wouldn’t micro-manage my packing. Everything I needed was in the bag, boots laid out, checked and double checked. We set off and I promptly passed out in the car, exhausted from a long, busy weekend at the restaurant. I felt like I was getting sick.

“Great,” I thought, “This is going to be miserable.”

Climbing Glacier Peak, Washington StateI awoke near Darrington with the nauseating feeling that I had forgotten something important. I pushed the thought out of my mind because I knew I had double-checked everything. After stopping at a gas station for food – nothing in Darrington is open on a Sunday night – we continued down the dark, winding road. I always get a little freaked out on dark forest highways, every shadow seems menacing as we hurtle farther into the black abyss. Suddenly I realized something awful: I had forgotten my boots. They were laid out ready to go but as we packed up the car, I had left them behind. We got to the road’s end and confirmed my fears. I had brought along running shoes for the 7 miles of road and 6 more miles of flat trail we were to hike the first day, this would have to do. Peter assured me it would be fine, plenty of people have hiked and climbed mountains in light shoes, but this was my first and I was worried.

Mackinaw Cabin - Glacier Peak - Backpacking

Ice Bath while backpacking Glacier Peak in Washington state.

We set off early in the morning, moving quickly along the gravel road. I was happy to have the running shoes after watching Peter clunk around in heavy mountaineering boots. In about two hours we had reached the trailhead. The first few miles of the North Fork Sauk River trail are flat, but many areas are choked with undergrowth. No matter how careful I was, I walked out of every stand of bush with more itching nettle stings. In the early afternoon we made it to Mackinaw Shelter, a camping area named for an old trapper’s cabin with only a fraction of its walls still standing. We spent a lazy afternoon poking around the campsite. I took my usual river ice bath in the hopes that my legs would be fresh in the morning.

Backpacking on White Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Backpacking on White Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Backpacking on White Mountain, Glacier Peak Wilderness

The next day consisted of a couple thousand feet of elevation gain and substantial off trail travel. Wet ground cover, steep slopes and running shoes don’t equate to me remaining bipedal. I slipped, fell, and resorted to clawing my way up to the ridge on hands and knees. We scrambled to the top of White Mountain, which gave us a lovely view of the boot path we could (should?) have taken up into the basin. With a shrug, Peter led me down a sun-cupped snowfield and into the upper basin. After a few hundred feet I got the hang of walking on snow without crampons, then gliding. We made quick progress through the basin, picking our way past moraines and large puddles. By the late afternoon, we had finally reached Glacier Gap, our high camp.

Gerdine Glacier, Glacier Peak Wilderness

Sunset in the Cascades, Washington

We set up camp and made dinner as the sun began to set. Peter had carried two liters of wine for twenty miles so that we could enjoy it in the backcountry. We ate bacon and potatoes while sipping wine and watched the sunset. Before going to sleep, Peter schooled me on basic crevasse rescue. In the morning, we woke as the sun was rising and headed out for the Gerdine Glacier.

Gerdine Glacier Climbing, Glacier Peak Wilderness, WashingtonI managed to strap the crampons to my soggy running shoes and started figuring out how to walk in them. In the summer, there is a route where you can avoid almost all glacier travel, but we decided to rope up and explore the Cool Glacier route. Crossing the Gerdine, I practiced keeping proper rope tension like Peter had taught me. We came to one small crevasse and I had to pause – I had never stepped over a crevasse before, and although it was only as wide as a small stream, I choked. It took a deep breath and a countdown to get me over the unimposing crack; this would seem like child’s play in another 30 minutes.

Cool Glacier Crevasse, Glacier Peak WildernessCool Glacier Crack - Glacier Peak WIlderness

Moving cautiously, we picked our way around the cracks. Most of them were manageable and could be crossed or otherwise avoided. As we moved higher on the glacier, the ice became questionable.  More seracs, scary snow bridges and wider crevasses. After making it most of the way up, we encountered the largest crevasse I had ever seen (in the last hour). It was easily twenty feet across, endlessly deep and far too long to end run. A smaller crack spurred off from the big one; too wide to step over, but a few feet down there was a ledge that made it possible to get across. I had to climb down to the ledge and take a large step to the other side while swinging my axe into the ice for an anchor. I tried not to look down at the blue abyss as I crossed, but I couldn’t help a glance. This was far more terrifying than any rock climbing I have ever done.Crossing Cool Glacier, Glacier Peak Wilderness BackpackingWe crossed over a saddle on the ridge where crumbling stone towers loomed on either side. The Gerdine Glacier is small, placid; the Cool Glacier, on the other hand, is a graveyard of jumbled seracs at the ends of robust crevasses. I got a refresher from Peter about where to stand while he crossed and how to get myself across safely. I laughed at how scared I had been to step over the tiny hole earlier in the day.

Upon conquering the crevasse, we found ourselves on an island of ice. It was a dead end in the glacial maze and yet another unplanned step in our adventure. Without any means of making forward progress, we were forced to head back to the standard route. We wound our way between cracks, around seracs and over the ridge to the Gerdine. The following traverse was just an easy walk to the ridge that would lead us to the summit. Once we gained the ridge, the snow was gone and the ground was covered in ankle-deep gravel. Losing the crampons for a few minutes, we scrambled through the loose rubble and up the steep ridge towards the summit. The mountain is capped in a knee deep layer of snow that we trudged through step, after step, after step.

Climbing in Glacier Peak Wilderness
Glacier Peak Summit

View of Mount Rainier from Glacier Peak SummitFinally, there were no more steps to take and we were on the summit. I saw Baker standing alone to the north; Rainier, Adams and St. Helens clustered to the south, and the craggy teeth of the Olympic mountains cutting through the haze in the west. At that moment I stood higher than I ever had before.  It was exhilarating as the adrenaline surging through my body made my head buzz and my heart race.  After snapping some photos and a quick summit video we began our decent. Little did we know, our adventure was nowhere close to over.

Backpacking in Glacier Peak Wilderness

High Camp Dinner - Glacier Peak Wilderness BackpackingUpon returning to the high camp, we thought about moving down a ways to reduce the remaining milage. Feeling confident about walking 20 miles in a day, we decided to stay and relax in the sun with the last of our wine.  As dinner time neared, we took inventory of our remaining food. Besides the modest boil-in-bag dinner from Trader Joe’s, the supply was dismal: two instant oatmeals, two miso soups and four Gu packets . . . for two people . . . for twenty miles. This was more than a minor oversight. As the last rays of sunlight faded to a deep purple we ate our modest dinner. I was still hungry, but there was no food to spare. We decided an early start was best in light of our unfavorable calorie to milage ratio.

The next morning began with a sense of urgency. We quickly broke down camp and set off across the still frozen snow. For the first hour we moved silently and lifelessly not entirely awake. As the sun broke over the neighboring peaks the scene began to look more alive and less like a moonscape. By now wearing crampons on wet runners had worn a number of considerable blisters into my foot. We reached the end of the snow and I was able to gain some relief by removing them. The next three miles of trail dropped a good 2000 feet of elevation and I mentally prepared for the impending wreckage in my knees. I could walk uphill all day long, but as far as the decent goes, I would almost rather take a hammer to my kneecap.

Glacier Peak Backpacking: Adventure Travel

Once we reached the balmy valley of the Sauk River we had just over 13 miles remaining, mostly flat. We stopped to drink tea and miso soup, hoping to keep up the energy we still clung to. I know that it takes more than this for a person to starve, but a knot of hunger had been tightening in my stomach since the night before. The feeling was unsettling and exhausting. Not the kind of exhausting that pulls you into a deep sleep, but the kind that seems to fill your limbs with concrete while your brain stays painfully aware of the ground left to cover.

At this point if I stopped walking, my knees would swell and stiffen instantly. The numbness in my feet would fade and I could feel every blister. So we didn’t stop, just put one foot in front of the other. Soon the trail gave way to the gravel road; 7 miles to go. Along the sides pink strips were tied to the branches of trees, presumably left there by surveyors prepping for roadwork. I made a game of trying to spot the ribbons before Peter, he won. That was the longest 7 miles I’ve ever walked. With about a mile left, we began to jog, heavy packs bouncing awkwardly. As the car came into view we raced to it with our last reserves of energy. In seconds we destroyed the pile of granola bars that had foolishly been left behind. Wracked with delirium, we laughed. Laughed at the pile of wrappers, laughed at our feet that looked like roadkill, laughed at each other, hobbling around barely able to move. In a moment, the pain, fatigue and misery had evaporated.  As we drove to find what would be the best burger I have ever eaten, I said to Peter with a grin,

Now THAT, was an adventure.

6 Responses

  1. Jenn Livingstone

    wow, you’ve got some cajones to do that kind of hike/climb/crawl in running shoes!

    beautiful photos

  2. Al Klonders

    ahh, the good old leave the shoes at home trick. It’s one we have all done. Good on you for sticking it out


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