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Ascent of Glacier Peak on 2020-03-21

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, March 21, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Glacier Peak
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:10520 ft / 3206 m

Ascent Trip Report

Eric Gilbertson (solo)
March 20-22, 2020
48 miles, 11,000ft gain

Last weekend I’d attempted Glacier Peak via the standard North Fork Sauk route with Ryan and Westy. We’d parked about 6 miles from the north fork sauk trailhead at a road washout and skied in all the way up to near White Peak Saturday morning, but had to retreat when we encountered unstable windslab that was unavoidable on our route.

I remember looking down to our intended route in the valley on the north side of the White Peak – Red Peak ridge that we weren’t able to get too. If we could just get to that valley somehow, I thought, the terrain from there to the summit is mellow enough there is no avy danger.

I later looked through caltopo shaded relief maps and found a way to get Glacier Peak that completely avoids avy terrain. Thus only good weather is required, not both good weather and stable snow conditions. The route would essentially follow the white chuck river spiraling around to meet the standard Glacier Peak route below the ridge. It was long, about 48 miles round trip, but was mellow enough to avoid avy terrain.

This White Chuck River approach used to be the standard approach to Glacier Peak until a storm in 2003 badly damaged the trail. I’d read reports as recently as late 2014 that the road was still driveable to the trailhead, though the trail was in rough shape. I couldn’t find any more recent reports, though. I decided to bring my mountain bike in case the road was in decent condition.

Friday

Friday afternoon I left work and made it the turnoff for National Forest Road 23, just after the bridge across the White Chuck River.

Now I can report the last 5 miles of road to the White Chuck Trail #643 is officially undriveable, and has probably been so since shortly after that trip report I read from 2014. There are huge boulders at the turnoff preventing any vehicle from proceeding.

I quickly scarfed down some dinner, packed up, and started moving at 6pm. I optimistically pushed my mountain bike up the old road. There were many blowdowns, though interestingly somebody has been cutting out quite a few of them. After a quarter mile it was obvious the bike was more trouble than it was worth, so I ditched it and continued on foot in my trail runners.

After another quarter mile the snow appeared continuous enough that I hung the shoes on a tree and switched to skis. I skinned up a bit farther, but then the next mile or so of road was discontinuous snow with long sections to boot. Eventually it became continuous at about mile 2 and I made fast progress. Except for the occasional major blowdown I proceeded quickly, reaching the trailhead shortly after sunset.

I continued trying to follow the trail, and it was difficult in a massive mess of dozens of huge blowdowns fallen like matchsticks. Eventually I regained the trail and was impressed that it had been lightly maintained. Only fresh blowdowns and big blowdowns were across the trail. I’d assumed after reading Kyle Miller’s report from 2014 on nwhikers that I’d be better off just bushwhacking, but apparently it’s been improved since then.

The going was still slow with lots of transitions, discontinuous snow, and blowdowns, though. The trail officially disappeared at Pumice Creek, though, when it dropped down to the white chuck river. I tried to follow the river in the dark, but soon encountered a huge washout the looked impossible to cross. I remember Kyle Miller in April 2014 had ascended 500ft to a plateau, paralleled the plateau, then dropped back down to the river later. I started up to try this, but it was extremely steep and slow going.

It was 10:45pm by then and I downclimbed back to the river edge, then threw out my bivy sack next to the river and went to bed.

Saturday

I got up early and resigned to try my luck following the river. I’d remember from the sential hub playground daily satellite imagery from Friday the river bed looked very snowy and the flood plain very wide. So I hoped I could simply ski or walk along the edge and avoid the steep bushwhacking required to get away from the river.

I was moving by 4am and my plan turned out mostly as I had hoped. The river edge was generally wide, snowy, and flat. The snow was firm and icy enough in the morning that I just bare booted it carrying my skis. I had to go over many snowed-over fallen logs that would not have been easy in skis, but they were very easy in boots.

There were a half dozen spicy areas where the cliff bank had washed out and I had to do some scrambling to get around. It was difficult in the dark to find the best way, and at one point I ended up delicately downclimbing frozen mud using my whippet. By sunrise, though, I finally reached the Kennedy Hot Springs area. I couldn’t see any evidence of hot springs, but decided to drop my bivy gear there and go for the summit.

I needed to cross Kennedy Creek, though, and this time of year creek crossings can be challenging. The snow is deep enough on the sides it’s tricky to drop down, wade across, and climb up the other side, which is probably overhanging like a cornice. I unfortunately couldn’t find any snowbridges, but I did find one narrow section. I tossed my skis and backpack over, and ran and jumped it. That wouldn’t had worked in the daytime with soft snow, but with firm snow it held on both sides.

After ditching the overnight gear I started booting up the steep ridge at the Kennedy Creek White Chuck River confluence. It was slow going, but I reached a plateau on top and put on skis. I easily skinned a mile through flat, open old-growth forest until reaching the PCT around 8am. I briefly considered climbing Glacier Peak via the more direct Sitkum Glacier Route. It would be many hours faster, no doubt, but I was reluctant for several reasons. It had a little bit of avy terrain above treeline, and the whole point of me doing this long circuitous route was to avoid avy terrain. Also it was an unknown route with more uncertainty, whereas I had earlier climbed Glacier Peak in April 2016 via the north fork sauk route and I was planning to link up with that route today, and I knew that route worked. Finally, I recalled reading Greg Slayden’s report of the Sitkum Glacier route from 2003 and the route finding sounded nontrivial.

So I decided to continue as planned up the White Chuck Glacier route. Unfortunately the PCT was impossible to find, but navigation was still easy. I just had to go up the White Chuck River valley. I easily skinned through the open forest for a few hours until 10am when I crossed the river around 4,000ft. There I climbed steeply roughly following the PCT southbound until the terrain opened up at the edge of treeline below White Mountain.

Interestingly, I could actually see our skin tracks from last Saturday starting to descend the ridge. It must have not snowed at all in the intervening week. It was extremely sunny, warm, and not windy. It was a perfect day to be up in the alpine. I skinned east rising above the last tree, then continued following the drainage all the way to the White Chuck Glacier. I then ascended all the way to Glacier Gap and to the col just above the gap.

There I took a break to admire the view. I saw some wolverine tracks in the col and wondered what they’d be eating up here, but I later got an answer when I saw a ptarmigan walking around. I skied down from the col, then ascended the south ridge of Glacier Peak.

The snow was difficult rime ice, but it softened as I got higher. I eventually traversed right below Disappointment peak and rounded the corner onto the Cool Glacier. I remembered a few small crevasses here when I climbed Glacier in Sept 2018, but everything was smoothed over now in March.

The snow turned very icy, but I managed to skin all the way to the col between Disappointment Peak and Glacier Peak. From there it was all rime ice, so I ditched the skis and changed to crampons. I carefully cramponed up and reached the summit at 4:30pm.

I admired amazing views in all directions, and it wasn’t even very cold or windy. It looked very appealing to descend straight down the Sitkum Glacier, but it would be risky since I hadn’t gone up the route and it might be very icy. At the very least I would get a much longer and potentially funner ski descent retracing my route. Just to hammer home the point, right about then clouds started materializing below me on the Sitkum Glacier, obscuring the view. I certainly wouldn’t want to descend that unknown route in low visibility.

After sending a quick inreach message I cramponed back down to my skis. I was skiing down by 5pm and it was amazing. In early April 2016 I’d snowshoed Glacier Peak with a friend who was skiing, and I’d vowed to return with skis. They are definitely worth it.

I managed to get down the icy bits and make turns in the softer snow. This was one benefit to summiting in the late afternoon – that the snow would have softened up. I had to skin back up to the col above Glacier Gap, but then skied down for another hour. I managed to hit about every possible type of snow – rime ice, ice, sastrugi, packed powder, powder, slush, and breakable crust. By sunset I reached the river crossing at 4,000ft and transitioned back to skins for the flattish rolling terrain bushwhacking.

Luckily I was able to mostly follow my up tracks in the dark, and made it back to my bivy gear by 10:30pm. I’d had hopes of getting home that night, but couldn’t convince myself to pull an all-nighter to do it over challenging terrain. So I laid out my bivy gear, cooked up some ramen, and went to bed.

Sunday

I was woken up at 4:30am by a mouse chewing on my food sack that I was using as a pillow. Luckily it didn’t get the cheese, which was about the only food I had left. I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag to hang the food, so instead pounded my whippet into the snow and hung the food back from there.

I was officially up and moving by 7am. The snow was luckily still icy enough that I made the jump back across Kennedy Creek. I basically followed my same route out, bare booting on the icy snow at the river edge. This time the sketchy washouts were a bit easier when I could see them in the daylight. I skied and booted back to the car by 12:30pm and was soon back to Seattle.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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