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Glacier Peak: Wading Into the Whiteout

I have not been in a hurry to return to guiding, but my heart has felt called to spend long days in the mountains, teaching skills that I have procured over years of trials and tribulations. This summer is different. I am more deliberate in my accepting of trips. I have asked more questions, and been more careful to take my own needs into account.

I recently accepted to work a six day alpine mountaineering course in the Glacier Peak wilderness-- a place I have never been, but always have wanted to go. The route is long, consisting of many miles of off-trail travel, snow and glacier navigation, and the exposure of remoteness and high up places.



I met my team at 7am, with coffee in hand, and a mask over my face. No one could see my smile and I could not see theirs. We meticulously checked off the items on our packing list, ensuring we had the neccessary gear to spend 6 days in the remote backcountry of the North Cascades. We set off to the trailhead, and began our hike in.





The first five miles are relatively flat. Winding alongside the North Fork of the Sauk River through towering old growth-- Cedars and Douglas Firs. The forest floor teeming with life in the forms of ferns, moss, lichen, mushrooms, snakes, beetles, banana slugs, and more. The sun filtered through the leaves in a way that illuminated the forest below in corridors of light. The cool hush of the river alongside us provided a welcomed breeze.








Our first night was easy --we made camp near a small rapid, practiced knots and hitches, discussed topographic maps, white-out navigation, and leaving no trace.




I snuck away after saying goodnight and found a tucked away eddy pool alongside the raging North Fork of the Sauk, and took a naked plunge into the breathtakingly cold water. I sat by the river, donning my clothes, listening to the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching through my headphones, barely audible above the crashing whitewater and consistent birdsongs overhead.


It was that time of the night where there is a luminous golden glow dripping from the treetops and the tips of long bowing branches, saturating the air with the last drops of sunlight; the golden hour, as I call it. As I sat there watching the flow in the fading light, I relished in the cleansing renewal that river water brings and welcomed the night.


 

We awoke after a restful sleep, packed our bags, and began our upward climb, with our end goal being an alpine camp at 7250' ---approximately 10 miles away. The initial switchbacks through old growth gave way to a cloud forest of unfurling tentacle-like bracken ferns, juicy spruce tips, lupine, and old mans beard covering the entirety of branches and bark.




As we climbed, the landscape shifted yet again, to large steep slopes covered in vibrant yellow avalanche lillies, marmot tunnel systems, and sparse tree cover. The trail contoured around White Mountain, over gullies where snow cover is hollow and the sound of rushing water emanates from the dirty footprints indicating the way forwards. We wound our way in a gentle uphill climb, as the lichens, sky pilot, and alpine flowers brought the mountainside to life in contrast with monochromatic metamorphosed granite and bright white snowy patches scattered about. The full spectrum of color thrives mid-summer in the subalpine.





White Pass marked snowline for us, as we began a arduous traverse across slushy snowcovered slopes and partially melted out dirt-trail, with a dense cloud cover that only sporadically lifted to allow for some brief intuitive routefinding. We ascended a steep snowy incline to a narrow saddle. In cresting the ridge above Foam Creek basin, the surging Northwest wind greeted us with a moisture-laden, gusty hello. Peering over the other side, low visibility gave the impression that we were about to descend into nothing, into whiteness, into an abyss of disorienting sorts.

The map indicated a mellow basin below, but the wide eyes of my students hinted at doubt and unwillingness to quest into the unknown.



Luckily, the cloud lifted for a brief few seconds to comfort all our fears and give us the confidence to continue.

 

To wade into the whiteout, is to trust in your path.

To leave the comfort of the shore, and resist the urge to look back.

To travel with care and slow deliberance, we begin to see our way.

Moving forward into uncertainty, our perseverence cannot sway.

There is strength and grace in these strides that take us beyond the door,

we see it, even through the fog, that there is so much here to explore.

 



The approach was long and uncertain. I took the lead on navigating, kicking steps into a depthless, indifferentiable white world that strains the eyes. To gaze into the whiteness is to squint at something that refuses to be seen. At a certain point, you must abandon your relationship to sight and instead find connection to your innate sense of direction, your bootprints in the snow, and the breath that fills your lungs to carry you forward.




After roughly 5 miles in a white-out, off-trail, we made it to our intended camp: Glacier Gap. Upon arrival to this remote and desolate place, we were greeted with fresh flowing water, flat ground with the ruins of stacked-stone windwalls, and a blustery 40+ mile per hour Northwest headwind accompanied by graupel that stung any and all exposed skin. We made camp as quickly as we could. I must have not staked one corner of my tent well enough, because the instant I sat down to take off my boots inside, the whole thing collapsed on me. With numb hands and the feeling of sweat turning to ice on my body, I endured the monstrous gusts while I stacked large rocks to anchor my tent more robustly, and rebuilt the crumbling sections of the windwall surrounding my one person Hilleberg.


The night was cold. The wind carried on. Snow accumulated in inches on the northwest side of my tent fly. Any glimpse outside made my shoulders creep closer to my ears. My body was tense. My toes couldn't feel.


 

In the morning, we awoke to nearly the same weather, albeit wetter as the temperature had risen to just above freezing. We spent the hours from 8:00 to 15:00 practicing snow walking, ice axe, and self arrest skills in addition to a brief lesson on snow anchors. As an instructor, reading your audience is paramount, especially in an outdoor classroom. At the finale of my snow anchor lesson, everyone's goretex shells sagged with dampening wrinkles. When goretex is not enough, the mountain has spoken. Full saturation had been achieved, in both physical and mental capacities. By 15:00 hours, no one was managing well enough to build any anchor component that was even the slightest bit of supportable. It was clear then, that teaching anything else would have been a futile effort. I ended our day and told everyone to focus on self-care and drying things out for the days to come.