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.
19 hours alone in a tent, with 80% of its contents ripe with moisture, a dropping outside ambient temperature to around 19 degrees Fahrenheit, and a severe shortage of snacks led to a transformative inner journey. I aggressively boiled water in my baby nalgene to dry as much as I could, I huddled up in my sleeping bag, and daydreamed to a recited audio recording of the Tao Te Ching in its' entirety as I quieted every urge to consume my remaining food. To be shivering, to be alone, to be meticulously planning out the rationing of a few hundred calories over the next three days; I found contentment in the struggle. I meditated on having all that I needed to be present in that moment and maintain my warmth and humanity.
That night, I hardly slept. I woke myself up every hour or so involuntarily shivering, knowing that my only hope for sleep was to boil more water to hold close to my body and give myself the illusion of comfort. As I drifted in and out of sleep, the image of a large tree atop a mountain peak returned over and over again. I heard in the message the need for rooting down and letting go of the desire for outward and upward growth. I resonated with the steadiness of a tree with a solid root system, one as deep as the mountain itself. The number three also stumbled into my thoughts more than once as I considered the days ahead. My intuition was speaking volumes through me.
Thursday morning greeted us with more hammering winds and precipitation. The faint glow of the sun orb appeared teasingly behind a thick layer of fog and I wished for it to gain strength. We roped up and ventured southwest off of our camp saddle into the Suiattle Glacier Basin. As we descended, we found much needed shelter from the wind. The basin was entirely white and mostly featureless. The light danced across the snow surface in an array of monochromatic patterns and shapes. Clouds hovered and soared, sat heavy and were swept away. The slow descent felt like a continuation of my dream.
Low in the basin, we emerged beneath the cloud layer. The sun shone brightly, and we were finally able to set eyes on our surroundings for the first time in three days. We basked in the warmth and found an inviting classroom to practice crevasse rescue and talk about glacier navigation. The comfort we found amongst this cluster of iron encrusted orange, red, and brown rocks at the precipice of water falling into a river valley of lush green and stoney grey, was only slighted hintered by the undeniable presence of a large bear nearby -- given the large fresh prints encircling the area.
At the conclusion of our day, I misjudged our ascent back to camp. Wanting to take a different and more direct route, I led us to the threshold of a steep slope covered in hollowly bridged crevasses. This was not the way we were meant to go. But somehow I felt led, I felt this was meant to be, so that we could extend our return around a large knob obstructing our path to camp.
By doing this, we were able to see the first hour or so of our summit route and got to enjoy an additional mile of stunning snow plodding as the clouds and sky gave us a show.
As we began our descent to camp, I tested the team's ability to arrest a fall before letting them take off the rope and enjoy the dreamy descent down to the saddle.
This was the first time we could begin to fathom our position, the first time we could see further than the neighboring tent, the first time we could see mountains around us. I took the opportunity to try and air dry my gloves and pants and felt a glowing radiance as I cooked dinner to the gentle melodies of Mandolin Orange and a noticeable lack of wind noise.
Three. Three O'clock. That was the time we set out for the summit. To my surprise, for the first time all week, the skies were clear. Crystal clear. The stars and almost full-moon reflecting off the snow, illuminated the oceanic landscape of snowy ridgelines rippling the Earth's surface from here to the horizon.
With our first hour already mapped out, we did not miss a beat. We retraced our steps and gained the Southern ridge trail -- a gravel path that winds its way to approximately 8300' on the flank of Glacier Peak. Just as first light was beginning to appear, we took our first break and donned our crampons and the glacier rope.
Hour two of our journey, we began the long ascending traverse across the Glacier to gain the far saddle of Dissappointment peak. Looking to the east, the volcanic gendarmes, along the opposing ridgeline, were sillouetted in the foreground of a most impressive sunrise. Light and shadow, color and texture, painted the sky in a scene that cannot truly be captured except in being there. The alpen glow creeped across the expansive waves crests of cascades summits, landing on the ever-impressive, monolith that is Rainier. My eyes welled up, and salty tears traveled down my windburnt cheeks. The world is so beautiful. The universe works magic in mysterious ways. There is no doubt that this sunrise's impact on me was amplified by the full swing of the pendulum, from darkness to light, from extreme discomfort and loneliness to a moment of pure contentment and homecoming.
The final hour of our ascent presented the challenge of steep snow climbing, and looming fresh wind slabs that had undoubtedly been deposited during the recent storm. Given the nature of maritime snow, I deemed the risk manageable as we found a narrow path of avoidance that followed along an ice-feather encrusted rib and gained the summit crest. We stepped out of the shadows and into the light of this glorious new day atop a magnificent summit, remote, wild, and sacred.
The descent went smooth. As we retraced our steps, I noticed a fresh set of tracks leading from firm snow off into talus. I scanned for signs of movement or fur. The tracks had five toes with sharp claws, and a heel pad longer than a cat and much larger than any marmot I've ever seen. In an instant, I knew it had to be Wolverine.
We crossed paths with two other parties on our descent while they were on their way up. Made it back to camp. Packed up and set out for White Pass, just as it began to snow.
The long walk back went quicker this time. Low hanging clouds provided needed cool temperatures, and just enough visibility to avoid getting vertigo and maintain a sense of where we were headed. We crested the final uphill slope out of Foam Creek Basin and feasted our eyes on an antlike congoline of holiday weekend warriors swarming by the tens and twenties up the mud tracked bootpack stemming from White Pass. Our descent was fluid as we used the well trodden path to our speedy advantage and made it back to dirt and earth around 16:40. The group consensus was to continue to below treeline where we could camp sheltered from wind and elements, and have a more relaxing last day. The final four miles rubbed raw the soles of my feet as we wound down the steep switchbacks, towards the sound of the rushing river below.