Glacier Peak, Elevation 10,541ft
Sitkum Glacier: Grade III, 30 degree snow
September 12-13, 2001
The Upper Sitkum Glacier. My climb and descent are seen in green.
The world was coming to an end, or so it seemed after the recent terrorist events. I was planning on doing something Tuesday, the day of the attack, but I found myself back and forth between the TV and internet trying to figure out what was going on. It's been nearly a month and I'm still in disbelief.
Camping on the summit of Glacier Peak had been on my mind since I first skied it in 1999. I returned in 2000 to climb it but a late start prevented my brother and I from camping on top. Most people aren't too enthused about carrying overnight gear to the top of a 10,000ft peak so I decided to make a solo attempt in 2001. My plan was put on hold Tuesday while I grew tired of watching the news. I had no plan Wednesday but the weather looked good and the stock market remained closed so I ended up going for it.
I left Seattle around 10am on Wednesday morning. This was later than I had hoped but I compensated by avoiding the meeting times and gas and grocery stops that Iím used to. Besides, I didn't want to get caught in the morning commute. I stopped at the deli in Darrington for lunch and arrived at the White Chuck trailhead with some minor ketchup spills. It took less than 5 minutes to clean up and pack. I started hiking at 1pm.
The trail to Kennedy Hot Springs is one of my favorites. It's smooth and wide with a gradual mix of ups and downs. You can let your eyes drift from one spectacle to the next or you can let your mind daze. I did a little of both.
My first break came below the steep slope leading to Boulder Basin. It took me a little over 2 hours to go 7.5 miles. There was a group camped there on their way from Rainy Pass to Stevens. I talked to a fellow who stayed behind while his buddies climbed Glacier. He was the last person that I saw that day. I made it to Boulder Basin in 3 hours. The place was empty which is unusual. I continued up the scree figuring that there would be some clean water higher up. The majority of the water was nasty glacier melt but I managed to find some surface trickles that were relatively clean. I filled my 3 quart jug at the base of the lower glacier.
There was a faint track that I followed up the lower glacier. All of it was less than 30 degrees but some of it was exposed with a few small crevasses near the top. The afternoon sun had softened the snow allowing my tennis shoes to grip. I was relieved to reach the rock but the upper glacier looked sketchy.
Looking back from the top of the lower glacier.
I had climbed this route in tennis shoes the previous summer with my brother. We ended up camping on top of the lower glacier. There was considerably less snow this summer. Firm snow and ice along with many open crevasses made me question my decision not to bring boots and crampons let alone rope and protection. The upper glacier looked passable so I continued.
The water ice at the base of the upper glacier was a little intimidating but there were plenty of small cracks for footing and rocks for friction. It took some creative footwork but it was over before I knew it. The snow on the flatter section was soft enough that I didn't have to worry about slipping. There were many crevasses that I had to go over and around. I didn't notice this from below and it was discomforting being alone on a glacier in the heat of the day with a heavy pack. The only tracks I saw went right where I normally go left. I continued left towards the familiar ridge.
The ridge provided some much needed comfort. I knew I would make it to the summit before dark and I had plenty of energy to battle the scree. I followed a loose path that switchbacked to a traverse beneath the rocky summit. It wasn't long before I discovered my final obstacle -- a 50ft wide icy slope that I needed to traverse. The first half wasn't too bad but the second half was scary. I did my best to hop from one suncup to the next but they were few and far between. A couple frozen rocks saved me on the last few feet. Once across, more steep scree led to the top.
I stood on the summit at 7pm -- 6 hours from the trailhead plus or minus a few seconds. I was pleased with my pace except I wasted some time on the upper glacier. Boots and crampons could have saved me some time on the snow and ice. Tennis shoes saved me on the trail.
I noticed the group doing the Rainy to Stevens traverse had signed in the summit register. They left a map and I added my name.
Me on the summit. Two fires can be seen in the northeast distance.
I wandered around the summit for several minutes but I eventually got cold and decided to get dressed and set up my bivy. There are a few flat spots in the saddle just east of the summit. I kicked some dirt around behind a rock until I was content. There was a shelter but it was full of snow so I made my own. I melted some fresh snow to cook with but I could have easily survived on the 3 quarts that I carried from Boulder Basin. Regardless, the stove provided a warm meal and comforting backup.
There were endless photo opportunities and I did my best to take advantage of them. Any one of them would have made the trip worthwhile.
Sunset from the summit.
Making it worthwhile.
I didn't want to go to bed. The sunset was unlike any other and the stars were equally spectacular. I could spend an entire day up there and not get bored. Another thing that captured my attention was the lack of planes in the wake of the terrorist events. I felt out of touch even though I had been gone less than 12 hours. I knew the world was changing. What would it be like when I got back?
I slept pretty well that night. My 5 degree down bag was a little warm but it was better than old polarguard. The air felt exceptionally cold the next morning so I slept in. The sun hit me around 7am. I ate a cold breakfast and took some photos before packing up. I felt guilty for missing the sunrise.
Sunrise. Too late.
Summit bivy. I slept next to the rock beneath my sleeping bag.
Looking north from the summit. Eldorado is in the background on the left and Dome Peak is in the foreground on the right.
The snow was even firmer on the descent. I ended up traversing the summit slope a little lower where it was less steep. My ski poles were invaluable for chopping steps and the self arrest grips gave me the extra confidence I needed. There was a climber headed up the scree to the south. I gave him a wave as I made my way down the ridge. I stopped near the saddle to take a photo before dropping onto the upper glacier.
The upper glacier from the ridge.
My shoes were full of rock and sand so I stopped to empty them when I reached the upper glacier. Descending it was not as bad as I thought. My shoes gripped well on the dirty snow. Morning shade kept it firm so I had less to worry about in the way of snowbridges. I met another climber headed up as I descended the ice at the base of the upper glacier. He warned me that the lower glacier was too firm to travel without crampons. I agreed and decided to descend a rocky ridge to the south.
My variation went well until it came time to leave the rocky ridge. My first option turned out to be too steep and loose to consider. I climbed back and continued down the ridge. The second option was steep and loose but the rocks were large and settled quicker. The third option was to wait for the snow on the lower glacier to soften. I didn't want to wait so I stuck with the second option.
Descending the rocks was frightening. It felt like they hadn't been touched in centuries. Not even a goat would be dumb enough to pass through here. I made it to the base of the lower glacier ok but I wasted a lot of time trying to be careful on the rocks. It would have been much quicker and safer to descent the glacier with boots and crampons. I'll know better next time.
The rest of the descent was uneventful. I stopped in Boulder Basin for some food and water. There were lots of berries in the trees but none of them suited my taste. I stopped again at a waterfall below the hotsprings and did my best to catch a glimpse. It didn't look runable but I couldn't really tell without a rope. The rest of the White Chuck looked runable but I questioned whether it would be worth carrying your boat 5 miles to the put-in. I'll probably have the answer next year. As for climbing Glacier Peak in tennis shoes, it would be better to bring boots and crampons. Better yet, throw in your skis.