It all started with a forecast. If predicted correctly, we would get three days of sunshine and a shot at summiting and riding Glacier Peak. Unlike other Cascade volcanoes, Glacier is surrounded by some of the most rugged and remote peaks in the Lower 48 and is by far my favorite peak. I had been to this area two times before, once three years ago on a quest to climb the five Washington volcanoes and another time via the Dakobeds, which was a 60-mile seven-day traverse. This time, we would go in via Thunder Basin, a route pioneered by Ryan and Monica years earlier.
We heard the snow level was low, but we weren’t expecting snow at 2,000 feet and stopping our car miles from the White River trailhead. It was late afternoon, and we decided that we would skin for the remainder of the day in hopes of shaving off a few miles for the upcoming days. We crawled over blown-down trees and across numerous avalanche paths before making camp at the trailhead three miles in, a place to which we were able to drive two years ago.
The next morning dawned with partly cloudy skies as we packed our bags and got ready to push 14 miles and 4,000 feet to the Honeycomb Glacier, which is perfectly situated at the base of Glacier Peak.
It took minutes before we lost the trail under multiple feet of snow following the White River Valley. There were no bridges on the numerous creeks, requiring downed trees for us to climb above the torrents of water. Six miles into the trek, we crossed the southern base of Clark Peak (the gateway to the Dakobeds), which was recovering from a mid-winter battle that left huge avalanche scars half a mile wide and more than 30 feet tall. “Impressive” was an understatement.
By the early afternoon, we made it to Thunder Creek, raging water where a trail-hiking bridge lay broken with only half of it remaining. We used rocks, careful not to fall into the waist-deep current, before climbing onto the bridge and crawling delicately across it. That afternoon, we climbed up Lightning Creek, an area littered in massive rock bands and waterfalls and the end of the Dakobeds. Normally, there was a hiking trail, but at this time it was buried under at least 6 feet of snow.
We skinned up the upper slopes of Lightning Basin as the sun set around us, the alpenglow illuminating peaks like Sauls and Rainier to the south. We wondered if we would make it to camp before dark as we pushed up the open slopes, and we arrived at our low pass literally minutes before dark.
That night, we spent hours eating food and melting water in preparation for a long summit day with Glacier Peak four miles directly north of us.
We woke up to the sunrise gleaming on the Honeycomb Glacier, and after an hour of packing and hydrating, we were off for the summit of Glacier Peak. A long sidehill of the Suiattle Glacier took us up to the Cool Glacier. It had been years since I climbed this route, and as the surrounded peaks came out I was blown away at how familiar I had become with the Cascades. Looking every direction, I would notice peaks that I had skied in the past two years. The puzzle of our mountains was coming together.
It’s amazing how your perspective changes over the years: What you found to be technical years prior is now just an easy walk up. That was the case as we summited Glacier Peak and quickly celebrated our achievement, keeping an eye on some incoming clouds from the east. Our plan/goal for the trip was to ride the Chocolate Glacier via a steep headwall. This slope is incredibly aesthetic and as isolated as it comes in the Cascades.
Standing above the headwall, we found a few inches of powder on top of breakable crust dropping onto the 50-degree slopes. From our view, all we could see was a blind rollover and a bergshrund over a thousand feet below. Our hearts pumped with adrenaline as we descended the upper slopes, losing 15 feet with every turn. Once we got lower on the slopes, we found a bridge over the shrund and soon we were on the low-angled terminus of the Chocolate Glacier. We were able to ride all the way down to the Suiattle River, 6,000 feet below.
That afternoon, we followed the Suiattle River back up to its source, the Suiattle Glacier, and skinned around the mellow contours, making our way back to camp just before sunset. That night, we hung out for a few hours before heading to bed.
We had pulled off the summit but the journey was nowhere near being over with. Our deproach would be 14 miles during the hottest day of the season so far. Other than a 4,000-foot descent, it was all flat. We carefully followed our faint track from a few days earlier.
The sun blazed, and our feet ached skinning with only two breaks along the way—one at Thunder Creek and one at Boulder Creek. Both were more rivers than creeks. What took 12 hours to climb, took 9 hours to get out of just as clouds came in. We made it back to the car just as the weather deteriorated—a close call for a perfect trip of three days and almost 50 miles. We had taken advantage of the weather window, were stoked at our achievement, and ready to get home.
One broken-down car and a 4-hour car tow got us back to Jason’s house at the late hour of 1 a.m., but we didn’t care. We had pulled of what many thought was impossible. What a way to spend my birthday.
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