Friday, April 23, 2010

Four days in the Glacier Peak Wilderness

Glacier Peak is the wilderness volcano. It lies 10 miles as the crow flies from any road, and ever further as the homo sapien walks. It doesn't dominate the skyline like Rainier does in Auburn, or Baker does from Burlington, but on a clear day on the bridges in Seattle, look east and it'll be there gleaming white. It occupies a lofty piece of sky from Cascade Pass, Buck Creek Pass, the Alpine Lakes: some of my favorite places in the cascades.

A late start from Seattle Friday afternoon dashed our hopes of getting beyond the Mackinaw shelter that night. Views behind us to Sloan distracted us from the hard work of carrying skis and boots and winter gear along the dry trail. Once we got to the shelter, we stayed up late attempting to keep the campfire burning, mistakenly believing the next day would be an easy one.

Reaching continuous snow the following morning was cause for celebration. The late winter sun warmed us as we changed into boots and crampons. The sun was also rapidly warming the south-facing slope we need to climb, we soon realized, as we occasionally sunk through the 190-pound crust and resorted to the time-tested "alpine wallow" to climb out of tree wells.

We finally made it to a bench, changed to skins and nervously eyed the headwall above. After much debate, we skinned east across the bench, including one sizeable pile of fresh-looking avy debris and aimed for a steep, treed rib that offered some protection before it petered to steep, open slopes until the angle mellowed out towards the top.

Meandering along a ridge towards White Mountain, we were not quite sure how we were going to enter the White Chuck drainage, since the north side of the ridge was steep and corniced, until a promisingly-looking gap in the cornice appeared, leading down into the White Chuck basin and a series of bowls and benches. Night quickly fell as we made camp in a stand of trees.

The next morning we left after daybreak, but long before the sun had climbed over the ridge to warm us. We followed drainages up and across a glacial plateau, then crossed a broad col before finally arriving at the foot of Glacier, several hours later. The summit was still a humbling-distance away. We followed a wandering ridge a ways, then dropped onto the Gerdine Glacier and made a rising traverse to the east. We reached the Gerdine-Cool Col as the sun was diving back below the ridge, left with neither time nor energy to go any higher. To the south lay Daniels, Hinman, Overcoat and Chimney and eventually Rainier. To the west, the Olympics poked through. To the southeast, the Dakobed, cloaked in white poked up craggily. We skied variable snow: from soft sastrugified windpack to shallow powder to gently-breakable crust, then reversed the long, rolling traverse back to camp.

Monday morning, we struck camp and skinned back south towards the notch in White Mountain's corniced ridge, arriving before noon to slightly-undercooked corn. We made a few turns here and there and mainly traversed west on the steep (45 degrees in places) slope on the tasty corn snow. Below a couple hundred vertical feet of truly-atrocious breakable crust transitioned to stable, summertime corn, which we skied through increasingly-dense slide alder to 3300 feet, where we encountered the snow-covered trail.

Glacier was now hidden behind the ridge. But I could feel it looming invisible, impassive, above me as I shouldered my skis and hiked out.

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