After my friend Adam’s passing this year, I’ve pondered where I’d like my ashes to be spread when I pass on. It’s a hard question we avoid, most of us, our entire lives. We leave the choice to family and friends. We let our own deciding be swept under the days and years until it’s so dusty we forget about it entirely. But mountains clear your mind, they allow time to ponder and from that pondering I’ve decided Glacier Peak Wilderness to be among the final resting places for me (as I could never decide on just one). Not the peak itself. No, not that. Instead I wish to sink my roots in where the snow peels back in spring and meadows rise out of just snow-freed ground to encircle ridge-lines and peak tops, to dress them up in red, yellow and blue finery above green forests and raging whitewater torrents, there on the fringe between tree and glacier. Me, I want to be where life and death swing with the seasons in a dance as old as the mountains themselves.
So when I visit Glacier Peak Wilderness, I am visiting a special place to me. It’s why I drove a dusty gravel road in the middle of the night to the Sauk River Trailhead for a 3rd year in a row (2015: Painted Traverse and 2016: Sauk River to HWY 2). Two thousand seventeen’s plan was to Circumnavigate Glacier Peak on skis via a clockwise orbit from below Disappointment Peak and back, with summits in between and, most importantly, tagging 7 more glaciers, as well as one extinct glacier I felt compelled to see (as part of completing my Washington glacier ski project).
My victims for this adventure were Dan and Kim, two dedicated onetime 9 to 5ers whose on-the-road adventure has now stretched two years! Their SUV was parked next to my car, but really it’s not only their vehicle, but their home. One half for gear and the other half for sleeping – that is – when they are there. Perhaps calling their vehicle their home isn’t exactly right. Rather it’s a way station between multi-day mountain adventures, a place to store gear and to drive from place to place (or home to home).
Come morning the birds woke me, and before I spilled out of my car I recalled a book I recently read, a sci-fi Chinese classic by Liu Cixin called The Dark Forest. In it he writes about how an abundance of life in the Universe is similar to a dark forest. Life is everywhere, the galaxies are brimming with it! Those cognizant beings that know intelligent life is out there, stay quiet. Those that let themselves be heard, they are a threat or food. It’s kill or be killed and because of the vastness of space and the rate at which technology can evolve most civilizations will choose to destroy rather than cooperate.
Okay, it’s a dark take on life in the Universe and gnawing over such colossal ideas before 7 in the morning isn’t sleep inducing. But, the birds and their calls, it reminded me of humans who send their millions of signals into deep space. How neither are sure who is listening and what intentions they may have. A case in point, right then I felt a powerful urge to pick up and throw a rock at the birds, but I restrained those base urges, just barely.
Since it was obvious I couldn’t sleep, I left my car and soon met Dan and Kim for the first time. With an hour of getting to know one another and packing, we eventually shrugged on our packs and melted into the forest, outward from civilization, to the wilds…to the dark forest (ooooohhhhh).
The next seven days wouldn’t go as expected, not as the weatherman predicted, but nothing is ever bad about a pleasant walk through the woods along the Sauk River. My eyes pinball up, down and all around. The dinosauric trees are likely most to blame! Those giant monoliths of trunk and branch are a wonder. And the greenery, all those ferns, nettles, salmon berries, moss, devils club and more – it is a garden no man could make, but nature creates by default.
We reached White Pass in a rain storm after 9.4 miles and 3000 feet of climbing. It was far less progress than I’d hoped for, but the following day would be fantastic weather or so I’d thought.
Thought has a poor track record for making reality, so instead of sun, the next day was rain. To keep me company while tentbound, there was the grouse, Mr. Tom and the marmot, Mr. Fatty. Together we spent Saturday evening through Monday morning having tea and chatting. Fatty wasn’t much of a talker, but where he lacked, Mr. Tom slid in and kept me up well into the night. Tom had a one track mind, through, just hooted on and on about woman!
Day three, while the clouds didn’t part, the rain ceased and we were on the move again, taking up our gear and making our way to the White Chuck Glacier. From there, up and over a few small passes and we were on Glacier Peak, right and proper. We dived off clockwise from about 7800-ft and contoured around the mountain, past towers of crumbling volcanic rock, above valleys I’d stared from while on the Painted Traverse, eventually arriving to the Sitkum Glacier, a route I once did as a day trip the day before graduation (Sitkum Glacier)! Then onto the Scimitar Glacier, a spear of ice that carves summit through flank, nearly to the valley in tumbling ice that through the fog, looked most imposing. I’d skied the top of this glacier once, but wanted to visit it properly and this time I was contented. Of the 7 glaciers and one extinct glacier I hoped to visit, it was the first of the trip.
Throughout the day we went 11.4 miles and climbed 6590 feet. At a weather station, a remote spot (!) if there ever was any, we took a break to wait out clouds and fog, which licked and kissed the Kennedy Glacier. It gave me hope that Mr. Tom, the grouse, was doing the same with a gal by now. Go buddy! When a break came, we hustled down steep snow and skied up the Kennedy Glacier to an 8000-ft pass between Kennedy and Glacier Peaks.
Hope was high for morning sun and a day of skiing, but day four, to all our frustrations, was again ‘shit’. Rain peppered my tent all night, but if it was actual rain or merely fog so thick it generated it’s own rain, was indeterminate. Whatever the case, another day was spent catching up on sleep. I’ve now got a stock of extra hours good for at least a few months!
On day five morning sun swept my tent, but it wasn’t alone. Wind had joined like the friend no one liked. At my house we had the heat break down, then the hot water tank, then a few days ago, the well pump. It felt like that. If it wasn’t one thing it was another. But I was over it. There was no way I was sitting in the tent in wind and a whiteout all day, so I gathered up my gear for a day trip and set-out to visit an extinct glacier called the Milk Lake Glacier. Not long ago, it filled a pocket valley on a satellite ridge of Glacier Peak.
Since there was no one along, I didn’t stop for images and skied across the Vista glacier and down the Ptarmigan glacier to a pass, which was guarded by a crumbly cornice I managed to sidestep over with my skis, to heather and mud. I’m always surprised what snow can cling too! Above me, as I arrived, a Mountain Goat tottered up a ridge right at the skyline. Since my wide angle lens was on, and I’d miss him, I watched the ascent, happy to have company. Right then a marmot poked his head above a far-off sub-summit. It got me to thinking that while I imagine I’m mostly alone out there in the middle of nowhere, reality may be that I’m in the midst of a bustling animal metropolis!
After I climbed several hundred feet to a summit, I stared down into Milk Lake Cirque. Hopes of seeing something of a glacier were dashed. I knew it was gone, which is why it wasn’t on my list, but reality has teeth more real than words on paper. With that in mind, I scurried through cliffs and wound my way on skis to the edge of the lake. When I surmised it was safe, I skied onto the frozen surface and continued to a point my GPS had marked as the glacier. Where my track connected with that tiny dot, there was nothing but flat ice for 360 degrees around me.
I returned to camp hours later, in no hurry to seclude myself in the tent for a minute longer than I had too. Once I entered the fog, I decided to use the GPS to find my way to Kennedy Peak. It looked easy to climb, with a small pyramid of rock over the highest snow. Unfortunately, that rock was not ‘one’ rock at all, but thousands of rocks piled one atop another, big and small, to create only an appearance of a pyramid of rock. When I was 10 feet from the summit, I wasn’t pleased with my descent, which hadn’t a solitary solid hold, so before I found myself gripping air where a handhold used to be, I pulled the cord and retreated.
Day six was a winner! Sunshine. Hallelujah!
Our ski days were consumed by greedy weather Gods, so we continued our circumnavigation up and down the Kennedy, Ermine and Dusty Glaciers. From then on I reconnected to familiar ground on the Chocolate Glacier, whose throat was a mass of torn up rock and till so unstable that from our perch we couldn’t make out a river where a river is certain to be. At some recent point there must have been a glacier outburst here or recent glacier retreat more significant that I had guessed.
A climb of the Cool Glacier brought us to an 8500-ft pass where we dumped our overnight gear and continued our ascent to the summit of Glacier Peak, “Tying the knot,” as I liked to say. All along I had joked that we were “Team GP360!” I spun with my camera several times while on the summit just to be sure the memories of this grand view stuck with me, but most of all I’m a joker and my antics made the others laugh.
Growing shadows were chased from summit back to packs, a made dash of turns from the top of Disappointment Peak all the way back to our gear, which we quickly loaded into our packs. All along our smiles were as big as they had been since the cars and that was important to me, that Kim and Dan had a good run here in the Cascades and wouldn’t be let down by our fickle weather.
Night six was spent at a favorite camp of mine by the White chuck Glacier. After camp was set, I enjoyed the tail end of a sunset that wasn’t as grand as it could be. Clear, sunny evenings don’t always make for the grandest shows, but no wind or moon promised a secondary, galactic show to rival any and all the trip had given thus far, so I wrote in my journal until midnight before rising to capture camp, stars and galaxy – and to, of course, take in the night’s sky. There was a lot of time for stargazing while my camera clicked away, even time to once again ponder the “Dark Forest theory”, to hope that it wasn’t true because if it is, human curiosity will throw us headlong into trouble, no doubt and we’ll be just a blip in galactic history.
One glacier remained for me to visit and it was to be our exit day as well, so I planned a very early side trip to White River Glacier. With 4 hours of sleep, I was surprisingly awake. I’ve found that it’s easy to rise with the sun when it’s in your face, rather than behind walls.
I sped up the White chuck Glacier on bulletproof corn snow and arrived at a 7600-ft pass above the White River Glacier. Two arms of ice reached around a gut of rock, both ending in newly formed lakes. The surface snows were frozen in place, corrugated lines that were swallowed by shadows as they ran out of sight.
My skis rocketed to the accumulation zone of the White River glacier, coming to a stop like an ice skater. A big grin cleared my face like a plane from the runway. This was the very last glacier I had to visit on Glacier Peak and vicinity, making 20 in total. Of them all, the Honeycomb Glacier may be my favorite. That first view is to blame, a precarious perspective from jumbled rocks atop Tenpeak’s steep north couloir. There, alone, I had gazed at the glacier from between dangling feet.
Back up and over the pass and a quick ski to camp, and within half an hour Dan, Kim and I were packed. Slushy and deeply runneled snow led us to a pass just east of White Peak (the best crossing for skiers). Over that pass, a long downward traverse reacquainted us to White Pass, and our shoes. It was all walking now, back through the meadows and low forests, across streams and through thick, vibrant green foliage. Eventually our backs cried for mercy, but we pushed on all the way back to the cars with only one break at the Mackinaw Shelter.
It was well past mid-day when I parted ways with Dan and Kim, my eyes following their SUV in a cloud of dust around the corner, and gone. I stayed parked for sometime, relishing time in a place I wasn’t sure I’d be returning to, at least with skis, anytime soon. But I knew if those of my family reading this report outlive me, I’ll be back someday, fertilizer for flowers to blossom bright and beautiful. And from my perch I’ll enjoy a view of the great and powerful Dakobed. And if I’m lucky I’ll be left throughout the Cascades, each spot a viewpoint into these mountains I’ve dedicated so much of my life to. ~~~
Great job! Man those glaciers are changing before our eyes.