Two years ago, I made a decision to hang up my guiding spikes, ice axe (there comes a point where it doesn't make sense to keep putting your head in the lions mouth) and technical climbing gear. I've made a couple of exceptions, for friends and family, but I'm content to not guide glaciers or technical terrain any more.
This summer, a team I have been involved with for years - all experienced climbers - invited me to join their team on a route I'd never done and that they had been turned back on during their previous attempt. Glacier Peak is tucked way back in the Cascades, just east of the Pacific Crest Trail. I'd climbed a Northern route called Frostbite Ridge, twice, about ten years ago. That route is fairly inaccessible now due to floods and landslides. Our route was the southern one. After the hottest summer on record, we expected that it might not work out to go all the way to the top, but that was OK with everyone and off we went.
Day one was a 9 mile walk through a 700 year old cedar forest, with a 3000 foot climb up to White Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail. I want to walk the PCT from Canada to Oregon, so after we camped, I spent half of the night dreaming about it - and the person I want to do it with. White Pass is a beautiful spot.
I knew the next day had surprises. There is no trail marked on the map and after a couple of miles, there is no trail at all. We had only six miles to cover but part of that was getting over a steep pass with no clear vision of where and how. It was a hard day but one I enjoyed thoroughly. I got lazy in my guiding career, at the end just doing Mt Rainier over and over again. This was the first time in a couple of years I'd been forced to dig deep just to figure out what to do and where to go. I asked everyone to keep harness and crampons accessible as we had to cross a small glacier - the White Chuck Glacier - however when we arrived at the Glacier, it wasn't there - true story. I was flummoxed and thought we might be lost...
I took bearings by triangulating off surrounding peaks and yes, we were, according to the map, standing at the edge of the glacier. I'm an intuitive guy, but I know better than to use intuition in navigation. It's too easy to want to 'think' that we know better, but data always rules in navigation, it's math and geometry. So checking the map data again, I saw that it was only 15 years old and then it started to dawn on me that the Glacier had melted out almost completely, leaving only a small patch of ice upslope and a chaotic boulderfield in front of us. We still had two miles and a thousand feet of upwards travel. Ughh.
After an hour and a half we had not traveled half a mile, but we had crossed countless streams, dodged boulders and gotten very tired. It's stressful, too on loose moraine as there can be small mudslides, with boulders and quicksand-like qualities underfoot - not to mention fast flowing water.
We came into the valley where we needed to ascend and with the sun already descending over the cliffs to our west, we decided to stop short of our objective and set up camp. We still had 1000 feet to climb, but with heavy packs I figured it would take well over two hours. If we got rested, that two or three hard hours in the morning (with light summit packs) would be an hours worth of easier hiking... if we could find a way. I was not keen on navigating that terrain in the dark, but it made sense to stop and recuperate.
In many ways, the uncertainty is soothing. We are powerless over tomorrow and what the mountain will bring. We can only do what we can do. That said, I fell asleep with excitement about what tomorrow would bring. I felt that if we took our time and kept a steady momentum, that we'd do fine.
We left at 4 a.m. In darkness and through the chaos of the boulderfield, we eased our way up to the camp where we would have slept and just as the sun was rising, we had our very first glimpse of Glacier Peak - the summit about 4 miles away and 3,000 feet above us. I looked ahead onto the south glaciers and saw a perfect line that we could follow and I relaxed for the first time since our White Pass camp.
We got out the ropes, axes, spikes and harnesses and up we went, reaching the summit just before noon.
On a personal note. This was the first time I had climbed on a Glacier in over a year. I have also been doing therapy for PTSD and alcohol addiction during this time. One of the 'trigger's for anxiety associated with both of these challenges had been tying into the business-end of a rope and crossing glaciers, another was open spaces and another was steep terrain. In a personal way I was facing all of these things at once. It's a marker of progress for me, that I climbed up and down the mountain feeling complete relaxation, a sense of freedom I don't think I've felt ever on mountains. Although nothing had changed on the mountain, I felt a change inside. Rather than feel powerless over my anxiety, I felt as though I was in the center of my power and nothing could pull me from that spot. I may write more about this and for friends and clients who might be reading this, I wanted to share that sense of joy and calmness. It reiterates to me just how powerful nature is at helping us heal. A spring and summer immersed in the forests of Columbia Gorge has made a difference in my life which I find hard to comprehend.
We made in back just fine. We camped near Red Pass and then we enjoyed a torrential rainstorm - the first rain in over a month - as we hiked back on the PCT and our approach trail. The hike through the old growth forest was lovely and I found myself not wanting to leave.
Glacier Peak Wilderness is a beautiful place. It feels as remote as any place I might ever have been. It's a wee bit tough to get to, but worth the effort and it offers something for everyone. I look forward to hiking through it again.