Glacier Peak is the most remote of the Cascade volcanoes, by a pretty large margin. In fact, it’s among the most remote you can get in the lower 48. At its shortest route, it’s about 18 miles away on foot from the nearest road, with roughly 10,000 to 11,000 feet of gain.
I figured I’d try to run the volcano in a day. The standard route involves some mellow glacier travel on the Gerdine and Cool glaciers. But, I’d heard that by following Gerdine Ridge directly to the top of Disappointment Peak, I could accomplish it as a class 4 scramble. That would make soloing it a more reasonable outing.
On July 3rd, I pulled into the North Fork Sauk Creek trailhead. It was packed. It was the Fourth of July weekend after all. This trailhead also services numerous backpacking trails on the PCT and nearby trails as well.
I packed my bag — a 15L running pack which I outfitted with a water filter, ice axe, microspikes, and helmet; along with plenty of clothing and some first-aid stuff. I planned to round-trip it in 14 hours or less, so I only brought enough food to cover that. With a 36-mile day and 11,000 feet of gain, I needed to pack as light as possible. Then, I went to sleep in the back of my RAV4.
My alarm was set for 3 a.m. the next morning. I woke up, ate a quick breakfast, then started jogging. The first 4,000 feet of gain to White Pass was through the trees. The trail was a smooth dirt path, but many parts were overgrown. After trudging through these bushes and plants, morning dew and various bugs would cover me.
I breached treeline at White Pass a few hours later. From here, the rest of the way would be cross-country. There were several exposed snowfields to traverse through, but there was a nice bootpack through them all. The going was pretty easy, and I never had to put on microspikes through these sections.
During these traverses, I ran across a guy with his dog. He said that he was there to support a friend who was trying to FKT Glacier Peak, running it as well. A few moments later, this runner did indeed show up — at blazing speed. I tried to keep up for two minutes but stopped as my heart rate got past me. I spoke to his friend and turns out he’s a semi-famous Salomon-sponsored runner. He did get the FKT by a decent margin, clocking in at 6 hours and 41 minutes — incredible.
Soon after, I got my first view of Glacier Peak, rising from the clouds. My chosen route is the chossy ridge dead-center.
After the intermittent dirt and snow, I reached permanent snow in the basins below the volcano. There was a surprising amount of people I ran past, I never expected to see more than a handful. But, it is the Fourth of July after all, and where better to celebrate it than in one of the most remote parts of the lower 48?
I filtered water along the way, but when I got past the last liquid water source, I filled my hydration pack to the brim. Then, I left my bottle and filter tucked under some rocks. I had several thousand feet more gain to go, so I wanted to shed weight in any way possible.
Right where people traverse onto the glacier, I continued up the ridge. I scrambled up with care, making sure not to drop any rocks. The firing line of the ridge is onto the glacier. Several boulders and rocks were there, from natural rockfall, right on the climbing route.
The ridge was 3rd and 4th class, and it was a little loose and sketchy. That was to be expected, it’s a Cascade volcano after all — all of which have garbage rock.
With better route-finding, I could’ve avoided this, but I had to pull a few fifth-class moves mantling near the summit of Disappointment Peak. From here, 1,000 feet of moderately steep snow would bring me to the top of Glacier Peak.
My time on the ridge was atrocious, thanks to the loose rock and slow scrambling. The climbers on the glacier were faster with the well-worn bootpack they ascended. There was nary a crevasse to be seen on the glacier either, it was filled in well.
I started climbing up the ridge. I sipped water from my hydration pack, but I received nothing but air. Crap. My water was gone — I drank it all on the scramble.
At that moment, I decided to turn around rather than continue on the remaining gain. On the descent, I could eat the wet, saturated snow for hydration until I got to liquid water. But on the ascent, that wouldn’t be enough to sustain me. I didn’t want to risk dehydration, no matter how minor, when I had 18 miles to go back to my car.
As I descended, I ran past another group descending who asked why I turned around. I told them I ran out of water, and they had extra! Since they were descending, they graciously offered me a liter. Wow, did I get lucky.
I continued up, and the snow was pretty steep for trail runners and microspikes. I had to pull out and use my ice axe here. The runner who ran past me didn’t have one, which was pretty impressive. A fall here wouldn’t end well.
Finally, I reached the summit. It was more exposed than I expected. I snapped some hasty photos with my phone.
Here, at the top, I felt a dangerous twinge in my foot. I was recently dealing with Posterior Tibialis tendinitis. I thought I’d broken past it, but this was my longest day in a while. The 18 miles and 10,000 feet of gain to get here triggered the injury again. Shit. Descending would aggravate it even more than ascending, and I would be in for a painful descent.
I down-climbed the steep snow. With plenty of people on the glacier and a deep trench on a deep snowpack, I descended that way. I didn’t want to down-climb the chossy ridge, and the down-scrambling would aggravate my tendon even more.
I slowly jogged down the glacier, which wasn’t too aggravating since the snow was soft. I started to glissade when I reached the non-glacial snowfields. That knocked off a few hundred feet of descent.
I reached the rock outcropping where I left my water filter and bottle, and it wasn’t there! What the hell? I had clearly left it temporarily with rocks on top. It’s common to stash extra weight on mountain ascents to save energy. Some idiot must have taken it thinking it was trash, or did it out of malice as a thief. I’d prefer if it was theft since then there’d be a rational reason. But, it most likely was a donkey-brained idiot.
I continued back along the basin. This had some slight uphill, which was exhausting given I’d already covered 10,000 feet of gain. My tendon wasn’t happy, and I’d alternate jogging and walking. I’d stop every half-an-hour too and massage it. My pace was slower than I expected on the descent thanks to this.
I asked every group I passed along the way if they found a water filter, hoping to give them a piece of my mind. None of them had it. Tired of eating snow, I decided to go for the water. I filled my bladder at the cleanest pool I found, fresh melt from the glacier. The water was cool and tasted amazing. The minerals it flowed through had given it some great taste.
I left the snowfields, with several miles of traversing left before White Pass. With the pain, I was nearly limping now. I’d half-jog half-walk, and then stop every half-hour to massage and stretch the tendon. This repeated for several painful miles. There was some uphill traversing here as well, that added insult to injury. That would clock the gain for the day at 11,000 feet.
With my pace slowed by injury, I ran out of food a few miles before White Pass. I’d have to go 12 miles without food now, on a day where I’d already burned over 5,000 calories. I was also going slower on the descent than on the ascent.
Something that kept my spirits up were the constant marmots along the way. They were scouting, trying to steal food from climbers. They were very social as well. Someone with a dog showed up, and when a Marmot saw the dog, it screeched a warning to its friends. The other Marmots, in turn, screeched the same warning until the entire valley resounded with their voices. The dog was disinterested though. False alarm.
I reached White Pass, limping from the pain. Stupid tendinitis. I had bonked as well — the lack of calories caught up with me. If the tendinitis hadn’t returned I’d be eating at a buffet by now, but here I was at White Pass — 10 miles and 4,000 feet of descent to go.
I rested for a bit and spoke to some campers who tried to ski the mountain. They didn’t make it to Glacier Peak, unfortunately. The weight they carried tired them out too much on the approach, and they couldn’t do the rest of the gain. They’d be descending back to the car tomorrow.
I swallowed my pride, told them of my predicament, and asked if they had an extra granola bar or something. They offered me two gummy worms. Wasn’t much, but I was thankful for anything. I still remember the sweet and sour taste of that first gummy worm I ate — instantly filling me with energy. Those 50 calories or so would have to fuel me for the remaining 10 miles of descent.
Now, I was past jogging, and I half-hiked and half-hobbled these remaining miles. Having lost my filter, I had to drink from more dubious water sources. This water source would have passed through lots of dry ground, likely picking up some human waste along the way. If there are idiots stupid enough to take someone else’s water filter, there would be idiots leaving their waste near running water as well. But, I had no choice. If the water was bad I’d only get sick the next day. But if I didn’t drink, I wouldn’t be able to return at all.
The hours passed and night fell. The pain was incomprehensible. I couldn’t believe a tiny tendon could cause me so much misery. I was down to massaging it every 15 to 20 minutes for some relief, perpetually limping the remaining descent.
At 10 p.m., I finally reached the car. It had been a 19-hour day, with nine-and-a-half hours for the ascent, and the same for the descent. How absurd of a split is that?
Finally! I was done! But I was fatigued beyond measure and in no condition to drive anywhere, or even cook for that matter. I ate half a Clif bar, then slept in my car again.
The next morning, my foot was so stiff and swollen I could barely move it. That tendon was really out to get me. I cooked some ramen noodles as breakfast and then drove back. I don’t remember if I stopped to take a shower or not, but I went to a Chinese buffet in Burlington, Wash., and devoured seven plates of food. Even that wouldn’t cover the calories burned in a 19-hour, pain-filled day.
I thought the tendon would knock me out for the season. But, I ended up self-rehabilitating it enough to attempt a Rainier car-to-car two weeks later. So not all was lost, and the day is now my favorite type-two memory.