MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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September 10, 2013

A Glacier Peak Climb Worth So Much More

To tackle a big and remote mountain like Glacier Peak takes a hefty dose of motivation and determination. The ascent takes five days, and none of them are easy. The trip runs a total of 36 miles round trip, and boasts a total elevation gain of over 8,000ft. For Dennis Matthews, at age 61, this would be a proud achievement. Over many years, Dennis had climbed the other four volcanoes in Washington, including Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker and Mt. St. Helens. Only Glacier Peak remained. While it may not be technically more difficult than Rainier or Mt. Baker, the trip is really best viewed as an expedition, and as such, not an easy one to repeat. For most working professionals like Dennis, getting five free days to climb a mountain is not easy. His level of commitment was thus high. 

Lyra Pierotti Photo

So, after months of training, running, and walking with a loaded-down pack, was he ready.  Climbers often search for meaning in their efforts and for Dennis, he found it in deciding to make this climb a fundraiser for Amara Parenting and Adoption Services, the Seattle-based organization that gave him his two wonderful sons, now grown and successful young adults. (Let’s up the commitment level another notch here!).  I met Dennis at Second Ascent in Seattle, and after an efficient gear check, we were on the road to the Glacier Peak wilderness. The roads got smaller and smaller, more and more rugged, until, after over two hours of driving, we found ourselves at the trailhead. After some final pack adjustments, we were off.

 

On the hike from White Pass to Glacier Gap. Lyra Pierotti Photo

Day one was a big day. The trail wanders along the North Fork of the Sauk River for 6 miles until shooting skyward 3,000ft to our first camp at White Pass. The Pacific Crest Trail overlaps here, and in early September, many PCT hikers are passing through on their way to Canada. Needless to say, their packs looked very different from ours.

Navigating the Cool Glacier. Lyra Pierotti Photo

After a tasty Pad Thai dinner, a good night’s sleep, and a hearty breakfast, we were ready for another big day to Glacier Gap. It’s less mileage and less elevation, but mostly off trail with ample boulder-hopping to keep our attention. We arrive at Glacier Gap in the late afternoon with enough time to relax, appreciate the views, eat an energy packed pasta dinner, and catch a few Zz’s before the next day's climb.

 

Starting our climb above Glacier Gap. Lyra Pierotti Photo

The weather forecast was not terribly inspiring, with thunderstorms predicted in the mountains. But we awoke to a starry sky, and left camp optimistic.  The climb was beautiful and varied. Steep scree led to steep snow, followed by a long stretch of dry trail before we stepped onto the glacier. With easy glacier walking we gained much ground, with one hiccup of blue ice midway, perfectly placed as if to keep our interest and add a fun challenge. At the col above Disappointment Peak (which we were not disappointed to leave behind for the true summit), we stashed our crampons and ice axes, and donned our hoods to hide from the blowing volcanic pumice as we made our final push to the summit.

 

Final push to the summit with loose sand and pumice underfoot. Lyra Pierotti Photo

At this point we dropped into first gear, and with little effort and a little more patience, there we were, at the summit! The sky held just enough clouds for beautiful photos, but not enough for a thunderstorm, so we relaxed for a good 20 minutes before starting the descent. Good weather graced us all the way back to base camp, where we had the entire Gap to ourselves on the long Labor Day weekend. But the mountains didn’t want us to leave without a full experience and around midnight, we awoke to flashes! No thunder; just sparks of electricity bouncing through the misty atmosphere around our tent. Just as I became fully coherent of the situation, the system appeared to move on, and I wondered if I had been dreaming.

 

Dennis on the summit of his final Washington volcano. Lyra Pierotti Photo

The next morning we awoke to cloudy skies and cooler temperatures, and descended into the clouds. Frankly, most of the hike down was in a pea-soup whiteout, but we trudged on. Arriving at White Pass at 1pm, Dennis opted to continue to Mackinaw Shelter, another 3,000ft and 3 miles downhill. Might as well make good use of the daylight!  By the time we arrived at the shoddy shelter, however, we were ready to get off our feet and give the packs a rest for the night. With only 5 miles to go on flat terrain, we figured we would end the trip on a positive note and complete the trip in the morning.

 

Views from the summit. Lyra Pierotti Photo

At about 4am that night, as Dennis described it, Zeus came marching up our valley, claps of thunder directly overhead and a beautiful display of lightning. Then an hour or so of torrential rain. We were glad to be lower down, in the trees. By the time my alarm sounded, the rain had stopped, and we enjoyed our last breakfast of oatmeal and bacon before hiking out.  Back in Granite Falls, we stopped for pizza and to check messages. All of Dennis’ friends, family, and donors had been able to follow our progress from our Spot device, so the congratulatory messages started beeping in! The weight and success of the experience started to settle in as Dennis began to process what he had just done.

 

All five of Washington’s volcanoes. Check.

Celebration and reunions for now.

For later, memories and photos.

And eventually, as inevitable as the sun rising in the east: new adventures, and new goals.

 

~ Mountain Madness Guide, Lyra Pierotti