Mele and I wake up in the van at 5:30 am. It’s chilly and damp and I didn’t sleep well – not normal for me. Usually I sleep great in the van on my comfy little futon mattress. Last night our exodus from the Seattle metro area went as good as one could expect. I caught the 4:30PM ferry from Whidbey Island and met up with Mele, my hiking partner, at 5:30PM in the Safeway parking lot in Everett. We said our goodbyes to Jason, Mele’s husband and my former coworker. She mentions something to him about hiking a glacier, and we scoot off.
It was a long and bumpy ride to the trailhead. The last 10 miles was especially rough. I actually got a charlie horse in my driving foot from so much breaking. Our trusty 2004 yellow Astro van, affectionately named Doug, thankfully got us there in one piece. I make a mental note to ask Jon about car things when I get back. Shocks? Struts? Other things that may rattle apart when you drive over protruding rocks for 10 miles?
While the road quality is questionable, the scenery is not. Slowly but surely, we make our way up. Away from cell service and traffic, up into the mountains. We pass quaint campsites every 5 miles or so, each more rustic and beautiful than the one before. This road is a bumpy, dusty gem, I think to myself.
Eventually I get tired of dodging rocks with the van, and we decide on a car camping spot right below the final turnoff to our trailhead. We’ll camp here tonight and complete the final 3 mile drive to the trailhead in the morning. My mind and body are exhausted from a week of work, packing, planning, coordinating, fretting, and driving. Note to self: worry less about…everything?
The Glacier Peak Wilderness
Our 37 mile loop hike will take place in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington State. A vast and remote stretch of wilderness located in the northern Cascade mountains, with Glacier Peak as its center jewel.
In this protected wilderness area you will find countless U-shaped river valleys carved by ancient glaciers. It has more active glaciers than any place in the lower 48 states. As a result, there always seems to be a constant sound of trickling water from above, where permanent snow fields and glaciers hydrate creeks and alpine lakes. Dense, wet forests with towering fir, spruce and hemlock trees shade the forest floor. Meadows blanket most ridges, where every inch is stuffed with wild flowers, salmon berry and huckleberry bushes. Towering above you are rugged mountains, with Sierra-like rock formations: exposed granite spires and headwalls which define the horizon. Yet unlike the Sierras, everything seems to be covered in a layer of moss or lichen. Everything here is just so green. Like mother earth wanted to prove to us that green is in fact her favorite color.
The Glacier Peak Wilderness is also home to many species of wildlife: bears, grey wolves, mountain goats, lynx, cougars, marmots and pika. Here we are guests in their home, and our brief exchanges are made at a distance and with curious and watchful faces.
This place feels completely wild.
The last 3 miles to the trailhead were even worse than the road we took to get here. What a bumpy mess. The road had huge waves of dirt which made it impossible to drive in a straight line for more than 10 feet. Or a patch of washed out rocks followed by deep ditches perfectly sized for your tire to get stuck. Can you even call it a road anymore? More like a trail some people drive on with high clearance vehicles.
Finally we reach the parking area at 7am. Several cars already parked in the small lot welcome me back to hiking in Western Washington. Washingtonians love to backpack. It’s cloudy and windy and a bit cold this morning. We get our gear, lock Doug up tight and we’re off! The first 4 miles we are in a forest above Phelps Creek and we are treated to views of Mt. Maude and Seven Fingered Jack to the right and the Phelps ridge to the left. The grade is easy and we enjoy getting warmed up. Oh freedom! Oh nature! I’m so happy to be here, moving my legs and carrying my backpack.
Spider Meadow: Gateway to the Backcountry
The meadow is a popular day hiking destination, and it’s easy to see why. It is a wide and steep valley, about 1 mile in length flanked by granite and snow. We enter the valley from the east – where the trees give way to open fields of flowers. At the western end it knits back together 1,000 ft above the valley floor at the bottom of the Spider Gap glacier. The sound of water is everywhere – coming from tiny waterfalls in every direction. A bubbling creek flows to our left. Flowers and butterflies, lifting fog and sunshine create a swirling, mystical beauty to an already breathtaking place. It’s morning and everything is drying off in the early morning sunshine, ourselves included. We take several pictures and then start making our way up the meadow to the base of the glacier. It’s a strenuous climb out of the meadow, so I put on my game face and start walking.
Spider Gap Glacier
We pause at a prominent ridge overlooking the valley below. We rest our legs and have some water. 1,000ft of climbing done. A group of hikers join us and decide to make camp there for the night. We’re tired and making camp early does sound appealing, but we’re on a schedule. So we opt to press on.
It is time to climb a glacier.
It is approximately 2pm and there is 850 feet of elevation to gain on this long strip of snow covered ice. The ice is slushy and the sun is bright. The glacier looks like a massive, gently curving highway which leads you into the heavens. I brought my ice axe, micro-spikes and gators, so I’m feeling nervous but prepared for this part of our trip.
Glaciers are deceptive. They never look that big or steep until you’re on them. Getting to the top requires a technique that hikers know well. Find your footing. Stab your trekking pole in. Feel stable? Good. Lean on it. Take a step. Repeat. I repeat this until my core temperature begins to rise and my ankles and calves burn from high stepping and balancing on slippery snow. It’s already a workout and I’ve still got a lot more ice to cross.
Slowly but surely, the valley behind me gets smaller and smaller and all angles of my vision show the same type of scenery. A vast ocean of white. Even with my sunglasses on, my eyes hurt from the inescapable glare of sun on snow.
Each change in incline makes me think I’m almost at the top, only to find the new incline brings even more glacier to climb. It’s like an old school movie where the scenery around the car repeats every third tree? I was on an ice treadmill with the incline set to 7. At least it felt that way.
About halfway up, I spot two adolescent mountain goats climbing awkwardly up the rocks to my left, sending down large rocks onto the glacier. They look at me, heads cocked, and then continue on their way. Stumbling upwards, dropping more rocks as they climb. The sound of falling rock echoing in the snowy chute. They are so clumsy! I think.
It’s amusing that nearly every mammal is initially bad at something that is supposed to come natural to them. As a kid I was a slow learner. I almost had to redo the 2nd grade. I remember sitting in a large classroom with my head in the clouds, unable to concentrate. Planning out elaborate make believe stories to play with my brother, or wondering if the caterpillars in my backyard had turned into butterflies yet. But eventually we all figure it out, don’t we? I guess being clumsy is part of the process of learning how to make it in your world. Progress is earned little goats, so keep practicing.
Cresting a rather steep incline I can see the peaks up ahead which demarcate the end of the glacier. Yay! The final stretch to the top is a steep track along the rim of a rather sketchy snow bowl. I put on my microspikes and don’t look down, carefully putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally I get to the top and peek over the other side. At 7,000ft, the view is expansive. I can see all the way to Cloudy Pass, approximately 6 miles northwest as the crow flies. To my left is Chiwawa mountain, a massive temple of granite. Below it is Lyman glacier, whose runoff feeds the spectacular turquoise lakes on the valley floor. There is so much water and snow and rock, it’s hard to absorb all the details of the landscape at once. Directly below me, a snow field marks our descent – it’s so steep I can’t see the whole thing from my vantage point. Dark clouds cling to the peaks which make up the southwest side of the basin. This place is so big and deep it feels like an amphitheater for Zeus and his God-posse.
I’m starving. I pull out a cricket bar and catch my breath. That weather doesn’t look good, I think to myself. It’s time to get down.
As I wait for Mele, I notice that she’s slowly making her way up the glacier and I decide to head down to meet her and see if she’s okay. “Hi!”, I say. “Hey”, she says. “We gotta go faster if we’re going to get down the other side safely”, I say. “There is some questionable weather coming in”. “Maybe we should turn around then. We don’t want this to turn into a death march.”, Mele says. We decide to play it safe and not proceed – the last thing we want is to be stuck on a snow field at 7,000ft and have the heavens open up on us. We start our descent down the glacier, back to Spider Meadow.
It immediately sucks.
The snow is slushy and the route is steep. Simultaneously, I see 2 parties just starting their journey up the glacier. My play-it-safe approach is thrown out the window. If they can do it, so can we. We can do this!
“Hey Mele”, I ask. “Maybe we should just try. I think we’re strong enough to do this route, we just gotta move faster over this part”. Knowing full well that when we get over that snow field, there is no return. If we get to the other side, we must complete the whole loop. “Yeah, okay”, she says. “Let’s do it!”.
A Snowy, Bloody Descent Into Paradise
Together we start our descent on the snow field. The upper section is quite steep, so I opt to “ski in my shoes” while Mele glissades down. Eventually we make our way to where the snow meets rock. I look over and see that the back of her leg is all bloody. A flash of worry overcomes me. Taking a closer look though, I can see it’s only scratches. She didn’t feel a thing because the back of her legs are totally numb from glissading. She gets it cleaned up and we’re off again, no worse for wear. Carefully making our way down to the bottom among the rocks and creeks, our direction is clear, if not obstructed. It is rough terrain and slow going. Once we meet up with the trail, however, it should ease up.
An absolutely massive karin appears marking the start (or end) of trail no. 1256b. We made it to a trail! From here on it’s a short, gentle walk. We hope to find a place to crash at upper Lyman lakes and call it a day.
Soon little tents dot the landscape. We snag a spot quick and I am so ready for sleep. I eat a hasty meal of rice, dehydrated veggies and black beans. Mele eats her cheesy noodles. We down some tea and water and I am literally in my bag, eyelids hurting to stay open at 7:30PM. Whatever tomorrow brings, the big unknowns of this trip have been conquered. We climbed the glacier, descended the snow field and made it to our first camp.