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Withstanding loose sand underfoot and pumice blasting our faces on the final push to the summit

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