Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “Hiking

Throwback Thursday: Glacier Peak

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.
A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

Glacier Peak…the top of it at least. This was about the most we saw of it on our three-day trip. 

While we wait for the snows to melt once again, time for another flashback to 2020. I realize that phrase likely strikes fear in the hearts of most, so feel free to pretend these photos are from some other year. While it was a rough year in many ways, the wilderness was just as spectacular as ever!

For a while last summer, our goal was to camp in the shadow of every active Cascade Range stratovolcano in Washington and Oregon. We ended up getting to 8/10, but late season plans for Mt. Baker and Mt. Jefferson ended up being derailed by fires, weather, or both. In total we camped 28 nights and hiked/backpacked over 250 miles in our COVID-safe exploration of the Cascades last summer. To minimize contact with others (and to save money), we eschewed developed campgrounds in favor of dispersed camping. Aside from backpacking permits, we paid for accommodations just once the entire summer, at a five-site Forest Service “campground” on the north side of Mt. Hood that we ended up having all to ourselves for the night.

One of our most memorable excursions was a quick two-night backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak and Henry Jackson Wilderness areas in north-central Washington.

Sunrise light illuminates rocks in an alpine lake basin.

Early morning light at a campsite along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Henry Jackson Wilderness Area of central Washington

Of all the active volcanoes in the Cascade Range, Glacier Peak is by far the most difficult to glimpse up close. Tucked away in the north Cascades, reaching the vicinity of the Glacier Peak edifice requires a hike of at least 10-12 miles, making a backpacking trip really the only way to truly experience the mountain. For us, it was a ~35 mile, 3-day, 2-night trip beginning from the valley of the Little Wenatchee River. While were able to get quite close to the mountain, this was (amazingly) the only trip of the summer where the weather didn’t really cooperate with our desire to see the mountain in whose shadow we were camping. We got a handful of summit glimpses through breaks in the clouds, but Glacier Peak was obscured for the majority of our trip.

The summit of a glacier clad peak is visible through a break in the clouds

Tantalizing glimpses of Glacier Peak through the low clouds. 

A tall mountain peak is just visible above clouds, with green meadows and forests belows.

A fleeting view of the glacier-clad (not surprisingly) summit of Glacier Peak. 

A variety of wildflowers on a ridge looking down into the valley of the Little Wenatchee River.

Looking down the Little Wenatchee River valley with some late season paintbrush providing a splash of color. 

A hiker stands atop a ridge looking out onto grassy meadows and mountains

The view from Kodak Peak in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Glacier peak is behind those clouds somewhere! 

A marmot sits on a rock above a slope of rocks and wildflowers

A marmot enjoys the view from Kodak Peak.

Despite the lack of peak views, the rugged, high altitude terrain was stunning and while we were a little too late for peak wildflower season, there were still lots of blooms covering the slopes:

A trio of yellow flowers with brown spots against a blue sky

Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington

The most memorable elements of the trip came on Day 3. After a COLD morning and a close brush with hypothermia, we decided (based largely on consulting with other hikers) to take a slightly longer, but less steep, route back to the car. Our ascent two days earlier had been short, steep, and rocky, and we weren’t thrilled about the idea of descending the same trail with heavy packs. Plus an alternate trail back to the car would result in a loop and who doesn’t love a good loop? According to maps and other hikers, our descent would be about 8-9 miles, instead of the six miles we had come up. Despite the modest mileage, it ended up being quite the slog. I’ve done enough hiking and backpacking that I normally feel pretty confident estimating mileage, and that descent sure felt like a LOT more than 9 miles. The trail was in decent shape, save for crossing a series of avalanche chutes choked with head high brush. Someone had kindly taken a machete to some, but not others. By the time we got back to the car, I was spent to put it mildly. I honestly can’t ever remember being so totally wiped out after a hike in my life.

Thankfully there was a bag of Chex mix waiting for me at the car. A few moments after diving in, I realized that the container it had been in was filled with mice droppings…and we soon noticed that the rest of the car was as well. Yum! 


Summiting Mt. St. Helens

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

View of rocky and snowy ridgeline with volcanic peak in the background

Looking east along the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Adams in the distance.

Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.

After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.

From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!

To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:

A hiker scrambles up a rocky slope with a forest and low-lying clouds in the background

Breaking out of the trees on the Monitor Ridge route.

A hiker walks along a rocky ridge with clouds and a distant volcanic peak in the backgrounde background

Heading up Mt. St. Helens with the clouds below us and Mt. Hood in the background.

Dark, jagged volcanic rocks on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens with clouds far below

Nearing the top of the boulder field on the Monitor Ridge route. Only a mile to go!

We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.

The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

Panorama from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim, looking north across the lava dome and Crater Glacier to Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier. (Click image to enlarge)

Panorama showing a variety of distant mountains and a low cloud layer

Panorama looking south from the crater rim. Mt. Adams at left, Mt. Hood just left of center. (Click image to enlarge)

View of a volcanic peak with a blue lake in the foreground

Clouds part to reveal Spirit Lake and the distant cone of Mt. Rainier, more than 4,000 feet higher that Mt. St. Helens.

While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!

Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.

With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!


Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)