MY sixth and last Pacific Northwest volcano orbit was realized from August 18 to August 22, 2017, with perhaps the hardest and most spectacular trip of them all. The circumnavigation of Glacier Peak was 5 days of travel over 110 miles of sometimes swift (the PCT portions), sometimes gritty (climb to Little Giant Pass) and sometimes downright miserable (Indian River trail) orbiting this iconic volcano. There are various ways to circle this mountain, with (it seems) most starting at Grasshopper Meadows (the closest access) and proceeding CW via Indian River trail, PCT and over High Pass to the Napeequa River and returning on the last leg over Boulder Pass to the parked vehicle. I chose to lengthen the trip a bit by proceeding CCW and continuing through the Napeequa Valley to the Chiwawa River and Buck Creek Pass, intercepting the PCT until finishing on the Indian River trail to road 6400. My daughter and I had attempted this trip last year, but due to various reasons ended up turning back on the second day.
Day 1: Grasshopper Meadows to Little Giant Pass: 19.5 miles
I departed on this trip without many hiking miles under my feet, another reason I wanted to get the harder parts done in the first two days. I set off at 6 AM, walking the closed road to the end of 6400, then Trail 1562 to Boulder Pass as I turned east. The first day is always easy in that everything is fresh and the body is starting with a clean slate. The climb to Boulder Pass was people free, and I enjoyed fine weather along with this solitude as I surveyed my next destination, the Napeequa Valley and river crossing. Even from the heights one can tell the Napeequa is a special place, a broad plain with a wandering yet consistent river that is green without being overgrown with brush and trees. Despite having 5 days of food in my pack, I barely noticed it on my back as my total weight (with food and water) was only 16 pounds. This light load is welcome, especially on this descent from 6300’ to 4400’. When I reached the valley floor and studied the ford point no searching was required. The gentle, broad waterway was but knee deep and I simply made a beeline straight for the opposite bank where the trail continued, glad to have the aid of trekking poles for the ford. It’s a short trip down the valley to the ascent point but incredibly serene. The trail was easy to follow and the grasses were gently swaying in the wind as I followed the river downstream. There’s just something surreal and Shangri-La like about this valley, so different from any other volcano spawned river course I have seen. I kept scanning the Chiwawa Ridge to see where the trail could possibly go, there seemed no obvious weakness. Turns out it simply goes right up, on an unmaintained trail that offered insecure footing and lots of class III moves. This 2,000 foot climb to Little Giant Pass took a toll on my energy levels, so when I espied a nice camp spot below Little Giant Pass as the hour approached 7:30 PM I decided to call it a day and set up camp. My overnight gear choices for this trip involved a ZPacks Pocket Tarp, ZPacks groundsheet/poncho, an Enlightened Equipment Recon bivy, a NeoAir XLite pad and an Enlightened Equipment 30 degree Enigma quilt. I also had my Skaha Apex jacket as insurance; strenuous days mean less heat output at night. I did not want to be cold while trying to recover in the bivy.
Day 2: Little Giant Pass to Buck Pass: 19.1 miles
No alarms for me, when it was light enough I got up and had breakfast (no cooking gear), thinking if I could at least make it to Buck Creek Pass I’d be OK. Unlike a trip like the Wonderland Trail, no permits are required here and I could be flexible in my itinerary, assessing my condition day to day and planning my stopping point based on that day’s progress. Like every day of this trip, the weather was warm, sunny and pleasant and the descent to the Chiwawa River was on good trail. A quick foot cleansing shallow ford brought me to the Chiwawa River road, which I had to walk approximately 3 miles to the Trinity trail head. From there I was back on trail #1513 to Buck Creek Pass. Transiting the 2016 burn area was somewhat hot and dusty, but the trail climbed slowly over the miles to Buck Creek Pass (2500’ to 6000’). What with the dusty road, the warmish conditions and the slower pace to conserve energy, I made Buck Creek Pass at about 6:30 PM, had a nice conversation with some chaps camped nearby, and settled down for the evening. Two days without using a headlamp, not my usual style. By now my legs were starting to remind me of their lack of training and I endured some twitching before finally dozing off, looking forward to perhaps swifter travel the following day once on the PCT.
Day 3: Buck Pass to Point 5900: 23.2 miles
Another beautiful morning greeted me for day 3, and not so far down the trail I stopped at Middle Ridge to relax and have some chow. My legs were sore, probably from day 1, but nothing more than a background annoyance. With bugs at a minimum, a warm sun on my face and alpine smells in the air, the day was ripe for outdoor infusion, charging my bod and soul. These feelings of outdoor bliss aren’t ubiquitous; in fact, in the grand scheme they are somewhat rare so I try to linger in these moments. I finally moved along and stopped to record a hillside for the audio…there was a loud animal or bird call, very consistent in regularity. I scanned the hillside but couldn’t see anything. I just couldn’t pin it down, at first I thought it was a juvenile elk but the consistency of the calls made me wonder if it were some large bird, amplified by the bowl we were in. Even after decades of being outside, there are always surprises. I finally left the calls or crying and they slowly faded behind me as I descended into the forest. Soon enough my feet were on the PCT and from this point forward I encountered many North Bound (NOBO) hikers, either thru or section hikers, some very friendly and chatty, some obviously jammin’ with their eyes on the border and in no mood to engage. I heard that many or most were returning to finish the Sierra portion, skipped earlier on due to very high snow levels. The forgiving grade and wide trail made for semi-speedy trotting all the way to Miners Creek, where I stopped to wash my feet, body and do some laundry. Others there had the same thought. The water was so cold I had to keep withdrawing my feet due to numbness bordering on pain, but boy, did that feel good! The PCT in this northern part of the wilderness has been rerouted way down the Suiattle River, adding about 5 miles of trail compared to the old crossing. It’s all through old growth forest on nice trail so who’s to complain? By the time I made my way around it was mid afternoon and I stopped to have some Chocolate Mousse. Here I ran into Barbara, a SOBO section hiker with whom I would cross paths over the next two days, she usually leaping ahead but lingering at nice spots when I finally caught up to her. We both had our eye on point 5900 on this climb as a place to camp for the night, and when I finally arrived as darkness was taking over (my BD Spot Headlamp had accidentally turned on in my pack and the batteries were dead) she lent me her light so I could set up my bivy and dig out my spare lamp. Another warm night made me leave the tarp packed, simply enjoying the stars shining through gaps in the tree above me as I finally drifted off.
Day 4: Point 5900 to Baekos Creek: 23.2 miles (again)
Eclipse Day! My plan was to linger at these high reaches and attempt some photography, having lugged a tripod and a 3.0 ND filter for this express purpose. I started hiking with an eye towards a good viewing spot, and this presented itself a few miles down the trail. I set up on a knoll with a commanding view of Glacier Peak and the bowl below Ptarmigan and Vista Glaciers. The time arrived but we were not in the totality zone; however, one could feel the temperature drop and there was a noticeable dimming of light. My filter was not dark enough to be of use but how could I complain, sitting on a knoll eating cheese dip on a tortilla and finishing with strawberry cheesecake with an outstanding view? After about an hour of dallying I finally packed up and headed down the trail, and as I rounded a corner I stopped to chat with a NOBO thru couple. She had carried eclipse glasses for over 2,000 miles so when she offered a looksie, I got to see the real deal. It was 85 percent totality cool. Although I had planned on this leisure time for the eclipse, I suddenly had the urge to cover some miles. However, when I arrived at Mica Lake, the setting looking like it had been scooped out of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I had to stop to relax, eat and take a dip in the clear blue/green waters. I figured I’d make up time by hiking into the evening on the manicured PCT. Transiting Fire Creek Pass at 6300’ I stopped again to eat and enjoy a stupendous view, continuing on to Kennedy Ridge as night time approached. I rounded a corner and gasped at the alpenglow settling on the mountain, and stopped frequently to take shots from various angles and levels of pinkness (see photo at end of blog). After protecting my headlamp in my pocket with my spare batteries, I lit up for the night hiking ahead. The "eclipse" thru hikers had described this section as “the worst section of PCT in Washington State”, and I can’t disagree. Figures that I was hitting it at night. Lots of blowdown, narrow rocky trail, overhanging trees and brush, and bog like sections that required detouring through the woods to avoid muck and water areas well above shoe height. As midnight approached I had covered enough ground to put day 5 in its proper place; I wanted to be on the Indian River trail around noon. At Baekos Creek (4000') I found a spot off the trail flat enough to lay out the bivy in the dark deep woods, but as my eyes adjusted the stars still twinkled through gaps in the canopy to keep me company.
Day 5: Baekos Creek to Grasshopper Meadows: 25.4 miles
I was on the trail at 5:30 AM, eyes on the prize. I had been on this section of the PCT a few times before so knew what to expect. I soon passed the area where my daughter and I had camped last year, turning around on day two, so I knew I had about 20 miles to go. I ran into another orbiter in the White Chuck basin who had actually battled through the White River Trail, an alternative to Indian River trail but reportedly so washed out, so rugged and so overgrown as to be almost impassable. His partner had turned around, unable to contend with the difficulties (on his day 1), but he pressed on, probably one of the few that will lay foot to that trail this year. As I continued on I ran into a couple near Red Pass who were section hiking, a dad daughter duo….dad was 85 averaging 13 miles per day. We should all be so fortunate! As I pressed on past White Pass to my final leg, I took few photos, becoming laser focused on what lay ahead. I tanked water near Indian Pass, filling up a two liter collapsible container brought for this express purpose, drinking a liter on the spot, and filling my shoulder mounted bottle. Why? I knew from experience that Indian River was going to be hot, dry, and overgrown with little opportunity to refill. I just didn’t expect it to be this overgrown, probably from the wetter year versus last year. 11 miles of foot grabbing, leg slapping, eye poking brush and grasses whilst being accosted by mosquitos and flies as the sun beat against my back and head. Indeed I lost the trail a few times but sometimes frustrating ‘schwacking eventually had my feet regaining it, as usually the tall brush offered few clues eye level. Barring disaster at least I knew I was going to make it through before it got dark as I had started this last section at 12:30. Although a trail like Indian River doesn’t seem to offer much, it’s a shame that trails like this have been abandoned….lack of budget, lack of interest? I endured this last portion, sometimes thinking I should have done what everyone else seemed to do, go CW and tackling this trail on fresh legs. I had no option but to suck it up and revel in reaching the bridge across the White River, leaving two miles of closed road walking to my waiting vehicle with a cooler of drinks and a bag full of food. Somehow I stumbled down to arrive at 9 PM, washing off on my tailgate as best I could and texting my wife via InReach that I was done and would spend the night. Like any good trip, this 5 day orbit had that mixture of good and bad, hard and easy, bliss and suffering. In other words, immensely rewarding. Of the six orbits I have done, Glacier Peak ranks as the hardest yet arguably the most beautiful, a fitting way to cap off the series.
NOTE: I have not listed elevation gain/loss as I did not employ Strava or a GPS track etc. However, two chaps who ran around Glacier Peak in 35 hours via a slightly different route but similar elevation profile recorded 27,000 feet of elevation gain/loss. Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail is 93 miles with 22,000 feet of elevation, the next longest orbit.