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Glacier Peak

David Steele
david steele glacier peak

Rattling in the wind, the poorly pitched tarp flutters taut on one side, slack on the other. The huge glacial boulder might have broken wind coming from the other direction, but the night saw fit to switch the gusts so that they levitate the sheer fabric and break on my back. A quick check of my watch shows just after 1 am. Rachel has fully retreated below the hood of her bag, and I try to do the same, thinking that the tarp could sound soothing if I wasn’t worried about the wind ramping up.

Glacier Peak is by far the most remote of Washington’s active volcanos. Road washouts from 2006 floods had, until recently, left the massive approach and peak to the truly crazy. The roads’ recent return made things a bit less daunting—I felt that that the fifteen mile approach with full packs to a dirt camp could be reasonably downgraded from “truly crazy” to “hard.” Still, a poor winter left me guessing from random photos about where the snow line lay, and thinking we’d be high and dry.

But the snow beneath my sleeping pad told a truer story.

We’d found it at 5000ft, and spent well over half the approach traversing or skinning on the remnants of a winter that didn’t exist at lower elevation. This was full spring glacier camping. The gear I wanted was stored on a cot back in Seattle. So we found the boulder, flattened out a space in the wind channel, and listened to the siliconized nylon lullaby until morning dawned on our summit day.

It came, coloring the slopes pink as we made breakfast. While we made our way up the glaciers around the base of the mountain, I wondered about the gear I’d rather have brought. Rachel was coming off a week of four accounting finals. Three hours of sleep, which would have leveled me, saw her chipper and genuinely happy beneath the heaviest pack she’d carried in a while. She was tired when we’d gotten to camp on the first day. Now on the lead of our rope on the second, I wondered how she was holding up.

Glacier remained the only Washington volcano she hadn’t climbed and the last summit on that personal list was now ensconced in a thick cloud. Five skiers and two climbers on foot could be seen retreating from the col above us. Three of them had tutus on. When they stopped to talk, they told of whiteout level fog well below the top. They made their retreat, becoming specks far below. Deciding to make a call when we reached the col they’d just skied off, we kept at it, my hopes sinking under the weight of the approach and the cold night we’d endured.

Mountains have no sense of fairness, right or wrong, good or bad. They just are. But I do think they, like the rest of the universe, traffic in a human sort of irony—because as we neared the Cool Glacier and our decision point, the winds of the night before were replaced by a new breeze. It came more out of the south. First, the false summit peeled out of the fog. Then, the cloud completely moved off to the north, leaving the top a welcome, shimmering, white-against-blue-sky routine. The skiers in tutus had to be cursing.

But we’d come all that way… and we were ready.

david steele glacier peak
david steele glacier peak
david steele glacier peak

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