Snohomish County Highpoint Trip Report

Glacier Peak (10,541 feet) via North Fork Sauk approach and south ridge

Dates: July 25-27, 2006
Author: Greg Slayden

participants: Greg Slayden, Edward Earl, Adam Helman

The normal Sitkum route up Glacier Peak has been inaccessible since flooding in October 2003 destroyed the White Chuck Road and Trail. Repairs to the road may begin in 2007, but reconstruction of the road and trail might not be complete until 2009. Until then, the shortest way in is via the North Fork Sauk Trail and the south ridge as described below.

This is a long trip - about 17 miles each way, with just over 11,000 feet of total elevation gain. To me, it felt somewhat comparable to an ascent of Gannett Peak. You will need to either take a rope/harnesses/prussiks for a glacier crossing, or else climb 500 feet of loose class 3/class 4 rock. My feeling is that most county highpointers will want to take 4 days for this trip. Fast and fit hikers could do it in three. Two days is for trail runners only.

We did it as a three day trip, but our days were too long and four days would have been more enjoyable -

Tuesday 7/25: Hiked 11.6 miles, gained 4700 net feet, lost 600 net feet. Started 7 AM, at camp 7:30 PM. Camped in White Chuck Basin at 6100 feet.

Wednesday 7/26: To summit and back via South Ridge rock route. Distance 5.5 miles each way, gained and lost 5200 feet. Started 6:50 AM, back to camp 8:45 PM. Beautiful weather. Saw two other parties, one summited, the other turned back.

Thursday 7/26: Hiked back to trailhead.

With this effort, Edward Earl has now climbed the "Thirty Finest" peaks (top 30 by prominence) in the lower 48 states. Congratulations, Edward!

Detailed Route Description

From Interstate 5, take WA-530 east to Darrington, then turn right on the Mountain Loop highway heading south. After about 8 miles the pavement ends, and it continues as a good gravel road. After 8 miles of gravel, turn left on FS 49, a rougher road but still fine for passenger cars. This leads to the Sloan Creek Trailhead/Campground after 7 miles. Park here, elevation 2072 feet.

Hike the North Fork Sauk trail, a well-maintained path through magnificent old-growth. You will pass the Pilot Ridge Trail junction in 1.8 miles, and a major stream crossing at Red Creek after 4 miles. There may be a log just upstream, but if it looks dicey you should wade across. At 5.3 miles you pass the Mackinaw shelter, a rustic lean-to. After this the trail starts switchbacking uphill from 3000 to 6000 feet, alternating forest with hot avalanche slide paths. Up high, the trail passes through huge flower meadows.

[Adam comments: Just prior to the cited stream crossing, a side-trail heads uphill a few hundred feet - leading to near or at a bluff. From there a log takes one across Red Creek. I learned this from some hikers on the descent of our third day.]

At 8.6 miles the North Fork Sauk Trail ends at the Pacific Crest Trail. Turn right for 0.6 mile on more of a long meadow traverse to White Pass. Here locate a well-beaten climbers trail that heads north and east under White Mountain, contouring along the 6000 foot level for about 1.7 miles. It crosses countless gullies, most snowy until late season. The climber's trail peters out on a point on the ridge southeast of Peak 6770.

Start climbing Peak 6770 on grassy slopes. The best route is to climb to the summit of this peak; then descend to the col to the north; then up the next peak (6720 foot contour); then to the col northeast of that peak; then descend gentle slopes in the White Chuck basin. Do not descend the northwest face of Peak 6770 as we did (very nasty, loose rock), or traverse the east face of Peak 6770 to avoid elevation gain (more ugly scree).

The White Chuck Basin is a primeval expanse of snowpatches, streams, glaciers, meadows, and rocks. There are many potential campsites and plenty of water. To us, the best route seemed to be to stay on the right (east) side, working your way up via Point 6683, a low traverse of the last dying remnants of the White Chuck Glacier, and a steep rocky stream. There are many routes here, and they may change with changes in lakes, streams, and ice. We did not feel the need for crampons or ice-axe here, as long as you stay low on the actual glacier.

For a three-day trip, camping at the lower part of the basin is probably best. For a four-day trip, there are sites just below Glacier Gap (7,300 feet, where the White Chuck and Suiattle Glaciers almost meet) that would make a good second day camp.

Once you reach Glacier Gap, climb northwest on easy snow towards Peak 7733, but pass through the col to its east. Lose some more elevation to a col slightly higher than Glacier Gap, then start climbing the actual south ridge of Glacier Peak. It is easy at first, with grassy slopes on the west and easy snowfields on the east side. Continue to about 8,400 feet, where you have three alternatives.

From the Disappointment Peak saddle, an easy boot path leads uphill through pumice scree to some steep snowfields that finally get you to the summit. There is a Mazama register there in the highest rocks. There are two 10,520 contours at the summit, and the smaller one to the west looks almost as high. But the Beckey guidebook and general consensus are all that the main peak is the highest, so there is no need to visit the tiny contour, which looks difficult.

[Adam comments: The net elevation gain for this route is 8,500 feet. The total elevation gain as we did it was 11,200 feet. An "ideal route" that follows all of Greg's instructions would involve 11,100 vertical feet - so a climb of Glacier Peak entails the largest elevation gain of any county highpoint in the lower forty-eight states until the approach road for the Sitkum route is repaired.]