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phalc

[TR] Glacier Peak - Sitkum Glacier/Gerdine-Cool 05/28/2018

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Trip: Glacier Peak - Sitkum Glacier/Gerdine-Cool

Trip Date: 05/28/2018

Trip Report:

We set off from N Fork Sauk Trailhead buzzing with excitement at 8:30. Making short work of the easy trail to Mackinaw Shelter, we stopped to work the tightness out of our shoulders, adjusting to the awkward load of skis and boots on the pack. After many switchbacks, we soon departed the well-established bootpack at around 5000 ft and Dustin set a skin track straight toward Red Pass. Reaching the ridgecrest, I felt isolated. There were no other tracks as far as we could see–a stark change from the crowds of Memorial Day weekenders we had passed on their hike out. We were venturing into a totally wild and remote route which has seen few ascents since the 2003 flood which destroyed the road.

Lush forest by the river

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We found a skiable line a quarter mile east of Red Pass on the ridge, so we made a direct descent into the White Chuck River drainage. It probably would have been better to suck it up and climb 100 ft to reach the PCT rather than trying to follow the river, as we eventually got squeezed into a bottleneck and had to pick through the trees and slog through slush to reach trail. The snow ended abruptly at 4700 ft as we walked right by a spot where I camped in 2016 during my thru hike. Changing back into shoes, I checked the PCT app, which I still have on my phone, and saw that we had about 4 miles until we left the trail. Time to cruise. My heart soared with PCT nostalgia as we made our way along perfect dirt trail and fantasized about tranquil forest camping the next night. We hydrated at the many streams and only had one interesting crossing where I moved a log to give us a path across with dry feet.

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Our fantastically easy travel soon came to an end, though, as we encountered lingering snow patches in the flat, dense forest around 4000 ft. Not enough to ski, but just enough for some miserable postholing. Until this point, it was our plan to climb the Sitkum Glacier on the West side, do some skiing on the South, then re-ascend and return to camp on the West. Dustin had the idea that we should carry our overnight gear over the summit and return via the standard route, but I was still holding on to the original plan for whatever reason. That stubbornness was soon broken by a terrible section of bushwhacking through slide alder as the trail became a rushing stream of meltwater. “There’s no way we’re doing this again.” I decided I’d rather carry all the gear to the top as bushwhacking with such a giant pack was miserable.

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At nearly 7PM, we finally reached the ridge which was the site of the old climber’s trail up to the Sitkum Glacier, which was only evidenced by a few remnants of switchbacks between overgrown sections. I was enjoying the steep but sparse forest as we quickly gained the 2500 ft of elevation needed to make camp. This didn’t last long, though, as the ridge got narrower and narrower and our skis and boots caught on more and more tree branches and shrubs. We clambered over countless fallen logs and wondered, “When will this end? Why do the trees go so high??” With no daylight in sight straight ahead, we consulted the map and noticed that we could probably access the glacier from the northern slopes of the ridge, which were beautifully snow-covered and devoid of thick forest. Much better. After emerging from the trees scratched and worked, I suggested we camp at the first relatively flat spot on the snow with an excellent view of Mts. Pugh, White Chuck, Whitehorse, and the whole White Chuck River valley. We immediately set to work chopping a platform, making, dinner and preparing our gear as the sun set. After eating, we both promptly passed out at about 10PM after a 12 hour day on the move.

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After hearing the alarm at 5:30, I peeked out to notice the cloudy but calm skies. We successfully completed our forest-avoiding linkup with some treacherous skinning–our skins had not dried and were not sticking well. At around 6500 ft we decided to just pack the skis and rope up for the remainder of the ascent. After all the tedious route finding and off-trail travel up to this point, 4000 ft of easy snow slopes was an absolute dream. This was my first time walking on an active glacier, but we saw no open cracks on the Sitkum, just on the fearsome-looking Scimitar Glacier to the north. A few golf ball sized rocks whistled past as we made our way to the right of the large block at 8600 ft. Dustin led as I practiced my roped travel techniques and we soon gained the saddle behind Sitkum Spire and started up the pumice ridge, which was mercifully covered in firm snow, toward the summit plateau. My energy started to waver as we slogged up the final 1000 ft, the 10000 ft of accumulated elevation gain starting to catch up to me. Before long, we once again met up with the weekend bootpack on the south side of the summit block and pushed up to the summit. After a windless morning, I got cold in the wind on the top and quickly enjoyed the views of half of Rainier, the Stuart Range, and some peaks around Chelan.

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Eager to get down, we were soon rattling our bones down crunchy snow in the cloudy afternoon. Within an hour, we were down in the cloud deck that we had been staring at all morning, and some light snow pelted us as we followed a ridge to the standard base camp. At this point, my feet were very unhappy at being squashed into ski boots for a so many hours, and I even thought about just spending the night at the camp, groaning at the thought of continuing the long descent. Since it was only 2PM, we took an extended break huddled behind a rock wall and Dustin made some re-percolated coffee to boost morale. I was feeling much better after that and 600mg of ibuprofen, so we marched on. The upper White Chuck Glacier basin was a gorgeous snow-covered fantasyland and made for easy skin-skiing and traversing. Before I even felt the climb in my legs, I was back on top of the ridge eyeing the traverse to White Pass. As soon as I turned back to discuss the route, we were blasted by wind and huge, wet snowflakes. The possibility of spending the night and hiking out in the morning was looking less attractive.

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After some more delicate skinning on late-afternoon mush, we reached a high point on the traverse and started the rolling descent to White Pass. The clouds cracked and showed us some rare blue sky as I tried to rip some telemark turns during the ski-skin to the pass. The mood of the death march started to lighten as we left the harsh alpine behind. Back to bootpacking, we downed our good snacks as it became apparent that we were getting to the trailhead that night. We skied a 1000 ft section to skip many switchbacks which we had scouted on the way up. Although it required a 100 yard bushwhack back to the trail, we had a laugh about how easy it felt compared to the trials of the previous day. For the last of many transitions, we packed everything away, downed the rest of our snacks and water, and started hustling down the trail. As my shoulders and feet hurt more and more, I kept accelerating knowing it would get me to the car sooner. I marveled at the variety of rainforest-like plant life knowing that we were on a glacier just hours earlier. We hiked uninterrupted for 2.5 hours and I dropped my pack with a groan just before 9PM. Success.

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The Sitkum Glacier was a true adventure–not really worth it as an early season ski trip, but it could be a viable summer alternative if you're looking to put in some extra work and avoid the crowds.

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Gear Notes:
Skis, ski crampons, glacier gear, approach shoes

Approach Notes:
Terrible bushwhacking with skis
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