A Climber’s Guide to Glacier Peak Mountain In Washington

Glacier Peak Washington Summit Climbing Guide

Glacier Peak is the fourth tallest peak in Washington and is one of the state’s five major stratovolcanoes. Originally known as “Tda-ko-buh-ba” or “Takobia” or “Dakobed” in the dialect of the local Sauk-Suiattle people, Glacier Peak is the most isolated of the Cascade Volcanoes, so it sees relatively little traffic from outdoor recreationalists when compared with its more heavily frequented neighbors – Mount Rainier and Mount Baker.

Located in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the mountain is one of the most active of Washington’s volcanoes and much of Glacier Peak’s current geology is a result of this volcanic activity. The mountain itself was formed some one million years ago during the Pleistocene epoch, so as geologic time goes, it’s effectively an infant, especially when compared to the 480 million-year-old Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States.

Aptly named, Glacier Peak is home to eleven glaciers of notable size, which cover a significant portion of the mountain’s upper reaches. Although pretty much any attempt to climb the mountain will require some form of glacier travel, Glacier Peaks’ namesakes are retreating rapidly with some glaciers, including Milk Lake Glacier having disappeared completely.

Glacier Peak is a fantastic climbing objective for anyone with mountaineering experience that wants to get away from the crowds of the more accessible peaks in the area. Due to the mountain’s remoteness, however, any would-be climber should be prepared to do some preparation and pre-planning before setting out on their adventure.

That’s where we come in. Coming up, we’ve got the ultimate guide to climbing Glacier Peak, complete with first-hand knowledge of the mountain, to get you ready for your next expedition. Let’s get to it!

When to Go – Best Seasons & Weather Considerations

The North Cascades are known for being wet. Whether it’s heavy snowfall in the winter or the never-ending rains of the early summer season, anyone looking to climb in the area should know what they’re getting into weather-wise before they set out.

That being said, it’s not just about precipitation when it comes to determining the best time of year to go climb Glacier Peak – or any other North Cascades mountain. Whenever you’re looking to climb a glaciated peak, you need to take into account the conditions of the glacier, such as how stable the snow bridges are, seasonal changes in crevasses, and overall snow cover.

After taking all of this into account, the best months of the year for a non-winter climb of Glacier Peak are either June, July, or August. However, each of these months has a different “feel” to it in the North Cascades.

For example, June can be a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to rain in the North Cascades. While some Junes will see fairly warm temperatures and minimal rain, other Junes in Washington will feature near-freezing temperatures in the mountains and an abundance of rain. During one particularly memorable climb of Mount Baker in mid-June, I once experienced a lovely mix of 4 inches (10.16cm) of rain and 33 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures (0.5 Celsius) over the course of 2 days. I cannot say that I have fond memories of that experience, to say the least.

July tends to be the best month of the year for summer mountaineering in the North Cascades, as the rain tends to let up a bit by then. Additionally, by mid-August, most glaciers in the area tend to get a bit “crevassed out” as the snow melts, snow bridges become unstable, and the crevasses open up along common climbing routes. Thus, July is usually a good middle ground between the rains of June and the crevasses of August.

Any would-be winter or shoulder-season climbers should be trained and skilled in avalanche rescue and should know how to asses avalanche conditions as they climb. While the summer months tend to be low-risk of avalanches, they are still possible, so climbers should seek out qualified avalanche training before heading out to the mountains.

View of Glacier Peak and Image lake.
View of remote Image lake and Glacier Peak in the distance.

Red Tape/Permit Requirements

Since Glacier Peak is located within a wilderness area and is managed by two separate sections of the United States Forest Service, there is a small, but not insignificant amount of red tape to deal with before your climb.

First things first, motorized and mechanized vehicles of any sort are prohibited inside a wilderness area. This includes mountain bikes and ATVs. Additionally, some trailheads require a valid recreation pass or the payment of a daily fee to access. There are many different recreations passes available for the North Cascades, so we can’t cover all of your options here.

If you’re heading out for an extended trip, we’d recommend the $30 Northwest Forest Pass, which gets you unlimited access for one year to all National Forests in Washington and Oregon, or the $80 Interagency America the Beautiful Pass, which gets you into all National Parks and Forests for an entire year. If you spend most of your time in Washington and Oregon and solely in the states’ National Forests, then the Northwest Pass might be for you. Otherwise, if you’re a frequent adventure traveler, you might want to consider the Interagency pass, instead!

Beyond the need to pay for parking at some trail heads, as of the writing of this article individuals do not need to apply for permits of any sort to climb Glacier Peak. Visitors are simply asked to sign the trail head register to help the Forest Service keep track of area usage throughout the year.

While you do not need a permit to climb Glacier Peak, there are some areas along the approach route to the mountain that have some strict regulations. In particular, all visitors are prohibited from camping within 0.25 miles (0.4km) of Image Lake or 200 ft (60m) of Holden and Lyman Lakes. Additionally, campfires are prohibited within 0.5 miles (0.8km) of Ice Lakes, 0.25 miles (0.4km) of Image Lake and Lake Byrne, 200 ft (60m) of Holden and Lyman Lakes, and above 4,000ft (1220m) on Lime Ridge.

Maps & Guidebooks

The ultimate guidebooks to Glacier Peak (and the entirety of the Cascades, if we’re being honest) is Fred Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guides series. Fred Beckey was one of the foremost mountaineers of his day, having made perhaps more first ascents than any other climber. Fred climbed until the ripe old age of 94 and his guidebooks clearly reflect his vast expertise in the mountains he knew best.

The Cascade Alpine Guides series consists of three books, each covering a specific area of the greater Cascades Range. For a climb of Glacier Peak, the Volume 2 book (Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass) will provide a considerable amount of information about your journey, all written with the smart-aleckness that Fred was known for. These books are quite hefty, so I’d recommend photocopying the pages you need and leaving the rest of the book behind.

The best maps for general navigation in the United States are the USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps. For a climb of Glacier Peak, you’ll want to bring – at a minimum – the Glacier Peak West and Glacier Peak East maps, though you should also consider bringing the adjoining maps, just in case you stray a bit from your course.

Camping at the Trailhead

Depending on how you start your climb of Glacier Peak, you may find ample camping at your trail head. Here are some of your options:

While the White Chuck Road was the premier access point for Glacier Peak climbers, in 2003 severe flooding wiped out much of the road and the trails it connected to. Although the road reopened in 2011, parts of it have been decommissioned, and it’s not the recommended access point for your climb. Additionally, camping is somewhat difficult to come by near the trail head as thick forests and a lack of campgrounds can make finding a spot to pitch a tent a bit tricky.

Nowadays, the best access to the mountain is along Trail 649 (North Fork Sauk Trail to the PCT), which starts just off of the Mountain Loop Highway at the Sloan Creek Campground and brings you toward White Pass. At the trail head, there is a pit toilet and ample opportunities for camping, which is yet another reason why this trail is the recommended access point to Glacier Peak.

Glacier Peak Washington Climbing Routes

Routes & Difficulty Ratings

One of the most defining features of Glacier Peak is the mountain’s many faces. On nearly all of these faces, there is a glacier, many of which make for great climbing to the summit. That being said, many times, the most difficult part of the climb is the approach as the spur trail that leads off of the PCT changes frequently and is often covered by snow.

Thus, anyone setting out to climb Glacier Peak should come prepared with solid navigation skills and a desire to hike off trail for extended periods of time.

Also read: CalTopo – Introduction To Backcountry Mapping and Navigation

Cool Glacier – Easy Snow, 3,000ft, Grade III

Total Mileage: 34 miles (54 km) RT

Vertical gain and loss: +11,090 ft (+3,380 m)/ -2,600 ft (-792 m)

Estimated trip duration: 2-4 days

Route download: Click the “open in CalTopo” link on the map below and go to “export” for the .gpx file. You can then add the route to your preferred GPS device or APP.

Perhaps the most commonly traveled route up Glacier Peak is the Cool Glacier route. The Cool Glacier is located on the southeast side of Glacier Peak, which is best approached from White Pass on the PCT by way of the Foam Creek trail.

The entire route is some 17 miles (27 km) one-way with an overall elevation gain of over 11,000 ft (3350 m), though this number can vary significantly depending on how efficient you are in your off-trail navigation. Many parties approach the mountain by heading toward the aptly-named Disappointment Peak, only to realize that the actual Glacier Peak summit is still a ways away.

All of the glaciers you cross on this climb, including the White Chuck (which is all but completely receded at this point) and the Cool Glacier, are fairly easy to navigate. The climbing on the Cool Glacier is easy snow climbing, at best, though, depending on how much snow there is at the top you may need to do a small bit of 3rd or 4th class scrambling to reach the top of the summit cone.

While the particularly strong among us might be able to climb Glacier Peak in one day, most of us will make it a multi-day trip. Luckily, camping options are plentiful before you reach the mountain and once on the peak, you can choose to set up a base camp on a moraine or glacier. Additionally, more intrepid climbers might attempt to go up and over Glacier Peak via the Cool Glacier but then descend down the Dusty Glacier to meet up again with the PCT on the mountain’s northern flank.

Thus, the Cool Glacier route is a nice option for people who feel solid in their snow-climbing and glacier-crossing mountaineering and navigation skills, but want to test themselves on something more remote and less well-traveled than Glacier Peak’s better-known neighbors – Mount Rainier and Mount Baker.

Chocolate Glacier – Steep Snow, AI3, Grade III

Total Mileage: 34.3mi/55km RT

Vertical gain and loss: +10,766ft (3,281m) /-2,305ft(-702m)

Estimated trip duration: 3-4 days

Route download: Click the “open in CalTopo” link on the map below and go to “export” for the .gpx file. You can then add the route to your preferred GPS device or APP.

For those of us who really want to get off of the beaten path, the Chocolate Glacier Route on Glacier Peak is a fantastic option for some slightly-more spicy climbing. One can (and probably should) approach the Chocolate Glacier from White Pass, just as one would for a climb of the Cool Glacier. Instead of heading up the Cool, however, would-be climbers of the Chocolate Glacier should simply traverse the Cool Glacier toward the moraine on its east-northeast edge.

One can choose to camp on this moraine, which, from personal experience, I can tell you offers fantastic views of the mountain. From this moraine, you can head directly up the Chocolate glacier, which features steep snow climbing and tricky glacier navigation.

Just before the summit cone, depending on the snow conditions, you may find yourself face-to-face with some moderate AI3 ice. That being said, it is possible to avoid this ice, but it adds some distance to your climb.

The main thing to keep in mind about this route is that there is often active rock fall from the cliffs around the Chocolate Glacier, so keep your head on a swivel and stay attuned to your surroundings as you climb. A potential way to minimize your risk to this rockfall is to start your climb early to avoid the mid-afternoon heat and thawing that usually occurs each day. However, climbers need to be prepared to make their own dynamic risk assessment as they climb and should be prepared to turn around if the conditions demand it.

For the descent, climbers can choose to head back down the Chocolate Glacier and retrace their steps back to White Pass. Another, highly recommended option, is to descend via the Cool Glacier, which offers much easier terrain for when you’re tired at the end of the day. The only descent that I would certainly not recommend is to try to follow the Chocolate River drainage as the trail at is base is challenging, at best, to find.

Helpful Resources:

There are plenty of excellent resources available for anyone looking to climb in the North Cascades and on Glacier Peak. Here are some of the best…

  • Fred Beckey’s Cascade Alpine Guide – Volume 2 – This book is the end-all-be-all when it comes to climbing guidebooks in the North Cascades. It includes route descriptions that climbers have relied upon for more than 25 years. But, don’t expect step-by-step directions in this book – Beckey believed strongly in self-reliance, so climbers should use the book as a guide, not a safety blanket.
  • Washington Trails Association – The Washington Trails Association website has lots of information about the states’ trail network. They often post up-to-date information about the current state of trails, so it’s worth checking in with them before you head out.
  • Northwest Avalanche Center – If you’re contemplating a winter or shoulder-season climb of Glacier Peak, you should definitely check out the avalanche advisory before you head out. While the advisory can’t make decisions for you, it’s a great tool to use to assess conditions before you ever leave your home. Climbers should seek out proper avalanche training from an American Avalanche Association (A3) recommended organization before heading out into avalanche terrain.

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A Climber’s Guide to Glacier Peak Mountain In Washington

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