I can’t say that it’s common to cross multiple glaciers for a single climb. Sure, traversing might get you on several glaciers like the Ptarmigan Traverse or Isolation Traverse. The standard Camp Muir/DC route on Rainier passes 2 glaciers, but generally on many climbs (that I’ve done at least), you sort of pick a glacier to tackle and then climb that one glacier to reach a single summit.
But Snowfield is quite different. A col divides the Snowfield group into two sections, a lower cirque boasting Colonial Glacier and and upper section that is still somehow a saddle point with Neve Glacier spilling out onto two opposing tongues. It is such an odd phenomena and I was just constantly amazed by these open glaciers throughout the whole trip. Most pictures are from early season where everything is covered, and there aren’t many pictures that fully encapsulate how wide Neve Glacier is!
So about the trip
Originally, Evelyne and I wanted to explore the Pickets, but given the long weekend, it would be a fight for the few permits that exist. The Picket Range in the North Cascades is a highly coveted destination for many climbers and two moderately easier peaks to climb are West McMillan Spire and Luna Peak. They are less technical and were cut short from the Washington’s 100 highest peak list (the Bulgers). Knowing that it was possible that we wouldn’t get the permits for the Pickets, we had backup Plan B (another permit region) and even Plan C (no permits) all in the North Cascades. The day before we wanted to leave, we checked the Backcountry Camp Availability and as expected, no more Picket permits left. The system works as such: go in person the day of or before your trip and take your permit first-come, first-serve. Sometimes there are permits than can be reserved way in advance, or by email, but those are fairly unusual circumstances. The whole national park is divided up into regions with different number of availability per spot. A nifty map for how it’s divided is linked here.
As with every adventure, they begin prior to stepping foot on a trail. Ours truly began at the Marblemount Ranger Station, a Wilderness Info Center that distributes permits. At 7:30am, we got our number – more than 30 groups ahead of us, and only 2 rangers available to issue permits. Everyone was politely standing >10 feet apart due to the pandemic, and we continued eating our breakfasts as we waited for the ticker to get closer to our number. At this rate, it seemed they would only go through 15 groups per hour. Should we wait 2+ hours or just head over to our no-permit Plan C? We concluded it was a short enough trip even with the longer drive, that we can make the decision by 10am. Just keep waiting, waiting, waiting, what do we do? We wait, wait, wait. And all of a sudden it seemed like people just couldn’t wait and the kept calling the next numbers, and before we knew it, 1.5 hours later we had a permit in hand!
We drove another half hour east to the Pyramid Lake trailhead. Unintuitively, the parking was on the opposite side of the trailhead and was more of an extended shoulder than anything. But we parked, repacked a bit, stuffed our faces more with some food for morning energy and headed on up. The Pyramid Lake trail was fairly short, but there are some steeper, rocky sections to a pretty underwhelming lake. So underwhelming I didn’t even take pictures. First, the lake was mirky (later on our way out, I realized that with certain lighting it was actually a pretty blue-green in parts). Second, there was no Pyramid Peak to be seen from the very sheltered lake. From the trailhead to the lake, it took us about an hour for a little under 2 miles and 1500 ft gain.
And then began the steeper climber’s trail, albeit one of the nicer climber’s trails I’ve been on. It would offer some flat sections that was enjoyable between the steeper climbs. We soon passed a couple who were also at the ranger station this morning. And we continued on up another 40 min (1 mile and another 1500 ft) after the lake to what we endearingly called our “Lily Pond”. Here, we took a nice snack/lunch break, enjoying views of the Hwy 20 valley bellow and up towards Colonial Peak. Snowfield still remained behind the mountains. And at last, we could finally see the famed Pyramid Peak that the lake had hinted on.
From here, we took another hour or so to get to what people call “high camp”. We traversed some boulders and navigated around snow and surprise, surprise, a glacial lake awaited us. Evelyne had done this peak several years ago when the snow coverage was higher and the lake was not to be seen. It wasn’t on our maps, but I would assume it’s called Colonial Lake since it overflows to Colonial Creek Falls. Wow was it gorgeous and these dwarf fireweed were still blooming! Looking up, we saw looming before us, Colonial Glacier. It seemed quite formidable with all its cracks and bare ice.
Dedicated to go to high camp at the col, as opposed to high camp at the lake, very confusing I know, we kept going further. Anyhow, we still had a lot of day light. We’d spent just about 3 hours to get to the glacier lake, going up about 5000 ft and losing 500 ft during a traverse. We had enough steam to keep going! Unsure about running water at the col, we filled up on water. Me with my 1L and Evelyne with her 3L. We started traversing over the ridge to reach the other side, passing a few nice bivy spots.
Once we reached to the other end of the lake, we got our glacier gear on. Surprisingly to me, we made it across the glacier without much fuss. I mean, maybe we stopped every couple minutes to take pictures, but this is what I love about Evelyne! We both got our share of wonder and tried capturing what we so enjoyed in the moment. Between looking at the icy blue creeks in the glacier, the deep crevasses, and that milky green glacier lake, we were in love with the mountains. This had to be the most leisurely glacier crossing I’ve done! Just 800 ft later, we could peer over the Colonial-Neve Col. We met 2 others camped right at the intersection, but we took a bivy spot just a little further away with an on-looking mother goat and her kid.
What is a bivy?
I’ve gotten this question before and honestly haven’t bivvied in quite some time! Bivy is short for bivouac, a french word for temporary camp. I suppose bivouacs aren’t supposed to be the comfiest things, but they’ll keep you sheltered. It’s commonly done when there’s not enough space for a tent, such as on a big technical climb up a mountain, where the entire terrain is just rocks. So then, you find the nicest, flattest rock and sleep on that.
Typically for comfort, one would still bring a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, although if you’re really roughing it, you could go with just your warmest layers. And then to go around your sleeping things, there’s something called a bivy sack that’s a one person mummy bag to protect you from the elements, particularly wind and rain. It’s not necessary to “bivy” but can be helpful. I’ve had many friends argue that 1-person tents are more worth it if you’re actually needing to hide from weather. But in a nutshell, a bivy is a small camp spot!
Back to the the report
Not wanting to delay dinner further, I quickly headed up the nearby peak, which I previously thought was unnamed, but is actually named Névé Peak! I left Evelyne with the stove so she could get started on her meal, but I was excited to explore and see more 360 views. With my telephoto lens in one pocket of my jacket, and phone in the other, I started scrambling. Every time I looked behind me, I either gasped or said wow. Because wow were the views getting more and more incredible. Névé isn’t that grand of a peak. It’s kind of a rolling hillside for the most part, so it’s hard to get a full view of Snowfield or even of the nearby mountains without some sort of bottom cropping. But wow oh wow. Bam! We got Baker, we got the Pickets, we got Jack and Ruby, Logan, even Mesahchie, and way out toward the Olympics. But by far the coolest thing was looking at the Neve Glacier. It’s the most surprising and spectacular glacier I’ve laid eyes on.
Like I mentioned earlier, Neve is sort of an interesting glacier. It unusually spills out to two different tongues. Snowfield uniquely has the perfect slopes to host a north facing glacier and the unique landform with Colonial that creates another wall, forcing the glacier to split left and right. I later learned that the westward flowing glacier is called the Ladder Creek Glacier, and the eastward flowing has no name. But it seems technically they’re all one glacier. Not that many exist this way!
And the glacier is not only remarkable due to its shape, but the detailed crevasses. It was a beauty to behold. And through my camera, I spotted a nice tarn with two large flowing waterfalls out east. I wished to share this view with Evelyne, but I suppose photos will do. If you were to look at my GPS tracks, you’d find that I was running every which way, trying to get a better view here and there and everywhere. But enough of pictures, I thought, since I told Evelyne I wouldn’t be long. I sauntered down as the sun began to set further over the horizon.
As I ate my mac and cheese with the best glacier views, I couldn’t have been more content. The weather was perfect, the sky was lit. Soon enough, I’d gobbled down my food and started running around again to get more pictures with the constantly changing colors. We waited for the sunlight to hit Snowfield, but it never did. Maybe due to the angle of the sun and other peaks in the way or the low clouds.
But then all of a sudden, we were surprised by the most amazing pinks on the crevasses below us! It happened for maybe a minute or so, barely enough time for me to get a good look with my camera. Sunsets are always too short, just some 30 minutes as the sunlight diminishes on the peaks in those alpenglow pink hues. But then there’s always a few more minutes of blue hour when the sky takes its turn in the spotlight.
After taking a few more pictures, I got cozy into my sleeping bag and dozed off until the western horizon was no longer bright. I knew the moonrise was happening soon, so I quickly got some night photography practice in. Within an hour, the sky grew brighter and stars were no longer the brightest objects in the sky. That called for an end to the session and I slept till our alarm for 5 am. I’m never a morning person unless I have a purpose – like seeing the sunrise on the glacier!
We scrambled down one of the nicest gullies I’ve been on, solid rock and not steep at all. And then we reached the edge of the snow, just in time to see alpenglow on Baker in the distance. Again with the glacier gear with a little mishap of Evelyne’s helmet falling down some 50 feet, bouncing until a rock halted its movement. After the little detour, we headed up the saddle point of the glacier. Still in awe of this ice formation!
We had planned for a leisurely 3 hours to reach the summit and boy did it take those whole 3 hours. Because we just HAD to take all the pictures! Most of the time, I’d let Evelyne decide when to stop so it we would at least make more progress. But those hours passed by so fast between crevasse investigations and making googly eyes at everything around us. The glacier was more open than our expectations before the trip, but common for late season. We only had to detour twice to move around those cracks. And then we passed an actual snowfield at the top of the glacier! I was seriously doubting the naming of this peak haha.
Once we gained the ridge, it was a fairly short scramble, class 2 to start with, then teetering on exposed class 3 climbing. We made good use of the Mountaineer’s description of the scramble to get around one of the steep gullies. Sometimes the easiest way up is quite a nice route. On the top of Snowfield, we spent some solid time enjoying the views of the marine layer below and the layers and layers of mountains around us. And like any climb, there comes a time where one must descend.
On our way down the scramble, we met the 2 other guys coming up, we knew that they had awaken but hadn’t seen them get on the glacier. So it was both a surprise and expected. But jolly ho we headed down, retracing our tracks. In our minds, saying “you’re welcome” to all the people following us for creating the tracks. It was so nice to have climbed the peak all alone! On our way down we met another party who oddly did not rope up. We were quite perplexed to their risk decision since Evelyne’s leg got mildly sucked into an unknown crevasse on the way down despite having avoided most of the cracks. For me, it is safest to rope up, especially with crevasses both exposed and unexposed this time of year, but I suppose some might make the argument for going without?
Back at the col, we enjoyed lunch and met up with another couple (the one from the ranger station) who were just about to head down to the Neve, having camped further below. We were enjoying ourselves too much and had plenty of time, it wasn’t even noon! Initially, we planned to climb all three humps on the ridge west of Colonial, but Pyramid Peak and Pinnacle Peak did not look fun to scramble to. It would take much longer traversing on steep ice and scree without stiffer shoes to travel with. So with the only plan of Paul Bunyan and a dip in the lake before 5pm (when the shade would inevitably cover the lake), we had a lazy plan.
Once we packed, we traversed over to the saddle that starts the climb to Paul Bunyan’s Stump. We chose a route that let us stay on the rocks as much as possible and able to skirt around the crevasse sections of the glacier. Unsure if the moats were crossable, we decided to investigate up close. We found a spot that was perfect and stepped over to the rock and easily reached the scramble. I don’t think any other group during our stay made it here. You don’t know till you try sometimes!
The scramble was somehow longer than I expected. The stump just wouldn’t get any closer, but at least we could get a really good look at the west tongue of the Neve Glacier, also known as the Ladder Creek Glacier. It was so bulbous and crazy to see how large the glacier sits next the rock. Plus 2 beautiful tarns!
We took another nice long break on top of Paul Bunyan and admired the views and reflected on climbing experiences. I particularly enjoyed the views of the lake below from this angle. Warm air was blowing all around and we continued back down to finish off our lazy day. Getting back to camp, we crossed over the Colonial Glacier once more and explored the little cave on the southeast corner of the lake. As we filled our water bottles again, the unroped team passed us on their way back to camp. We were still perplexed, but happy to know they made it back alright.
Again we set up our little bivy camp. But as amazing as the most open views were looking out to the valley, my one little thing was that it was so incredibly windy. In the evening we were battling the wind coming off the glacier and in the morning the wind from the valley below. The bivy sack was definitely important in fending off the wind. At least the wind was never too cold. It just made for some interesting travel and a lot of huddling in our sleeping bags. We eventually saw the couple return from their summit day and they seemed to have made friends with the unroped team. But we stayed in our little bivy.
The next morning, I barely awoke for sunrise. It was quite cloudier than the day before and we did not get to enjoy the same alpenglow as the day before. Instead, we got cool sun rays that shone through the clouds. As we watched the dancing clouds, the other two groups left camp. Determined to wait out the wind, we napped till 9am. But the wind never died down. I’m no good at estimating speeds, but I must say it was blowing well over 30 mph because once we got packed and going, the wind was still strong enough to knock me over if I wasn’t grounding myself with my poles. All I could think about was not to be overcome by the wind and knock my legs on a rock or go flying down the waterfall.
No tragedies, we made it across to lower winds and a much easier traverse back to the climbers trail and all the way back to our lily pond, Pyramid Lake, and several switchbacks of: I hear the cars, maybe it’s next bump, or the next! And we also caught up with that first couple! It was nice to have company at the end just for one last hurrah, we made it back to the comforts of our cars!
But truly, Snowfield + other minor peaks was a great way to vacation and enjoy some awesome views! Not to mention having an all-female 2-person team was a pleasant change from my past trips!
The trail is easy to follow from Pyramid Lake and takes you all the way to the rock field. With good visibility, you can see where you’re going and just pick your way over. There are some cairns if you wish to follow them too.
Late season glaciers are pretty awesome to explore. You should still be careful of falling into cracks, but the ice is fairly exposed and easy to navigate.
The col beneath Neve has some blocked views but plenty of sites for bivy or small tents and offers quick access to alpenglow views.