The Kololo Peaks are a sprawling massif three miles south of Glacier Peak in the North-Central Cascades. The massif is really one mountain with a plural name, akin to Illabot Peaks and Hidden Lake Peaks. The mountain is formed of serrations trending in multiple directions but is mostly known for two other aspects: it resides atop a high plateau and this plateau is formed of many low-angle glaciers. In fact, Kololo Peaks cradles four glaciers—two of which are still quite active/sizable and two of which that have receded into mere shells of their former selves.
Of further interest, because Kololo is atop a plateau, it is not all that unexpected that the peak forms a sort of triple divide point: The White River Glacier drains to the White River on the south; the White Chuck Glacier (or what’s left of it*) drains to the White Chuck River on the west; and the Suiattle Glacier and the Honeycomb Glacier drain to the Suiattle River on the northeast. The Honeycomb Glacier is aptly named (or I discovered as much when I was there) as it contains crisscrossing crevasses even on its most benign, flat surface. There is an unofficially named summit next to the glacier called “The Hive” (Pk 7560+, 440P). Makes sense to me now. I did not climb The Hive but I did climb “Kopeetah Divide” (Pk 7723; 563P) northeast of Kololo Peaks. The divide cleaves the upper Suiattle River drainage, ushering the Suiattle Glacier meltwaters to its north and the Honeycomb meltwaters to its south.
There are two 8,200+ closed contours at the summit. Both are higher than a crag to the east triangulated at 8,197 ft. There is also a flat-topped summit to the ESE that comes in at 8,160+ ft. Of the two 8,200+ summit points, the easterly is the highest by 10-15 feet. Neither summit is hard to climb (Class 2). The difficulty would be in glacier crevassing, or the arduousness of approaches to the massif.
* The current USGS map (and Topozone) shows an expansive ice sheet for the White Chuck Glacier. I can assure you, having now been there in late September, that none of this is true anymore. The upper cirque immediately west of Kololo’s summit down to about 6,800 ft contains the largest remnant. The crevasses on it are mostly tight cracks easily stepped over. There is also a little bit of ice northwest of Pt. 7829 but this is just a sloping ice sheet under a face. All the rest of the terrain—including the ground all the way up to Glacier Gap--is merely boulders, sand, slabs, rubble, and a pockmarking of tarns (some of them large enough to be called lakes). It’s really quite sad to see, the effects of global warming, no doubt. An excellent scientific analysis for this dying glacier can be found here.
There are three viable approaches to the Kololo Peaks. All are long, 12+ mile affairs. The route from the west via the North Fork Sauk Trail and the one from the White River Trail are both about the same length (foot distance from the car) but the former contains more trail (80 percent), a trail which terminates at a higher overall elevation.
Still another route is from White Chuck River Road and the Pacific Crest Trail but, due to flood damage, is currently inaccessible. I will therefore forego expounding on that description…for now.
Driving to the North Fork Sauk Trail
From the town of Darrington (see a Washington state map), drive south on the Mountain Loop Highway. After about 10 miles the road turns to gravel. Continue 8 more miles to a junction. On the left is the Sloan Creek Road. Take it for 6.6 miles to a fork on the left leading a short distance to the trailhead (c. 2,050 ft).
Driving to the White River Trail
From U.S. 2 (Stevens Pass Highway) at Coles Corner (westbound, ~13 miles from Leavenworth), go north on SR-207. There are two tricky Y-intersections in about 4 miles, but the basic idea is to stay left so that you eventually begin driving past the north side of Lake Wenatchee. This is the White River Road. At the northwest end of the lake, pass the tiny hamlet of Telma (1910 ft). About a mile past Telma there is a junction. Go right to continue up WRR. In about 11 miles from the junction, the road ends (~21 miles from U.S. 2). It is paved for maybe the first half.
North Fork Sauk Approach & Climb
The trail starts at about 2,050 ft and immediately immerses itself in old growth forest and some very large trees. This will at least make the hike in more interesting. Some trail work has been done (including a pretty fancy wooden bridge over a short ravine that seems like wasteful effort, not to mention spending). In 3.5 miles cross Red Creek and perhaps the last good water (i.e., water that is not laden with glacial flour) for a while. In 5 miles reach Mackinaw Shelter and good camping (3,000 ft). After this the trail goes up and up and up at first mostly through an avalanche swathe. You can tell the trail was there before the avalanche tore through. In about 3 more miles (8 miles from the car) reach the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at 6,000 ft high on the south slopes of White Mountain. From here there are two options to continue, maybe even three:
Option 1: Foam Pass Crossover
Take a right at the 6,000-ft junction heading east a quarter mile to White Pass (5,900 ft). Find a path at the pass that continues ENE under the southeast side of White Mountain high above the head of White River. Continue on the path (easy to follow) for about 1.3 miles to where a high shoulder is turned southeast of Pt. 6770 at the west edge of the Foam Creek* drainage. The path fades here but you don’t really need it anymore. Turn northward and head to this pass (6,600 ft). I’m calling this Foam Pass. Descend slightly to the other side. A little ways to the left at 6,250 ft is a nice grass-fringed tarn/lake for optimal camping unless you’d like to get closer. This is the tarn you will come to if approaching via Option 2 below. If you wish to camp closer to Kololo (and Glacier Peak) or want more privacy simply continue northward over the 6,700-ft saddle to the old flowing grounds of the much diminished White Chuck Glacier. The bedrock is flat but rubbly through here. There are many camping opportunities and five or six more tarns.
Trivia: Did you know this is the only “Foam Creek” in the United States?
Option 2: Red Pass Crossover
Note: if you go in via the Foam Pass approach, you can always go back via Red Pass in a loop. This route is perhaps 2 miles farther round-trip in the long run but if you have time or if you camp at the 6,250-ft tarn mentioned in Option 1, it may be a better option.
Instead of going right at the 6,000-ft PCT junction, go left and in 1.2 miles reach Red Pass (6,500 ft). A short hike up a boot path to Portal Peak (6,999 ft) is worth the effort for some outstanding views. Descend off the east side of the pass. In maybe about a mile or 1.5 miles leave the PCT where it bends leftward (northward) down the White Chuck River drainage and instead keep going east until you reach the 6,250-ft tarn mentioned in Option 1. The tarn is located here. All of this travel is through lovely parkland. There appears to be a path leading from the PCT to the tarn (junctioning off the former at about 5,300 ft).
(Option 3: White River Glacier Sport Route)
Take Option 1 but instead cross to the east side of Foam Creek and take a steep slope up and right (NNE) to the White River Glacier. If you go that way you can guarantee to not see anyone else…unless you do.
The Climb (West Side)
Note: in late season this route can be done with little or no glacier travel. There is a glacial apron just below the west summit but it is so low-angled you don’t really need crampons for it (but an ice axe or trekking poles would be handy).
From the 6,250-ft tarn camp (or places closer), hike up to the west side of the peak where the once mighty White Chuck Glacier used to flow but now ebbs. This is here about a mile due west of the summit (c. 6,800 ft). The remnant White Chuck Glacier occupies the higher cirque there. The idea is to keep to its left on talus and rubbly terrain (or snow in early season), passing up through a couple of minor cliff bands (Class 2+). Pass the outlet of an ice-filled sub-cirque WNW of the summit and continue up slabs to about 7,700 ft just below the west summit. Climb directly up across a low-angle ice sheet (150 yards) to rock beyond. Hike up to the west summit (Class 2) then descend below its south side on easy ledges to the true summit.
Time = 2-3 hours from the tarn at 6,250 ft
Gain = 2,000 ft from the tarn
White River Approach & Climb
Hike the White River Trail for approximately 10 miles to where it crosses Lightning Creek (3,200 ft). Leave the trail and head north up the west side of the creek for 600 vertical feet then turn left and bear WNW up a fairly easy slope You could probably do Kololo from a camp at the mouth of Lightning Creek, but if you wanted to get closer it looks like a good campsite would be at 6,000 ft on this flat shoulder.
The Climb (South Side)
From the flat shoulder at 6,000 ft, hike up the ridge NNW to its end on a bulge at 7,200 ft. Go over the bulge or to its left into a small basin below Kololo’s east summit (Pt. 8160+). Turn west and go a quarter-mile to a saddle at 7,400 ft. Turn right and ascend the ridge that forms the east side of the White River Glacier cirque. When feasible, drop left onto the upper glacier (at c. 7,700 ft) and diagonal up and left where the cirque arcs toward the summit. Scramble up onto the talus and ledges below the summit then scramble up as necessary. Class 2+.
Time = 4-5 hours from White River Trail; 2 hours from the flat shoulder at 6,000 ft
Gain = 5,000 ft from the trail; 2,200 ft from the flat shoulder
Currently a Northwest Forest Pass (Trail Park Pass) is required for the North Fork Sauk and White River trailheads. Kololo Peaks and the surrounding environs are located within the Glacier Peak Wilderness, so standard wilderness ethics should be applied.
When To Climb
If you climb Kololo Peaks and/or Glacier Peak in late summer you will have a benefit and a detriment: the benefit being that all crevasses will be open and easily seen, thus avoided; the detriment being more ice walking with crampons and more walking over rubbly terrain. All in all, I would say early summer will offer the middle ground. But conceivably, you could climb Kololo (and, by extension, Glacier) year-round provided you could get to the North Fork Sauk Trailhead (2,000 ft). (The White River Road is usually closed in winter.)
There are several camping choices along the way if coming via the North Fork Sauk Trail. Once you cross over the White Chuck River-White River Divide there is a first basin with a grass-fringed lake. You can get here one of two ways: via Foam Pass or Red Pass (see North Fork Approach section above). If Kololo Peaks would be your only objective (no Glacier Peak in the cards), this would be a great campsite. If you continue on farther toward the peak the terrain becomes more barren. There are still plenty of flat spots, though.
- Demise of the White Chuck Glacier
A scientific study from Nichols College of the massive reduction of this glacier over the last century.