bpw   Benjamin P. Wood
My. Olympus west summit peeks through the clouds, from Snow Dome

Olympus

Sometime last spring Nick convinced me to join him on a trip to climb Mt. Olympus this summer. I was skeptical. I consider myself a backpacker, an aspiring long-distance hiker. I travel fairly light. Climbing gear is usually not light, at least by my standards. I've been fairly happy with my relatively uneventful relationship with gravity, with relying on my feet and hands for safety, without a rope or harness or helmet for just in case. But Nick convinced me I could handle everything we'd encounter and promised that we'd do plenty of training beforehand. I agreed. It turned out well, because I was also starting to think about multi-modal adventures, combining more than one mode of self-powered transportation for a trip, and simultaneously discovering that, in a high snow year like this one, sticking strictly to the hiker's world could be limiting. If I could self-arrest with an ice axe, use crampons, etc., many more options would open up in the backcountry. It worked out well, as about half of my trips for the summer were enabled or improved by these new skills and tools.

Going into the summer, Olympus was the only specific destination I had planned; it ended up being the last – and most intense – trip of the summer. Most parties take 4, maybe 3 days for the trip, as the approach alone is about 18 miles one way up the Hoh River Trail to Glacier Meadows, and the full trip is probably 45 miles or so. The weather of the western Olympics is not exactly expected to be cooperative, either. Olympus gets over 200 inches of precipitation a year (that measures it as though it's all melted down to rain) and the rainforests here are not rainforests for nothing. Nick, Adam, and Jeff started Friday midday and finished Monday afternoon, but I had a tighter schedule, so I drove out Friday night and back Monday morning, taking advantage of the long flat river valley walk to book it in and out, meeting them farther up the valley, and making it about a 49-hour trip (though about 28 of those miles were covered in about 9 of those hours).

With my helmet, ice axe, crampons, harness, and miscellaneous carabiners, webbing, and cord, my pack weighed 17 pounds before food and water. I'd be sharing a tent that night at the group camp (Thanks to Jeff for doing the heavy lifting), so I only carried a light breathable bivy despite the forecast for some showers and rain. Knowing I'd have to move fast and that I had to add in the heavy climbing gear, I made sure the rest of the kit was carefully slimmed. After great performance from my claw-like SpeedCross shoes with crampons (flexible bars) on Baker and without on Maude and Adams, I decided to leave the boots at the car. (On Baker, I carried them all the way to the top just in case, but never wore them.) I knew from hiking in mesh trail runners through a 3-day snow and rainstorm in the Desolation Wilderness, and then multiple days of moderate to cold temps with snow on the ground on my late October Tahoe Rim Trail trip last year that my feet could stay warm in trail runners in wet or slightly below freezing temperatures so long as my legs did and I had fuel (food) to keep the furnace running. For the actual climbing, I'd be carrying an even lighter load, so I had fewer concerns about ankle support. (For whatever reason, I stumble, trip, and wrench things more in boots than in low shoes, plus I get more blisters...) This turned out to be a good decision that saved me however many pounds my boots weigh. (No way was I going to do the approach hike in boots!) I did end up doing a wet-light-socks-for-dry-heavy-socks swap out during the climb, but more as a preemptive measure than due to any discomfort or coldness.

I arrived at the trailhead a little after 11pm on Friday night, slept for a few hours, then hit the trail at 6:35am, meeting the rest of the guys just as they were ready to leave their camp 10.5 miles up the valley at Lewis Meadows, a little past 10am. Even though I was moving fast, I enjoyed the scenery along this section, with morning mist here and there in the valley, lots of green, and tinges of autumn color beginning to appear. I met nobody until near Olympus Guard Station (9.5 miles in), where I ran into a crew of 4 likely-retired guys heading down valley. They looked like they were having a grand trip and were just as pleased with the day as I was. One of them stopped and asked me about the brush along the trail that looked like it had been tackled by a bush-hog or weed whacker.

"Do they usually cut back the brush so much like that?"

"I'm not sure; it does look excessive."

"Oh, you're not a ranger are you..."

"Nope, just wearing khaki!"

We had a chuckle about that. I guess the khaki buttoned shirt, khaki/drab shorts, small pack, and fast pace must qualify me for the ranger fashion show!

After meeting the rest of the guys and heading farther up the valley, beyond the High Hoh bridge (the verdict was Hoh Hum – it didn't live up to everyone's expectations), we ran into two small parties coming down. Both of them warned us with mild concern that the rangers were in the process of removing The Rope Ladder! I knew there was a spot where an entire hillside had sloughed away in a landslide, taking the trail with it, and that there was a handline for descending and ascending there, but I had no idea there would be luxuries like a rope ladder. We had high expectations for this (now removed) rope ladder and it had become The Joke of the trip by the time we arrived there. Indeed I would not have called it a rope ladder. It had wooden rungs about 3 or 4 feet long and 4 inches in diameter, strung by what looked like metal cable. Of course, it was all wound up and only the hefty handline I was expecting was in place. We made it through uneventfully and made camp at Glacier Meadows mid-afternoon, where we had all 17 established sites to ourselves. We walked up to the lateral moraine that evening to scout the route for the next morning. While Olympus itself had its head in the clouds, the icefalls and lower reaches of the Blue Glacier were pretty spectacular.

We finally got moving about 2:30am after a 1am wake-up call. By the time we were up at the moraine, it was raining, and the wind and rain picked up significantly as we descended to the glacier, roped up, and started across. Behind us, we could hear rockfall after rockfall coming down other parts of the moraine. Getting across the glacier was interesting in the dark, being pounded by heavy wind and rain, with no moonlight. Let's say it made navigation more fun. By the time we'd reached the other side and started climbing up to Snow Dome, it started to get light, the rain mostly dissipated, and we were left with strong wind and clouds whipping through. Visibility was still pretty limited by the clouds, but occasional windows would open up and we could quickly get our bearings on a distant landmark. Nonetheless, we still made use of an altimeter to contour over to Crystal Pass, unable to see the pass through clouds until we were right in front of it – perfect navigation! On the other side, the clouds thinned some as we rose to just about their top margin.

From here, the rest of the summit approach was a quick scramble over the false summit, after which we could choose a class 4 scramble up the east face of the summit block, with a couple tough moves, or a climb up a steep (did someone say 55 degrees??) snow slope, a quick drop around the north side of the summit, a class 3 scramble part way up the summit block, then 5.4 climbing the rest of the way. Nick had already asked if I (the official newbie) was game to give the more technical route a shot (I was), so we took the latter option. Of course, the joke (not taken lightly until we were up and down safely) was that my first rock climbing experience was happening over 20 miles from the road. Other than one tough slightly overhanging spot that kept me puzzled for quite a while, it was quite manageable. The summit was pretty airy on top, and even though the clouds obscured any massive views, it was fascinating to watch pieces of landscape jump in and out of view. We were sitting over 20 miles' walk from a road, and higher than any other point within a 108-mile radius. This summit was certainly more rewarding than Baker's even though the views and elevation were both lesser. The crowds were certainly lesser – other than one ranger on the lower reaches of the glacier, we were the only people on or near the summit that day.

On the way down, I got to do my first-ever rappel off the summit block. This started with some trepidation, but by the time I reached the bottom, I was mostly having fun. The rest of the route down was fairly uneventful and quick, especially now that the clouds were lifting and thinning. Returning across the lower stretches of the glacier, we could here water running deep below the surface. It sounded more like distant conversation or even singing at times, so we decided it must be the river of lost souls.

Despite a fairly quick return, the tough weather and navigation earlier in the day had slowed us down signficantly. The average round trip climb from Glacier Meadows is supposedly 11 hours, but it took us closer to 16. We made it back to camp around 6:15pm. Of course, in order to make it to work for a late day on Monday, I had several miles more to cover that evening, but I hung around camp for a while, airing gear, filtering water for the crew, eating some dinner, and feeling pleased that while everyone else was tenderly inspecting the damage their boots had inflicted on their feet, I couldn't even find a hotspot on mine. Oh how my feet love the right shoes.

I finally hit the trail about 7:45pm, and made it up the rope-ladder-less line just as dusk was closing in. Three hours and change later, as my legs began to complain and my mind started to go on interesting excursions after 22 hours awake (and an average of 4-5 hours of sleep the previous three nights), I finally pulled into Olympus Guard Station and threw down a quick bivy camp. This was not as far as I had orginally anticipated I would make it Sunday night, but I had not anticipated the climb taking so long either. There was a 40% chance of showers forecast for the night the last time I'd checked, so I found a spot under heavy deciduous leaf cover and tied a line so I could quickly improvise an emergency blanket tarp if rain arrived. Of course, if it did rain, I probably would have decided to cut my losses and just hit the trail, but happily, it didn't, and by the time I hit the trail just after 5am, I could even spy a few stars. The walk out went pretty quickly, even with the first half done by headlamp with an occasional assist in an open area by the moon. Until meeting a photographer mere paces from the trailhead, it was just me, the elk, and a gorgeous misty morning along the Hoh. I hit the trailhead about 10 of 8 and, after tanking up on water for the drive home and changing into my non-ranger uniform, took off for Seattle. I was feeling the lack of sleep even before getting out to US 101, and had to snack nearly continuously to stay comfortably awake on the drive back to Seattle. (I finally did take a brief nap in Olympia.)

I actually enjoyed the intensity of this trip quite thoroughly. We were all having thoughts on the way up the glacier in the wind and dark and rain that if the weather took a slight turn, we would have to retreat. The short rock climb and the rappel expanded the boundaries of what I knew I could do and they challenged me in different ways, but not so much as to make me panic or give up. The short efforts to book it in and out of the valley were actually easier and more fun than I anticipated (not that I'd thought of them as challenging or painful, but perhaps as chores to get done), even with little sleep, and I had more left in the tank after each than I would have expected. Compared to the approach in and out, most of the rest of the trip was quite leisurely. I even have had thoughts that maybe adventure races aren't so pointless after all – I might even enjoy a sustained effort like that. Though I still doubt that I measure up on the athleticism scale, I had been more bothered by my perception that it was for athleticism's sake alone that these sorts of efforts are put forth. I can now start to see that such a trip could still be enjoyed in other ways too.