Mount Olympus, Olympic National Park
I was delighted to see the morning light battering its way through the dense rain forest of the Hoh River Valley, for it brought warmth and cheer to me. I was on yet another climb with eleven other people, members of the Mountaineers, I didn't yet know, heading up the long approach trail to Glacier Meadows, the jumping off point for Mount Olympus.
June 30-July 2, 2006
Mount Olympus is the highest peak on the Olympic peninsula at around 7900 feet. While a small mountain by Cascade standards, the weather patterns in the Olympics make it seem much higher. Storms come off the Pacific and dump huge amounts of snow on the peninsula with a predictable result: Mount Olympus is heavily glaciated. The Hoh River trail would lead us for 18 miles, rising from 500 feet above sea level to 4300 feet at Glacier Meadows.
From the very start, laughter was our constant companion on the approach in, which I took as a very good sign for the future. There were seven of us setting out, with five more already in the hills. Stories were swapped, and not just of the climbing variety: Everyone seemed to want to learn about the others in the group. Some knew each other already, others were in my position. The group was rapidly forming into an actual climbing party and everyone seemed thrilled to be exactly where they were. By the time we reached the last outpost of the park rangers, the Olympus Guard Station nine miles up the valley, we were well on our way to becoming cohesive. I had never before experienced so rapid a transition from stranger to acquaintance to friend as I did this morning.
Part of the transition was no doubt due to the mild nature of the terrain, which gave us plenty of time to chat as we strolled through the forest. Part of it was certainly due to several extroverts who catalyzed the process. But mostly it was a mystery to me: Strangers a few hours earlier had bonded quickly. The problems of how and why would make for an interesting psychological research project.
The warm morning merged into a hot afternoon as we began the actual uphill portion of the trail. Near the High Hoh bridge we encountered three more of our party who had started the long approach the day before. Also at the bridge was a young wanderer named Dan, who was out for a few days. I linked up with Dan and we ascended hard to Elk Lake, chatting about the our respective outdoor experiences. Dan was from Salt Lake City and was out visiting the area, taking a few days in the best areas of Washington and, eventually, the path back to Utah. Lathered in sweat at Elk Lake, I stopped to wait for the others and Dan charged off for Glacier Meadows, only a few miles above.
After an hours rest, the whole party was again together, though we set off for Glacier Meadows in small groups. Slowly the forest was giving way, for treeline here was very low: 4500 feet. Views off to the Snow Dome, a prominent feature we would be climbing tomorrow, and Panic Peak, along with Mount Tom and its impressive valley, were had at a few select spots along the trail. A short bit of avalanched trail proved to be slightly heart racing, but we crossed it safely and arrived in Glacier Meadows.
Parked in a campsite we found the remaining two members of our climbing party lounging about. One had hiked the PCT in 2004, which gave us plenty to talk about as we set up camp and ate dinner. I was unsurprised that we had had many of the same experiences despite our hikes being separated by a year. The hours passed pleasantly over food and chit-chatting about the climb ahead. My amazement at the cohesion of the group after such a short period continued on, though the odd fact had lost some of its wonder as I grew more and more familiar with the people that I would be climbing with tomorrow. I felt strong and confident about the next day and was eagerly looking forward to the cold morning air when we could begin our first steps to Mount Olympus. Indeed, as I climbed into my bivy sack at 8:30, I found myself sleepless not with fear or trepidation, but rather with anticipation, just like a kid on Christmas Eve.
Three AM. O-dark-thirty. Whatever euphemism you give it, an alpine start to a glacier climb is rarely a pleasant activity. The air was cold at Glacier Meadows at 3 am and it wasn't any warmer at 4 am when we started up the last bit of constructed trail before we would take to the glacier and the land of snow and ice above. I led a moderate pace through the darkness, kicking steps up the remaining snow fields on the way to the lateral moraine of the Blue Glacier, which is normally the highlight for hikers coming to Glacier Meadows. When we crested out on the moraine, the word "highlight" seemed far too mean spirited to use in describing the sight.
I almost choked when the Blue Glacier appeared: An obviously flowing stream of ice coming off of a jagged icefall, below rocky spires and yet more glacier. The Blue sat inside a fearsome amphitheater of rock, bounded on all sides by towering peaks that had once sat at the bottom of the ocean. The rounded bump of Olympus could be seen easily on the far right, looking rather smaller than the surrounding peaks due to its distance from us. Two small figures, climbers who had left much earlier than us, could be seen crossing the Blue far in the distance. Our route was clear: Drop down, cross and ascend the Blue. Climb to the right to gain the top of Snow Dome. Cross the top of the Snow Dome and split the main summit complex at Crystal Pass. A massive bergschrund could be seen near the top of the more direct route to the summit block, making that shorter route a rather dangerous proposition.
We strolled along the morraine following a boot track, then put on helmets for the scramble down the scree of the moraine to gain the edge of the Blue, where we split into three rope teams. I was in the front of the last rope team, which was being run by John, the PCT hikers from 2004, and also held Mike, a retired community college instructor, and Perry, a Boeing engineer. It was the first time that I had been on the front of a rope while crossing a glacier, but the other two ropes in front would bear the brunt of the danger of crevasse falls. By the time we had all tied in, the alpinglow on the mountains was intense.
We moved out slowly, well behind the other two ropes, gaining elevation on the Blue in a calm, non-frenetic style, stopping occasionally so that I could probe at the lips of crevasses or for photo opportunities for the others. Most of the crevasses were well filled in with snow bridges, though there were many small cracks, whose depths I did not wish to know. We rounded a corner and began the climb toward Snow Dome, collecting with the others at a safe, flat spot along the way.
The climb up toward Snow Dome led over a short rocky stretch where, after I lost the direction the others went, we discovered a pool of fresh snow melt. I burned the location into my mind for the return trip, for I knew I would be thirsty by then, carrying only 2 liters of water for the ascent. The others were far ahead on the climb, but still within sight, as we started the main climb up Snow Dome. With big, solid steps already kicked for us by the hard work of the lead rope, we ascended easily the twenty five to thirty degree snow slope up to the huge flatness of Snow Dome. The large bergschrund that we spotted back at the moraine seemed even larger from here, but oddly enough there was a clear set of tracks that climbed up and around it on the steep snow. While the party clearly made it, and cut off a large amount of distance, they were also massively exposed to danger: A fall on the steep snow would, probably, result in a slide directly into the bergschrund and a rather cold burial place. We were going to climb below the bergschrund and to the left, splitting the complex at Crystal Pass, and traverse around and up to the snow below the true summit. Longer, but sure and safe.
Bob, our fearless leader, led a direct and easy track around the bergschrund and up to the pass, which was gained with remarkably little effort on our part. A short descent and a quick climb gained us the back side of the complex, where we found the others resting, hydrating, and eating before we made the final 700 foot push to the top. Fresh coatings of sunscreen graced all of our faces and layers were shed in attempt to protect our skin from the harsh reflected light and to keep our bodies as cool as possible in the intense heat.
We ascended slowly toward the false summit of Olympus, called Five Fingers, but were blocked by a moat at the top. Traversing around, we eventually gained solid rock and climbed through a fat-man-squeezer, which was easier to climb over than through. An exposed, narrow traverse on rock, with unsettled footing, was passed through without issue, though my heart was moving faster than it had on the climb up Snow Dome. And there we sat on the top of Five Fingers, looking out at the true summit just across the way. A party of two could be seen on the snowy east summit and another party of three was seen setting up a rappel off the true summit.
John, Patrick, and I had planned on climbing the 5th class section of rock the rappelers would be coming down. The route was not supposed to be difficult (either 5.0 or 5.4) and the rock was solid. Moreover, with a solid rope and a belay, I feel very comfortable. But we would have to wait for the climbers to completely clear the area before starting up, and that meant an hour or more before we even started the climb. It was the scramble for us, something I was less comfortable with, especially as the rock looked terrible, even from here.
Three elected to stay behind on Five Fingers while the rest of us set off down the loose, rocky gully that led to the snow and eventually the start of the scramble. Though I moved as carefully as I could, I started rocks cascading down toward the climbers below, who scattered out of the way after I bellowed out a warning. Unfortunately, I started a third one rolling slowly. Thinking it was not going anywhere, I concentrated on getting my feet right, only to look up and see it pass harmlessly by Patrick. A well earned rebuke came from him for my lack of a warning call.
After crossing the snow, we stashed our ice axes and began the scramble. Moving confidently on the class 3 scramble, we gained elevation quickly. But a hundred feet off the ground, nearing the 1/3 or 1/2 way point, I began to feel less and less confident. The rock was getting more and more rotten, though the moves were well within my ability. What was lacking was simple experience and confidence on the now class 4 terrain. Class 1 ground is a hiking path. Class 2 means you need to use hand holds and occasionally shuffle your feet. Class 3 is constantly using hand and foot holds to make upward progress. Class 4 terrain is more difficult and is frequently done unroped. A climber had made the difference between class 3 and class 4 terrain clear to me: Class 4 means if you fall, you'll die. There really wasn't any place to set a handline or a belay with a rope, for there wasn't anything solid to anchor onto. The rope would be symbolic, for if I had to hang on the rope after a fall, the rock would not support my weight. Myself and two others decided that the rest of the climb was not for us and, very nervously, down climbed a ways before we could get onto the snow and traverse above a yawning crevasse, then descend down to safe, flat snow. Before we began the scramble back up to Five Fingers, we watched the others struggling with the route, clearly on class 5 (normally roped) terrain, but without the safety of a belay. At one point we watched as Joe moved upward in a dihedral section, working hard, and had his foot holds break off. A tense moment ensued as we waited for Joe to regain his footing and finish the section. I was happy with my decision. Bob had reached the top and set a belay off of a solid rock near the summit for the other climbers to use on their own ascent and later on their descent. His goat-skills were impressive indeed.
The three of us scrambled to the top of Five Fingers and lounged with the others in the hot sun, watching the climbers celebrate on the top of Olympus. Though I had wanted to make the top, I was much happier here than I would have been there. After a short rest, Bob began a rappel down the side of the mountain, running out his rope as far as he could. Unfortunately, this didn't put him at the bottom of the mountain. Rather, the rappel put him just above where we had stopped climbing, forcing a downclimb that I would have been very, very nervous on.
It took some time for the climbers to return to Five Fingers, for each had to rappel and complete the down climb before anyone else could start down: The rock fall coming off the summit, caused by the rappeler, had a high probability of killing, or seriously injuring anyone unfortunate enough to be below. Again, I was happy with my decision and even got Don to taking a summit shot of me, something I hadn't done for many trips.
Perry, too, was very happy to be safe and sound on Five Fingers instead of on the rotten rock of the scramble. It was hard not to be happy: The views to Rainier and Baker in the far distance, the huge swath of the Bailey Range up close, and the snow capped, jagged peaks of the further ranges of the Olympics, broken apart by deep, glacially carved valleys, could not fail but to inspire even the most jaded scenery snob.
Bob appeared the top of Five Fingers and quickly gathered together a rope team to lead out, as the day was getting on and we needed to get through the, now, soft snow of Snow Dome and the Blue. John scrambled up shortly thereafter, but we all agreed to wait for Patrick, the final climber off the mountain. A second Patrick and Joe came up, with the last Patrick following more than an hour after the rappel began.
After resting for a while, the two remaining rope teams crossed the rocky traverse and the fat-man-squeezer, gaining snow once again. Although I was out in front, route finding was as easy as possible, for Bob's rope team had blazed the way down the snow and around Crystal Pass, back to the top of the Snow Dome. Thirst was beginning to get to all of us and I was concentrating more on reaching the pool of fresh water than I should have.
When on the front of a rope, you have to set the pace based on the others behind you, rather than on your own desires. I wanted to move fast across Snow Dome and could feel myself pulling the climber behind me harder than I should have. Bob's team had followed a different, steeper route down Snow Dome, though still well within my comfort range for plunge stepping. As I moved down the slope, not fighting my momentum, but rather using it, I could feel the pull behind me intensify. The climber behind me was clearly not as comfortable as I was, but I was blinded by thirst until I pulled him off of his feet and into the snow. The spell broken, I slowed the pace considerably and we walked to the pool in more comfort, where I apologized for my thoughtlessness. The affected climber didn't seem to think an apology necessary, but I did.
The cold, fresh water and the nearness of the moraine cheered everyone on the two rope teams. From here it seemed like a veritable walk-in-the-park to return to camp, though we knew this was still ninety minutes or more away. A huge rockfall, kicked off by a boulder the size of car, came screaming down the ice fall of the Blue, fortunately far away from our route. What caused the boulder to break loose just then would always be a mystery, serving as a reminder that one can never completely be free of dangers from above.
We dropped to the Blue as quickly as possible, crossed the soft snow without any problems, and climbed as high on the snow as possible before gaining the side of the moraine. Unfortunately we were well off the line of descent we had taken this morning and had to work very hard, after unroping, to climb the loose scree to the top of the moraine. All were happy to be back on terra firma, with easy trails and no objective dangers left between us and our camp at Glacier Meadows.
At the end of the moraine, I ran into Dan once again. He had camped above us the night before and was spending the day relaxing before heading out tomorrow. He wanted to know all about the route and what we had seen, what was necessary for the climb, and what dangers there were. Being from Utah, such easily accessible glacial regions must have been even more striking than they were to me. He was heading to Paradise and Camp Muir next, high on the slopes of Rainier. I suspected that he would be back as soon as he could, this time with more climbing gear and partners. My hunger and desire to get back to the luxuries of camp, such as shade, cut our conversation short after twenty minutes. I raced done the rocks and onto the snow slopes, boot skiing most of the way back to camp.
I was tired, but delighted. Despite not reaching the top of Olympus, I didn't especially care: The process of the climb was the important thing for me. I had reached the top of something named, the Five Fingers, or false summit of Olympus, which was only a few feet shorter than the true summit. Standing on the top of something wasn't the focal point for me or, as I suspected, for any of the others on the climb. Rather, the process of getting to the mountain, the hours involved in the journey itself, were. Someone once said that the only thing you'll find at the top of a mountain is what you bring with you. I agree completely. As I stuffed myself with food and fresh water at camp, lounging about and joking with the others, I thought about how successful the climb had been. How much fun it was. About how much I wanted every climb to be just this way. And about how long the 18 miles out to the parking lot seemed. But that was for tomorrow, and today was all for today.
From Lakewood, drive I-5 south to Olympia and pick up HWY 101 heading north. Merge onto SR8 heading to Aberdeen. In Aberdeen, pick up HWY 101 again heading north. Drive north on 101 for approximately 80 miles to the access road into the Hoh Rainforest. Drive to the end of the road, where you'll find a visitors center, campground, and parking lot. Pick up a permit here. Hike the Hoh River trail to its end at Glacier Meadows, about 18 miles and 3800 vertical feet of elevation gain. The trail is mostly gentle to the High Hoh bridge and then ramps up, but is still not very difficult. Camp here.
In the morning, follow a good trail (marked) up to the lateral moraine of the Blue Glacier. The trail ends here and the rest should be done only by people with the experience and gear to safely cross glaciers:Do not head out onto the glacier unroped! Walk along a boot path to near the end of the moraine, where a faint track leads down to the glacier itself. Put your helmet on before descending as rock fall is common. Rope up on the side of the Blue and hike across it, gaining some elevation and avoiding crevasses, and up to where you can climb up to Snow Dome. Climb up Snow Dome to the top where you can spot Olympus. If you are early in the season, you might be able to safely take a direct route to the summit pyramid, but most likely there will be a large bergschrund in the way. If so (as for us), traverse up and over to the left and pass through Crystal Pass to the backside of the summit complex. Traverse up and to the right to gain the top of Five Fingers (the false summit). Unrope and scramble down the steep gully (be careful of rock fall!) to the snow below. Cross the snow and start your scramble. Be warned that the rock is very loose and should not be trusted. Do not even think about starting the scramble unless you are very, very confident scrambling with severe exposure on bad rock. There is a solid 5.4 rock climb that you can do, but requires climbing a steep (50-55 degrees) snow slope to reach.