Called “the monarch of the Olympics,” this was the mountain we set our sites on as the big trip for the year. It’s not what you would call technical in terms of required skill (you should be comfortable with glacier travel, crevasses, and some rock scrambling), however the last 15 feet to the summit ridge should be climbed with rope unless you are very comfortable free-climbing with pretty daunting exposure.
I spent several weeks conditioning for the trip, by way of early morning scrambles on Sundays to peaks off I-90. On July 5, I set out for my last conditioning trip, which wound up being a 37 mile, four-day trek through the North Cascades. It was my first trip with the Chaco-brand approach shoes, and I was happy to find I could travel many miles with them, carrying a full pack, and not suffer. I bought the approach shoes for Mount Olympus, on recommendation by a friend, as the first 18 miles are essentially flat, which is brutal to undergo with climbing boots.
Brad and I set out on a Saturday for the peninsula, and spent the night at a friend’s in Liliwaup. Eric owns five acres that overlook the Hood canal and the Brothers. We enjoyed his lavendar fields, lovely four-year old daughter Anika, and many beers as we studied the maps and discussed the route.
On Sunday (Day 1), we decided to push on for 15 miles to our first camp, at Elk Lake. You have to commit to your route with the ranger station so as to reserve camp sites for each night. The last five miles were pretty awful. Brad and I hiked on independently of each other, each suffering through our own personal hell. Mine related to the small muscle band along the inside of each of my soles, from the ankle to the toe. After they went numb I was better, but still, dehydrated and underfed by the time we pulled into camp. We were told by a ranger a bear had been seen in this camp, but I didn’t believe him altogether as he looked away when he said it. My step-dad John always scratched his nose before he lied, and I thought I had this ranger pegged since he broke eye contact with me when he said it. I figured they had a story going about a bear so as to get people to use the bear wire to hang their food at night.
But right after we got into camp, another climber came by and said he had seen it down in the lake, playing around in the water. He was down there pumping water, and said if he was at 6 o’clock the bear was at 8 o’clock, right next to him. I was so tired and thirsty I didn’t care, and secretly hoped to see the bear myself. I crept down to the edge of the lake but couldn’t get good access to the shore. It was muddy and the water was still and murky. I went around another way and found a path to a fallen log, which acted as a kind of perch for me to sit on while I got out my water pump and started getting water. It was completely quiet, save the occasional fish plopping out of the water, and the humming of mosquitoes. Sure enough, I sensed motion and looked up to see the bear on the other shore, in the brush. He had just seen me too, so I couldn’t get him in time with my camera.
Brad and I spent the rest of the night with our cigars and tequila, on our backs in our bivy sacks looking up at the sky through the trees. We slept great.
Day 2 had us going a relatively short distance, with the main challenge for the day crossing the Blue Glacier. The ranger had chided us back in the parking lot about not using cramp-ons. We mocked him off and on the first 15 miles, and hoped he wouldn’t be right about needing them on the ice. We got to mile 18, where Glacier Meadows starts, at the yurt where the volunteer ranger is stationed. She was putting on sun screen, and waving off mosquitoes, and told us to sign in to the climbing register. We did so, then came to the lateral moraine where we got our first view of the Blue. Before we saw it we heard the rush of the water and wind coming across it, down the valley. Then we got it in all its splendor. This is far enough for anyone to come, if you want to experience the third largest glacier system in the lower 48, after Rainier and Baker. The trip from here on is spectacular, but if you’re just in to hiking this is enough of a pay-off.
We down-climbed the moraine (dusty, steep and rocky – great for a twisted ankle), and made our way onto the edge of the Blue Glacier, which is a mile wide and takes about an hour to cross. Sure enough, the crevasses were opening up but pretty obvious, and we were glad to realize we did not in fact need cramp-ons to get across without slipping or falling. Crossing was pretty fun and fascinating, and I felt confident and unafraid.
Getting off the glacier to the other side was tricky, and here we started a pretty steep scramble up rock, snow and ice. I foolishly lost my bomber Leki climbing gloves along here, having put them in my pocket without zipping it up, but fortunately I had two other pairs. It bothered me though for the rest of the day.
We climbed the steep snow finger up to the Snow Dome, which sits like a perfectly round bulge at the base of the five-peaked Mount Olympus range. We made camp here, at the south end of the Snow Dome at the base of another rocky peak called Panic Peak, next to a research station. The station has been there since the 50s, and is manned now by the famous Dave Skinner, who’s associated with the University of Washington and has been climbing Olympus since 1974 and stationed there every season since ’76. We met him, his sister, and a few of their researcher friends the next day after summitting the mountain.
Brad and I went up Panic Peak for the sunset, and took in the views of the ocean and British Columbia. The next morning, we woke just before sunrise and snapped some pics of the pink dot coming over the horizon. My stomach was in knots, with concern over the last 15 feet of climbing on the mountain, and all that lay ahead. In fact, I almost got sick after swallowing some Gu – part due to the texture of the Gu, and part due to my nerves.
We got over the Snow Dome and up to Crystal Pass, negotiating some crevasses that either required us to walk around them, or over them via snow bridges. The route takes you through Crystal Pass, behind the summit ridge, over a rock mass called the False Summit, down into a saddle, up a steep snow slope, and onto the summit block. We got fooled twice into thinking the summit was a different peak as we came out of the pass; the orientation was difficult. I felt a sense of false hope in viewing the other peaks, thinking they looked pretty manageable – then saw the true summit, West Peak, and freaked out when I realized the amount of exposure to where it falls away into thousands of feet of nothing. Brad reminded me we didn’t have to climb that side – we were going up the other side.
We got up the False Summit (steep, good rock), then down-climbed the other side (loose, bad rock) to the saddle. We quickly ascended the steep snow slope to the rock at the base of the summit, where we dropped our packs/axes and put on our harnesses. Here we made a critical error, as we began our ascent too high and got off course. Ten minutes into it, Brad and I were both confounded by the angle of the rock and our inability to get up it; we were turning back. He and I had both tried free climbing it: I got the leg wobbles at one point, unable to proceed.
Coming down, we saw another climber ascending around the far side, where I had been freaked out by the exposure. He had found a route up that way that looked good. We traversed over to him and together, made our way to the chimney where we roped up. I belayed Brad up; he belayed me, and I threw my harness down to Michael (the third climber). We were on the summit about 10 a.m.
Then, we had another 22 miles to hike out for the rest of Day 3 and Day 4. We got back to the research station, where they greeted us with a pitcher of Kool-Aid and showed us around the inside of the station, which has many relics and photos from years passed. There were ice axes in there with the names of the climbers stamped on them. The roof was literally bolted down with cable, and Dave Skinner (resident researcher) was replacing pieces of the structure that had been damaged by water. He said this year, the Snow Dome has melted out more than ever. In fact, there are the remnants of another station – which now resembles a crude shack – that he had never seen before, that has melted out this year. The Blue Glacier is certainly receding.
We got down to it again, but took a different route than the one we had ascended. I fell badly, and had to arrest on the rock. Crossing the glacier this time was much different; it was pretty frightening. Whole stream systems had emerged across the glacier, from the melting snow, and it was unclear often what we were standing on, and how solid it was. We negotiated the honeycomb crevasses and made our way across in about an hour, then back up the lateral moraine (dusty, steep, hot) and onto Glacier Meadows for another 8 miles to our next and last camp.
As with our first day, I suffered greatly on this trek to camp. We couldn’t stop to rest without being attacked by horse flies and mosquitoes, which were relentless. Climbing back up the rope ladder at an avalanche run-out I caught myself swearing in front of some young hikers we later learned were boy scouts.
We made camp by 7:30 by the river, which was gray with glacial silt. In fact, my water filter couldn’t get the clouds out, but I swilled a quart of it in about two swallows. We celebrated our summit with the last of the Tequila and some remnants of our cigars, and slept well. We were out the next morning for our last ten miles, and back to the car by noon. I was glad to find the Sierra Nevada in the back of the car was a good temperature.
Note: for better pictures and more accurate route information, see this website, posted by a climbing ranger stationed on Mount Olympus in 1981.