Mt Olympus, Washington

Photos from a fabulous climb of Mt Olympus are here and here.

All in all, this trip was a blast, though due to weather, we (four Mazamas climbers in addition to me) hung out in Forks for an extra day at the beginning of the trip. (On the day we planned to depart, we drove up to the Hoh ranger station to check things out. We met a couple of people who’d been camped out at Glacier Meadows for four days waiting for the weather to break so they could summit. It never did. They never did.) Though the rain had given way to mist and drizzle, we’d heard reports of a chest-high stream crossing and the trail being an ankle- to knee-high stream for about a half mile or so. Hence the decision to delay the start of the climb and hope the trail conditions improved.

This extra day gave us a chance to practice knots, visit the beach, watch too many episodes of Build it Bigger, and generally get antsy for the approach hike to begin.

On Tuesday morning, after a fabulous breakfast in Forks, we headed out to the ranger station to begin the 9.1-mile hike along the Hoh River to the Olympus Guard Station for night one. The sun was out and the temperature was perfect: a little cool and warming but no threat of oppressive heat (or rain). My pack, sans rope, was 53 pounds at the start. After awhile, it doesn’t matter. It’s just heavy.

The mostly flat hike was made more interesting with the occasional river crossing on sketchy logs and muddy trails. I don’t know how many times one of us uttered (or thought) “I’m glad we weren’t here yesterday” or “Can you imagine what this was like a few days ago?” Getting record-setting river flow in a rainforest is quite the feat.

Tuesday night, we set up camp at OGS and dined on cous cous and basil, munched on cucumber, desserted with chocolate chip cookies, and watched the sun set downriver. Wednesday morning, we left a few things in bear bags before embarking on a regimented, but leisurely 8.5-9-mile hike to Glacier Meadows, with a lunch stop and a chilly, refreshing swim at picturesque Elk Lake. About halfway into this hike, we crossed the High Hoh Bridge (ha ha) and started the ascent to about 4300 feet, the elevation of Glacier Meadows.

Choices, choices. Chicken paella or Saigon noodles for dinner? We opted for the not well-named chicken paella after doing a little laundry and filtering enough water for the next day, which was to begin before 3 a.m., with a camp departure time of 4 a.m. (which in Ken language translates to, oh, about 10 to 15 minutes before the stated time).

Harnessed up and ready to go, we hit the trail, signed in at the register, and picked up blue bags. A short climb through Glacier Meadow to and across the lateral moraine brought us to a perch overlooking the heavily crevassed Blue Glacier, which appeared bluish grey in the early morning light.

Roped up and ready to go, we started crossing the flat crevasse field. Ken and I were one rope team and Jeremy, Beth, and Anda were the other. Ken told me to follow his footsteps, which was mildly difficult seeing as his crampons were barely scratching the snow and ice. There were only a couple of crevasses that we had to stretch our legs for as we picked our way across.

Once across, we started to climb up to the aptly named Snow Dome, which we would traverse to then cut south to the Crystal Pass, a short, narrow passage between two outcroppings of rock.

Climbing to a ridge at ~7500 feet that looked northwest across a small traverse or downclimb (your choice) to the pitch that made up the true summit (7969), we once again met up with a couple of other parties, one of which was going to summit, the other of which was resting before heading back down the mountain.

We opted to follow the other summiting party led by Willi Prittie (Alpine Ascents International) across the traverse to another decision-making spot: to do the east-facing rock climb (a route that turned out to be a traverse followed by a series of vertical moves to a landing where a short climb up a chimney led to the true summit) or north up the 40-degree snow slope to a snow ramp to a route that turned out to be a 4th class scramble with one tricky ledge to get up and over.

Assured that the rock moves were 3rd and 4th class (I found out later that our route is referred to as the 5.4 route), we followed Willi’s lead, not knowing we were in for a long haul since one of Willi’s party had no experience at what he was doing. I, for one, have little, but wasn’t wearing plastic boots, and do have a little training, if not much flexibility or strength. Thank God for adrenalin. And Jeremy, who was on my tail, pointing out moves here and there. So we had the challenge of hanging out on a rock face for well over an hour, moving in small spurts, letting our imaginations run wild with the challenges awaiting us. How on earth are we going to get down this thing was a thought that flashed through my mind as I climbed up the vertical pitch, scrambling to keep up with Ken as he climbed ahead. By focusing on four things I managed to crowd this thought, and the exposure, out of my mind: left hand, right hand, left foot, and right foot. While climbing this last pitch, I’d hear the word rappel now and again, which I knew would not make Beth happy, seeing as she still suffers a bit from a tailbone injury acquired during a rappel in our basic climbing class last spring.

As I type, I look down at my legs, which show a few bruises. There’s only one I can recall collecting, and that bump occurred way earlier, on a rock crossing in a snow field. The others clearly come from those adrenalin-charged bursts where any purchase gained by any method was fine by me. Elegance can come with more experience.

On the summit, there was time for a few photos, pointing to Mt Baker and Rainier, chatting with the other party, waiting for our other rope team, and getting ready for the rappel off the other side of the summit. Because it was getting late (after 2p) Ken decided to get us moving since we were using Willi’s ropes for the rappel and needed to get nine people down, which would take awhile. So down Ken went. Then my turn. As usual, the hardest part was testing the ATC and rope while still being anchored. The rest was a matter of figuring out where to put my feet since this wasn’t a smooth wall down.

There were several times during this week I was glad the weather was so perfect. The several hours spent on the rock and waiting for the rappel were a series of those moments. The rest of the descent down was relatively uneventful, though there are a few moments of pleasure:

– After the rappel, we had to figure out how to get across a small traverse then descend a ~40 degree 75-100 foot pitch of snow without ice axes and crampons, since we’d parked these at the beginning of the rock climb. Willie led his team down and set protection along the way. The snow was soft and kicking steps was pretty easy, so by taking it slowly, people descended without trouble. I was cleaning the route and had one picket left when the snow gave out from under my feet. I was sliding along and as I passed the picket, I thought, gee, there goes the picket… A moment later, anchored by Ken below, I came to a stop and thought, gee, this s*&t really does work.

– We were near the end of the snow descent to the crevasse field when Ken slipped and started sliding on his butt down the hill. Of course, I started to fall, too. It was a matter of reflex to roll over and dig that ice axe in for a textbook self arrest, stopping us both. Ken was disappointed, actually, that I’d stopped his slide down, since it was a heckuva lot easier descending that way than via plunge steps.

All in all, a fabulous journey, even with the 18-mile single-day hike out. While returning to civilization was hard, I’m grateful for a toilet seat and running warm water. Aside from that, I think I’d rather be sitting in the sun alongside the Hoh river. Things I was glad not to do yesterday (or today, for that matter):

Put on my boots.
Hoist my pack.
Wear a harness for 16 hours.
Choose between black cherry and orange Clif Shot Blocks.

Right now, that’s the end of my scheduled summer climbs (it’s been a busy one, with St Helens, Hood, Middle Sister, and Adams, too) but there’s always the fall. And winter. And next year.

Climb high.