The last time I was here, I ended up white knuckled holding on to my ice axe as I tried to use the pick to provide security on steep, hard packed dirt. This year the snow promised to be higher, but still didn’t remove the obstacle. We had to descend 150 vertical feet of loose, steep scree to get on to the route. I was standing on top of the lateral moraine on the Blue glacier, the main climbing route for Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park. We were on the second day of the trip, attempting to climb the three peaks of Mount Olympus. Olympus is remote and rugged. Getting there requires a minimum of an 18-mile approach and carrying enough gear for glacier and rock terrain. I was with a favorite climbing partner and we were in search of adventure. We didn’t find any summits, but we skied two glaciers and got to more intimately know this place.
Six months ago, Peter and I were conjuring up crazy ideas and he suggested the Olympus traverse. Sounding appropriately absurd, we agreed to set aside two weekends in May 2019 for an early season attempt. Fast forward to this past week and I called the Port Angeles WIC for permits. The rangers there told us we were some of the first people he’d talked to about getting out there, said no ranger had been past elk lake, and asked us to send conditions and photos of the trail and the route. Great. Fast forward a few more days to this past weekend and we found ourselves putting together, weighing, and looking in disbelief at the 55-pound packs we’d carry. Fueled by pizza for breakfast and a decent night’s sleep we set off on the Hoh river trail. The trail follows the Hoh river for approximately 12.5 miles before it turns right, crosses the river at a rocky chasm, and follows glacier creek up to Glacier Meadows. The trail gains several hundred feet in those first 12.5 miles and then about 3000 feet after that dogleg.
This was my second time on the Hoh river trail, and it was just as pleasant as I remembered. The nurse logs were there. The giant trees were there. We found and tried to scare off some stubborn elk. We saw what must have been a hundred frogs. Then, some time before we got to Elk lake a ptarmigan scared the hell out of me. Do you ever get in that mode where you’re heads down, working decently, and just space out? You keep putting one foot in front of the other, your thoughts wander, and then BAM! Some strange flapping noise comes from right there. Well, that happened. This was an omen of changes on the trail. Shortly after that bird we started encountering more significant blowdown on the trail. Up until the trail started climbing it was in great shape. As it approached Martin creek, we saw the first signs of damage from winter and found ourselves trudging through blowdowns. Skis only make any amount of bushwhacking more interesting: those branches need navigating around and under with care.
Martin creek was the first of tricky crossings, and the only creek crossing where we needed to take off our packs. The log from last year has been washed out to be replaced by a fresh and immense log that ends just before the safety of rocks on the other side. This is followed by a washout that required some careful stepping, a creek crossing in an avy slide path with plenty of rotten snow that required care, and then the infamous rope ladder. Thank you NPS, for providing a rope ladder to navigate a final washout on the way to Glacier Meadows. It was in great shape and looked to be similar to last year. Prior to the rope ladder we had started hitting some consistent snow in sheltered sections, but our hopes of a high snow effort were fading. As we approached Glacier Meadows, we found that it was about half melted out. Peter had come here a couple years prior, in June, and the camp ground was completely snowed in. This was 6 weeks earlier and there was dirt on the ground.
Arriving at camp, it was time to lounge in the sun and eat some food. We excel at eating food and this part of the trip was pretty awesome. You know what wasn’t pretty awesome? Getting the cold truth that you have to bring almost everything in your pack on the climbing route anyways. Between Peter and I we ditched one bivy, one sleeping bag, one pad, and some of our remaining food. I was so desperate to save weight I took the pole out of my bivy and made double sure to leave my toothbrush behind. We turned in for about 5 hours of sleep.
A 2am alarm is early. We arose to a clear, starry night, cool weather, and some excited yet sleepy energy. Aiming for a 3am start we left our camp at 3:45. Right on time (whoops). With several feet of snow in camp we decided to start in our skis and skins. That was a mistake and we got plenty of ski / boot transition practice. As we emerged from tree line, we could see plenty of consistent snow and skins became our mode of choice. We made decent time to the side of the lateral moraine where my optimistic hopes were quickly dashed. Rock. Lots and lots of rock. The moraine is pretty steep, but I was confident I could side slip down it to get to the glacier. With rock we had to do the old-fashioned thing – go down shitty scree to even shittier scree. This year, before the shittiest of the scree we found a hand line. This is new in the last year since I was here and was anchored on a couple big boulders. We gave it a couple big tugs and then used it to descend to the glacier. I was relieved for this to be a relative nonevent, especially compared to the off-route shenanigans that led to my whit knuckle adventure last year.
Glacier Pass is about 1.7 miles and 1200 vertical feet above where you enter the Blue Glacier. Skinning was easy and we made good time there. In the limited beta I found of the East Peak of Olympus, I found several folks saying that you could ascend the NE slopes of the peak. It looked steep on my map, but it was still our plan A. We got to Glacier Pass and realized immediately that this route was out of the question. Not only was the snow steep, but there was a pretty giant crevasse right in the middle of where we would go. On to plan B, which was go around the back side. Drop SSE off Glacier Pass, gain the Hoh glacier, and take a rising traverse to a flat bench behind the East and Middle peaks at about 7200 feet. This gains about 1200 feet over the course of a mile and traverses some pretty nasty south facing, 30 to 40-degree slopes.
I was moving very slowly in this terrain – I didn’t have any confident my skins would hold so each step was a struggle. Once I got through the steepest of the slopes, we picked up some speed, and Peter raised the question about timing and our objectives. We both eyed the southerly slopes of the East Peak and decided that these weren’t for us. Or at least I decided it wasn’t for me and was relieved when Peter expressed similar sentiment. From here we had options – try to make the East and Middle peaks, try to make the Middle and West peaks, or bail. I wanted to keep trying for at least the Middle and West peaks and Peter agreed. We kept trudging along. The skiing was easy on the lower angled slopes of the Hoh glacier. As we were going up, we were both eyeing the Middle peak and we didn’t see a route up with which we were comfortable. We got to the bench at 7230’ and had a conversation about our energy and comfort levels with the risks presented here.
Maybe it was because I started the trip nervous about the route, or maybe because it was just the two of us, or maybe it’s because I’m a wimp, but I was happy to have a discussion about bailing. Too many things hadn’t gone to plan – the route didn’t look nearly as straightforward as I imagined from reading books. We could see weather and clouds rolling in. And it was later than expected. We decided to bail. The next question was whether we should get closer to gain beta or whether we should turn around there. Given that we still had a long way to go and that we would be crossing avy paths, I wanted to turn around as soon as possible and Peter agreed.
A quick snack and water break later, we ripped skins and started our descent. We hit the skiing on the Hoh perfectly! Beautiful easy to ski crust with just a hint of corn on the surface. I found my adventure! Fun turns in insane, big terrain. Looking down the Hoh glacier I saw the origins of the Hoh river. Across it was a massive ridgeline formed by the Athenas, Hermes, and Circe peaks towering more than a thousand feet above the glacier floor.
The naughty thing about ski touring is that it is a hell of a lot of work to go up, and the down ends super quickly. To my predictable dismay we found ourselves quickly traversing through the south facing avy-debris laden slopes and at the base of Glacier Pass. I was relieved to find the snow only mostly mushy on those slopes; the sun had baked them quickly and I don’t think being there an hour later would have been good. Back to skins and we ascended the 200 vertical feet to Glacier Pass, where we could rip skins and have one more ski.
The Blue Glacier gave us over a mile of incredible skiing. It was only barely sticky at the lowest points. Never wanting to deal with the lateral moraine ever again, we had both heard of a route off the glacier by way of the terminal moraine. Knowing it was an early season exit, we hoped the unseasonably warm weather hadn’t tanked that route either. As we were skiing down, we found some relatively fresh ski tracks. At first, I was pretty dismayed, since I like the idea of being special and finding someone else had recently skied the route made it feel less so. I got over myself pretty quickly and was happy to hope that these folks knew where the terminal moraine route exits. We descended a couple hundred vertical feet to find that the tracks ended at what was obviously a helicopter landing spot. These folks got a helo ride! Damn. We went down a little lower and found what should be the route. The route exits the glacier via a saddle at 4800 feet elevation. We were standing on the 4800-foot contour line on the glacier but were clearly over a hundred vertical feet below what is the saddle. Peter later told me that the glacier had dropped something like 178 feet from the early 1980s to 2009. These increasing temperatures and receding glaciers suck, okay. I don’t think the terminal moraine route is viable anymore, ever.
On went the skins and we climbed back to the lateral moraine. I opted to ascend via the hand line and Peter opted to go up the snow. Going up the snow was a way better idea, as I arrived at the top dirty, sweaty, and pretty much glad to be uninjured.
The rest of the trip was pretty straight forward. We walked to Lewis Meadows that night, making for a 14-hour day. That night was occupied by dinner and then immediately sleep. I was so tired I fought with my bivy and almost gave up on closing it. We rose early the next morning and made quick time back to the cars, covering the last 10.5 miles in under 4.5 hours. We lazed for a bit and started the long drive home, stopping in at a buffalo wild wings to eat everything in the restaurant.
Arriving home on Monday I felt a lot of things – relieved to be home safely, proud of the decisions we made and the effort I put in to the journey, and sad to be leaving this world and reentering office life. This trip was the culmination of months of effort. It was the main motivator to get back to training and push through my ankle sprain in January. I have been using a coach and she has been awesome getting me to this point. I pushed myself toward the limit of my risk tolerance and affirmed the values I share with my favorite climbing partners. I felt strong and capable. I was amazed by nature. I felt small and humbled. I can’t wait to get out again, and I especially can’t wait to go back to Olympus.