July 29 – August 1, 2007.
Hoh River trail to Blue Glacier climbing route
Mt. Olympus stands tall at 7965 feet, not even close to some of the grand Cascade peaks just inland of here. It is nestled deep within the wilderness of the Olympic peninsula in Olympic National Park. The hike in to the base of the mountain is 17 miles up the Hoh River trail, which passes through some of the most spectacular forest you’ll find anywhere. The climb itself covers a few miles and under 4000′ of elevation gain. There’s glacier travel, mellow to steep snow climbs, and low 5th class rock at the very top. In addition, the views up here can’t be beat.
Jenn talked me into joining this Mazama climb, my last of the season. I’d never gone on a backpacking trip for this long so it would be a new adventure for me. With my pack amply loaded with climbing gear, food and other necessities I joined my carpool buddies for the 6.5 hour drive to the trailhead. We’d spend the night there and join the group the next afternoon.
The first two days of hiking blend together in my head. Much of day one consisted of a nice walk on perfectly flat, well trodden trail with trees and rivers and interesting fungi to distract my attention from the immense load on my back. We camped the first night at the Guard Station, where we practiced crevasse rescue techniques and relaxed on a gravel bar in the Hoh River. I set up my tent’s footprint and fly for shelter (no tent) and was happy that this configuration worked quite well, although everything did get a little dusty.
The elevation gain is apparent on day 2 but we still managed to proceed at about a 2 mi/hr pace, which is fairly good for a group of people with heavy packs. I was somewhat content with my teammates so far although the irritation of being around the same people 24 hours a day was starting to set in. It doesn’t take much for me :).
We camped at the terribly named “Glacier Meadows” which is neither within sight of a glacier nor is located in a meadow. Our small camping area lay right on the trail and the 7 of us had to cram our tents together to make it work. There were other climbers and hikers parked in every site around here, as this is a popular trail. What the campsite lacked in environmental character, however, was replaced by magical visits from a bold mountain goat and several deer. The goat hung around for probably an hour, just cruising around the site, munching on vegetation and stopping to check us out. A mama deer and two fawns also made an appearance, as well as a rotten little chipmunk and (as I’d later find out) hungry mice.I didn’t get much sleep that night, as usual. It didn’t help that I was visited by several mice who found it fun to run across my sleeping bag and hunt around for food. Thus, the downfall to the fly-footprint system was discovered.
Early the next morning, we geared up, packed light, and started up the trail under cover of night. We hiked about a mile to the lateral moraine, then followed this ridge to the beginning of the glacier. A full-ish moon shone brightly over the slopes of Olympus, slowly retreating behind the mountainside as we stopped to put crampons on. The wide, flat, broken expanse of the Blue Glacier stood ahead of us. After my last mountaineering trip, my fear of crevasses subsided slightly and so I was able to move across the glacier with some confidence. Bob led the rope team I was on, with Elliot in the back. We followed Monty’s team of four across the glacier and up to Snow Dome.
Snow Dome is, fortunately, very aptly named. The climb was laid back, slow, and technically easy. There were a few small crevasses to step over and the footing was mostly solid. We enjoyed views of the mountain lit up by the strong sun during our many, many breaks along the way. For some reason, we never got into a steady climbing pace, and I got really irritated being stuck in the middle of a rope with no escape. I’m not quite convinced I have the patience to do much roped climbing. During this slog, we were passed by a solo climber going for the speed record on the route. He stopped for a very quick chat and photo before zooming off into the distance. Damn him for his tiny pack and quick legs!
Regardless, we eventually got to climb a fairly steep and super fun snow slope and then scramble across the loose rock on the false summit. This involved a mixture of crossing rock on crampons, taking off crampons, putting on crampons, taking in rope, letting out rope, etc. Logistics eats up so much time out here, I thought…are we there yet?The final push to the summit consisted of an exposed traverse across rock and then a rock scramble to the top. Monty went ahead and fixed two lines in the trickiest sections, and we waited impatiently for the opportunity to keep moving. The wind picked up as we sat on our rocky pedestals, so I layered up, drank water, and dreamed of summit treats.
There were maybe one or two 5th class moves on the climb; I whacked my knee on the rock pretty good right before the first one, so after the stars and tweety birds flew away I pushed my prusik up the rope and switched ropes for the final traverse. Jenn was waiting on top, seated directly on the USGS marker, with hugs and smiles. She is the most enthusiastic climber I’ve ever met! There was barely enough room for 3 or 4 people on the top. We returned to the top of the first rope, where Monty had now set up a rappel, and rapped down to the traverse. Jenn and I stayed close as we made our way to the moat where our crampons and axes were waiting for us. The more knowledgeable folks dealt with the rigging and the rest of us waited to hear the plan for the rest of the day. We’d discussed attempting a traverse of the three peaks, although I thought it was a stupid idea and was ready to voice my opinion if needed.
Back at the false summit, we found a sheltered spot and passed around a medley of snacks chosen to commemorate our success. We had loads of chocolate, candy, nuts, and other goodies. The plastic package of the cookies in my bag had all but disintegrated and my backpack had a healthy layer of crumbs on the bottom. Oh, but it was so worth it.
Almost 15 hours from the onset of our day, we returned to camp. Feet sore, skin warm, stomachs growling, and minds drained we all cooked up our fantastic dinners and turned in early. Before bed, the team debated what to do on the following day or two. Should we go back up the mountain and bag another peak? Break up the hike out into 2 short days? Blast out in one? Explore other areas in the Olympics? For me, the answer was clear. Tomorrow my goal was to hike alone to the trailhead, come hell or high water.And so, while everyone lollygagged around camp the following morning, I took Jenn’s car keys, bid them all adieu, and started the long push back to the trailhead. I disappeared into my own head, listened to the sounds of the forest, and carefully placed my tired feet among the roots and rocks on the trail. I passed numerous others on my way out, cheerfully greeting everyone with vibrant “hello!”s during the first half of the walk. As I walked by each individual on the trail, it felt like a couple of strange dogs sniffing each other’s behinds; as we eyed each other’s packs we could tell if we were hiking or climbing. I could easily judge some folks’ status just by the short conversations we’d have.
“How was the hike?” –hiker
“Didja make it?” –climber
I found it interesting that since I was a climber on this particular trip, I was more interested in talking to other climbers. On the other hand, if I’m hiking somewhere I’m more likely to chat with a hiker. These are the things I had lots of time to think about in my long day on the trail.
As the day wore on and my feet wore out, my greeting would devolve into a grunt or feeble puff of air as I painfully ticked off miles and headed faithfully towards my goal. With 6 miles to go, I met up with Monty, who came barreling down the trail. We both refilled water at the next stream and then he took off into the distance again. The man is a machine. I, on the other hand, took my time as I made mental notes of which body parts were starting to fail and what I would do once I arrived at the car. I also played games with myself, singing songs and imagining different sounds I’d hear upon approaching the visitor’s center. I ran into more and more people wearing white sneakers, fanny packs, and other goofy tourist clothing which meant I was almost back. The first glimpse of a shiny metal car in the parking lot was the most wonderful thing I’d seen all day. My feet were screaming at this point.
It was a solid 8 hour day. After taking my footwear off, I immediately dove into the cooler for a beer and ate some cookies that were waiting in the car for me. I chatted with Monty for awhile until his ride arrive and they took off. Mac and cheese for dinner!!! It was the best ever 🙂
As I write this account 5 days later my feet are still in a state of recovery. As always, I learned a great deal of things on this trip regarding climbing, packing, planning, conditioning and my personal mental needs. I’ve realized that proper footwear is of paramount importance and I just may burn all the shoes that I own and replace them with shoes that truly fit my feet. I also learned that I need to buy a pack that fits so it doesn’t leave me with nasty bruises after a heavy pack-in. And as fit as I think I am I know that any climb will always put me in my place and make me work at training harder. It’s a brutal pastime and I love every minute of it.