Olympic Mountain Backpacking

August 4-7, 2011.

Check out all the photos on Google Photos.

Rick had been planning this trip for years. Last spring I selfishly went and broke my left foot, so we had to cancel our plans to head out to the Olympic Penninsula and climb Mt. Cruiser, one of Rick’s last remaining targets for his mountaineering career. This year I managed to stay healthy so we recruited one more team member and headed into the forest on a sunny, Thursday afternoon.

Flapjack Lakes

From the Staircase Ranger station, the approach follows a mostly flat trail along a river for 3.5 miles to a junction with the Flapjack Lakes Trail. Along this trail, we were surprised by our first and only real wildlife sighting. Four goats came traipsing up the riverbank and plopped themselves right on the trail. We sat down and took off our packs, happy for a short break, then annoyed when they just hung around and made no effort to move on. A couple of times, one goat would rush over to within a few feet of us, stop and then walk back. One particularly old and ratty looking goat made a nice cozy bed for herself in the middle of the trail as the others perused the vegetation for something tasty to eat. Now the goats weren’t cute or fun anymore; they were a nuisance. We strapped on our packs and motioned to start walking and immediately the goats darted up the talus on the upper slope of the trail. We continued along to the first trail junction.

Now the trail began to climb, seriously, for the next 4 miles. Somehow I managed to swap out carrying the rope for this leg of the journey. All I remember was being hot, sweaty, and worn down. The sound of cold, rushing water was almost everpresent but the water was never accessible. The first water crossing was on a bridge high above the stream and after that the water source was out of sight. I slurped down water from my Camelback but all I wanted to do was drop my pack and go for a swim. After what felt like forever we arrived at Flapjack Lakes, where Rick scouted out a campsite.

We set up camp quickly and went to work preparing dinner. This would be my first of three home-dehydrated dinners that I would savor on this trip. We relaxed, enjoyed the weightless feeling of being sans pack, and discussed a plan for the next day. Since we were a small team of three, and Cruiser wasn’t far from camp, we decided we would leave after everyone got an adequate night’s sleep.

Mt. Cruiser- South Corner 5.0

Sure enough, everyone slept in the next morning and we rolled out of camp at 9:30 am. We followed a trail towards Gladys Divide, which offered some challenges as it kept disappearing beneath snow. Some faint old tracks went off in a variety of directions, and a poorly placed piece of pink flagging also set us off course. I was relieved each time we picked up the trail and especially when we reached the snow-covered boulder field that indicated the start of the route.

When I was here a few years ago in early September, the boulders were completely snow-free. It took our team forever to negotiate the jumbled, rocky mess. This time, a smooth snow slope led all the way to the top of Needle Pass. We put on crampons and traded out poles for ice axes to begin this leg of the trek. We methodically made our way up the snow, then stowed axes and crampons to scramble up the 3rd and 4th class slab to our leg. This began the “up” portion of the up-and-down rollercoaster of a ridge ride to the Cruiser summit block.

A little downclimbing, scree sliding, snow skirting, and brush scrambling later we arrived at the top of a dirty chute that gave us a great glimpse at our prize. Unfortunately, we could see a major snowfield covering the talus at the base of the chimney that would allow us to proceed to the rock climbing. (Is that why we’re here?). Rick ran back to get the axes we’d left behind with our crampons, which we thought we wouldn’t need. Meanwhile, we dropped our backpacks and put on our harnesses, carrying a minimum of supplies from this point on. Once he returned we descended to the snow.

It turned out that the snow had melted out near the rock face above it, creating a moat. My partners lost interest in crossing the snow because it was icy and hard and we didn’t have our crampons. Instead, we traversed across the ledges on the rock wall. I felt uneasy about it since one slip would land you down inside the deep moat, so I had everyone tie into the rope and I led out, placing a few pieces of protection and belaying the other two up into the chimney. There was a conveniently located rap station about halfway up the chimney that I used for my belay anchor. From there we unroped and finished ascending the chimney, through the cannon-hole and up onto the wide platform above.

My belayer anchored in at the belay station for the 5.0 rock pitch and I set off into the clouds. The rock before the bolt (30 or so feet up) is the sketchiest, and offers no opportunities for protection. So, I carefully made my way up to the bolt, clipped in, and cruised up to the ridge. I clipped a bolt at the belay station, placed a nut on the ridge for a directional, and continued up to the summit. The ridge walk was really cool, although it would have been nicer to have some views and sense of scale. The rock edges dropped off into nothingness, like the railroad bridge scene in The Lost Boys. Clouds had completely socked us in up here.

The others followed, one by one, and we shared the small summit. There was nothing to see here, and it was already past 3:30pm, so we decided to get out of there. We downclimbed the ridge and rappelled back to the belay area, where we coiled the ropes and skeedaddled through the cannon hole and back to the first rap station we encountered. From here, I had a plan…

There was no way I was going to take us back along the sketchy rock traverse above the moat. But since we had two ropes with us, it looked like we could do a double-rope rappel from the chimney that would take us down below the snowfield, thus clearing both the dicey rock and the snow. I tossed the ropes down and headed out.

I cannot quite express in words the joy of being the first person down an exploratory rappel route. My first ordeal was unraveling the ungodly kinks in one of the two ropes. It was coiling itself around the other rope and also around itself. There was so much friction in the system I could hardly move anywhere. Then, as I reached the bottom of the chimney, I realized I was going to rap into the bottom of the moat. It wasn’t exactly straightforward to get from the rock to the snow. The ropes sat in heaps on the ground well below me. I wedged my body between the rock wall and the edge of the snow, using clumsy chimney technique to move myself horizontally along so I could reach a point where I could transition on to snow completely. I imagined the stupid rope ends laughing at me from their cozy spot under a dripping snow canopy. Locking off the rappel I pulled up the remaining rope, flaked it out, and tossed it onto the snow, watching the ends stretch out downslope. I estimated I had enough rope to make it to a melted-out patch of rock near the far side of the snowfield.

Through a complicated dance of sliding my butt against the rock face and switching my feet 45 times between the rock wall and snow wall, I launched both feet on to the snow and began bounding down the slope at an angle to the bare rock I’d been eyeing this whole time. With about 8 feet of rope to spare, I reached the rock, unclipped my rappel, and shouted for the others to follow.

Once we were all safely off the rope, we tugged and tugged until the rope came free and tumbled down the chimney and snow to where we were gathered. Again we packed up and set off towards our backpacks. It was about 6 pm and we hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet so we were all pretty wiped out and hungry. With no time to spare, we grabbed a couple of bites of food once we reached our packs and started walking again.

Fortunately, the team was confident enough to descend the slab without a hand line or belay so we continued at a reasonable pace until we reached Needle Pass. We put crampons on again and descended the icy snow all the way back to the trail. Once we reached the trail, we removed our crampons, switched axes for poles again (isn’t this fun?) and bombed down the trail. We had an easier time following it this time, and we made it back to camp just before dark–at 8:15 pm. Needless to say, we absolutely chowed down on dinner and then went straight to bed.

Mt. Gladys

We woke up at about the same time the following morning, with a vague plan to visit Mt. Henderson. None of us had been up there before, but it was seemingly within reach from our camp at the lakes. We trudged up the Gladys Divide trail again, passed the Mt. Cruiser turnoff, and stood at the top of the Divide in glorious morning sunshine to survey the area. Mt. Henderson stood tall and mighty, overlooking basins filled with lakes and snow. Several hills and ridges undulated between where we were and where it was. A timid band of clouds threatened to close in on us just like the day before. Intimidated by the task ahead of us we opted instead to stroll up gentle Mt. Gladys, which was within spitting distance of our current location. We walked up through soft snow and occasional tree clumps to the rounded summit of Mt. Gladys. We could see the clouds making a more marked presence in the valleys, so we decided this would be our summit of the day. Our legs were tired from the previous climb, and it didn’t take much convincing to call it a day. Since the weather here was much nicer than what the dark forest would offer us back at camp, we settled in to a long afternoon of eating, napping, and lounging around on this beautiful viewpoint.

I had my big lunch today: whole wheat bagel with tuna salad, carrot sticks, Del’s frozen lemonade (with snow) and a delicious brownie. I enjoyed the sunshine and the occasional drift into dreamland as I sat in this alpine paradise. Three hours later, after the clouds had thoroughly filled in every nook and cranny in the entirety of the Olympics, we retraced our boot prints in the snow to find our way back to Gladys Divide. Back in camp, we split up. I changed into Crocs and wandered around the forest behind our campsite to photograph flowers and wander among the huge, fallen logs and mossy boulders. It was a lovely forest filled with gigantic trees and lots of places to explore. When I tired of that, I returned to sit by the lake and do word puzzles. It was a relaxing afternoon.

Return to Staircase

On our fourth day, we decided to head home. Originally we had planned to make it a five day trip with three summits, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I had a great time here, and I was happy that we accomplished our primary goal.

This time we got up early and broke camp by 8 am. Rick had already taken off, leaving Asia and I to walk back at a slightly more human pace. I didn’t get to take many pictures on the way up so I made an effort to be more observant and less goal-oriented on the way down. It was an enjoyable walk. Flowers were everywhere: trillium, queens-cup, avalanche lilies, violets, bunchberry, the list goes on and on. The greatest observation, however, was the abundant patch of ripe huckleberries that we’d completely overlooked on the hike in! I was astounded that, even with the late snowpack and spring flowers just starting to bloom, that any huckleberries were ready. I think we killed a half an hour just grazing along huckleberry row. I filled up the little pouch on my backpack waist belt with berries to munch on later. Now this is how you experience the woods!

We met up with Rick again at the Flapjacks Trail junction, where we shifted rope-carrying duties and prepared for the last bit of walking along the river. The weather felt pretty nice. The sun was up there somewhere, and I was happy for a stretch of flat trail. We blasted out of there in no time at all, since we didn’t have to wait for any goats this time. We were back in three hours flat. That bag of chips I had left in the car was a blessing. Mmmmmmmmmm……..

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