Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mount Olympus

For the latter part of our September vacation week, Roanne and I had set our sights on an ascent of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in the Olympic Range on the Olympic Peninsula. It isn’t visible from Seattle because it is in the interior of the range, but for some reason I felt it was necessary to climb it. It is a pretty involved trip, being 45 miles round trip in length with almost 8000 feet of elevation, so that may have contributed to the appeal.

In any case, after having spent a good part of Wednesday planning, organizing, and packing, at 5:30am on Thursday morning we found ourselves on the Washington State Ferry headed across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island. From Bainbridge Island we continued our drive along the north end of the Olympic Peninsula before nearing the coast and trending south, passing through Forks where Roanne swooned at the thought of seeing Edward the sexy Vampire. After reviving Roanne we continued our drive, and by 10:00am we were rolling up to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center in Olympic National Park.
We procured the necessary permits and then shouldered our heavy packs (63 lbs for me, 40 lbs for Roanne, I think next time we’ll pack a little lighter!) and struck out on the Hoh River trail. The goal for the day was to cover the 17.5 miles to Glacier Meadows (our intended camp site) before dark, so we tried to keep a good pace. The trail was really scenic, with nice sections running parallel to the river and plenty of massive trees. As you might expect from a rainforest our surroundings very green:

And very wet (though thankfully none of the water was falling from the sunny blue sky):

Here is Roanne posed in front of a few giant cedar trees:

We stopped every 1-2 hours for breaks to rest our feet and munch on the delicious snacks that we had brought, thankfully there were plenty of good rest stops with campsites every few miles along the trail. Here is Roanne taking a breather at the Olympus Guard Station which was located about halfway to our destination:

As we departed the guard station the trail began to slowly angle upward, and eventually we crossed the Hoh River on a really high bridge and started heading up another valley toward our destination:

After the bridge the trail steepened further and we really started feeling our heavy packs, but we took heart in the knowledge that we were nearing our destination. After passing Elk Lake the trail began traversing along a steep hillside, and at a break in the trees we finally caught our first glimpse of the Mount Olympus massif in the fading sunlight:

With the sun quickly dropping in the sky we tried to quicken our pace, and soon after our first view of the mountain we arrived at a spot where there was a huge trail washout. There was a temporary rope ladder rigged up which we were able to use to descend in the washout and then scramble back up the debris gully to regain the trail on the other side of the washout. Here is Roanne descending the rope ladder:

 Soon after the washout we arrived at Glacier Meadows Camp, though the name is a bit of a misnomer as it would be more appropriately called “Almost Glacier Meadows Camp”, as the camping areas are still in the forest just below the actual meadows. The campsites were mostly empty so we set up shop in a nice spot next to a creek and quickly set up our tent as it was 8:00pm and starting to get dark. At this point we realized that one of our headlamps had dead batteries, stinker! We made some delicious pasta for dinner and then settled into bed just after 10:00pm.

We had ruled out an alpine start for the next day even before discovering that we only had one headlamp, so the alarm went off at 5:30am the next morning and I got up to make breakfast while sleeping beauty grabbed a few more winks. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast and then set about packing up our stuff, though not particularly quickly. Here is Roanne enjoying her morning tea as we are starting to think about booting up:

By 7:00am we were finally ready to roll, and we headed out of camp and up toward the Blue Glacier. Our packs felt light and airy compared to the day before, so we made rapid progress. Here is Roanne ascending up out of Glacier Meadows and onto the talus of the lateral moraine:

Upon topping out up onto the lateral moraine we had a striking view of the board expanse of the Blue Glacier below, with icefalls rising up to snow dome and finally the summit of Mount Olympus:

Awesome! We continued traversing along the lateral moraine to avoid descending down to glacier until we had to:

Upon dropping to the glacier we paused to don our harnesses, crampons, and rope up, and we continued on our way, weaving through the exposed crevasses as the snow cover had completely melted at this elevation and we were walking on blue glacier ice. We paused for snack at the base of Caltech Ridge after crossing the flatter part of the glacier, and basked in the morning sunshine that was now peeking over the mountains:

From this point we started to ascend more steeply up onto Snow Dome, following some faint tracks from climbers who must have been on the route a couple of days prior. The route finding was pretty straightforward, and in short order we were popping up onto Snow Dome. Here is Roanne paused for a snack break with some dramatic scenery in the background:

From Snow Dome we continued across the upper Blue Glacier towards the now-visible summit, before deviating to the left to take the Crystal Pass route that wrapped around the back of the Five Fingers. We had to avoid a few crevasses, some with "hold your breath and don't look down" steps across the abysses, but for the most part it was straightforward walking on snow. We finally reached a rocky section where we made a short traverse and then found ourselves in a saddle between the false summit and the west summit (which is the true summit, being slightly higher than the east summit). We were not 100% sure of the route, it looked like some people had ascended steep snow to gain the rocky summit pyramid high on the north east side, but we decided to try our luck on the 4th class rock as there seemed to an option that traversed towards the south face and then headed up from there. Here is Roanne starting the traverse toward the South Face:

The climbing started out pretty straightforward albeit with a lot of very loose rock that made us question whether or not this was the standard route to the top. About halfway up it got a bit steeper than what we were comfortably scrambling up (partly because it was so loose, so we decided to rope up and pitch it out until the angle lessened though we only had slings to use for protection. I headed up, and soon after departing the belay I accidentally knocked a few rocks off. I managed to yell a warning and Roanne was able to duck in toward the cliff, but two of the larger rocks struck her with glancing impacts. Luckily the bounces had taken more of the impact before hitting her and she just had some bruises to show for it, but this spooked us even further and convinced us that we should have taken the snow option.

Feeling a bit shaken we continued on, and fortunately found a couple of good belays and managed to reach the summit without further drama. We breathed a sigh of relief as we emerged onto the summit, and set about basking in the sun and enjoying the view. We could see the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and plenty of mountains in all directions. Here is the successful summit team relaxing on top:

We then turned around and headed down the way we came, making two rappels and down climbing the rest. We were pretty happy to reach the base of the summit pyramid and step off of the rock back onto the snow. Apparently the Olympic range is known for loose rock and the west summit of Mount Olympus is one of the more solid peaks, I wouldn't want to try any of the loose ones! After eating some well-earned sandwiches we started trooping back down the glacier, here is Roanne soon after starting our downward journey:

 And here I am after passing through Crystal Pass, starting the descent down to Snow Dome:

On Snow Dome we paused to look back at the summit formation. The west summit is the formation just peaking out from behind the foreground in the exact middle of the frame:

We then continued on our way, making good time on the steep parts where we could glissade a bit in the steep snow. After descending from Snow Dome we continued across the lower Blue Glacier, here is Roanne as we near the lateral moraine:

At the lateral moraine we thankfully removed our harnesses and scrambled up the steep and sandy path to the top, and then continued along the rim with a few pauses to try and trundle giant rocks:

From the lateral moraine we dropped back down into Glacier Meadows and enjoyed the stroll through the flowers, though we were pretty sore and tired by this point.

We made it back to camp by just after 5:00pm, and happily swapped our boots for flip flops and began lounging. After an hour or so lying in the tent watching a bee attack mosquitoes we rallied and cooked up some dinner, which we enjoyed with a delicious glass of wine and some chocolate (we hadn't lugged 100lbs of gear up 4000 feet for nothing!) before hitting the sack for an early night.

The next morning we slept until 8:00am, and then after a leisurely breakfast we packed up camp and were ready to roll out by around 9:00am. Here is Roanne getting ready for the 18 mile trek out along the Hoh River:

The walk out was long but uneventful, enjoying the scenery at the beginning and less-so toward the end as fatigue and sore feet started taking their toll. We finally reached the trailhead around 6:00pm, and happily hopped into the Jetta and started the drive back to Seattle, stopping for a nice Oceanside dinner along the way. Here is a GoogleEarth view of our route up the Hoh River Valley and on to the top of Mount Olympus:


  1. Wow That is IMPRESSIVE! Those of us who have never hiked the west coast are in awe of your camping skills and hiking knowledge. You guys are awesome!

  2. Nice work you two..that's a monster hike!