Mountaineering at Mt. Olympus

I just spent an extended weekend doing one of those things I don’t tell Mom about until after – this time summiting Mt. Olympus. It’s not an extraordinarily tall peak, but the remoteness and climate of the Olympic National Park make it quite an adventure. I climbed with my friend Adina Scott, who recently finished up a super rad trip on Denali that you might have heard about and should definitely check out.

The basics: The summit of Olympus is 7,980 ft, but it’s pretty much impossible to see from anywhere populated because it’s so deep in the Olympic National Park. The standard route (which we took) is through 18 miles of rain forest along the Hoh River on the west side of the park, then over various glaciers and snow fields to reach the rocky ridge that leads to the final summit block. The trip can be done in about 3 days (4 is more typical), or a bit less if you’re traveling light and fast. We decided to take 5 days and explore the glaciers a bit more once we were up there. Here’s how it happened.

Friday. Packing, checking gear, sorting out food. Got to bed around midnight. In retrospect, probably should have aimed for a few more hours of sleep here.

Saturday. 5:15 AM wake-up to catch the first ferry to Bainbridge Island. Drove 5 more hours (with a quick stop at the Wilderness Information Center to pick up bear bins) to the Hoh River Trailhead. Quick lunch and bag organization, on the trail by noon-thirty. We hiked 17.5 miles and 3,500 feet elevation to get to our first camp site, Glacier Meadows, which is where the maintained trail ends. The rain forest is beautiful (and yes, there is an official rain forest in Washington). This hike was somewhat devastating toward the end, as our packs were heavy with 5 days of supplies and lots of mountain and camping gear (ice axes, crampons, gaiters, pickets, ice screws, harnesses, rope, 4-season tent, sleeping bags and pads, cookware). We got to camp around 9, made some dinner and got to bed around 10:30 PM. Long day.

Our first view up the valley to the glaciers above.

Our first view up the valley to the glaciers above.

Sunday. We were hoping to get a nice early alpine start (like, by 4 AM), but Saturday took too much out of us, so we accidentally slept til 6. We packed up camp and made breakfast, hit the trail by 7:30 or 8. Most people leave the their camping gear at Glacier Meadows and only take what they need for the summit at this point, but because we were planning to stay on the glacier for a few days, we had to pack everything. The heavy packs definitely slowed us down, and it was a relief to start wearing a lot of our gear rather than carrying it on our backs once we got on the glacier. The first glacier, Blue Glacier, was all blue ice near the toe, which means there is no snow and all the crevasses are exposed. It sounds scary, but it’s actually safer because the dangers are obvious. Also, it’s really cool because you can see what’s happening inside the glacier and hear the water rushing beneath it and echoing up.

Ice falls and seracs coming down at the steep sections from the summit

Ice falls and seracs coming down at the steep sections from the summit

Once we crossed the first glacier, we decided to cache our bear bins and most of our food to lighten our packs. We took a few bars and snacks with us for the summit, and our condensed bags were a blessing on the steep terrain to come. We headed up over Snow Dome and continued on toward the summit. It was midday by now, but the glaciers were very mellow and the snow conditions were great. We plodded along toward the summit, continuing up another 4,000 feet from our morning camp. By about 4 PM we made it to the false summit, had a snack, ditched our bags, and got ready for the final summit block. The rock in the Olympics is very flaky and fragile, so this final summit was definitely the sketchiest part of the trip. We ended up taking the route that is considered “fourth class”, but it’s really more like fourth class with a couple moves of 5.6, and unprotectable. We made it up fine, though, and got to the top around 6 in time to enjoy some beautiful views.

From the summit!

From the summit!

It would have been a quick trip back down to our cached gear, but we decided it would be worth skipping dinner to be able to stay at the summit for the night. Sunset, stars, sunrise. Unreal. Or maybe more real than anything else. It’s hard to tell at this point.

Sunset over the summit

Sunset over the summit

we had snow for dinner

Our summit camp


Sunrise glow

Monday. Early on, we had considered tacking on a traverse of the Bailey Range to the trip following the summit, but it was clear by this point that we weren’t going to be able to do the 5-day traverse in the 3 days we had left, especially with the little snow that was still clinging to the slopes. So we took things relatively easy from here. We departed the summit and swung by a maintenance building/weather station we had noticed perched on an outcropping on the way up. We were expecting it to be abandoned, but there was a guy there, Dave, who put out lawn chairs for us and gave us Kool-Aid while we traded stories. He’s been up there every summer for the past 40 years, doing various types of maintenance and research, including cleaning the mountain of gear and trash that was left there in the 1950’s. Super friendly guy, a personification of love for the mountain and the whole national park.

After our surreal refreshments, we skidded the rest of the way down to our cache and made a much needed and delayed pot of spaghetti. I had a quick accidental nap and we packed up and headed over to Glacier Pass, which separates the Blue Glacier from the Hoh Glacier. It was only about 3 PM, so we decided to cross the Hoh Glacier and head up to Camp Pan for a night. After a bit of a tricky rock scramble, we made it up to the camp to discover a beautiful oasis of tiny trees and huge vistas. A thing that was starting to make more sense to me at this point was the idea of “mountain time.” I’m pretty familiar with “forest time”, which is already totally different than time in civilization. Forest time is measured by rushing rivers and trickling creeks, by bird calls and berry plants and the occasional wildlife sighting. Mountain time is slower, almost stopped. Here almost nothing moves, and when it does it is a big deal. Ice falls and landslides and rarely any life. We saw a falcon and watched it for ten minutes as it weaved in and out of cliff banks. Time is measured by the slow progress of the sun across the sky, the gradual shortening and lengthening of shadows. There are waterfalls rushing on the cliffs surrounding, but they look like still white lines. It does strange and wonderful things to the brain.

View down the Hoh Glacier to the start of the Hoh River from Camp Pan

View down the glacier to the start of the Hoh River from camp

Tuesday. We had a leisurely morning at Camp Pan and decided to grab some day packs and take a peek at the next valley over Blizzard Pass. The vastness of this place is so striking. We had already been able to see into most of the valleys from the summit, but actually walking there made the proportions a bit more real. We looked over the Humes Glacier down to Queets Basin and the headwaters of the Queets River. Blizzard Peak had just about the most evil rock I’ve ever met, an unhappy combination of sharp and crumbly.

Humes Glacier down to Queets Basin

Humes Glacier down to Queets Basin

We soaked in the views for a bit, then headed back to pack up camp and start our trek back out of the park. We crossed the Hoh Glacier up to Glacier Pass, scooted down the Blue Glacier all the way down to the blue ice, headed up the lateral moraine, and found ourselves back on a trail by about 6 PM. We continued another 6 miles through the forest to a camp surrounded by life and blueberries and comfortably thick air. Dinner by about 10, and straight to bed.

Blue Glacier on our way back to the forest, summit in the distance

Blue Glacier on our way back to the forest, summit in the distance

Wednesday. All we had left was to walk out the downhill and flat section of the rain forest, about 13 miles. We got moving at a decent hour, and again, the rain forest was beautiful. My ankles started to hurt from all the downhill on hard terrain, but the rest of my body felt great. Our packs were a little bit lighter from all the food we had eaten, and our legs were stronger from all the walking. We got to the car around 2 PM, ate lunch, exploded and sorted all our gear, and hit the road. We bought milkshakes, which were wonderful. The drive was just as long as before, and we rolled into Seattle around 9 PM. Tired and happy. Pretty epic adventure.

Adina at our false summit camp

Adina at our false summit camp

Taking the Plunge: It keeps getting better

This is an update on my new life of self-employment and -empowerment. Previous entries include: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Whew. Life has been a whirlwind. I’ve been out of Seattle about 80% of the days and nights in the last two months. Most of those have been outdoors, which is totally excellent. I’m on track to blow out of the water any of my previous records on number of nights slept under the stars, and total hours not spent under a roof. Much of this has been through my new job leading backpacking trips for middle and high school boys with the YMCA. I just got back on Saturday from an 8-day adventure through North Cascades National Park, which got me thinking about a lot of what’s happened in my life lately.

Here’s the gist. For a long time, I’ve made a lot of the big decisions of my life on something of a whim. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, and it has worked out extremely well thus far. I’m pretty sure I majored in physics in college because I was good at math and I had a great professor my freshman year. It seemed like a good idea, but I never really though about the reality of the field: hyper-competitive academic environment, lots of colleagues with poor social skills (sorry physicists, but I doubt you’d disagree), a life spent in a lab working primarily on intangibles. It could be a really a good life, but it doesn’t mesh well with a lot of my core values.

I had pretty much realized these things by the time I applied to grad school, so I decided to do geology instead (not coincidentally at a school with a great ultimate frisbee team), expecting most of those qualms to be remedied by the nature of the field. If I had played my cards differently, I think it could have worked out really well, but I ended up pigeon-holing myself in geophysics, and spent most of my grad student years on a computer looking at satellite data. Good intention, but I didn’t quite follow through with it. This led to a lot of exploring which was hugely valuable, and which fluctuated on the intention-whim spectrum: sustainable agriculture in Italy, various construction projects, an office job in green building consulting.

In the past year I’ve gotten better at making intentional decisions, and basing those decisions around my core values. It helps that I have made big strides in actually clarifying my life values. So when this job to lead backpacking trips came along, I pretty much knew I had to take it. It still wasn’t easy, and it even meant parting ways with my most excellent band, Pocket Panda (check them out anyway!) because of the amount of time I’d be out of the city. But the job meant a lot of time in the woods exploring national parks, working with kids, sharing some of my biggest passions, constantly working on healthy relationship building, and taking some big steps out of my comfort zone. I even got to throw creativity into the mix, as the trips I’m leading have an additional focus on art, music, and cooking (seriously, this might be the best job ever).

The focus I’ve put on my creative endeavors lately, primarily painting, has also been filled with intention and alignment with my values. But it has lacked a lot of the positive characteristics of outdoor education, so it has been a revelation to find a way to do both things part of the time. I still have the mental space to go paint at my studio this week, knowing that I’ll be in the woods for weeks straight very soon. I’m sure this will all evolve in impossible-to-predict ways, but for now, I’m continuing to live the dream. And make a little bit of a living in the process!

Bold colors, drips

Openness and Play

After a very brief bit of soul-searching, I decided a few weeks ago to take a job leading backpacking trips for the YMCA in Seattle this summer. The training we’ve done for the program, along with a bit of traveling and an epic frisbee tournament, has got me thinking a lot about relationships, communication, openness, and play. Mostly about how wonderful all those things are, and how little emphasis we put on them in everyday life.

The backpacking training came first, and it was hands-down the best orientation I’ve ever had for a job. We basically went out into the woods and mirrored the experience we would be facilitating for our participants later in the summer. We spent five days building groups, playing games, talking about emotional intelligence and generally having an awesome time. There were about fifty to-be instructors, and every single one was down to create a fun environment and get real with some pretty deep and important conversations. By the end of the five days, the incredibly supportive environment had allowed us all to bond together as if we’d been friends for years. And I’m pretty sure I will be friends with some of those folks for years to come.

I went straight from the orientation to Boston and then Vermont to visit family, especially my three-month old niece. We had a really great time making eye contact and sticking our tongues out at each other and napping. A different kind of bonding, but maybe only in the sense that it’s broken down to its essentials and not yet cluttered by all sorts of baggage and language and anxieties. I also had some really good time to hang out with slightly older relatives and friends, which reminded me again of the difficulties of choosing a coast. For the moment I’m still sticking with the west, though.

Two weeks in New England and I flew back to Seattle in time to go rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia for a couple days (Side note: holy crap. This place is amazing. A climbing dreamland.) before heading to the biggest and best and silliest frisbee tournament in the country, Potlatch. I’ve been to Potlatch about seven times, and it never ceases to amaze me. There is such an incredible wealth of goofing around and great costumes and old friends and new friends and dance parties and bagels with peanut butter. It is not unusual to call a time-out for the sole purpose of setting up a slip-and-slide or having a picnic on the field. Team bonding and community building happens quickly and effortlessly.

But now I am back in “Real Life”, where people do not spontaneously burst into song or dance or wear face and body paint or play games where you make animal noises because you need a let off some steam. The world here seems to run on different energy, or with different priorities. There is a little bit more sarcasm, and people have thick skin. I’m not necessarily pushing for costumed-silliness 24/7, but I think there are some important values that these experiences highlight, and which are often overlooked in our day-to-day routines. Play is big one. Being open, authentic, and real is another. Being supportive and silly in a group, being honest about fears and dreams. These activities may only appear to be passing moments pasted into a larger reality, just vacations we take to “get away”. But they are actually the things that allow us to create strong bonds of friendship and love, and those are the things that really matter. All the physical stuff we acquire along the way is not the point, and I think in a lot of instances it actually makes it more difficult to build relationships and community.

The frisbee community and the outdoor community are groups that are serious about having a good time, making cool things happen, and building strong relationships. It takes love and generosity and openness to create a space for all that to take place, but it is one-hundred percent worth it. These are the things that make life so precious, rewarding, and fun, and I think we could all use a little bit more of that in our day-to-day lives.

Goats rock.

Competition, Comparison, Vulnerability

I just spent a beautiful long weekend in Stehekin, WA, aka Magical Dream Fairy Land. It’s a town of about 85 full-time residents, accessible only by 50-mile ferry ride or a long hike through the North Cascades. There is not much happening in town aside from a kick-ass pastry shop, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous peaks and hiking trails in every direction.

Normally when I go out in the woods like this, I have some big goal: summit a mountain, cover a lot of mileage, climb some difficult cliff faces. This time, not so much. With the support of my group of friends, I approached the weekend with a distinct lack of major ambitions or goals to achieve. Instead, we decided to focus on being present, being open to adventure, and taking things as they come. This is something I think about a lot, but have a hard time doing in real life. The weekend was great practice. Even without having a plan, we managed to camp in beautiful places, go on long walks, eat delicious food, meet new people, have really enjoyable interactions with all sorts of characters and wildlife, watch the sky change color, find animal shapes in the clouds, do sunset yoga, clamber around rock formations, play music everywhere, deepen our friendships, talk about life and the universe, breathe deeply, race sticks down rivers, lose ourselves, find ourselves, forget about cellphones and email, be amazed, eat more, walk more, find a healthy dose of peace of mind.

On the car ride home from the ferry we listened to a podcast featuring Brené Brown on vulnerability, and it summed up wonderfully a lot of the thinking I had been doing. My natural state has always been to be ambitious, competitive, and a bit (ok, maybe a lot) of a perfectionist. In general, this has treated me pretty well so far. I’m good at a lot of things, so I can usually do well enough to be satisfied with my performance. I’ve done a lot of cool things that I’m glad to have done, and I almost always function well in society. But this is a dangerous path, and ultimately not the one I want to follow. It means deriving happiness from comparison with others, either by raising my own status or lowering theirs or both, creating an unhealthy feeling of self-importance and ego. This works really well for a lot of aspects of life, and it’s strongly encouraged by our society and capitalism in general. It doesn’t work, however, for cultivating happiness.

Here’s what I haven’t learned to do yet, but this weekend reminded me I need to be working on:

Being vulnerable

Putting myself out there, especially emotionally

Being okay when things don’t go as planned

Being okay with not being the best at everything

Asking for help

Letting the universe point me in new directions

Failing a lot

Doing what feels right

Taking things slowly

Getting hurt

Forgiving myself and others



It’s not a comprehensive list, but a good start. If you’ve got suggestions, let me know…

Into the Cascades

Last fall I went on a 4-day hike through the Cascades in Washington. I started about 20 miles south of Stevens Pass and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail south and west about 55 miles to Snoqualmie Pass. A friend joined me for Day 1, but after that it was my first solo hike. Fantastic trip. Here are some photos for you.


Getting started with some alpine lakes. Not a lot of sun on Day 1, so the photos were pretty gray.

A friend of mine joined me for the first day. PB&J with a view of where we’re headed to camp that night.


Cathedral Rock. We made our camp around the other side of this guy.

The sky cleared a bit when we got to our camp. Good looking mountain on the horizon.


And sunrise was pretty outrageous.

And it got better.

In all directions.


My friend headed back to the car and I pressed on towards Snoqualmie Pass where we had dropped my car off. First, into the valley.


Always a reassuring sight.

Hiked several miles through the valley and got this shot looking back on where I had just been. Up another ridge!


Over another ridge, this cliff greeted me ominously. I didn’t realize clouds and rock could be so imposing, and frankly scary. I ended up finding a tranquil little pond to camp near, sheltered from the dark clouds.

Morning transformed these cliffs into a spectacular sight.


The sun came out in full on Day 3. I found some more alpine lakes in this saddle after ascending another ridge.

The landscape opened up a bit more.

And I got my first glimpse of Rainier.


Camped where I could see sunrise on the mountain as well.

I got moving early enough to catch some wonderful morning light.

It was a long way down. This was pretty standard for the trail.

Made it! According to this horse on the sign, the trail is “Most Difficult.”