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

Summiting Mt. Rainier

I climbed Mt. Rainier a couple weekends ago. The summit was a new high point for me, 14,411 ft. It ended up being one of the most fantastic – and difficult – adventures I’ve had. What a beautiful mountain.

It started Thursday evening when my rope team met up to do a gear check and talk about plans, goals, and logistics for the trip. I had borrowed a lot of gear, and it turns out I’ve never been mountaineering before. I hike and rock climb, so I have some basics like a harness and helmet, but glacier travel was totally new to me. A friend lent me an ice axe, glacier glasses, extra carabiners, collapsible shovel, an avalanche beacon (despite low avalache risk for the weekend), cramp-ons, double plastic mountaineering boots, and a balaclava (full head and face mask) in case of extreme cold at the top. I ended up using everything except the beacon and balaclava. This trip was wild.

We confirmed that everyone was fully equipped, had a couple big bowls of pasta, and enjoyed a beer over discussion. It was really good to talk about goals for the trip, summer camp style. Mine started out as pretty much just wanting to reach the summit, but I started to realize there was going to also be a huge opportunity for learning and practice over the weekend, and I started getting more excited about that. The phrase “mental elevation” came up, which I thought was cool but wouldn’t really understand until about 60 hours later.

Satisfied with our discussion and bags packed up, we set our alarms for 4:45 am and got in sleeping bags to catch as much sleep in the remaining 5 hours as possible.

And 4:45 came quickly, as it always has in my experience. We secured our packs, loaded up the car, and took off for the mountain, about 2 hours southeast of Seattle. We had reserved campsites ahead of time, but still ended up getting caught in a line at the ranger station for about 45 minutes. You don’t expect a line at 6:30 am, but that is how the mountain works. We filled out our trip plan and set out. We ended up with a campsite at Glacier Basin for Friday night (about 3.5 miles in at 5,000 ft), Camp Schurman for Saturday night (another ~3.5 miles at 9,500 ft), and another night at Schurman on Sunday if necessary. We wouldn’t be doing the rush up and down the mountain that some people do, so there would be time to practice glacier skills and get a bit used to the altitude. Pretty much ideal.

So we strapped on our packs and got moving. I think we were all hauling about 40-50 lbs, but even so, 3.5 miles goes quickly. The trail was nicely maintained and mostly snow free. They had had a serious wash out a few years back, and the trail has been completely rebuilt. All in all, an easy walk. We got to our first campsite around 11 am, leaving plenty of time to practice knots and self arrests. We set up camp and took a breather. The 4:45 am wake was pretty apparent, and our conversational skills were in a serious decline. I looked over a mountaineering book and dozed off on a sunny rock.

Evan, Greta, and Justin scoping out what lies ahead

After a bit of back and forth between half-wakeful studying and half-restful dozing, we all got back together for the hands-on practice. We roped up, did some laps around the snowfield, practicing commands and arrests. Informative and necessary, but definitely clouded by lingering exhaustion. Around 5 or 6 we decided to cook some dinner and get tidied up for sleep. The plan was to hit the trial while the snow/ice was still good (i.e., not slushy yet), so we set our clocks for a 4 am wake up. We were in our bags by 10 pm, and these 6 hours would be the longest rest of the trip.

Snowfield at Glacier Basin

And this time I was a little bit more ready for 4 am when the alarms started chiming. It is a good feeling to be up before the sun. The moon and stars were beautiful. We had a quick breakfast and chai tea and packed up camp. By the time we got moving, the sun was starting to shine on the western edge of the basin. It felt good to be moving in the shade – things would clearly be getting hot when the sun surfaced fully. We worked our way slowly up Inter Glacier on the way to camp Schurman. There weren’t any crevasses on this one, but it did get pretty steep toward the end. Our early start paid off, and we were rewarded with some pretty spectacular views by about 9 am. At the top of the ridge we roped up to move onto Emmons Glacier. We were expecting minor crevasses, but mostly we wanted to get some experience on the rope and with our knots. We snacked and hiked, practiced setting some gear, snacked and hiked some more. We might have taken our time a little too liberally and ended up at camp around 1 pm. We were greeted by David Gottlieb, a reknowned mountaineer who has climbed Rainier enough times to be “too embarassed to keep track” anymore. He gave us some tips on our knots and packing and wished us luck. We were reassured to find out that he would be summitting Sunday morning about the same time as us.

Sunrise on the mountain

1 pm may not seem like a late arrival into camp, but we were already moving pretty slowly. At 10,000 ft everything takes longer than you expect. We set up the tents, got a water-drip going to fill our bottles, played a game of Euchre, and suddenly it was 5 pm – later than we had hoped for dinner. We cooked, ate ravenously, and cleaned. Suddenly 8:30 pm. We decided on a very early start – 12:30 am. So we set our alarms for 11:30 pm and got in our bags for a glorious 2.5 hours of rest.

All geared up, heading for Camp Schurman

I actually didn’t realize that we had planned on so little rest (or I didn’t know what time it was when we went to sleep), and I felt surprisingly good when the clocks went off. Adrenaline and excitement for the summit certainly had something to do with it. It was beautiful out. The snow and ice were nice and solid, the sky was clear and full of stars. The moon was just rising and the whiteness of the mountain made the landscape feel extraterrestrial. Again, altitude and lack of sleep contributed. Either way, really amazing. We roped up and got in line. There were already other teams leaving, and we ended up being about the 7th team to set off. More would be coming up behind us, and it would clearly be a busy day on the mountain.

Arrived at Camp Schurman – Photo courtesy of Evan

Things got steep right off the bat, but we were in a pretty good zone. Circles of light from headlamps were moving up the glacier ahead of us and behind and it was easy to fall into a rhythm. After trekking a good way up the first section we stopped for snacks and realized it was already 2:45 am. There was one tricky section involving a snow bridge that had lost some of its integrity the day before, but it was still cold enough that there were no issues moving across it. We pressed on and it was 4:30. The sun was starting to rise directly opposite the glacier, giving us a wonderful light show. It got bright and things warmed up a bit, with the wind picking up as well to counteract the heat.

Sunrise over Washington

This continued for some time. We had some trouble with the pace and congestion at this point – we kept having to stop behind slow groups, but couldn’t get enough momentum to pass them and stay ahead. So we alternated between getting cold and getting tired, not ideal. Around 7:30 am we stopped for a longer break, about 15 minutes. We were about 700 ft from the summit, but we were getting worn down. The altitude was kicking in and it was hard to stay focused. We chatted about our energy level and motivation, and decided that if we weren’t on the summit by 10 am we would turn around and head back. Pretty generous, but it seemed like a good goal at the time. We had another snack and got our legs moving again.

The slightly longer rest and chat had motivated us, and we ended up being pretty solid the rest of the way to the summit. We slowly realized we had arrived as we saw rock and climbers resting. 8:30 am. There were some wispy clouds around and the wind was whipping across the crater. Not a very hospitable place. We could see north to Baker, but a light haze kept the views from extending more than a couple hundred miles. It felt really good to be at the top, and a huge relief to know that we wouldn’t have to go up any further.

Team Kraken at the top – Photo courtesy of Greta

I am upsidedown – Photo courtesy of Greta

The wind was keeping us from enjoying the rest too much though. We were feeling the cold and decided it would be best to make our stay short. We snapped a few photos, tightened up our gear and set off for the descent. We kept our cramp-ons on in case we came to any icy patches, but things were getting pretty slushy and we probably could have moved a bit faster without them. Still, the descent was a relief and it felt like we were covering ground in no time. We stopped briefly a couple more times to snack and plodded on. We found that the snow bridge we had crossed earlier had melted out a bit more, requiring a short jump to get across. We played is safe and set some protection in the snow in case of a slip and made it across without trouble.

It is a long way down – Photo courtesy of Greta

A short leap over a crevasse

After some final knee-high-slush trudging, we made it back to Camp Schurman where are tents were waiting for us, 1 pm. We shed our packs and crawled into sleeping bags for a quick rest. We could stay another night there if we wanted, but we had heard that there were thunder storms were on the way. We slept about an hour and a half and packed up camp. We loaded up our bags by 5 pm and got on the rope for one last stretch of glacier travel. We were exhausted but happy, and everything went smoothly. We got to Inter Glacier, the steep snowfield from the second day, and were greeted by a nicely groomed glissade track. Strapping our gear on tightly, we sat on our butts and got ready to slide. It felt terrific. The 3-mile snowfield which had taken us 3-4 hours to climb a day early quickly receeded in about 15 minutes of amusement park-style enjoyment. The snow cooled our legs, pretty much bliss. Within the hour we were back to our first camp and on our way out on a 3.5 mile dirt trail. Our heads were clear with the reduced altitude, but foggy from exhaustion. The hike felt more like about 7 miles, but we made it. We got to the car at 9 pm and took our boots off to great relief. Success! We had reached the summit and made it back down in one piece. It felt incredible. And it was really hard. We were totally beat, loopy, hungry for something other than Power Bars.


We got in the car hoping to find burgers, but Enumclaw is a sleepy town at 10 pm on a Sunday, so we settled for the 24-hour Safeway. Another meal of snacks, but at this point it didn’t really matter. We got back to Seattle around midnight, ready for some hot showers and warm beds. In bed by 1 am, up at 8 am for work. 7 hours felt luxurious. What a weekend.

Made it back!

Snow in Seattle

Snowpocalypse comes to Seattle. In this town, that translates into about five inches. It’s definitely enough to shut everything down, though. Especially living up on Capitol Hill where the roads are steep and narrow, transportation becomes impossible. Walk or stay home.

The last week has been glorious. Maybe it’s my Vermont roots, but the snow seems to have made the whole town wake up and smile. We had a solid day of snow, as predicted, and then a second day of snow and icy rain, not predicted. People skipped work, or worked from coffee shops, cross country skiers took to the sidewalks, cars lay tucked away and unreachable in the snow.

I love the snow, being snowed in, and having to make a real effort to trek to the nearest coffee shop for a warm beverage. The brightness of reflection on an otherwise gray day. The weather seems to foster a sense of community that I haven’t seen before in Seattle. People raise their heads from the dark- and rain-induced cocoons and actually take a look around. We’re all struggling against a common difficulty, and everyone’s life is affected. We can relate to each other.

I called a few friends over for a snowball fight, and once they showed up we had about 7 people building snow forts and hurling snow balls. The best part, though, was that our neighbors started to come outside and join in. People I’d never met before, despite living about 35 paces apart. People I should already know, and who I am now committed to developing some kind relationship with, even if it’s just recognizing them at the grocery store to say “Hi.” In the end, about 15 cold and wet people came up to our apartment from the snow for mulled wine.

The last remnants of slush and ice are vanishing today (the walls of the snow fort are the last to go), but the mood persists. A crust has been peeled off our eyes and brains, rejuvenating the neighborhood as we head back into a few more months of darkness and rain. A great week in Seattle.