- Date: May 25-27, 2019
- Start: Hoh Visitor Center
- Distance: 44 miles
- Duration: 3 days
- Elevation gain: 7,400 feet
- Type: Out-and-back
- Resources: The Mountaineers
Slivers of dark blue sky beyond the trees gradually gave way to a visible, mountainous horizon as we emerged onto the open meadow below the glacial moraine. The confinements of lowland and subalpine scenery–nearly 18 miles and endless hours of it–were now behind us. The half moon glowed above, bordered by pink, wispy clouds, and the sky grew lighter with every upward step we took. I knew what was located beyond the moraine. I’d seen the photos on various trip reports while researching the route. But as we stepped onto it, no longer obscured by forest and fog, I was once again reminded that no photo can ever do justice to experiencing a place like this in person.
Before 2019, Mack and I had only ever experienced the Olympics once: backpacking *most of* the Hoh River Trail in early spring in 2016. It was probably one of the most miserable backpacking experiences because of the heavy rain. By the last night we were literally sleeping in a puddle in our tent, unable to get all the water out. We saw zero mountains on that trip and, even when summers rolled around, never felt quite motivated enough to make it back out. Regardless, Olympus remained high on our list of mountains we wanted to experience. Fast forward to April 2019 on a casual crag climbing trip with friends. Naturally, upcoming mountain goals is a hot topic of conversation. Stacia and Jon are pushing for Olympus the following month. Would we like to join?
Day 1: Hoh Visitor Center to Glacier Meadows (17.5 miles; 12 hours 5 minutes, breaks included)
Mountaineering boots…trail runners…mountaineering boots…trail runners? The question raced through my mind as we stood in the parking lot waiting for Stacia and Jon to get the last of their gear packed. Three days in mountaineering boots and no back-up shoes to avoid strapping the boots to my pack, while everyone else in our group was doing just the opposite. “Meh,” I thought, “I can handle it.”
We all groaned beneath the weight of our packs as we started our long walk to base camp. I realized how soft “ultraneering” had made me. I was complaining about a 27 lb pack, and everyone was carrying well over that amount! We all moved pretty conservatively as we adjusted to the unfamiliar load, but it gave us a chance to enjoy our surroundings. Moss dripping from spruce and hemlock trees, lush ferns lining the narrow singletrack, the sound of flowing water always within earshot. Memories of our very first trip came rushing back to me as we sauntered beneath an endless canopy.
Despite our relaxed pace, the nine miles to the Olympus Guard Station passed quickly. We enjoyed lunch on the covered porch, happy to be eating off some of the weight in our packs (although no amount that Jon ate was going to alleviate the weight of the giant bag of chicken he’d packed in for his and Stacia’s dinner). A number of groups with ice axes, helmets, and pickets strapped to their packs walked by as we ate. Olympus was going to be crowded this weekend…
Rain started to fall shortly after we passed Lewis Meadows. It began as light drizzle, but soon we found ourselves pulling out rain jackets and throwing on bulky pack covers. Moments later, we sat huddled in a dry spot beneath some trees, laughing and joking about the current conditions (expected though they were) but also hoping that we weren’t hiking all this way to get weathered out the following day. More folks–all loaded down with mountaineering gear, including a couple of crazies carrying skis!–passed us while we waited for a clear window. Another worry all crossed our minds: would we be able to find a campsite?
Following campsite 12.4, we began the five-mile ascent to Glacier Meadows. The forest became progressively moodier the higher we climbed. Fog and mist shrouded the tops of the trees but did not detract from their vibrancy. On the contrary, our surroundings were even more illuminated and, though a bit more anxious to reach camp, we stopped to soak it all in. At mile 15 or so, we arrived at Martin Creek, the furthest Mack and I had hiked before turning around due to snow conditions back in 2016. This time we crossed it–with shoes on instead of off!–and continued on. We were finally going to complete the Hoh River Trail!
Just before Elk Lake, another climber caught up to us and I noticed he was sporting a PMR (Portland Mountain Rescue) shirt. I looked up, hoping it was someone I knew so I wasn’t just staring awkwardly at some random person’s face. I was certain I recognized him (and fairly sure we were at least Facebook acquaintances), but just in case I blurted out, “Hey, don’t I know you?” Thankfully, I did. It was Matt, a climber who I’d run into a handful of times on the summit of Mount Hood! Unsurprisingly, he was also hiking in to Glacier Meadows to attempt Olympus the next morning. It was a funny and somewhat surreal experience seeing a familiar face all the way out here, but it also made me feel just a tad closer to the mountaineering community in the PNW.
We took one last longer break at Elk Lake before the final uphill push to camp. The clouds were starting to part a little bit and at long last we got a few brief glimpses of Olympus from the lake! Views improved the higher we climbed. While traversing a particularly steep slope, we could see Glacier Creek flowing thousands of feet below us, as well as look across at both Mount Olympus and Mount Tom standing guard over the entire valley. For some strange, illogical reason, I’d never thought much of the Olympic mountains, and I can’t exactly pinpoint the origin of my lack of appreciation. But now, the only words that came to mind as I stood there awestruck? What. Have. I. Been. Missing.
Sunset was close now and we were all very much ready to make camp. Once we reached the rickety ladder leading down a steep, scree-filled ravine, we knew we were getting close. Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we had to move one at a time down the ladder, which made covering this extremely short distance a tedious ordeal (but what a cool photo op!). After scrambling up to the trail on the other side, we arrived at Glacier Meadows within minutes, but it appeared finding a campsite was possibly going to be an issue. Fortunately, a friendly camper who saw us searching (and probably exuding a little bit of desperation in the process) provided some beta that led us to a campsite right off the main trail to Blue Glacier!
We dropped our burdensome packs and immediately set up. Mack was pretty adamant about getting to bed as soon as possible since we had an early, alpine start alarm set for the next morning. (As I’ve probably mentioned in many a post, he does not function well on low sleep) Following some brief excitement from a bear walking by our camp,–we only saw one, but apparently there were two or three more nearby!–we quickly moved through our in-camp routine and were soon tucked into our sleeping bags. Stacia and Jon remained outside, enjoying a meal of chicken, mashed potatoes, and, if I remember correctly, asparagus. The delicious aroma wafted through our tent wall and my stomach growled. They ended up cooking too much and I lucked out with some leftover potatoes and asparagus (thank you, Stacia!) a few minutes later. I went to bed with a happy (albeit a little gassy) stomach, both nervous and ecstatic about what the next morning would bring.
Day 2: Glacier Meadows to Mount Olympus summit, then back to Glacier Meadows (9 miles; 14 hours 10 minutes, breaks included)
Our movement was slow going (more from sleepiness than pack weight this time) as we stumbled in the dark getting everything together for the long day ahead. Stacia and I were fairly awake and alert–maybe even a little bubbly with excitement–by the time we were ready to start hiking up. Jon and Mack would get there in the next hour or so. First light was upon us as we hiked to the top of the moraine overlooking the Blue Glacier. Here we were surrounded by rugged, snow capped peaks (a sight that immediately made me think of the North Cascades), looking out onto a sprawling sea of snow, ice, and rock, when less than 24 hours prior we’d been hiking through a rainforest!
We sat for a few minutes at the top to watch the sunrise then began the careful, one-at-a-time descent to the glacier. With how loose the rock was combined with the grade of the slope, it was nearly impossible to not kick some rock down (always unintentional of course). The one and only time I ended up running over the course of our trip was when I had rocks–a few that could’ve caused some serious injury–barreling down toward me while navigating the final part of the descent. Despite the dangers of glacier travel, I was relieved to step onto one and be done with all the choss for a little while.
Although still in the shadows, we watched as sunlight gradually washed over Olympus’ three peaks as we roped up for the remainder of the climb. By this time, we could see other groups traversing the top of the moraine. There were already a few groups crossing the glacier and/or heading up to Snow Dome as well. It was time to get going if we didn’t want to get caught in rush hour traffic at the summit block.
Navigating across the glacier went smoothly. We followed the boot track put down by the groups ahead of us. There were a few visible cracks, but overall the glacier was still well covered. The terrain steepened once we started the ascent to Snow Dome and I was grateful for the steps that had already been kicked in as it allowed me to conserve my energy. We took short breaks whenever we reached brief plateaus, taking swigs of water now that the sun was starting to beat down on us. We were high enough now that we could see beyond Matthias and Mercury to the southern peaks of the Bailey Range (the traverse of which is officially on my bucket list after this trip) and follow its curved shape to a slew of peaks to the north as well!
After one final steep slope, we enjoyed a more gradual ascent (so gradual that it almost looks flat in the photo below) to the base of yet another steep snow section. At least from here we could finally see our objective: the West Peak of Mount Olympus. Unfortunately, we could also see the conga line of climbers all making their way up. As we got closer, we could make out a number of climbers hanging out at the saddle below the summit block, waiting in line at the base of the summit block, or crawling up various faces of the summit block. It was a shit show and none of us liked the look of it. My heart sank as I seriously began to consider that the summit might not be in the cards for us. We all decided it would be best to set our packs down and take a longer break rather than climb up to the saddle where it was bound to be colder and blustery.
The minutes dragged on as we watched (minus Mack who opted for a glacier nap) and waited, hoping to see groups beginning their descent. Nothing happened. The summit block was still crawling with climbers even after a half hour to an hour of sitting around. We decided to get moving. Afterall, we still had to climb up Fourth of July route, gaining at least another 1,000 feet to reach the saddle between the summit block and the false summit.
We followed the boot track, taking our time since we knew we’d have to wait our turn once we topped out. Being early enough in the season, snowbridges were still intact and we were able to get up close and personal with the bergschrund, peering into the gaping, cavernous crack that usually prevents this route from being feasible. One last steep snow pitch above the ‘schrund brought us to the saddle and the continuation of the waiting game. A three-person group descended from the false summit (probably having done the Crystal Pass route) and Stacia, who was acquainted with at least two of the members, approached them about setting up one rope for the summit block so we could work together rather than wait for each other. They agreed, and as soon as the remaining teams were completely off the summit block—another half hour to an hour wait…ugh—we climbed up more steep snow to the base of the rock.
Jon led the rock pitch to the summit. I can’t quite recall if his route stayed more on the northern aspect (rated about 5.4) or the eastern aspect (mostly class 4 with some 5th class moves), but either way it was nice to have it protected, especially with ice and snow still obscuring some portions of the rock. Stacia followed and cleaned, then belayed the rest of us up one at a time. Waiting was a little bit harder in this spot now that we were socked in and completely exposed to the ferocity of the wind. I was grateful when it was my turn to climb because I was able to warm up as I scrambled up the rock. Aside from the snow patches and my clunky mountaineering boots, the scramble wasn’t too bad, and the wind was far less vicious the higher I got! At the belay station, I made one more 5th class (maybe 4th class?) step to the narrow spine of the summit ridge and carefully navigated the snow and loose rock to join Mack at the summit.
The clouds broke sporadically, but only for fleeting seconds at a time. Never long enough to truly capture what Stacia believed to be one of the best views in Washington (this was her third Olympus summit). Nonetheless, we were all incredibly stoked to have made it safely and completely free of the crowds! No more anxiety and questioning whether or not we would reach the summit. The long morning of slogging and waiting around had finally paid off. After a whole bunch of picture taking–yes, even with the lack of views–we rappelled back down. Of course, as soon as the last person reached the base and was pulling the rope through, the clouds parted almost completely and the summit was clear. *sigh*
It’s amazing how immediately exhausted and beat you feel after reaching the summit of something. Like, your mind and body seem to become superhuman on the way up, then, as soon as that push to the summit is all over, all that energy and willpower is drained within minutes (seconds even!). Thankfully, after getting past the bergschrund, the way back was mostly easy, mindless plunge stepping. The scramble up the moraine was a little annoying and tedious, but after that it was downhill on “trail” to our camp.
It was already late afternoon/early evening by the time we dropped our packs and flung off our boots and socks. Without camp shoes–I really should’ve at least packed flip flops–I walked around barefoot to air out my feet and spent the better part of my relaxation time peeling sap off. Similar to the previous evening, Mack and I crawled into our tent pretty early while Stacia and Jon hung out and enjoyed another hot dinner. We set our alarms and tried not to think about the next day’s long walk back to the car.
Day 3: Glacier Meadows to Hoh Visitor Center (17.5 miles; 8 hours 53 minutes, breaks included)
Nothing particularly special to describe about the hike out. We spent the morning and early afternoon leapfrogging with all the other exhausted, cranky climbers dragging ass back to the comfort of their cars. And once we reached Olympus Guard Station with nine miles left, I experienced a whole tidal wave of regret about not having trail runners. My feet were in a world of pain and I could no longer keep up with anyone in my group (unless we were hiking uphill). With every footfall, I rhythmically muttered “F*** me, f*** me, f*** me, f*** me.” To add insult to injury, it was sunny, hot, and stuffy, and my dumb ass had only packed running tights and a long sleeve shirt to wear for the hike in and out. Not sure which decision was more stupid: the mountaineering boots or my cold-weather running ensemble. Mmmm…actually the boots. The boots were definitely the worst idea.
Having Stacia and Jon as company–even though I could barely keep up with them those last nine miles–definitely kept us from going completely crazy, and we all worked together to keep the morale up (an exceptionally difficult task at times when all of you are completely out of snacks). Before we knew it though, we were squeezing our way through the Disneyland hoardes of dayhikers and pit-stop tourists crowding the trailhead. We paused at Stacia and Jon’s car to say our goodbye’s, thanking them profusely again for allowing us to join them and for helping us summit a mountain that had been on our “must climb” list for years. I’m not sure we would’ve managed it all without their expertise and determination to make it happen.
Mack started the drive home so I could air out my atrocious looking, god-awful smelling feet. As I lay slumped in the passenger seat, feet up on the dash (sorry Mack) while cool air from the open window whipped through my pruney toes, I scrolled through the many photos I’d taken the previous day. One of our biggest mountain goals of the year was complete and already I wanted to be back up high, back in one of those photos, gazing out at these mountains I hardly knew but desperately wanted to see more of. Olympics, I think this goes without saying, but we’re just getting started.