Mount Olympus

  • 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…

Mack takes fantastic iPhone photos sometimes
A smiling Stacia with her camera in hand
Me, Jon, and Mack (PC: Stacia)
Olympus Guard Station

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.

These two are the cutest 🙂
Starting the uphill section of Hoh River Trail
Typical moody PNW forest

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.

Looking down on Elk Lake
Mountains!!!

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.

The dreaded ladder down climb
Black bear near our campsite (PC: Stacia)

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.

Traversing the moraine
Blue Glacier
Jon descending to the glacier

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! 

Stacia and Jon crossing the glacier
Climbing up to Snow Dome
Mount Matthias and Mount Mercury (I think…)

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.

Clear view of the west peak now!
Glacier naps
Heading up
Me, Mack, and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me and Mack near one of the crevasses (PC: Stacia)
Mack and the bergschrund

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*

Jon leading the rock pitch
Mack on belay
Stacia and Jon belaying me up
Third straight year of a Memorial Day weekend summit! (First year: Shasta; second year: Hood via Cooper Spur)
Mostly socked in at the summit
Me and Stacia (PC: Jon)
Me rappelling off the summit

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.

Back at the saddle below the summit block
Descending from Snow Dome
Camp at last

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.

Me in my stupid outfit rushing to get out of the sun

Wy’east & Loowit in a Day

  • Date: March 17, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge & Marble Mountain Sno Park
  • Distance: 17 miles total
  • Duration: 19 hours (breaks, lunch stop, and drive time included)
  • Elevation gain: 11,000 feet total
  • Type: Out-and-back (for both climbs)
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot
  • Ancestral land of the Chinook people and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Wy’east), and the Cowlitz people (Loowit)

Out in the open above timberline, the hot, merciless sun beat down on our tired bodies. Less than 10 hours earlier I’d been wiggling my fingers and toes to keep them from going numb while hiking up to the Hogsback on Wy’east. Now here we were shedding layer after layer and taking giant swigs of Gatorade every couple hundred feet of climbing. The snow had turned to mush from the heat of the sun. I groaned with each sinking step, trudging slowly up the steep slopes of unconsolidated snow. Just a few thousand more feet to go.

Back in January, the PNW was graced with an unbelievably gorgeous weather window for Saturday and Sunday. On a whim, Mack and I decided it would be fun to attempt a doubleheader mountain weekend: Loowit on Saturday, then Wy’east on Sunday. Unfortunately, neither summit was reached despite enviable conditions. We’d have to wait for another opportunity to arise. Fast forward to March…

After spending over two weeks sick with the flu and having to forgo numerous climbing opportunities and general social engagements, I was desperate to get back out to the mountains. The PNW was gifted yet another beautiful weekend and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. On Friday afternoon, we decided to give the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader another go. Earlier in the day [Friday], I’d attempted a pre-work Wy’east climb, which threw off my sleep schedule and left me physically and mentally depleted by the time Friday evening rolled around. When our midnight alarm went off for Loowit, I reluctantly told Mack that I didn’t think I could do it and we went back to sleep. Loowit was off the table, and I hated myself for it. At least we were still planning to climb Wy’east.

I woke up well rested a few hours later but couldn’t shake the guilt of having let our doubleheader weekend slip through the cracks yet again! Then, all of a sudden, something switched on in my head. From my sulking and self loathing, an idea came about. One that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even considered before. Why not climb both mountains on the same day? Mack agreed to it without hesitation–BEST. ADVENTURE PARTNER. EVER!–and before we knew it we were driving out to Timberline Lodge for the start of a long, adventurous Sunday.

We met up with our friend, Emily (who was climbing Wy’east for the first time!), and proceeded up the climber’s trail. With a good deal of people having climbed up the previous day, numerous tracks were in place and made the overall ascent very quick. We were doing so well that we made it to Devil’s Kitchen over an hour earlier than I’d anticipated! Extremities began to succumb to the cold, so we decided not to linger despite being so early. We hiked up to the Hogsback and began the ever steepening crawl up the narrow spine. The Pearly Gates were a breeze–compared to the sheet of ice it had been at the end of January during my last climb–and we followed previous tracks all the way to the summit. The sun had yet to rise, but we made it for blue hour!

Mack climbing up the Pearly Gates
Mack, Emily, and me on the summit
10 fingers for 10 summits!

Sunrise was still 10-15 minutes away. On our way up (while we were still near Devil’s Kitchen), we saw behind us the inevitable stream of headlamps gradually moving up the mountain. Not looking forward to down climbing the gates and sharing such a small space with potentially large groups (or having to wait our turn while our fingers and toes froze), we opted not to wait for sunrise and descend while the crowds were still down lower. Still in the shadows and not having been exposed to the sun yet, the gates were in fantastic shape for easy down climbing. Probably the best shape I’ve ever seen them! 

Emily and I downclimbing the gates

We could see light from the sunrise slowly wash over the lower slopes where we were headed. The ever majestic shadow of the mountain, a sight I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous times now, stretched out to the west. It’s a sight that never fails to breathe life into me no matter how exhausted I am from climbing through the night. Aside from the unfailingly breathtaking sunrises, one of my favorite reasons for climbing so early is getting to witness the life cycle of this shadow. You’re only graced with its presence for a short window before it dissipates with the rising sun. 

After the Hogsback, the rest of the descent passed fairly quickly. The snow was mostly soft enough to plunge step all the way down to the parking lot. We arrived back at our cars shortly before 10 am and enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch in Government Camp with Emily before we began the long drive out to our next objective, Loowit. 

Mack and Emily downclimbing below the gates
Back on the Hogsback

The three hour drive to Marble Mountain Sno Park (which Mack was kind enough to do so I could get some sleep) meant most everyone was finishing up their climb by the time we pulled into the parking lot. Folks were either packing up or lounging about enjoying celebratory beers. The air was warm and the sun high in the sky when we stepped out of the car. Were we really going to do this climb in the hot afternoon sun and crappy snow?

By happenstance, we ran into our friends, Ali and Brad (we all climbed Eldorado Peak together over the summer), who had just finished skiing the mountain. It was tempting to just skip out on the climb altogether and enjoy some post-climb beers and BBQ (I mean, we’d already summited a mountain that morning!), especially after getting beta from them about the snow conditions. We pushed past the temptation and headed over to the trailhead. 

The hike up Swift Ski Trail wasn’t too bad despite the mushy snow. We stepped aside for numerous skiers flying down the trail, envious that we weren’t quite at that level yet (and that we didn’t own our own set-up to even give it a try). One day that’ll be us, I thought. Unfortunately, the cool air and shade of the forest gave way to complete sun exposure and softer, deeper snow once we reached timberline and started up the ridge. We received a few confused glances from climbers descending the mountain and one seemingly veiled warning from the climbing ranger (or volunteer?) who inquired about our equipment (mainly checking to see if we had emergency overnight gear and headlamps) and informed us we were still a few hours from the summit.

We encountered less and less people as we climbed higher, until it was only us two. As expected, the going was slow as we sank into the snow with each step. We kept a pretty good pace for awhile though, but near the seismic station (which sits about 2,000 feet below the summit) we were hit with strong, sustained winds. Our energy began to dwindle, sucked out by the incessant gusts that bombarded us. The final climb up the snow field to the crater rim, and subsequently the quarter mile climb along the rim to the true summit, felt never-ending. It was certainly the slowest we’d moved all day, but just as we’d hoped, we made the summit before sunset. 

Hiking alongside Pahto

Daylight was on its final leg now. Shadows had spilled into the mountain’s crater, but to the north, Spirit Lake and Tahoma were illuminated by the remaining light. To the south stood Wy’east, and we suddenly remembered that that climb had taken place several hours earlier! It already felt like an entirely different day.

Mack took out his phone to take pictures of his own and realized it had died. We’d been tracking and mapping our route on Gaia so we could easily navigate the descent. We’ve always mixed it up one way or another on every Helens climb we’ve done together. Not particularly interested in digging out my map and compass, especially with the wind still being an issue, we booked it off the summit and followed the boot track while we still had light. I knew once we made it off the snowfield and onto the correct ridge we would be fine.  

Looking out on the crater with Spirit Lake and Tahoma beyond
Wy’east
Summit selfie

We’d hoped to save time and effort by glissading down, but the paths were too icy now that the temps had dropped. Thankfully, the snow was still soft enough for plunge stepping (or, rather, plunge step running with how fast we were trying to move). The tracks were easy enough to follow though and I didn’t fear us getting off route this time around. Alpenglow now stretched across the horizon in bands of rosy pink and orange. The last light of the day. I thought back to that morning. How fortunate we were to have witnessed all the beauty and magic that comes with the start of a new day, and now to see it all again at the end while still in the mountains!

We were finally forced to turn on our headlamps somewhere around the seismic station. At least we’d already descended 2,000 feet! We even managed a little bit of glissading below that since the paths were less icy and steep, but it was short lived when the zipper on Mack’s snow pants got stuck and he could no longer zip up the side of his pants. The last part of the ridge just before reaching the forest was the worst. The post-holing had been bad, but tolerable, on the way up. Now that we were exhausted and ready to be back, I was no longer feeling tolerant about sinking into knee, thigh, and sometimes waist deep snow.

Once we made it back into the trees we were able to start moving uninhibited again and finally collapsed at the car shortly before 10 pm. We were starving, dehydrated, and a little delirious from lack of sleep, but the experience of climbing two of our favorite mountains in a single day, something we never would have thought as being fun or reasonable for us even a couple years earlier, was more than worth it. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Hopefully when we repeat it, we might even be capable of skiing down both mountains!

Pahto basking in alpenglow

Wy’east: Leuthold Couloir

  • Date: March 31, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Distance: 8.1 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 16 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 5,640 feet
  • Type: Balloon
  • References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost
  • Ancestral land of the Chinook people and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs

Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe, and don’t forget to look around. Behind me stretched a vast, glaciated slope punctuated by rocky ridge lines and pinnacles. Above me stood the gatekeepers of the upper mountain, towers embodying the perfect marriage of rock and ice, a symbol of the mountain’s harsh yet captivating exterior. Time to move again. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up.

Ever since climbing Cooper Spur, I’ve made it a goal to attempt at least one new route on Wy’east each year (as long as I’m equipped with the necessary skills). After doing some research and receiving feedback from fellow mountaineers last spring, I set my sights on Leuthold, a steep snow and glacier climb on the mountain’s western flank. Although we started planning the climb back in January–obsessing over weekly snow and weather conditions, poring over maps and route descriptions, and practicing crevasse rescue in our living room a couple times a week–setbacks forced us to postpone weekend after weekend. By the final week of March I was feeling pretty defeated and certain that we’d have to wait until next year. That Saturday I happened to check Mountain Forecast for the following day. Sunny, clear skies. High of 16. It had snowed a little over the past few days, so I checked NWAC next. I could feel my face light up with joy as the map loaded. Green. Wy’east was green. This was it. This was our window. I casually sauntered out of the room, trying not to appear too excited/desperate as I approached Mack, knowing full well that we already had other plans in place for the next day. “Any interest in climbing Hood tomorrow?”

We arrived at Timberline the next morning around 2:30 am. My mind and body were aching for sleep. The previous afternoon had been a hectic one after our last minute decision to climb. Following a day of volunteering in Tillamook State Forest, I hastily packed up our gear so we could attempt to sleep a little before driving out to the mountain. Sometimes I envy Mack for his ability to fall into a deep sleep at the drop of a hat. The night before our climb was one of those times, especially as I laid awake with butterflies fluttering around in my stomach, my mind envisioning all the various aspects of the route, while he slept peacefully next to me. 

We signed in at the climber’s register and began the all too familiar slog up to the Palmer chairlift upper terminal. It was nearly 4 am already, and the thought of daylight arriving in a couple short hours revitalized me somewhat. Save for a few headlamps high above and well below us, the mountain was surprisingly void of the climbing crowd. It was a calm, clear, and quiet morning. No howling wind. No human voices. Just the sound of our own breathing and our feet punching into the soft snow. The moon became a faint glow in the sky as blue hour struck near Illumination Saddle. A lone, little orange tent sat perched there overlooking the glacier. Even though I knew it wasn’t my tent and I wasn’t going to be wrapped up inside a sleeping bag when I arrived, the mere fact that it represented warmth made me pick up my pace.

Traversing to Illumination
Roping up at the saddle
Looking out on the Reid Glacier

At the saddle, I got to work getting our rope flaked out and attaching our glacier gear to our harnesses as sunrise colors lit up the sky behind us. Perfect timing. Aside from Mack’s poop break, our transition into glacier travel was relatively quick thanks to consistent practice at home. We walked to the edge of the saddle, peering down onto Reid Glacier and visually assessing the boot path leading to the base of the couloir. The boot path was a godsend and made for a speedy traverse. In these particular conditions, the rope actually felt like overkill (not that we regretted bringing it)! 

Daylight gradually swept over the rolling, forested hills far below and beyond. We knew we likely wouldn’t experience its warmth until we were on the summit ridge. At the end of the traverse, we opted to un-rope (especially since the boot track was so good) and take out a second tool to aid with the steep climbing of the next section. I looked back often as we climbed higher, expecting to see another party approaching the couloir on this unbelievably gorgeous spring day. Never saw a single soul. 

Directly above us, rime encrusted rock formations guarded the entrance to Leuthold, a brief, but narrow stretch known as the Hourglass. This section is notorious for raining down ice on climbers seeking to attain the upper reaches of the couloir. Somehow, on this day, we were graced with no ice fall whatsover! I was even able to stop and savor the rugged, crystalline beauty surrounding me and take photos of Mack as he climbed up shortly after. 

Traversing the Reid
Climbing thru the Hourglass

After topping out above the Hourglass, we’d now completed the steepest portion of the climb and the couloir had expanded into a wide, open slope. From here up to the summit ridge was fairly mellow climbing and, thanks to the continuation of the boot track, very straightforward navigation. On climber’s left we had an incredible view of the gnarly Yocum Ridge, a daunting, jagged spine that snakes its way up to the summit ridge alongside our much more manageable route. Definitely one of my favorite sights of the day (and one of those “maybe one day in the distant future” goals). At the top of the couloir, we were greeted by long awaited sunshine and warmth. We were now within a few hundred feet–maybe less!–of the summit.

Gaining the summit ridge

I’ll admit the ridge felt a bit longer and more tedious than I’d expected (or I was just being impatient), but once the catwalk came into view, I couldn’t bring myself to keep moving. Up until this point, I’d only ever seen a small portion of this undulating crest from the times I’d ascended via Old Chute. Starting back further and being graced with an even wider, more zoomed out perspective made for one of the most picturesque scenes of the entire morning. We made our way across one at a time. I looked down at the Hogsback, expecting to see the typical swarm of late morning climbers. I was pleasantly surprised to see less than a dozen! We reached the summit at 10 am and celebrated with a few other climbers who had just ascended the Pearly Gates, and another who climbed via North Face Left Gully. After a celebratory photo we started our descent.

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Summit!

The Pearly Gates were in decent condition. It wasn’t quite as prime as it had been two weekends earlier, but it didn’t require much effort to get through. Also, the low traffic of climbers made the descent of this section much faster than the previous time. I was still in awe that the mountain wasn’t a complete zoo right now! Mack made a semi-serious joke that everyone was probably on Loowit since it was the final day you could climb without reserving a permit. The remainder of the descent was non-eventful and characterized by our continuous efforts to avoid overheating and escape the harshness of direct sunlight (which proved to be futile). Those last couple hours in the sun coupled with a near complete lack of sleep left me deflated and dizzy by the time we stumbled into the parking lot. Regardless of the hot mess I turned into by the end, I can still say with certainty that this was one of the most–if not THE most–perfect day of climbing I’ve experienced on this incredible mountain. Leuthold is by and large my new favorite route on Wy’east. I can’t wait to give it another go and start researching some other routes for next season! Maybe it’s time to try one of the headwalls? 

Mack downclimbing the gates
Devil’s Kitchen

Eldorado Peak

  • Date: August 5, 2018
  • Start: Cascade River Road (mile marker 20)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Duration: 15 hours 30 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: The Mountaineers

Just one more hill. Just one more hill and finally, after 5,000+ feet of climbing (over three miles I should add), we’d finally get a glimpse of the Queen of the Cascade River herself.  My mind and body seemed to forget about the morning’s intense vert once my boots hit the snow of Eldorado Glacier. I scampered up the long incline with a surprising pep in my step, overcome with excitement and impatience. The North Cascades just have that effect it seems, no matter how difficult the journey. Despite getting eaten alive by mosquitos all morning while navigating steep, technical trail with heavy mountaineering gear on our backs; despite the fact that the blue skies were choked with wildfire smoke and a veil of haze transformed many of the surrounding peaks into mere sihouettes; despite being hours away from finishing and another several hours from home, I felt nothing but pure, unadulterated joy as I stood on the edge of Inspiration Glacier and gazed in wonder at the classic East Ridge of Eldorado Peak.

When Ali threw out the idea of climbing Eldorado together just a few days earlier, I didn’t think twice before enthusiastically responding ‘yes.’ So what that we’d just driven all the way up here the weekend before for a Dakobed C2C? So what that we had a week-long California trip to plan for starting three days later? Mountain conditions were looking fantastic and there was no way I was going to turn down a North Cascades alpine adventure, especially another C2C of a peak I’d been dying to climb for over a year. On Saturday night we met up for dinner at Marblemount Diner following a long afternoon on the road, then caravanned up Cascade River Road to the familiar lot at mile marker 20. We set our alarms and braced ourselves for the early morning wake-up.

Shortly before 5 am we found ourselves carefully scrambling across the slick log over North Fork Cascade River and making our way into the dense forest by the light of our headlamps. As anticipated, the trail was incredibly steep and covered in thick tree roots that snaked across the narrow boot path, creating something of a staircase in sections. Reaching the boulder field and exiting the darkness of the forest was a relief, especially with views of Johannesburg, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets to greet us. Of course this section wasn’t without its downsides. If navigating the boulders wasn’t slow going enough, we also had vicious, persistent mosquitoes to contend with.

Soon enough though we were back on actual trail, hiking past waterfalls and continuing up a slope of mountain heather and granite slabs. Completely unobstructed, jaw-dropping views to the south made it difficult to leave Eldorado Basin. I probably could’ve spent all day sprawled out on some granite staring at the mountains surrounded by pink mountain heather blooms with only the sound of rushing water to keep me company. Instead, we followed the path up to the ridge on our left, then traversed and dropped down into Roush Basin via a class 3 gully. At least the first half of our approach was officially complete.

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Looking out toward Cascade Pass

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Easier going up than down

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Sunbathing, hoping for food scraps, or both?

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Johannesburg from Eldorado Basin

After a bit more scrambling at the base of the gully we crossed into the basin and dropped our packs upon reaching a flat section to sit and enjoy a well deserved snack break. It was mid to late morning now and we still had close to 3,000 feet of gain and a glacier to cross. I refrained from dwelling on it too much and savored my chocolate GU, as well as the view of the surrounding landscape. Large swathes of crevasses appeared scattered in patches on Eldorado Glacier. I observed the group ahead of us heading onto the glacier, taking note of their path for when we reached it.

No longer on steep terrain, we moved quickly across the granite basin, donned our crampons at the edge of the snow, and began another uphill stretch. The snow was already quite soft but it was thankfully still possible to kick steps without sliding backward or expending more energy than necessary. Johannesburg was back in sight behind us, a pleasant distraction from the continuous incline whenever I did turn around. Most of the time though, I kept my eyes on the horizon in front of me, eagerly anticipating the first view of Eldorado. One final climb above the ice cliff  and my wish was finally granted.

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Setting up the timer on my camera

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Snack break in Roush Basin

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Hiking up Eldorado Glacier

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Mack and the ice cliff

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Admiring the East Ridge

We all paused for a moment as we stood at the meeting of the two glaciers, soaking in the scene, knowing it would only become more magical as we neared the summit of the peak before us. I could also see Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak further north across Inspiration Glacier. Another reason to plan a future climbing adventure in this area. We enjoyed the flat-ish traverse across Inspiration to reach a gap on the East Ridge where we got off the snow and took another break to eat, reapply sunscreen, and rope up for the final push.

Through the gap and back on the snow it was all uphill again. There were only a handful of visible crevasses and the boot path skirted around them easily enough. Part of me wished we hadn’t roped up with what seemed like little crevasse fall risk, but I knew I’d probably appreciate it once we were on the exposed knife edge. After what felt like a relatively quick ascent (although it probably took us longer than it felt), we were standing at the base of the infamous knife edge, anxiously waiting our turn to ascend while a pair of climbers ahead of us finished their descent.

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Tepeh Towers and Klawatti Peak

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East Ridge

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Ali and Brad on Inspiration Glacier with Moraine Lake far below

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Climbers descending the knife edge

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Although not as terrifying or intimidating as I thought it would be (granted it had been packed down significantly at this point in the season), the traverse of the knife edge was by far the most exhilarating part of the entire climb, especially with the long runouts on either side of us. At the top of the edge, the route plateaued and widened all the way to the rocky summit at its conclusion. The group ahead of us was just starting to traverse back across and descend, so we lucked out with the summit to ourselves! It was around 1:30 pm when we finally dropped our packs on the summit, just over 8.5 hours since crossing North Fork Cascade River in the dark!

The sky was still hazy as ever, but the “endless sea of peaks” view that I’ve come to find typical of the North Cascades had not been tarnished. Just like I had on Sahale, I dreamt of future climbing endeavors as I stared off into these isolated, rugged ranges, wondering what challenges and mysteries they held. Maybe one day I’ll see for myself. We took some obligatory summit photos, grabbed another quick bite to eat, then booked it down (carefully of course ) the knife edge and glacier, looking forward to unroping back at the gap. My absolute favorite view of the entire approach was on this section of Inspiration Glacier: Moraine Lake, a delightful turquoise gem, with the towering Torment-Forbidden traverse watching over it from high above.

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Best part of the climb hands down

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Summit!

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Ali and Brad descending the knife edge

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Not even the smoky haze could ruin this view

Back at the gap we packed up the glacier gear and (surprise, surprise) ate more snacks. We still had a ways back to the car afterall! Mack and Ali also took advantage of the composting toilet here. Although I didn’t see it with my own two eyes, they both swore it provided one of the best backcountry bathroom views either of them had ever experienced. Better than digging a hole or packing it out, too! We were all pretty exhausted now, especially with the heavy afternoon sun beating down on us, but at least the snow was easy on our joints as we lost elevation quickly. We made it back to Roush Basin just after 2:30 and, with how quickly we were moving, thought that we might actually make it back to our cars by or before 7 pm! Naturally, I was wrong.

Navigating back through Roush Basin to scramble up the gully and regain Eldorado Basin wasn’t terribly difficult, but I was starting to feel some aching in my knees and even moreso in my poor toes getting shoved to the front of my boots. Ali suggested I take some ibuprofen but I said it wasn’t that bad and I could probably make it back to the car without too much pain. Wrong again of course. The unforgiving nature of granite took its toll on my body almost immediately as we started through the dreaded boulder fields. I struggled to keep up and eventually asked Mack (read: chided him for not noticing how far behind I’d fallen in the first place) to stay closer or hike behind me so I didn’t get separated from everyone.

Ali and Brad continued on down, seemingly unaffected by the steep grade after so many hours spent on our feet. I envied their energy but kept putting one foot in front of the other as best I could, cursing the entirety of the final half mile. Once the river came into view though, the pain seemed to diminish. Ali and Brad had finished a few minutes earlier and were now soaking their sore feet and legs in the water, celebratory beers in hand. It was just around 8:20 pm, and a six hour drive back home (as well as work the following morning) awaited all of us. Steep climbing and marathon driving. Signs of another exhausting but perfect North Cascades weekend, this time made even better by the presence of friends who also find  joy and worth in long, challenging days in the mountains. Now to plan our next North Cascades double date alpine adventure…

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Back in the beautiful Eldorado Basin

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Sahale Mountain

  • Date: July 15, 2018
  • Start: Cascade Pass Trailhead (three miles prior due to road closure)
  • Location: North Cascades National Park
  • Distance: 19 miles (6-mile round-trip addition because of road closure)
  • Duration: 14 hours 41 minutes
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: SummitPost

My headlamp cast a long beam of light into the darkness. Besides Mack walking by my side, it was all I had to comfort me on the stretch of closed road leading to the trailhead. I’m used to alpine starts and hiking in the dark (even by myself!), but I’m used to being out in the open, on the slopes of Wy’east where I feel safe beneath the moonlight or starlit sky illuminating the snowfield beneath my feet. The dense forest that Cascade River Road runs through made me feel vulnerable and nervous about what could be lurking behind the trees or in the brush. I felt more and more confident as we neared the three mile mark though, knowing we’d finally be at the trailhead and starting the switchbacks up to Cascade Pass. Then the beam of light from my forehead hit it. A pair of glowing eyes, low to the ground, looked intently at me from the brush and trees on the side of the road.

We started our hike from the mile marker 20 gate closure at 3 am with heavy eyelids, excited for daylight and the sight of breathtaking mountains. It was an uneventful hike until those glowing eyes. I stopped breathing at the sight of them. “Mack…what is that?” He followed my gaze and saw them too. We began yelling and clacking our poles together. The eyes, a mere 20-30 feet from where we were standing, remained unwavering for the first several seconds. Then, the animal leapt out and took off up the road. Mack was convinced it was only a deer, but I swore I saw a long tail catch the light of my headlamp when it darted away. We hiked up cautiously, still making noise. A minute or two later, the eyes were back, again peering out from the side of the road. If I wasn’t petrified with fear at the first sighting, I sure was now. We shouted even louder this time and after a few moments it took off again. To our relief, we didn’t see those eyes a third time, but the damage was done. I was a nervous wreck for the next hour or so until sunrise. Mack was still under the impression that we’d seen a deer, so the uncomfortably close encounter wasn’t affecting him.

Daylight brought a renewed confidence and we were already about halfway up the long series of switchbacks to Cascade Pass. Our energy only increased as we stepped out of the forest, done with the switchbacks, with a complete view of Johannesburg Mountain, Cascade Peak, and the Triplets, sunlight slowly spilling down their sheer rocky cliffs. The sound of rocks crashing down their steep slopes filled the air and reminded us that we were indeed in a beautiful, but also rugged and dangerous mountain range not to be taken lightly. We stopped for a short snack break at Cascade Pass, the first leg of our approach finally complete. Light had yet to fill the valley below us, but Mixup Peak, Magic Mountain, and Pelton Peak were already soaking it in. I traced the beginning of the Ptarmigan Traverse–something I really want to make happen next summer!–with my finger before it disappeared behind Magic Mountain. We left Cascade Pass Trail and began the trek up to Sahale Arm.

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After a few more switchbacks we finally reached the ridge and were rewarded with our first view of Sahale Mountain. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t find it to be that aesthetically pleasing with it’s disproportionately small and pointed nubbin of a summit in relation to the vastness of the rest of the mountain. Of course this didn’t affect my feelings about climbing it! I was beyond excited to put my alpine scrambling skills to the test and rappel off a mountain for the first time ever.

The views only continued to improve as we hiked up to Sahale Glacier Camp. As we gradually climbed the undulating ridge, we got glimpses of Doubtful Lake, sparkling beneath the mid-morning sun far below us. Mountains upon mountains towered high above deep, forested river valleys on either side of us, and the meadow-covered Sahale Arm felt like a scene straight out of an enchanted fairytale kingdom. The final section up to the camp was a steep climb over scree and large, loose rocks (typical North Cascades terrain). We pushed to the camp area as quickly as we could manage and sat down at the edge of the glacier, giving ourselves a breather before tackling the final part of the climb.

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First view of Sahale!

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Looking back along the ridge

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Doubtful Lake far below

We chatted with another group that had just returned from their climb as we strapped our brand new aluminum crampons to our trail runners (the first time ever we’d be crossing a glacier with such minimal, lightweight footwear!). From the beta they provided us, I realized they most likely climbed the wrong peak (neither Boston nor Sahale) but decided not to say anything. (Note: The USGS bench mark on Sahale is marked as ‘Boston’ and this group didn’t know that prior to climbing) We scanned the glacier before stepping onto it, noting only one open crevasse that was well off the current boot path, and opted not to rope up to save time and move faster. Aside from one steep snow section on the southeast side approaching the summit block, the glacier and snow portion was pretty mellow. Once on the rock we dropped our packs and grabbed only what we’d need to rappel, as well as my camera to take some pictures. I may or may not have felt slightly badass coiling our rope into a backpack and wearing it up as I scrambled. Another first! We traversed over to the north side and scurried up the final fourth class pitch with ease. After nearly eight hours, we were finally standing on the summit of our first non-volcanic peak in the North Cascades.

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Power hiking up Sahale Glacier

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Scrambling the summit block

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I was a kid in a candy shop looking out on these beloved mountains. My alpine goals grew exponentially as I scanned the neighboring ridge lines, gazing in awe at Mount Torment, Forbidden Peak, Sharkfin Tower, Boston Peak, and Mount Buckner. One day soon, I thought. One day soon. We reveled in our successful summit a few moments longer, committing to memory our excitement and exaltation, as well as the incomparable beauty of the surrounding peaks. Back on the south side, we triple checked the quality of some slings left in place then went about setting up the rappel. Mack rapped down first so I could check his set up before he took his first steps off the edge. I followed a few minutes later. We conveniently landed next to the gear we’d stashed earlier and quickly repacked for our return to the glacier camp. The steep snow below the summit block required some patience and focus but from there we enjoyed a fast and easy descent. We made it back around lunch time and lounged around the glacier camp while we feasted on candy and sandwiches.

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Summit selfie with Boston Peak photobombing behind us

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Boston Peak and Mount Buckner connected by Ripsaw Ridge

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Boston Peak, Sharkfin Tower, and Forbidden Peak

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Looking toward Mount Buckner 

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Rapping off the summit

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Watching as two other climbers head up

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Trail runners with C.A.M.P aluminum crampons worked great!

The hike back to the car took longer than expected mainly because I’d decided to save most of the picture taking of the Sahale Arm for the hike out. Of course, once we entered the forest after Cascade Pass and began the infinite switchbacks down to the trailhead, we were desperate to get back to the car. The most tortuous section of the entire day (aside from waiting for daylight after our suspected cougar encounter) came when we reached the parking lot and remembered that we still had just over three miles left due to the road closure. Not even the views of Johannesburg could inspire me to enjoy this final stretch. We dragged our tired bodies through the late afternoon heat, finally shuffling past the closed gate to our car shortly after 5:30 pm. Despite the six hour drive back home (and work the next morning), all I could think about was the fact that we’d just spent an entire day among the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever laid eyes on and that my dream of alpine climbing in the North Cascades was slowly but surely becoming a reality.

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Hiking back down on talus with Doubtful Lake peeking out below

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Looking out at Eldorado (next objective!), the peak on the far right

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Enjoying your meal there, Mr. Goat?

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Taking in the view of Sahale Arm

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Back at Cascade Pass

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Road walk back to the car in the hot afternoon sun