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.Β 

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?Β 

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 πŸ™‚
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!Β 

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 blockβ€”another half hour to an hour wait…ughβ€”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,Β  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.Β 

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
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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:Β Best Climbs: Cascade VolcanoesΒ 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.Β 

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.Β 

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.Β Β 

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.Β 

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?Β 

Mack downclimbing the gates
Devil’s Kitchen

Mount Hood: Cooper Spur

  • Date: May 28, 2018
  • Start: Tilly Jane Sno Park
  • Distance: 9.9 miles
  • Duration: 16 hours 5 minutes
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost

“Rock!!!” The sound of my voice felt so small and helpless against the vastness of Wy’east’s intimidating northeast flank. I looked behind me to make sure Mack had actually heard my warning. Here we were, practically crawling up the mountain’s “deadliest” route, hoping to not be crushed or thrown off it’s side by the watermelon-sized boulders that were tumbling down in sporadic intervals. Despite the fact that we were together, I’d never felt a greater sense of solitude on a mountain. It was both beautiful and terrifying.

Long before I dreamed of climbing other mountains and even the standard south side route of this mountain, I dreamed of climbing the Cooper Spur route. When we first began hiking more regularly in 2014, the trek to Cooper Spur was my favorite day hike and was the highest I’d ever been on Wy’east at the time. I hoped that the next time I was back up in the same spot that it would be to complete the final 2,000+ feet to the summit. Just under four years later, I was back to fulfill that promise to myself.

After a failed attempt two days earlier due to an accidental long nap at the Cooper Spur shelter on the approach, we decided to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and return for another go. We set off from Tilly Jane Sno Park shortly before midnight, moving through an eerie landscape of skeleton trees (remnants of a wildfire that swept through several years earlier), passing the Tilly Jane A-Frame, and finally breaking treeline at the Cooper Spur shelter a couple hours later. It thankfully wasn’t nearly as windy as it had been two days earlier so we didn’t feel the need to take shelter like we had then. We decided this was still a good time to stop for a snack and make any adjustments to clothing before pushing the rest of the way to the base of the snowfield, which still required another 2,000 feet or so of climbing.

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Mack pounding Yerba Mate drinks in order to stay awake

We navigated with surprising ease and swiftness through the steep, boulder field leading up to the spur. I remembered how slow, difficult, and never-ending this section had felt under the hot afternoon sun back in 2014. Definitely a stark contrast to how we were faring now. It made me smile to realize yet again how far we’ve come since our out-of-shape, cotton-wearing, lack-of-ten-essentials-carrying days outside. Upon reaching Cooper Spur, we took another snack break and traded a trekking pole for an ice axe in order to traverse the narrow ridge before us safely. The sun was just starting to rise now and we had a front row seat (well…whenever we turned around at least) as we made our way to the base of the snowfield.

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Lonely but magical ridge walk to the base of the snow field

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Mack on the ridge

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Eliot Glacier and a view of Helens, Rainier, and Adams

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Just another showstopping Wy’east sunrise

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The entire northeast face was engulfed in the warm and radiant light of the now risen sun once we reached the end of the ridge. The salmon pink glow of the steep snow climb before us seemed inviting at first, but the longer I stared at it, allowing my gaze to move upward to the summit, the more that facade began to crumble, forcing me to face the reality of what we were about to attempt and the consequences if we made a mistake. I take every climb I do very seriously, but this was the first time I was filled with more fear than exhilaration. I turned to Mack as I stood there paralyzed and put on a brave face. “You still want to do this?” I asked. Part of me hoped he’d be so scared and nervous that he’d want to turn around, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about backing out. Instead, we took our first steps up the 2,000+ foot climb.

For a short while we were able to walk upright, but it quickly turned into a comparable grade to that of the Hogsback on the south side. We were still a long ways from the summit. Rock crumbled from the bands high above us. The sound stopped us dead in our tracks each time and I could only hope we weren’t directly in the fall line. It was difficult to see the rock cascading down until it was a couple hundred feet away from us. Although we brought along pickets and rope in order to set up a running belay as the slope steepened, we decided against using it when we saw how frequent the rockfall was. Better to move separately and quickly in order to get out of the bowling alley we were stuck in.

It’s not very often that we have to kick steps on the routes we climb because they’re usually so well worn that we’re almost always following in someone else’s tracks. This was not the case on Cooper Spur. I expended nearly all of my energy kicking steps for us until we reached the first rock band a few hundred feet or less below the summit. By this time, we were mostly out of the danger zone (in regards to rockfall), but now we were on the steepest part of the climb and the snow quality was less than ideal since the sun had been warming it for a couple of hours. One slip could easily send either one of us rocketing down into the Eliot Glacier a couple thousand feet below. One slip could easily mean death.

I pushed past my physical and mental exhaustion to stay as focused and cognizant as possible, acutely aware of the quality of each kick step and ice axe purchase. I could only hope that Mack, who was now in front of me kicking our steps through the Chimneys, was doing the same. Above the Chimneys, the end was now in sight. Despite being far easier than what we’d just come through, we were both moving pretty slowly up the final part of the slope. After nearly ten hours, we meekly pulled ourselves up and over the rim at the feet of some skiers eyeing the line we’d just ascended. Damn were we looking forward to descending the south side.

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Bracing myself

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Before it got really steep

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Mack starting to weave his way through the rock bands

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Just a few more steps until the summit!

After a few words with the skiers, we realized our south side decent was not going to be the cakewalk we were hoping for. Maybe an hour or so before we summited, three roped climbers had fallen on the Hogsback and a rescue was underway. (Side note: all party members survived) We stayed on the summit longer than planned while deciding which way to descend (and so Mack could take care of some altitude-induced bowel movement). In the end, we opted for Pearly Gates. Neither of us was in the mood to traverse the knife edge leading to the Old Chute.

Unfortunately, the gates were not in the excellent shape they’d been in two weeks prior. The consolidated snow and kick steps were almost completely worn away, leaving crumbling ice instead of firm platforms. Once past the gates, we could see the rescue taking place below us. I decided to climb down facing into the slope so I wouldn’t be able to see what was happening. The last thing I wanted was to get freaked out, make a mistake, and cause another accident for PMR to deal with. We made our way down extra slow now that the snow was complete mush and we had a gaping bergschrund to contend with. On the way down, we passed off our handwarmers to the group of rescuers who were seeking out resources to warm one of the patients as they waited for a helicopter. I felt bad there wasn’t more we could offer.

Just below Devil’s Kitchen, we finally took a more relaxing break and were able to breathe again (a little ironic if you’ve been to Devil’s Kitchen). We removed our crampons, but I kept my axe out since the rest of the way down looked unpleasantly icy and not at all ideal for plunge stepping. We hiked the rest of the way down at a far slower pace than we’d hoped due to the conditions. Numerous, well-equipped rescuers were now making their way up to the Hogsback as we descended and once we were within a half mile or less of Timberline, we heard the whirring blades of a helicopter overhead. We stumbled into the parking lot dazed and dehydrated but extremely happy to have made it through our climb unscathed. Cooper Spur was maybe a little more than we’d bargained for (mainly due to the rockfall that intensified the exposure), but I was absolutely ecstatic that we’d pushed and supported each other through it, and that we’d completed the most “out-of-our-comfort-zone” climbing route so far. I’m not sure we’ll be back to do this one again for awhile, but I have to say I’m pretty excited for us to try many more routes on this incredible backyard mountain of ours.

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Finally back at the car (although we still needed to pick up my car at Tilly Jane)

 

A few photos from our first attempt:

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Mount Thielsen

  • Date: May 13, 2018
  • Start: Mount Thielsen Trailhead
  • Distance: 9-10 miles
  • Duration: 10 hours 4 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Β References:Β Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Outdoor Project

I laced up my climbing shoes and took a deep breath. Hischokwolas’ summit spire loomed high above us, its basaltic andesite rock glinting in the sunlight. Three years ago, Mack and I had stood in this exact spot, fearful of the class 3-4 scramble before us. We’d only been seriously hiking for about a year and had never done rock climbing or mountaineering of any sort. Three years ago, we turned around, and the memory of that incomplete adventure both haunted and motivated me. I studied the base for a few more minutes. Eighty feet. Just eighty feet. I took one more deep breath and made my first move.

After a rather tough 50K race and a mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night in the front seats of the car, we hit the trail just before sunrise with our friends, Alyssa and Ryan. First light was already upon us, so headlamps were packed away shortly after we started. The first couple of miles passed quickly with good conversation to wake us all up. Chilly morning temps kept the snow firm for us as we wove through a forest of mountain hemlock and fir before gaining the ridge. Our objective was now in full view, a dark silhouette with the sun still tucked behind it’s northern flank.

We donned our crampons and pulled out ice axes to move more efficiently and safely, especially with the increasingly sketchy run out on either side of the ridge. They quickly became obsolete though once we reached the steep talus slopes. We packed away our steep snow equipment, put on our helmets, then slowly picked our way up the crumbling rock, moving in pairs, careful to stay out of each other’s fall lines in case any rock came loose beneath us. As we neared the final chimney chute leading to the chicken ledge, we were forced to pull out our axes one last time to traverse a short, but rather steep, early season snow field. After that, it was an easy scramble to the base of the summit block.

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One of the first views of Thielsen after emerging from the forest

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Alyssa with Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey in the background

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Alyssa and Mack

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Carefully picking my way up the talus slopes

Mack and I traded our mountaineering boots for climbing shoes at this point. We paced back and forth along the base, seeking out the path of least resistance. Three years ago, every path up looked terrifying and impossible. Now, this final tower was just a fun little puzzle with multiple possibilities! Mack made his first moves and I followed, opting for an alternate starting point that seemed more feasible for me.

I was amazed at how easy each move felt! Although I climbed slowly, it wasn’t out of nerves or fear. I was savoring each moment, each move, relishing in this seemingly newfound confidence (all while staying focused of course). There were plenty of platforms to step onto and the rock was incredibly solid the entire way up. Ironically, the hike up the talus slope down lower was far more nerve-racking! The final eighty feet honestly felt like the easiest part of the entire adventure. It was by far the most rewarding and fun part as well. We stayed on the summit for a short while, scanning for fulgurites on the rocks and enjoying the views of Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey, and the waters of Crater Lake. Mack was anxious to get moving though, feeling nervous about the down climb, so we snapped a few photos and carefully began the descent.

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Mack on the summit

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Me on the summit

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Survey marker

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Summit selfie

The scramble down felt just as easy and straightforward as the climb up. We knew the various holds and platforms well enough that we were actually able to take a few pictures this time around! I was beaming with excitement when we made it back down to the ledge where Alyssa and Ryan were hanging out. If we didn’t have such a tedious descent on talus slopes and slushy snow, as well as a long drive home, I would’ve scrambled up again!

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Scrambling back down the summit block

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As predicted, the descent from the chicken ledge until we were off the west ridge was slow and laborious, especially beneath the hot afternoon sun. Getting off the loose rock and back onto the snow was such a relief, even though it meant post-holing in knee deep snow at times. Once we were back on dirt, away from both snow and talus, we stopped for one last snack (or, in my case, power nap) break before making the final push back to the car. My mind and body were drained and suffering from the heat of the day (and the day before) by this point, and my final push felt more like sleepwalking. Despite being completely spent by the time we reached our cars in the mid-afternoon, we all finished with smiles on our faces. I’m sure it was partly a result of relief for being able to remove our heavy and hot mountaineering boots, but I think it was mostly because we’d had another memorable mountain adventure with the best company.

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Ryan and Alyssa enjoying the views at the base of the summit block

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Mack, Ryan, and Alyssa traversing one of the few remaining snow-covered slopes

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Almost there!

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Couldn’t ask for a better crew!

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Getting in a quick power nap and resting my poor legs and feet