Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Climbing Mt. Olympus

Four Part Series - Part 1

The Olympics

The Olympic Range lies a scant 30 miles from Seattle on the Olympic Peninsula, a huge national park that is 95% wilderness and through which no road passes. In the spring when the sky is clear the gleaming white peaks of its mountains can be seen across the sound. However even in today's modern era of rapid transportation getting to them is an undertaking in time, and thats just to the east side that faces Seattle. I once did a thru hike in the Olympics and making our drop off point and transferring to our start took 6 hours from Seattle, 3 hours of which involved me huddled in my sleeping bag in the back of a Toyota pickup. Mt Olympus at 7969 feet is the highest mountain in the range and is on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula, accessed up long and deep rain forest valleys, our destination to climb. Despite its relatively short height, the prominence of its peaks traps moisture blowing off the pacific and it is heavily glaciated at a much lower elevation than the Cascades that sit east of Seattle.

Imagine now how inaccessible the mountains must have seemed to the first settlers of the Puget Sound. The interior of the peninsula remained largely un-penetrated and in the modern age called out to be conquered, to be explored and made known. The Seattle Press, partially as a marketing feat to sell papers, sponsored what became known as the Press Expedition. They started at the northern edge of the peninsula and made their way up the Elhwa River, starting in 1889 (Feb/March) pulling canoes up snow swollen river banks, transferring several loads of 50 lb of gear that included iron dutch ovens. Eventually over 50 miles and 5 months later they emerged at Lake Quinault having traversed the interior and made their way across the range.

Mt. Olympus remained unclimbed, at least according to the way modern man tracks and records events. In early 1900s mountaineering groups were popular, The Alpine Club of London, the Sierra Club in California by John Muir and associates, gradually it become more known for its political environmentalism than its outings, the Mazamas out of Portland and The Mountaineers based in Seattle founded by Ashael Curtis and Henry Landes. They set out for their first expedition to climb Mt. Olympus in 1907, during which 65 members made a group climb.

Signing up and Preparing

When I saw the advertisement in Backpacker Magazine for Summit for Someone the combination of an opportunity for a guided climb of a mountain and the chance to help out inner city kids get into the outdoors was an instant appeal. My first thought was honestly to sign up for Rainier, however by the time I attempted registering on the Summit for Someone site Rainier trips were full and so I signed up for Olympus. Then began the work of raising funds to meet the pledge goal, and thanks to the generous contributions of many people I was quickly able to meet that.

Finally the long wait through the winter for the gear to arrive and then the training to gain experience and be in shape : Guye Peak, Mt. Adams and lots and lots of hiking like Timpanogos. Then came July, which is when the rain is typically supposed to stop in Seattle, but not this July. We had rain, lots of it. Gray skies and thunderclouds. As we got within two weeks of the climb, the mostly cloudy and showers forecasts were not looking too good. The week before the climb it was pouring rain in the Olympics, but the forecast showed clearing on our days. I talked to Craig Von Hoy (our guide) on the weekend before we went and he told tales of buckets of rain for the prior group and they turned around on the glacier and didn't even attempt the summit because it was raining so hard. I packed everything up and prayed for sunshine. :)

Day 1 (and a half)

We had to be to Hoh Visitor Center by 10 am on Thursday. Since its a 5 hour drive for me, and even more for Seth, we decided to leave on Wednesday evening. I drove out to Olympia and met Seth and Jeff Roberts, who had drove up from Portland. They grabbed a bite to eat at the 2 Mile House Pub and Eatery, and then we dropped off my car at the Mormon church on Overhulse road and started the long drive in the mini-van for the coast. Around midnight we were getting tired and we stopped in Aberdeen, a logging town where Kurt Cobain grew up and which now has the phrase Come as You Are beneath there city sign. We grabbed a room at Aberdeen's Finest Olympic Inn, which for a Wednesday night was 2 rooms shy of being full up and the clerk had no idea why. I crashed on the floor while Seth and Jeff took a bed and we woke at 6 the next morning to get started. We stopped at Denny's for some grub (actually not too bad, despite my vow to never return) and then headed for Humptulips and beyond. We were still a bit early and so we stopped off at Ruby Beach for quick stroll.

We pulled up at the Hoh Visitor Center parking lot at 9:55 am right on time. The trip was guided by Craig Von Hoy's Go Trek & Expeditions. Craig has over 30 years experience guiding, has summited Rainier 357 times, and Olympus over 40. He knows how to climb Olympus and given the super long approach (over 18 miles) a key to this is pack animals. Craig hired a pack team, Glenn and Al, and their 6 mules to haul our gear the first 15 miles to Elk Lake. So after the rest of the crew pulled up and we did introductions all around, for the next two hours we sorted gear, moving all the heavy stuff to the mantie's for the mules and helping organize the group gear. At noon, one climber (Nathaniel Cogdil) hadn't shown up (we found out later he broke his foot) and we paused for the requisite before group photo and then headed off down the trail for Lewis Meadows 10.5 miles away.

The Hoh River runs 50 miles from the Hoh Glacier on the east side of Mt Olympus, over the eons the Hoh River has cut a deep valley with a meandering floor in which 240 inches of rain falls annually and the world's largest temperate rain forest grows. The mild climate combined with rain leads to massive growth, both in terms of the amount of biomass produced and as huge trees. The trail parallels the river and meanders through a verdant green landscape that overwhelms with life. After a short break at Happpy 4 Shelter, we arrived at Lewis Meadows around 4 pm. The mules had already arrived and we promptly set up a luxuriuos camp for backpacking and then headed down to the river to rest, relax and refill our water bottles. I was hot and tired and took a dip in the river to clean up, the water was freezing (as it came from glacier melt) but was refreshing in a chilly sort of way non-the-less. Jeff was bushed and found a nice place to take a quiet nap. After waking him we made our way back to camp to for an amazing salmon burrito dinner and then a round table dinner discussion where we did lengthier introductions and went over the itinerary. Bushed and tired from a long day on the trail we went to sleep in preparation for the long day tomorrow hiking up to high camp on the glacier.

Stats : 10.5 miles - 840ft asc - 370 dec - 5 hr, 7 min

Set on


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