Every visit to the Olympics, especially the Olympus area, reminds me of how remote and rugged some mountains can be. 18 miles of trail gets you to the glacier, and 5 more miles nets you a summit. My first summit of Olympus in 2017 taught me many lessons about taking care of myself, how much I could endure, and how many bug bites one can get in a single weekend (87). This trip would be full of fun, adventure, no summits, and awesome company. Matt K and I have been training together for various mountaineering objectives for the past year. While brainstorming lofty goals late last year, we wanted to pick something that would be adventurous and challenging, but potentially doable. We shuffled through the normal list; Rainier, Shuksan, Hood, etc, but nothing really jumped out at us. Then Matt mentioned he wanted another shot at Olympus, but possibly as a day trip. I countered with “why not tag all three peaks while we’re at it”. And so was born this incredible, probably insane, goal that fueled our training over the winter.Of course, there were complications. Injuries, missed training days, races, and other priorities pulled us in various directions, and by the time April rolled around we realized a single day run to Olympus and back wasn’t feasible. We still wanted to make the trip, but wanted to push ourselves to do something different. So we ended up settle on doing the trip in 3 days, but attempting the traverse…on skis.
- Day 1: Hoh River Trailhead to Glacier Meadows
- Distance: ~17.5 miles
- Elevation change: ~3,600′
- Weather: Warm and Clear
- What did I eat: Skratch (strawberry), Skratch Bars, pizza, Mountain House, tortillas, jerky
- Suffer Factor (out of 10): 5. Heavy pack yes. But we were heading to Olympus! Stokkkkeee
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2365136650
I remember the first time I lifted my pack at this trailhead, 2 years prior. At the time I thought at 45 lb pack was insane. This time, my pack weighed close to 58 lbs due to my wonderful skis and boots. “You’ve got to be shitting me” was my first thought. I looked over at Matt, who was also lifting his pack, and his face said the same thing.The gurgles of the rapids and river follow you the entire time as the trail parallels the river; gorgeous wildflowers are around every turn, and the closeness to nature is unparalleled. We saw more elk than humans during our trip, along with a handful of frogs, birds, beetles, and snakes. I’m sure there were even more amazing sights to be had, but I couldn’t tell you because I was looking at the ground most of the time. Funny how heavy packs can change your perspective on things. But we remained in good spirits as we marched past the various campgrounds. Our first major trail challenge was Martin Creek, where a massive tree had fallen across the trail and river, knocking out the log that most people used to cross years prior. We had to walk to the end of a broken log and do a 2 foot step down from a broken shard of tree to a slick bank. It shouldn’t have been that difficult, but again, perspective.
Another section of trail that gave us some pause was a snow crossing just before the rope ladder. This area had a fairly sketchy looking snow that was melting out; water ran furiously underneath. The step down was small, and the consequence pretty dire. Another couple of days would make this cross pretty easy.
Glacier Meadows itself was in great shape. Bear wires were standing tall, the privies hadn’t been knocked over by trees, and some campsites were clear, which made bivying that much more pleasant. It had taken us about 10.5 hrs to reach Glacier Meadows, and we still had quite a bit of preparation to do; water needed to be filtered, food made, and packs prepped for the 0200 wake up that awaited us. By 2100 we were off to bed.
- Day 2a: Olympus Traverse Attempt
- Distance: ~11.5 miles
- Elevation change: ~4,000′
- Weather: Warm and clear at the start, cloudy and windy as the day progressed
- What did I eat: Skratch (strawberry), Skratch Bars, tortillas, jerky, nuts
- Suffer Factor (out of 10): 7. Altitude still hurts
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2365164025
Our goal was to leave camp by 0300, so of course we got a 0345 start. Funny how our bodies do weird things as we’re preparing to leave early in the morning. In this instance, my body decided that going number 2 after I had put my harness and skis on was the most optimal. But we managed to put on our skis and skin…for 300 feet. Then we found a large 300′ section of trail…followed by 300 feet of skiing…and 300 feet of trail. Lets just say we got really good at transitions.Once we had broken through the treeline we encountered more substantial snow in the gully that leads to the top of the lateral moraine. While we had to do one or two more ski carries, it was pretty solid and consistent to the top of the moraine. Unfortunately, none of the snow fingers on the moraine reached up to the top of the lateral moraine. Commence the screefest, which actually wasn’t as terrible as I remember. There was a relatively well developed path down the slope, and then we found a fairly nice handline about 40 feet below the top of the moraine. It was anchored to some pretty well set, bomber boulders. So we followed the handline down. Word of warning for this handline; while the line itself looks good, the route is suspect. We definitely needed to use the handline at points due to boulder moves and big steps. Use the handline at your own risk.
On the glacier we skinned up and made our way towards Glacier Pass. Distances on glaciers are a funny thing; the pass looked quite close, but very steep. Turns out it was no steeper than a typical blue run, but was much further away than I thought, taking us over an hour to reach it. When we did reach it, we were in for a treat. Views of the Hoh Glacier, Hermes, and Athena were astounding. The rugged views of dozens of snow covered peaks were endless. Then I turned to the right and saw the 35+ degree slope with a crevasse running through the center, our original ascent route, and went “Nope”.We ripped skins and started traversing across the slopes. We were trying to maintain our elevation to minimize the uphill we had to do later. The first few hundred feet were firm and excellent; then we hit the slopes that had been exposed to sun for 3 hours already. If you can imagine it: wet, overly hydrated mashed potato snow with 6″ boot penetration. Yeah, that’s what it would be for another quarter mile. At some point traversing in ski mode was just too difficult, so we switched back to skins and continue our traverse. As we made our way to the upper Hoh Glacier, we chatted about the endless beauty, as well as our destination. East Peak was looking more and more rugged; I’m pretty sure I thought to myself “Whoever said East Peak is an easy walk up needs to be kicked in the nuts”. We ended up bailing on East Peak and would settle with Middle and West Peak. Then we reached 7,200′.
Around this time I really started to feel myself start to flag. I think the overall fatigue had finally accumulated to a point where I tired enough to consider turning around. Matt and I chatted about what we’d want to do next; following the shoulder to Middle Peak seemed daunting, although it was a mere 600 feet gain to the summit block. The wind started to pick up, and the sky began to darken; the storm system we read about was starting to come in, and we thought we saw rain in the distance. We had two options; continue for Middle Peak and try to find the rappel station, which we had no idea the location of, or turn around and ski out now. Since we knew we had quite a few avalanche prone slopes we would have to cross to get back to Glacier Pass, we played it conservatively and turned around.
The ski to Glacier Pass was a mix of skiing on amazing corn snow at 7,000′ and sloshing up mashed potatoes to get back to Glacier Pass, but once we descended onto the Blue Glacier it was a mile of awesome, decently firm skiing. We spotted a set of tracks on Blue, which we didn’t see on the way in, and we excitedly thought that the tracks were heading towards the Terminal Moraine. As we descended, we eventually found they terminated at a set of helicopter landing tracks. Damn. So we trudged back up to the Lateral Moraine and popped back up, with Matt taking the handline and me ascending a snow finger. I think Matt said it pretty well when we met back up “I”m definitely sweating and in Zone 4. You look like you went for a casual stroll”.
Our ski back to Glacier Meadows was uneventful, and we arrived back in camp at 1400.
- Day 2b: Glacier Meadows to Lewis Meadows
- Distance: ~7 miles
- Elevation change: ~3,000′ descent
- Weather: Warm and and overcast
- What did I eat: Skratch (strawberry), Cheese its, and Mountain House
- Suffer Factor (out of 10): 7. Heavy packs, 14 hour day.
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2365167154
After an hour break to eat and hydrate, we made our way back to Lewis Meadows. We were mildly concerned about the rope ladder and sketchy snow bridge; we’d now been awake for 13 hours, moving for 10, and now carrying our excessively heavy packs. Luckily, ascending the ladder was much easier than the descent, and the snow bridge was still solid. We cruised our way back to Martin Creek to rehydrate and rest. To be honest, the trip down was unenventful, but the pep in our step gradually waned. By the time we reached Lewis Meadows, we’d both had it and were ready to call it a night. But first, we had to go find water, which was a half mile walk away. When I was here previously, water could be easily found near the campsites. This year, flowing water was on the far side of the river bank.By 2100 we were both happily fed and watered, and down we went for the night
- Day 3: Lewis Meadows to Hoh River Trailhead
- Distance: ~11 miles
- Elevation change: ~600′ descent
- Weather: Cool and and overcast
- What did I eat: Skratch (strawberry), Cheese its, and Mountain House
- Suffer Factor (out of 10): 7. Heavy packs, but covered the distance in less than 5 hours
- Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/2365170381
Another early start got us moving on the trail while it was very cool out. We made good time, making it to Olympus Guard Station in less than an hour and to Happy 4 in just over 2. All in all, it took us about 4.5 hours to reach our cars. On the way we counted at least 2 people who did double takes when they saw our skis, and at least 2 people who’s jaws dropped when they realized what they were seeing. We were also able to notice what clean clothes smelled like. Pretty sure it’s Downey and softness.
While we may not have summited, I had a great time regardless. It’s amazing to be able to compare fitness from year to year, and realizing that I could (relatively) easily do 18 miles and still had a decent amount of energy for the next day. Climbing with one of my favorite climbing partners made the miles fly by, and being the only ones on a glacier, miles away from the nearest person was both frightening and exciting. The Olympus Traverse is still on my list; maybe I’ll add a few more days for the approach and the climb itself, or maybe I’ll just go get faster. Either way, we’ll see you again Olympus