When I was attending WWU I found a book in the Library called Glorious Failures. In this anthology I read the historical account about the race to be the first to climb Mount Olympus. This challenge was highly publicized in the Seattle area and it took something like 9 months for the would-be climbers to hack their way 18 miles through dense forest and brush to the Blue Glacier. Anyone who has hiked the Hoh River trail can imagine how difficult it must have been on that first trek. Unfortunately, that first summit party made it to the top in a white-out. They returned to Seattle as adventurous heroes, but later it was proven they had climbed the east summit by mistake. Olympus has several summit spires, the west being the highest. Weeks later, another party followed the path which was created and made a successful summit climb in 1907.
For most peakbaggers, 44 miles combined with glacier travel and rock climbing in the rainiest part of one of the rainiest states in the country sounds like a daunting challenge. At least it did to me. Furthermore, one of the leading causes of failure on Olympus these days is blisters. But the goal was a worthy one. At 7,969 feet, Olympus is the highest in the Olympic Range and the highest point on the peninsula. If I was successful on this trip, I would be fulfilling a 5-year dream and it would also be my second Mount Olympus.
Fortunately, in our team of three, each person had special skills to offer to the group. "Redwic" Craig is a gifted planner/organizer and expert navigator; Dave has many years of rock climbing experience, and I've led a lot of rope teams across various glaciers. As trip organizer, Craig insisted that we each reserve a week off of work so that we could optimize our chances of getting a "weather window". This irritated my boss (and me), but it later proved to be essential for our success.
We began our approach on July 3rd. The first few miles of the trail were choked with tourists. I couldn't understand what the draw was for this trail because I know hundreds of trails in the Cascades that are far more scenic. We were glad to get deeper into the woods where the real hikers were, people who practice proper trail etiquette. Overall, the first day was uneventful. We hiked the first 10.7 miles to Lewis Meadows, setting up camp right next to the Hoh River. I was very pleased to be missing the loud explosions in the middle of the night on the days preceding our country's Independence Day. Out there in the wilderness I slept like a baby.
As we suspected, the second day was harder. Each of our packs was over 50 pounds and we had to gain 3,000 feet in 6.9 miles to reach Glacier Meadows, our staging area for summit day. As we had heard over the last few years, this section of the trail was thrashed. Many avalanches have totally wiped out the trail. One chute was over 100 meters across. In the preceding year, the park system had set up a rope ladder on the steep side of the chute, but this year we found only a hand line.
Upon arrival in Glacier Meadows, the snow was in rapid melt-off with runoff streams everywhere. That made collecting water much easier. We had carried a snow shovel to make a flat platform for our tent, but since nobody was staying at Glacier Meadows, we pitched out tent right on the front porch of the Ranger's yurt. It nearly covered the entire porch. After setting up camp, we went to a nearby snow slope. I wanted to make sure that the z-pulley procedure for crevasse rescue was fresh in everyone's mind, including myself.
We set our alarm for 4am, hoping to get moving by 5. The next morning we tried to avoid the cold with some of Dave's instant coffee. It was great stuff but it triggered some necessary delays and we didn't get moving until 5:30. We made an ascending traverse to an avalanche chute where we turned straight uphill. Then we pushed through some trees to a point where we could see the glacial moraine. I was excited at this point because I knew that from the top of that moraine, I would have my first up close view of the Blue Glacier and Olympus. It was an amazing sight! But we could not see the west summit, as it was hidden by the formation known as Snow Dome. From the top of the moraine it was difficult to find a good place to descend to the glacier. One ranger had warned us that for many people, this is the hardest part of the route. The rocky slope is very steep and every part of it which is disturbed, gives way and falls downhill. Footing on that slope was tricky and good handholds were nonexistent.
When we reached the glacier, we ditched our trekking poles and donned our harnesses. After double-checking each other's prussik loops, rope knots, personal anchors and waist straps, we set off across the Blue Glacier. We passed over a number of trivial crevasses, most of which were only just starting to open up for the season. Many were only visible as small cracks about an inch wide. On our left, Mount Mathias and Mount Mercury towered thousands of feet overhead. In front of us we could see part of the East Summit. To our right was our next objective, Snow Dome. Ascending Snow Dome allows access to the upper glacier, bypassing the dangerous icefalls and serac mayhem. Near the top of Snow Dome, the views to the north and east really started opening up. The views of the Bailey Range were exceptional and Mount Mercury made a dramatic backdrop for some photos.
We turned southwest and headed straight for the west summit spire which was now in view, standing high above the glacier. We were following the tracks of a 3 person team that had summited two days prior. They were the first successful team this year. We hoped to be the second. They had taken the "4th of July" route which is the most direct route. This route is rarely climbed in the summer, due to the fact that it has several gigantic bergschrunds that open up fairly early in the season. We could not tell from our vantage point what condition they were in. The standard route traverses around a grouping known as "The 5 Fingers" and then goes over the false summit. Going that way would add at least an hour each way.
We made our way up the steep snow slope passing by the end of several of the schrunds. We crossed one snow bridge and the view down inside the chasm to my left was disheartening. Near the saddle between the west summit and false summit we came to the last bergschrund, which the previous party had warned us about. They said, "It's kind of like a big step, but it depends on what you're comfortable with". It looked as if it had melted out even more since they had been here. I could see a spot where it was filled in with snow, but I knew better than to trust what looked like solid ground. If the filler snow was soft, there might be nothing underneath but empty space. On the other hand, without this spot as a crossing, there was no way to proceed with our chosen route.
I asked Dave and Craig to straighten out the rope and take all the slack out of it. I told them to be prepared to arrest if I should fall in. I probed the snow and then took a step of faith. It held. The upper lip of the bergschrund was about 8 feet high and part of it was overhanging. I had never tried to climb overhanging snow before, but I found that if I placed my axe in at an angle, as high on the lip as possible, I could create enough leverage to pull myself up, using the front points of my crampons to kick into the overhang. After some struggling, this technique worked and I was on the other side. Dave's turn was next and then Craig. We were very cautious as each person crossed, already partially in arrest position should anything happen.
At the saddle, Dave assessed the summit rocks. The standard route climbs the east side, which is covered with loose, crumbly rock. Dave said he thought the north ridge looked more solid and Craig confirmed that this is what his research had suggested. We climbed a short 60-degree snow slope up to the base of the north ridge. At Dave's suggestion, I made a belay station in the snow using two axes for anchors. I had led on the glacier, but this was Dave's area of expertise and now it was important to follow his directions. The problem here was that a nasty moat had began melting away from the base of the rocks. Down inside was an unwelcoming fall into ice on all sides. Dave said he thought we would have to do the rotten east side after all, but I encouraged him to try to get across the moat. After struggling for awhile, he made his way across a very thin snow bridge that didn't look like it should hold any weight at all. Once he placed the first cam I breathed a sigh of relief. He was now in his element. As he climbed, he placed several more cams and finally a nut. Near the top, what appeared from below to be the easiest part, in fact turned out to be more difficult. He was not able to protect that portion of the climb.
When he reached the crest of the ridge, he set up a belay station and I followed his route, cleaning as I went. When I was up, Craig followed. Apparently the thin snow bridge had had enough of our nonsense because it collapsed under Craig just as he reached the far side. Craig made quick work of the rock and even dodged a falling rock that was triggered by the rope. When we were all on top of the north ridge, we scrambled up to the summit. Not a cloud in the sky! What an awesome day. We could see the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean. We could see Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, and Mount Saint Helens, and all round us were Olympic peaks. We spent 15 minutes on the summit. Back at the belay station we took turns rappelling. I went first. It was kind of a trick to get across the moat now that the snow bridge was destroyed, but we managed.
After roping up, we retraced our route past the bergschrunds, upper Blue, Snow Dome, lower Blue, moraine, and avalanche chute back to camp. We packed up as quickly as possible hoping to make some progress before sunset. We made it as far as the High Hoh Bridge, which left only 13.5 miles for the following day. It was a wonderful evening, camping in solitude with two friends in the wilderness after a successful day of climbing. I must say that achieving a tough goal somehow makes dehydrated food taste gourmet. By the time I finished brushing my teeth and got in the tent, Craig and Dave were both fast asleep.
360° View From The Summit
Full Size (click again on next page)
The next day we passed the Olympus Guard Station, 9.2 miles from the trail head, and informed them that Olympus now had two successful ascents for 2011. We told them that we had climbed the "4th of July" route on the 5th of July. Furthermore, because of worsening bergschrunds and moats, we explained that the route would be impassable by now. One Ranger shook his head as if we had taken an unnecessary risk. The other rangers looked impressed. They asked us not to tell any other climbers about it if we ran into them on the trail, so that no one would be tempted to follow in our footsteps.
If you liked this report, be sure to check out our video documentation of the climb: