I had called my friend Ryan up in Washington State from India and invited him to go climbing with me in August in the Olympic Mountains. Having just returned as a missionary from Egypt he was eager to spend some much needed time in the lush expanse of Olympic National Park with me. My new wife of 7 months and I had been enjoying our time in the mountains of Manipur, near the Myanmar border at our home in Ukhrul. The Naga people are very much at home in the sub-Himalayan ranges of northeast India and northwest Myanmar. Unfortunately until her Visa came I would have to wait for several more months than my visit allowed for. Knowing that I would need a spark to keep up my spirits when I returned to the U.S. I got her permission to do a mountain trip with my friend. I already knew the peak I wanted, Wellesley Peak.
Two years, almost to the day before we climbed Wellesley Peak, I'd admired it from Gray Wolf Pass, where it dominates the skyline to the southwest. A few days later while climbing Lost Peak at the head of the Dosewallips River I'd seen it's shadowy expanse of wildness jutting ruggedly on the far side of the valley. It's one of the most beautiful Olympic Peaks I've seen. The late afternoon and evening light cast long serene shadows across it's rocky north face that inspired me continually when I needed a mental escape while studying at my university in Tennessee.
View of Wellesley Peak at Sunset from Lost Peak
Getting to Wellesley Peak would require much more than just a day hike. It's about 25 miles until the climb actually begins. Such a long approach was a fun challenge in itself. After over 20 miles of backpacking up the Dosewallips River, and some cross country travel through lower Thousand Acre Meadow, Ryan and I set up our camp by a beautiful and serene lake in the upper meadow. The views were all beautiful. The sunset the night before climbing Wellesley Peak was exceptional. I drifted off into a beautiful and peaceful sleep that night.
I awoke from my sleeping bag to the full moon setting over the still waters of a nameless lake in Thousand Acre Meadow. Across the watery and meadowy expanse of Olympic Alpine country stood Sentinel Peak, it's lordly summit pointing straight into the morning clouds. The moon, slowly descending to the northwest of it, made the morning magical. Mount's Fromme and Claywood rose side by side further to the north, their rugged reflections reaching into the rippling water. It was a wonderful mornig to be alive, and a wonderful morning to be alive in the Olympic Mountains. But dark and ominous clouds loomed behind my small campsite and foreshadowed danger for the day. At that moment I remember being more captivated by the beauty before me than by the darkness behind me. In my heart I was set on climbing Wellesley Peak, whether it rained, whether I faced fear and doubt or even if my body was weak from several sleepless nights.
Morning of the climb, taken from my sleeping bag on the shores of a serene lake in Thousand Acre Meadow
My climbing partner Ryan stirred in his sleeping bag further down the shoreline of the lake. I rose quietly and quickly packed up my things and set off for a ridge on the southeast corner of Thousand Acre Meadow. The sun was finally beginning to shine through the dark clouds that had passed in the night and early morning hours. On the far side of the meadow Sentinel Peak's summit turned fiery red in the first burst of alpenglow. But I trudged forward towards the ridgeline knowing that the view would be more outstanding and wonderful the higher I could get.
Sentinel Peak at Sunrise
Reaching a rock outcrop beneath the western buttress of Wellesley Peak I looked out to the south at some of the most beautiful alpine country in Olympic National Park. Across Silt Creek Valley a dozen summits jutted skyward, some nameless and some famous. Mount Anderson and West Peak, with glaciers tucked between their spires, dominantly held my attention. What a beautiful view! Diamond Mountain and Piro's Spire further to the east were just as impressive in the early morning light. Far to the west I could see the steep and snowy face of Mount Meany. Mount Olympus to the north of Meany was already lit up brightly by the suns warmth. Thousand Acre Meadow itself was glowing now, a glowing golden green. Lordly Sentinel Peak dominated the immediate view above Thousand Acre Meadow, it's red rock glowing brilliantly. I couldn't wait for Ryan to wake up and come climbing Wellesley with me! But there he was, still laying in his sleeping bag. How? It's too gorgeous to be sleeping on a beautiful day like this!
After soaking in the sunrise over the Silt Creek Valley for half an hour I made my way down to camp where Ryan had finally woken up. I couldn't contain my excitment for the day ahead. Together we decided on a time to climb Wellesley Peak. We figured it would take us only 4 hours to get to the summit and back and then we would head up Sentinel Peak on the opposite end of Thousand Acre Meadow. After a hardy breakfast of oatmeal, dried fruit and pancakes, we were stuffed and ready for a full days work, an enjoyable work. I packed a small backpack full of our water bottles, a small sack of biscuits from India, a first aid kit with ankle wraps, sunglasses and some good topo maps of the area. Fours hours is all we will need, or so we thought. "We'll be back in time for lunch" I remember telling Ryan as we headed up the ridge to the southeast of our camp.
Beginning the Traverse
Reaching the saddle of the ridgeline overlooking the Silt Creek Valley we made our way down onto a boulder filled shelf that runs NW and SE on the ridgeline to Wellesley Peak's summit. So many boulders must have toppled down from the 6,500 western buttress of Wellesley that it made cool mini canyons, filled in with snowfields. Heading SE we reached a small ridge directly beneath the summit of the western buttress. From there Wellesley Peak looked like a daunting attempt. To the north of us, on the left, only a jagged ridge looked like any decent route, and it dropped several hundred feet into Wellesley Basin below. To the right our route looked good for several hundred yards or so. We kept heading where the going was the easiest, making our way over small hillocks strewn with boulders and Sub-Alpine Fir. Upon reaching the end of this easy approach to Wellesley Peak the ridge dropped precipitously off to the right side (south) into the Silt Creek Valley. From our scouting from the previous day we saw a way to get onto to the main ridgeline to Wellesley Peak by navigating around an arrow of rock that jutted up about 10-15 feet on the exposed ridgeline. Scrambling up the slope under and around that arrow we found ourselves ontop of the main ridgeline to Wellesley Peak. My stomach churned inside of me as I looked down over the edge into Wellesley Basin, several hundred feet straight down. Whew! "Let's stay away from that edge", I remember telling Ryan. The ridgeline ascended in front of us up to the southeast shoulder of Wellesley Peak's summit. It was impossible to know if the route was good because it rose and dipped, keeping the total view hidden until we could reach the next overlook.
Looking at the Summit from the SE
Precipitous Ridgeline on the Traverse
Making our way along the half mile long ridgeline using tree's as ropes, we down climbed and upclimbed, continually bushwacking, getting scratched up, but making it step by step to our destination. The wind was cool, a little aggrivating too as it knocked my balance off on some of the exposed area's we scrambled across. The weather, that had been unusually hot for the Olympics in previous days, was finally cool and sunny. It looked like the perfect day for climbing in the Olympics. To the east strange looking rays of the sun were bursting over the Brothers and Piro's Spire. Only far to the south and west did the clouds look gray at all. The view of Wellesley Peak became more and more invigorating as we inched closer, step by step along the ridge.
Our first goal was to reach a subsummit on the south end of Wellesley Peak. According to the topo it looked about 6,500 feet in elevation or so, leaving only 250 feet to reach the top of Wellesley Peak from that spot. After one brutal bushwack up some Sub-Alpine Fir tree's cleaving to the cliff beneath that summit, we finally reached the top. The tree's had really helped us reach this far. Great hand holds were comforting when walking along a tightrope of a ridgeline. We stopped for a moment to rest, to discuss our final approach to the summit and to enjoy the view from our new location. I noticed the massive faces of Mount Deception and Mount Mystery right away, their glorious faces of rock dwarfing any mountains in the region. Lush and green Deception Basin lay between the two massifs, as Mount Fricaba's more agile summit overlooked the east end of the basin. Looking over to the south Piro's Spire, Mount Stone and....oh no. Huge gray/black clouds had formed around Mount Stone and Mount Cruiser. To the west I couldn't even make out some of the peaks south of White Mountain and Mount's Steel and Duckabush because it was dark. Ryan noticed it too and I mentioned that the storm could either be moving towards us or away. Mount Olympus would usually be dark and cloud covered if a storm was approaching our direciton, but it was clear and glowing in the sun. We opted to finish our climb as soon as possible, just in case the storm came our way. I guessed it would take an hour to reach us, and I kept hoping it would stay to the south.
Approaching Storm Coming From Mt Stone
The way between us and the summit of Wellesley Peak was the most difficult part of the climb. No tree's for insurance and the ridgeline was only inches wide with both sides dropping of steeply. Ryan suggested that we hug the ridgeline on the northwest side, because it fell off more gently into the Wellesley Basin. The south east side of the ridge was almost a sheer cliff, tumbling down open slopes that disappeared from our view, a very chilling thought. Ryan led the way as I followed, taking our time, but knowing that if the storm came we would not have plenty time as we'd like. Ryan opted to go up and over an exposed spire on the ridge as I went down and around, finally meeting each other beneath the main summit of the peak. Only about 200 feet almost straight up to go. By then the approaching storm clouds had begun to reach us. Darkness filled the whole Silt Creek Valley, Wellesley Basin and the Dosewallips River Valley to the North. Mount Cameron and Lost Peak turned from day to night as the sun disappeared. Ryan scrambled first up the almost vertical section that led to Wellesley's summit. I stayed right behind him, following his hand holds as quickly as I could. Taking a breather above a sheltering boulder just beneath the summit our sides heaved in and out from the effort of the climb. With one last burst Ryan began to scramble the final ascent of Wellesly as I began taking the first several steps up behind him.
Final Pitches to the Summit of Wellesley Peak
Suddenly we felt it, and then we heard it. At first just small drops, but increasing in size and rapidity. Then like the very hand of God, lightning burst from the clouds and scorched the summit of Mount Anderson. Then it hit again on Diamond Mountain, Sentinel Peak and again on Mt Cameron, going horizontally and vertically. Huge crashes of thunder, highlighted by approaching rain and lightning bolts shook the whole of Wellesley Peak. The basin, which had once resounded with calls of marmots now resounded with huge warning peels of thunder. The summit was so close, but so was the storm. Thunder shook my soul to the core and fear seized me. Ryan had just reached the summit and shouted back at me "It's alive with electricity! I can feel the rock alive electricity!" Knowing in my heart that we were on the worst possible spot we could ever be in a storm I made a quick decision. Just beneath Ryan I shouted to him above the wind, rain and thunder, "Let's get off of here NOW!!" Rain began pouring like small razor blades from the voltage filled sky. Lightning flashed across to the west in Thousand Acre Meadow, less than half a mile away. "Ryan let's get off now!" I continued to shout. Shaking with fear, and now cold from the wet rain I shivered as Ryan quickly back peddled to my location just beneath him. We realized that to head back along the exposed ridge was not only dangerous with the lightning, but also fatal because of the wet rock we could easily slip on, causing us to fall several hundred feet either direction. We opted to glissade down the rocks on the West face of Wellesley Peak and down into Wellesley Basin. I'll never regret the decision, nor would I want to make it again.
Piro's Spire before the Storm
Mt Anderson Massif and the Storm
Rushing past me, Ryan led the way as we began to hurriedly scramble down and then slide on the western scree slopes down into the basin. Thunder, wind and hail-like rain pounded, blasted and cut into our ears and skin. At that moment I looked to the south at Piro's Spire. Two flashes of lightning lit up the sky and crashed into it's pinnacled summit. "WOW!" I exclaimed! "Piro's just got scorched!", I screamed ahead at Ryan. He had seen it too. It was the most incredible moment of my entire Olympic experience. Amazed by the power of the storm, nature and God we slid like madmen down the slopes of Wellesley Peak. The whole basin was alive with potential lightning strikes and I cowered with each blast of thunder, praying to God that I would not be at the receiving end of the next strike "Just take me back to my wife!" I remember praying. At that moment I forgot my fear and shouted like a wild Indian, enjoying the almost vertical slide down into the basin in the pelting rain. I felt the greatest rush of freedom and fear that I had felt in my life, and it was. Ryan was already a hundred feet in front of me and immediately took cover under a small ledge lined with small copses of Fir and Cedar. Joining him in this natural shelter we were atlast out of reach from the rain. Thunder and rain continued for several minutes, until it finally appeared to head off to the east, over Wellesley Peak. I was shaking, more from the excitement and fear than from the cold and rain. Ryan was shaken up too. Both of us had been lucky. Lightning had hit the summits around Wellesley but had not touched ours. But we had felt it coming.
Looking Back Up at Wellesley's Summit
The slopes were less steep as we reached a boulder strewn slope overlooking the green expanse of the Wellesley Basin. Five hundred feet up behind us we would see the summit of Wellesley Peak where we had been only a few minutes before. The wind had died down. It was calm again. We figured the storm was finished. We didn't know we were wrong. Ryan suggested that we explore the basin and then ascend the ridgeline and head back into Thousand Acre Meadow the way we had come. But being ever cautious I noted that the wet rock was extremely slippery and that our shoes were not made for wet and exposed climbing. He agreed with me.
After taking a few pictures of each other we began to explore the upper reaches of Wellesley Basin. I took out my much appreciated topo map and looked for an alternate and safer route back to our camp. Even as we looked at the map together I was glad we had decided not to take the ridge route back to Thousand Acre Meadow. New raindrops began to fall and distant thunder to the south was once again approaching. Another storm was on it's way. I looked at my watch, 1:30. With the clouds it would be dark around 8:00. We had to find a way back to our camp where warmth and shelter would revive our cold bodies. I proposed two options from looking at the topo map. We could either descend through the basin to Knerr Creek, and then follow it's waters down to the Dosewallips River where they just happen come out at Bear Camp, our camping site two nights earlier. We also looked at making our way around the slopes of the western buttress of Wellesly Peak and into Thousand Acre Meadow. We decided to start with the latter and see how far we could. It was 2:15 by the time we reached the lower end of Wellesley Basin.
Wellesley Basin & Wellesley Peak
Almost casually taking our time we began to move into quick action when the storm once again came full force. Taking to the cover of the trees above Knerr Creek's western slopes, we began to slip and slide our way straight across. It was a painfully slow and I could tell right away that we were in for possibly a long day, and a long night. Drenched by the underbrush and branches I began to shiver from the cold. I knew it was the perfect condition for Hypthermia to set it. After bypassing a cliff we took shelter in a stand of Pacific Silver Fir's, clinging to branches on the nearly vertical slope. Across the valley Mount Cameron and Lost Peak shook with thunder. Lightning occasionally scraped the sky. Wellesley Peak looked massive and unclimbable from our view across the basin from it. It's dark, mutli-faceted face dropping sharply to the headwaters of Knerr Creek. Shivering, I took out my topo and studied it for a way to get out. Ryan scrambled up above to find a way over the cliffs and into Thousand Acre Meadow. I knew he wouldn't. It was slippery, raining, and dangerous. There was no way that I'd go up, when I knew that my instincts told me to go down. Then I saw it. An open patch of meadow. I located it on my topo map and saw that Knerr Creek ran right through that. If we could just get to that spot I knew we could find our way down the creek and to the Dosewallips River.
View of Wellesley Peak from our hideout on the west buttress of Wellesley Basin
Ryan returned and reported that it was really slippery up there. He finally consented to my plan. By that time it was almost four in the afternoon. Knowing that time was precious we began to scramble our way down through the forested slope towards the open meadow. The sound of Knerr Creek grew louder and louder. We were soaked. My body was beat up from the stress and bushwacking of the day. Ryan was stronger than I, but I knew he must be tired to. After 10 minutes we reached the open brush filled meadow. The brush was nearly impossible to wade through. Then it turned into snorkeling as we went in and under the thick brush of Slide Alder and other small tree's lining the creek. Watching our steps due to hundreds of Marmot holes, we made our way slowly through the tangle of brush. My biggest fear by this time was that we would come across a bear. Rushing to keep up with Ryan I made as much noise as I could, in case that bear was nearby.
Headwaters of Knerr Creek in Lower Wellesley Basin
We arrived at the edge of the deep forest. The creek dissappeared into it's green blackness. The Pacific Silver Fir made the forest a haunting gray, but I was happy to have reached this first stop on our topo map. From then on we would have to follow the creek, hopefully avoiding cliffs where the creek cut it's way down the mountain. Hopping and climbing over dozens of fallen tree's, Ryan and I made our way down, down, down Knerr Creek. I was convinced no human being had ever been where we were before. It was incredibly wild. The thunder had died down and only a dark sky overshadowed the roar of Knerr Creek. The going was easy for the first several hundred feet we descended. We crossed over the creek to the east side as we came upon a steep cliffs where the creek dropped precipitiously. It was a good choice by Ryan, because we avoided a much worse system of cliffs further on the descent. More downed trees than I could count lined the path in front of us. The winter storms had really taken their toll on huge giants in this untouched forest. Staying far to the east, but not out of earshot of Knerr, we avoided another cliff as we lost more elevation. Finally after half an hour of steep descending we came upon the most lush and beautiful stream I had ever seen. Wonderfully pristing, the moss was thicker than many a snowfield. It was the most peaceful place I can ever recall being at in the Olympics. Treading carefully here I knew I was the first to walk these pristine steps at this spot. The small stream gently made it's way back into Knerr Creek. By this time Ryan pointed to the opposite end of the valley. It was really close. Within three minutes we had reached the mouth of Knerr Creek at the junction with the Dosewallips River at Bear Camp. Remarkabley we came out within one hundred feet or so of our campsite two nights earlier. It was incredible!
Cold, Thirsty and in need of some food for energy I noticed a man sitting in the Bear Camp shelter. Approaching him we told him our story from the last five hours and asked him for his water filter. As Ryan went to filter water for us I told the man, Brinnon was his name, about the whole experience. He was kind enough to give us a few power bars and that energized Ryan and I. Saying goodbye we began heading up the trail as as fast as we could. It was already 5:30 and we had four miles to hike before reaching our camp again. Taking the lead this time, I set a fast pace as we burned off the miles. Heading through Dose Meadows we didn't even stop. After an hour we reached a spot near Hayden Pass where we cut off for the cross country stroll into Thousand Acre Meadow. We were starved and couldn't wait to get dry and warm. Our boots were soaked with water. My feet were blistered. I was so happy to see that glorious expanse of Thousand Acre Meadow. The last half mile seemed to take forever as we finally rounded the shores of the nameless lake by our campsite and found our gear. It was just after 7 when we reached our campsite. Knowing that another storm was on it's way we quickly rushed to a copse of stately firs to the south of the lake. Setting up a tarp for cover, Ryan and I built a formidable shelter to keep us from the driving rain and wind. After building a wall of limbs and fir branches to sheild our campsite I crashed.
Sunset after the Climb. Sentinel Peak & Hayden Pass are lit up Over the Expanse of Thousand Acre Meadow.
Ryan was busy cooking some of our Ramen when I noticed the glorious sunset. As amazing as the day had come in it was nothing compared to the day it was going out. Red, orange, pink and yellow brilliancy lit up Sentinel Peak and Hayden Pass to the west. Sentinel Peak was illuminated by bright orangish-pink clouds. Hayden Pass looked like an explosion of yellow-orange. Mount's Fromme and Claywood further north also caught the burst from the beautiful sunset. Ryan and I dropped our bowls of Ramen and rushed for our camera's, hoping to capture at least one good shot of this amazing day. It was a perfect way to end a not so perfect day. But in my mind it was a perfect day. We were alive, enjoying an incredible scene of mountainous color and safe at our campsite. I breathed a sigh. At least I was still breathing.
Wow. That could have been literally a killer day. You kept your cool and made good decisions to get out of a bad situation. Great TR though. Mixing mountains with bad storms is never a recipe for success, despite our best attempts. Glad you made it down intact.