Olympus seems like one of the mountains of legend that I've heard about all my life. When I was a kid in the boy scouts I would hear about it in native folk lore as like the guardian of the great waters. The name is certainly lent from Greek mythology and conjures God-like proportions. The 18 mile approach alone requires warrior-like stamina. This is where the gods do battle. Its walls are sheathed in titans of ice. But words alone don't do it justice...
On June 4,2015, Josh Lewis, Matt Lemke and his girlfriend Jayme invited me to join them on a 3 day climb of the North Ridge route of Mount Olympus. We chose this route for its solid rock and because reports claimed that the moat at the base of the climb had already opened. For me, it was an amazing sounding climb because I had been thinking of Olympus for the past 10 years. The miles had me a bit intimidated but I knew I've done worse. Just in case I packed some ibuprofen and a knee sleeve to help with my old injury from Reynolds. Before beginning we all agreed, with regard to the excellent forecast, to pack as light as reasonably possible for the 3 days. We shared one stove and went totally minimal. Nobody's pack weighed more than 35 pounds and I want to think that was integral to our success.
Day 1 - Hoh so far to go
Due to the ferry and other logistics, we had a late start to the day (11am) and tried to make the best of it by deciding to keep going until mile 5. Within the first few miles I came across a small black bear in a tree that someone hiking out told us about. I didn't notice it at first until I saw branches coming down. The critter was climbing the tree in a hurry so I couldn't get still video but it didn't stop me from trying. Somehow the rest of the crew missed it. We did all the touristy things like standing between two old-growths and taking pictures of frogs and moss, which is funny since we pretty much live around that kind of stuff. It was probably just to break up the tedium of steady marching.
nervous black bear
When we got to 5 Mile Island, we noticed that the trail had washed out near one of the camps due to the Hoh River changing course. This prevented access to a view point of Mount Tom I remembered from a hike with Josh 9 years ago. We had lunch here and watched pollen fall like snow below the overcast skies that were beginning to open up. Our original goal was Glacier Meadows but as the day went on this seemed increasingly unlikely despite perfect weather. At the Olympus Ranger Station, it became clear we would have to camp lower since we were all tired. I have trouble maintaining energy when I can't see my objective and I wonder if this was true for anyone else. Matt joked that we'd only go 4 miles then break, then 2, then 1, then 0.5, which of course is closer to the truth.
Where did the trail go
through the forest
Olympus Ranger station bench
sign and bench
Lewis bros at Lewis camp
We took a long break at mile 12.4 and I got in a little nap. Awaking refreshed but low on daylight, I charged up the mountain, crossing a deep gorge and put out quite a sweat up the switchbacks with Josh working hard to keep up. We got a little ahead and made it to Elk Lake before dusk. Without good water, though, it seemed like a better idea to go to the camp a quarter-mile lower to be near running water. I was also enticed by the prospect of fire-roasted marshmallows being that it was the last place where fires were allowed. But it turned out the wood was too wet to get anything more than hot coals and a flicker from mist and rain earlier in the week. We hung our food on the NPS bear wires which were novel to me. Josh encountered a bear that was climbing around in a tree near our tent later that evening which had him spooked. So I helped him move our tent closer to Matt's and further from the food. Even though I forewent a sleeping pad to save weight, opting instead to use my pack as insulation, I slept like a rock and dreamed deep.
view at creek near camp
Day 2 - Wow!
Despite earlier plans to wake up at some heinous hour like 3am, we slept in until 9 to be more rested for our day and started out strong. For some reason I felt super-fast and had to take the 60m rope to slow myself down. Morning shade kept the hiking cool in the dewy meadows and weepy woods. I was shocked both by the lack of snow as the views started opening up. Arriving at the ladder, I was somewhat disappointed to discover it required a drop instead of a rise which meant it had to be regained on the way out. This and many other features on the hike have me inclined to think the elevation gain for the climb is often wildly underestimated. Glacier meadows were beautifully showy with flowers already beginning but I was still wondering where the mountain was having not seen it the whole time except for a small glimpse of Snow-Dome. We were all very low on water (a recurring theme) and passed up the opportunity to refill before the moraine thinking we could use the edge of the glacier. A goat stood above watching guard over us while marmots scurried hither and thither on the rocks. By 11am I finally saw the mountain and just had to let out a lungful of "WOOAAAHHHW!" at the amazing beauty of the Blue Glacier.
Matt and Jayme
Jayme going down the ladder by Matt
me on the ladder. Taken by Matt
Glacier Meadows taken by Matt Lemke
Mount Olympus Blue Glacier panorama by Matt Lemke
Jayme and Matt in front of Olympus
Olympus and heather
We decided to have an early lunch to fuel up for the climb and save weight. Unfortunately Jayme had developed intense pain in her feet and knee over the course of the hike in, probably similar to my awful experience on Reynolds and we were worried about how she was doing. After much deliberation, Jayme decided to leave us at the moraine and head back down to camp due to the injury. We pressed on as a team of 3, dropping hundreds of feet onto the glacier where we noticed a peculiar phenomenon, probably common on larger glaciers that I hadn't noticed before. Rocks were strewn so numerous that it looked like we were still on a moraine but we could hear running water. It seemed like the prequel to a rock-glacier. Josh and I were out of water and thirsty so we looked around and found a neat little icy hole where water run-off ran down to oblivion. After following the rocks as far as we could up the more stable ablated ice we roped up and I led trying to avoid melt-water pools by staying close to the ablation line. I really regret not taking a photo of all the thousands of tiny water pools in the ice with small rocks in the middle of them. Going through the ablation line sucked because the snow was very slushy where it transitioned and it was hard to determine where crevasses were. I accidentally stepped in some slush and my boots were instantly soaked for the rest of the trip. Damn. Well, once past the ablation line, the snow was only semi-soft and good for kicking steps. I aimed for a snowy ramp that had footprints leading up Snow-Dome. After a series of crevasses we arrived at some rocks part way up the dome where we refilled water. I have to thank Matt for taking good pictures of this section.
I lead towards Snowdome. Taken by Matt Lemke
part way up Snowdome looking at the icefall. Taken by Matt Lemke
Josh following up Snowdome
Snowdome Olympus Station
I relinquished the lead to Matt who had us flying up Snow Dome's steep sides in no time. There were a few crevasses easily bypassed. At the top of the dome we could see a shack with a solar panel and some radio equipment. Don't know if its a weather station or snotel, but some foot prints clearly led to it and above. It would've been nice to explore but it was out of the way so we kept pushing. To the South, we could clearly see what was now going on with the route. Bergshrunds crossed all the way across the early season routes and even our backup via Crystal Pass to the East was looking like it was beginning to wear out. I couldn't imagine how difficult Olympus was going to be later this year and thankful to be doing it when we did. As we approached Crystal Pass I was beginning to feel drained. Our pace slowed a little and we navigated a hidden crevasse.
Matt leads to Crystal Pass
Even Crystal pass is getting thin. Taken by Matt Lemke
looking back where we came from
climbing up to Crystal Pass
Matt at Crystal Pass
The view at the pass was amazing with what seemed like a whole other mountain and glacier on the other side, probably the middle and East peaks. We continued up spiraling West over a handful of small crevasses and over the false summit. The other side had a few feet of some treacherously icy corn snow that luckily turned back into slop near the flat bowl below the final snow-finger to the rock climb. Once we got up the snow-finger, Matt set himself a belay to get across a moat that spiced up the beginning of the end. The climb was mostly 4th class with a few 5.4s thrown in short bursts, 1 pitch in total. Matt placed a couple cams in and we all made the summit by 5pm.
Josh and I high on Olympus on the other side of Crystal Pass. Taken by Matt Lemke
coming down the false summit. taken by Matt
Matt with Valhallas below Olympus' summit
Olympus summit from the false summit
Matt climbing on the North Ridge
Josh is stoked! Taken by Matt Lemke
Matt belays Josh
Josh nears Olympus summit
Signing in on Mount Olympus
we made it! taken by Matt Lemke
The view was expansive and I really wished we could stay longer but a few things set us going down the mountain in a hurry:
1) Matt was concerned for how Jayme was doing and didn't want her to wait in camp too long.
2) Some un-thoughtful asshat had taken a massive dump on the summit producing a fowl odor that made lingering unpleasant.
3) The now soft snow was sure to set in within a few hours and become icy and tedious to descend.
So we rappelled down to the snow-finger, dropped to the bowl, marched up the false summit and then Matt started bolting down the mountain. We were going so fast that at one point he would shout, "Crevasse!" and then I would say the same a second later, "Crevasse!" and no sooner did I announce this than he came across another and another all the while running and jumping. It was hard to keep up with all the "running" ax belays but the rush was thrilling. We probably got back to the pass in less than an hour. From here we slowed down the pace until we got back to Snow-dome's slopes. Then we became a mess of standing glissades and plunge-step-running, slipping and sliding all over the place. Crevasse activity through this section was minimal so we weren't quite on edge until we arrived at some loose avalanche debris where we slowed down. The view of the ice-fall here is impressive and with the sun setting it felt massive.
Olympus west false summit
A look back
Matt heading back down
We managed to find a line through the lower Blue Glacier that avoided the mush from on the way in until we found a route on solid ice similar to the one we were on on the way in. Heading back up the moraine wall I realized we were gaining quite a bit more than 100 feet and found the hard packed dirt and loose rock quite bothersome after the long day. I decided to stay at the top of the moraine and catch the sunset while Matt and Josh went back to camp. I took it easy, wrung out my socks and munched some cookies while the mountain's shadow slowly shifted across the Blue Glacier. A lack of clouds made it far less dramatic than I had hoped so eventually after dusk enough mosquitoes convinced me to give up and I worked my way back down to our camp at 2,600' keeping a strong pace. The air was hot and humid, not at all like it was on the way up and got worse the lower I got. By the time I got to camp it was awful and I sat down to rest. Almost immediately my back seized up in pain and I felt like vomiting. I made a concerted effort to hold it in. I began sweating bullets. I really didn't want to lose any more fluid since I could feel the burn on my skin from the sun and I hadn't had quite enough water. All I could do was lay down in the tent. Josh really helped me get everything going from cooking to filtering water and I recovered before going to bed. He's a hero in my book.
Mount Olympus from the moraine
Day 3 - Hobbling home
Again we slept in after a full day of 6k gain on glaciers. We didn't get going until the sun was beaming close to vertical in the forest. I finally managed to get a fire going and made one sad roasted marshmallow that looked like cancer. After eating breakfast and packing up I stayed behind to try to regain some of the lost water from the previous day. The 2 mile drop back to the bridge was quick but going back up-hill several hundred feet immediately afterwards was a pain. An ipod I brought along helped me get through some of the miles until I caught them back at Olympus Ranger station. Wanting to catch the ferry home we didn't stay long and I fell behind to eat the last of my food. I caught them again at 5 Mile Island where we mustered up the courage for the last few painful miles. My boots were still damp and my feet were destroyed. We all arrived at the trail head at 6:30pm glad to have made it.
back at the car
recorded on an Olympus camera
I made a bonehead mistake of leaving my camera on the car roof and thought about it 1 minute into the drive back when I wanted to review my pictures. Luckily it wasn't damaged and I even managed to take one last video clip before the battery died again. The drive back went by in a blur while Josh and Matt discussed future plans for the summer including Mount Waddington. Catching the second to last ferry out and ordering some pizza near home finished this great journey.