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Hoh river

Mount Olympus — Dispelling the Myth

Most peo­ple think of moun­tains as being frigid, icy places. When I tell peo­ple that I’m a guide, they usu­al­ly say some­thing along the lines of, Wow, so you do all that stuff with, like, ice picks and stuff? You’re hard­core! Aren’t you scared you’ll fall off the mountain?”

Blue Glac­i­er. MM Pho­to Collection

Nope, not real­ly. If you’re read­ing this, you’ve prob­a­bly been on a moun­tain, so you know that it is actu­al­ly quite a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence. Some more than oth­ers, I’ll admit. But if it was­n’t enjoy­able, I would­n’t have a job, and Moun­tain Mad­ness would­n’t exist — or it would have a name more like Foothill Fol­ly or For­est Foolishness.

Hoh Rain­for­est Trail. MM Pho­to Collection

One of my favorite moun­tains to guide is Mount Olym­pus. It is a great intro­duc­tion to climb­ing for very fit begin­ners. You get a lit­tle taste of every­thing: a big glac­i­er, a lit­tle steep snow, a lit­tle rock climb­ing, and a long approach on the most beau­ti­ful trail in the state. The Olympic Nation­al Park is a tem­per­ate rain­for­est with more shades of green than you even knew exist­ed, and home to some of the largest old-growth trees in the coun­try. And it’s the set­ting for Twi­light, but most of us try to ignore that.

Hoh Riv­er. MM Pho­to Collection

What makes this trail unique, oth­er than its beau­ty? Well, for one thing, it is 18 miles long. Hence the very fit” part. But it is also one of the most well-main­tained trails that I know. There is no scram­bling up tree roots, rock hop­ping across creeks, or care­ful­ly pick­ing your way through scree. Half of the trail is what I would call flat” although many clients have protest­ed that my frame of ref­er­ence is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent than the aver­age per­son­’s. Regard­less of my biased def­i­n­i­tion of flat”, you gain less than 1,000 feet in the first 10 miles.

Steep snow on the way up to the sum­mit. John Cooledge photo

Then it starts going uphill. And you have a heavy pack, and it’s prob­a­bly hot out, so you’ve got­ten pret­ty sweaty by this point. Plus you are two days into the trip, which means two days of sweat, dust, and bug spray have accu­mu­lat­ed on your body. You’re prob­a­bly think­ing right now that I’m not mak­ing climb­ing sound pleas­ant at all. Bear with me, it gets better.

Doing back­flips into the lake. John Cooledge photo

About 15 miles into the hike, you reach Elk Lake. By this point, most peo­ple are ready for a long break as they brace them­selves for the steep­er, hot­ter sec­tion of trail imme­di­ate­ly ahead. Lucky for us, there is Elk Lake. Now, most lakes can be kin­da scuzzy by the shore — murky water, mud that goes up to your knees, weeds that wrap around your ankles, rocks and sticks that try to trip you and send you head­long into said mud and weeds (and craw­dads and frogs and…). But if you scram­ble down a faint trail and thrash through a few bush­es, you reach a fall­en tree. Like many of the trees in the Olympics, it was a giant tree, the kind you could­n’t come close to wrap­ping your arms around. This tree fell direct­ly out into the lake, pro­vid­ing a pleas­ant woody path away from the shore and down into the deep clear water. You can slow­ly walk your way into the water, or hop off to the side for a quick dunk. Voila, you have both show­ered AND done laundry. 

On the sum­mit. John Cooledge photo

Climb­ing moun­tains is still hard­core, even if you aren’t at risk of falling off the moun­tain into a bot­tom­less abyss as you clutch your ice picks’ and yell Nooooo…” (or what­ev­er it is that peo­ple imag­ine climb­ing is all about). But it’s not all ice and mis­ery up there. 

~ MM Guide Viviane deBros