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Mount Olympus climb with Mountain madness

Mount Olympus — The Olympic National Park’s Crown Jewel

Think­ing of an Mount Olym­pus climb next sum­mer? Check out guest blog­ger Bret W.‘s report from last sum­mer. Sign up before Feb­ru­ary 15th and receive free rentals! 

I’ve always felt a bit jeal­ous of moun­tain climbers I met on the trail, with their rak­ish atti­tude and dan­ger­ous look­ing equip­ment dan­gling from their back­packs. That would soon change because I was part of a climb­ing team head­ed up glac­i­er-cov­ered Mt. Olym­pus! I was the high bid­der at last spring’s Washington’s Nation­al Parks Fund fundrais­ing auc­tion.. Now thanks to the gen­er­ous dona­tion from Moun­tain Mad­ness I was going to become a mountaineer!

Our team at the trail­head. Bret Wirta photo

Though I’ve back­packed on many won­der­ful trails and scram­bled up my share of moun­tain peaks, until now I’ve nev­er made a tech­ni­cal climb. A tech­ni­cal climb is a steep ascent on a care­ful­ly planned route using ropes, climb­ing boots with spikes, and oth­er spe­cial­ized gear. Besides the usu­al load of camp­ing equip­ment, food, and clothes in my back­pack, there was a new rope, har­ness, and heavy-duty hik­ing boots. Strapped to the out­side of my pack in full view was my climb­ing hel­met and tita­ni­um ice axe. My cof­fee cup dan­gled from a shiny cara­bi­neer, and pok­ing from a thick­ly-lined pock­et was a pair of sharp-spiked cram­pons. In a flur­ry of last minute shop­ping, 2nd Ascent in Bal­lard out­fit­ted me right down to spe­cial lip-balm and sun­glass­es designed to ward of glacial glare.

Our climb­ing team assem­bled at the Hoh Vis­i­tor Cen­ter. We’d have plen­ty of time to get to know each oth­er because Mt. Olym­pus is a two-day jour­ney up the Hoh Riv­er val­ley. Mt. Olym­pus is locat­ed in the cen­ter of a huge tract of wilder­ness in Olympic Nation­al Park. For adren­a­line junkies who live only for the feel­ing of cram­pons under their feet and the heft of an ice-ax in their hands, two days of back­pack­ing on a fair­ly lev­el trail just to reach base-camp is prob­a­bly a deter­rent to climb­ing Mt. Olym­pus, but I enjoyed the hike. The trail­head began at 600 feet in ele­va­tion. The Hoh Rain For­est was sun­ny (lucky) and warm and our amble through the old-growth for­est gave me a chance to chat with our guide and the oth­er two hik­ers in our party.

My tent-mates were Mark and Gretchen, a mar­ried cou­ple from Flori­da. Gretchen is an ICU nurse who cared about her patients but told us uncom­fort­able sto­ries of surg­eries gone bad. Mark was retir­ing from a dis­tin­guished Army career. Mark was a Ranger with Spe­cial Forces train­ing. He told spell­bind­ing accounts of serv­ing in north­ern Iraq, imbed­ded with the Kurds, months before the first Gulf War had even begun.

Bri­an was our guide. He was a lanky young man who lived to climb and ski. Bri­an had a beard and a big smile and much to our enjoy­ment was a fan­tas­tic camp cook. Bri­an was employed by Moun­tain Mad­ness, the inter­na­tion­al guide ser­vice based here in West Seat­tle. Moun­tain Mad­ness guides climb all over the world. They list the Mt. Olym­pus as a begin­ner climb, but that didn’t impede my trail swag­ger. We met a gray-haired woman on the trail who stared at our climb­ing equip­ment. My heart is with you.” She said. I nod­ded non­cha­lant­ly. I was already dream­ing of oth­er peaks to climb.

Equip­ment check. Bret Wirta photo

We pow­ered up the Hoh Val­ley Trail head­ing due east. Bri­an set the pace, and though a bit tired, Gretchen always kept up. Hus­band Mark was in great shape. He wore a back­pack the size of a refrig­er­a­tor. Out of that back­pack every evening would come clean socks, pil­lows, pain-reliev­ers and oth­er com­forts for his wife.

I was car­ry­ing some extra weight too. I have a bit of a pot-bel­ly that I can’t seem to shed. The only ben­e­fit is that I’m always under­es­ti­mat­ed by oth­er hik­ers. When we first met Bri­an, he assured me that we’d be tak­ing it slow, but around the camp­fire the first night, see­ing we kept a swift pace all day, Brian’s eyes were gleam­ing. We were going to sum­mit Olym­pus, he assured us.

Sev­en­teen miles melt­ed away and by the sec­ond evening on the trail we were camped at Glac­i­er Mead­ows, just a mile or so from the base of Mt. Olym­pus. We were camp­ing at 4,300 feet. That evening after Bri­an cooked a crazy good seafood rice cur­ry, he taught us climb­ing safe­ty. He adjust­ed my cram­pons to the soles of my boots and instruct­ed me how to strap them on cor­rect­ly. Bri­an care­ful­ly showed me how to attach my har­ness and thread the rope through my cara­bi­neers. He showed us how to hold an ice-axe (both the Euro­pean and Amer­i­can way). Final­ly Bri­an demon­strat­ed how to arrest the fall of a fel­low climber who was skid­ding down the slope, a les­son that I would use on the moun­tain tomorrow.

We didn’t awak­en until 6am the next morn­ing, which seemed late. Bri­an was an expe­ri­enced climber, and though he hadn’t ever sum­mit­ed Mt. Olym­pus his cav­a­lier atti­tude was infec­tious. After all, Olym­pus wasn’t even 8,000 feet high. How dif­fi­cult could it be?

The tem­per­a­ture was down to the thir­ties, so I put on every lay­er of cloth­ing I car­ried. I stilled shiv­ered while we sat on the rocks by our tent, eat­ing the hot cere­al and gulp­ing the cof­fee that Bri­an had pre­pared. Final­ly it was time to begin. I slathered on sun­screen, espe­cial­ly on the top of my bald­ing head and stead­fast­ly set my face to go to the sum­mit of Mt. Olympus.

Our route. J Guss­man photo

We approached Mt. Olym­pus from the north. Yes­ter­day we had snatched views of the snowy moun­tain through the trees on the trail, but it wasn’t until we hiked the final mile of trail from our Glac­i­er Mead­ows base camp that we stared full-on at our des­ti­na­tion. We stood on the high glacial moraine. Below us curved the mile wide Blue Glac­i­er and beyond that the entire hori­zon was filled with the mass of Mt Olym­pus. Bri­an point­ed at a jum­ble of peaks say­ing that was the sum­mit. Except for a few rocky cliffs and dark promon­to­ries pok­ing sky­ward, the moun­tain was all ice and snow blaz­ing in the morn­ing sun­shine. There wasn’t a tree, ani­mal or shade of green on the hori­zon. This was a scene from the last ice age. Oh my Good­ness,” I repeat­ed out loud. This was a big mountain!

We picked our way down the lose rock and grav­el of the lat­er­al moraine. At the bot­tom Bri­an roped us togeth­er and we stepped out on to Blue Glac­i­er. Grav­el and stones were sprin­kled all over the ice. Pot­holes of melt water glowed with an unnat­ur­al, iri­des­cent blue, the col­or of the stuff my Mom used to put in the toi­let bowl. We stepped across icy ridges and over cracks. Bright sun had already cov­ered the entire glac­i­er before we reached Cal­tech Moraine on the west side at 9am. We all shed lay­ers of cloth­ing. We looked up. Even though the sky was clear we couldn’t see our route to the top. A but­tress of rock, cov­ered with an immense snow dome, blocked our view.

Bret and Blue Glac­i­er. Bret Wirta photo

I put away our water and my bag of pow­er bars and our team began the climb con­tin­u­ing west­ward. The snow was hard packed but the sur­face was soft­en­ing in the sun. Though our cram­pons pro­vid­ed the unusu­al abil­i­ty to walk straight up the slope of slip­pery snow, I quick­ly found that climb­ing a moun­tain wasn’t much dif­fer­ent than hik­ing a trail; take slow care­ful steps and before you know it you are mak­ing progress. To help con­serve ener­gy, Bri­an showed us a dif­fer­ent way to walk, called the French Step. Instead of a nor­mal step with your calf mus­cles doing most of the work, we walked at an angle up the moun­tain almost side-step­ping. This burned our larg­er quad mus­cles which gave us more pow­er per step. Once I mas­tered the tech­nique, I found the climb­ing much easier.

A haze from for­est fires from dis­tant Siberia moved over us. I didn’t pay too much atten­tion because I was con­cen­trat­ing on keep­ing the rope tight between us, like Bri­an stressed. We were roped togeth­er in the same order for the entire climb; Bri­an was in the lead, Gretchen was next, fol­lowed close behind by Mark and then I always brought up the rear. We climbed up a nar­row snow­field between bare rocks. The route was steep and I was already feel­ing tired when we met three Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton geol­o­gists lug­ging mon­i­tor­ing equip­ment, pipes and a steam drill. They were head­ed from their hut above us to Blue Glac­i­er to drill and install sen­sors. The load on their backs was enor­mous. All I was car­ry­ing was water, pow­er bars and a safe­ty rope. That com­par­i­son slapped me out of my lethar­gy and soon we reached the south­east edge of a mile-long snow­field called the Snow Dome.

The team is roped up. Bret Wirta photo

We sat down and took a break. I drank some water and chose anoth­er pow­er bar from my bag. We talked about past hikes. I was tired, but Mark didn’t seem both­ered at all. Gretchen was tired too, but doing a great job keep­ing up. We talked about the climb ahead. Gretchen hoped there wouldn’t be much loose rock. That scares me the most,” She said. If she knew what we were in for at the top, she would have turned around then and there.

We stood on the Snow Dome and looked about. The sum­mer sun blazed in the now hazy sky. I removed anoth­er lay­er of clothes. Bri­an con­sult­ed his route map. You can’t just climb straight up Olym­pus. From this point on the Snow Dome there are mul­ti­ple routes to the sum­mit because, depend­ing on the time of year you climb, your path can be blocked by yawn­ing crevass­es in the ice.

Climbers call these deep crevass­es that split open when the glacial ice moves, bergschrunds or schrunds for short. They are very dan­ger­ous because they are some­times hid­den under the thin crust of last season’s snow. Bri­an turned south and led on. We slow­ly climbed up the mid­dle of the Snow Dome, par­al­lel to, but a safe dis­tance from the deep crevass­es along the edge.

Bret on anchor. M Grdovic photo

We stopped for a rest. I took off my wind­break­er. I was now down to my polypropy­lene jer­sey and thin hik­ing pants. Bri­an was hik­ing in a tee-shirt. I was sweat­ing pro­fuse­ly. I drank some water and opened by bag of pow­er bars. I forced anoth­er one down. We neared the nar­row upper end of Snow Dome and found an ice chasm block­ing our path. The chasm was about five feet wide, but luck­i­ly there was a thick snow bridge in the mid­dle of it. We care­ful­ly walked across the snow bridge one at a time. I looked over the edge. The bot­tom tapered to blue­ness then black­ness. Here I was glad to be roped togeth­er. With­out this snow bridge we’d have to have found a dif­fer­ent route.

Dur­ing our climb one land­mark after anoth­er sur­ren­dered to us. Now we faced Five Fin­ger Ridge, a cliff on the south­east edge of Snow Dome. We slogged through Crys­tal Pass, a snow-filled cleft in the ridge. On the oth­er side of the ridge we were sur­round­ed by a con­fus­ing jum­ble of peaks.

Mt. Olym­pus isn’t a sym­met­ri­cal vol­canic cone like Mt. Rainier. The Olympic Penin­su­la was formed about 35 mil­lion years ago when islands of the earth’s crust crashed togeth­er at the edge of a tec­ton­ic sub­duc­tion trench. The fold­ing and upheav­ing left Mt. Olym­pus with many peaks, East, Mid­dle, False, and the high­est, West Peak, which was our goal. We turned west­ward again and pushed on upward, one step at a time. Final­ly we reached the base of a rocky pin­na­cle. It was 2pm – get­ting late. This must be the sum­mit, I thought. It was here that Bri­an said he wasn’t sure which one was West Peak.

Crys­tal Pass. Bret Wirta photo

We weren’t lost because we knew how to get back down, but Bri­an was unsure how to pro­ceed because of the con­fus­ing sets of tracks in the snow. So like a moun­tain goat, our guide scram­bled up the rock face and recon­noi­tered. I wel­comed the rest. I drank some water. I couldn’t stom­ach anoth­er pow­er bar.

Soon Bri­an was back and point­ed fur­ther west­ward, the cor­rect direc­tion. By now I was exhaust­ed. We had been climb­ing for sev­en hours. We stood a mile and a half high. My lungs were work­ing hard to grab oxy­gen. The nov­el­ty of being on my first climb had worn off long ago. On the oth­er hand, Bri­an looked like he was strolling in the park and Mark looked in good shape too. But Gretchen was breath­ing real­ly hard. Accord­ing to the hik­ing web­site Sum­mit­post, Mt Olym­pus is attempt­ed by many sum­mit par­ties each year, yet the aver­age suc­cess rate is con­sid­ered low large­ly due to the peak being locat­ed in the most pre­cip­i­tous region of Wash­ing­ton, hav­ing a long approach, and hav­ing a vari­ety of dif­fi­cult ter­rain to traverse.”

After three quar­ters of an hour hik­ing in the wrong direc­tion, we were back on track and stand­ing in front of a steep peak. Bri­an explained in detail what was in store for us. This was not the West Sum­mit. This was False Sum­mit. Before we could climb West Sum­mit, the tallest point on Mt. Olym­pus, we need­ed to climb up and then down the oth­er side of this 300 foot jum­ble of loose rock and scree. Gretchen blanched.

False Peak squeeze. Bret Wirta photo

Wear­ing a hel­met while walk­ing on snow seemed sil­ly, but not when scram­bling on False Sum­mit. The rocky path stood at 45 degrees and the sur­face was cov­ered with half a foot of scree. Every step was a dou­ble dif­fi­cul­ty ; the trail sur­face slid down­ward as you climbed upward and every hand­hold dis­lodged more rock. At the top of False Sum­mit we squeezed through a crack the width of an air­plane seat and start­ed down the oth­er side. Slabs of loose rock crashed down around us. I was on anchor. Gretchen almost became immo­bi­lized with fear. Mark spoke to her sooth­ing­ly and we all worked togeth­er to low­er her slow­ly. Final­ly we stood on the snow, Gretchen fight­ing back tears. That’s when we looked up at our final obsta­cle, a pin­na­cle of black rock that jut­ted 500 feet straight up out of the ice like the defi­ant mid­dle fin­ger of a stone colos­sus. Gretchen broke down and cried.

Bri­an care­ful­ly explained his plan to climb West Peak. Accord­ing to Sum­mit­Post this final approach was a dif­fi­cult Class 4 scram­ble where un-roped falls could be fatal. Mark was stand­ing next to his wife com­fort­ing her. Gretchen sobbed, I can’t do it.” I should have been a more pos­i­tive force, sid­ing with Bri­an, but fear is an infec­tious beast – after a day of accom­plish­ing new feats, I found myself doubt­ing I could scram­ble up this last pin­na­cle too.

It was get­ting late. Mark could have eas­i­ly fin­ished the climb, but he said he’d stay with his wife. Bri­an said no, nobody gets left behind. After two days on the trail and 9 hours on the moun­tain we were stuck 500 feet short of our goal. I rea­soned that if we man­aged to scram­ble up the peak, we’d be climb­ing down the moun­tain in the dark. I vote no too.” I said. You could see how bad Bri­an want­ed us to stand on the top of Olym­pus, but there was no oth­er choice. Bri­an checked our har­ness­es and we began the dif­fi­cult climb back up and over False Sum­mit and then down to base camp.

Snow Dome to the top. J Guss­man photo

We were dead-tired as we retraced our steps down the moun­tain. I was on anchor. Mark was tied to the rope in the posi­tion direct­ly below me. We’d been on the moun­tain for 13 hours at this point. We were clear­ing the rim of the Snow Dome when Mark stum­bled and start­ed to slide to the edge. I imme­di­ate­ly remem­bered Brian’s safe­ty train­ing; I stabbed my ice ax into the glac­i­er, stomped my cram­pons into the snow and pulled back­wards on the rope. I arrest­ed Mark’s fall! Damm! I’m a bad ass! I saved an Army Ranger!” I thought as I rushed to Mark and looked over the edge. The soft snow was just a few feet below.

We had plen­ty of time on the jour­ney home to enjoy the beau­ty of the for­est. We talked about our futures. We enjoyed more of Brian’s cook­ing. False Sum­mit, accord­ing to peak­bag­ger is 7,884 feet high. When our team was strug­gling over False Peak we stood only 89 feet below the sum­mit of Mt. Olym­pus. Was I dis­ap­point­ed that I didn’t stand on the actu­al sum­mit of Mount Olym­pus – of course. But I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend five days in one of the world’s most unique places. I made won­der­ful friends. I got to know a guide I hope to climb with again. Life isn’t just about the goals you achieve; it’s about the com­mu­ni­ty you cre­ate around you. Mt. Olym­pus will always be there.

Hum­mm, I won­der what Bri­an, Gretchen and Mark are doing next summer?”

~ Bret Wirta

Tough deci­sion to turn back. Bret Wirta photo