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