Olympic Traverse — a wild and wooly adventure in pure wilderness!
For many the idea of off-trail travel in wilderness, however challenging, is too hard too resist. This summer we added yet another astonishing traverse to our list of trips thanks to the suggestion of client Greg, himself an expert of the Olympic Mountain traverses, history, and topography. After this year’s success he’s dreamed up an even bigger traverse, which includes the famous Bailey Range Traverse- stay tuned!
Saturday, July 23: Day 1
I met Greg at Second Ascent, our usual meeting spot for Mountain Madness trips. Gear prepared we headed south on I‑5, bypassing Aberdeen with a shortcut on backroads through the farms and rivers of the southern Olympic Peninsula. We packed our gear around bulky bear canisters full of food – Greg’s larger pack turned out to be very necessary! After finishing big deli sandwiches we headed up through the mossy old growth forests of the North Fork of the Quinault. The river rushed below, blue from glacial silt and running high with meltwater from abundant snows lingering in the high country. The day was hot and clear. We made it to Trapper Shelter, where we camped among the mosquitoes and huge trees.
Trapper Shelter. Greg Thies photo
Sunday, July 24: Day 2
Greg and I awoke at six to finish our climb to Martins Park and stage ourselves for our climbing objectives on the south side of Low Divide. The day was hot, and we stopped for a long afternoon break at Lake Margaret to enjoy the spectacular views of Mt. Seattle.
Lake Margaret and Mount Seattle. Greg Thies photo
Greg took many pictures of the mountain and lake and Aili jumped in the cold water. After some searching for the climbers’ trail to Martins Park we found it and began our ascent. The trail was difficult to find through the patchy snow in the meadows and the route offered some classic Northwest obstacles – fallen trees as high as our chest to climb over and precariously hidden snowbridges over melt streams.
Low Divide Ranger Station. Greg Thies photo
We followed bull elk tracks up to Martins Park, where a camp on a gravelly outcropping allowed us to set up the tent on flat dry ground above Martins Creek. We rested and ate a delicious hot meal – freeze dried food never tasted so good!
Sign for Martins Park. Aili Farquhar photo
Monday, July 25: Day 3
Light clouds greeted us in the morning, and we deliberated on whether or not we should climb Christie for a few hours. At 10:30 we determined that the rain was falling mostly on the west side of the Peninsula (over Olympus and the Bailey Range) and that Low Divide actually sits in a small rainshadow area. We set out over the firm snow towards the eastern glacier of Christie. Lingering snow from a big snow year made travel fast but did not allow us to see how far the actual glacier had receded since the topo map was made. The main glacier of Christie had receded quite far, forcing us to climb some 4th class rock to avoid a more dangerous downclimb to reach this more western glacier so we could cross it and gain the summit ridge.
On the way to Mt. Christie. Greg Thies photo
This 4th class rock took us around the eastern sub-summit of Christie, down to the Christie Glacier, and across to the chossy summit ridge covered in thick, scrubby krummholtz trees. We wove through these obstacles and reached the summit in the still-threatening clouds. Faye Pullen, an avid climber who has been working on summitting the 200 high points in Washington, had left a small Rite in the Rain summit log encased in a piece of PVC pipe. We were the second party to sign this register since 2010.
Faye Pullen’s summit register on summit of Christie. Greg Thies photo
On the way down we climbed a gully to the northwest of the sub-summit we had gone around on our way to the true summit. To negotiate the gully we had to climb down into a snow moat and then climb a system of rotten ledges one 40‑m rope length to the top of the small pass between the glaciers. Once on the pass we paused, took some pictures, then descended the same glacier we had come up to get back to our nice dry camp by the stream.
Tuesday, July 26: Day 4
In the cool 5am dusk we ate our morning granola, drank some coffee and headed east for our big objective on the south side of Low Divide: Mt. Delabarre. The snow was firm and perfect for cramponning, allowing us to make a quick ascent to the col above Martins Park.
Morning on the way to Delabarre. Aili Farquhar photo
The ridge between the Martins Park col and Mt. Delabarre is usually covered in huckleberry brush and heather, with impassible gendarmes and rock fins barring a traverse on the spine of the ridge. Heavy snowpack still lingering from winter allowed us to boot-pack a direct sidehill traverse from Martins Park to the base of the south slopes of Delabarre. We ascended a steep snowfinger on this southern slope to 4th class ledges and more tangled krummholtz on the ridge. We downclimbed more 4th class ledges to the north side of the ridge and traveled on low-angle snow slopes to the summit blocks of Delabarre. We scrambled up the western sub-summit and enjoyed lunch in the warm sun. Incredible views greeted us in every direction: the Bailey Range, the Elwha valley, the burned-over Buckinghorse Ridge, Crystal Peak, Muncaster Basin and Rustler Creek. Greg described some ideas for new high traverses across the Olympics and we both marveled at how much snow still remained in these mountains in almost August.
Ascending Delabarre. Greg Thies photo
We tried to scout a route that would connect Muncaster Basin to Low Divide in an east to west traverse over Mt. Delabarre (a climbing route we had both looked at or tried in the past from the east) but could not see anything that would not involve exposed 4th and 5th class scrambling on rotten rock. After lunch we climbed the true summit on a ramp over an impressive snow moat about 50 feet in depth. The true summit offered more amazing views into Muncaster Basin, as well as a good view of the scary slabs on the south side of Delabarre.
South shoulder of Delabarre. Greg Thies photo
These had been traversed only once by a solo climber, and Greg and I pondered the dangers of doing such a project alone. After an excellent few hours in the summit area we retraced our route over the ridge of Delabarre and back towards the Martins Park col, the soft snow making cramponning difficult. We reached our camp in the early evening and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over Low Divide.
Cornice on summit block of Delabarre. Aili Farquhar photo
Wednesday July 27: Day 5
Morning dawned clear once more. We packed up and left Martins Park, pausing for a while at Low Divide to take some pictures of the fields of yellow avalanche lilies blooming near the ranger station. We took the Skyline Trail almost all the way to Seattle Basin, encountering continuous snow at about 4,000 feet elevation. We left the trail just above the snowline and opted to follow a ridge up into the broad basin on the western slopes of Mt. Seattle. Our luck in finding dry camps held and we camped on a beautiful little tree island that had melted out. Waterfalls flowing with snowmelt off Mt. Seattle provided clean, fresh and very cold drinking water. We enjoyed the long evening sunshine and absolute solitude of this remote basin as we rested and prepared for our big objective the next day.
Thursday July 28: Day 6
Greg and I could not believe our good fortune as we awoke at 6am to another cloudless summer day in a mountain range renowned for rain, rain and more rain. We cramponned over more perfectly firm snow up through the col between Cougar Ridge and Mt. Noyes and dropped into the upper Noyes basin. We could see the Elwha below as we ascended a 60 degree snowfinger to the high col between the jagged Mt. Noyes and the impressive snowfield and broken summit block of the much higher Mt. Meany. After a long rest at this col we ascended these snowfields and reached the base of Meany’s summit block. Two pitches of low-5th class pitched climbing on sharp, crumbling fins and ledges led us to the huge jumbled blocks of Meany’s summit ridge. We pitched out a weaving traverse between these summit blocks and reached the flat but airy summit of Meany.
Summit block of Meany. Greg Thies photo
The land fell away for several thousand feet in every direction as we looked down into the headwaters of the Elwha and the upper Queets River valley. The peaks of the Olympus massif dominated the western horizon. Faye Pullen had left another PVC pipe summit register, and as we added our names we were amazed to find we were the 5th party to visit this remote summit since 1999.
On the summit of Meany. Greg Thies photo
A lower and a rappel took us back to 4th class ledges, which we downclimbed to reach the broad snowfields that took us back to the Noyes-Meany col. Greg opted to take off his balled-up aluminum crampons and travel on heather slopes to the side of the snowfinger below the col while I remained on the variably icy snow with my steel ones. Mountain goats grazed on the steep flanks of Noyes as we descended in the hot afternoon sun. Once we had again crossed the Noyes-Cougar col we stopped at a clear stream running off the slopes of Mt. Seattle.
Contemplating the descent from Meany. Aili Farquhar photo
Flowers had bloomed around the stream while the rest of the basin remained in snow, providing a small oasis of spring where we rehydrated before returning to another relaxing evening of sunshine, hot soup, reading and great conversation in our quiet high country camp.
Friday, July 29: Day 7
Meany had been a much bigger day than we had anticipated, so Greg and I opted to forgo Mt. Seattle and instead spend the morning relaxing in our camp. The wind-shaped mountain hemlock and small plants – beargrass, heather, huckleberry, and many beautiful lichens – made our camp area seem like a Japanese garden transported into the alpine zone of the Olympic mountains.
Camp in Seattle Basin. Greg Thies photo
We took pictures and enjoyed more sun before packing up and heading down the Skyline trail to meet up with the North Fork Quinault trail. We reached Sixteen Mile camp (which is actually about 12 miles from the trailhead) and set up our tent just in time to catch the last of the sun rays on the river bar. We splashed the grime of the last few days off in the cold snowmelt water and built a fire of fragrant cedar. We finished off the last of the freeze dried meals and spent the evening talking and reading by the fire before bedding down on the perfect flatness of our riverside campsite.
Saturday, July 30: Day 8
After breakfast our morning started with a crossing of a log across the North Fork Quinault river. To cross this log, which was about 100 feet long and only attached on one side, we had to straddle it and pull ourselves across by scooting forward with our arms.
Log crossing of North Fork Quinault River. Greg Thies photo
I ferried our packs across first, holding tight to the log that had been scoured smooth and free of bark by the power of winter floods. Greg crossed after me and we donned our much lighter packs for the long hike out to the trailhead. We finished our hike as the heat of the day was getting a little too intense for comfort and ate some tasty lunch at the Internet Café in Amanda Park before returning reluctantly to Seattle and civilization.