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2 Log Crossing of the North Fork Quinault river

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.