Climbing Olympus...Why Did I Wait So Long?
Embracing the heart of misty forests, foaming rivers, and pristine solitude.
Mount Olympus, uttering those words brings about a distinct vision for any mountaineer that is familiar with the mountain. Three or four days of hiking and climbing, over forty five miles roundtrip, thousands of feet of elevation to be gained and lost, crevasses, the potential bear encounter, and being lucky enough to forecast the weather just right. All these facts and assumptions prevented me, for so long, from attempting to climb an incredible mountain anointed in one of the most eye-watering landscapes in the country. Just looking at the map alone can be enough to fold it up and elect a more approachable mountain that can have you back at your car with time to spare for a Saturday evening beer. However, if you have experienced the fascinating passageways of a temperate rainforest, been entranced by steep emerald slopes giving way to snow covered peaks, and craved for the solitude that the Olympics are so gracious with then Mount Olympus should viscerally pull at every outdoor-loving nerve there is in you. Below will be my first-hand account of things gone well, gear I'm glad I had, blisters I wish I had not, recommendations, and anything else that might help to tighten your boots and have you gazing down from the summit.
The plan, the packing
Read any trip report, consult any successful mountaineer, or talk to a Ranger and you'll rapidly discover the diversity of opinions on how best to carve up this climb. From minimalist ultra-marathon mentality of "power gel goo and an ice axe are the only items I need but might be too much," to pack-rat siege tactics of "outlandish luxury isn't just for the home," had me spinning in my head about how I wanted to go after Mount Olympus. Weight and foot pain versus light and perhaps a more chilly night also meant the difference between a day or two more spent in the wilderness. After discussing the merits of so many options the decision was made to split the climb into three days; make for Glacier Meadows on day one, summit day two, and be back at the cars by three. With this in mind, however, I made it a personal effort to go as minimalist as I and my rope partner were comfortable.
Like a great friend once told me, ounces equal pounds. Some of my weight saving ideas included: two meals a day instead of three (substitute with protein bars), approach/scrambling shoes (with a good rand) instead of carrying mountaineering boots, ditch the full-on crampons for hiking crampons, only one pair of clothes, the lightest thirty meter glacier rope on the market, and a few other weight saving techniques. Personal preference, experience, and fitness all play a significant role, but gauging the sentiments of who you will be roped up with can be more important. Are they not completely on-board with you climbing in hiking crampons? No worries, pack the extra weight and suck it up. Every ounce you save could mean a more pleasant and light-footed ascent but risks leaving behind critical gear, and busting the seams of your pack might be the safest and most secure way to view the summit from below.
With all this being said here is my personal advice. Two days will have you cursing at every banana slug and forest nymph you pass as you make your slog back to the car, while four days can be truly therapeutic to soak in all the valley and mountains are bestowing upon you but it may be pushing the sick days at the office. Three days and trim the fat on the packing, but to each their own.
The first day: that long hike that breaks your pace counter
We drove out early from Tacoma and arrived at the trailhead with the intent of having the trail under our boots by 8:30 or 9:00. Final prepping, an accidental trail diversion, and we finally had the pace set by 9:45, and it was starting to get warm. The goal was to complete all 17.5 miles and set camp up at Glacier Meadows for the night. Periodic rest stops and a lunch break at 9-Mile Camp were the only rests we gave ourselves, but this still had us behind schedule as we neared Elk Lake. As the sun started to sink behind the mountains we still had another 2.5 miles until Glacier Meadows, and these last few miles were almost all uphill switchbacks. While filling up our water we made the group decision to establish camp, stretch, eat, and bed down at Elk Lake. An earlier wake up time was now in order if we were going to show the right conviction at summiting Olympus.
The second day: socked in, scramble up, sip down
Waking up before 2:00am, what I like to term as a pre-alpine start, we quickly downed some breakfast, coffee of course, and set off under headlamp. The ladder down the the gully where the trail is out was not bad at all and the rest of the trail up to the lateral moraine was smooth sailing (we were really glad not to have our overnight packs on us too). As we began to cross the Blue Glacier and its slick ice, heading west/southwest, the alpenglow gradually poured over Olympus. We opted to scramble up the scree and Class III rocky sections to the base of the Snow Dome, continuously drifting to the right as we went higher. Roping up and kicking steps on the Snow Dome we swiftly were enveloped by clouds rising up from the Pacific. With open crevasses, wind to limit our communication, and ever thickening cloud coverage we picked and poked our way over the glacier knowing that we had to aim for a saddle just to the northeast of the West Summit. Having a GPS track downloaded did help at this point as it kept us going in the general direction we needed. A few breaks in the clouds soon gave wave to that big yellow ball and the clouds fell away from the mountain delivering a clear view of the route.
The final summit block required some Class V scrambling and we made a mistake of climbing more of the east/southeast face rather than the north face. Ropes added security and after all of our group was belayed up Mount Olympus captivated us with a landscape of alpine meadows, clouds floating amongst precipitous peaks, glacial streams disappearing into lush forests below, and the Cox Valley Fire adding a smoky hue to the horizon...can't all be perfect.
After signing the summit register, we set up a sixty meter rappel (yes, an amazing lad in our group hauled that thing all the way up there) and came down the north face of the summit block. The sun remained on our shoulders as we re-traced our steps and made it back to the Blue Glacier. Something to note on the Blue Glacier, although it was very compacted ice and had only thin crevasses there were exposed moulins (deep black holes that are gouged and bored by water) that caused concern especially when we were trying to get back on the glacier. Take precaution, slip into one of these and you'll be hoping that global warming kicks in faster.
It was well into the evening by the time we made it back to Elk Lake, if we had arrived earlier the idea was to pack up and make for the 9-Mile campground. Yet, with it already being evening, successful summit smiles on our faces, and a flask of rum and bit of wine enticing us the decision was made to celebrate, sip, and enjoy the last of the day.
The third day: final thoughts
The light of the cell phone flared up, the "Peaceful" Strum alarm tone blurted out, and the sleeping bag was a way too satisfying burrito of warmth and fluffiness to zip down. But, with fifteen miles ahead of us, and a celebratory beer in the fridge at the end, we woke and shook off the sleep like the rising dead. Downhill, a ceiling of clouds to keep it cool, and a funtastic group to chat up made all the fifteen miles seem so much less...except the last mile, it's always that last damned mile.
With the climb only a memory there are a few final thoughts to share. I could go on about packing lists, counting out the right volume of calories, where to camp, how to navigate the final summit block, where to fill up on water. But it's all out there, and junking more tips and information upon you is not the true reason why I wanted to write this. The Pacific Northwest is now my home, and the Olympics and Hoh River Valley are the parents that adopted me. Wild, lush, emerald confusion only broken by cascading rivers and pillowed snow slopes entrance me in ways I never knew were possible. Mount Olympus is there and was always in the back of my mind, the glistening gem that could be seen from almost every other peak I had summited in the Olympics. The quintessential experience that has unparalleled beauty in all of its forty five miles, a unique world that I am so grateful has never stopped tugging at my desire to explore more of. If you are familiar with the tranquility of the Olympics and cannot let go of the need to climb Olympus then do not short yourself. The miles won't get less, your shoulders will ache under the weight of the pack, but the urge is there for a reason. And now that the swelling is gone, and like every other short term memory loss inflicted mountaineer, I want to go back.
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.