JC-on-Mt-Olympus-SnowDomeA summer adventure for the ages:  Climbing the tallest – and most elusive – mountain in the Olympic range, Mt. Olympus.   25 miles of backpacking and climbing, to help a good cause:  The Climb to Fight Breast Cancer.

Mt. Olympus sits in the middle of Olympic National Park, which differs from all other national parks  in Big Ways.  Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, etc. all have roads running through them.  The one million acre Olympic NP does not, so you can’t climb Olympus until you first hike from the Hoh River trailhead near the Visitors Center about 19 miles to the Blue Glacier, the first three quarters of it wearing a 50 pound backpack.  Second, Olympic NP contains the only rainforests in the continental United States, so the aesthetic experience of hiking and backpacking is completely original.   The park is majestic, stately, old and green, with huge fir and cedar trees draped with long, thick, shawls of moss.  Nothing like it anywhere else I’ve been.  It’s as if nature went through an ancient steroid era where everything was supersized.   So dense is the forest in some places, it’s dark in the middle of the afternoon, as if a light switch was flipped off, darkening the outside world.  You’ve heard of the Forest Primeval?  Our team of nine climbers and three superb guides from Alpine Ascents hiked through one.

The first day we walked on mostly level ground along the Hoh River for 9.3 miles.  Day two had us encounter the only rain of the trip, which is incredibly lucky, considering the place gets about four times more rain than Seattle.   After mile 10 the elevation builds.  The trailhead back at the parking lot is about 550 feet above sea level, but it rises and rises to just under 8,000 feet at the mountain’s summit.   Day three, summit day, started early, at 1 AM.  We turned on our headlamps at 2 AM and began hiking from Elk Lake toward the Blue Glacier, a massive, icy foothill fronting the snowdome ahead of us.  Once you reach Blue Glacier you pull out the crampons (strap-on claws for the bottom of your boots), rope up, pull your ice axes, and proceed slowly, in four person rope teams, upwards.  After hours of trekking up snow and ice, you’re surprised to see that the actual summit of Olympus is free of both,  a reddish-brown rock spire jutting into the air.  Off come the crampons, the rope is untethered, the ice axe holstered, and you start rock climbing.   The view from the top, with Canada to the west, Seattle to the east, the San Juans to the north and Oregon to the south, is astonishing, but ironically, other peaks block city views of Seattle, as the earth’s curvature has Olympus snugly hidden behind Mt. Anderson and other mountains.    After signing the book at the top, and posing for a few pics, we climbed down to the snow, put our mountaineering gear back on, and slowly walked back down, the snow and ice crunching under our boots down.  Crevices were everywhere.   We made it back to our camp at Elk Lake at 8 pm, capping an 18-hour day.  By way of comparison, summit day on all three of my Rainer climbs was about 13 hours, and that’s all the way back down to the parking lot at Paradise Lodge.

On day four, we had a choice:  hike out leisurely over two days, or try to power out in one.  About half of us decided to go for it. 15.3 miles.  There were families to get back to and memories to share.  Also beer.

There are tougher and taller mountains to climb, but no mountain expedition in the northwest is as demanding:  25 miles of hiking, backpacking (did I mention the 50 lb packs?) and mountain climbing, in four days.  Four spectacular, unforgettable days