ASCENT OF MOUNT OLYMPUS
Length 3.5 mi/5.6 km
Approach Hoh Trail
Length of Approach 1 7.0 mi/27.4 km
Because it was named Mount Olympus by a mariner who spotted it while sailing along the western coast of North America in 1788, the highest peak on the Olympic Peninsula has become the legendary home of the New World's gods, the lodestone or Rome to which all trails on the peninsula lead, the ultimate goal of the mountaineer. When considered in this sense, Olympus becomes not only the focal point on the peninsula but also a symbol of high mountains everywhere. Not everyone who attempts the climb is successful, with the weather generally the deciding factor.
Unlike most high peaks on the peninsula, Olympus is largely devoid of meadowland-where the forest ends, the ice begins. Excluding the mountains in Alaska, Olympus is exceeded in the extent of its glaciers by only two peaks in the United States-Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, both in the Cascade Range. The largest glaciers are the Hoh, White, and Blue. Edward Allen named the latter in 1912. Accompanied by Charles M. Farrer and Earl Rice, he scouted the north side of Olympus to determine the suitability of routing the 1913 summer outing of The Mountaineers via the Hoh River. The men viewed the glacier from the ridge north of Mount Tom.
Hikers and backpackers should bear in mind that the ascent of Olympus is a climb, not a hike, despite the fact that much of the route to the top involves walking. But walking on slippery glacial ice and packed snow (usually frozen icy hard in the morning) is a far cry from simply strolling up a mountain path. No one who has not been properly trained and equipped should attempt to scale the peak, deceptively easy though the climb appears to be.
One feature that climbers sometimes find dismaying: In order to get near enough to the mountain to climb it, one must first backpack 17 miles via the Hoh Trail to Glacier Meadows. Most climbers take two days to negotiate the 17 miles. The first day they backpack 9 miles from the Hoh Ranger Station to Olympus Shelter, at the foot of the mountain. The second day they travel to Glacier Meadows. The first day's 9 miles are almost level; the second day's 8 miles are mostly uphill.
Upon arriving at Glacier Meadows, the climbers have several options. They can camp at the meadows and go to bed with the sun, then rise at the ghastly hour of 3:00 A.M. to begin the ascent, or they can backpack beyond the meadows and camp on the lateral moraine of the Blue Glacier. This course of action permits them to sleep an extra hour or two the next morning. If they are awake at sunrise and/or sunset (some have been known to get in their clothes and climbing gear while half asleep), they can enjoy viewing the mountain bathed in alpenglow. They also have a third option: if they have the necessary stamina, they can backpack on the second day all the way to Caltech Moraine, across the Blue Glacier. This puts them in a position to attain the summit at an early hour, but more than one climbing party has elected to abort the climb and really sleep late the next morning.
The purpose in starting early is to gain the summit before clouds close about the peaks in the afternoon. During good weather the climb is not difficult, but it is hazardous, especially when the crags are shrouded in fog and route finding becomes a nightmare. The mountain is deceptive, the glaciers heavily crevassed. On a hot, clear day, the snowfields are like an oven, but when the weather is stormy, the climber- bundled in several layers of warm clothing-has to contend with the elements. The climb may start in fair weather, under blue skies, with the summit attained in wind, rain, fog, sleet, or snow-and no view other than perhaps a brief glimpse through the clouds. But on clear days the scene is glorious.
At the glaciers edge the climbers rope up while admiring the alpenglow on the upper slopes. The snow is hard and firm, but softens rapidly under the warm sunlight. The glacier's appearance varies from one year to the next, depending on the amount of winter snowfall and summer warmth. By August the lower part is normally free of snow, and the ice revealed-dense, crystalline, deep blue, glowing intensely in the depths of the crevasses. The cold air chills the climbers, making warm clothing a necessity, but now and then warm air from the valley sweeps across the ice.
The glacier, broken by crescentic crevasses, has a gentle grade, and the climber's progress rapidly to Caltech Moraine, located at the base of the Snow Dome. Here they apply sunburn cream and put on dark glasses. Parties planning to ascend the various peaks in this area often camp on the moraine. This allows them to avoid the trek up and down the glacier each day. This site, used by the California Institute of Technology as a base camp when studying the glacier, has a splendid view, plenty of running water, and is free of insects. However, the camp is usually not clear of snow until mid-July, sometimes later.
The climb steepens at this point, but rock outcrops provide roosts along the way where one- can rest while gazing at the icefall, and perhaps observing an avalanche. This wall of jumbled ice blocks is a thousand feet high and a mile wide, extending from the Snow Dome to Glacier Pass. The peaks of Olympus rise above the cirque at its head.
The route then makes a steep ascent of the Snow Dome, and the panorama of the Olympics widens with each upward step. The dome is a mile long by a half-mile wide, and when outlined against the blue sky it is immaculate. The configuration is believed to be due to the underlying rock structure and sculpturing by the wind. On the rocks at the dome's north end, slightly away from the climbing route, stands a hut used by scientists during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58. Not intended to be permanent, it was supposed to have been removed at the conclusion of the studies, eighteen months later, thus leaving the mountain unmarred by man-made structures. However, the research has been extended year after year, and it now appears unlikely that this intrusion on the wilderness will ever be removed. A climbers' high camp is located north of the cabin, at the base of Panic Peak, the rock mass that overlooks the Black Glacier.
Beyond the Snow Dome's crest (6850 ft/2088 m), the route zigzags to avoid crevasses and ascends to a notch (7200 ft/2195 m) in the ridge leading down from West Peak. Here a bergschrund sometimes makes the approach difficult. This break in the snow varies from year to year and may range from 10 to 30 feet in width, more than 100 feet deep. Usually, however, it can be crossed via a snow bridge.
The route now goes across the upper cirque above the icefall. East Peak and Middle Peak are straight ahead; beyond them, countless snow peaks on the horizon, with Mount Rainier shining above the distant haze. Middle Peak can be ascended from this point by crossing the cirque to the peak's west side and climbing directly to the summit. The route to West Peak swings right beneath Five Fingers Peak (7880 ft/2402 m). One can scramble to the top of this false summit, where the view is splendid, but the scene to the west is blocked by West Peak, a wedge like mass of rock rising above the highest snowfield. The route goes left, avoiding the false summit, and traverses ledges of rotten rock to Crevasse Pass, the notch between the two peaks. A steep snow slope, the loftiest in the Olympics, leads to a ledge on the side of West Peak, or one can rock climb directly from Crevasse Pass. The route follows the ledge across the east face to a vertical chimney in a wall about 15 feet high. This is the last obstacle. After climbing this wall, one follows a knife-edge ridge of broken rock to the summit, the highest point on the Olympic Peninsula (7976 ft/2431 m).
Here the climber finds himself in the midst of a sweeping, 360-degree view of the Olympic Mountains. Hundreds of peaks and ridges, streaked with snow, encircle this vantage point. Many have razor-edged crests, others are rounded, but all are splotched with snowfields or glaciers. The lower slopes are heavily timbered. Canyons and valleys, often filled with fog, wind away in all directions through the tangle of peaks. One looks out over unspoiled wilderness-with the sole exception of the IGY hut, no houses, roads, or other signs of civilization are visible.
The slopes of West Peak fall away vertically on every side: north to the Snow Dome, west to the White Glacier, south to the Hubert Glacier, and east down the route just ascended to Crevasse Pass. Across the broad upper cirque tower East Peak and Middle Peak; beyond them are the Cascades, topped by Mount Rainier and Mount Baker; across the South Fork of the Hoh, the Valhallas are prominent, then the Mount Olympus Range dwindles into forested foothills; on the far side of the White Glacier the bulk of Mount Tom is outlined against timbered ridges that stretch endlessly toward the Pacific-a band of misty blue. This is, in fact, one of the few points where one can stand and see both the ocean and Mount Rainier.
Having arrived at the top of this pinnacle, the alpinist should relax and spend some time, not only to savor the view but also to let the imagination have free rein, recalling that this was the sacred abode of an Indian god, the Thunderbird, a realm where no warrior dared to go. The climber can also picture the seafarers who sailed along this coast two hundred years ago, or-more recently-the joy of the climbers from The Mountaineers who made the first ascent in 1907. Looking at the splendor all around, one can appreciate why that crusty old mariner, John Meares, named the peak Olympus because he deemed it a worthy home for the New World's gods.
The descent to Glacier Meadows takes perhaps half as long as the climb. After care- fully climbing down West Peak, which is no place to foozle, one can indulge in a brief but swift glissade on the snow to Crevasse Pass. A much longer one down the Snow Dome follows this to Blue Glacier. But progress is slow on the glacier, where the snow becomes soft during the hot afternoon. Here the sun creates rivulets that flow over the ice in constantly changing patterns, and deep within the glacier unseen streams roar ominously. Many hollows, pools, and crevasses reflect brilliant shades of blue, as do the moulins, vertical "wells" which extend to great depths. Millions of tiny ice worms, looking like inch-long snippets of black thread, wriggle on the snow. After heavy rains, short-lived glacial fountains sometimes appear, playing like miniature geysers.
The East Peak (7780 ft/2371 m) was climbed by using the same approach to the glacier, but instead of ascending the Snow Dome the climbers go directly to Glacier Pass (6100 ft/1859 m), the U-shaped notch between the Blue Glacier and the Hoh Glacier. The route then traverses beneath an icewall on East Peak, where climbers should move rapidly because the ice may avalanche. Better yet, they should descend 600 feet onto the Hoh Glacier to avoid the hazard. The route then ascends the steep slopes of the glacier. Jack McGlone, a member of the Dodwell-Rixon survey party, first climbed East Peak in 1899.
Because it is located between the other two, Middle Peak (7930 ft/2417 m) can be climbed by either route. The west side is a rock climb; the eastern approach is via steep snow almost to the summit. The first ascent of Middle Peak occurred in 1907, when members of the Explorers Club and their guides climbed it by way of the Queers Basin.
West Peak is the goal of every climber who visits the mountain, principally because it is the highest point. However, the supreme Olympic experience is not the climb itself but spending a night on Five Fingers Peak, the flat-topped crag adjacent to West Peak. The climber who sets up camp on this platform at midday need not melt snow for water; while the sun is still high, enough water for cooking and drinking can be collected from the dripping snow banks along the edges of the level area.
As the evening progresses, the changing vistas are incredibly beautiful. When the sun disappears over the Pacific, the alpenglow is striking. The snowy peaks change quickly from white to rosy pink, then red, and finally lavender and purple as the shadows creep up from the deep canyons. With the coming of darkness the stars appear, the lights of Victoria, B.C., flicker faintly, and one can see the beacon lights along the coast. The nights are usually not cold during July and August, but they are inclined to be a little windy. Occasionally a cold breeze blows from the north all night, and the snow is frozen hard in the morning. The day breaks bright, clear, and cold, with fog in the low valleys, clouds in the distance.