Joined: 14 Mar 2006
Posts: 2466 | TRs
"So, how was it?" - the inevitable question all my friends and family asked upon my return, and for which I had no answer. How could I distill such a long, varied, and profound experience into words, let alone a succinct statement? I usually gave them the answer they wanted, or at least expected, to hear: "it was awesome". But it rarely was. More often it was mundane, uncomfortable, stressful, frustrating, at times even painful and scary. I returned with plenty of stories to tell: getting storm-blasted in Queets Basin, swimming with a bear in Hart Lake, traversing up and over Mt. Deception - but they all seemed insignificant in light of the whole.
The seven months from the inception of this journey to its beginning were dominated by planning and dreaming. Never has a goal gripped me with such manic intensity - whether at school, work, or with friends it was always on my mind, underpinning all I experienced with a subtle elation, a buoyant anticipation of adventure and profundity. Some nights, alone at home, I'd get so excited I had to walk it off. I spent many late hours wandering the streets of Wallingford, Capitol Hill, or the Central District in this way, the urban surroundings only sharpening the lure of the wilderness.
I intended to spend most of August and September in the Olympic Mountains, primarily off-trail and above treeline. I would wind my way from the south to the north with significant ventures both east and west; the route as planned totaled roughly 200 miles and 100,000ft of elevation gain. It would push my limits as a backpacker in every way, both in the planning and execution, as I called on all my prior experiences and mistakes to remain safe and happy. I was not always successful in that regard.
A week before the start of my trip, when I thought I had all the logistics finally figured out, major forest fires broke out due to a heat wave and caused the closure of several trails vital to my route. Both the west fork and main fork Dosewallips trails were closed, which together represent the only trail link between the southern portion of the Olympic National Park and the eastern and northern parts. The duration of these closures was unknown and I was unable to come up with suitable alternatives, but I was too committed to postpone or cancel my trip. I would have to accept the uncertainty and be prepared to change my plans on-the-fly.
So in early August I quit my job and left Seattle. My girlfriend, Karla, and my close friend, Gerald, came with me to the Big Creek Campground near Lake Cushman. There we met some of my family, and together we celebrated my 24th birthday and the beginning of my journey. We barbecued bratwurst, drank lots of booze, and stayed up late around the campfire.
Tired, hungry, and lonely, I would often look back on this night. In the following weeks I faced powerful storms, gear failures, logistical problems, fluctuating morale and a close encounter with a pissed off mother bear. I had to make major changes to my route due to bad weather and impassable terrain. Yet ultimately this trip, which I poured so much of myself into, was a huge success. I would prevail on some of the most difficult and committing routes I've ever undertaken, spend days at a time in beautiful alpine basins, summit some of the tallest mountains in the Olympics, and attempt the highest goal I've ever held as a backpacker - a full traverse of the Burke Range.
The following journey is nothing less than the apex of my backpacking career to date.
Week One (Aug. 9-15)
Here we go...
I awoke on August 9th, 2009 - my 24th birthday - with a slight hangover. Outside the trailer my dad and his wife were cleaning up after the little party we'd had at the Big Creek Campground. My stepbrother Cody made bacon and eggs for breakfast while I made my final preparations for the trip. A bittersweet mixture of excitement, nervous anticipation, and sorrow filled my mind - I would be leaving everything behind for a long time. How much would it change while I was gone? How much would I change?
Lake Cushman flickered between tree trunks as Gerald, Karla and I drove to the Staircase Ranger Station. There I said my goodbyes - which were short and undramatic, yet heartfelt - and set out on the North Fork Skokomish trail.
I made good time despite my enormous pack, which was weighed down by two weeks of food, video equipment, clothes, scrambling gear and a luxurious camping setup. Progress slowed as I hiked up to Flapjack Lakes, where I slung off my pack and placed camp just before sunset.
I enjoyed perfect solitude as I watched the last rays of the sun set Sawtooth Ridge aglow. At dusk an owl swooped down over the lake, catching a fish in its talons. As the stars revealed themselves against the darkening sky I reflected on my feelings. I had expected to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the enormity of what lay ahead, but I felt only a calm surrealism.
It felt good to be in the mountains after so long in the city, after so many months of planning, saving, and dreaming. It felt good to breathe the fresh air and enjoy the scents it carried, to feel its coolness on my cheeks and to hear the sounds it brought. I carefully organized my gear for the morning - a habit that wouldn't last long - then rolled out my bivy. An owl's hooting echoed from across the lake as I drifted to sleep.
I awoke to a soft mist filtering through the trees and landing on my face. I got on the trail quickly, expecting it to be a long day - I intended to travel cross-country through Hamma Hamma Basin to Lake of the Angels. I try to avoid off-trail navigation when visibility is low, however, and on this morning I could see no further than a few hundred feet. I hiked the Gladys Divide trail through foggy forest and meadow, spotting the silhouette of a bear as it silently melted into the mist.
It was lightly raining and the brush surrounding the trail was heavy with dew. My rain jacket kept my torso dry but my pants soaked through, bringing a chill. I rested in a talus field at 4900ft, pessimistic about reaching Lake of the Angels through the murk.
As I began to move on at the end of my break I saw a small "cave" just off the trail. There was a deep and well enclosed overhang underneath a massive boulder that looked inviting. I hauled my pack in and sat down, hoping the weather would clear in a couple hours. It didn't, so I ended up staying the night.
The next day I descended from Gladys Divide to Hamma Hamma Basin, which was a steep, difficult bushwack. The first few routes I tried ended in nearly vertical draws or brought me to the edge of a buttress. At times the brush was so thick I couldn't see where I was stepping, and I always had a firmly rooted plant in my grasp in case I slipped on the steep and wet vegetated slopes. Once down to the basin I avoided more bushwacking by donning my crocs and hiking directly in the Hamma Hamma River, which forms a green tunnel through the brush. This worked pretty well until the river swirled into a hole and disappeared underground, leaving me to crash through brush again.
Hamma Hamma Basin
I made my way to a meadow and stopped to plot my course. Before climbing up the slopes of Mt. Skokomish I had to cross 50 yards of dense thicket on the banks of the river. It was a hellish tangle; branches tore at my body and pack as I contorted my way through, hovering above the ground on a mat of branches. Nettles were embedded between the woven limbs, stinging my arms and legs. About 20 minutes after emerging I discovered that my map and water bottle had been torn away and lost during the bushwack.
The ascent to the bench southeast of Mt. Skokomish was long and steep. Clouds rolled in and filled the basin as I climbed out of it. I managed, barely, to avoid any real bushwacking. I arrived at the bench exhausted and placed camp next to a tarn.
Rain forced me to seal up my bivy, which is little more than a sleeping bag cover, around 4am. As dawn approached I planned each move of my packing, then hopped out into the rain and rapidly struck camp. I traveled through fog across talus and snow before descending terraces to Lake of the Angels. I thought about pushing on since it was still early in the day, but with the weather worsening I set up my floorless tent at the lake.
Lake of the Angels
It offered spacious shelter from the rain, which came down hard and kept me in the tent almost all day. I hadn't brought a novel so I read route descriptions from my Olympic climber's guide. It was a boring day, and I was becoming frustrated with my lack of progress: it was only day four and I was already two days behind schedule. But perhaps the poor weather was a blessing - the rain might extinguish the forest fires and allow me to complete the route as planned. My maps revealed no good alternatives.
My next destination was Elk Basin, just south of Mt. Hopper, and with rested legs and good visibility it was an easy day. A boot path can be followed from the southwest corner of the lake to the saddle above, which has a scenic but exposed tent site. From here I scouted two routes: heading right is the short, steep way and involves a 10-15ft inward facing downclimb on dirt and rock; left leads to a long descending traverse with several blowdowns. I opted for the more direct route and carefully descended.
I found a good boot path down to and across a scree field, fading out shortly before the Great Stone Arrow. There one can look down on Hagen Lake, with Jabberwocky Ridge extending north from Mt. Stone above.
Valley of Heaven
The Great Stone Arrow
Mt. Skokomish from Stonesthrow Peak area
From the arrow it was simple hiking. As soon as I reached Elk Basin, a scenic bowl of heather and subalpine fir, it began to rain.
At the first break in the weather I left my tent and tried to do some exploring. I thought I could smell a campfire; wondering if I had neighbors I followed the scent to its source. What I found was an empty tent site with a campfire still smoldering, having spread several feet outside the fire ring. I spent the next half-hour collecting water from a stream and dumping it in the area until the soil was saturated and the fire was out. Some jackass had performed a trifecta of campfire stupidity: building a fire in a sensitive subalpine area, failing to completely put it out, and doing so during a burn ban triggered by the worst wildfire season in Olympic history. I reported it to the next Ranger I saw, which wasn't for another week.
put out your damn fires!
Dawn broke with clear skies and I quickly stuffed some essentials in a small summit pack. The weather had already forced me to abandon attempts of Mt. Skokomish and Mt. Stone - I jumped on this opportunity to summit Mt. Hopper.
I easily ascended the south ridge to an unforgettable view. There were low clouds over Puget Sound and around the base of The Brothers, brilliantly glowing white puffs under the morning sun. The mountains shone a rich green and gold from their forested bases and a greyish maroon from their rocky peaks. Low grey clouds drifted amongst the summits and over foggy valleys. The air was perfectly still, the only sound a faint roar of rivers far, far below me. I sat in quiet reverence, soaking in the first big view of the trip and looking ahead to the terrain I would visit in the upcoming weeks.
It's one thing to view a multi-week route on a map, compressed into two-dimensions and shrunken to the size of a computer monitor. It's quite another to stand on a mountaintop and trace your route between the widely scattered peaks which you plan to summit, to see them rise thousands of feet from their bases and feel the immense volume between them. My ambition spanned from horizon to horizon - how many steps would it take? A million? More?
Sunshine warmed my face as a euphoria developed within me. This is it. I'm here. It's happening. The journey I'd dreamed so much about was becoming reality.
morning on Mt. Hopper
I descended, broke camp, and headed along the Hopper Way Trail to First Divide. The morning sunbreak was only a tease; I hiked underneath a low overcast. I finished the day with a stroll past Home Sweet Home to Camp Duckabush, stopping frequently to munch on blueberries.
I felt weak the next day as I slogged up the Duckabush trail to O'Neil Pass. I had intended to continue to Lake Ben but with low clouds rolling in yet again I bailed. Instead I hiked up to a broad spot on the ridge southeast of the pass and found a place to bivy. When I went to sleep visibility was only 50ft - I'd had mediocre weather the entire trip, and my morale was falling.
Week Two (August 16th to 22nd)
When I next awoke the sky was clear, moonless, and full of stars. The Milky Way floated directly overhead while Jupiter shone brightly in the south. The sky was dark and saturated with stars, making for incredible stargazing. I couldn't resist the weight on my eyelids, however, and soon I was back asleep.
I awoke to an amazing view featuring a shadowy LaCrosse basin against Mt. Anderson and the Burke Range, which were beginning to light up by the first rays of the sun. I sipped tea as the alpenglow crept downwards and transformed into warm golden sunshine, eventually reaching my campsite and filling me with happiness.
Overlook Pk alpenglow
warm golden sunshine
Olympus in the distance
Anderson Massif above LaCrosse Basin
I retraced the previous day's hike until reaching Marmot Lake, where I turned uphill to Hart Lake. It was only noon when I arrived, and I had the rest of the day to relax and enjoy the warm, sunny weather. I began with a swim in the dark blue, surprisingly warm lake.
down the smoky Duckabush
floating on Hart Lake
Using my inflatable sleeping pad as a raft I lazily floated and soaked up the sun. A breeze cooled my skin and slowly spun my raft around as the water undulated below. Closing my eyes I heard only the lapping of the lake and the rustling of trees in the wind.
I occasionally opened my eyes, taking a few moments to adjust to the summer afternoon light, to enjoy views of the surrounding meadows and mountains. Once I spotted a bear browsing on a slope above the lake; using my palms as oars I rowed closer for a better look. As I did so the bear descended to the lake shore, and only 50ft away from me it got in the lake and took a dip as well!
For the next day and a half I explored the basin's peaks, lakes and meadows. I burned through camera batteries, spotted bear, elk and goat, and enjoyed my first stretch of perfect weather.
Hart Lake cave
Mt. Duckabush from Hart Lake
on the Quinault/Duckabush divide
posing in front of Burke Range
approaching Overlook Peak
Hart Lake camp
the photogenic Mt. Steel
Duckabush from LaCrosse
Steel above the smokey valley
I left the basin by dropping down the Hart Lake way trail, which faded out before intersecting the O'Neil Pass trail. I continued down the scenic path to White Creek and began the hike up to Anderson Pass. The biting flies were ferocious here; I was slapping them by the twos and threes and must have killed fifty flies in five minutes yet still more came.
I had originally hoped to traverse around Mt. Anderson to the Hanging Glacier area, go up and over Diamond Mountain and out to the Dosewallips trail via Hidden Creek. I would meet my dad and his wife Joanne at the Dosewallips Road washout for a resupply, then head up to Lake Constance, traverse to Home Lake via Warrior Cirque, and maybe bag a few summits on the way.
But at Anderson Pass a sign indicated the Dosewallips trails and road were still closed. Having scoured my maps for the past week I had only one reasonable, though still unsatisfactory, option - I would have to backtrack to White Creek, hike out via the East Fork Quinault trail and be driven around to the eastern Olympics, picking up my intended route again in Deception Basin.
It would be a crude interruption and drastically change the aesthetic of the journey, but I didn't have a choice. I might have bushwacked down Silt Creek to the upper Dose trail, which was still open, and then made my way to one of the northeastern trailheads, but I didn't have enough food and it would require a total rethinking of the second leg of my trip. No, I would have to go out the Quinault. One of my original goals was still within reach, however, so I hiked up the Anderson Moraine way trail.
The Anderson Moraine area is incredibly scenic. I explored the glacial lake and its outlet area, where a powerful current cascades through a gorge to become the East Fork Quinault River. Before moving on I called my dad with a rented satellite phone to inform him of the change in plans.
from Anderson Moraine
Hiking east from the moraine, then north, I made my way to the two small lakelets south of Mt. Anderson and setup camp. What a peaceful place!
In the morning I packed a summit bag and began the climb of Mt. Anderson. I ascended north up easy heather and talus before climbing a brushy class 3 gully. I crossed a moderate snowfield, where my Microspikes and ice ax came in handy for the first time, then continued up talus. There was another small snowfield just before the simple summit block.
looking back on the lakelets
on Anderson's upper slopes
Mt. Anderson is located deep in the interior of the mountains and is one of the highest peaks in the range, so of course the view was stunning - in nearly all directions I could see to the very border of the national park. The dramatic Eel Glacier was directly below, above which rose rugged spires and the imposing face of West Peak. Beyond the smoke-filled Duckabush Valley, Mt. Rainier was unusually crisp. To the west I could look down on the rainforest, to the east on the rain shadow. It was my first Olympic 7000er, and it was spectacular.
SE Olys from Anderson
Deception and Mystery
to the southwest
Leaving Anderson Lakelets the next morning I took an alternate route back to the moraine by heading due west to a saddle. It was less scenic but navigationally simple. From the moraine I hiked down to the idyllic Enchanted Valley, taking a three-hour rest break in the sunny meadow by the Chalet, then continued into the beautiful old growth forest along the river.
beginning of the EF Quinault
Enchanted Valley meadow
It was my 12th day out and the wilderness was beginning to wear on me. I wanted real food and clean socks, to sleep in late and be lazy and watch movies. I wanted to go home, but I wasn't even close to finished.
A scenic two-day stroll down the river brought me to the rendezvous where I enjoyed fresh strawberries, an IPA, and tons of Cheetos. A series of gear failures and losses - involving both of my water containers and my sleeping pad - meant that I could not simply be dropped off at another trailhead. I would have to return to civilization to borrow or purchase new supplies, and would take the opportunity to research my new route through the NE Olympics. Besides, I wanted a break from the wilderness, if only for a single night.
from Pony Bridge
Cars and semis flew by as my dad, Joanne and I drove up Highway 101. The ubiquitous Twilight marketing in Forks was nauseating. I was happy to have company, though, and I gorged on junk food as we chatted and drove to my dad's house in Poulsbo. Karla came over from Seattle as well.
I took a long, hot shower, gorged on fresh food, reviewed my video footage, and relished the simple decadence of civilization. Thirsty? No need to ration my water intake between streams, or to wait for chlorine dioxide to purify it. Hungry? The fridge and pantry were stuffed. Climate control, smooth hardwood floors, plush sofa, big screen TV...but so little time to enjoy it all, and so many preparations to make before my return to the mountains.
Week Three (August 23rd to 29th)
In the morning I quickly packed, borrowing some gear from my dad to replace what had been lost, broken, or simply wasn't working. Unfortunately I had to leave my Exped Downmat, my all-time favorite piece of gear, behind for the rest of the trip. The down insulation had been leaking into the valves and clogging them for the past few days, and it eventually became impossible to deflate. In exchange I borrowed a less warm and less comfortable foam pad. Grateful though I was, I would sleep colder and much less comfortably for the rest of the trip. Having the huge pad strapped to my pack made bushwacking and scrambling more difficult as well.
My original route was, with the exception of a few miles, entirely within the national park. Due to the fires, however, I decided to spend most of the third week touring the Buckhorn Wilderness of the national forest. I wasn’t very excited about it; I had been to almost all the locations before, and would much rather have explored Hidden Creek and scrambled around the Constance Massif. I was basically killing time until I could rejoin my original route and complete the trip as planned.
So in the early afternoon I was dropped off at the busy Mt. Townsend trailhead. I uneventfully hiked to Camp Windy, where the only source of water is a mucky pond. I had to backtrack nearly half a mile and 500ft of elevation to a decent water source.
I enjoyed a sunny, peaceful morning on Mt. Townsend. The Cascades were layed out from St. Helens to Baker, but Puget Sound was hidden by low clouds.
Deception/Needles from Townsend
beautiful views from the ridge
Rainier on the horizon
I descended back to Camp Windy and packed my gear away, then continued toward Silver Lake. I took a side trip to scramble Welch Peaks, slipping on the return and bending one of my hiking poles. Crap! I would miss that pole for the rest of the journey.
I jumped off the diving rock and swam around Silver Lake for a bit, but it felt forced. I dried off in the sun, wishing I was at Lake Constance instead. It almost felt like the real trip was on pause, and I couldn't wait to rejoin my original route.
The following day I headed off-trail to Tull Canyon, hiking up a talus field into the clouds before dropping down to the remains of an old mining town and the wreckage of a WWII bomber. I placed camp that night by the Tubal Cain mine, and before retiring to my tent I donned my helmet and headlamp to explore the mine shaft that penetrates deep underneath Mt. Worthington. Behind me the mine entrance shrank to a pinhole of light, eventually disappearing as the shaft gradually, almost imperceptibly, curved.
Tubal Cain Mine
Turning off my headlamp left me in essentially complete darkness. There was, however, the vague illusion of vision - I thought I could see the mine walls, but reaching out I felt nothing but damp air; I thought I could see my blue hiking shirt, but realized I was wearing a black rain jacket. I sat down in a dead-end side tunnel and listened to some ambient music, contemplating my presence within a mountain. Later I continued down the main shaft to a point where water gushed out of the rock above. I turned back, the pinhole of light reappearing and slowly expanding.
The next day found me on the summit of Mt. Buckhorn; the views were as spectacular as I remembered. Just south was Mt. Warrior in front of the Constance Massif. Del Monte Ridge stretched westward to a dense collection of 7000ers in the Deception/Needles area. To the east I again enjoyed expansive views of the Cascades, plus the Puget Sound and Kitsap Peninsula. With my binoculars I watched cars cross the Hood Canal Bridge, and recalled my wild yet formative teens at the sight of Bainbridge Island. In the sound I spotted an oil tanker and watched a ferry sail from Edmonds.
The clear view of Seattle - home - left me longing to return to city life. The sight of Capitol Hill reminded me of weekend nights at bars, the University District of early mornings on campus. My binoculars made their way back to that view of the city again and again as I thought of Karla and my friends. But my immediate future lay in the opposite direction, westward, into the heart of the Olympic Mountains.
Rainier at sunset
That night I bivied high on the shoulder of Mt. Buckhorn, a strong wind whipping and keeping me half-awake by its noise and chill.
looking down on Marmot Pass
The following afternoon, after descending into the valley below, I hiked up the lonely, pleasant Heather Creek trail. Sunbeams through the foliage created a green mosaic of light and shadow on the forest floor. The trail became more challenging after crossing the river on a newly installed footlog; I was slogging along the final mile before camp when I was startled into awareness by a loud scraping noise. I looked up and saw a bear cub climbing straight up a tree trunk.
My first thought - get the camera out - was quickly interrupted by my second - where's momma? I started backing off, eyes wide. Feeling vulnerable I rapidly slung my pack off and retrieved my ice axe. Before I could put my pack back on and get further away the mother broke out of the brush only 30ft uphill from me. She huffed aggressively and postured; I left my pack on the ground and slowly backed away. I waited several hundred yards down the trail, returning to my pack a half hour later. I uneventfully finished the day's hike, ending at a small tent site by the creek.
The next day was difficult but straightforward, and finally put me back on my original route. I hiked from the Heather Creek trail's dead end up steep slopes to Deception Basin, a large alpine bowl underneath some of the tallest mountains in the Olympics. I descended through the basin in search of a campsite but options were limited; I was being especially picky because I intended to stay here for the next three nights. I found a site on the shore of a large, silty lake beneath Mt. Mystery. Wind and hard rain beat at my tent as I tried to sleep.
first view of Deception Basin
I awoke to blue skies, and after throwing together a day pack I set off for the summit of Mystery. I ascended slopes NE of Mystery Glacier on very loose scree then scrambled over a minor summit to the head of the glacier. From there I headed west, slowly progressing up steep, loose slopes. Finally onto solid rock I ascended a gully above the Lobster Claw, a small rock pinnacle with a likely name. The gully was snowless and I had to climb a couple of difficult rock steps. I found an easier route down, descending the face just north of Mystery's main peak to a ledge which angles back to the Lobster Claw.
Mt. Mystery towering above camp
sunbreak on Deception
the upper basin
Constance Massif and Heather Ck. Basin
a peek at Little Mystery
looking back down at camp
looking down the steep gully
I was happy to scratch another "big one" off the list but I can't say I enjoyed the climb.
Week Four (August 30th to September 5th)
I spent the entire next day lounging around camp and reading, enjoying perfect weather as the hot sun competed with a cool breeze blowing down the glacier and across the lake. In the evening I turned my binoculars to Jupiter, which, adorned by its four Galilean moons, looked like a miniature solar system.
The following day I jaunted up Hal Foss and Fricaba, two easy 7000ers at the head of Deception Basin, before striking camp and hopping over the ridge to bivy in upper Royal Basin.
from Hal Foss
from Hal Foss 2
I rose before dawn the next morning and, carrying all my gear and supplies, began up the steep, loose slopes of Mt. Deception. It was an exhausting slog, the loose terrain ferrying me backwards and downwards.
Deception/Martin saddle at dawn
I eventually reached the Deception-Martin saddle, the low point just north of Mt. Deception. Rock spires rose above a heavily crevassed glacier which filled the basin below. The sound of rockfall was almost constant; sometimes it was a solitary stone echoing down a gully, at other times large blocks of talus bounced off of each other as they thundered down to the ice below. Once a cacophonous rumble filled the basin, the vibrations simultaneously triggering several smaller rockfalls, as a chunk of mountain sheared off near Gilhooley Tower.
sh##ty slope to Deception/Gilhooley saddle
It's an intense alpine setting where geology happens in real-time; I cautiously descended into this dynamic landscape. I traversed loose talus above the glacier to the shelter of an overhang. After a rest I worked my way up a short slope of ice, using holds in the nearby rock as much as possible.
I was just a couple moves away from the top of the ice but the rock to my left offered no more holds. The run out below me was a disastrous slide to the glacier. I was getting scared and hesitating, lingering in the danger zone. Downclimbing seemed even scarier, though, so I psyched myself up and carefully made the last moves.
Topping out I was filled with relief. I was still in hazardous terrain, but the worst was over. I continued along more loose talus and then began up a very steep slope of loose dirt and rock. Holds frequently gave way here. At last I reached the Deception-Gilhooley saddle, where I was back on reasonably solid ground.
From the saddle it was an easy walk on gentle talus slopes to the rounded summit. Mt. Deception is the second highest mountain and third highest peak in the Olympics, higher than all but the west and middle peaks of Mt. Olympus. From this vantage point I traced the route that had gotten me here and looked ahead to the one I would follow out - the end still so far away. Rather than discourage me, however, I was excited. I enjoyed these one-day scrambles and frequently traveled off-trail routes but I was hungry for something bigger, and the real meat and potatoes lay ahead.
Mystery from Deception
Deception Basin and beyond
down the Needles
Gilhooley and the NE Olys
After a short break I headed back to the Gilhooley saddle and traversed talus to a pass just east of Deception, crossing into the upper Graywolf River drainage. I should have been exhausted but I was buoyed up by an intense runner's high. I made short work of the obstacles in the way and was soon on the Graywolf trail. I only followed it for a couple hundred yards before cutting off-trail once again, climbing up past a series of scenic tarns and dropping down to Cedar Lake.
a look back
backside of the Needles
on the way up to Cedar Lake
My tour of the eastern Olympics was coming to a close, and I was about to head far off-trail and deep into the interior of the Olympics. But first I needed to resupply, so the following day I hiked along the scenic Graywolf River, through gorgeous old-growth forest, to Three Forks. The previous day's exertions had drained my energy and I bonked hard during the slow struggle from Three Forks up to Deer Park, a trailhead and campground above 5000ft in the NE Olympics. There I met up with my dad and Joanne. I enjoyed fast food and soda before organizing and packing the food and supplies I would need. I found this chore to be really stressful after weeks of simple wilderness living.
The final leg of my trip would be the longest and most rugged. Weighed down by a huge burden of food I would have no room in my pack for luxuries - I sorted through my equipment, ridding it of all that was unnecessary. I would miss my full-size binoculars, but concluded my iPod was an essential.
As I began to recharge my electronics using a car adapter I realized I'd made a terrible mistake: after recharging batteries in Poulsbo I had neglected to put my point-and-shoot camera's recharger back in my resupply bin. I would have to complete the trip with the one fresh battery remaining from my last resupply. I took pictures very sparingly for the rest of the journey.
I said goodbye to my dad and Joanne, wishing I could return to the comforts of civilization with them. I stayed at the Deer Park campground that night, kept up late by the loud music and hollering of a nearby group of party-goers.
In the morning I shouldered my 60lb+ pack and slowly made my way back down to Three Forks. There I passed a young couple on the trail; they were the last people I would see for almost two weeks. I ended the day at Camp Ellis, an inviting grove of hemlock and cedar next to the Graywolf River.
The following day I struggled under my burden to Cedar Lake, finally prepared to push into the interior. That night the clouds unleashed a deluge and strong winds whipped my tent, keeping me half-awake - it was the beginning of the Labor Day Weekend storm.
I roused in the middle of the night and reached for my headlamp so I could check the time - my hand instead dipped into water. I quickly fished out the light, which is thankfully waterproof, and turned it on to find myself at the center of a puddle. My sleeping pad was fully submerged.
I tore down my tent and moved everything over ten feet, getting soaked by the downpour in the process. I had repitched my tent on a slope where no puddle could form, but water streamed through in rivulets as the rain pounded down. It was 4am.
I stayed put the next day, hoping I could wait out the weather and traverse across Mt. Cameron to Lost Pass; the weather only worsened.
Week Five (September 6th to 12th)
I had been in the Graywolf drainage for the last five days and a depressive funk was setting in due to my lack of progress. My last real achievement was summiting Mt. Deception, already almost a week ago. I wanted the Cameron traverse so badly but I couldn't afford, logistically or psychologically, another day cooped up in the tent waiting out weather.
So with fingers crossed I unzipped the door to see what the weather would allow for the day. Surprise - it was snowing. It was mixed with rain down at Cedar Lake and melting on impact, but higher up the mountains were receiving a dusting.
I packed and began to retrace the route between Cedar Lake and Graywolf Pass. The wet brush along the lake shore soaked me through within the first ten minutes of hiking. Great.
Snowflakes silently floated downwards as I climbed up from the lake, the snow blanketing the talus and turning cairns into wintry pagodas. It was a serene and relaxing hike - until I came across the tracks of a mountain lion. They were just beginning to collect snow again; they had been made mere minutes before. My eyes searched for motion, a feline silhouette, or a tail extending from behind a boulder, but found nothing out of place. Trusting in my good kitty-karma I continued upward.
A cold blast of air greeted me at the unnamed pass above Cedar Lake and windblown sleet assaulted my face and knees - the only places I had left bare skin exposed. I received a pelting as I made my way to Graywolf Pass, where the wind was blowing so fiercely I had to lean hard into it to remain upright. I dropped into the Dosewallips drainage and hiked directly to the Bear Camp shelter. It was claustrophobic and leaky, but it offered shelter from the wind and the chance to at least partially dry out.
In the morning I found that leaving the Graywolf hadn't shaken me free of the depressive funk - it was even worse. I no longer looked forward to each day, and lacked motivation for even the simplest tasks. It took me forty-five minutes to put on my clothes and tie my boots, each step taking great mental effort and separated from the next by several minutes of blank-minded staring. I didn't get on the trail until 2pm; luckily I didn't have far to go, stopping in a meadow just beneath Hayden Pass.
I was finally in position to attempt the centerpiece route of this journey. All I needed now was a break from the long string of bad weather.
I awoke in the middle of the night to a promising sign - the shadow of a fir limb cast against my tent by moonlight. I went outside and looked up into a clear, starry sky. A large gibbous moon was perched high in the south and its light set the surrounding snow-dusted mountains aglow. I began to feel happy and excited for the first time in a while.
I set off in the morning with perfect weather and quickly ascended to Hayden Pass. The ridge which runs from there to the Anderson Massif, dividing Silt Creek from the Hayes River, penetrates deep into the trailless interior and is an essentially untouched region of the park. Maps and aerial photos suggested a complete traverse was possible but my mind was filled with uncertainties as I started along the high, scenic ridgeline.
snow-dusted view below Sentinal Peak
Silt Ridge and Anderson Massif
At the top of Sentinal's Sister I rested and absorbed the surrounding wild landscape. On the south side of the ridge I looked down on a hawk as it swooped over meadows, scanning for prey, while the barks and howls of coyotes echoed up from the valley below. On the north side a pair of bear siblings rolled around in a blueberry meadow as the deep, slow croak of a raven reverberated. In all directions the rich green landscape extended to distant horizons, occasionally separated from the sky by the sunlit brilliance of snow-dusted peaks.
At one of the more rugged points on the ridge I was forced to descend. I tried to contour underneath a buttress but a hidden rock rib extends from it, creating a barrier that left me with no choice but to descend a thousand feet. I encountered dense, difficult bushwacking. Every inch of progress was a struggle as stout branches pushed me back and threatened to throw me off-balance on the steep terrain. Wet, mossy talus offered slippery footing.
The level of commitment and self-reliance required of this route began to weigh on me. Doubts arose. It was the 31st day of my trip, and the difficulties and inconveniences of the last month seemed to be culminating in my mind. The anxiety was almost overwhelming.
As I fought through the brush a lucid vision popped into my head - I was in my girlfriend's kitchen; I opened a cupboard and selected one of many crystal-clear, neatly organized glasses. I turned on the faucet and filled the glass with clear, clean water. My bare feet contacted cool, immaculate tile as I left the kitchen. Entering the living room my feet sunk into plush warm carpet. Glass in hand I sat on the couch, put an arm around my girlfriend, and turned on the TV. Such a simple order of events seemed impossibly luxurious.
A bug flew into my eye, startling me from my daydream. I was surrounded in all directions by at least 20 miles of mountains, indifferent wilderness where everything was a struggle and everything was dirty. For the first time I seriously considered quitting. In a matter of days I could be back in the city, enjoying hot showers and fresh food, cold beer and the company of my friends.
Sapped of morale I stopped at the first viable tent site I could find. I sat down on the rocky ground and began to let my body and mind recover from the day when I heard a large animal approaching through the forest. I turned around as a bear entered the clearing a mere 30ft away from me. It froze, making eye contact. Still sitting I spoke softly, expecting it to turn and run away as bears tend to do. It remained frozen and staring hard. A tense period of time passed - perhaps as long as thirty seconds - and still it stood motionless, eyes locked onto me.
This was unusual behavior in my experience - perhaps it had never seen a human before and didn't know what to make of me. Whatever the reason I wanted it to leave. I slowly reached for my pack, doing my best to keep an eye on the bear, and retrieved my ice axe. I stood up and spoke more aggressively in the hopes of scaring it away - no response. I waved my arms and shouted loudly - still it stared, unflinching. I considered grabbing a handful of rocks and throwing them at the bear to scare it, but ultimately decided not to pick a fight. At a loss for what to do I crouched down, non-threatening but ready. At last the bear broke it's intense stare and groaned loudly. Finally beginning to walk away it huffed and groaned until out of sight.
A couple of days later I reached Iceberg Lakes, two sparkling jewels nestled on a ridge at six thousand feet. The views were expansive yet dominated by an up-close of Mt. Anderson and West Peak. Eel Glacier spills out from between them and produces Silt Creek; far below, the lush valley draws the eye beyond layers of ridges and the surrounding peaks to the distant giants in the east.
down Silt Creek
final traverse to Iceberg Lakes
West Peak above Iceberg Lakes
In the evening I sat on a nearby knoll, casually observing the terrain while waiting for the sunset to cast alpenglow on the Anderson Massif. After so long in the mountains this was perfectly ordinary - I was practically bored, perceiving my surroundings "only dimly, through a veil of thought".
Suddenly I was snapped out of my absent-mindedness and overcome by the beauty of the moment. How many years had I stared at this spot on the map and dreamed of being here, guessing at the blueness of the lakes or the greenness of the valley; the height of the mountains and the depth of the views? Being such a remote destination it had always seemed out of reach, a goal to be put off for a tomorrow that never comes. And here I was, after days of bushwacking and scrambling, triumphant in this achievement and within striking distance of an even greater goal.
The past several weeks of adventures and achievements passed through my mind and stirred my emotions before my attention returned to the present. I felt an acute awareness of the vastness of my surroundings and my depth within the wilderness. The landscape was now beginning to light up by the filtered beams of the setting sun and I rapidly turned my head to appreciate the views in each direction. A huge grin formed on my face before my jaw went slack, gaping in amazement. I was soon laughing and shouting for joy as wave after wave of deep euphoria washed over me.
No longer any room in my consciousness for thoughts my entire being became saturated with bliss. Every aching muscle, every negative emotion, every bad memory and concern for the future disappeared from my awareness; there was only now, only happiness - pure spiritual joy on the deepest levels. I can say with total conviction it was the happiest I've ever been.
The endorphin rush ebbed as the last of the sunset faded. Shooting stars occasionally streaked the sky, beyond which the Milky Way gradually revealed itself. In just a few short days my morale had inverted, as had the weather, and I eagerly looked forward to the rest of my trip. Yet the following day, I knew, would be among the most physically demanding.
The Hayes River valley is trailless and the basin at its head is about as isolated as it gets in the Olympics; I descended into it, carefully picking my way down extremely steep scree and talus. I encountered exposed scrambling up a rock rib, rappelling down the other side on the limbs of Alaska Cedar. A long descent on steep, slick grass - which even dry proved treacherous – led to the bottom.
Hayes River Basin
In the basin I found plane wreckage; hundreds of pieces of metal were scattered about. In the 1970s forum member Bright River made an epic journey through this area - according to her husband it was a Navy fighter jet that had crashed. I found a variety of plane fragments, but the prize piece, the nose cone from which Bright River and her husband scavenged parachute cord to rappel off of during an intense descent to the East Fork Quinault, eluded me. Yet I was still happy to have this intersection between our two trips, making the isolation a bit less lonely.
It was already late in the day but I felt strong and so began up the east face of Crystal Peak. I was unsure of exactly what the route would entail; to my knowledge this ascent had been made just once before.
looking back from the base of Crystal Peak
I climbed directly up steep heather and rock which was long and tiring but straightforward. The scrambling along the summit ridge was initially too difficult, so I cautiously traversed the top of an icy snowfield. My mini ice ax had been great for bushwacking, where a longer ax strapped to my pack would have snagged branches constantly, but I found myself wishing for something more substantial here. Across the snowfield some challenging but fun scrambling gained the summit ridge.
on Crystal's upper slopes
At the top I enjoyed one of the most expansive views I'd seen in all the Olympics. The Elwha Valley drew my eye north to Vancouver Island; gazing east I mentally traced my route along Silt Ridge. To the west was a fiercely shimmering band on the horizon - the Pacific Ocean ablaze under the setting sun. What I couldn't take my eyes off, however, was the Burke Range. It was so close now.
Just below Crystal Peak
I wish I could have stayed up there longer, but I had a steep and loose descent to negotiate before dark. While I carefully picked my way down the south face the surrounding landscape transitioned from a warm, vibrant orange to an intense pink. I reached Upper Crystal Lake at dusk. There wasn't enough light to hike around the lake to a decent campsite, so I excavated and graded a bivy site on the talus slope above the lake.
It was a windy and uncomfortable night; I slept poorly, my mind heavy with the thought of what lay ahead.
Above the East Fork Quinault River lies a land that has been calling my name - literally - for years: The Burke Range. It stretches from Muncaster Mountain to Mt. Watterson, beginning with huge rolling meadows in lake-dotted terrain and ending in jagged narrow ridgeline. In the spring hundreds of waterfalls cascade to the rainforest below, cutting deeply into its southeastern aspect, forming impossibly steep gullies and formidable buttresses. To the northwest are the Godkin and Rustler Creek drainages, each a dense jungle of brush and box canyons.
The southern Burke Range sees only a few parties each year; the northern Burke Range has only seen a few parties since Olympic exploration began. It's a miniature terra incognita suspended above the Enchanted Valley, a realm isolated by topography. What adventures and discoveries lie in wait, hidden beyond miles of brush and thousands of feet of cliffs?
This was the climax of my journey, the original inspiration and the focal point around which the entire trip had been planned. Yet the Burke Range was not just the inspiration and climax of this trip; I had the range in mind when I first set out to learn off-trail navigation and scrambling. It has always been there to tempt my ambition and force me to think bigger - it does not accommodate timidity. In a way, it was the inspiration and climax of my hiking career to date.
Each skill I'd learned and every experience I'd had would culminate the next day as I attempted to traverse the jagged, exposed stretch of ridgeline between Pt. 6369 and Bicentennial Peak (which some of us interested in the range have begun calling Gnarly Ridge). It's the most difficult and dangerous portion of the Burke Range, a narrow triple-pronged ridgecrest with cliffs dropping away hundreds of feet on either side.
Gnarly Ridge at 15x (from earlier in 2009)
The Olympic climber's guide vaguely hints at a route across the south face. After years of studying photos and searching for information I had failed to discern a route that looked viable. I knew one existed though, however insane it might be, and the call was too strong. I had to go find out.
The next morning I set off from Upper Crystal Lake, ascending to the top of a snowfield and traversing beneath Mt. Watterson. The long, strenuous hike of the day before had left me feeling weak and I took frequent breaks. I struggled up the loose talus to the Godkin/East Fork Quinault divide, where the landscape tumbles steeply to the river thousands of feet below. A knot of anxiety began to form in my stomach as I traversed the narrow ridgeline and ascended exposed slopes to the summit of Pt. 6369.
This was the moment I had been dreading and dreaming of, the make-or-break opportunity to realize my dream of a Burke Range traverse. I would soon have my first up-close view of Gnarly Ridge. Would a straightforward route reveal itself, or would I find sheer cliffs?
I reached the top of Pt. 6369 and gazed westward. Just ahead on the ridge was a notch where two gullies meet, forming a narrow walkway with sheer drops on either side. Beyond that was a short pitch of class 4 rock; above that, slopes of scree and dirt so steep a slip could easily become an unstoppable tumble toward the succession of cliffs below.
I might have been able to make it past those obstacles, but what lay beyond? Most of the difficult terrain ahead was hidden from view, a gauntlet of dangers that I wouldn't be able to see and evaluate until I was committed. With uncertainty compounding the already large risk I couldn't justify continuing.
My vision for the journey, formed over months of map reading and day dreaming, slowly shattered. I rested on the summit, the beautiful weather and views tainted bittersweet.
I descended back to Watterson Basin, the bowl just south of Crystal Lakes, and set up camp. I had planned to spend eight days in the Burke Range, exiting over Mt. Delabarre to Low Divide - what now? I evaluated my options and decided I wasn't ready to give up on the Burkes. Earlier in the day I'd seen a route that looked impossible in maps and aerial photos but just might work. Tomorrow, a second chance.
the deep interior from Watterson Basin
Without judgement what would we do? We would be forced to look at ourselves...
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Joined: 14 Mar 2006
Posts: 2466 | TRs
|Week Six (September 13th to 19th)
The new route led up a steep talus slope to the southwest. It had looked too steep and appeared to lead only to cliffs, but the day before I spied the opening of a gully. I couldn't be sure, but perhaps it would allow me to bypass the most difficult part of the ridge, traversing underneath before regaining the crest.
I descended a headwall to the talus via rock slabs and steep bushwacking. The talus was small and tended to roll out from under one of my feet at the exact moment I committed my weight to it; it was a slow, tiring, and frustrating ascent.
It wasn't any better in the narrow gully. Loose scree and talus kept progress slow and forced me to remain in the center, where I had to climb frequent rock steps. It kept looking like it would get easier up above but climbing upward I found it just as hard. A couple times the loose layer of scree on which I was fighting for traction slid out from under me, leaving me exposed on rock slabs with few features to take advantage of.
It began to look like the gully wouldn't bypass the gnarly ridgecrest after all but instead lead me directly to it, where prudence would force me to descend back down the way I came. I was only a third of the way up the gully and already faced a difficult descent. Each step upwards made the return trip a little riskier, and it was adding up quickly - too quickly for what was probably a dead-end route. Begrudgingly I decided to turn around, knowing there would be no third chance.
I slowly made my way back to Watterson Basin, a sense of disillusionment setting in. What now? My biggest goal of the trip had ended in failure. I felt no motivation, the days ahead seeming something to endure rather than enjoy. Without a climax it appeared my journey would simply fizzle out at the end.
The following day I returned to Upper Crystal Lake. I took a long rest there before setting up camp at Lower Crystal Lake, feeling really depressed.
The day after I hiked north along Norton Ridge. I could gaze up Godkin Creek to the Burke Range - still beckoning, teasing me with views of the remote interior.
looking towards the exact center of ONP
The ridge was wild and peaceful, with meadow, talus, and fir competing for dominance. The bugling of elk frequently echoed from below. I passed by several tarns and spotted a few bears browsing in the high, scenic meadows. In one meadow I spotted a bull elk sleeping next to a tarn, Mt. Olympus rising in the distance beyond.
I had hoped to climb Mt. Norton but I was short on time, so I descended beside Leitha Creek for a couple miles and several thousand feet to reach the Elwha River trail.
Trail. It had been eight days since I'd left the trail at Hayden Pass, and I hadn't seen so much as a bootpath until now. I was struck by how flat it was. I confidently and effortlessly strode down the lane, finally free of my intense concentration on foot placement. When I came to a switchback I nearly laughed at the absurdity of such a convenience.
At Camp Wilder I met a couple Forest Service workers who were measuring trees in the Godkin drainage. They were the first people I'd seen in 12 days - I pestered them with conversation.
The next day was a short, lazy hike upriver to Chicago Camp. I've hiked between these camps six times now - it's a truly spectacular stretch of trail. It's quiet, lonely, and deep in the Elwha Valley. The huge columns of Douglas-firs rise above a lush understory of Vanilla Leaf and ferns. On this day the only sounds were the creaks and groans of swaying trees and the rush of the river, muffled by mist.
I spent a chilly night at Chicago Camp then hiked up to Elwha Basin, getting soaked by wet brush. After crossing the Elwha I followed a bootpath over a spur ridge and began the difficult ascent to Dodwell-Rixon Pass. I sidehilled along the NE slope of the huge ravine, above the emaciated fragments of the Elwha Snowfinger, to encounter thick, challenging bushwacking.
I placed camp that night beside a pair of tarns in upper Queets Basin. The next morning I watched the sunrise light up the peaks of Mt. Olympus, the glaciers' pale pink glow transforming into a glaring bright white. I spent the day relaxing in the sun, leaving camp on occasion to explore the surrounding barren, rolling moonscape.
As I ate dinner clouds began to roll in from the west; my barometer had been falling and a strong breeze blowing all day. But I'm not a weatherman, and even if I was I'd be wrong half the time, so when I went to sleep my head was poking out of my bivy sack and my tent remained stuffed in my backpack.
Shortly after midnight I awoke and through the haze of sleep slowly realized that it was raining. I wiped the moisture from my face and unzipped my bivy sack. Feeling around in the darkness I retrieved my headlamp and began to pitch my tent. As I did so the rain fell harder and the wind gathered strength.
Not long after returning to my sleeping bag a strong gust hit the tent. My eyes opened wide, seeing nothing but darkness. Another gust came, and another still. Between them I heard the rain, fat drops blowing diagonally in the wind, continually impacting my tent to create a low roar.
I was just below the crest of the Bailey Range, a high ridgeline in the western Olympics. Weather coming in from the Pacific towards Seattle hits here first and hits here hardest. I could already tell this was going to be a bad night.
Another blast of wind hit my tent. By this time I had turned my headlamp back on, alarmed by the strength of the storm, and I saw the walls bow deeply inward. I pressed my hands against them, bracing my tent against the squall. I remained like this for 15 minutes, the wind and rain unrelenting.
I eventually realized, with a bit of horror, that I was in an indefensible position. The loose, rocky soil was softening under the heavy precipitation and soon, by the force of the wind, my stakes would begin to shift, my tent would slacken into a sail, and eventually it would collapse. I immediately began packing the gear spread around me. No longer able to brace the tent I saw it deform through the corner of my eye; I packed with increased haste.
Another violent blast impacted, uprooting a stake. As I rapidly tore my way out of my sleeping bag another stake pulled loose. No time to unzip the door - I crawled out under the furiously flapping fabric, noticing a stake barely holding on as it was whipped around, threatening to fly off into the darkness. I fixed my tent, making sure to get a strong, taught pitch, and returned to packing, haphazardly stuffing my belongings away.
Before even a minute had passed another stake tore loose, and another, and then my tent completely fell over. I struggled out from under the fabric and rather than re-pitch the tent I simply packed it up.
Now fully exposed to the weather I wondered what I could do for shelter. There were too many cliffs below for me to try to descend at night, and heading up higher would only guarantee more exposure to the storm; I would have to find something in my immediate surroundings. I weighed down my bivy so it wouldn't blow away and set off in search of shelter.
My headlamp cast a narrow cone of light in front of me, cutting a small, rainy slice out of the night into which I traveled. I was surrounded by a dense fog, the clouds having lowered down to my level. Only thirty seconds into my exploration I decided to turn back; visibility was too poor to be separating myself from my gear.
I began to retrace my steps but found myself walking up a small hill which I hadn't descended. I adjusted my course, but soon came to a stream I hadn't crossed. With a sudden sense of urgency I cast my headlamp's beam around, in every direction finding only a featureless barren ground disappearing into thick fog.
My orientation evaporated. I quickly scrambled around and shone my light about with horror. I contemplated weathering a storm all night with only my crocs, clothes and headlamp. My clothes were quickly saturating; the wind and cold completed the recipe for hypothermia. Panic was rising. I was now nearly running as I desperately searched.
Whoa - stop. I forced myself to pause and regain composure. Between gusts of wind I listened for the stream. I walked towards it; noting its direction of flow told me where the nearby tarn was. Listening again I heard the waterfall which was west of my campsite - a vague sense of orientation began to rematerialize. Using the stream as a base line I set out to search again, sweeping my headlamp left and right, and soon saw my gear only twenty feet away yet barely visible through the fog and rain.
I put on my backpack and collected the rest of my gear in a great bundle in my arms. I hiked back to the stream and followed it down to the tarn; I had seen a low rock wall above its south shore the day before. It did nothing against the rain and the ground below it was sloping rocks, but it was an effective windbreak. It would have to do.
I laid out my sleeping bag and pad on the slope, using my backpack as a barrier so I wouldn't roll off. My bag had gotten wet; I shivered in my claustrophobic bivy sack as the rain came down and the rocks below poked my body. I laid awake for hours, uncomfortable and miserable.
I began to wrack my brain - what was I going to do? This storm might last a week and I couldn't make my stand here. I had no choice but to remain overnight, but once it was light enough I needed to find some real shelter to dry out and warm up. I wasn't aware of any natural shelter in Queets Basin, in nearby Ferry Basin, or anywhere else along the Bailey Range. Descending back down to the Elwha Valley alongside the snowfinger would be difficult; after this rain the slopes would be slick and potentially dangerous.
Then I thought of the old fire lookout at Dodger Point. That would also involve difficult traveling to reach, but if I could get inside of it the wind and rain would be impotent. It was locked up last year, though. I imagined myself, unshaven and rain-soaked, chopping through the door with my ice axe. Heeeeeeere's Johnny! That brought a much needed smile to my face on that terrible night.
Back to reality. Was there any shelter along the Bailey Range? I cursed the avalanche which destroyed Herb Crisler's shelter at Cream Lake. But what about his cache tree, a huge hollowed-out subalpine fir where he stored food for his journeys in the 1930s? I had no idea how large the entrance was, or the hollow itself, but perhaps I could squeeze into it and take shelter inside the tree. If nothing else the surrounding forest would shelter my tent from the wind.
It was settled; in the morning I would hike north along the Bailey Range to Cream Lake. Soaked and shivering, sleep finally came.
I awoke a couple hours later to a cold, breezy morning with visibility a meager 100ft. My clothes were soaked and I shivered violently as I packed up my wet gear, slowed by numb fingers.
I set off into the clouds with map and compass in hand, consulting them almost constantly as I navigated through the murk to Bear Pass. There the snow and clouds merged into an almost depthless white void, occasionally broken by the surprising sight of crevasses.
The snow levels were very low along the southern Bailey Range. The broad bench south of Mt. Childs was totally barren, leaving rolling piles of loose scree that took a long time to negotiate. The Childs Glacier was melted down to a fraction of what was snow-covered the year before, with waterfalls of melt-water disappearing into dark crescents. I threaded my way across, slipping once on the ice and skinning both of my knees.
Travel from the glacier to Lone Tree Pass was straightforward along the ridgecrest and visibility was improving. I found the once-permanent snowfield south of Lone Tree had completely disappeared. I descended past several lakes in Upper Ferry Basin to a large flat meadow braided with creeks. At the west edge I found a 10ft rock wall which would shelter my tent from the wind, so I setup camp there. If the weather improved I would be in a convenient, central location to explore the basin.
My sleeping bag was totally saturated. The temperature dropped below freezing that night and left me shivering yet again. I awoke frequently to boil water and place a hot water bottle with me in my sleeping bag - the heat didn't stick around for long though. I was low on fuel and likely dooming myself to cold, crunchy freeze-dried dinners for the last couple nights of the trip, but I didn't care - I needed warmth.
Week Seven (September 20th to 26th)
Ferry Basin is the crowning jewel of the Olympic Mountains. From a stark alpine realm of rock, glacier, and silty lakes to broad rolling meadows crisscrossed by creeks I have found no other destination so varied in its offerings and so inviting in its exploration. Lakes, tarns, and waterfalls are everywhere. Bear and elk roam the meadows. Blueberries grow abundantly, and late in the season whole fields and mountainsides burn crimson as the leaves change color.
I first visited Ferry Basin the year before, but I was behind schedule and couldn't afford to take the rest day that I had planned. This year, because my plan for the Burke Range didn't work out, I was ahead of schedule and had three rest days to lounge and explore. Each day was warm and sunny, and it appeared I had the entire basin to myself.
The rolling terrain begs for exploration and it seems that behind every hill, rock wall, or group of trees is a hidden tarn or small scenic meadow or interesting view. Hiking in my crocs down the outlet stream of a lake I came across the skeleton of a bull elk. I saw at least two different herds of elk and I enjoyed silently following them as they traveled through scenic areas I never would have thought to investigate.
A scramble up Pt. 5518 was difficult enough to keep me interested and offered a comprehensive view of the basin and most of the Bailey Range. I descended past Lk. 4689 to Cream Lake. The surrounding forest is beautiful - an open understory beneath huge subalpine firs, including the world record holder at 129ft tall and 6' 8.5" in diameter. I found Crisler's cache tree, which would have made a decent shelter had the weather not improved.
north from Mt. Ferry
I gave the basin a pretty thorough exploration but I could sense secret meadows and hidden tarns awaiting discovery on my next visit. Despite covering a lot of ground I managed to devote a whole day to the best thing there is to do in Ferry Basin: relax. I basked in the warm sunshine, swam in a pool underneath a waterfall, read from a novel, listened to my iPod, and reflected on the last month and a half I'd spent in the wilderness.
With a pang of bittersweetness I realized that the simple, peaceful life I had enjoyed this summer was coming to an end. As much as I desperately craved real food and a soft bed and as much as I needed to be with my family and friends and my girlfriend, it hurt to know that soon I would no longer awake to sunny meadows and vast landscapes, and there would be no more adventures.
Despite the occasional pain and misery, the frequent frustration, the daily discomforts and constant hunger, it was hard to imagine leaving. The rhythms and rituals of mountain life had engrained themselves in me. The stresses of city life had been thoroughly flushed from my mind, replaced with total freedom and independence.
Already this trip represented an era of my life - a short era, but nonetheless significant...and inevitably coming to an end. In that sunny, creek-braided meadow, looking back on my journey with new appreciation, I struggled to accept the life-transition I would face in just a few days.
After three idyllic days of existence I packed up and left Ferry Basin, determined to return again and again. Beyond its aesthetics there's something about the place that stirs the wild and ancient genes within me - they still recognize home when they see it.
I ascended to the crest of the Bailey Range, departing from the usual route, so that I could contour around Stephen Peak and spend a night at Stephen Lake. On the way I scrambled to the summit of Stephen Peak, which involved loose talus and some exposed class 3 on brittle rock. With difficulty I found a reasonable descent to the huge turquoise lake. It was nice, but hard to fully appreciate after the incredible experience I'd had in Ferry Basin.
south from Stephen Peak
descending towards Stephen Lake
The following day was a short traverse up and over the ridge to connect with the traditional Bailey Range route, which contours on steep slopes to Eleven Bull Basin. I arrived in the early afternoon and enjoyed company for the first time in a week, chatting with an older hiker who had stayed to relax at Eleven Bull while the rest of his party went in search of elk around Cream Lake. As evening approached mountain goats converged on our campsite and sparred each other. The sunset was beautiful, with a clear view down the Hoh Valley to the marine-layer shrouded Pacific. A crescent moon slowly arced over the glaciers of Mt. Olympus as the stars emerged.
Olympus from the crest
northern Bailey Range
I awoke to perfect weather for the fifth day in a row, and it would last the rest of my trip. I stubbornly slept in until it was too warm to stay in my sleeping bag any longer, then continued north along the Bailey Range. I was expecting the notorious gullies beneath Mt. Carrie to pose a problem, but I didn't even realize where they were until after passing them. Of course, I had the advantage of an entire season's worth of boots laying down a tread for me.
Once the Catwalk was in sight I turned uphill and ascended 2000ft on scree and talus to the summit of Mt. Carrie. The view was the most expansive of any of the 24 peaks I summitted on the trip. Far to the south I could see Sawtooth Ridge, way over on the opposite side of the national park, underneath which I spent my first night at Flapjack Lakes. I could trace most of my route and took the opportunity to visually appreciate the scale of my journey, now coming to a close.
Olympus from Mt. Carrie
I descended and continued across the Catwalk, a narrow rocky ridgecrest that traditionally marks the beginning of the Bailey Range Traverse for southbound hikers. There I met up with a couple of other young hikers who had just finished the Bailey Range, and together we descended to the High Divide trail and made conversation as we hiked to Swimming Bear Lake. Upon arrival we met another group of three and we all stayed up late chatting - I was generously treated to some beer, tequila, and fresh food.
I again slept in late, cinching the hood of my sleeping bag down over my eyes to squeeze every minute of rest out of the morning. I finally got up, said farewell to the guys, and continued along the route to Appleton Pass.
There were lots of tents clustered around Oyster Lake - between a trail crew and all the hikers enjoying the late-season weekend weather there was quite a crowd.
I hiked a short ways down the Soleduck side of the Appleton Pass trail before cutting off into the brush for one last off-trail route. I made a moderately difficult bushwack and a steep sidehill traverse with great views of High Divide, Soleduck Park, and Seven Lakes Basin across the valley. I briefly traversed through the North Fork Soleduck drainage before hopping over the ridge to Mud Lake, an unmapped and scenic blue lake just north of Mt. Appleton. There, on a knoll of heather overlooking the lake, I made my last camp. Thanks to mooching fuel from other campers the two previous nights I had just enough fuel left for my final meal.
one last view
I really enjoyed having company in camp the last couple of nights but was thankful that my final night out was spent alone and off-trail, as so much of my trip had been. I felt like I could stay out there forever, each day presenting new territory to explore, new discoveries to make, new adventures to have.
But it was getting cold; this unforgettable summer was drawing to a close. The flowers were long gone, the berries were dwindling, and fattened bears were making their final preparations. Soon the elk would descend to the valleys, the marmots would curl up in their burrows, and snow would blanket the mountains.
I was ready to go home. I had risen to the challenges of this journey, met with more success than I could have expected, and would return to the city mentally, physically, and spiritually enriched. One last time I gazed up into the milky firmament, autumn announcing its arrival in the crispness of the air, then closed my eyes.
Day 50 (September 27th)
As I ate breakfast a team of hikers sped past my campsite, wearing clean clothes and svelte packs, having things to do and summits to reach. I watched them progress up Mt. Appleton as I struck camp, then descended to the nearby Blue Lake. After bushwacking up to a pass below Everett Peak I followed a faint tread down to Lower Three Horse Lake then a decent boot path to Boulder Lake. A quick and boring four miles of trail brought me to the Olympic Hot Springs, where I continued toward the trailhead on the asphalt of a decommissioned road.
It seemed to never end, and I shared the road walk with many others - mainly tourists bound for the hot springs in flip-flops, carrying their towels and lunches in plastic shopping bags. The smell of deodorant and perfume made tangible the fact that I was now leaving the wilderness.
I crossed from "trail" to parking lot unceremoniously. It had been 25 days since my last resupply at Deer Park; 36 days since I last saw civilization, the day I left Poulsbo; 50 days since I began my journey at the Staircase Ranger Station. I had expected this moment to be difficult and emotional, but I had said my farewells to the journey in Ferry Basin. I felt only the standard relief upon finishing a dayhike or weekend trip.
And so, without fanfare or applause, without drama or special emotions, I left the mountains. Experience transformed to memory, the manifestation of my dream already fading into the past.
~250 miles/100,000ft of gain (~120mi/65,000ft off-trail)
Notes and Analysis
Thanks to: Ancient Ambler, bcfc53 and Mark, Bright River, Bryan, Gerald, GoBlueHiker, HJT, Hoosierdaddy, Luc, the Olympic trail crews and National Park staff, Shacknasty Jim, and Tad, Dan, and Bill.
Special thanks to: My dad and Joanne. They jumped at the opportunity to help before I even asked, and lent me lots of gear including the backpack and video camera. Their logistical support solved one of the biggest problems in my trip planning, and I can’t thank them enough for their patience, flexibility, and generosity.
Special thanks as well to Karla and my mom, for letting me put them through so much worry and helping to support my broke ass upon return!
GoLite pyramid tarp - supported by hiking poles and Black Diamond Pole Link Converter. It's huge inside. It made being stormed in much more tolerable, but having all that room encouraged me to spread out my gear into a big mess that I had to clean up each morning. Being able to cook in it, without even leaving my sleeping bag, was a nice bonus. I brought large and small skewer stakes but they couldn't hold up to the combination of high wind and loose/wet soil - I should have brought Y-stakes as well.
minimalist eVent bivy - great for setting up and breaking down camp quickly when the weather didn't warrant the tent and allowed me to camp anywhere I could lay down. I love sleeping out in the open. It also kept my sleeping bag clean in the floorless tent.
Gregory Denali Pro backpack - yeah, it's really heavy and could be a bit more bushwack-friendly, but it carried heavy, bulky loads as well as you could ask for. The load lifter straps weren't reinforced strongly enough and began to tear the pack body, but otherwise it held up remarkably well.
Arc'Teryx Hard Rock shorts - pricey but super comfortable, stretchy, and durable. Smart snap and cargo pocket designs.
Ex Officio Reef Runner shirt - a very light and breathable longsleeve button up. It was great to be able to roll up the sleeves and unbutton the front when it got hot. It could have wicked better, though. Felt gross when sweaty.
Merino wool LS shirt - super comfortable and clean-feeling to change into after each day's hike.
Bozeman Mountain Works Cocoon pullover - the perfect amount of insulation, very light and packs down small.
iPod - necessary for morale and sanity. Most listened to: Pink Floyd, CCR, Aura Noir, Ozzy Osbourne. I recharged it at each of the two resupplies and used it for 20-30 minutes each night.
50cm ultralight ice ax - it never snagged while bushwacking. It was necessary for many of the routes and stayed with me the whole trip. I had to self-arrest a few times and wasn't very impressed with its stopping power, and it was too short for self-belay, so it didn't give me a whole lot of piece of mind. Considering the high bushwacking to snowwalking ratio, however, a full-size axe would have been overkill.
Microspikes - I was never happy to have them. In my pack they were dead weight, on my boots I was wishing for real crampons. I appreciated their light weight and compactness, however, and ultimately think they were the best choice for this trip.
Hiking pole(s) - I mostly just used one since I broke the other early in the trip. I probably would have destroyed my knees or fallen and hurt myself without them.
Crocs - nice lightweight camp and water shoe. I even did some short scrambles wearing them.
Summit pack - came in handy for sidetrips and dayhikes from basecamp.
What didn't work:
Exped Downmat - my favorite piece of backpacking gear I've ever owned; ridiculously comfortable, incredibly warm. I was extremely disappointed when it failed after three years of use. Down began to leak into the valves, at first making it difficult and then impossible to deflate (Exped has since sent me a replacement pad with redesigned valves) . The other pad I used (MH Superlite Chairpad) was bulky and heavy, not particularly comfortable or warm but it did the job. It's size was an issue when bushwacking and scrambling. One of the straps that convert it into a chair ripped from the flimsy nylon it was sewn to towards the end of my trip. I repaired it with my sewing kit but it only lasted a few days before the nylon tore again.
4L Platypus water tank and 3L Nalgene canteen - both of them started to leak at the soft plastic/hard plastic seam near the cap. I don't think they can handle being squished in a pack for so long. I’m experimenting with the MSR DromLite now, which seems to be more durable.
What I wish I’d brought:
A battery-powered DIY ipod charger.
It’s not just armies that march on their stomachs. Planning the meals for 50 days was the most stressful part of the trip planning - if I didn't bring enough calories for each day and couldn't incorporate enough variety my trip was doomed. My laziness and lack of enthusiasm for backcountry food planning meant I had to stick to a formula, and also meant I would have to spend a lot of money on pre-packaged food. I feel I struck a good balance between weight, calories and variety, at the cost of...cost.
Breakfast consisted of Pop-Tarts, granola bars, or oatmeal. I always craved the Pop-Tarts, rarely the oatmeal.
Lunch was a couple of energy bars and a packet of energy gels. Bear Valley Meal Packs, Bonk Breaker, and Clif Bars/Shot Bloks tasted the best for the longest. It might have been worth the weight to carry more energy gels, but they’re pricey.
For Dinner I had a freeze-dried meal, couscous, or pasta, and a candy bar for desert. Being on such strict rations dinner was my only chance to feel even close to full. I usually ate whatever dinner was heaviest or contained the most calories, with less regard than usual for flavor. By week four it all tastes bad anyway.
Powdered milk and vegetable oil gave my meals a much-needed calorie boost and were definitely worth the weight. Multivitamin Emergen-C was probably a good idea, and curiously I developed a powerful craving for its fizziness.
Hunger was a constant. I got used to it, and it never reached the level of suffering, but I was still operating at a huge calorie deficit. I lost 32.5lbs over 50 days, shedding around 2/3lb a day. Near the end of my trip I fashioned a belt out of a spare bootlace, using a mini carabiner as a buckle and a taut-line hitch to adjust it, because my shorts no longer fit me.
If I was to do it again I wouldn’t bring any more food (at times I was just a few straws short of a broken back), but I would bring more fat and protein. I mostly craved burgers, pizza, fried food, hot dogs etc, but would have killed for a salad too.
Body and Mind
A shower just isn't the same without the water pressure and steam build-up. That said, I got fairly long lukewarm showers out of the Sea-to-Summit Pocket Shower. Some biodegradable soap, shampoo/conditioner, a travel-sized loofa and a microfiber towel completed my shower setup and got me genuinely clean.
The pocket shower doubled as a clothes washer - put in the clothes and soap, shake, soak, shake, rinse, repeat...but my clothes got dirty and sweaty so quickly it was hard to keep up.
Thankfully my feet needed very little care and I managed to avoid blisters completely. A travel-sized pumice stone kept my calluses in check, and the scissors on my little Swiss Army knife kept my toenails short.
For the most part I was pretty happy and comfortable. My confidence, determination, affinity for solitude and love of the wilderness kept me going through the worst of the morale struggles. The main challenges were weather, food cravings, and frustration due to accumulated inconveniences (running water, I love you). My huge pyramid tarp helped mitigate the first, more fat and protein - and calories in general - would have helped with the second. The third is just a fact of mountain life, no matter how luxurious or efficient your gear systems are.
Each night I rated my morale and four other factors (weather, satisfaction with food, sense of accomplishment, sense of physical well-being) on a scale of 1 to 10, hoping to determine which factors most influence my morale. Satisfaction with food and sense of accomplishment correlated best with high morale. Weather also correlated pretty well, but sense of physical well-being didn't. Of course correlation is not causation, and morale influences any subjective rating. I suspect satisfaction with food was heavily influenced by my general morale, but the other results appeal to my intuition: on the days I feel I accomplished the most I felt the happiest, and exhaustion from those accomplishments explains the poor correlation with physical well-being. Good weather directly effects morale, and also facilitates accomplishments, but on its own cannot rival the joy of bagging a peak or completing a difficult traverse.
morale v sense of accomplishment
(the correlation is a bit obscured by rest/weather days)
morale v weather
At-a-glance weather summary...kinda cool, huh?
Also kinda cool:
Without judgement what would we do? We would be forced to look at ourselves...
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Joined: 21 Aug 2007
Posts: 611 | TRs
I can't wait to go back and read it all!!
Thanks for putting this together.
I'm going to learn a lot from your hard work.
Daaaamn, I love the Oly's!!!
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Joined: 17 Dec 2001
Posts: 4225 | TRs
|Thank you Dane for taking the time and effort to put this together.
I have been looking forward to this report and can't wait to read it and take in the pictures.
"The mountains are calling and I must go." - John Muir
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Joined: 21 Sep 2007
Posts: 1960 | TRs
Location: Edmonds, Wa
|Epic Thanks for sharing your journey. You are very lucky to be able to spend 50 days in one of the wildest and most beautiful places around|
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Wannabe Climbin Snob
Joined: 22 Aug 2005
Posts: 632 | TRs
Location: North Kitsap
|Wow, just taking a first glance, but bookmarked for a thorough review. Thanks for taking the time to do the write-up and post the pictures. Excellent!
"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."
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Joined: 13 Jul 2006
Posts: 4512 | TRs
Location: Moscow, Id.
|Simply amazing Dane. I don't know what else to say.|
Without obsession, life is nothing. John Waters
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Joined: 21 Oct 2009
Posts: 35 | TRs
|read the whole thing. awesome.|
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Joined: 28 Sep 2009
Posts: 1341 | TRs
|Well done, thank you very much for sharing such an awesome adventure.|
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High on the Outdoors
Joined: 15 Jul 2010
Posts: 1851 | TRs
Location: My van
|You are an idol; someone every hardcore outdoorsman looks to when they are unsure if something they have planned is possible. Thank you VERY much for this report because I now know it is possible to traverse the Olympics in one trip. Although it will be years into the future for me I can definently understand the problems you faced and to overcome those is very difficult. I was on the Olympic peninsula during the first week of your journey and remember the terrible weather you endured very well. It's very understandable how bad weather can really lower your morale to keep going and enjoying the journey as the majority of my trip that week was ruined. You are very lucky not only to have been able to do this but to also have parental support; something I know I won't have. Your accomplishments add up even more when you post this incredible report and set of photos as it can easily take years for reports like these to be made. I would just hope for myself that I can give a TR to the community about the Olympics just half as good as yours.
Congratulations on your journey - mentally and physically
Trips like these require just as much mental strength as physical strength not to mention the months of planning and seperates the casual weekend hiker and mountaineer from the hardcore hikers and mountaineers.
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Master of my domain
Joined: 29 May 2003
Posts: 423 | TRs
Location: Little Norway
|Nomination for trip report of the century!!
Dane, I've also been looking forward to this report and it sure was worth waiting for! You have accomplished something that you will be remembering and telling stories of, for years to come. Bask in it and re-live it often as you get older.
Your descriptions of Ferry Basin re-ignite a spark in me that cause me to want to return to about the most beautiful place I've ever been to. Those that haven't been there just can't imagine the splendor! It's getting harder for me as I age, but I will return.
Thank you again for a simply outstanding report!
God, I am going to regret this someday!
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Joined: 18 Aug 2008
Posts: 2838 | TRs
Location: Someone get me out of Everett, WA
|This has the be the most complete trip report I have ever seen. I jealous of how you managed to incorporate the charts!
The description of your shelter almost blowing away and the ensuing sense of panic was well done.
I've never even been close to being out for that long. I think 23 days *on trail* was the most I've done. Still, I can relate to a lot of what you were feeling.
Did you find that the poptarts really worked well for you? I always crave those on multiweek trips and they are easy to eat in the morning. I always end up hungry and out of energy a few hours later though. When I ate oatmeal I was able to hike much easier. Same for snickers bars. I love them, but they never provided long term energy. Both are primarily sugar, which was the problem.
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Joined: 22 Dec 2006
Posts: 651 | TRs
Location: Deltana, AK
|Impressive doesn't even begin to describe. You owe yourself a trip to AK in the near future.|
CLIMB MOUNTAINS FOR SATAN
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Joined: 22 Feb 2009
Posts: 253 | TRs
|50 days in the Olys, incredible! |
"Wilderness is bliss"
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Joined: 26 Sep 2003
Posts: 129 | TRs
Location: Portland Oregon
|Awesome report. It was very fun to read and educational as well. It also gave me some good ideas |
As you push off from the shore, won't you turn your head once more, to make your peace with everyone
And for those who choose to stay, You'll live for one more day, to do the things you should have done.
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