May 11-19, 2016 – By Jason Hummel
Out my front door three blocks down 30th St. is a trail that takes me to the shores of Commencement Bay and from there, in the distance, rise the Olympic Mountains. I’m not alone with my view; a million other doorsteps are similarly blessed. Yet there in those mountains are places no foot has tread and even where feet have trodden, no evidence remains of their passage, because over the bay from where I stand is wilderness. Not wilderness halfway around the world. Not wilderness lost in some place you can’t even pronounce. Instead, right there is wilderness that for the cost of a tank of gas, I can visit with my own two feet.
Not until the late 1800s were the secrets of the Olympics first unlocked, initially with the O’Neil Expedition and later, most famously, with the Press Expedition. Robert Wood in his book Across the Olympic Mountains quotes a local newspaper in which the writer challenges “Some of the hardy citizens of the Sound to acquire fame by unveiling the mystery which wraps the land encircled by the snowcapped Olympic mountain range.” The Press Expedition, funded by the very newspaper that challenged its readership to take on the Olympic Mountain Range, became in the winter of 1889 the first party to complete a north to south crossing of the Olympics, taking six months to traverse the relatively few, yet most rugged 50 miles, they would ever explore in their lifetimes.
Six hundred miles of trails now crisscross what has become the 1422 square mile Olympic National Park, established and signed into law in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Between those miles of trails are the high mountains, glacier cirques and ridge lines where you forge, at least in part, your own trails. This wilderness I intended to explore on skis, but to do it right, I had to have a plan
Two years ago, a friend, Justin McGregor, turned me on to the idea of a north-south traverse of the Olympics over beers at the Parkway Tavern. He told me about a high route he and friends had hiked and scrambled the summer before. I’d always imagined an east-west traverse that included the mighty Mt. Olympus, but I was struck with the possibility of a high route that left from Hurricane Ridge and ended at Lake Cushman.
Almost immediately I roughly plotted my own path by merging portions of Justin’s summer trip with the glaciers and high points I was interested in skiing come springtime. A primary goal in my route planning was to ski the named glaciers in the area as part of my greater project of skiing all 213 named glaciers in Washington State. If it went according to plan, I’d ski glaciers 131 through 135, and in the process tick off several of the most remote glaciers in the state.
But all wasn’t to plan. When the spring of 2015 arrived, it did so on the heels of one of the worst winters in recorded history for Washington State. At the end of March, 2015, the Olympic snowpack teetered at 7% of normal!
A year passed and in March of 2016 I happened to read an article that stated that the Olympic snowpack was at a healthy 122 percent. Conditions were ideal, but then April struck a match to the snowpack, burning its way into the record books. In nearby Seattle April was the warmest it had been in 122 years of record keeping, breaking the previous average by 3.1 degrees!
Snowpack was melting by the foot and soon flowers would be rising from newly exposed dirt. Before that happened, Tim Black and I set off to transform lines on a map into memories of a lifetime.
On the outset of this trip I carried more baggage on my mind than usual. I sawed back and forth over the years of my life, trying to justify where I was and how I got there. The “So what if I’ve been single for 3 years.” Or the “So what if I don’t have a home outside an RV for much of the year.” Or, most spectacularly, “So what if I left a promising career as a financial advisor eight years ago to seek a life in the outdoors and photography.”
Would I change any of it? Probably not. When I ask, “Would I go back?” I can’t imagine doing so. Ever. But there’s a price I’ve begun to realize. Giving up ‘stability’ and ‘home’ isn’t as easy as I’d thought and I fear I’ll never get the chance to have either and if I do I’ll never stop long enough to hold onto them.
Maybe what I’ve wanted is what hometown America bred into me? In any case the mountains have a means of washing worries of the past and future away like avalanches do forests. You suffer, fear and struggle hard enough and all that’s fueling you is the moment, primed with a steely-eyed determination to achieve. When that engine of life pulls you away from everything, you know what matters most and that’s ‘giving it’ every day you have.
I gave it when I raised my pack from the Hurricane Ridge parking lot, all 10-12 days of food; four lenses, camera, batteries and tripod; skis, boots and poles; rope, harness and more. I joked, “It’s like we’re carrying a fridge!” The backpack straps were so strained that everything threatened to tear loose and spill to the ground like a frozen, dead body. “What the hell am I doing,” I bemoaned.
“I’m given ‘er,” that’s what.
Day 1: Hurricane Ridge to Grand Lake
Tim Black hefted the ‘fridge’ onto his back and we set off from the Hurricane Ridge parking area for Obstruction Point Road, which we’d been told by a ranger was getting plowed, much to our dismay as skiers. Five miles in, we found the plow crew hard at work clearing the remaining miles. It was a relief to have the skis and boots on our feet and to be headed up on skins and snow, rather than footwear.
How our skins grip the slope with their tiny fibers clinging onto the snow like a thousand grasping fingers, has always fascinated me. Most people don’t know what skins are for or even the sport I’ve dedicated so much of my life to – ski mountaineering. I can’t blame them for being ignorant since skiing itself is a sport few are able to participate in because of where they live and the cost of gear, resorts and transportation.
As we left Hurricane Ridge that ignorance, and wonder, flashed in the quizzical looks of nearby park visitors. They struggled to comprehend what we were doing, believing as one person put it, that we were “Nuts.” Yet many of us are attracted to passion no matter the outlet. I’ll likely never swim more than a mile or be able to throw a touchdown, but I respect those that can swim a hundred and throw a ball with perfect spin into the end zone.
My fears about the snowpack faded with each mile. Whoever was in the lead joked, “The magic carpet continues,” whenever the paper-thin fabric of winter threaded its way from peak top to valley bottom.
This magic carpet led from the top of Pt. 6580 to within a few hundred feet of Grand Lake in the ten hours that took us from the parking lot to this spectacular location. On a pristine shore, nestled under a pocket of trees, we pitched camp in an established site just melted from beneath winter’s snow. While Tim soaked his feet in the lake, I searched out poetry in the play of light and shadow on the motionless lake waters. They swirled in reflections of pink-washed peaks and the darkening moods of forest and rock.
I went to bed thinking not about life’s foibles, but about life’s symmetry, how it’s like a whirlpool and no matter where I am in life, it has a center and if I stray too far from it, I am swept away in the current and returned to where I need to be. All along I’d been wrestling forces beyond my control.
Day 2: Grand Lake to Cameron Creek
When our fridges rose from the ground to our backs on the second morning, I imagined the birds as young, Shakespearean noblewomen. Behind wings and muffled voices they’d tweet about how, “Buffoons have too much muscle and not enough brains.” No wonder. Our packs weighed in at between 80-90 pounds and were truly ridiculous.
When tallying the contents of the 1890 O’Neil expeditions packs, author Robert Wood wrote, “On these last foot missions, each man was expected to carry 25 pounds of flour, 2 pounds of yeast powder, 1 pound of salt, a half pound of tea, 4 pounds of sugar, from 6 to 8 pounds of bacon, 2 pounds of smoked meat and a half pound of chocolate. In addition, they packed axes, guns, ammunition, cooking utensils and a shelter half each. The packs averaged 60 pounds each, and the men quickly discovered they were loaded to the limit of their capabilities.”
While our packs were heavier than those the O’Neil parties carried, it’s useful to remember that these early explorers had no detailed maps, or any trails to follow besides those they blazed.
A chorus of laughing bird-tweets resounded in the distance and our own guttural response was a kind of groan mixed with cheerful undertones. Under their ceaseless barrage, Tim and I skied toward Mount McCartney (6784 feet) on to the Lillian Glacier, whose total mass has shrunk to almost zero. Even so, it was the 131st named glacier in the state of Washington I’d skied and anything new was a shot of thrill for me. Another answer to a question mark on a map.
Skiing from McCartney’s summit, we aimed toward Pt. 6728 and shot down the east face of Pt. 6728 on fast, smooth snow to the headwaters of Cameron Creek. Camp was pitched on snow-free river rocks only a short distance up the basin, into which we had hoped to enjoy alpenglow skiing, but our energy was sapped. Finding further reserves was like going for a jog on the heels of a marathon.
Day 3: Cameron Creek to Dose Camp
The third morning where a snow-bound stream broke free at ~5800 feet in Cameron Basin, we stashed our gear and set off on a side trip to the Cameron Glaciers. We needed to ski, to enjoy the sway of turns without the overbearing weight of our supplies; to use skis the way they were meant to be used – to descend!
My map and GPS did not agree which was the highest peak in the Cameron cluster, so we decided to climb and ski a point two basins over. Other skiing was enjoyed before we made a midday return to our gear and continued over Cameron Pass to Lost Basin. Between them we found enjoyable down climbing near a waterfall when we strayed too far east on our hunt for continuous snow.
More dirt met us after Lost Pass, but we reconnected with snow in the cold valley at Dose Meadow Camp and, with a full day behind us, pitched our tent under a tree next to the Dosewallips River, whose storytelling lulled us to sleep.
Day 4: Dose Meadow Camp to Silt Creek
We awoke to the patter of rain coupled with the continued chatter of the Dosewallips River. Thick forest enveloped everything, the dark and dreary sort where you imagine goblins and elves staring out from behind. I thought, “Were they like the birds, laughing at us?”
Nearing Hayden Pass, misty rainclouds rolled over the ridge lines. Regardless, we continued to the summit of Sentinel Peak (6592 feet) in chase of a wily mountain goat. As I crested the summit rocks and looked over, there was the goat lounging in a saddle mere feet away, relaxing as I do on a comfy couch. I’d like to think I’m a mountain man, but ‘mountain’ and ‘goat’ are inseparable, like my three dinners of mac and cheese. The ‘mountain’ before ‘goat’ is for an animal whose walk to breakfast would put the fear of God into most humans, including me, a so-called mountain man!
A narrow basin reached up through the fog and pulled us around cliffs. When past them, we climbed to the summit of Sentinel’s Sister (6301 feet) and looked down at a crux. Previous hiking parties in the area had become so entangled in slide alder that they’d returned back the way they’d come…and that was without skis sticking up from their packs. How our attempt to survive this stretch reminded me of the Irish Elk that was once theorized to have gone extinct because of its enormous rack that spanned 12 feet! Attempting to be a ‘bushwhacking skier’ seemed like a promising way to follow evolutionary suit. I reminded Tim of the fun ahead and quoted Justin, “We stood on old growth slide alder, sometimes five feet above the ground….”
I’m sure the birds, goblins and elves were having a giggle-fit convention by then.
As bad as expected we tripped over skis, legs, arms and poles, and discovered we were not human at all, but eight-legged aliens. At one point I fell over in the slide alder and couldn’t get up! It took five tries and every ounce of power to wrestle gravity and those wicked branches to get the ‘fridge’ back on. My laugh that I’d described as “guttural sounds [that] came off in a kind of groan with cheerful undertones,” returned. When presented with another mix of forest and slide alder, I thought, “No way I can get through this,” but once I tried, the way opened before me and in a few hours, we were done – as my ski pants were after a branch gutted one leg.
Day 5: Silt Creek to Flypaper Pass (Mount Anderson)
We arose on the braided shores of the Silt River on our to a second day of poor weather. This meant that climbing over Mount Anderson (7321) was delayed, which was aggravating, since part of the reason we carried so much food was to allow for extra days to ski! Of course, in the back of our minds, we grudgingly agreed the extra food was for bad weather, too.
Before noon, the weather was on the mend and we were on the move. An hour later I greeted glacier #133, the Eel, whose size is quite healthy compared to her sister to the south, the Anderson Glacier.
Before we reached Flypaper Pass, the clouds broke and patches of blue peered through. Cloud-shadows danced across the snowfields and brightened our moods. “Maybe we can stay here?” But by the time we pitched camp atop Flypaper Pass the clouds had swallowed the mountain, our camp and everything but our two hands.
Traveling by GPS, we made it to the summit and skied the peak in a complete whiteout. Sensory deprivation can be an interesting experience. Scientists have constructed a room called an anechoic chamber and it’s the quietest place ever created. It’s so disorienting that the longest any human has been able to stay in it is 45 minutes! Groping our way through fog wasn’t as hazardous to our health, but it was an experience you have to undertake to fully understand, especially on big snowfields where there’s nothing but white on white.
Back at camp I listened to the weather radio. The news wasn’t good. “Mostly cloudy with a chance of rain” was the forecast for the foreseeable future. I’m convinced that’s forecaster-speak for, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, chump. Good luck.” The forecast could be worse, but that’s like being told you have cancer and that your prognosis is, “Well, it could be worse,” followed by a shrug.
Day 6: Flypaper Pass to 5950 (near Buck Lake)
On our sixth morning we woke to a cloud deck spread out before us. To me that’s a meal served at a king’s table, peaks spread out like main courses that rise steamily above their platters and bowls. Our bet to camp high had paid off with breakfast in bed and like any meal, it must come to an end.
Our ski from Flypaper Pass brought us down a steep snow finger into a basin crowded with tumbling waterfalls that stair-stepped down from reddish-brown cliffs. These ramparts were our last views before we were submerged into fog.
After Anderson Pass (4465 feet), we expected to walk rather than ski to the headwaters of the Quinault River, but after only a switchback of walking, we found a skiable avalanche path to 3600 feet!
Using the O’Neil Trail, we recaptured the high country and snow after bypassing Mount Lacrosse (6160 feet). With skis back on, we skinned up White Creek and over the shoulder of White Mountain (6375 feet), fumbling around like blind mice, just as on Mount Anderson. Travel was by GPS and ‘feel’. The resulting shenanigans were my fault. What can a hundred feet hide? Two things. The correct route and the ‘not’ correct route. The latter of which I sallied into, a thirsty man to water and soon found myself joining Tim on “Gnar.”
Clinging to rock cliffs floating above an abyss, we reached an impasse. Only feet from moderate terrain we down-climbed. Tim set out to try another alternative while I lingered in a safe spot. He found a viable option to the right of our first cliff and while he mounted a cornice by climbing steep, slippery rock I searched out another option that had less ‘gnar’. I yelled up for Tim to look to the right even further after he succeeded via his route, which I wasn’t keen on. A short time later, he busted through the trees and shouted, to my relief, “This is great.”
After making my own climb I caught my breath and asked about his route. He said, “…it was definitely the hardest climbing I’ve done without a rope and in ski boots.”
Sun rays pierced the fog and greeted us as we transitioned to ski-mode. From here, we had options. Below us by Buck Lake there was a steep pass. Above us on Pt. 5950 we thought we saw a narrow band of snow. “It’s only thirty degrees,” Tim called from below me. I doubted it was that easy as I’m sure he did, too, but neither of us wanted to descend and this was the only other option either of us could find.
“More gnar,” Tim said to me as we neared the top of that “…30 degree” route thirty minutes later.
Once we summited, the sunset hidden by Pt. 5950 graced us with her presence and like paupers greeted by a queen, we were awed. Peaks dressed in white clouds billowed from thin waists, and pretty faces of rock and snow gleamed in magical pinks, purples and reds.
Our awe was so great we didn’t realize how much of a crime it’d be to ski down to Lake Lacrosse, until after twenty minutes of just sitting there. We pitched camp right on the summit and for the remainder of the evening the sun held our gazes until she slipped from the room, around the corner of the Earth and graced another summit, in another kingdom far, far away.
Day 7: Pt. 5950 (near Buck Lake) to 4800 feet on Mount Hopper
On the seventh morning, over a cup of steaming green tea, I agonized over the last of three 2×3 foot maps I’d printed at the outset of this adventure. Question marks glared back at me. “What ifs,” got stuck in my head like Ylvis’s song, “What Does the Fox Say“.
Ahead was Mount Steel (6225 feet) and, unlike the man of steel, I couldn’t fly over this mountain. My choices were to either climb or go around it. As we skied from Pt. 5950 to Lake Lacrosse and beyond to Marmot Lake, I knew what I’d decided, but that didn’t stop my questioning. “You know, if we went that way I think we could make it?” Tim and I both knew the truth. Our last time listening to the weather radio hadn’t installed confidence. “Mostly cloudy with a chance of rain,” evolved into an “80 percent chance of rain,” and snow levels were dropping significantly, freezing the surface of the snowpack and covering it with a thin layer of fresh snow. Skinning would be difficult to impossible on anything but moderate terrain and boot packing would be a misery: every step would break through the crust into the still unfrozen snow sheltered below.
And yet I chewed on the decision. If the remainder of the adventure went well, skipping Mount Steel would be the one regret I had. But as in surgery, you don’t save a limb and kill the patient, you amputate the limb and save the patient’s life.
The hike along the Duckabush under canopies of old growth forest and over a dozen creeks was a change of pace Tim and I reveled in. These feelings were short-lived. They were gobbled away like the last of our candy at the Duckabush Shelter (2696 feet).
From the Home Sweet Home Shelter we put our skis back on and found wonderful skinning all the way into a narrow basin below Mount Hopper (6114 feet). Easy skiing around a few cliffs brought us into a basin full of flowing water. All we needed then was a snow-free place to camp, which we found under a mass of trees, so entangled with lichen that I couldn’t see the needles!
Day 8: 4800 feet on Mount Hopper to Flapjack Lakes
The last question mark on the map lay near Mount Skokomish (6434 feet) and for our eighth day, we aimed to get over it one way or another because any regress would leave us short of our goal – that of reaching our car and the other side of the Olympics.
We climbed over several high points west of Hagen Lake. This wasn’t the only lake. Four other nearby lakes lay hidden; no trails at all pierced the wilderness between them and civilization. Catching the last sight I’d be offered, I made a note to someday return in the summer. Places like this, found only on maps and arrived to only with effort are just the sort of nooks I crave.
Attaining the shoulder of Mount Skokomish was via a tight valley dominated by cliffs. Easy but steep skinning brought us to a pass I’d found on Google Earth. Now, Google Earth is a great new-fangled tool, but it has its limitations. It’s armchair ski mountaineering. It’s like a fan watching football on TV. After a missed touchdown he blurts out in utter bewilderment, “Whaaaat! Why the hell would you do that? I would’ve….” The ‘what’ he would’ve done is easy to understand when viewed from afar. Looking at Google Earth is a lot like that. I’m the football player and that Jason at home on the computer picking chip dust off his shirt, he’s the fan.
But this time, I didn’t fumble. No, I made a touchdown!
We slipped between cliffs and glided down snow to the edge of a steep creek, at which point we used the tried and true “tree rappel” to shimmy our way above a creek into which I nearly skied. While I was saved by my whippet, and the tiniest flake of rock from an unfortunate tumble that would’ve hurt like hell and destroyed all my camera gear, I remained chastised. This wasn’t a place for risks, and any injury would leave me a long way from help, even though we did carry a PLB. Nevertheless, after a lifetime in the mountains, I’ve avoided ever being part of a rescue and I planned to keep it that way.
We reconnected with snow and skied to the shores of the Hamma Hamma river, to the surprise of a nearby bear that crashed into the undergrowth as soon as we arrived.
A perfect log was found on the Hamma Hamma, but it came with conditions. First you had to bushwhack to it and then skirt cliffs on the other side. Each condition was accepted unconditionally and brought us back to continuous snow in only a handful of minutes.
At Gladys Pass, we stood atop our final descent. A wave of emotion swam over me. While the weather wasn’t fantastic, neither was it that bad. We’d made it. Those “lines on a map” had been transformed into memories of a lifetime and not the kind of memories that are easy to put on a shelf and show off to others, but the sort of experiences you keep in the drawer and pull out when the world is heavy and you need to remember a time when the moment was real and tangible.
The magic carpet moved us quickly to within a hundred feet of Flapjack Lakes (3850 feet). Even though it was beginning to rain and it was nearly dark, Tim jumped into the lake and I followed suit, spending the next hour shivering, finding tea and a sleeping bag my cure-all.
Day 9: Flapjack Lakes to Lake Cushman
On the ninth and final morning, we awoke to the musical chimes of snow dancing atop the tent. Quickly gathering our gear, we jammed it into our packs in whatever manner we could and set off down the trail, two men destined to reacquaint themselves with cold beers at the car.
Three miles before the end of the North Fork Skokomish Trail, we saw our first people since the plow drivers on Obstruction Point Road nine days earlier. The four elderly folks asked of our travels and where we’d come from. We told them, “Hurricane Ridge,” and being in their 50s to perhaps early 70s, they were less rushed than ‘us’ younglings, and fascinated with where and what we were up to. In fact, the eldest man added in a deep laugh, “Were I younger, I’d try something like that.”
The energy these people had was contagious and recharged us. Within half an hour we found ourselves leaving the forest and hiking into the parking lot. With a final heave, the fridges crashed to the ground for the final time, and Tim star-fished on the gravel while I procured the keys and, most importantly, chairs and beers.
Robert Wood ended his book, Across the Olympic Mountains with, “Though the Olympic Mountains are no longer unknown, one can still capture some of the spirit of mystery with which the region was long associated. Today’s explorer has merely to depart from the well-traveled trails and pack into the back-country, there to tramp through forest aisles or wander along fog-shrouded ridges.”
With beer in hand, slightly buzzed and far too satisfied to care, I sat and revisited my life. You may think being an adventure photographer is world travel to ceaseless adventure, but it’s staring at the computer, taking powerful imagery and “given ‘er” every single day, with no breaks. You aren’t peddling a company’s wares – it’s your LIFE you’re peddling! And in the Olympic Mountains on a tree branch somewhere, there’s a cadre of birds, goblins or elves laughing at me because they know what I already discovered; “Life is awesome” if you step out your front door and make it so.
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Thanks for walking in my shoes for a week, now get outside. I know I am.