May 25-June 1, 2018
Story and Photos By Jason Hummel
“Hey, did you go to the top of a mountain and ski it,” a six year old boy blurts as I exit the Olympic Mountains after 8 days. When I tell him we most certainly did, he thrusts his chest out and loudly declares, “I’m going to do that!” Looking up to his mom a moment later, he seeks affirmation, “Can I do that?”
Herding her boy, the mother fans his dreams by saying, “Yes, you can ski mountains when you grow up.” As he looks about to ask more questions, she shoes him off. “Now leave the skiers alone.”
During the remaining few feet to the car, the kid disappears into forest with family, and my memories join him, reversing back through days of sweat and shoulder-crushing packs, as heavy as a bear and twice as mean, to relive an adventure of a lifetime. Fortunately, recollection is like an LP record that skips past suffering and focuses purely on the best soul-soothing, mind-bending and awe-melting summits and descents. I suspect the most successful mountain adventurers rewrite their exploits to the point where suffering is only an asterisk and joy an orchestra.
According to Gods and Goblins: a field guide to Place Names of Olympic National Park, the name “Mount Olympus” comes from John Meares, an English captain who viewed the peak from the deck of his ship, the Felice Adventurer, in 1778. Alternatively, to the Quileute Indians, the Olympic Mountains were known as O-Sky, but unlike Olympus, the meaning of that word has been lost, as so much native culture, to the ravages of time and White Man’s conquest of the Americas.
Modern day exploration of Mount Olympus by climbers took another century to begin. The first parties to attempt a summit failed to surmount the highest point and, presumably, mistook sub-summits as their ultimate destination. Only in 1907 did a team of 11 Seattle Mountaineers summit the West Peak, the tallest point on the massif, and become the first to stand atop Mount Olympus.
For skiers, another half century passed before IGY (International Geophysical Year) scientists built a research station near the Blue Glacier in 1957. In the 1959 Mountaineer’s Journal is an entry that reads, “During the winter months the heavy snowfall required the use of skis as several trips were made each month to the [Blue Glacier] cirque to survey movement stakes in the accumulation area.” This was the first time skiing on the peak in known to have occurred.
Decades more would pass before skiers approached the peak again with skiing for recreation in mind. The earliest mention comes from Lowell Skoog’s ski-history website, alpenglow.org where he lists a July, 1979 ski trip via the Hoh River. Skiers in years to come rarely deviated from this party’s route. Lowell himself was likely the first to come at Olympus from somewhere other than the Hoh Valley with skis. His route extended the Bailey Traverse from Bear Pass to Blizzard Pass via the Humes Glacier and Camp Pan to Olympus in 1989. I retraced his route from the Bailey’s in 2011, but included the Olympus Traverse (a 1938 climber’s route that tags all 3 summits of Olympus) and descent of the East Peak of Olympus. Much of the terrain of that adventure retraced what I’d visited two years earlier. At that time, in the spring of 2009, I spent 7 days camping atop the Snow Dome, during which I skied the North Face of Athena, North Face of the Middle Peak, SW Face of the West Peak, and West Face of Hugin, located in the mythical Valhallas (STORY: 7 Days of Wonder). No other information on skiing any of these areas before these trips is known.
After these adventures, I was content to never carry boards to Olympus again, but my Washington Glacier Ski Project piqued my interest once more. At first I studied the glaciers trying to learn the best ways to get to them. Eventually, I discovered more about the peak than I’d known before. That its 7,939′ stature, while considered short by some, is actually the 26th most prominent peak in the country. Or that it’s the third most glaciated peak besides Mount Rainier and Baker outside Alaska! This latter fact was the most relevant to me, as I’d set a goal of 20 new glaciers visited a year (with a hoped for project completion date of 2020). Given that there’s around 250 official and unofficially named glaciers on my list so far, I’m beginning to run out of locations where I can tag more than a couple per excursion. Olympus is among the few exceptions remaining. Even though I’d been to it several times with skis, I’d still missed six glaciers. However, proximity doesn’t equate to easy. Convoluted terrain, large bergschrunds and conditions were only a few of the difficulties. No matter how I cut it, inclement weather was the biggest factor. Per year, over 200 inches of moisture accumulates on Olympus, mostly as snow. Another fun fact: if measurements were taken, it’d likely rank as the snowiest place on Earth.
My ultimate goal in going to Mount Olympus again was to nibble at the corners, to ply away at the glaciers that nestle between cliff and icefall, waterfall and jungle. It was to go to the farthest place out there, and ski off the backside!
DAY ONE: Hoh Ranger station to 9-Mile Camp
“How many days of food are we bringing,” asked Carl? Our packs ranged from 45 to 50 liters and are stuffed like a chipmunk under nut-dropping tourist.
“Ten,” I said. I had less I’m sure, but no more could fit in my pack. Somehow Jake managed to keep his bag from bursting. Even so, with gear hanging off him, I’m reminded of bygone peddlers. Perhaps, like them, we could trade goods for food on the way up the trail? Sadly, I knew there was no relief. We bucked-up and heaved our heavy loads I’d once referred to as ‘refrigerators’ on a previous Olympic adventure (The Olympic Traverse).
Moving from pavement to dirt, we hiked past the Hoh Ranger Station, 573 feet above sea level, and onto the tree-lined path toward Olympus. Countless tourists can’t help but query, “What are you skiing?” Smiles or toothy grins were our best responses. What other answer is sufficient? There’s no mountain to point out to them. No snow in the distance. Only green trees, green moss and green grass as far as the eye can see, which wasn’t far. Any line of sight rarely clears the understory out here. But even if it did, Olympus remains hidden by more than 22 miles of rolling hills and curving valleys. Any destination, if viewable, would only reaffirm our insanity. The lengths to which we’d go to commune with the Snow God, Ullr, has apparently no shame or propriety; we are the quintessential devotees.
Given that our first day only had a handful of hours before dark, due to a 3 p.m. departure, it came as a surprise to arrive at 9-mile Camp with sunlight overhead. Sure, we could’ve kept going, but hurry in such a place seems absurd. Watching Carl and Jake lose themselves in the forest, and to be fascinated by it just as much as I was, lifted my spirits. Convincing skiers to dedicate so much time and effort to follow me is always a worry. Not every adventure lives up to expectation, but every adventure comes prepaid with expectations in tow.
It’s funny, with just camera gear, food and water, I’ve climbed all 44 miles to the summit of Olympus and back, twice, as a day trip! While seemingly more difficult, carrying 10 days of supplies, photography, climbing and ski gear those 9 miles, felt just as exhausting.
Sitting doesn’t often equate to rest I’ve found, but there among friends, my batteries recharged, and I felt ready for another day being submitted to the trials and tribulations of my illegitimate and unapologetic backpack.
DAY TWO: 9-Mile Camp to the Blue Glacier
Morning rose to the mellifluous tweets and twitters of dozens of birds dancing through berry bushes and alders in search of breakfast. Even as loud as street traffic, it’s somehow calming rather than obnoxious to listen to them. Either way, there’s no going back to sleep. Every bird seems to be shouting, “Time to wake-up!” Turns out there’s no need for an electronic alarm when you’ve Mother Nature’s ringing off the hook as soon as the Sun rises.
The Blue Glacier Overlook was another ~9 miles and 4000 vertical gain away. In less than 4 miles, as trail steepened, hearts quickened and feet slowed. Steadily we began to rise from that kingdom of giant trees to the lower slopes of these immense, glaciated peaks named after the home of the Gods – and the contrast was stark. Perhaps rather than black and white, the axiom of opposition or disparity should be green and white, for little else is so divided as jungle and ice.
Skis afoot, we left trail for snow at Glacier Meadows, following instead a stream where winter lingered and provided for continuous skinning. First views of the Blue Glacier come as a shock. At 900 feet thick, the Blue is a valley glacier, and in the contiguous US, there’s few remaining. And this one, like all of them, are on the retreat. Anywhere from 40-200 feet of ice has melted in the past century. There’s no sign of that melting slowing, either.
Imaginary ski lines were drawn, breathtaking views captured while clear sky ruled and, like bobble heads, we stood with necks rotating up and down the massif, over and again, staring like idiots.
Camp was found on a crumbling moraine. It wasn’t our ideal spot. Carl’s nickname, “Rockfall Camp,” hints at the reason. Nevertheless, the scatter chart of rocks atop snow hadn’t any outliers. I’m sure if we weren’t so tired, and not laid on the rocks for so long, better decisions would’ve been made. The best we could do was rest and save whatever foolishness we had remaining for the days to come.
Day 3: Mercury Peak: South Face Ascent, North Face (aka Mercery Rising) and West Face descents
The Ice River Glacier is secluded behind Mercury Peak, a rarely visited location, especially given its proximity to the climber’s trail. These days I wonder if our sense of local exploration has dwindled. People with their route descriptions, maps and GPS’s have more tools than ever before, but maybe too much information has caused congestion rather than dispersion? “The TOP 5!” The BEST of!” Or, perhaps, folks have lost that drive to uncover the unknown because it’s all (supposedly) been done before?
To me, the unknown is uncovering for yourself what’s new and exciting. It’s both walking in the footprints of others and creating your own for future generations to follow. It’s pointing on a map and asking, “What is here?” It’s going there to find out because you need to know. Those question marks are invitations, not do not enter signs. And mystery is fed by the unknown. In life ‘mystery’ is the glue that binds the best moments together into something memorable.
This is why I didn’t go the easy way to the top of Mercery Peak, and to the Ice River Glacier. It’s why I followed the Blue Glacier to it’s head, Glacier Pass (6,200′), and skied the Hoh Glacier to it’s terminus (4,200′). Sure, when Carl and Jake saw that there was no snow for several hundred feet, I was worried they’d rebel, but I should’ve known better; these guys aren’t slouches. They ski over 150 days a year, and boulder-bashing up moraines and steep stream beds was their idea of a breakfast of champions.
Fortunately scrambled wasn’t on the menu!
It was a relief to find snow and an exposed waterfall to fill our bottles with. After drinking as much as we could, we were soon climbing the last remaining feet of the south couloir of Mercury to it’s summit. Atop it, the view left mouths agape, but only until someone caught sight of a steep couloir descending the North Face of Mercury. Carl scouted. With hardly a pause he hollered, “It’s good; it’s only 45 degrees.”
It wasn’t 45 degrees. It wasn’t 50. It was steeper and once my skis drew across it, I was fully engaged with gravity and slipping from first to second, exploding into fifth and we blasted onto the Ice River Glacier – in style!
On glacier-rock slabs, we exploded our gear and chilled, before climbing to a pass and back onto our boot-pack. From there, tired legs returned us to the summit of Mercury and since getting back to camp via a direct route was appealing, we decided to down climb crappy rock. At one point, I honestly felt like I’d have better luck skiing the loose rock than not.
Good thing scrambled wasn’t for dinner either.
As we arrived to snow and began to ski, I erased the last half an hour from my memory banks. My suggestion of skiing the south couloir and reattaining the ridge would’ve been better, but when the train’s a-moving, like the Grateful Dead song, Casey Jones says “…you better watch your speed!” No matter how much ski boots and choss want to be friends, they’re destined to be archenemies.
Over 2000 feet of terrain, the entire West Face of Mercury, flashed by in less than two minutes once skis kissed snow. Before I knew it, we were at Rockfall camp, screaming profanity at no one in particular.
Plans to attain the Snow Dome that night were dashed as energy dissipated with the last rays of daylight. Dinner was served and it was agreed that ‘Perhaps we could move to the Snow Dome tomorrow?”
Once I pulled maps out and was refreshed to my proposed route, I knew we didn’t have a chance. We were about to get our ‘adventuring’ on, and if any fuel remained when we returned to camp, our brains really had been scrambled. Because shit’s about to get real. And ‘real’ rarely fits into an eight hour work day.
Day 4: A circumnavigation of Mt. Olympus Massif (Tour of the Gods), NE Face of Athena II, etc.
The Jeffers, University and Hubert Glaciers were on the table for day four. The Jeffers was named after photographer, Joseph C. Jeffers, who perished while crossing a bergschrund above the glacier in 1924. It may have been named the University Glacier prior to his visit, but confusion persists. The name is now attributed to the glacier west of Jeffers; although what remains today is merely a remanent. Lastly, is the Hubert Glacier, named after the only woman on the original 1907 ascent party of Mt. Olympus, Anna Hubert.
To visit these glaciers proved a challenging logistical problem due to lack of information on skiable routes. Because I was unsure of snowpack, I plotted a dozen primary and secondary options based on maps and Google Earth. If all went to plan, my grand scheme was a full circumnavigation of Mount Olympus via her glaciers. Such travel is normally limited to volcanoes, but here was an opportunity to blaze a ski route unlike any other in the Cascades, especially on such a remote peak. For that, an appropriate name was needed. Since Olympus was named after the home of the Gods, and the surrounding peaks bear names of Gods, I christened this route The Tour of the Gods.
Under broken clouds, we approached Athena II by recrossing Glacier Pass to the Hoh Glacier. To reach the summit, we zigzagged through a web of crevasses and schrunds before reaching the summit ridge. From there I creeped my way to the edge of the SE Face to get a better look at my proposed descent to Jeffers Glacier. Deep down, I’d hoped it would go, but hope felt fragile as I looked over. Only when fantasy met reality, and white met white, did the way became clear. And what a way!
Moments later, we stood on the summit of Athena II. All the way back in 1890 a three person party from the O’Neil expedition likely attained this summit, making their ascent the first significant one on the massif. Record of their climb was left behind, 400 feet below the summit, in the form of a copper box full of mementoes and register. To this day, it has never been found.
Sluff management becomes increasingly necessary on the descent, so Carl went first and we linked up twice in safe zones before arriving onto Jeffers Glacier. That satisfied moment, at least for this glacier-visiting fool, was short-lived as our skis quickly ferried us to a low point on the glacier before we switched to climbing-mode. Ups and downs continued until fog and clouds, thus far held at bay by Olympus, finally swamped us as we crested a 6350′ pass above the University Glacier. From then on, views of the Hubert Glacier were relegated to feet during most of the descent, which didn’t serve us, as we were forced to circumvent large rock and ice cliffs by brail.
As we dropped below clouds, an understory of waterfalls, cliffs and couloirs tickled our fancy. Eventually, slack-jawed, we were left with no words, just mystery and illusion, hints and suggestions of what exists here. Homer once wrote, “No wind ever shakes the untroubled peace of Olympus; no rain ever falls there or snow; but the cloudless firmament stretches around it on all sides and the white glory of sunshine is diffused upon its walls.” The gateway of Olympus is said to have been guarded by the Hours, or Horea and was a great gate made entirely of clouds. Such mythology vacillates between fact and fiction under the supervision of minds blown by the specter of such incredible beauty. Photos failed to capture what our eyes easily saw. Where cameras failed, memory never would; this is the most incredible place I’ve ever been to in the Olympics.
The climb to the Snow Dome is attained by a 3500′ face, overhung by a massive icefall and an unnamed glacier. Such a significant river of ice shouldn’t go without a name, so I submit Zephyros, the God of Spring and the West Wind, for the glacier, and Ironside (a name Jake came up with) for the ski route on the SW Face of Olympus.
A few rock slabs were climbed, but could’ve been avoided. Throughout, we switched leads a dozen times, as tired legs refused to comply. While feet slowed, evening stretched far longer than it had any right to and, increasingly, we came under its spell. How could we not? From above, waves of cobalt clouds tossed across this sea of liquid air; subtle splashes of orange and red alpenglow washed over the horizon, threatening to pull us under, if we misstepped; and every transmutation of light a premonition of night’s steady approach.
Over a high pass (7400′), we came into view of what remained of sunset, now a fading red-orange line across the horizon – and the Pacific Ocean. A skittering descent across the length of Olympus ensued. Like birds of prey, fighting wind and fading yells too slow to keep pace, we plunged toward camp on the Blue Glacier, swooping back and forth in search of a way between rock fields. We circled the dying seconds of an unbelievable day before being consumed by darkness and fog.
Back at camp we called this day as we saw it, “The best we’d ever had!” In my life there’s been many so-called days, certainly, but should the feeling ever be marginalized by comparison? A great day is just that, and when I closed my eyes and slept, no dreams filled my head, only recollections of such a day – such a fantastic day – as this had been.
Day 5 and 6: Snow Dome, White and Black Glaciers
The next morning was to be filled with skiing and moving camp to Snow Dome. Yet all that resulted by noon was a lot of gear shuffling and laying about. When doing nothing was everything we, doers all, could manage, then good work’s been done, and a break was justified.
Once our roots were reestablished atop the Snow Dome, the earlier lounging continued unassuaged by the perfect snow and beautiful day around us.
The sixth day’s plan was to tackle the final two glaciers on Olympus, the Black and White. Whoever named these glaciers must’ve had something to do with selecting Blue as well, since each name isn’t particularly imaginative. This shouldn’t detract from the place, though; they are obscure and wild, beasts as different as much as they are the same.
My plan was to try the 3rd class entry to the White Glacier. A dawn wake-up and climb brought us to what I thought was the right place. After two rappels we realized we were in the wrong spot. If snow were softer, we could’ve skied down, but it was icy, and Carl and Jake were shaken after attempts to ski were allayed by fear, and the prospect of slipping. We wisely retreated, no worse for wear.
Failure wasn’t a closed door, but an opportunity for changing the game. Since we’re skiers, a skier’s route was preferred. When, two days before, we’d climbed the SW Face, I’d visually scouted a route over Mount Tom. While perfect, there was the problem of an added 5000 vertical gain to our day. That’s not all. Since terrain is steep and exposed, softened snow was advised. This limited daylight hours for a big day, but that worried me less than the incoming weather.
After we’d burned a few hours on our failed shortcut, we arrived to the upper SW Face (aka Ironside) at 11 a.m., to perfect conditions. Worries blew off and were left in a splash of snow as we took flight down this 3000 foot face. Even as curtains of clouds about us closed in, our corner of these mountains glowed in mid-day sun and impossibly bright skier-smiles, which began to wilt as snow hardened near the valley bottom. This time we avoided those rock bands we’d climbed two days earlier and, once beyond, were again in that waterfall-lined valley whose wiles had held minds and eyes hostage during the last hours of climbing on the Tour of the Gods.
Our island of good weather sunk into an ocean of fog, as we ascended the 2000 foot climb over the shoulder of Mount Tom. Weather was as flighty as Carl is skiing over schrunds, so we paused only to eat at a small pass, before diving back into the soup, noodling turns like blind mice. Clouds would either blow through or not. Using my powers of persuasion, I smooth-talked Mt. Tom, plying him with my remaining Mountain House meals for access to terrain ahead. He baulked at my offer, but asked if I would instead send his love to Mt. Athena on my way out. I guess Tom has a crush. Go Tom.
The offer must’ve worked because clouds scurried away as we arrived at 4900 feet, near the base of White Glacier. Above us lay a narrow couloir that all of us agreed, as Carl had suggested on Mercury, was “…just 45 degrees.” This time we were all wrong. It was steeper. Jake and Carl’s rule of thumb was, “If Jason pulls out his axe and crampons, I’m going another way.” Turns out I only use these things when it’s exceptionally steep or gnarly.
Jake was in the lead as we neared the top of the couloir. I itched to yell out, “Does it go?” Somehow I held off asking until I was nearly there, seconds from seeing for myself. The anxiety I had built up in me swooshed out into the swirling clouds above, dissipating into sweet nothings like Mt. Tom shared with Athena, as the way to the Black Glacier was revealed. At last, the final glacier on Olympus was within reach. Of all the glaciers in Washington, this may be one of it’s most remote. Although, knowing what I know now, it’s not so hard anymore. Retrospect is like that, a colored pair of glasses that often ignores challenges inherent to the unknown. While nothing we did was particularly hard, it was for me, and that’s all that matters.
This time, with skis, Carl wasn’t puckered on our return trip down the couloir. Festooned with two laminated wood and metal boards, he transformed into a knight-errant. So endowed I could see him repeating what Cervantes says in Don Quixote, “Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”
The return skin on the White Glacier was swamped in cloud. It seems my bargain with Mt. Tom was concluded, so instead of gawking at views, our eyes were pasted to ski tips as we retraced our tracks. With such a perspective, it was hard to avoid seeing all the glacier worms. Come evening they climb from snowy depths to surface by the millions. More? So many, after second thought, I wondered if more glacier worms live on Olympus than humans on Earth? Maybe instead of being the home of the Gods, this is the home of the lowly worm.
Returned to the col on Mt. Tom’s North Ridge, we dropped 2000 feet, entering once more that secluded valley we’re so intoxicated by. Turning out eyes away became easier as fog enfolded us, but peepholes into mountainous ramparts gave us pause more than once. Yet, even with stolen moments to ogle at the views, we flew up the mountain, and arrived at the pass beneath the West Peak of Olympus well before dark. We’d finished over 9000 vertical feet of gain in around 9 hours.
Back at camp I sat with a smile on my face, followed by a big shit-eating grin.
Day 7 and 8: Snow Dome to Trailhead
Snow tap danced on the tent and hurry to rise didn’t seem so important. Carl said, “Now that you’re glaciers are done, you’re DONE.” I laughed and told him that was a lie, but he refused to believe me. Somewhere deep down, I know he’s right. Goals feed into my stubborn nature. They are the key to getting me out there, the push to take me that extra bit further.
When we rolled from tents like walruses from sandy island shores, we merely took stock of our food stores and threw all calculations we’d earlier been subjected to off the proverbial mountain. A forecast told us weather was changing, not that we needed a forecast to know what was happening right over our heads. Nevertheless, the remaining 4 days of food had to go. Bartering over the week prior became a ‘free’ pile for any and all to take from. Long hours of eating and laying about finally shifted into consolidating our gear into packs for the ski of Olympus.
As we cast our huge loads and selves down Snow Dome’s headwall, perfect snow flying in all directions, shame nearly overwhelmed me. Great skiing was to be had and we were leaving! Slipping skis from foot and booting up the moraine above Glacier Meadows, I took pause at the rim to look back one more time. My shame was fading. The ‘up’ has a way of reminding you how tired you really are. Back to viewing Olympus, I wiped sweat from my brow and shook loose all those memories I’ve collected on this mountain – from a childhood climb of Olympus, to single day round trip summits, to ski adventures of every nock and cranny. Meeting memories in the places they were made always makes me smile.
Back in the present, I decided to race Carl across snow and rocks, but only ended up catching my ski tips and nearly kissed the rocks with my face. Scrambled, it seems, is always on the menu, especially when you order it ‘to-go’.
Back on the trail, the humdrum of feet melted into the rustle of forest and whir of rapids on the Hoh River. Past washouts, fallen logs and bridges the miles chased minutes and hours. Under a light rain, we returned to 9-Mile Camp. Sitting on a river shore held more promise than sitting through a long car ride only to arrive home well past midnight, so we turned out our bags and pitched camp. After a fire was blazing the sun came out and staying felt that much better.
On the final day, the toil of heavy packs didn’t seem so crushing, at least at first. We churned out 9 miles in less than three hours without a single stop. I’d asked, for the sake of a laugh, the last ten people I pasted, “How close is the beer?”
Funny thing is, I don’t even like beer, but passerby’s answered with enthusiasm. “It’s just around the corner.” “Do you have a cooler.” “You have some for me!” Each response kept spirits (pun intended) high all the way to the trailhead.
As pavement passed underfoot and my pack threatened to tear my shoulders apart, I was reminded of the first guy to ever cross Canada in a canoe. His shoulders literally separated from paddling too much. Could that happen from overweight ski packs? Right then, I thought so. All I wanted to do was let this pack thunder to the ground like the explosion we’d heard earlier that day in the forest. We later realized a tree had fallen. One of the giants.
In that moment, a hundred feet from my car, I pulled to a crushing stop. This was where the kid I’d mentioned at the beginning of this story asked me, “Hey, did you go to the top of a mountain and ski it?” If you’ll remember, he was excited to know if he could ski mountains, as he should. Hopefully when he’s grown, he’ll retrace our footsteps and those that came before us, and draw his own tracks above the jungles of the great and mighty Olympic Mountains….
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