Bailey Range Traverse

July 15-20, 2010

Be wise;
Soar not too high to fall; but stoop to rise.

~Philip Massinger

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason Hummel

Sweat drips down my face and I temporarily forget where I am, what I’m doing, and why. Ever so callously realization occurs. Tired shoulders and back sag under a heavy rucksack coupled with skis and boots, worn feet and legs cry “mercy” whenever another switchback begins. Yet between tree branches, I spy distant mountains cloaked in white. My struggles melt away. A smile breaks on my face and I remember: this is the Bailey Range traverse and I am in one of my favorite places in the whole world, Olympic National Park in Washington State.

Joining me is Kyle Miller. I can hear his footfall and deep breathing behind me. We’ve been on several adventures these past two seasons. Many have been like this one: week long excursions deep into mysterious mountains.

Two hours earlier, tourists in shorts and fanny packs outright gawked at us. One beleaguered hiker said, “You can’t be serious….” Another, “You mean there is snow up there?” And best of all, “Damn you guys are hardcore.” If we had just been carrying normal packs and not ski and snowboard gear, a smile and hello would have been typical. But it’s July 15th. Surrounding us is the wettest and one of the largest unspoiled tracks of land in the contiguous United States where approximately 200 inches of rain fall annually and 1,370 square miles are designated as wilderness. The tourists’ reactions were logical enough, considering it’s nearly 90 degrees out!

It’s hard to measure the distance covered on the Bailey Range traverse because there are so few trails. A good estimate considering the summits we wanted to add would be about 70 miles. While there are many variations to exiting that may shorten this, any options that didn’t leave via Mount Olympus should be considered a crime. Standing at 7965 feet, it is the most glaciated non-volcanic peak in the lower 48 states. Completing the Olympus traverse, which crosses this mountain, in addition to the Bailey, would be the cherry on top of an already successful journey.

Our first day ends high over dense forests next to snow patches whose fringes are bristling with glacier lilies. The next morning, I awake to soft sunlight breaking over deer munching those same yellow flowers I had, the day before, tried so hard not to walk over. Such thoughtfulness now forces me to chuckle. I’d be better off sprouting wings and flying than not trampling any as the flowers carpet every square inch of ground. What at first was beautiful, after half a day symbolize our greatest fears. Was there any snow? Were we too late?

Atop Mount Carrie (6995’), views of snowbound peaks ahead wash all our fears away. After an hour I ran out of excuses to stay and joined Kyle, who had already boarded out of sight on the east side of the mountain opposite our earlier ascent. With boots and skis I stride over boulders to snow, snap on my boards, make no attempt to wipe the grin off my face and speed away – turn after turn. Across Eleven Bull Basin was Ruth Peak (6850’), where even before my turns were done, I knew more were to come. “Kyle, do you want to ski that?” It was more a statement than a question. As the sun slipped into the Pacific Ocean, we balanced on top for mere seconds before descending to a pass and from there to a camp above Stephen Lake, whose blue ice shone through dark waters, appearing bottomless, as if it were a window staring down into the farthest reaches of Earth.

Before the morning of our third day is too far along, Kyle and I climb 1000 feet of steep snow to a 6000 foot pass, at which point we descend 2000 feet to Lower Cream Lakes Basin and Last Chance Lake. The latter, whose name fits perfectly for this place where thick, avalanche-bent trees line the shore, appears impossible to negotiate. While Kyle presses on, I reverse course to gentler meadows and a bustling stream where I decide to wait. I mark Kyle’s progress from his growls and curses emanating from the foliage. I am reminded of 16 year-old Billy Everett who first visited this valley in 1885. He would be pleased to know that nothing has changed except for the trees. They are bigger. One fine specimen of Alpine Fir just up the valley is the largest of its kind in the world: 129’ tall and 6’ 8.5” in diameter.

Mount Ferry (6195’) looms over the valley and hints at the geologic forces that shaped the mountains throughout the region. Crumbling shards of broken rock tell a tale: thirty-five million years ago the sea floor crashed into the North American plate. What we are on now was once thousands of feet below the rolling green waves of the Pacific Ocean! Two hours later, atop Mount Ferry, I become swept up by that eternal shaping of the land. It is easy to imagine these mountains flowing from the sea, to picture millions of years passing in seconds and to watch the land move as water. This realization brings the dynamic Earth alive, much like the flora that surrounds me now, from the lanceleaf stonecrop and Olympic violet to the fields of white phlox.

At camp above the headwaters of the Elkhorn River, Kyle and I stargaze. The night is brilliant. In a place known for being so dreary and wet, the only moisture we find is the dew on our tent. It was no different on the morning of our fourth day. We climb from our beds and are blessed with blue skies. We feel as kings; there beyond us is a kingdom to conquer. Nothing would challenge us until miles later, in Queets Basin, where a black bear stares at me with his mouth full of greens and his head cocked. He appears to be considering whether to run or stay. An uncomfortable few moments pass before he decides. We watch him swing his shoulders around and with magnificent power and agility, disappear into the forest. My heart beats again. Surely no man is king of this land?

As we pass waterfalls bursting out of snow, we meet slide alder, willow and blueberry bushes. Skis are packed away. Progress is quick until we enter thick forest. It is there we meet an impassable river canyon. Our best course of action, we decide, is to climb. Pulling on bushes, tree branches and even resorting to digging our hands into moss gets us higher up the mountainside, but in no way nearer to crossing. Between the heat and the effort, we are already hours into what appears to be a fruitless exercise. Our packs come crashing to the ground and after referencing our maps, we come up with a plan. We will reverse our course and this time, we will use crampons, ice axes and even our rope if necessary, to cross the canyon. It works. Soon we wash evergreen needles from our backs, clean out wounds, and drink our fill of clear, crisp water.
An hour before, the Humes Glacier’s lack of foliage was a beacon of white through an ocean of forest green. Now it provides further inspiration. Energy flows back into tired legs as alpenglow races up its slopes, leading us to Blizzard Pass (6000’). There, on a tiny outcrop, Kyle and I fall asleep to sunset’s soft purples, blues and pinks fading to black. Up here, beauty is unabashed by her nakedness.

On our fifth day, Kyle and I stash gear on the Hoh Glacier in preparation for a single day’s mad dash across the Olympus traverse, first completed in August 1938 by George Martin, Bob Scott, and Don Dooley. Each peak falls into line perfectly from the East Peak (7762’) to the Middle (7929’) and West (7969’) peaks. Looking back at all three summits from 3000 feet below on the Blue Glacier, I watch the sun highlight our turns throughout the entire length of the massif.


On the last morning there are no goodbyes to the Bailey Range. Not yet. Those come only as Kyle and I stomp blistered feet onto pavement 21 miles and 8 hours later. While Kyle opens his car, I look over towering forests into pockets of blue sky. The mountains can’t be seen over these mammoth trees, but after 25000 feet of climbing and skiing over their rugged summits and through their overgrown valleys, I didn’t need to view their slopes and pinnacles to know them. Their concealment is part of their attraction and one final example of why the Olympic National Park is one of my favorite places in the whole world.

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Jason Hummel