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Vahallas, Olympus and Vicinity
June 4-10, 2009

Photos and story by Jason


“I think what a joy it is to be alive, and I wonder if I’ll ever leap inward to the root of this flesh and know myself as once I was. The root is there. Whether any act of mine can find it, that remains tangled in the future. But all things a man can do are mine. Any act of mine may do it.”
-Frank Herbert from Children of Dune

>>>>PART ONE (this page)


Day One: Hoh Ranger Station to Elk Lake


The Olympics have names that stir the soul. From Ridge of the Gods to Enchanted Valley, you are left in wonder. In a place you can lose yourself for weeks, where few people go, and time is measured by the sun going up and the sun going down, life is quiet even when it is loud. Even in my 7 days among the trees and glaciers - soul filled to the brim, candle burning from both ends, I have to wonder if these mountains even noticed me?

My ultimate destination the Valhallas, a remote sub-range south of Mount Olympus, were named after Norse Gods. To get there by any route requires a Herculean effort. One made more difficult by the rain forests that fill the valleys and the rains that feed them - on average the most anywhere in the US. 'The Climbers Guide to the Olympic Mountains' suggests the South Fork of the Hoh River as the easiest approach to these mountains. For a skier though, the bushes and terrain pose quite the barrier to entry. Another way was necessary. Last year, Steph Apegg wrote a story in the NWMJ with hints to a line of attack that could work. She and a friend had traversed into Mount Olympus and beyond from the Valhallas. If I could get to Olympus, I could back track their route and reach the Valhallas. Once in the high country, I would wait as long as I could for a window of opportunity.

The ~18 miles to Blue Glacier is along a well worn path. I'd been up it twice, once when I was very young and once as a long day, but never on skis. Kyle Miller, a splitboarder had never been in the area at all. Unemployed and ready to go, I hired him on as motivator and comedian. Past experience told me I'd need both during the long carry in. Never am I happy to carry skis, but Kyle - GOD FORBID - appeared perfectly content to lug a snowboard!!! After escaping the parking lot and stares of, "Are those skis? Where are they going?" we began eating away miles one step at a time.

Throughout we meandered in between trees that take your breath away when looks up keep you gazing long enough to forget to breathe in. In fact, the forest exists unlike so many others I've visited. There is life and vibrancy teaming here, there is a healthy balance that logged and replanted forests are bereft of, and there is a noticeable peace that my being there appears to interrupt, but only if I listen closely. It returns if I am silent. The wind brushes the forest canopy like a theater erupting in cheer, then quiets. Not a breath of wind reaches me until it is long past, and you wonder, "Where did it come from?" I don't think it arrives on its own, but from tree sprites or gnomes testing me to see if I am worthy of nature's notice. Am I listening? Do I see them? Or am I just another man lost in daydream on a long hike in hot and muggy air?

If it wasn't dwellers of the forest on my mind, then it was screaming shoulders crying foul over their mistreatment. There are times I wonder if I will end an old man with a bent back permanently twisted downward from the abuses of my youth. On past Five Mile Island, Olympus Ranger Station, Lewis Meadow, the bridge over Martin Creek, and finally to a spot before Elk Lake, near a stream, we decided to rest for the night and beg forgiveness from our bodies.

That night I dreamed of the days ahead.

Day Two: Elk Lake to Snowdome

With morning came more work and a renewed vigor. Today we'd arrive on snow and glacier where I'd attach skis to feet. Like a fish going back to the sea, putting skis on is like swimming rather than floundering. A long side hill leads to Glacier Meadows where a few washouts leave you dusting off your cloths and shaking out your shoes. Once at the meadows you arrive at a nice shelter. On nearby logs we rested before pulling off our skis and boots and attaching skins. From here we'd finally feel like we were getting somewhere. Nothing like knowing that everything behind is just a turn away.

The Blue Glacier always fascinates me. All low elevation glaciers in the northwest do and every aspect of Mount Olympus is covered in them. It is hard to prove since no measuring station is maintained, but perhaps more snow falls here than Mount Baker or Rainier, where the last two records for annual snowfall have been measured. If these glaciers are any gauge of it, then there could be some basis to those who wonder, "What if?" Besides the Blue Glacier, over Glacier Pass is the Hoh Glacier, on the south face is the Hubert Glacier and further west is one other, an unnamed glacier. For peaks between 6000-8000-ft tall, they give an impression of mountains I'd see in the North Cascades, not on a peninsula near the Pacific Ocean above a rain forest.

We climbed upward and traversed to the skyline before we rolled over the top of Snow Dome, beneath Olympus. Seeing clouds swarming the valleys, we dropped our packs and raced another mile to a col overlooking the Valhallas. I took a plethora of photos, but not much could be seen besides the peaks themselves. It was the valleys we were concerned about finding our way down to and up from. On our way back to our packs, Mount Tom and the White Glacier were calling me, but so were many things. First, food and rest. Although neither was easy to get since the sunset that night was like a good movie you couldn't pull away from. We eventually did, but all we could do is dream of the next one.

Day Three: Mount Olympus Middle and West Peaks, Five Fingers

There were clouds still swarming the valleys so we decided to climb Mount Olympus and see, perhaps, if anything interested us from there. Since we were so close to the top, we didn't get an early start, but once we were moving we were up to the rock in no time. There was no one else anywhere. Once on the summit block, I looked for the easiest route to the top. We had a rope, but it was mostly for rapping down. The climb began very easily along crumbly rock, a staple of this range that once existed at the bottom of the ocean. After traversing a few hundred feet to the east ridgeline, we climbed the last few feet to the top. All the while Klye was in his snowboard boots and I could hear them slipping on the rock. With your ass hanging out over the southeast side of Olympus, you can quickly become disheartened, but the climbing is easy if you keep your head on straight. It isn't the fear you want to lose, but the liking of it you need to welcome. We both had smiles on our faces, so I'm sure we were enjoying our climb. Before we could find excuses to hurry, we looked in every direction from the crown summit of the Olympic Mountains! Godly names are appropriate for godly places. There we were on the summit of Olympus where I wondered if the Greeks had got it wrong and that the throne of Zeus was in fact on the other side of the world?

We descended to the west in two rappels that could've easily been one. At the snow again, I easily convinced Kyle to climb up and over Five Fingers. My plan was to go have a 'look' at the North Face of the Middle Peak of Olympus. After skiing down the other side, I crossed the glacier high, while Kyle was forced to go low. My 'look' turned into me booting all the way to the top before Kyle even reached the base. I stood on top of the route thrilled with the perfect snow conditions. I wrote in my journal and enjoyed the view. When he arrived, we tried to stay on the snow, but it was sluffy so we transitioned to rock and soon were standing on the summit looking back at the way we had come.

There was an icy layer under the thin snow off the summit. I wasn't sure if the upper layer would all come away and fall over the cliffs or if it'd be fine. With extra care, I made sure I didn't hit a rock or become overzealous. Late season snows have for the past few seasons kept me on edge since this experience last June. But once on the face, I was comfortable and had Kyle make several turns for a photo. The terrain was incredible and the skiing was just as awesome.

At the bottom, I found a nice place to jump the schrund. It wasn't until I got to Crystal Pass that I waited for Klye who was forced to a low route once more. The sun was brilliant.

Back at camp, the best of our sunsets awaited us. Also the warmest of the nights we would have. Kyle came over for a time, but I couldn't pull myself away. I stayed on the cliffs looking down and out for hours, until the sun blinked out and vanished. It is in that moment, when the sun speeds around the planet beyond our sight that we can measure the pace at which these hours, days, years are moving away from us at. There is no better thermometer to life than that. To be a witness to it is humbling every single time. My hope is that it would be no different the following night.

Continue to PART II

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