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[TR] Mount Olympus - Blue Glacier 2/17/2010


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Trip: Mount Olympus - Blue Glacier


Date: 2/17/2010


Trip Report:

The last few months for me have been revolving around this trip. I really wanted to experience Olympus in the winter, all I needed was a weather window. I’ve been watching the forecasts regularly and finally, last week, the high pressure system I was waiting for was on its way.


I’d thought that Olympus in the winter deserved four days. One day in, one out, and two to climb. The Olympics catch all the precipitation coming in off the Pacific, there should be enough snow to make the going slow. Finding a partner who could swing that much time with so little notice was the big challenge. Putting a call out on cc.com gave me a couple nibbles, but no luck. I was on my own.


I spent pretty much all of Tuesday getting ready. I had to stop at REI for new gloves, among other things. Grocery shopping was also a must, as I attempted to find food with a maximized calorie to weight ratio. I decided that heavily buttered pastries were the ticket. I double and triple checked my list as I packed up. It was a little after 4pm as I ventured out to my long anticipated trip.


I drove past the Hoh and into Forks for dinner and gas. When 9pm rolled around, I could be found in the back of the car curled up in a sleeping bag, reading Dracula and stuffing down a very tasty pizza. I figured this might be my last good night’s sleep for a while, enjoying the company of a real pillow, so I didn’t set an alarm.


The following morning, Wednesday, I woke up at about 6:30, feeling refreshed and ready to go. I tossed things in my pack and made sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind. Just like my last trip to Olympus, I brought the scale with me. The pack and poles weighed in at 58.6 lbs. Darn it… I really thought I had cut down on weight since the last trip when it weighed in at 61 lbs. The ice axe and extra food must have made up for most of the difference.


The first few miles of the Hoh were the most interesting. The two washouts were easy to get around. There were plenty of trees over the trail too, some trivial to get around, some less so. I stopped to take plenty of pictures, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be in the mood on the return trip. When I hit my first planned stop, the guard station at 9 miles, I felt like I was still full from the previous night’s sleeping bag smorgasbord, so I kept going. By the time I hit the bridge at 13 miles, it was noon and I thought it would be smart to fuel the tanks for the uphill battle. There’s a new emergency shelter at Elk Lake to replace the totally smashed one that we saw last year.


The big surprise for this trip was the lack of snow. The first sighting of even a tiny bit of snow was just before the big open meadow with the stream crossing above Elk Lake. Maybe 3100’? When I got to the meadow, the trail was bare and showing. This was not the case last May. El Nino has really done a job on us this winter. By now it was obvious that I’d be able to make Glacier Meadows and this wouldn’t be a four day trip after all.


My sole human contact for the day, a hiker who’d started out from the nine mile camp, had left tracks through the snowy sections of the trail. This prevented even me from getting lost as I made my way to his turnaround point, the first of the three avalanche chutes just before Glacier Meadows. Here I switched to randonee boots and kicked my way across the hard snow. The next gulley was similar. The third one, which was arguably the crux of the trip last May, as we scrambled across steep and loose gravel, was simplified with the installation of a big rope by the park service, which made a mess of my glove liners as I excavated it from the snow and mud. A few more minutes of marching through the woods and I was at camp. The shelters up there had been given a facelift sometime during the last year and they looked stylish and comfortable. Oddly, there was less snow in the meadows this year too. Now there was a stream showing right in front of the shelter, whereas last year the closest source of water was the larger creek behind the shelter.


Being only 3:30, I contemplated what to do. I hadn’t anticipated being able to make camp so quickly, especially at my intentionally slower, several-day-long-trip pace. I filled up the water supply, spread out my gear, and lacking anything better, crawled in the bivy sack. I should have brought my book with me.


The snow around camp was solid, but it’s February after all. No matter how sad the winter, it’s going to get softer and deeper up higher. The only question is how high? I set my alarm for 3:30, noting the similarity to the trip last May with Penoyar. Things were astonishingly similar… except I didn’t get lost on the approach this time.


When the alarm went off, I surprised myself by bouncing out of bed. I felt really good. I have no idea how long I slept, but it must have been at least five hours. At exactly four o’clock I was on the move, marching uphill in the dark.


I guessed my way along, but I remembered that it was best to stay in the gulley as long as possible. There was a good snowy slope coming down off the moraine and I started skinning across the Blue Glacier at 5. It felt very similar to scuba diving, being able to see about 30 feet in any direction, but only a dark void off beyond that. By turning off my headlamp, I could vaguely make out dark blobs that were the rocks formations protruding from the snow on snow dome. The only thing I could have asked for was a nice full moon.


I should introduce the most defining aspect of the climb now. During the approach I saw some snow blowing off the peaks that are visible from the trail. I thought maybe the high pressure system hadn’t fully arrived and maybe things would be better on summit day. A light breeze had moved through Glacier Meadows intermittently during the evening, but nothing to think about at the time. Down low the air was calm.


Back to our story… As I skinned along, I got some of my first tastes of gusts coming down the glacier. Thankfully I had on all my insulating and shell layers. And the new gloves were performing brilliantly. They’d better, considering how much they cost.


At the edge of snow dome, the layers weren’t bonded in a way that was friendly to skins. Oh well, I though, booting is more direct anyways. I guessed the route in the darkness, knowing that there were numerous feasible options last May. Up and over several rolls, with each one the wind intensifying and the snow getting deeper. It was February after all! If only above 5500’! I had one interesting moment when one leg totally punched through to a hidden rock well. By the time I had enough light to determine my location, I found myself to be slogging along beneath the last big pitch that leads up to the top of the dome.


By 7 o’clock I was post holing across the top, staring down the summit. I contemplated returning to my skins, but my stubbornness would have none of that. It won’t be too much longer, I’ll just tough it out. Bad idea. The snow, which was ankle to boot depth at the base of the dome, was now averaging mid-calf. Time moved slowly as I plodded across to the slope beneath the summit. This was one of the worst sections for dealing with the wind. It was whipping all sorts of snow crystals along, which meant the hood stays up or you get your face sand blasted. Thirty feet behind me there was no sign of my own 1-2’ deep tracks!


Tired of the slog, I had delusions that things might solidify on the steeper aspect up ahead. No such luck, although as I started up the pitch, I was pretty sure it was too late to switch to skins now. No sense dwelling on that mistake. And complaining about conditions has never made the summit get any closer. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. When things got too deep, my preferred method was simply crawling on hands and knees. This kept me higher up on the surface. It wasn’t until after I crossed what I thought was around the bergschrund that I looked back and realized that it looked wider from above than from below and I’d crawled across it.


Once I got up to the saddle between the west peak and the false summit, things had finally solidified on the final, heavily wind swept pitch. I crawled up to the highest bit of snow I could find and hunkered down behind a very small icy protrusion just after 8:30. I’d known for a while that the summit was a no-go. The entire thing was completely encased in nasty rime ice. I had one ice tool, two whippets and no poons. It might go with technical crampons and a second tool, but the ice was still lumpy and brittle. My GPS said I was at 7920’. I would have guessed that I was more than 45’ beneath the summit. I probably was. That thing isn’t very accurate.


I tried to rearrange gear and get into skis, but huddling against a cliff on steep snow was not the place to do it. There was a fairly flat spot about 15 feet beneath me. I hopped down there, nearly having my skis blown out of my hand when I emerged from my tiny sanctuary. Crazy.


Skiing down sure beat climbing up, although the snow conditions varied from turn to turn. I felt like a giant sail going across the top of snow dome. It pushed me along some of the flatter spots. Coming down the dome I had a few great turns in powder, but there were lots of sections of hard lumpy ice showing. Most of the trip was on uneven packed powder. I swept as high as I could around the glacier to minimize my climb back up on the moraine. The ski down from there wasn’t bad, and I took off my skis for good about 10 minutes from camp.


The question before I left was if this was going to be a two or three day trip. Now the question was if I’d be able to make it out by dark, which I knew was going to be somewhere between 6 and 6:30. I packed up and moved out of camp just after 11. I thought I’d be able to pull it off as long as my body didn’t go into too much revolt on the hike out.


I stopped at the meadow above Elk Lake to doff the boots in favor of running shoes and replace my socks with fresh ones. This allowed me to put in at the 9 mile guard station with a solid 3 mph pace. I allowed myself a 15 minute break for water and snacks. The final push out saw a slower pace, naturally. Honestly, it was so hellish when we hiked out the last trip, I was steeled for the worst. Maybe it was mental, but it wasn’t until the last 3 or 4 miles that the heavy pack and blisters on my feet even started to make the going unpleasant. I actually enjoyed most of the return trip, which is not at all the norm for Olympus. I saw two small groups and one herd of elk in the last five miles. If you crave solitude, this sure beats summer.


Link to pics:





Gear Notes:

Rope + Helmet + Ice Tool = training weight. Yes, my pack would have just been too light without them.


Approach Notes:

No snow at all till 3100'. Snow was solid up to 5000'. Less snow than last May. If you want to do something this El Nino year, move your plans up a few months.


Plenty of downed trees and washouts to keep you on your toes.

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Thanks guys.


Sloth: Yeah, weird choices of things to bring. I figured crampons wouldn't be necessary because the snow should be soft up high. I didn't really think the summit would be so fully encased in ice like that. I brought the ice tool to help me dry tool my way up the top in case it looked feasible, and the rope was to belay myself down. That was its only purpose. I just didn't want to be denied the last bit because of a lack of gear.


Some day I'm going to do this trip without skis. Maybe I'll leave the 7 pound camera behind next time too, but it's too scenic to resist...

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