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Ascent of Mount Olympus on 2007-09-02

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Dan B. Dennis P. (Adam H.)
Date:Sunday, September 2, 2007
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Olympus
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:7969 ft / 2428 m

Ascent Trip Report

Introduction:

This trip was proposed in March 2007 by my friend Adam, who wanted to climb Mount Olympus as a group shakedown of sorts prior to a Denali climb in 2008 or 2009. I had already been to Denali, but Adam knew that I wanted this summit badly, since I had been turned back about 20 feet from the top in 1992 during a foolish solo attempt. My 15-year old memory of the route was supposed to help us out, I guess.

The membership fluctuated quite a bit during the subsequent months, but by late August there appeared to be six committed climbers. Unfortunately, one of them, Richard, became ill during a trip to Asia and had to bail at the last minute. So the rest of us exchanged information about our cars and agreed to meet at noon at the trailhead for a four-day climb.

Friday, August 31:

I woke up at 5 AM, left home at 5:30 AM, and was in plenty of time to catch the 6:30 ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. I stopped in Port Angeles a little after 9 to pick up our reserved wilderness camping permit ($35.00 after a wait in a surprisingly long line), then headed west to Forks and the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. Pulling in to the overnight parking area at 10:40 AM, I saw a truck with Oregon plates, and soon met Dennis, who had spent the night at the trailhead. We were chatting and sorting gear for about a half-hour when Dan and Adam arrived—they had flown up from California the day before.

I had climbed with Adam a few times over the past 2 years; Dan and Dennis had done a couple of big peaks together; and Dan and Adam had teamed up for a desert hike not long before. So we all got acquainted or reacquainted as we organized our stuff and divided up group gear. It was raining as we did this, and the shelter of our car hatches was useful. The major annoyance was a park employee leaf-blowing loudly nearby. Also, we were waiting for Terry, our 5th member.

The four of us were ready by 11:30 AM or so, but we waited until noon for Terry to arrive, but he never came. He had left no contact number, and we phoned Richard, sick back in California, but he had no idea where he was. By 12:45 PM it was getting late so we decided to take off, and I left a note for Terry with the rangers in case he was late. (We later found out he had a major car breakdown on his way through Los Angeles, and he thought he had left a cellphone message for us).

So we set off up the Hoh River Trail at 12:50 PM with our 50 to 60 pound packs, posing in front of the sign that read “Glacier Meadows – 17.3 miles”. It rained intermittently pretty much all day, but we were not concerned—the forecast called for sunny days on Saturday and Sunday, with rain arriving late on Sunday and continuing into Monday. We were hopeful that that weather window would be enough for us.

The Hoh River trail was flat, easy going for the next 9 miles or so, and we trudged along, chatting among ourselves and taking rests every hour or so. The rainforest was beautiful, and I actually liked the misty drizzle and light rain—it seemed appropriate, after all. Fifteen years ago I had hiked this trail on a blistering hot day in a drought year, and it didn’t seem much like a rain forest to me then.

By about 5 PM we had hiked the 9.1 miles to the Olympus Guard Station, our reserved camping area for the night. There was a ranger in residence there in a little cabin, and we chatted with him about our plans. We thought about going on a bit more, and he told us that we were allowed to deviate from our reserved itinerary and camp at Lewis Meadows, another 1.4 miles further. We all wanted to get more miles behind us, and I thought it would be more quiet and peaceful away from the cabin area, so we shouldered up our packs and headed out again.

We were at Lewis Meadows shortly, and we scouted out campsites before settling on one on a gravel bar, where the soft sand promised nice tent surfaces. We were close to the roar of the glacially cold and silty Hoh River (where I was careful not to use my water filter due to silt clogging). Dan and Dennis shared one small tent, while Adam and I used my ancient A-frame tent, which I had used 15 years ago on this very trail.

It rained lightly off and on all evening as Adam orchestrated one of his gourmet backcountry meal preparation spectaculars—it was a tasty pasta meal that was very filling. We had camped kind of late, so once we were done with dinner it was getting dark and we turned in.

Saturday, September 1:

Today was the nicest weather day of the entire trip, a largely sunny, warm, and pleasant day. Unfortunately, it was also the day we did the least—all we did was hike 8.2 miles and gain 3300 vertical feet, all on a well-maintained trail.

We left behind some food at Lewis Meadow, hanging it from the Park Service bear wire, and took off for the day’s hike. Our heavy packs were kind of a drag as we puffed uphill, but we managed the hike from Lewis Meadow to Glacier Meadows from about 8 AM to 1 PM. Landmarks along the way were more undulating riverside trail; my old trailside campsite from fifteen years ago; the High Hoh bridge hundreds of feet above a chasm; a lean-to caved in by a massive falling tree at Elk Lake; our first views of glaciated terrain above; and a badly washed-our trail section traversing loose dirt of a landslide in a ravine.

Glacier Meadows was deserted when we arrived, and we had our pick of campsites. After scouting I suggested the same one I had used in 1992, the highest and more isolated, number 16. Two tents would not fit in the site, so Dan and Dennis set up camp in the next one down. After getting set up we lounged about, ate, and napped a bit, savoring a rare lazy afternoon in the mountains.

At about 4 PM, though, I roused everyone so we could practice crevasse rescue. This did not work out too well, since there was not a lot of space in the forest to string out the rope and we couldn’t easily set up solid anchors to do real hauling. We had all has this training before, though, and it was good to get a bit re-acquainted with the whole rope management thing.

After this we hung out some more, and Adam whipped up another culinary creation from our food bags and his magic case of condiments. We also wandered around the campsite and met the others who were planning on climbing Olympus the next day. One of them was Bob, a friendly older gentleman from Miami who wanted to climb but was still waiting for his brother to bring up his ice-axe—his fear was that the predicted rain would make their planned Monday climb a washout. There was also a young Norwegian couple, Andre and Kley (unsure of spelling) planning on a summit attempt, and two Asian Indian climbers from Seattle (I incorrectly guessed they worked at Microsoft).

Dan, Dennis, Adam, and I retired to our tents not long after nightfall and set our alarms for 4 AM, hoping to get hiking by 5 AM. As Adam and I chatted in our sleeping bags, though, he expressed a high level of anxiety about the upcoming climb and wondered if his conditioning, his ripped boot, his nagging leg injury, and his experience level were in a state for the serious undertaking ahead. Since he had been the fastest hiker of the four of us on the approach, I told him he seemed in excellent shape. And I also mentioned that when recounting my 15-year old recollections of the route I had not meant to make it sound too intimidating, and that reports of “ice walls” may be exaggerated. I finally drifted off to sleep, assuming that in the morning Adam would as ready to go as usual.

Sunday, September 2:

My alarm chirped at 4 AM, and I lay awake for a bit, chatting with Adam. He quickly made up his mind that he was not going for the summit, due to lingering injuries, footwear issues, a lack of conditioning, doubts about the route, and a general lack of desire for the summit. I finally stopped trying to convince him to come, and instead I walked down to Dan and Dennis’s tent to rouse them and then started getting organized. I ate a rushed cold breakfast, threw my rope, rock pro, crampons, and other stuff in my pack, and by 4:50 I was surprised that Dan and Dennis were ready. I shouldered my pack and the three of us headed down to the main trail.

At the main area of the campsite we saw Bob, and he asked if only three of us were summit-bound. We told him Adam was staying back, and he asked about borrowing his ice-axe, since his brother had still not arrived with it. We said Adam would likely be happy to loan it out, allowing Bob to team up with Andre and Kley. Then we set up towards the Blue Glacier moraine, our headlamps necessary in the predawn dark—the sky was a bit overcast, but the ceiling seemed pretty high.

The trail up from Glacier Meadows was fine, and once out of the trees we were in strong wind. I saw a white shape with a light in one corner ahead, thinking it was a tent, but it turned out to be a mountain goat with its eye reflecting back to us. Dan had never seen one and was excited, but he was hard to see and photograph it in the dark.

By twilight we had climbed about 1000 vertical feet to the crest of the moraine, where a spectacular view of the craggy, ice-clad Olympus massif was suddenly dominating the view to our right under the high overcast clouds. The trail went along the crest of the moraine for a bit, then dropped down about 200 vertical feet on a very evident steep path over very loose scree. At the base of the moraine we were on a snowfield at the edge of the Blue Glacier, a wide frozen river of ice we had to cross to get to the slopes of Olympus. Here we took a rest, put on our harnesses and crampons, roped up, and Dan and Dennis cached their trekking poles. Bob showed up here, too, ahead of his teammates, planning to wait for them before crossing the glacier.

I had Dennis go first across the Blue Glacier, since he had been on a glacier (the Kahiltna on Denali in June) more recently than either Dan or I. He picked a nice route across the bare blue-gray ice, avoiding or jumping the generally small crevasses. We were aiming for a triangular rock buttress on the Snow Dome wall on the other side, but as we neared it the slots started opening up a bit. We had to backtrack a bit, then found a good ridge between two deep chasms to gain the snowfield at the edge of the glacier. Once on the snow I suggested that we move up its gentle slopes a bit, since it seemed to me we crossed the glacier a bit too low. But the snow quickly led into more messy crevassed areas, so we bailed off the snow to an area of slabs.

Here we unroped and took off our crampons (these gear changeovers would become the theme of the day). We noticed that Bob was crossing the glacier by himself, a bit higher, but we decided to start our ascent of the Snow Dome here anyway. However, we probably did not pick the best place to start—the slabs were steep and slippery, so we traversed north a bit to an area of ugly unconsolidated dirt and loose rock. Here we found separate ways up the steep moraine slope, passing a giant pile of pipes that seemed kind of incongruous here.

Once atop this small moraine the terrain got easier, and we followed gentle slopes of grass, slabs, and talus uphill, our goal being the white crest of the Snow Dome we could see above. Sporadic cairns appeared, making us think we were on the right route. The weather was still party sunny, and I was optimistic it would hold, but the wind was pretty fierce. After a bit we followed the side of a snowfield uphill on the rocks next to it, and we arrived at a spot where it was clear it was now time to get back on to the snow. So we took another rest to rope up and re-don crampons.

Here Bob suddenly appeared, after using his (likely better) route up from the Blue Glacier. Andre and Kley were right behind him, and they prepared to rope up, too. We left first, and I took the lead, making broad switchbacks up the steepening snow slopes as I led Dan and Dennis uphill. Soon we were above the rock buttresses, and a couple more switchbacks brought us to the broad, flat crest of the Snow Dome. We now had to head south to Crystal Pass, and I stopped briefly to check my route descriptions to make sure I knew which notch in the crags of the summit mass ahead was the right one. Sharp-eyed Dan pointed out a boot-track weaving around crevasses towards the pass my maps identified, so I started making an arc towards that.

The views from the Snow Dome were awesome, but we could clearly see dark weather off to the west, and I think Dennis commented that it was raining out there. Our ceiling was lowering, too, and the wind was strong. I had a bad feeling about the weather, but I fervently hoped it would hold for another couple or hours. Sometimes these storms arrived early, and this seemed like one of them.

The Weather Moves In

We made our arc around a large area of big slots in the Snow Dome glacier, and soon picked up the faint boot-track that traversed left towards Crystal Pass, passing over a couple of very distinct snowbridges. I was glad we were roped up—these were very big holes. I was worried about Crystal Pass, since there were reports of an “ice wall”, but I was pleasantly surprised that there was just one footstep of rock at the crest of the notch, and on the other side a 15-foot high section of steep snow—certainly no “ice wall”. I led up the steep snow, using my ice axe pick like an ice tool, and once on top I used a boot-axe belay to get Dan and then Dennis up top.

Here I noticed a few rain drops, but they did not continue—more concerning was the rapidly lowering cloud ceiling. As we started up the glacier, now on the “back side” of the Five Fingers ridge, we followed a faint boot track that avoided more huge crevasses, heading for what I seemed to recall was the false summit. I knew we crossed the rock just to the left of the false summit, so I headed our team towards that crag. However, it was not long before we were in intermittent clouds that soon became a total white-out.

Also, I lost the boot-track, so Dennis and I checked our GPS units and after some more progress realized that we were off track, and we had to turn around to get to the false summit—I was glad I had pre-loaded these points into my GPS. I yelled that Dennis, last on the rope, should head uphill as the first person, so I was now last as we headed towards the false summit. Dennis soon hit a steep, crevassed slope, though, and we were confused and going in different directions for a bit until Dan rediscovered the boot track and I then led as we followed it very shortly to the rock just left of the false summit.

The white-out was now total, and a heavy mist was beginning to get us a little wet. As we took off our crampons for the next section of rock, the team of Andre, Kley, and Bob materialized behind us, having followed in our tracks. From where we were, we could barely see the final summit pinnacle rising in the clouds beyond the false summit, and I pointed it out to everyone. Given the weather, I think that my previous experience on the peak really helped here, since I doubt the other five climbers with me could have figured out where to go at this point.

I did tell Dan and Dennis that if they wanted to turn back, I would honor that wish, given the deteriorating weather. But I think we all realized that we had come too far to let a misty white-out deter us at this point, with the goal in sight (sort of).

Our next obstacle was a short traverse around the base of the false summit on Class 4 ledges of pretty rotten rock. I led, Dennis followed, and Dan came last, a bit shaken by the exposure and rock quality. We regrouped at the false summit/true summit col, and Dan said he would have preferred a belay on that traverse, but it had been too late to ask for one.

We now had to don our crampons again for a short, steep slope of snow that rose up into the mist—we could not see clearly where it ended, about halfway up the side of the rock summit pinnacle. So we started up the slope, unroped, and it soon got pretty steep as the other party climbed up parallel to us. The steepness was starting to unnerve me, especially since I had taken a serious fall on steep snow back in July. So about halfway up I turned to Dan, right behind me, and told him that if he wanted a belay, he just had to say the word. He thought for a second, and then he deadpanned: “the word.”

So I took the picket off Dan’s pack, jammed it in, clipped Dan and myself in to it with webbing, took off my pack, clipped that in, removed the rope from my pack, tied myself into the rope, and then got Dan set up to belay me. Meanwhile, Dennis clipped in, too. I took off up the steep slope, now belayed, placed an intermediate picket, then reached the top of the slope and placed a third picket as an anchor. I now could belay Dan and then Dennis up the slope top roped. All this took a bit of time, during which Andre, Kley, and Bob passed us for good. This slope was probably about 50-60 degrees and the snow was kind of hard, so good steps and self-belays were difficult.

The Summit Rock Climb

Now we were on the relatively flat hogsback of snow at the base of the rock summit pinnacle, rising into the mist. I recalled my unsuccessful efforts from years ago to scale it and had done research on the best route. There were supposedly good scramble routes not requiring a rope, and indeed Andre, Kley, and Bob had started scrambling up the west (right-hand) side of the pinnacle with only their 20-meter rope. But the rock was notoriously rotten, it was wet from mist, routefinding would hard in a white-out, and our party would need belays or fixed lines wherever we went. So it seemed best to simply climb the 5.4 face of the pinnacle directly in front of us as a full-on protected rock climb on reportedly good rock, rather than waste time looking for other routes where we’d need to belay anyway.

It took a while to get set up for the rock climb—we took off our crampons, reconfigured the single glacier rope into a double lead climbing rope, set up a picket in the snow for an anchor, and got out my rack of cams and nuts. I had previously asked if Dan had wanted to lead the climb, since my alpine leads on rock had all been in the 1996-98 period, but he still deferred to me. So Dan belayed and I set off up the face.

I made a pretty good mess of the climb, too, really showing my recent lack of experience. I have no idea if I followed a standard route or not, and to avoid a particularly steep cliff I made a big reversed-“C” path upward. I put in three pieces of protection, but clipped the rope in with short runners that contributed to huge rope drag as it went around the “C”. Also, at one ledge I could not avoid sending huge amounts of loose rock cascading down, fortunately not hitting my companions below. And, halfway up, it finally started raining in earnest, quickly soaking me and all our gear. The main issue was the rope drag, though, and it was so bad I had laboriously pull up slack before making any moves. So when I came to a rappel sling around a rock and thought I saw the summit not far above, I decided to stop and belay the others up.

I clipped in to the old rappel sling, added a fresh runner around the same bombproof rock, and then it took a massive effort to pull the remaining rope through the rope-drag inducing protection until it was taut to Dan. I then belayed him up—he had to follow my convoluted route and remove my protection, but I had forgotten to give him my chock pick and he was forced to leave behind some of my nuts—at least my placements had been good, I guess. Dan climbed well, and avoided kicking the loose rock that I had sent down.

Once Dan was up, he untied and I told him to scramble up to the summit, barely visible in the mist above. I then threw the rope down to Dennis, waiting patiently below, and he was fortunately able to scramble to where it fell, directly below me. Dennis then tied in and started climbing the face, but it would have been difficult and dangerous for him to follow the “C” route Dan and I had taken, since he was on a direct top rope. So he climbed straight up on a harder route, maybe 5.6 or more, helped by my belay that no longer had rope drag issues.

Dennis arrived at my belay, and I told him Dan was on top, just above, but actually Dan was right behind me, asking for a belay to the summit. So Dan tied in, and I scrambled up the remaining 30 vertical feet, unbelayed and trailing the rope. During this minute it finally was sinking in to me that I was at last climbing this mountain after so much time and effort, and I was swearing profusely in a kind of weird joyful outburst. Below, however, Dan and Dennis thought my profanity was due to nasty route conditions—it was actually the opposite.

Once up there, a quick glance at a sliver Mazamas register box told me that indeed I was at the summit. First I located a solid rock horn, threw a sling around it, and belayed Dan up quickly, followed by Dennis (who could have scrambled it but took advantage of the rope). We had reached the summit of Mount Olympus at last, but in a windy, rainy white-out with visibility of maybe 50 feet.

Needless to say, we did not stay long. We congratulated each other heartily, did not sign the register that consisted of a plastic bag with random pieces of paper, and took a few photos (Dan has his camera in his pocket). We also performed the peakbagger’s ritual of scampering about to touch all the higher protruding rocks. After less than five minutes it was time to go—we had a long way to get down and the weather was getting worse and worse.

The Descent

We located a huge solid boulder on the north side of the summit area with about 20 rappel slings around it, and an obvious steep chute leading down into the mist. I had a pretty good feeling that our rock climb route was not a usual one, and I had read that a single 160 meter rope was all you needed for the standard summit rappel. So we decided to rappel this route, despite not having climbed it. To make sure we were safe we added a new backup sling to the collection already there, knotted the bottom ends of the rope, and even made prusik backups to slide down with us. I tossed the rope, and Dan went down first, after I thoroughly checked his harness and gear. I could just make out Dan below when he got off the rope, and Dennis went next. I went last, having a bit of trouble sliding my backup prussik down, but it was still a lifesaver to descend 100 vertical feet quickly. The rappel left me in a rocky area near the northwest base of the peak, where I then untied, pulled the rope (thankfully it came down with no issues), coiled it up, and then did the easy scramble down and then up to our packs on the snow at the base of the summit block.

At least we were now off the technical rock climb, but we had a long road ahead—the steep snow, the class 4 false summit traverse, Crystal Pass, the Snow Dome, the Blue Glacier—and our camp seemed a million miles away to me. All we could do was take one thing at a time. While Dan was rappelling, Dennis and I had chatted and agreed that we had been wetter, colder, and more miserable in the mountains before, and it is true that we were not in any kind of dire straits. But the nasty weather and remoteness (Andre, Kley, and Bob were now long gone) did lend an air of seriousness and pressure to our efforts.

To descend the steep snow slope we rappelled, using the picket we had set earlier as an anchor—Andre, Kley, and Bob has used it, too. Dan went first, and Dennis and I briefly tried to dig a snow bollard for ourselves so we didn’t have to abandon the picket. But the atrocious weather and need for speed convinced us to simply use the picket and leave it for the next party to use and/or keep. So after our rappels and a short hike on low-angle snow the three of us were at the summit/false summit col, where we took off our crampons. I asked Dan if he wanted a belay for the short, rocky false summit traverse on crumbly ledges (he had mentioned earlier that he had wished for one on the way up), but he said he’d be fine, so we carefully scrambled over to a windy notch and then down to the start of the snow.

Here we halted yet again, to put our crampons on, grab a quick bite, and rope up for glacier travel. The weather was now an almost complete white-out with heavy wind-whipped rain. Worried about navigation, Dennis and I both put fresh GPS batteries in our devices in case we could not follow our upward path. I led our team, and at first I was able to follow the faint boot track that theoretically now had nine pairs of feet on it today already. But it was hard to follow in the white-out and the wind and rain may have been starting to obscure it. The big mistake I made, though, was following the path we had made earlier today when we got lost. Checking the GPS, I could see we were heading away from my Crystal Pass waypoint.

So I left the path and started heading the right way—without the GPS we would have been really hosed, utterly lost in a cloud. Also, the glacier was full of huge, yawning crevasses, and when they suddenly came up on us I had to parallel them until I could find a snowbridge and resume our course. Dan and Dennis did a great job of rope management as we zig-zagged around these slots, and once or twice we carefully maintained the rope taut for a partner making a perilous crossing. To me, this brief stretch was the most harrowing part of the climb, pathless in a crevasse field in a while-out. However, at about the third snowbridge I was overjoyed to see that we were now rejoining the very clear boot track that we (and the other party) had made earlier. We didn’t lose it again, and a few minutes later we had arrived at the top of the short, steep snow slope above Crystal Pass.

We boot-axe belayed each other down this short slope, crossed the pass, and then hustled down the boot track to the expanse of the Snow Dome. The wind was very strong here, blowing drenching rain all over us as I blindly led us down the boot track. It was nice to have GPS confirmation that we were going the right way, too, since visibility was still basically nil. Once we started descending off the Snow Dome, though, we emerged from the cloud that engulfed the upper mountain. After switchbacking down the steep snow of the east face of the Snow Dome we came to the rocky spot where we had roped up while ascending, and here we rested, unroped, and took off crampons, feeling much better now that we were out of the cloud and the rain had even eased up.

We next hiked easily down slabs and heather, following our upward GPS track until it ran out, and then scrambled down some miserable loose dirt and rock, near where we had come up. Next obstacle was the Blue Glacier, and we didn’t rope up this time, since the crevasses were all small and obvious. Dennis led us across, finding a great route that missed most of the serious slot problems. The glacier was quite beautiful, too—grey ice, deep blue holes, glistening crystals, cold meltwater streams, and ethereal light as we crunched our crampons across its corrugated, icy surface.

At the snowfield on the far side we found the trekking poles Dan and Dennis had cached on the way up, and here removed our crampons for the last time and also got rid of our harnesses after many hours. We hiked up the scree use-path to the moraine crest, and then hiked down along the narrow crest, taking our last photos of the cloud-mantled icy massif we had just scaled. Ahead, the swirling, misty clouds below looked like a witches cauldron—sometimes bad weather produces stunning images you just don’t get on a blue-sky day.

We all hiked down the mile or so of easy trail to Glacier Meadows at our own rate, and we regrouped at the ranger yurt to make our grand entrance back at camp. After chatting briefly with Bob and party (back safely) we went up to our two campsites, where Adam had been hanging out all day. He was glad to see us, and had even cooked dinner—unfortunately, too early, since he had heard about three men coming down the mountain that turned out to be Andre, Kley, and Bob, who got back a couple hours before us. It was now 6:30 PM, so our summit day had taken us almost 14 hours.

Adam reheated the food for us—even though it was some kind of Mexican soup, not normally my favorite thing, I ate quite a bit. For the rest of the evening we ate more, tried to dry out despite intermittent drizzle, filled in Adam with the gory details of our day, and otherwise rested. Adam had mostly slept and attended to camp chores this day, and it was a shame he didn’t hike the mile or so to the scenic moraine. He seemed very comfortable with his decision to not go for the summit—he said that as soon as he decided a great weight was lifted—and the weather issues we faced certainly made his choice seem like a wise one.

Monday, September 3 (Labor Day):

Today dawned cloudy and drizzly, and we faced periods of mist, drizzle, and rain all day. Our only task was to pack up camp and hike the 17.3 downhill and flat miles on a good trail to our car. Virtually everything I had was soaked, especially my tent and climbing rope, so my pack was extra heavy with the water weight. Adam was packed up first, and, since he had been hanging out in camp all day yesterday, he took off first down the trail, saying he’d wait for us at the High Hoh Bridge. Dan and Dennis went next, and I left last, delayed because I went to filter some water for the long hike out.

Not long after leaving camp I came up behind Bob, and we struck up a conversation as we hiked downhill—we both had jobs dealing with geographic data systems, he working for the Miami traffic and roads department. We passed the treacherous landslide gully on the trail, and shortly after that came upon Dan and Dennis at a nondescript spot in the woods. Dan somewhat casually mentioned that he had turned his ankle by taking a bad step, and he was taking off his boot to have a look.

Dan is an orthopedic trauma surgeon, so he clearly was the most qualified person to diagnose his own problem. The more he felt his ankle, the more he became concerned that he might have fractured it. The rest of us took Dan’s pack and started offloading stuff from it—I took his ice axe, crampons, climbing gear, picket, and other stuff. Soon Bob’s brother and Bob’s friend showed up, and the three of them very graciously agreed to take stuff, too. Dan decided he could walk, slowly and gingerly, with the aid of his trekking poles. Also, Bob’s friend happened to have an ankle air splint with him (what’s the chance?) so Dan used that to stabilize his ankle.

The main issue is that we were about 16 miles from the road—not a good place for a broken ankle, but certainly far better than on the mountain where we had been yesterday. So we set off, a slow caravan of six people, making sure Dan was able to walk OK. He moved at a good 1 MPH, slow but steady, using his poles to steady himself on the somewhat rough trail. We switchbacked down towards Elk Lake, and when we arrived at the caved-in shelter we had a group powwow to decide what to do.

The nearest help was probably the ranger at the Olympus Guard Station, six miles down the trail. Elk Lake was the highest point where stock animals were allowed, so we thought that now that Dan was here perhaps someone could go for help and get a horse sent up for him. I volunteered for this mission, since I was likely the fastest downhill hiker, so I set off downhill. Dennis would hike with Dan, and Bob’s party, helping with Dan’s 60 pounds of gear, would help carry some of his stuff to the Guard Station.

My goal was to get word to the ranger as soon as possible, and ideally I could hurry and catch Adam, who, rested and a fast hiker, could then push on to the Guard Station. So I buzzed down the steep trail from Elk Lake, my 80 pound pack a bit of a burden. It was raining when I reached the High Hoh bridge, where a solo hiker and a left-behind Borneo trail permit in Adam’s name both told me that I had missed him by about 20 minutes.

So I took off up the short uphill segment, winding myself, and then hiked as fast as I could along the undulating trail, but I soon got so tired I had to take a short break, making it unlikely I could catch Adam until Lewis Meadows and our food cache. After another forty minutes or so of fast hiking I was approaching Lewis Meadows when hikers coming the other way had another message from Adam for me—he had taken down the food cache and would wait at the Guard Station. So I cruised past our campsite of three days earlier, and a flat mile of trail later finally came upon the Guard Station, where Adam was sitting on the porch, out of the rain, chatting with a woman hiker. I was arriving about two minutes behind him.

I immediately asked if the ranger was there, and when he emerged from his cabin I told him about Dan’s situation. He did have a radio, but horses were not easy to procure, since the stable was in Port Angeles and it took a lot of time to arrange for them. So for the next half-hour or so the ranger communicated with the trailhead rangers, and then he started getting ready to head up the trail to possibly help Dan, presumably still hiking downhill slowly, but we really didn’t know. He did have some crutches he thought about bringing, but they were for a tall person (5’-10” or higher) and we didn’t think they would fit Dan.

While waiting I stashed my humongous pack in the nearby emergency shelter, and Adam and I talked to the American woman and her garrulous Italian husband who shared the rain shelter of the cabin’s front porch with us. Finally the ranger was ready to go with a first-aid kit and radio in his pack, and I decided to accompany him on his mercy mission—sans pack , of course. Adam stayed back to watch our gear.

The ranger was also named Adam—Adam Riley, about 25, I’d say. We chatted as he hiked at a good 5 MPH up the flat trail, having no idea how far we had to go to reach Dan. We first came across Bob and his party, and I took Dan’s light daypack from them so I had capacity for carrying stuff down later. We told them to drop Dan’s stuff at the Guard Station with Adam H waiting there, and I thanked them for all their help.

It wasn’t too long later, a bit uphill from Lewis Meadow, that we came across Dan, moving slowly, and Dennis, making sure he was OK and bowed by a huge pack. Adam R and I took some stuff to lighten Dennis’s load, and the three of us accompanied Dan for the flat 1.5 miles or so remaining to the Guard Station. Dan seemed OK, considering everything—he was moving along, and I was pleasantly surprised he had come down as far as he did.

At the Guard Station our party and all our gear was all reunited again—Dan’s 60 pounds of stuff had made it down by the combined efforts of Dennis and me, Bob’s party, Adam R, and a woman who had taken Dan’s sleeping bag from Bob at some point. For logistical reasons, it did not seem like a horse or other pack animal was a real possibility any time soon. Dan was still ambulatory, so he could continue walking out, but the main issue was all his heavy gear. We thought that maybe he could leave it at the Guard Station, and pay for a horse packer to pack it out and ship it to him. Overhearing this, Ranger Adam R had a better idea—he was leaving his job in a few weeks, and he was moving to Bakersfield, just south of Dan’s home in Fresno, so he volunteered to pack out Dan’s pack and drop it at his house!

After getting assurances it was OK (Adam R said at one point, “It’s no problem—hiking is my job”), Dan agreed to this plan, which really spared Adam H, Dennis, and I tons of extra weight. Dan planned to buy Adam R season tickets to the Bakersfield ice hockey team games as a thank-you, since they had been talking hockey during the hike to the cabin.

So Dan gathered together the bare minimum he needed for a night out and farmed that out to the other three of us (I took his sleeping bag) and put a few essentials in his daypack, leaving his main pack with lots of wet and heavy gear behind with Adam R. We thought about sleeping in the emergency shelter right there at the Guard Station, but Dan felt like he could walk more, so after a long rest we decided to hike to the Happy Four shelter another 2.7 miles down the trail. It was 4 PM already, but we felt we had time for more hiking, even at 1 MPH.

So we bid goodbye to ranger Adam R, and started towards Happy Four. Dennis had borne the brunt of caretaking Dan so far, so it was his turn to hike ahead at his own pace for a change. We always had someone with or behind Dan, of course. The trail seemed to go on forever, and it still rained off and on. We passed a young Christian guy in a kilt and toting a guitar, and Dennis and I stopped to chat with him for a while, and after catching up with Adam H and Dan we went on ahead, and long after we thought we should have we reached the shelter. I dropped my pack and set off up the trail, and when I came to Adam H and Dan I let Adam run ahead and I walked with Dan to the shelter.

The Happy Four emergency shelter was pretty squalid, nowhere near as nice as the Guard Station shelter with plywood bunks. Here, we had to sleep on the dirt floor, but it was better than pitching our drenched tents. We got the stove going and Adam whipped up some delicious pasta with tuna that really hit the spot. We were eating in the dark, so not long afterwards we all got organized the best we could and then settled down to sleep. We tried not to get our stuff dirty from the shelter floor, but it was a lost cause. I did think it was neat to be in a drizzly, dripping rain forest in the dark—it was very atmospheric, just what you expect in a rain forest.

Tuesday, September 4:

We were up with the light, and we ate cold food for breakfast and got packed up. We were 5.7 miles from the trailhead, and Dan felt he could still walk slowly, so he set off first with his light pack. Dennis, Adam, and I followed about a half-hour later, as soon as we had our packs stuffed with all our gear. It was not long before we caught up to Dan along the flat trail, and he did not seem to be doing well. He was doing an incredible job of fighting the pain in his broken ankle, but now he was openly wondering if he would make it. We had a brief conference and I volunteered to race ahead and try to get what help I could—horse, litter, crutches, or anything else the rangers at the trailhead might have. Dan said that if a horse came with a half-mile of trail left he would find that worthwhile.

So I left my companions and hiked along the flat trail as fast as I could—my constraints were not injuring myself, and a very heavy pack. Later we calculated that I hiked along at about 3.6 mph—it was kind of a blur to me, watching the trailside mileposts go by as I checked my watch. I could not enjoy the rainforest much, but I knew that Dan was enjoying this hike far less than I was. Surprisingly, I saw no one else until almost at the trailhead, but I did see elk footprints in the mud on the trail that I naively hoped were llamas that I could commandeer to help carry Dan out.

I arrived at the trailhead at about 9:50 AM, and immediately dropped my pack and went into the ranger station/visitor center, where both rangers were helping tourists (the one I got behind was disappointed that there was no movie to watch here). The rangers were familiar with Dan’s situation from radio calls yesterday, and I told them that he was not doing well and that any help would be appreciated. What followed was a frustrating half-hour as the rangers got mobilized—they got out crutches first, and I immediately volunteered to run up the trail with them, but the head ranger told me very forcefully to stay put, they were organizing a litter, and they needed me for that.

So after throwing my pack in my car, I just waited in the visitor center, self-consciously filthy from four nights in the woods, amidst all the clean tourists. The rangers told me to call my wife, since she had called earlier, so I briefly filled her in, and then waited some more. Finally, at about 10:30 AM, a ranger drove up with a litter that was a stretcher balanced on a large single wheel, and two rangers and I took off up the trail, hoping to meet Dan and help him out. My best guess, based on his rate of speed, was that we would encounter him about 2 miles up the trail. I took a turn holding the rear of the wheelbarrow-like stretcher, having to lift it up over rocks and logs. The Hoh River Trail is about the flattest and most gentle hiking trail you will find anywhere, but it was still amazing how rough it was for a wheeled device.

I think that we were in less than a mile when we suddenly came upon Dan, Dennis, and Adam hiking along. Apparently Dan had felt better after I left him, getting a second wind (and perhaps taking more painkillers). He was doing OK, and did not need the litter, especially since it would have been very hard work to get it out with a person’s weight. So we all hiked out together, the four of us plus the three rangers, over the last easy stretch of trail. The rangers didn’t mind at all hauling the stretcher up for no reason, since carrying it back empty was far easier than carrying it back full!

We all arrived at the parking lot at about 11:30 AM, Dan having hiked a truly heroic 16 miles on a broken ankle. We thanked the rangers for all their help, and then we went to our cars to unpack, organize, and return group gear to the right people. Dan gingerly took off his boot, sock, and cast to reveal a bloody foot that was mostly shades of red, purple, black, and yellow—a most distressing sight that freaked out a tour group of elderly women who were walking by. I gave him my old sandals, since his swollen foot would no longer fit in his shoe.

After getting packed up we all drove in our three cars to a rustic and crowded general store/restaurant for a post-climb meal of burgers, fries, ice cream, and soda. Then it was time to part ways: Dan and Adam were headed to Sea-Tac airport, where Dan was planning to fly home to Fresno as soon as possible to get care for his ankle in the hospital where he worked; Adam was renting a car to climb some low Washington County high points over the next few days; Dennis has a long drive to Oregon ahead of him; and I left to return home the way I had come, via Port Angeles and the Kingston-Edmonds ferry. I just made the 5:00 sailing with one minute to spare, and was home by 6 PM.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:8191 ft / 2494 m
    Extra Gain:400 ft / 121 m
    Route:Blue Glacier
    Trailhead:Hoh Visitor Center  578 ft / 176 m
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Tent Camp
    Weather:Drizzle, Cool, Windy, White-out
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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