May 29 – June 5, 2019 – Sol Duc Hot Springs to Quinault River
Charles A. Barnes, a member of the Press Expedition of 1889-90, understood the complexity of the Olympic Mountains I was entering. Near the end of his six month trans-Olympic traverse and my proposed adventure, he felt immeasurable satisfaction when, as he later wrote, “Down the gap of the Quinault a second range appeared, and beyond it another range, crossing our proposed pathway like lions in the path. Beyond them, sky–thank heaven, there was an end to them (Wood, Page 152, Across the Olympic Mountains).”
As Mr. Barnes discovered, the Olympic Mountains aren’t so much a range, as they are an intersecting web of mountains. Both rugged and scrappy, those remote summits and valleys are unfrequented even by those that live near them. Comparisons can be drawn to the more familiar North Cascades. Between them, where the Olympics differ, is in temperament. The Olympics are a much older, more ornery sibling everyone loves until they get on their wrong side.
Back in 2016 I completed my first ski traverse of the Olympic Mountains. I called this grand traverse The Olympic Traverse East. Where it crossed the eastern mountains of Olympic National Park from Hurricane Ridge to Lake Cushman, my current proposed route would cross the western mountains of Olympic National Park from Sol Duc Hot Springs to the Quinault River.
Plotting that second grand traverse was no mean feat. It took time, two years in fact before I migrated my final route to paper maps. That route wasn’t a simple line, either. Primary, secondary and even tertiary options were shown in places I deemed challenging. While one could argue that almost any route can be negotiated, there’s limitations in the amount of food, weather and time allotted. Those logistical challenges can balloon the aforementioned to their limits, where the culminated effects of a misstep or two can eventually lead to a shortened adventure and an escape, with tails between legs, down one misbegotten valley trail or another.
The realization of an Olympic Grand Traverse would be monumental for me, a tryst with these mountains that’s reached its final moments. Five years ago, I set out with the goal of skiing all the glaciers in the Olympics (and the rest of the Cascade Mountains) and for the Olympic Peninsula at least, I would visit my last remaining glacier I’d not reached. That is if all went according to plan and my proverbial memories sunk their roots into the Sol Duc Rainforest and 8 days later into the soil of the Quinault Rainforest. This to me would be an ultimate dream realized.
Besides, in my bullheaded opinion, the best ski adventures should begin and end in jungles.
May 29th: Sol Duc Hot Springs to Cat Peak
A story told of the Bailey Range would be remiss if it didn’t mention its most famous inhabitant and explorer, Herb Crisler. Primarily a filmmaker and photographer, he guided, lived in and documented the range for thirty years. Not only would he complete variations of this ski adventure by foot, three times, but in two of those adventures he would be seriously injured, once returning more than two weeks behind schedule!
Crisler’s most famous story traces back to a 1929 sportsman’s dinner. In a conversation about lost hunters he boasted that he could “…go into the Olympics without weapon or grub, live off the country for a month, [and] come out fat (Hunt, R., Page 13, Olympic Mountain Wilds).” A newspaper, the Seattle Times, overheard his boast and offered him $500 dollars to follow through with it! As there were no telephones or other lines of communication in those days, the paper searched for a way to report on the adventure in real time. The answer came in the form of pigeons. Crisler would carry three homing pigeons that he would release once a week with correspondence.
Crisler’s month-long survival-adventure began at Sol Duc Hotsprings. So did mine, but unlike him I wouldn’t be alone. I’d take three partners with me: Jake Chartier, Jeff Rich, and Carl Simpson. Moreover, we wouldn’t be without ‘grub’ and our loads certainly wouldn’t come with a cage of homing pigeons strapped atop them! Instead we’d have skis, a reality that shocked tourists almost as much as if we’d been Cristler himself, pigeons included.
It was on a sunny, busy morning, as I passed the misspelled, moss-covered Sol Duc signpost where Jeff leapt into the air like a ski ballerina, that our adventure began, finally. Like in every adventure, we needed a team name. Something so serious can’t be taken lightly. It was Carl Simpson who happened upon the perfect name after his default answer to tourists became, “Thataway.”
“Which way are you going?”
“How far are you going?”
“Where are you skiing?”
Adventure, as it were, was thataway for the newly christened Team Thataway. Or, as it was put in the book I was reading leading up to this trip, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s epic Children of Ruin. “We’re going on an AD-VEN-ture!” Of course to get the full effect you have to imagine this being parroted by the creepy microbial aliens Tchaikovsky has imagined after they’ve hijacked a human body.
Like a rocket that’s burned out its primary thrusters, we fired up our secondary propulsion as we transitioned from foot to skis, finally escaping the Sol Duc Valley’s gravity well. Beyond Bridge Creek we skinned to Heart Lake (4744’) and to the ridge above. By this point, we’d gone 8 miles and found ourselves returned to dirt.
Now in a retrograde orbit, we were in need of entertainment. Jeff Rich set off a chain reaction after he crashed and burned on the wet heather. No more than a second after Carl began to laugh uproariously, he also fell, but in a more spectacular form. His remaining laugh was cut short as he slipped on the heather and crashed face first into the ground. As he landed, his waist belt broke apart. This allowed his backpack to rush forward and smoother his face into the ground. Now he found himself caught in some sick form of child’s pose. His only viable escape was to reverse out, which he did quickly. Even so, his remaining dignity wasn’t spared. We all nearly laughed ourselves into similar predicaments on the slick ground.
At Cat Peak, about 12 miles in, we decided on an ill-suited flattish area to camp. Nearby snow was the selling point. This snow would later become the source of further entertainment for us when, at dinner, I melted snow to fill my bottle. Given that it was dusk, I never looked into its depths before I guzzled half a liter. Curiosity eventually overtook me, and I stole an ill-advised look. What I saw was a swimming pool carpeted with countless snow fleas in the midst of bathing. Perhaps I could point them toward Sol Duc Hot springs?
Now, I’ve eaten my fair share of snow fleas, but once you’ve seen snow turned black by the sheer number of the buggers, you’d give pause as well. Funny thing is, we all drank them down. It’s protein after all? Only later did I learn that Jeff had a water filter all along.
We dubbed this spot, “Snow Flea Camp,” and whilst sleep overtook us, so did our stomachs. I imagined a flea dance party happening that I wasn’t invited to, probably since I was such a poor sport at the beach party.
No matter, “We’re going on an ad-ven-ture!”
May 30th: Cat Peak to Fairchild Creek – Carrie North and East Face, William Fairchild Southwest Face
The Catwalk is a cliff-lined ridge that Crisler named as a play on words after the nearby Cat Peak. It was the earlier Press Expedition of 1889-90 who named that mountain when they killed a bobcat nearby.
After leaving Flea Camp, we worked our way onto the Catwalk, which skis made precarious. Back in 1938 Crisler slipped in Cat Creek and was knocked out. When he came to, he found that he had a dislocated ankle and broken arm. Instead of going home, he used a rope over a tree branch to get his ankle back into the socket. Next he set his own arm, splinted it and “…fitted a wooden peg with a hook end between the splits so that it came down along his palm and protruded like a finger – this enabling him to work his tripod and tend the campfire and do his cooking (Hunt, R., Page 20, Olympic Mountain Wilds).”
With the Catwalk behind us and the echo of cuss words still playing off the jumble of serrated and blood-soaked rocks we’d left behind, we wandered into a sloped meadow of blooming pink heather, phlox and other highland flowers. Framed by those bedazzled slopes, the bulk of Mount Olympus sprung from the valleys below and into our line of sight. Such an expansive view gave our previous trip to that mountain, the year before, a wider perspective. While you can climb a mountain to see beyond it, you can’t climb a mountain to fully grasp a mountain.
Atop Mount Carrie (6995’) the Bailey Range, also known as the “Backbone of the Olympics,” stretched into the distance before fading into bluish-white haze. These vertebrae arched over fifteen or more high points. Each one I hoped to ski from, at or near the summit of. Beyond that, for my Washington Glacier Ski Project, I also planned to tag the four remaining glaciers I hadn’t yet skied in the Olympic Mountains. If this adventure concluded as planned, I would have skied on all 32 glaciers of the Olympic Peninsula! Together, they’d have taken 50 days of effort to complete, but as I learned earlier, only a fool counts his fleas before he says, “Bottoms up!”
Diverging from the standard Bailey Traverse, which cuts mid-slope along the Bailey’s south aspect to Cream Lake, we summited Mount Carrie (6995’). From here, we descended east two thousand feet to the headwaters of Fairchild Creek below the toe of the Carrie Glacier. There, we stopped near 5000’ at a dry riverbed. Even though I had planned to go much further that day, we couldn’t muster the willpower to leave this potential camp un-enjoyed. Blame this response on the sparkle of the sun on rocks, clean(!) water and a perfect beach that screamed, “Camp here!” When beauty invites you to stay, you stay.
We dubbed this spectacular spot “River Camp,” and immediately turned our backs to it and a pile of overnight gear. Unencumbered by unnecessary weight, we climbed toward Mount Fairchild to ski its southwestern face. At first, as I peered into cliff and dry dirt, the prospect of any actual skiing was bleak, but a few hundred feet higher, a white line was seen leading from valley to summit.
Detouring from our proposed descent route, we climbed easier slopes to the East Ridge (6300’) and wrapped onto Fairchild Glacier, named after a local pilot, William Fairchild. He and ten others were killed in a plane crash in 1969. The peak, glacier and creek were named in honor of Fairchild and his legacy in the region. What struck a chord with me was his interest in glaciers and specifically his flights above and onto them. One such regular flight onto Mount Olympus’s Blue Glacier became known as the “Fairchild Sleigh Ride.”
The Fairchild Glacier is the first of four glaciers I hadn’t yet skied. My source for its location came from Olympic Mountain Rescue’s book: Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains. It explains the discrepancy in the USGS mislabeling the glaciers exact location, something I dimly recalled, but hadn’t fully appreciated at the time. I was reminded of this discrepancy when I looked from my personally notated maps to Jake’s GPS and saw that the Fairchild Glacier was shown to be below Mount Carrie, where we had earlier skied, and that the Carrie Glacier was on the north face of Mount Carrie!
For the remainder of the climb I debated what to do about these glaciers. By the time I reached the top of the north face of Mount Fairchild (6950’), I had decided what to do; I’d just go ski the other glacier as well.
Impressive views of the ‘other’ Carrie Glacier from the summit of Mount Fairchild couldn’t be ignored; neither could the distance between us. Only after I had walked the few feet to the top our ski route, did my brain shift into ‘stoke’ mode and all other thoughts became as mice on a glacier, a scurry of feet in all directions to the nearest rocks and holes.
I watched Carl as he dropped down the steep upper pitch of Mount Fairchild. I inched my skis over the edge and splashed waves of snow across the mountain like waves of the Pacific Ocean across the beaches far below us.
Back at River Camp, no others wished to join me, so I bid them farewell at 6 PM, and turned back toward Mount Carrie.
There are complex feelings I spar with when going solo, even for short distances. It was something Cristler did often, a state I’m often at odds with and find hard to comprehend, except in this small way, going up Mount Carrie. Where his photography sought out wildlife, my own seeks out people. There is nothing solo about that, so whenever I do find myself alone, I try and appreciate it and grow from the experience.
Too exhausted to think more, I turned my brain off and finished the two thousand vertical foot ascent of Mount Carrie. As I arrived at the summit rocks, I traced my eyes back over to the Pacific Ocean, this time ablaze in a burning sun that I worried would dim to coals before I returned to camp.
I rushed to transition to downhill mode, telling myself I would only go a short way onto the ‘other’ Carrie Glacier. But lies have a way of shifting to the truth of things whenever time leaps forward and all of a sudden, you’re where you told yourself you wouldn’t be, but knew all along it was where you were going. Even as my skis thrummed to a stop, I could still hear the snow of the past few turns coming to rest. This was in opposition to my heartbeat. Gravity is a drug and I’m an addict whose physical limitations are all that keep my base emotions in check. Even then, gravity’s pull nearly sucked me into the valley depths.
On my climb back to the summit of Mount Carrie, I passed several open crevasses that hinted at the healthy nature of this glacier. Unlike many so-called glaciers, this one deserves a name and not one misappropriated to it by the USGS.
Again, I took to my skis and allowed gravity to take me into its grasp. This time I didn’t need to put a governor on my descent. Without others to photograph, I flew downward all the way back to camp, showing up to a hooting and howling audience who felt a twinge of jealousy after watching my descent. “I wished we would’ve gone,” they begrudged, but shortly after admitted that they preferred the rest.
That night, the moon curled around Fairchild Creek and stars reflected upon its waves. I felt the urge to photograph the moment, but after being alone on Mount Carrie, it felt right to put the camera away for a bit longer. Some moments are meant solely for memory.
May 31st: Fairchild Creek to Ferry Basin
There are three mountains named Ruth in Washington: Ruth Peak (Olympics), Ruth Mountain (North Cascades) and Mount Ruth (Mount Rainier). On our third morning, we bypassed the higher route where Ruth Peak is for a lower option. After more than an hour, as I was about to crest the pass, Jake yelled down to me, “It doesn’t go!”
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Yep, it’s a cliff,” Jake returned.
Seeing that there was another pass 10 minutes away, I decided to see what it had in store for us. As I crested it, what I found was another cliff, this one leading into a steep gully full of the shattered, sharp rocks this part of the Olympics are famous for. The entire peninsula is a place where, “No good rock goes untouched.” Considering that the Olympics, geologically speaking, are basically the sedimentary leftovers scraped up between tectonic plates, it’s no wonder the rock is so terrible.
Kicking steps into the rock, as I would snow, I yelled at Jeff, “It doesn’t go!”
“Seriously?” he asked.
“Yep, it’s a cliff,” I returned.
The others continued this game at two more passes. Our frustrations warped to stoke when Carl concluded, “At least now we get to ski.” I’m convinced Carl’s sole reason for being is to ski. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if his mom confused his first word “Ow,” with “Pow.”
At nearly noon we arrived at Stephen Lake, the budding end of the river valley we’d exited from. The ideal route continued, traversing the northern face of Stephen Peak before crossing the ridge and dropping into Ferry Basin. Given the day’s lackluster start, I convinced myself that the lower pass (5850’) southwest of the lake, above Cream Lake Basin, would be faster. Laziness is one of the finest examples of, “Less is more.” Mountains don’t reward laziness, nor do they bend to our will; easy doesn’t exist because you want it to. The worst part is, I’d gone over this pass before, but any residual memories were vague, at best.
The issue with this route is simple expectation. If you skin up to a pass, you expect to ski down the other side, most if not all the way. I felt like mountaineers walking dirt in crampons when I kept my ski boots on for the 1500’ snowless descent. My motto for the day, “Less is more,” really should include a warning label, “Inappropriate use of this advice may lead to user amnesia [once again].”
When Crisler left Cream Lake Basin after he dislocated his foot and broke his arm, he continued to Kimtah Basin. There he saw a herd of 500 elk! No such herd exists in the park today; although it does host the largest concentration of Roosevelt elk, which is the biggest variety of elk anywhere (~5000 animals within the park).
Unlike Crisler, we only saw a lone bull elk. Yet, I expect there were many more if the smell of dung in the air were any indication! This massive bull swung his head side to side, danced around the meadows and then was swallowed by the forest. I can see why Crisler returned here so often. Evidence of his stay still exists. In what was once trumped by a National Park naturalist, “…the largest sub-alpine spruce in the world,” Crisler carved a cache into which he stored supplies. This cache he called Levenbull. The tree measured 20.2’ in circumference and is 129’ tall. Today it is considered the largest subalpine fir tree in the world and unlike the quote above, has no mention of being a spruce.
The pilot, William Fairchild, once airdropped ice cream to some friends of theirs in Cream Lake Basin! Sadly I didn’t know any pilots, but I did remember a wonderful spot next to the narrow bank-lined creek, just a few hundred feet from the massive tree. It offered us bone-chilling water. Carl slipped in without a word to anyone. His yells approved of the waters’ curing powers, and yet only I followed suit. My entire body floated down the creek, no more than five feet wide and in a surge rose up like a whale before landing back down on the grass. Every nerve was spastic. “This,” I thought, “is the shit I suffer for.”
Our route beyond Cream Lake Basin to Ferry Basin was inefficient. Only when I grabbed the final blueberry bushes, attached to a thick layer of moss over rock, did I quit fooling myself. “Have I really been here before?” I know I have, but by God, I was sure making a mess of things this time around or I’d completely forgotten my first round through here. Either way, a little suffering butters the guys up for a lot more suffering later. I had already told them that the first three days, “…were the easy days,” so they didn’t get any fresh ideas that easy was anywhere on the horizon. “Easy,” as it were, needed to be redefined for them, that’s all.
Camp that night was placed between two alpine lakes in Upper Ferry Basin. Throughout the day, I found myself getting sick. Carl had lingering effects of a cold he was just beginning to shake off. That night I went to bed, hoping the tickle in my throat would be forgotten, just like most of this day would be.
June 1st: Ferry Basin to Mt. Meany, Queets Peak, Southwest Face
In the late 1800s, the first Governor of Washington State, Elisha P. Ferry said, “The country shut in by the Olympic Mountains…has never, to the positive knowledge of old residents of the territory, been trodden by the foot of man, white or Indian…investigation of all claims of travelers has invariably proved that they have only traversed its outer edges (Parratt, Page 107, Gods and Goblins).” Mount Ferry was subsequently named for him, due to his influence in Olympic exploration which was the impetus for the original Press Expedition of 1889-90.
Our exploration beyond Mount Ferry led us up and over the Ferry Glacier to a pass. From there, we skied Mount Ferry’s southwest face and traveled into Elkhorn Creek, eventually traversing above gorges to the base of the Elkhorn Glacier (4600’). A narrow river gorge diverged upward into the glacier. Like the earlier Ferry Glacier we’d crossed, there is little, if any ice remaining. Many of these glaciers are/were more than 40,000 years old, having survived the last cycle recession 15,000 years ago when the Puget Arm of Cordilleran ice sheet retreated from the region.
The travel to Bear Pass Glacier is unique. The thread of snow that marks the way is a compilation of massive cornices that lumber above airy cliffs. We dared safety and traced them like ski-acrobats, highlining our way downward between boulders and space.
After this shot of danger, however small, the overall mood of the group improved as we entered Queets Basin. Beyond here, Team Thataway crossed the edge of where I’d turned toward Mount Olympus during a 2010 ski trip from Sol Duc Hotsprings. The classic Bailey Traverse that we’d been following for the past three and a half days, diverges from here, going out the Elwha Snowfinger. Laurence Smith was probably the first to link together the Bailey’s by skis in what he called the “Five Glacier Traverse” in ~1966, just before he was snatched up by the military to take “…scenic river boat tours on the Mekong Delta.”
Mount Queets was a mountain I had long yearned to ski. It is the heart of the Bailey’s, after all. Among places in the contiguous United States that are farthest from any road whatsoever, that are considered, “…pure wilderness,” the Queets Glacier is the fifth most remote, at a mere 13.58 miles (Complete list and methodology).
My plans to ski from the summit fell through as the fog in my head, from the cold I’d inherited from Carl, was amorphized into actual fog. Being last on the ski track, I yelled to the others to scout a pass I expected to go, but wasn’t actually viewable through the haze. When they returned, we mustered our gear and mass-skied our way to a camping spot I’d seen from above, both dry and near water.
That evening I was laid up in misery as was Jake, who’d picked up a version of the plague as well. In the meantime, Jeff and Carl skied the southwest face of Queets from the summit, at sunset. I could hear their, “Oh-my-god,” “Hell yeah!” and “Fuckin’ A,” from the tent when they returned, but with only my hindbrain operating, all I could think about was rest.
June 2nd: Mt. Meany to Lake Margaret, Mount Noyes, West Face
We condensed our camp back into unruly packs and once again skis were afoot. Above our skintrack rose Mount Meany, a complicated peak whose couloirs begged a skier’s attention, but our timeline was fixed; we had 8 days. All morning I’d been doing math, playing my eyes over the maps and calculating, “How far?”, “How difficult?”, and “What will have snow?” This day, I knew, was a “make it or break it” day. Our one and only escape route was to exit the North Fork Quinault from Low Pass. After that, we were just further away from everything, with less food and time to get there.
The pass (6132’) was above me, and incrementally got steeper as Jake neared the top. When I arrived, quiet reigned, which is never a good sign. Everyone had doubts. There was a massive cornice that hung out in the wind like clothes drying on a line. A discontinuous collection of cliffs speckled the mountainside between snow patches. The day’s heat rung out the water, the melted collection of which roared in the distant valley, thousands of feet below.
Carl and Jake found a bypass between cliff and cornice, and disappeared for 20 minutes while Jeff and I studied the maps, until we began to worry it’d been too long. We followed their tracks and eventually reconnected. My heart thumped in my chest, not from the climbing but from the anticipation. “It goes,” Carl relayed, followed by his peculiar laugh which comes whenever he’s scared.
We squeezed down the narrow cornice and rock crevasse and then across a ledge to a moderate snow slope just below the summit of Mount Meany. We made a thousand vertical foot diagonal descent to the crux point. A healthier snowpack and the route would have been a non-issue, but as it were, we found a fifty degree sliver-of-slope around a blind corner. Our excitement was palpable as we dropped a steep couloir to flatter terrain below. With the exception of a few dirt and heather ribs to step over, our way to the belly of the valley below Mount Noyes was all snow. Carl captured our collective feelings when he said, “We made it through that shit…how the fuck did we do that?”
Mount Noyes had a western face that beckoned us like an ice cream truck to a suburban kid on a hot summer’s day. We dropped our heavy packs, like that same kid would his school bags. We ran up to the summit with sweat dripping down our faces. Once there, we found a scoop of snow that covered the entire summit, save for a curb of rock we sat on to take in the view. The unknown dominated the south. The known dominated the north. Neither could distract us for long as we’d caught the ice cream truck and were, within seconds, wiping the cone crumbs from our faces.
Another pass (5400’), led to a second diagonal traverse above cliffs. After a five hundred foot descent, we continued across moderate terrain that wound below Mount Seattle (6246’). Because of the lack of snow, I decided to connect with the Skyline Trail for the descent to Low Divide (3602’), where we’d drop to the lowest altitude on this traverse since beginning. The Press Expedition of 1889-90 named this pass “Elwha Pass” but the name is Low Divide today because, “It is the lowest divide in the Olympic Heartland (Parratt, Page 89, Gods and Goblins).”
We pitched our tents at a large camp near the ranger station and soaked in the warmth of a toasty fire until late in the evening. The sway of flames drew me in and I turned over the next day’s obstacles in my head until, at last, I let them fall into the fire, along with the rest of my worries.
June 3rd: Lake Margaret to Delebarre Creek
The sun brightened the eastern skyline whereupon its rays broke through trees and shattered our lazy morning hopes with the only clock we required. Its two alarms are at dawn and dusk. The first means, “Go,” while the second means, “Stop.”
After splitting from the Martins Lake climbers path, we skinned to a pass (5000’) where we stashed our gear for a side trip to Mount Christie (6184’) and the Christie Glacier. I was worried the way wouldn’t be practical, but after we lightened our loads and rounded the corner below the east face, I was relieved to see a skiable way.
My route onto the west face wasn’t so accommodating. A cliff-lined cirque dominated every conceivable route I saw to the Christie Glacier. What internal fears I had been fostering, grew and whispered, “You’re going to have come back.” Which Isn’t so bad, I thought. But the glacier was there. Right there! So close I could hit it with a rock.
I couldn’t walk away.