Olympus via the Valhallas, Olympic National Park, July 27 – August 3, 2013

An epic bushwhack up the South Fork of the Hoh River to the summit of Mt. Olympus, and an exploration of the rarely visited Valhalla Range

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Since working together as environmental educators in Olympic National Park in 2000, my friend Erik and I have been going on mountain adventures together. We were both drawn to the park for its wildness, its remoteness, and its complexity. That first year we both ventured out on extended off-trail wilderness traverses, and began imagining the endless possibilities for future adventures in the range. Over the years, we honed our backcountry skills, and became progressively more addicted to northwest mountaineering. It wasn’t until this year, however, spurred on by impending fatherhood (on my part) and a new baby on the way (on the part of Erik), that we finally touched the Valhallas, a remote and seldom visited cluster of peaks on the west side of the Olympics.

For us the Valhallas have always held a mystical appeal. Both of us have peered at them many times from the Olympus massif, and Erik even got tantalizing close to the range several years back on a late fall expedition looking for fishers. The Valhallas sit isolated, anchoring a long alpine ridge extending off the southwest side of Olympus, and perched above two of the grandest rainforest valleys in the Olympics, the Queets and South Fork of the Hoh. Both valleys are without more than a few miles of trails, and an approach to the Valhallas necessitates the negotiation of over 10 miles of virgin river bottom rainforest and bushwhacks up steep hillsides, terrain that remains unchanged even after early white explorers first ventured into the heart of the Olympics a little over a 100 years ago. The alternative approach to the Valhallas requires tricky route-finding down the seldom visited (and hard to see from Olympus itself) southwest face of Olympus, already a good 20 miles from the nearest trailhead by standard routes. Previous trip reports, even by experienced Olympic travelers, describe full days of pushing over and under logs in the valley bottom, followed by heinous tooth and nail scrambling through brush and trees on cliff-like, crumbly hillsides just to reach the base of the Valhallas. Attempts to find easier routes into the Valhallas have generally been defeated, thus maintaining the aura and mystique of this Nordic satellite of a range otherwise named for the Greek deities. First explored by climbers in the late 60s and early 70s, it seems only a handful of people visit the range every year at most. With this in mind, we set off on a 7 day journey, which became some of the best we have ever spent in the mountains.

July 27

I caught the ferry out of Seattle and met up with Erik in Port Townsend to divvy up gear. After stopping for Mexican food in Forks, it was 7 O’Clock in the evening when we finally started hiking. Our goal was to tick off the short section of trail at the beginning of the South Fork of the Hoh, and camp on a gravel bar for the first night. And so we embarked with heavy packs, and by dusk we were bushwhacking our way past the end of the trail, making our way across side channels of the braided river and debating whether to stay in the forest or to get out on a bar near the main channel. It was unclear where the trail ended, but in several places with washouts and blowdowns, we appreciated tiny notches that trail volunteers had cut into downed oldgrowth logs to help us negotiate the mess. Occasional flagging was also to be found, but that soon petered out, and we found ourselves crashing through brush, narrowly dodging a swarm of hornets at the base of a huge spruce, and finally negotiating a log jam to take us out to a bar near the main channel. Now fully dark, we made camp for our first night in the wilderness, in good position to make our way further up valley the next day.

Old-growth Sitka spruce in the South Fork of the Hoh.

Old-growth Sitka spruce in the South Fork of the Hoh.

Despite being still relatively close to civilization, the feeling of isolation at this camp was all-encompassing. Having been in the South Fork with Erik 13 years ago, I knew a bit about the valley, but I had never been past the end of the trail. I was surprised at how open the valley seemed from the river bar. In fact, in just about every way, it resembled the North Fork valley, which I have hiked many times on my way to Olympus. But here, not more than 4 miles from the trailhead, and probably only a mile beyond the end of the trail, it was as if we had passed a threshold, and we had suddenly found ourselves in a deserted valley, perhaps providing a vision of what the North Fork of the Hoh would have been like over 100 years ago prior to trail access. We were completely engulfed by a feeling of isolation which I had not felt in a long time, and certainly had never felt in a valley bottom, so many of which have trails or are close to roads. There were no signs of previous human visitation, and we had seen no one on the way in. Here we were in one of the biggest rainforest valleys of the Olympics, two tiny specks lying on a gravel bar, the only humans in this entire valley, a valley we would have to navigate on nature’s terms, without the aid of a human trail. The magnitude of this task was, unfortunately, not lost on me at all, and compounded with the safety reminder we got from Erik’s pregnant wife before heading out, I could not help but let some of my nerves get to me. What would we encounter tomorrow? The worst bushwhacking of our Olympic experience? The dangerous scrambling encountered by just about every other party on record? Would the challenge be fun or overwhelming? It was certainly easier to imagine the overwhelming scenarios. Having been in Forks only hours before, among the descendents of those who settled among these great forests, the primeval and almost oppressive nature of this valley made it easy to understand how early settlers must have felt as they made inroads into the great forests of the peninsula. To ease our minds from the enormity of the landscape, we built a small campfire by the water, and settled into the night. I slowly drifted off to sleep, but was startled awake shortly after midnight by a bright light in my face. My nerves jumped into high gear—could there really be someone else out here roaming the gravel bar at night? Within a couple seconds, I of course realized that it was the moon that had just poked up over the ridge, shining bright light right onto us. With the bright light shining down I had trouble falling into deep sleep again. Around 3 AM I noticed fog creeping up the valley, and swirling around the tops of the Sitka Spruce trees across the river, and eventually covering the moon with an eerie light. As dawn came I huddled in my now damp sleeping bag. Part of me desperately wanted to get moving and tackle the task ahead of us, but another part of me wanted to force myself to sleep a little longer to get the rest our bodies would be craving later in the trip. The latter won out.

July 28

Our leisurely wakeup time cost us the cool temps of the early morning. We began our hike just as the fog was beginning to break up. With the clouds parting, we could tell it was a bluebird day, and scorching hot at that. The heatwave and drought that had been gripping western Washington for most of the summer so far was still in full swing. We briefly worked our way into a brushy alder forest, before quickly deciding that walking on the bars would be more efficient even if we had to battle the hot sun. From the bar we could see the cliffs of Hoh peak above us, and a single peak of the Valhallas far away behind a spur ridge in the distance. Our work was cut out for us.

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This dreaded day of bushwhacking ended up being surprisingly pleasant. We ticked off miles on mostly open gravel bars with the river flowing relatively low for late July. For the whole day we felt like visitors in a forgotten Eden, the home of a kingdom of animals. Alternating between open gravel bars and moving to wide open oldgrowth Sitka Spruce forest on old river terraces when we encountered the occasional log jam, the walking was easy, flat, and pleasant. We stuck to the North side of the river all day long. We encountered frequent beaver sign and otter sign. We often walked on elk trails, and in places the scent of elk was intense. We only saw two elk that day, but there was a strong sense that they were near us, or moving just ahead of us. We encountered coyote tracks and bear tracks, and watched Harlequin Ducks rafting down the rapids. During the hottest part of the day, we lounged in the shade on grassy meadows on the river bank. Initially it was easy to negotiate places where the river channel pinched up against the north wall of the valley by using obvious elk trails. But eventually the river started entering canyons more and more often. Once we were forced quite a ways up the hillside, scrambling over timber and working our way back down to the river. We elected to cross to the south side of the river on a log, but soon were forced back across the river again on a thinner log that crossed a raging gorge at least 15 feet above the river. In retrospect we should have just stayed on the north side of the river through this section, and the entire day. I shimmied across while Erik walked it like a pro, helping me with my pack. We soon followed more elk trails which took us well above the river now, above a deep canyon with a massive landslide scarp on the south side. Soon we broke out onto the fabled mossy boulders (described as a landmark in the Olympic Climber’s Guide), which we followed down to the traditional campsite at the base of Valkyrie Creek. At this point, we were still in stunned awe of the beauty and pleasantness of the valley-bottom wilderness we had just traversed, but the sheer length of the day and heat of the sun had finally caught up with us. Our dehydrated, hungry bodies, clumsily continued onwards, while our sweat-drenched, pine-tarred, and tattered clothes looked like they’d been worn for weeks already. We worked our way back down to the river to find that last winter’s avalanche action down Valkyrie Creek had left piles of debris and multiple easy logs bridging the channels of a short braided section of river. Above and below the Valkyrie confluence the river was too narrow and too swift to ford safely so we felt lucky to have a trivial crossing, especially at the end of a tough day. We camped on the south side of the river, with alpenglow on the massive south face of Mt. Tom shining through the end of the canyon above us. Elated to be here, we vied to get an early start the next day. We had packed lots of food on this trip, and were never calorie deprived. We wolfed down a huge peanut pad Thai feast, and again built a campfire at the edge of the water as the stars came out. We finally relaxed and stopped to fully appreciate the place we were in: We had just traversed a full 10 miles of raw bushwhacking up a completely wild river lined with some of the largest Sitka Spruce in the world. Now we were at the base of the mysterious Valhallas, and approaching the rugged south side of Olympus from an angle we had only looked down upon in the past.

Upper South Fork Hoh, from our campsite. We headed up to the notch, and then right up the hillside on an elk trail.

Upper South Fork Hoh, from our campsite. We headed up to the notch, and then right up the hillside on an elk trail.

The "mossy boulders" described in Olympic Mountain Climber's Guide.

The “mossy boulders” described in Olympic Mountain Climber’s Guide.

Landslide scarp across the river. Here the S. Fork is in a canyon.

Landslide scarp across the river. Here the S. Fork is in a canyon.

July 29

We woke up to another bluebird day (despite a forecast for 30% chance of rain). This time we were above the fog layer, just barely. The fog bank was stalled about 100 meters below the confluence of Valkyrie Creek, and as usual it began to break up into wisps as we departed camp. Rather than head up the hillside above us (per the “standard” route), we began by working our way up the river along easy boulders and gravel.

This is the point in the trip where we deviated from previous parties into the Valhallas. We were determined not to repeat the heinous steep death-defying scrambling reported by other groups. We instead worked our way up the river, about 100 meters onwards from our campsite, towards a canyon lined with huge mossy boulders and cliffs that looked like it would be impractical to push through. Our mantra to this point in the trip was to “think like an elk.” Elk know this land. They don’t push up the steepest terrain, rather they look for easy ways around impediments, and traveling in herds of 30 or more, these 600 pound beasts have stomped in centuries-old trails. Just before reaching the pinch-point ahead, we  ducked into the woods, and surprisingly quickly located a beautiful obvious trail, switch- backing up a weakness in the hillside. It soon pushed over an easy shoulder and continued, wide and clear all the way to the next creek up the South Fork. We could not have been more pleased at how easily we had gotten where we needed to be. Only an hour out of camp, we were now headed up the next creek (incorrectly referred to as Kilkelly Creek in several previous trip reports. It should be named Geri-Freki Creek) on elk trails again, no less. At one point the trail traversed a cliffy section, and it looked almost like the trail had been blasted out of the cliff to create a ledge. Within another hour we were breaking out above treeline, on a wide elk trail through heather that then traversed easily down to the basin below the Valhallas. We couldn’t believe our luck. What stood before us was one of the most beautiful views in all of the Olympics: an idyllic basin, with tarns, wildflowers, waterfalls, polished rock, and the Geri-Freki glacier ringed by the spires of the Valhallas. Behind us was the sheer wall of Mt. Tom dropping directly into the South Fork Valley (easily one of the biggest faces in the Olympics—its existence completely unknown to me prior to this trip). Better yet, the place had absolutely no sign of humans. It was as if we were entering a wildlife sanctuary, or perhaps even the sanctuary of the Nordic gods. The trail from our previous camp to this point had been so pleasant and obvious, that I half expected to come across a trail sign—perhaps part of the god’s secret trail system!

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Breaking out into Geri-Freki Basin, still on a great elk trail.

Breaking out into Geri-Freki Basin, still on a great elk trail.

The intimidating face of Mt. Tom, from our campsite in Geri-Freki Basin.

The intimidating face of Mt. Tom, from our campsite in Geri-Freki Basin.

We hastily ate lunch and set up camp, before donning glacier gear and heading up snowfields to the base of the glacier. On the snowfields we discovered the tracks and scat of a huge herd of elk which had evidently been there recently, probably on its way over the pass above, to the Paull Creek drainage. With glacial retreat, there is a short cliffy section to negotiate, festooned with gorgeous waterfalls, before setting foot on the glacier proper. We headed up the glacier climbers left, under a small icefall, and quickly made our way up the steepish head of the glacier to Mt. Hugin, which we climbed easily via the northwest ridge. We spent a good hour or more admiring perfect views in all directions. Broad gravel bars of the Queets directly below us, Skyline Ridge to the South, the walls of Woden to the west (a tempting and solid [for the Olympics] looking climb for the future). Loki spire to the northwest, had huge blocks of snow littering the glacier at its base, which had evidently come sliding off in the hot weather. And of course, to the west was Mt. Olympus, its 3000 ft. cliffs cut by a few intimidating-looking snow ramps, and one large rib of rock in the middle, which looked equally intimidating. We knew we would be headed that way tomorrow, but we tried to focus on soaking in our magnificent perch in the Valhallas for the time being. With evening light beginning, I photographed shadows on the Geri-Freki glacier before realizing that it would be good to descend if we wanted to make dinner in daylight. As we crossed the lower glacier, ice worms were beginning to come out. We marveled at the fact that this must be one of the lowest large glaciers on the peninsula, with its terminus at only 4600 ft. This must also be an incredibly snowy place in winter, perched as it is on a western arm of Mt.Olympus one of the wettest places in North America. In the evening light we saw 5 mountain goats, 3 heading up onto the Geri Freki, and another 2 headed out towards Olympus, our route for the following day.

On the summit of Hugin.

On the summit of Hugin.

Woden across the way.

Woden across the way.

Olympus in the distance, from Hugin.

Olympus in the distance, from Hugin.

About to negotiate the cliffs below the Geri-Freki Glacier.

About to negotiate the cliffs below the Geri-Freki Glacier.

The final ridge of Hugin.

The final ridge of Hugin.

On the lower Geri-Freki Glacier

On the lower Geri-Freki Glacier

July 30

We were again greeted with another bluebird day. We eagerly anticipated our ridgewalk to Olympus, and we headed back to the elk trail of the day before, assuming it would lead us easily to the main ridge. This seemed like a good strategy at first. However our elk trail must have quickly become a goat trail, because we soon found ourselves battling our way up brushy cliffs (more annoying than dangerous) with a massive waterfall in a cleft on our left. We pushed over a very loose ridge into an adjacent basin coming off of the main divide between the Queets and South Fork. In this basin, we walked within 100 meters of a bear feeding on vegetation below the snowfields. It was not in the least bit aware or concerned about us, entirely engrossed in his feeding. We continued our way up the snowfields to the ridge, at this point hot and dehydrated from a full morning of pushing diagonally upwards to the main divide in the hot sun. In retrospect, we should have taken the snowfield above our camp directly up to the col between Geri-Freki Creek and Kilkelly Creek. The ridge leading out of that col looked to be easily walkable from where we joined the same ridge further east. At this point, we knew water would be in short supply for the hike ahead, so Erik hiked down to a small meltwater pool and graciously filled up water for both of us. This was a very good call since there was no water to be found until camp later that day.

Heading up the goat trail out of camp.

Heading up the goat trail out of camp.

Leaving the Valhallas behind in the distance. Erik is below filling water bottles.

Leaving the Valhallas behind in the distance. Erik is below filling water bottles.

We were elated to finally be walking on a broad open ridge, reminiscent of the southern Bailey Range with Olympus straight ahead. To our surprise, we passed a small bivvy site on the ridge, complete with campfire ring—was this left by early climbers in the 1970s? or Rowland Tabor on his geological forays? Or perhaps—a stretch–Edward Curtis on his early photography expedition here in the early 1900s?) As we crested an unnamed peak, we could see to our right the elysian (Rowland Tabor’s apt term for them) meadows of the upper Paull Creek drainage, traversed by an obvious wide elk trail (a tempting approach to the Valhallas from the Queets for the future?), and a perfectly blue lake perched on a shoulder above Paull Creek and the Queets, surrounded by the Paull Creek meadows. On the left side of our ridge we could see that the small unnamed glaciers and snowfields we were crossing terminated in bench like terrain, with half melted lakes perched at their toes, with steep cliffs dropping directly into the South Fork, below that. Ahead we could tell there would be some tricky sections, and it wasn’t clear whether to stay low or go high. We opted to split the difference and soon found ourselves on a cliffy shoulder, not wanting to backtrack and not wanting to go forward. This was a low point in the trip for me mentally.  We were both completely exhausted by the hot sun, still air, bright snow, complete lack of shade, and the difficult morning. On top of that, we could tell there was a definite crux coming up on our way to the Hubert Glacier, and it was not at all clear whether there would be an easy passage to Mt. Olympus the following day. I was not feeling on top of my game, and was hungry at that. A unanimous decision was made to eat, and talk things over. There was clearly an easy low route, but that would require backtracking and wasting precious time and energy. Following lunch we decided to make a quick anchor and Erik belayed me down a slushy couloir pinched in the middle by a deep moat on either side. It easily went through, and he descended my tracks off-belay, and we were off again on our traverse (looking back the high route would also have worked, perhaps better). We held our elevation, and started to diagonal down the last big snow field to a point on the map that appeared to be the least steep way through to the Hubert Glacier, and the crux of the whole trip so far. This again, was a point where we deviated from previous trip reports (Steph Abegg and Doug Ray having stayed high traversing over a rocky point and descending a much steeper snowfield to the Hubert). At this point we were astounded by the change in terrain. What had previously been moderate snowfields studded with small meadows and wildflower covered rocks, now changed to a recently deglaciated wasteland. We were now in the gravitational pull of Olympus, with its cliffs towering above us, the Hubert Glacier seemingly only a few stone’s throws away, and a rubble strewn valley deep below us, with improbably perched glacial-erratic boulders threatening us from above. We made our way out onto a sloping broad ledge, tempted to work our way down to more ledges, but instead trusted the map. Here polished rock faces arced down from above and over cliffs below. The rock was in places split by deep cracks, much like a glacier flowing over a cliff. It appeared as if the bedrock was literally peeling away from itself and forming large crevasses. We used one of these rock crevasses as a way to surmount a small polished cliff, and we ended up crawling our way awkwardly along a jagged opening until the upper edge of the crevasse was low enough that we could walk again. This proved to be the crux, because within what seemed like minutes we were making our way down an easy series of ledges, and across a few small creeks above slide alder and gullies, to about 20 feet of steep hardpan that separated us from easy snow walking to the Hubert Glacier. This hardpan was no match for Erik’s brandnew mountaineering boots and he charged across. My old boots were not gaining any edge on the hardpan (and in retrospect I must have forgotten I had trekking poles in my pack), so I downclimbed a small loose gully to where the terrain was not as steep and easily traversed out onto the snow to catch up with Erik who was sleeping under the shade of a massive boulder recently dropped by the receding Hubert Glacier.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

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Approaching the snowfield below the Hubert Glacier, with Hubert ice cliff looming above, and the south face of Olympus above that.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

This terrain was recently glaciated, but the Hubert has receded up over 50 meter high cliffs, with a 50 meter ice cliff looming above that. A conelike tongue of the glacier cascades over the cliffs and connects to this lower snowfield, or perhaps a stagnant piece of the once mighty glacier. Near where Erik napped, a huge outwash stream was spurting from under the snow and rock debris. The stream cascaded over cliffs, and down into the rocky headwaters of the South Fork of the Hoh. The area between here and our camp below the spur ridge separating the Hubert from the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus was littered with house-size boulders that had been deposited by the receding glacier or perhaps were part of the massive rock landslide that covered the upper Hubert in the mid-2000s. We easily made our way up this debris field on snow, with the intimidating Hubert ice fall above us to the right, and the sound of rushing water below us under the snow. One section of snow was audibly hollow and I moved through quickly.

Looking back along the easy ridge from camp at the base of the Hubert Glacier. The route off the ridge and over to camp seems improbable from this angle. Valhallas in the distance.

Looking back along the easy ridge from camp at the base of the Hubert Glacier. The route off the ridge and over to camp seems improbable from this angle. Valhallas in the distance.

Surprisingly we set up camp at the pedestrian hour of 5 PM having moved quickly from the despair of midday, and threaded the needle through the crux transition to the Hubert.  We now relaxed in another truly magnificent campsite. The Hubert glacier spread out above us, sitting above massive rock cliffs, with ice cliffs above that, and a view down the upper canyon of the South Fork of the Hoh, a Mordor-like jumble of rock debris and roaring glacial torrent, with the Shangri-La of the Valhallas shining white and pure at the end of the ridge in the distance. Looking back at the crux of the traverse we had just done, it appeared completely improbable, and that we had definitely threaded a needle through some dicey terrain. The cliffs below our ledge system were dark polished rock, streaked with rust from iron deposits, and appeared to be overhung in some places. Above, erratic boulders appeared to be ready to tumble at any moment. In reality, the way through had been surprisingly safe and easy. As the evening wore on, we began to settle into this place, perhaps the most isolated of all the places we had been so far on the trip. Despite its raw, rugged beauty, there were flowers along the streams—yellow monkey flowers–and a pair of pipits flitted about on the glacier and snow fields, perfectly at home here. As the ice froze up in the late evening, showers of rocks continuously rumbled over the cliffs, and bounced down the ice tongue, littering the snowfield below. (I briefly looke for ice worms at dusk, and was unable to find any, suggesting that this lower snowfield has lost its status as a true glacier). We were treated to some alpenglow on the reddish cliffs above, and then forced ourselves to get into bed, eagerly anticipating the climb the next day.

July 31

We attempted to get up at first light, and narrowly succeeded leaving camp around sunrise. A series of easy steps and benches linked together to take us to the crest of the spur ridge coming off of Olympus, and separating the Hubert Glacier from another large unnamed glacier. We quickly made our way over ledges and ramps onto this unnamed glacier and traversed below the discarded rubble of an intimidating ice fall looming above us. Looking west, he Valhallas were now bathed in full light, but we were still in the cool shade of morning. We began up a steep snow ramp that would take us all the way to Snow Dome in a rising traverse across the south face of Olympus. Another magnificent and classic high route, we were surprised at how straightforward it was. In our conscious effort to keep moving we were unable to do much natural history documentation. I inadvertently blew by without photographing what I think was the only alpine azalea I’ve ever seen in the Olympics (it was not Douglasia), although experienced botanists probably know of other place to find this plant. As we made good progress up 30 degree snow towards the now disappearing shade, we were greeted by a flock of 5 rosy finches that foraged without care around us on the snow. At this point the sun also broke over the ridge behind us near Middle Peak. We were now being warmed by the light of day, and would soon find ourselves overheating as we had in previous days.

Heading up the ramp system on the South Face of Olympus. Valhallas and yesterday's ridge walk in the distance.

Heading up the ramp system on the South Face of Olympus. Valhallas and yesterday’s ridge walk in the distance.

Satellite peaks of Olympus (Athena and her owl), above the Hoh Glacier in the distance. Hubert Glacier below, in the distance, with the spur ridge which divides the South Face of Olympus.

Satellite peaks of Olympus (Athena and her owl), above the Hoh Glacier in the distance. Hubert Glacier below, in the distance, with the spur ridge which divides the South Face of Olympus.

Heading up the ramp system.

Heading up the ramp system.

Sunrise from the ramp system.

Sunrise from the ramp system.

Yesterday's terrain again, from the ramp system.

Yesterday’s terrain again, from the ramp system.

Further up the ramps, before the terrain became more moderate.

Further up the ramps, before the terrain became more moderate.

Walking quickly below the ice fall on the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus.

Walking quickly below the ice fall on the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus.

Again, moving quickly. The beginning of the ramp system can be seen on the left.

Again, moving quickly. The beginning of the ramp system can be seen on the left.

We took the wide moderate ramp heading left. Kyle Miller and Jason Hummel ascended and descended the small couloir above and at the right end of our ramp. The route we took is an obvious moderate route visible on topo maps.

We took the wide moderate ramp heading left. Kyle Miller and Jason Hummel ascended and descended the small couloir above and at the right end of our ramp. The route we took is an obvious moderate route visible on topo maps.

Within a few hours we were cresting Snowdome. We lingered on the shoulder above the White Glacier briefly pondering the route down to the White and across to the Lakes of the Gods (our original plan). The route down to the White looked heinous, and the route across to the only partially melted Lakes of the Gods looked like a slog. Interestingly, the western edge of the White appears to be retreating rapidly, and a new series of large lakes are forming there. Erik had not summitted West Peak before (despite having previously explored other summits on the massif), and thus an easy decision was made to head to the West Peak for some climbing and perhaps a traverse to the upper Hoh Glacier. Once on SnowDome, the sun had already been warming this aspect for hours, and we were wading our way through infirm 6 inch slush. With all the snowbridges on the the 4th of July route melted out for the season, we were forced down to the climber’s trail and onto the upper Blue, where we suddenly met the first people we had seen thusfar on our journey. Following them were a group of Boy Scouts. Back on familiar terrain and in the company of others, the aura of our grand adventure suddenly took on a completely different feel. It became hard to re-capture that sense of wilderness and adventure after this moment, although we were certainly pleased to be where we were. On the one hand, it was pleasing to be able to relax and re-visit places that were familiar to us, without the mental exertion of wondering what lay around the corner, but from this point on, the trip began to take on a feeling of “denouement” knowing that we had passed through the cruxes and that there would be no unfamiliar terrain ahead. It is crazy to think this way, knowing that even the standard routes on Olympus are still some of the most remote in the lower 48, and that the glaciers on Olympus constitute one of the largest contiguous ice-fields in the lower 48, but it serves to illustrate the immensity of the terrain we had spent the last 4 days traveling through.

A spire above the White Glacier, on the ridge separating Snow Dome from the White Glacier and Mt. Tom. This is near where the ramp system off the South Face of Olympus connects with Snow Dome.

A spire above the White Glacier, on the ridge separating Snow Dome from the White Glacier and Mt. Tom. This is near where the ramp system off the South Face of Olympus connects with Snow Dome.

Mount Tom, and the desolate basin below Olympus, as we entered the ramp system up the South Face of Olympus.

Mount Tom, and the desolate basin below Olympus, as we entered the ramp system up the South Face of Olympus.

Taking a break at the top of the ramp system; about to transition to Snow Dome.

Taking a break at the top of the ramp system; about to transition to Snow Dome.

First view of West Peak from Snow Dome.

First view of West Peak from Snow Dome.

Now mid-afternoon, we hastily ate lunch, and geared up for the climb of West Peak. We worked our way around the low trail on the backside of the false summit and into the col below West Peak. After kicking up the final steep snow wall, Erik led out on the south ledges route, where we belayed each other to the summit. The trickiest part of this route is the transition from snow to the summit block, which involves climbing into a moat (which varies in size depending on the year), and this year clambering over an exposed fin of snow leading out of the moat to the start of the ledges. Once near the summit, you’ve got to love the exposure on the final move, as you swing around a corner directly over the south face of Olympus and the South Fork of the Hoh drainage for one last time, with thousands of feet of air below your feet! With 1 long 30 m rap (it was a good thing we carried the 60 m rope) we were back on the snow above the moat, and retracing our steps to our packs. By this point the sun had taken its toll on us. Out of water, and with thunder heads building around us, we decided it was time to “call it a day.” Earlier we had contemplated climbing Middle Peak and heading to Camp Pan, one of my favorite places on Olympus, but now it was clear we needed to rein things in. We made our way down the Upper Blue, through Crystal Pass, and back out onto SnowDome to the comfortable campsites of Panic Peak where we could chill out on dry rock and linger for one last night of alpine splendor.

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Erik leading the south ledges route on West Peak.

Erik leading the south ledges route on West Peak.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

As we crossed SnowDome towards Panic Peak, with sunlight waning, we were surprised to see a tiny lone figure half a mile ahead in the distance moving towards us. It turned out to be Olympic legend, Dave Skinner. Dave brought new meaning to light and fast hiking. Clad only in climbing boots and shorts, and a small day pack with only a water bottle and T shirt in side, and 1 m long ice axe to boot, he was striding out for his evening climb from the Snow Dome hut. We stopped and chatted, and he explained some of the great routes he has done to and from the Snow Dome Hut, solo in nothing but the same outfit he was currently wearing. He had once come up our route out of the South Fork, but stayed north of the river the whole way, completely avoiding the Valhallas, and somehow making his way through what looked to be a green hell of slide alder at the base of Mt. Tom’s cliffs. He simply recalled it being “brush.” He also recalled another hike over to Athena’s Owl from Snow Dome, a big day in and of itself for most people. From the summit he saw the Valhallas in the distance and said “what the hell, I may as well go for it.” Somehow he tagged the summit of Woden, and made his way back to SnowDome all in a day, solo. I guess there are some merits to the light and fast style. Needless to say, we felt humbled. We continued on to Panic Peak while Dave summited West Peak and was back to his hut by the time we had finished dinner. He trotted to the top of Panic Peak with us for a spectacular sun set and more tales of SnowDome lore. Meanwhile clouds above Olympus threatened rain. On the way down, he said he was glad we joined him for sunset, and said “If you hadn’t come up to the top I would have had to have kick your asses. Watching the sunset from the top of Panic Peak is not optional!” That’s the kind of character Skinner is, and SnowDome is clearly the center of his universe; Olympus is in his blood. He is currently restoring the snow dome hut, of his own volition as research funding is dry and it will cost the park service doesn’t have the money to remove it (so also not an option). You can contribute to the cause via “Friends of Snow Dome.” Your contribution also includes the collection and removal of years of research garbage that is currently melting out of the glaciers. He welcomes volunteer help with this.

Dave Skinner exemplifying "light and fast" technique.

Dave Skinner exemplifying “light and fast” technique.

Alpenglow on Snow Dome.

Alpenglow on Snow Dome.

Skinner takes in sunset on Panic Peak.

Skinner takes in sunset on Panic Peak.

August 1

By now we were well and truly into the denouement of our trip. Traversing below the always spectacular Blue Glacier ice fall and the slushy blue ice of the lower Blue Glacier, we were leaving a place we have come to know and love over the years, not knowing when we might be back. On the moraine we paused to snap photos and marveled at the diversity of stunted trees all growing together in a cluster: Doug Fir, White Bark Pine, Yellow Cedar, Western Hemlock, Mountain Hemlock, Subalpine Fir, and Silver Fir—all within 100 meters of each other. We chatted with friendly rangers on the way through, and passed Mountain Man Doug in charge of a student group on our way down to Elk Lake, where we partook in a cathartic and ritualistic swim in its warm waters, washing away a week’s worth of grime, and soothing our aching backpacking muscles. I quickly changed into shorts for the rest of the trail hike down to Lewis Meadow, only to be stung by hornets within minutes of the change. Go figure. Narrowly avoiding another hornet’s nest, we did our best to find a secluded campsite on the gravel bar above Lewis Meadows, as it appeared some rain was settling in for the first time on our trip.

The lower Blue Glacier from the Blue Glacier moraine, a classic view of Olympus. This river of ice has receded drastically in depth even in the 10 years I have known it. This is one of the lowest elevation glaciers in the Lower 48, and also one of the largest. It resembles the valley glaciers of the greater ranges of the world.

The lower Blue Glacier from the Blue Glacier moraine, a classic view of Olympus. This river of ice has receded drastically in depth even in the 10 years I have known it. This is one of the lowest elevation glaciers in the Lower 48, and also one of the largest. It resembles the valley glaciers of the greater ranges of the world.

On the Lower Blue Glacier.

On the Lower Blue Glacier.

Melt water streams running across the surface. Looking up to Glacier Pass, the passage to the Hoh Glacier.

Melt water streams running across the surface. Looking up to Glacier Pass, the passage to the Hoh Glacier.

Classic view from the High Hoh Bridge.

Classic view from the High Hoh Bridge.

August 2

We hiked out the last day in misty overcast, passing an international variety of visitors on the trail. My wonderful wife picked us up as we people-watched the hundreds of tourists at the visitor center. We shuttled Erik back to his car at the South Fork Trailhead while she and I embarked on a 3 day trip to Toleak Point on the wilderness coast (I was pretty much hobbling along behind her amazingly energetic pregnant self at this point) .

ENVIR 495D: Olympic National Park backpack with UW Program on the Environment, July 2013

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Here are our 8 intrepid students, on what I hope will be an annual trip. From left to right: Caleb Hernandez, Carter Case, Julia Riel, AnRen Tan, Mary Navarro, Alison Berg, Sarah Schooler, and Alex Hirt. In this picture we are on an off-trail traverse to our next campsite on Cedar Lake, in the background. The basin below us showed signs of recently receded glacier (evidence for global climate change), and held snow well into summer.

Just returned from a fabulous extended week in the mountains with some amazing young people, on my course “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”. Every evening the students led inspirational conversation around the campfire (where campfires were allowed). Over the course of the week, we read and discussed excerpts from classic American nature writers and wilderness philosophers. We discussed the historical viewpoints that led to the destruction of wilderness landscapes, along with the counter-acting viewpoints that led to the preservation of smaller pieces of “wilderness” within the larger altered landscape. We contemplated the value of these remaining wilderness tracts for the health of ecosystems and people, and we discussed the future tenability of wilderness preserves from a functional and conceptual standpoint. From a natural science standpoint, we spent our days examining direct evidence for past and present climate change, including retreating glaciers, glacial geomorphology, and shifts in the ranges of plants and animals. Here are a few more of my pictures from the trip (and one picture by student Alex Hirt). At the end you will find links to some very engaging student blogs that do excellent justice to the course, and have even more photos.

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Campfire on night 7 of the trip, tired and sore, but totally relaxed and in the flow of wilderness travel. Still immersed in our wilderness experience, on this night we enjoyed another lengthy discussion, this time led by AnRen. AnRen got us thinking about how different agencies in the public and private sector could better cooperate to manage the wilderness and matrix landscape of the Olympic Peninsula for more successful wildlife conservation. Photo by Alex Hirt.

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Entering Olympic National Park: The boundary between clear-cut and wilderness preserve is, well, clear cut.

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Piper’s Bellflower (Campanula piperi), an Olympic Mountain endemic species, occurs nowhere else in the world. It evolved in isolation on mountain tops in the Olympics, its nearest relative occuring in the Arctic latitudes of the Yukon region. What will happen to this rare species as warming climates force it to ever shrinking alpine habitat on mountain tops? This species is further threatened by introduced non-native mountain goats in the Olympic Mountains, of which we saw one nearby!

Learning about the glacial history of the trailless East Fork of the Cameron Valley.

Learning about the glacial history of the trailless East Fork of the Cameron Valley.

Sarah Schooler (above) and Mary Navarro (below) working on their natural history journals, high on Grey Wolf Ridge.
Sarah Schooler (above) and Mary Navarro (below) working on their natural history journals, high on Grey Wolf Ridge.

The group (minus AnRen) on Grey Wolf Ridge.

The group (minus AnRen) on Grey Wolf Ridge.

Below are links to 3 excellent student blogs from students who were on the course:

Sarah Schooler:
http://sls-envir495.blogspot.com/

Julia Riel:
http://jrenvir495d.blogspot.com/p/day-8.html

Alex Hirt:
http://ahirtwildernessjournal.blogspot.com/

ENVIR 280: Natural History of the Puget Sound Region

Below are a few photos and student blogs from my spring course, ENVIR 280: Natural History of the Puget Sound Region (click this link for more detailed info). One requirement of the course involved documenting the natural history of a natural site (defined as “not intensively managed by humans”–e.g. a mowed lawn would not count) of your choosing, over a ten week period. This included documenting phenological changes at the site over the course of that time period, in addition to observations of plants, animals, and geology. Weekly assignments included scientific description,  explorations through poetry and illustration, and reflection. Students were also required to generate an educational self-guided walking tour to their site (with extra credit for leading a guided walk for someone not in the course). Field notes were uploaded into blog format, and species lists were linked to i-naturalist as a contribution to the public sphere. Here are a few excellent natural history blogs by students on the course: Carter Case, Jennifer Truong, Graeme Smith, Emily Noyd, Emily Hsieh

Below are some photos, mostly from of our weekend field trips to locations outside of the city. Thanks, everyone, for a great quarter!

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On the Ferry, Sunday evening, returning from our natural history excursion to the Olympic Peninsula, with an overnight in the cabins at the NatureBridge campus.

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Lunch time break at Salt Creek, after exploring tide pools on an early morning minus tide. Time to head to the Hurricane Ridge Road via the Elwha Dam removal project.

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Blood star on eel grass.

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A juvenile Ochre Star, and a Bat Star. In total we found 5 species of sea starts this day!

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The elusive decorator crab! What a cool find!

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A large gumboot chiton.

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The decorator crab fascinates all.

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Emily finds a millipede while ID’ing mosses.

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Nature illustration workshop with Maria Coryell-Martin.

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Studying for the plant ID exam.

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From Nisqually delta on the Puget Sound to Nisqually source, on Mt. Rainier. This day included excellent shorebirds and other migratory bird species in the early morning, with an afternoon spent learning about glaciers and montane/subalpine habitats.

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The lovely Bitter Root (Lewisia rediviva), “discovered” by and named after Meriwether Lewis. We hit wildflower season perfectly as we descended from Doug fir/Ponderosa habitats to upland sagebrush on the east slope of the Cascades.
We were like kids in a candy shop as we ventured into these areas that were so different from the western Washington habitats we had studied so intensively for most of the quarter. Umtanum ridge cannot really be considered part of the Puget Sound region, but it sure was fun, and very instructive to see the gradation in habitats as we pushed through the limits of the Puget Sound Region.

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A thyme-leaf buckwheat, Eriogonum thymoides.

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The short-horned lizard, aka horned toad.

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One of the few good spots in the state to see the yellow-breasted chat.

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Bennett and a garter snake found by Carter in a nearby creek bed. Tall sage brush abounds in the background.

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Claire documenting wildflowers.

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Sarah and the short-horned lizard.

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Olympic Coast: Shi Shi to Rialto, 4 days, March 2013

This is a classic northwest trip, and deserves a longer write-up. My wife and I took 4 days over my spring break to explore this long stretch of wilderness coastline. We started by riding the bus out of Forks to Neah Bay, and then hitching a ride with a friendly woman from the reservation (thanks!) to the trailhead. By our first night, we had made it all the way to the Ozette River, in place for a cold ford at low tide early the next morning. On our second night, we were sprayed by a spotted skunk in the middle of the night as we slept on an isolated patch of beach south of Yellow Banks. Our gear and clothing are still recovering from that one! Unfortunately, with the tide high, we were not able to move out of the skunk’s territory until early the next morning. The stretch from Norwegian Memorial to Chilean Memorial was some of the best and wildest coastal walking I’ve ever done, and we spent plenty of time basking in the warm spring sun on beaches and headlands while waiting for tides to go out. We had many excellent bird sightings, including a flock of red crossbills eating clay at the edge of the beach, and oyster catchers close at hand on the nearby rocks. I love this time of year because fox sparrows are still around, and they are beginning to sing their melodious songs as they head north. We saw a whimbrel and other shorebirds on the Sandy Beaches of Sand Point. There is so much more to say about this trip, and many photos that need to be posted. I highly recommend the Olympic Coast at any time of year, but especially in the off-season.

Patagonia

From late December 2012 to early January 2013, my wife and I spent 3 weeks backpacking in southern Chile and Argentina. While the landscape was out of this world, the wildlife and plants of the region were equally stunning, with fascinating bio-geographical histories. We first traveled to Punta Arenas, Chile, where we spent a day observing penguins (and other wildlife) at a breeding site on the Otway Sound. We next traveled by bus to Torres del Paine National Park, where we completed an easy 5 day backpacking trip amidst lakes, mountains, and Nothofagus forest. Finally, we headed to Argentina to do an obscure backpacking loop around Cerro Huemul in Glaciares National Park. We both agreed that this loop was one of the best backpacking circuits we had ever done. We encountered stunning plants and animals and some of the largest glaciers outside of Antarctica and Greenland.

Below is a PDF of a slideshow presentation on the natural history of Patagonia I gave at the PoE lunch series, featuring my photographs from the trip. The aerial photos at the end of the presentation are not mine, however. I’m sorry that not all of the photos are labeled–you just had to be there!

Click here for the PDF  (fast connection recommended).

West McMillan Spire, Southern Picket Range, North Cascades National Park, July 28-30 2012

It was another banner snow year in the Cascades, with excellent snow cover even down to lower elevations well into July. Despite doing my best to take advantage of summer skiing, most of July for me and Ida was occupied with wedding planning, wedding, and post-wedding entertainment of family from out of town. The wedding constituted a wondrous series of weeks, but when it was all over, we needed some down time in the mountains. This report is on a quick, but spectacular 3-day trip to West McMillan Spire in the southern Picket Range of the North Cascades.

After a backpacking exploration of the Northern Pickets a few years ago (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5493105136333934049?banner=pwa), we were dying to get into the Southern Pickets, one of the few places in the North Cascades that we hadn’t been to yet. We decided to climb the spectacular West McMillan Spire, a non-technical summit, widely heralded as the easiest climb in the legendary Picket Range.

We began our trip at a casual mid-morning hour on July 28th, hiking up the overgrown logging road which is the Goodell Creek Trail (which runs north up Goodell Creek from the North Cascades Highway just east of Marblemount). After 3 or 4 miles, the Terror Basin climber’s trail leaves the Goodell Creek trail on the right. North Cascades climber’s trails were scouted and cut (and subsequently beaten down by years of climber’s feet) by some of the pioneering climbers in the range (Fred Beckey, Jim Nelson, etc.), and are “unofficial” and usually unmarked paths that are described mainly in climbing guides. The Terror Basin climber’s path is similar to most climber’s paths in the area: steep, unrelenting, improbable in places, overgrown in places, but providing direct access into some of the most rugged, remote, and inaccessible places in the lower 48.

After some 3000 ft. of climbing, we broke out of the old-growth forest and got our first views of the range. The spires of the eastern half of the Southern Pickets were spread out before us, forming a formidable wall with the giant chasm of Terror Creek between us and them. Even West McMillan Spire looked surprisingly intimidating. Across the valley to the west, Mt. Triumph loomed large, with hanging snowfields clinging to smooth rock, threatening to crumble and slide at any moment, especially with the first warm weather of the summer.

Now out of the trees at about 5200 ft., the climber’s trail was covered with snow. Our goal was to make a gradual rising traverse towards a notch about a mile across the hillside, that would lead down into Terror Basin. Working with route descriptions, an altimeter, and a topo map, we navigated up gullies and streambeds, across snow fields, and over ribs, occasionally bushwhacking through islands of trees, backtracking on occasion, until we had traversed the sideslope to within sight of the notch. Approaching the notch, now 5000 ft. above the valley floor, daylight was dwindling and flat spots for campsites were few and far between. The only course of action was to push over the notch. Arriving at the notch we were met with what proved to be the crux of the whole trip. A near vertical wall of snow, about 30 ft. high, formed by blowing winter winds, that would need to be carefully downclimbed.

Given the icy nature of the snow at this time of day, we broke out the rope and lowered packs onto the snowfield below. I belayed Ida down while she kicked toe holds into the snow with her crampons. Finally, I followed down, off belay, using Ida’s steps. Relieved to have this crux accomplished, we continued by headlamp down the rest of the snowfield into Terror Basin, which provided a remarkably flat camp on glacial outwash plains at the foot of the Southern Pickets. Low on blood sugar, and now cold, we fumbled around in the dark, setting up camp and making dinner under bright stars. Later, a large moon rose, illuminating the crags and spires in a ghostly light. Certainly one of the most spectacular camps in the Cascades.

On Day 2 we awoke to a marine layer pushing up all the low valleys. This is a familiar phenomenon in western Washington, and it is commonly seen in the North Cascades. If you are above the clouds, you are fine, but if you are below, you are in for a cold, drizzly experience. Sometimes the layer rises to envelope you. Other times it stays low and pushes over the eastern ridges, cascading down the other side in a waterfall-like fashion. Still other times, it rises and dissipates into wisps. It ended up being the latter for us, at least on this particular day. Still, before the fog rose and dissipated, we were able to take some incredible early morning pictures of an unbroken sea of clouds punctuated by some of the craggiest peaks in the Cascades. Whenever above a fog layer such as this, I enjoy imagining that it is not fog, but the surface of a valley glacier, envisioning how these valleys would have looked when full of ice some 14,000 years ago.

As the sun rose, the clouds began to dissipate, swirling up around the peaks in wisps, as convection currents blew them away. At this point, we were picking our way in and out of gullies, across the snowfields, rock slabs, and a small glacier at the foot of the climb. Finally, we arrived at the steep snow ramp to the col between West McMillan Spire and Inspiration Peak. The snow was in perfect condition and we made quick work to the notch, where we stashed crampons among boulders that were precariously perched on ball-bearing like gravel–recently melted out from under retreating permanent ice. This marked the beginning of the scramble up the broad, loose, 3rd class ridge leading to the summit. As we headed up the airy ridge, the col below us seemed to get smaller and smaller, while behind us the impressive east face of Mt. Terror and the spire-like crags of Inspiration all came into view. Framed between these two spectacular summits was Mt. Baker in the distance, with Mt. Shuksan just to the right.

The final 30 ft. to the summit provided some real exposure down to McMillan Creek and Terror Basin, which, although still 3rd class climbing, began to feel like 4th class. Some concentration on handholds and footholds became necessary, but within a few minutes, we were on the summit, basking in the sunshine and eating lunch. And what a spectacular summit it was! Perched among the crags of the Pickets on a clear early-summer day, and knowing that we had another night at basecamp, we were able to savor the incredible views from this truly inspiring location. Across the valley to the north was the gentle curve of Luna Peak, and beyond that was Eiley-Wiley Ridge, with several of our campsites visible along a route we came to know well on our backpack into the Northern Pickets several years ago. To the south, Eldorado and the Klawatti-Inspiration Ice Fields brought back more fond memories of another recent backpacking trip: (https://plus.google.com/photos/117848514420252876440/albums/5495774599329591665?banner=pwa).

Reluctantly, we began to think about descending to the col, a process that took at least as long as going up. Handholds and footholds that were obvious going up now seemed few and far between, as we attempted to look and feel for them on the downclimb. Carefully, we made it back to the col to re-don crampons for the steep snow chute down to the lower snowfields. Once at the lower snowfields, crampons came off and we glissaded another 1500 ft. on a blissful descent that felt like we were just flying over and into the Terror Creek drainage. Careful not to descend too far, we began the traverse back to camp, where the warm sun had heated the rocks, making for a perfect pre-dinner nap.

Day 3 dawned with fog in the valley again, which quickly rose and enveloped us and the peaks. This thick layer would never burn off for the rest of the day, (although it made for pleasant hiking temperatures on the hike out). How lucky we were to have the weather we did on our climbing day!

Ausangate Mountain, Peru, with UW Biology and PoE: August 2011

The following posts are re-blogged from my student, Christine Ren.  UW student groups have been privileged to visit and stay with our friend Victor Yana and his family since 2009. I got to know Victor in 2008 on my first trip to Peru. Every year we are overwhelmed by Victor’s hospitality and humbled by the skill with which his family subsists in the extreme environment of Ausangate Mountain. With each year, I am also fascinated to find species of birds and plants I have not seen before. This is an area that is relatively unexplored from the perspective of modern biology. With each year, however, I am also surprised to see more development and modernity on the slopes of the mountain, coinciding with the completion several years ago of the InterOceanica Highway which crosses the lower flanks of the mountain on its way from Brazil to the coast of Peru. Thanks, Christine for this awesome day-by-day write-up of our experience.