- Seward Park Fern Die-off Update
- ENVIR 280 BioBlitz at SkyRoot Farm!
- The Puget Sound Region loses two giants in natural history: Art Kruckeberg and Bob Paine
- Seward Park’s Sword Fern Die-off: the problem is getting worse
- In the news: Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, covers ENVIR 495C
- 9 days in the Olympic Mountains with ENVIR 495C 2016, “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”
- Natural History Education in the News
- ENVIR 280: Documenting 2014-2015 retreat of the Nisqually Glacier
- ENVIR 495C: Ice worms, a legacy of the ice age
- The Importance of Natural History Education
Category Archives: backpacking
I recently returned from my annual pilgrimmage to the Olympic Mountains with ENVIR 495C, “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”. The title of the course doesn’t entirely do justice to what this interdisciplinary course is about. Below I will paste in some text I wrote from the introduction to our course blog (http://envir495c2016.blogspot.com/). The rest of the entries in the course blog are prepared by students, and include documentation of the trip, daily discussion summaries, and reflections on the “primeval” landscape.
Again, to give you a sense of the course, below is the introduction to the blog which is linked above:
This blog documents the fourth annual offering (click here and here for previous years’ blogs, especially to compare to last year’s unusual heat and drought conditions) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C/HONORS 220B: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program and Interdisciplinary Honors Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day backpacking trip (July 9-17, 2016) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent human-induced changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses the Olympic Peninsula’s over one million contiguous acres of roadless land, as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed as a species at this critical juncture in Earth’s history. This year, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we were especially interested in exploring the history of wilderness preservation in national parks, and how the concept of “wilderness” (which I’ll talk about in the next paragraph), especially in high profile national parks, has shaped the American conservation movement (often to the exclusion of historically marginalized groups) and psyche–particularly our relationship to nature. We also explored challenges the National Park Service is facing now and likely to face over the next 100 years.
It is worth noting that before beginning our hiking journey, we visited the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation near Sequim to learn about S’Klallam history and culture—especially their cultural and ecological relationships to the local landscape—and to acknowledge that we would be spending the next 9 days traveling through the homelands of the S’Klallam people. We would also continue wrestling with contentious discussion topic of “wilderness” as a received concept (rather than a true place or state of nature) which makes sense only in the context of European occupation of the landscape, beginning in earnest some 200 years ago here in the northwest with Captain Vancouver’s detailed descriptions of the “pristine” landscapes of the Puget Sound (effectively refusing to acknowledge the real impact that Native Americans had in shaping much of what he was seeing—still I think we can grant him that by the standard of what was to come only 100 years later, or even what he was used to seeing in England at the time, the landscape was quite pristine). While wilderness parks such as Olympic represent a huge victory for society in the face of a culture that viewed the landscape as one giant “land-grab” by and for private interests, the result of viewing our wilderness national parks as “pristine” has been the creation of preserves that for the most part hold people as “unnatural”. One tragic consequence has been the barring of Native Americans from their traditional homelands, including traditional food sources and sometimes even an entire way of life. Meanwhile these homelands were maintained as a recreational outlet for all, although in reality mainly for a new class of wealthy urbanites seeking to test their mettle in an industrial era bereft of physical challenge and nature experience. In its most perverse extreme, some argue that the creation of absolute wilderness preserves has led to an excuse for the reckless management of matrix lands outside of the preserves, in our case right up to the boundary of Olympic National Park, with devastating consequences for some species, such as the Northern Spotted Owl. The point of our journey, however, was to explore these ideas for ourselves, and ask what the relevance of wilderness–the place and the concept– is in today’s world, a world where wilderness is seeing more visitors than ever before, but far fewer visitors per capita than ever before.
Because most students work full-time summer jobs, the only required in-person meeting for the course was the 9 day backpacking trip, from Saturday through to the Sunday on the following weekend—so students effectively had to get one week off from work. The academic portion of the course, however, included 3 weeks of online work prior to the trip, and several online reflective/research assignments following the trip. The course began with a series of four brief reading assignments and online discussions designed to introduce students to relevant course topics: 1) historical literature of wilderness (think Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and some other classic texts), 2) Post-modern critiques of wilderness including William Cronon’s famous essay “The Trouble with Wilderness”, and more recently a 2011 essay by Seattle resident and Nature Conservancy scientist, Peter Kareiva: “Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility”, 3) reasons, ramifications, and solutions to the lack of cultural/ethnic diversity in national park visitation and national park employment, spurred in part by Seattle writer/activist Glenn Nelson’s editorial “Why Are Our Parks so White?”, and 4) literature of the Olympic Peninsula, including excerpts from William Dietrich’s interview with a Forks logger in his book, Final Forest, human history/culture of the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park from Tim McNulty’s Olympic National Park: A Natural History, and excerpts from journals of early explorers (including John Muir, the Press Expedition, and Archibald Menzies). The students were also given access to a vast array of other relevant literature, including management plans for Olympic National Park, which they used as they planned discussions they would lead on the trip, and essays to be completed following the trip.
During the course, we spent our days studying natural history, and observing the effects of climate change (past and present) and various landscape management practices (past and present) on species and ecosystems. For reflective purposes, we also spent portions of some days alone; hiking, thinking, and writing in inspirational places along the hiking route. We spent our evenings in student-led discussions of topics chosen by the students themselves, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) ecology of exotic, or debatedly exotic, species in Olympic National Park, such as Mountain Goats and Barred Owls respectively, and issues surrounding their management, 2) general philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”—which by literal interpretation of the Wilderness Act, should not be a managed space—including how to regulate human visitation rates and activities while managing for “enjoyment” for all—a mandate of the National Park Service, 3) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative (and sometimes literal) separation of man from nature, 4) nature and wilderness as an antidote to psychological health issues in the Anthropocene, 5) how to make wilderness national parks available and relevant to diverse populations broadly defined (including local and low-income communities, and people of color), 6) the use of gender stereotypes to personify nature and wilderness, and how these gender stereotypes have affected the exploitation or preservation of nature, as well as how gender stereotypes historically and currently affect the ability of women to recreate and work in wilderness, and 7) the Seattle 2035 plan and housing equality as a foundation for better conservation of non-wilderness spaces and a healthy regional landscape. Individual blog entries will further document the breadth and depth of daily discussions.
One of the joys of this course for me is to re-visit the same places year after year to understand the process of change on both short and long time scales. While last year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics (not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain) and hottest the world has ever experienced in recorded history, this year the terrain sported a healthy snowpack left over from the winter. Despite a warm spring, high north-facing basins still held plenty of snow and streams were flowing well. This year (again, unlike last year) there were no wildfires burning in the park (although as I write this, some small lightning caused fires have just started). One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and we were excited to return this year to see, among other things, how a remnant glacier we discovered last year was faring after last year’s heat and drought. Ice worms, a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest, are one indication of the presence of glacial ice. We were stunned to find that where we had found hundreds of ice worms last year, we were hard pressed to find only 5 this year, indicating that this glacier had melted down to near nothing by the end of last summer–indicative of trends in loss of glacial ice all over the northwest, which should give us pause as we think about future ramifications for late summer streamflow for salmon, drinking water, and irrigation. I was also saddened to discover that a 700 year old tree that I had come to know along our route over the years, a relict of a previous climate regime, had finally come to its end and toppled across our trail. But I look forward to future years of watching it gradually return to the soil.
The Olympic Mountains are an especially rewarding place for a biologist. Separated from the Cascades and Rockies by a water barrier today, and historically by ice sheets flowing through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca as recently as only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!), the Olympic Mountains are like an evolutionary laboratory. During the last ice age, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations in the Olympic Mountains, and some have evolved in isolation to become distinct from their nearest relatives in the Cascades, Rockies, or Arctic. On this course, we have been able to study rare disjunct populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper, Engelmann Spruce, and Arctic Willow, as well as species that have evolved into forms endemic to the Olympic Mountains (including iconic alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower, Flett’s Violet, and Cotton’s Milkvetch, and iconic mammals such as the Olympic Marmot). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges and in alpine terrain will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and land management agencies such as the Park Service will face an agonizing conundrum in the next 100 years whether or not to move species to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves, and assuming that moving them doesn’t endanger other species that are native to the new location), or to let them go extinct one by one. In the meantime, many of these species are also threatened directly by the presence of non-native goats, and indirectly by the extermination of top predators such as the Gray Wolf. Whether we have a moral or ecological imperative eradicate, move, or re-introduce organisms to save them and/or the ecosystem, is a question which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which are traditionally thought of as areas where nature can and should be left to take care of itself.
Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, and in some cases irrevocably. “Wilderness” controversies aside, it was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, that Olympic National Park was saved from the ax and saw. Only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a wilderness area of over 1 million contiguous acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), and (unlike the Cascade Range) not bisected by any roads. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene. Regardless of your feelings about the “wilderness” concept, we must recognize the value of the “untrammeled” spaces the National Park Service has preserved for all people from all walks of life to experience, and the opportunity that this has afforded us as a society to decide how we will use and value these spaces over the next 100 years or more. As you’ll see in this blog, every student, regardless of background or pre-conceived notion of what wilderness is about, came away profoundly changed, renewed, and empowered by this experience. There are not many outlets in today’s world that have the ability to affect that kind of change on a person. It is clear to me that wilderness remains relevant–at least to those lucky enough to experience it as per-capita wilderness visitation declines– and that one of the current and future challenges of the Park Service is in how to preserve the integrity of the wilderness resource/experience, while ensuring that our growing population, ever more in need of a wilderness outlet, can still freely access it and in such a way that it is not “loved to death”.
It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 10 inspirational students from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical, mental, and academic challenges of the course. Kramer Canup, a former student and teaching assistant on several of my courses, and recent UW Bothell Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership, knowledge, and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on wilderness. I have spent at least 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape, its moods, its changes, and its species more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many services our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. I especially enjoy introducing wild spaces to students who have not had the opportunity to experience them before. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world) to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.
If you have questions about this course, or anything you have seen here, feel free to contact me at timbillo (at) uw.edu
Some stats from our trip:
Mileage Covered: ~45 miles
Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (12 people x 8 nights) = 96 (for reference, 96 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail excluding the first and last day of the trip: 4
Cumulative altitude gained: ~16,600 feet (about 15,900 feet were lost)
Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet
Number of bird species observed: 47
Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of mountain goats observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2
Number of bald eagles observed: 1 (at Cedar Lake, where one typically flies in daily to dine on introduced fish).
Number of tailed frogs: at least 10—a record high for us.
Number of salamanders of any kind: 0—a record low for us.
More detailed species lists will be posted at a later date.
The warmest year on record (2015) since 1880 when such records were first recorded is not the year you would expect to “discover” a glacier and an unusual link to the last ice age. But this is just what happened this year with my class, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the story.
I’ve been hiking the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass for at least 10 years now. I usually hike it in early to late July, a time of year when the remnants of the previous winter’s snows still blanket most of the route. This summer, however, was perhaps the most anomalous summer in recorded history in the Olympic Mountains. With less than 14% of the normal winter snow pack, the only snow remaining in the mountains, and indeed on the route from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass, was snow that has accumulated (and never melted) in shaded, sheltered pockets in years of much greater than average snow pack. I have always assumed that many of these snow pockets simply melt away during lean snow years, and build up again during strings of above average snow years. Some of these snow pockets, however, take on characteristics of glaciers–that is, they form ice in their interiors as snow compacts and crystals deform, and they start to develop crevasses as they slide downhill under their own weight. In these cases, I’ve always wondered if these were small glaciers that built up during a cooling period 250 years ago, or if they are remnants of the extensive glaciers that covered these mountains 16-17,000 years ago during the last ice age.
The University of Washington College of the Environment recently published a nice piece on my summer course in the Olympic Mountains of Washington. Read about it here, or pasted in below.
Also see my previous post about this summer’s course, where you can also link to a course blog developed by students.
As we sit at our computers or scroll through on tablets or smart phones, perhaps we picture the opposite of our current locales—mountainous terrain, soaring evergreens, and a variety of critters that depend on each other to maintain balanced ecosystems. Maybe thoughts of flora and fauna, untamed and unexposed to an otherwise modern, industrialized, human-centric world swirl around.
Tim Billo wants to expand your ideas about wilderness. Every summer, he leads a class with the College’s Environmental Studies program that encourages a multidisciplinary group of students to explore their own perceptions of wild places—literally and figuratively. Billo and his students leave the city behind, both its comforts and distractions, to traverse 50 miles and gain 19,000 feet of vertical distance over nine days in Washington’s rugged Olympic National Park.
“Experiential learning, when you directly experience the places and concepts you are studying, is such a powerful tool,” Billo said. “Barriers to learning that might exist in the classroom are quickly broken down.”
The course uses our local wilderness as a lens to see the changes that have occurred since the last ice age and over the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization. This year’s group saw evidence that cold weather plants are inching up mountainsides in search of cooler climes and compared historical photos of glaciers in the Olympics to what they were seeing in present day (in 1980, there were 262 glaciers in the Olympic Mountains; now there are 184), among other things.
Beyond observing the physical and biological changes to the landscape, the course creates an environment ripe for dialogue about where we’re headed during this critical time in the anthropocene—a geologic timeframe when human activity, for the first time, is impacting all aspects of the natural world and its processes.
Students discuss questions like, what is the value of wild places and does human recreation have a place there? Are we responsible for preserving remaining wilderness areas? If human activities impact wild landscapes, should we take steps to mitigate? And if mitigation requires, for example, helicopter overflights, widespread culling of non-native species, or other impactful management techniques, is it possible to do so without denigrating what wilderness stands for?
Having spent little time in the wilderness, Shane Kelly, an Environmental Studies major from a small Illinois town on the Mississippi River, always thought wilderness was important for wildlife—not people. His thoughts on that have changed since taking the course.
“There are huge benefits for people when they interact with wilderness,” Kelly said. “It gives you an appreciation for everyday luxuries, like how much distance can be covered in a car with no physical exertion. I learned a lot about myself, too. I’m capable of more than I thought.”
Each day’s hike culminates with a student-led discussion on a topic related to landscape change under either a natural sciences or philosophy filter. Topics explored this year included the development of place attachment and land ethic through readings of classic literature, as well as Americans’ evolving relationship with nature—from loathing to romancing and boy scouts to “leave no trace.”
“The physicality of the hike and the sights, sounds, and lessons learned along the way bring the group together and are a great primer for a deep, but respectful conversation about building a more sustainable society,” Billo said.
For Billo and his students, the Olympic National Park is an ideal place to think about what it means that only about five percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected wilderness (and more than half of that is in Alaska). Wild landscapes, Billo says, are the last place modern humans can experience what life might have been like prior to the anthropocene.
“When we started, I didn’t know my cardinal directions. By the end of the trip, I could always tell which way I was headed. Being able to climb a peak and look back on the mountains, ridges, and valleys we had covered is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Kelly said.
For more details about the course and a day-by-day account from the students themselves, visit the class blog. To check out more photos from the 2015 class, check out this Facebook photo album from the College of the Environment.
Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, firstname.lastname@example.org
This post introduces our course blog (http://envir495onp2015.blogspot.com/) documenting the third annual offering (click here for last year’s blog) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day wilderness backpacking trip (July 11-19, 2015) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses today’s wilderness landscape as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed at this critical juncture in Earth’s history.
Each student on the course led an evening discussion around a topic he or she was interested in, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) Native American relationships to nature and wilderness, 2) the literature of the sublime and development of sense of place, 3) ecology of invasive species in the national park and philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”, 4) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative separation of man from nature, 5) the importance of formal integration of nature (and possibly wilderness) experience into curricula at all educational levels from pre-K to college, 6) wilderness and landscape management issues around water (and fire) in a changing climate, 7) the process and importance of developing a land ethic (inspired by quotes from Aldo Leopold), 8) a history and evaluation of wilderness recreation styles and management philosophies around recreation in wilderness, and 9) envisioning a wilderness definition that is more inclusive of permanent human settlement—or vice versa, a human settlement pattern that is more in harmony with elements of a wilderness landscape.
While in previous years, our discussions have often taken place around campfires, this year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics, not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain. Snowpack at high elevation measuring stations this winter was less than 14% of average, and basically 0% of average at lower elevations, leading to extremely dry conditions on the ground throughout the region. Hence, we adhered to the strict park-wide ban on open fires. One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and this year offered a particularly unique insight into what the average summer 50 years from now is projected to look like. August flowers were already blooming (or finished blooming) in July, and many alpine blueberry leaves were already taking on their fall colors, as well as being flush with ripe berries, typical of late August or September. Areas that would normally be covered with many feet of last winter’s snow in July, were completely dry, with much vegetation dry and crispy. Grasshoppers, typical of late August and September, abounded in the meadows, and caterpillar outbreaks were extensive, with obvious extensive defoliation of some species–particularly willows. Correspondingly, butterfly and moth populations were thriving. Stream and alpine lake temperatures were far warmer than normal this year, and swimming was downright comfortable. While our trip ironically began with 3 days of much-needed rain, it was not enough to extinguish the large forest fire burning in a remote area of the southwest part of the park. We grappled with the policy of the Park Service to control this lightning caused fire in a “wilderness” ecosystem that according to the 1964 Wilderness Act, should be left to its own “natural” devices.
The lack of snow made it an excellent year to assess the retreat of prominent alpine glaciers, such as the Eel Glacier on Mt. Anderson and the Lillian Glacier on Mt. McCartney. We were able to re-create historical photos of both of these glaciers, demonstrating massive retreat in the case of the Lillian Glacier, and possibly the last view ever of this glacier if this summer continues to break record high temperatures. Much to our surprise, the low snowpack also allowed us to “discover” an unnamed glacier near Graywolf Pass. The lack of snow had exposed the glacier ice and crevasses (a sign of downhill movement of the ice), as well as ice worms living in the glacier. Ice worms are a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest.
As in previous years, we were also able to study the effects of previous climate change events on range shifts of forest species up and down mountain sides. Large Douglas firs at high elevations are the remnants of a warm dry period 700 years ago, and silver firs at lower elevations seeded in during the Little Ice Age which ended only 200 years ago. Many alpine glaciers that expanded during the Little Ice Age have now massively contracted, leaving in their wake characteristic glacial deposits and a unique succession of species colonizing the bare soil. Along with the loss of ice and snow also comes a decline in a unique suite of species (in addition to ice worms) tied to this ecosystem. This was the first year in a long time that I have observed no Rosy Finches, a species that breeds on cliffs and forages best on the plethora of invertebrates that live (and die) on the surface of snow.
The Olympic Mountains and its many historical alpine glaciers were connected to the continental ice sheets that flowed through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!). Despite the intrusion of ice from the north, as well as the growth of alpine glaciers down valleys in the Olympics, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free during the last ice age, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations (we discovered rare populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper and Engelmann Spruce this year), and some of them have evolved into forms unique to the Olympic Mountains (including alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower and Olympic Mountain Groundsel, which we discovered in several ridgetop locations). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and it will be up to humans to decide whether to help these species out by moving them to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves), or to let them go extinct one by one. Certainly the ecosystem will not unravel at their loss, but whether we have a moral imperative to save them is a bigger question, which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which we have traditionally thought of as areas where nature should be left to take care of itself.
Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, in some cases irrevocably. It was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century, that Olympic National Park and other areas like it were saved from the ax and/or development. In only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a roadless area of over 1 million acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), not to mention similar areas in the Cascade Range. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that also makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene.
It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 9 inspirational students, from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical and mental challenges of the course. Miranda Knight-Miles, a student on last year’s course, and recent Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on the importance of wilderness, a commodity whose value has recently been questioned in some conservation circles, as we enter the Anthropocene. For my part, I have spent close to 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many values our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world) to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.
Some stats from our trip:
Mileage Covered: 55 miles
Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (11 people x 8 nights) = 88 (for reference, 88 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail before the last day of the trip: 4 (Despite ONP’s high visitation rates, the backcountry did not feel crowded!)
Cumulative Altitude gained: ~19,000 feet (about 18000 feet were lost)
Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet
Number of bird species observed: 49
Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.
Number of mountain goats observed this year: 1
Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: at least 4 (a record high for this course)
This post introduces and recounts the second annual offering of my unique interdisciplinary course called “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”, offered through UW’s Program on the Environment, and taught entirely in the wilderness of Olympic National Park. This summer’s students have put together a beautiful blog about their experiences (including photos and personal stories), which you can access with the following link.
If you are interested, here is a brief explanation of the course:
From July 12th to July 20th 2014, this year being the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the 105th anniversary of Mount Olympus National Monument, our course headed deep into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. At over one million contiguous acres of wilderness, Olympic National Park and its surrounding USFS wilderness areas, are arguably the largest tract of contiguous, roadless wilderness area in the lower 48. Shockingly, this wilderness is only 20 miles from the rapidly growing Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area, home to over 4.2 million people, and hotbed of ultra-modern digital technology companies. During our trip, we used the wilderness landscapes of Olympic National Park as a model to understand the ways in which the landscape of the Puget Sound region has changed in the distant (1000s of years) and recent (last 100 years) past, and what human-imposed changes to the landscape mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. Direct observation of the effects of climate change and fragmentation on species and ecosystems, was coupled with student-led evening discussions on a variety of student-chosen topics related to “wilderness” including:
- native American perspectives and relationships of local tribes to the land through story telling
- perspectives on resource use in and around the national park, largely as debated by timber-based communities
- appropriate lifestyle, development, and settlement patterns for a rapidly growing Puget Sound region
- wilderness management concerns for endemic species threatened by changing climate, invasive species, and historical over-harvest
- when and whether active species management is appropriate or antithetical to the concept of “wilderness”
- Eco-feminism and other “unheard” voices offering alternative perspectives on land conservation
Readings included classical wilderness philosophy, as well as the philosophy of modern day writers and conservationists from this region, with much of our discussion beginning in an online format prior to the start of our wilderness trip. The course was taught by Dr. Tim Billo (faculty in UW Program on the Environment) and Carter Case (recent graduate of the UW Program on the Environment).
The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our daily adventures in Olympic National Park’s wilderness, and to invite you to join in discussion of the ideas we wrestled with often deep into the night during our trip. Each of us have written about a separate day of the trip, and added our personal impressions on the value of wilderness in today’s world. To give you a general sense of the location of the terrain we are talking about, a map of our hiking route can be viewed here. Enjoy!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) .