Blood, Sweat and Fears: 7 days in the Heart of the Olympics

It’s difficult to describe in words Jason’s and my experience in the Olympic Mountains. During our seven-day journey, we hiked, skinned, and climbed through unfrequented terrain near Mt. Olympus. Terrain, that had, at that point, been (as far as we know) completely untouched by the ski- or snowboard-mountaineer. Snapping photos of and skiing down peaks in the area had been a lifelong dream of Jason Hummel’s, and I was eager to explore that area as well. So, with little more than a topographical map and a few outdated pictures to guide us, we set off on what would be a journey of a lifetime.

Our intention was to set up base camp near Mt. Olympus, and summit it, as well as venture south, to the seldom-accessed Valhallas Mountains. We’d been inspired to christen the area with a couple of sets of first tracks. Our 100 lbs of food, gear and photography equipment packed, and the weather window found (NOAA predicted a seven-day stretch of potentially sunny skies), we commenced hiking toward our intended basecamp.

Eighteen miles through rain forest on the first day, and a graduated ascent of the blue glacier on the second, deposited us at an abandoned research station on Panic Peak– the only non-glaciated, flat terrain within miles. From here, we hoped to access untamed terrain and remote descents.


Skinning up the Blue Glacier with Olympus in the Background

Our big objective for the trip was to tackle a region known as the Valhallas, a remote area southwest of Mt. Olympus. On our first day, we had had a partial view of this unique area, which revealed that we’d have to cross seven miles of ice cliffs, cliffs, waterfalls, canyons, gullies, and rivers along the way. We quickly concluded that clear weather would be absolutely necessary. Day after day we awoke at basecamp to see clouds surrounding us. So, instead of attempting to head out to the Valhallus, we tried to take advantage of the terrain nearby; there were first descents waiting to be taken all over the place.


The Valhallas from our Vantage Point

On our first day from basecamp, we focused on Olympus’s west summit (summit proper) and the east summit as well. The west summit involved some gnarly 5th class climbing, where a fall from the exposed south face would have been fatal, and was not skiable from the top, so we descended via skis and snowboard from the east summit on that day as well. Despite its more hospitable terrain for ski descents, the terrain on the middle summit was gnarly as well. Exposure to cliffs and gaping crevasses with every turn dictated a careful descent. As the day wore on, the clouds rolled in and visibility became an increasing concern. Hastily riding back to camp, we arrived to watch a picturesque sunset over the cloud-covered Pacific Ocean.

Descending the Five Fingers on our way to Olympus’s middle Summit.


Decending the Middle summit of Olympus


Riding down the steep face of the Middle Summit.

On the next day at camp, our hearts sunk when we opened the tent door to find that the weather had deteriorated still further. Our hopes of reaching the Valhallas were slowly diminishing. We tossed ideas around as to how to spend our day and eventually opted to check out the terrain around the Hoh Glacier and possibly climb Athena, a high point in this unfrequented area, and one of Olympus’s five summits. As we climbed up its steep face, we were greeted by thickening clouds. Up on the summit itself, visibility was no more than 10 feet. It was nerve-racking to descend between crevasses and cause a wet slide with every turn. We were forced into survival mode as we navigated the whiteout for miles on our way back to basecamp.


Dropping Athena in zero visability
By the third day, we’d stopped hoping for good weather, but lo and behold, clear skies greeted us from above. Giddy and psyched, we threw together our gear and were quickly on our way toward the Valhallas. Our first descent was down the South face of Mt. Olympus, where we carefully navigated through ice-cliffs and a nasty 100-ft waterfall before reaching the gateway to the Valhallas– the south fork of the Hoh River. We followed the river downstream until arrival at a snow-filled gully, which we believed would grant us access to the coveted terrain for which we’d come. But things were not as simple as they seemed. Once in the highlands, we found that an impassible rock cliff separated us from the base of the Valhallas. So, we down-climbed the steep, snowless face until once again we were on snow and a mere thousand feet from the base of the Valhallas. It was getting close to our turn around time, but we were within shouting distance of the area for which we’d come. We quickly moved towards the base of the peaks as the weather deteriorated rapidly. In no time, we found ourselves climbing the steep, open face of Hugin, in a complete white-out.


Dropping the South face of Olympus with the Valhallas in the distance


bypassing a Ice cliff on the south face of Olympus


Jason looking across at the Valhallas now covered in clouds.

Our summit celebration was no more than 5 minutes, since visibility was poor. We hastily made our descent down the featureless terrain. Though we were exhausted, we had no choice but to push forward for the 7-mile return trip. Moving one step at a time, we only exchanged the most archaic communications. We knew all too well that we wouldn’t make it back to camp until after dark. But, once we reached the southern face of Olympus, we were greeted with some of the most amazing alpenglow I’ve ever experienced. We were humbled by the light glowing on the Valhallas as we cramponed up the steep icy face, one excruciating kick step at a time.


Riding below the clouds on the lower apron of Hugin.


A quick moment to celebrate our victory.


Heading back up the South fork of the Hoh river exhausted with miles still to go.

By the time we’d reached the low saddle of Olympus, it was dark, and we had a 700 foot descent back to our base camp, through the crevasse-filled Blue Glacier. It was a clear night, and to our surprise, moonlight completely illuminated our route through some wild terrain. When we finally arrived back at camp, we hooted and hollered, celebrating our achievement before falling to our knees in exhaustion. The next day, we would depart the area.

For reference, according a climbing guide book we had referenced, summer excursions should budget two days for travel from Mt. Olympus to the Valhalas. We had done the round-trip in one.


For a more detailed account click here

Special thanks to Jason Hummel who’s photos can be found here


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