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Mount Olympus, WA | June 2021

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We have been planning this climb for over 18 months. Our entire family was going to do the adventure in June of 2020, but COVID closed the park. Really I began planning before that. Shortly after I started SOTA, I began refining my kit and learning CW with the intent of one day being prepared for this mountain.

Our group:

My three kids (KJ7JCD, K3EXO, KJ7LRY), teenagers, were unable to come this year. So it was my wife, WE7CAT (Franzi), our botanist/artist/skier friend Dorothy, and our friends Julie and Eric. We were glad to have Eric's expertise as he has climbed most of the glaciated peaks of the Olympics. Julie, Dorothy, Franzi, and I first met 24 years ago, working at Innoko Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, counting birds, willow stems, and plants.

The Weather:

Weather is one of the most challenging and unpredictable aspects of the mountain. Being in the Hoh rain forest, it sees 140+ inches of rain a year. Hence the glaciers exist despite being just under 8000 feet at the summit. I am told this year we were at 140% of the normal snowpack--which I was glad to hear since it would help ensure the crevasses were more likely full of snow. We planned mid to late June as that is when the snow is more consolidated, and wet avalanches seem less likely than in early June or May. And by early July, I am told the route becomes more challenging due to the opening of crevasses and melting of snow bridges.

On the one hand, we got fortunate with the short-term weather. A stable, high-pressure system moved in and provided clear dry weather. On the other hand, we had record highs. The day we started, June 23rd, the temperatures were not too bad--in the 68 F range. Day two started getting pretty warm, likely in the 70-80s. Day three was similar, but by then, we were on the glacier, and the snow and a breeze provided some relief. Day four, we woke up at 6800 feet, and even though we were camped on the snow, we didn't even need jackets at sunrise. Nor did we need jackets while waiting our turn to climb the final summit rock--it was 70+ degrees F at the summit! Day five started really getting hot. We measured 85-90 when hiking down from Glacier meadows to the Elk Lake camp, and we all laid down in the Elk lake creek to cool down! No sleeping bags were needed that night! On day 6, we hiked the last 15 miles out, and it was 100-108 F for that. We didn't miss stopping at any creeks to cool down and dunk in the water that day.

The Approach

We meet at the Hoh River Visitor Center parking lot. Since I got off work at 8 am in Port Angeles, we planned on meeting at noon. However, the line to get into the National Park was over 2 hours long. The rangers said the wait is this long between 9:30 am until 4 pm every day of the week. The park has fewer than 200 parking spots, and typically 80-90 of those are taken up by overnight backpackers such as ourselves.

The hike to the glacier is about 18 miles. Many people who plan to summit go 17 miles to Glacier Meadows campsite the first day, then summit the next. We wanted to leave plenty of time to adjust to the weather, cool down in the heat, and enjoy the mountain and the rain forest. So, starting at the trailhead at an elevation of 600 feet, we hiked 9.1 miles with only 400 feet of net elevation gain to the Olympus Guard Station for the first night. We cooled in the frigid and silty Hoh river and enjoyed watching Harlequin ducks work the shoreline.

We hiked up to Glacier Meadows on day two, climbing 8 more miles up to 4300 feet. We encountered the hazardous slide marked on the map and made our way down that and onto the snow in the avalanche slide before climbing up the other side. The park service installed a wood and cable ladder-type aid that seems fairly secure. There is also a rope, but the rope is halfway abraded through.

While camped at Glacier Meadows, we encountered snow, some mosquitoes (not bad), and other climbers who provided useful intelligence about the route. They told us that the hardest part is getting down to the glacier. We were told to follow the lateral moraine as far up as possible, then at the end take two short switchbacks down, and then traverse even further up until hitting a snow patch. They had tried dropping down to the glacier too early and wasted a treacherous hour finding a route. Their advice was spot-on, but using snow as a reference is marginal in this kind of heat--the snow patch they described had receded 10-20 feet downhill by the next day and was gone three days later.

Day three, we made that 1-mile hike up to the moraine and down to the glacier, where we roped up for glacier travel. The crevasses looked pretty small, and not every group we saw was roped up. We had two ropes—the 30-meter rope with Julie and Eric and the 60-meter rope with Franzi, Dorothy, and me. The Blue Glacier was quite the sight. The heat caused lots of activity-we could hear and see huge chunks of ice crashing down further up, but we maintained a good distance. I was a bit concerned initially about the heat making the snow too soft, but it turned out to be fine, even for the final steep climbs up to our camp on Snow Dome at 6600 feet.

At Snow Dome, we explored the warm rocks, dried our sweaty boots, melted snow, and enjoyed the mountain. We took pictures of the two buildings that are cabled down to the rock for the research station. No one was living in the station while we were there. We climbed Panic Peak, just above Snow Dome, for a great view of the Blue Glacier's terminus and the White Glacier on the other side. Dorothy got some turns in with her telemark skis, and we marveled at the number of ice worms that came out in the evening.

On day four, we got up at our usual time, 5 am, for the summit climb. This day felt easy with light packs and firmer snow. The 4th of July route, the one that goes straight up to the summit from Snow Dome, is out. According to the rangers, it hasn't really been an option for several years due to the bergshrund opening. We took the common Crystal Pass route. This route took us to the left of the false summit and then over the false summit from the east side. We were passed by a group of four as we approached the top of the false summit. The downclimb from the false summit to the saddle on the other side required a short wait as one section has loose rock, so we didn't want to kick rocks down on the other group. We could see another group of 2 rappelling off the true summit as we made our way down that section.

The True Summit

The final snow climb to the true summit looks steep and intimidating. But it has a good run-out, so a slip would leave one sliding down into a fairly safe bowl if unable to self-arrest. After this climb, we assessed the summit block for a route. The most appealing route is the 5.4 climb up the north face. Two climbers had just descended that route, and the group of four ahead of us prepared to climb. We were happy to watch them, and they seemed proficient. Another group of 6 came up behind us and also planned to use the same route. Then another group of four came up. The four also wanted to use the route but couldn't afford to spend the time waiting. Instead, they climbed back down to the saddle to look for the scramble route.

Two friends, who are experienced climbers, told us the scramble route up the more easterly side was the way to go, but it looked very exposed to us, and we didn't see a route that we were excited to try. The other group gave up on that route also.

The group of six who were waiting behind us were anxious to climb. They were sport climbers and wanted the climbing experience, but they didn't want to spend time on the summit as they still had a long day ahead of them to hike off the glacier. On the other hand, we wanted to spend time on the summit with our radios, and we were not in a rush since we were camped only 1.5 hours away. I brought rock climbing gear, but I didn't really care about the rock climbing moves. I just wanted to get on top of the activation zone. So I made a deal with the other group. They could go first if they set our rope at the top so I wouldn't have to lead the climb. That would make it faster and safer for us. They were thrilled to agree.

This arrangement worked out well in many ways. For one, we were able to watch them and learn from their mistakes. Two ropes got stuck when they tried to pull them down, so we learned where not to put the rope.

We also were able to watch in horror as the group of four lost their climbing equipment. Their leader packed his group's rope in his pack, along with all his climbing gear. They intended to walk down to the saddle and over the false summit before roping up. But when he picked up his ice axe, which was securing his pack to the hill, his pack started rolling. Slowly at first. Eric and I were nearest, and both of us started to rush for it. But our rushing was slow motion as we had just removed our rope and crampons in preparation for the rock climb. And we were only a short distance above a small crevasse. The pack rolled over the edge--and not toward the saddle--it rolled down the 4th of July route and likely continued hundreds of feet before being swallowed up by the giant bergshrund. It would be impossible to see and impossible to retrieve. The four definitely did not feel comfortable climbing all the way off the glacier with no rope. Since we had both a 30-meter and 60-meter rope, Eric gave them his 30-meter rope. We were lucky to be able to do so--initially, I had planned to only bring my 30-meter 7.8 mm half rope, and that would not have left us enough. But a few days before the trip, I got the 60-meter, single, 9.8 mm rope for the final summit rock climb. I felt a bit nervous about only having one rope, especially after seeing others get their ropes stuck on the rappel.

We had arrived at the summit block at 10 am, and it took until just before 2 pm before we got our turn at the summit. Andrew, from the group of 6, provided a top belay for me to climb up. I didn't realize the rope wasn't on the 5.4 route, but instead lead me up a 5.7 or 5.8 route. Once I got to the top, I was unsure if Franzi would be comfortable climbing up that. But fortunately, I saw the 5.4 route that I should have taken, and others at the bottom could direct the following climbers up to the left where I should have gone.

I belayed Dorothy and Franzi up, and we set to enjoying the summit. Eric didn't intend to do the rock climb but instead climbed another false summit to the west. Dorothy took pictures with the book she had spent the last year illustrating "The Search for Dragon Proof Snow," and Franzi and I got busy on 2 meters. We used Franzi's FT-818 and a 3 element Arrow Yagi antenna. Instead of bringing the boom, we used mounts on a ski pole for the elements. We had full cell coverage on the summit, so I put a spot out for 146.56 FM. Initially, we didn't get any contacts. I could hear activity on 146.52, as expected since it was June 26th, Field Day. So we switched to .52 and got a few contacts before asking folks to QSY over to .56. Once we had 8 contacts each, Dorothy was ready to head down. I wasn't sure about keeping Eric waiting longer, as we had already been near the summit for 4 hours waiting to climb the rock. On the one hand, I felt guilty about making the non-SOTA members of the group wait. On the other hand, I felt bad about not taking the time to set up the HF antenna and giving more chasers the opportunity for a unique summit. But I also knew from past years that HF contacts with CW or SSB could be tough for me to get on 20 and 40 meters when the spectrum is full for field day. I wanted to try 30 meters, but Franzi doesn't do CW, so I would also be making her wait. And I was still nervous about getting the rope down after the rappel. So we packed up our stuff and headed down.  The rappel went fine, and we were able to get the rope down without a hitch. Dorothy headed down before us and retrieved her skis at the top of the false summit. Her ski down to camp took minutes, whereas we took another 1.5 hours.

On day five, we packed up camp. As expected, our time camping on Snow Dome was worth it. We saw the full moon, sunrises and sunsets, saw climbers going past us in the distance at night and coming down during the day. We contemplated the life-cycle and philosophy of the ice worm. And we basked in the sun on the rocks. And we pooped in bags. There are no outhouses, and EVERYTHING that is packed in on the glacier must be packed out. The snowmelt was amazing. I would fill our bottles and pot with snow, and within hours the snow would be melted, saving us from using fuel. I anchored our tent with cord tied to rocks buried 18 inches below the surface and covered each anchor with an additional 18-24 inches of snow. And still, the anchors melted out and needed to be reburied every 12 hours.

Dorothy again put on her skis and headed down ahead of us. We made good time, taking about 1.5 hours to get from our camp to the lateral moraine. But it only took minutes for Dorothy. Instead of waiting for us there, she dropped her pack and headed up to Glacier Pass for another run down the Blue Glacier. I'm not sure I would have felt comfortable skiing alone like that without a rope, and where nobody would be able to see if I fell in a crevasse, but she said she could see the crevasses on the way up. But she also later said that she couldn't really see the crevasses on the way down until after she was already on top of them.

The climb up the lateral moraine was a bit easier than the climb down. By now, other climbers had used the same route, so the path was more obvious. And it always feels safer going up rough terrain than down. We arrived at the top of the moraine at 8 am, while it was still in the cool shade of the mountain. Unfortunately, from there, we couldn't see Dorothy anywhere.

We decided to go the mile down to Glacier Meadows camp to look for her, although we couldn't think of a way for her to get past us. Once were half way down, we came to a nice snow patch. Dorothy told us she planned to ski down this patch, but we didn't see any ski tracks. So Franzi headed down to the Glacier Meadows camp with Julie while Eric and I went back up to scan the glacier. Franzi and I maintained contact with our Anytone 878 2 meter radios.

Over four hours later, we still had no sign of Dorothy. Eric and I hiked down to Glacier Meadows with the intent of looking for signs and taking the Terminus trail out for another viewpoint. We encountered a few other hikers, and nobody had seen Dorothy and her skis (and she certainly was the only person with skis).

We regrouped at Glacier Meadows. It had been 8 hours since last seeing her. The weather was good, and she had sufficient camping equipment if lost, but it seemed more likely that she was stuck or injured. We decided it was time to request help before darkness fell.

My wife and I both carry PLBs, but these are one-way devices to send out a distress signal. I tried 2 meters, but no repeaters were within reach; I couldn't even hear the Park Service repeaters--as expected deep in this location. Next, I set up the HF radio. I tried breaking into a net, and one member commented that he heard someone calling, "something about traffic," but the other group members said it was too faint and kept up the rag chew. I failed to break into a few other nets and conversations on 40 and 20 meters. So then I figured I should try CW. At the same time, Eric was working on sending a message via his Garmin Spot. He was able to get a message out to a friend with a positive reply, so I put down the HF radio. Eventually, the Park Service said a helicopter would be on the way, and they would like to communicate via VHF 2 meters.

Just as we got that message, another hiker went by. I asked if she had seen anyone with skis. She said, “Yes, she is up on the last snow patch getting in every last turn.” I headed up the trail and found a tired Dorothy coming off the snow patch, fortunately uninjured.

Once we arrived in camp, we confirmed with the Park Service that she had been located. Before closing the case, they wanted to know if she had any injuries. We answered "no," but the answer we thought was "not yet!" It turned out that Dorothy had been entranced by the good snow conditions near the terminus, and had continued to ski down past the end of the glacial terminus and away from the trail and camp. She hoped to climb up to the trail, but the entire drainage was hemmed in by shear cliffs. So after hours of trying, she confirmed that the only route up out of the terminus area is to climb back up to the lateral moraine.

In the telling of the above, it sounds like the communication with the Garmin was quick and easy. It works, but it took 15-30 minutes to pass a 160 character message. And Eric had to sit out in a meadow away from the trees to get it to work. If we had been further down the trail in the more dense trees, then I don't' know if it would have been as successful. Franzi was happy with our ability to communicate via VHF handhelds, but was a bit disturbed by how difficult it was to break into an HF conversation with emergency traffic. Of course they were likely using amps and I was less the 5 watts and buried in the trees deep in a valley. Still I expect I would have gotten out via HF eventually.

After some time for Dorothy to rest, we headed down to the Elk Lake campsite for our last night. We did this in the heat of the day, and we were all spent. Fortunately, Elk Lake is not fed by glacier melt, so the water was the perfect temperature to get in and cool down. I found a nice spot, about 8 inches deep, and lay down in the clear water, wearing the clothing of the past five days to wash it at the same time I rinsed the salt off myself. While laying prone and cooling my face, I looked up and saw a pine marten watching me from a nearby rock. It slowly made it's way upstream towards were Franzi and Dorothy were filtering water. I got up after a while and went to ask if they saw the marten. Just as I saw them, another pine marten came walking down the trail from the other direction, this one carrying the hind quarter of a snowshoe hare. It ignored me and walked past me, not 3 inches from my foot.

Soon after we returned to our camp. We hoped to sleep without the tent, but we encountered a few too many flies and mosquitoes. With the heat, I went to sleep wearing a wet long sleeve shirt and long pants, with no need to use my sleeping bag. I figured I would dry by morning and the wet clothing would help cool me down for a better sleep.

On day six we were feeling good. We had reservations for another night at the Olympus Guard Station campsites, but that was only 6 miles away, and all downhill. We thought we might stay there to avoid hiking in the heat of the day, but once we arrived we decided to press on and hike all the way out. The hike slowed down after that. The trail was mostly flat, following the river, and had some open areas in the sun. The day was heating up. We slowed to 2 miles per hour, but we had to stop every half hour and rest, drink water, and cool for 15-30 minutes. Our thermometers said 90-95 degrees F in the shade. Near the end of the trail, a ranger said the weather station at the trail head read over 105. Despite the heat, the parking lot was full of visitors.

What we carried

For the SOTA activation, I carried duplicates of most items. I wasn't 100% sure we could get our contacts via 2 meter, so I brought the HF gear. I carried:

Wolfilink adapter for Android device to FT818 for PSK31 (I also intended to try it for decoding the SSTV from the ISS, but I missed the pass of the ISS when they were transmitting and the pass was good.)

In all, my HF gear weighed 8 pounds. Too much of course, but I really didn't want the activation to fail due to equipment problems or not having a way to work the right band. And I hoped to play for Field day a bit from Snow Dome after we finished the activation. I did that too, and got a few HF contacts.

FT-818 with SOTABeams speech compressor

Te-Ne-Ke keyer


3 band Mountain Topper

2 LIPO batteries

40/20m Trail Friendly Antenna

40/30/20 End fed antenna

3 element Arrow Yagi

Anytone 878 with stock antenna

2 BNC coax cables

SOTAbeams telescoping antenna mast

Mobilinkd TNC for APRS

Franzi also carried her Anytone 878

For climbing gear I brought a small rack of rock protection devices, about 2 pounds total. For glacier travel I brought the 8 pound rope, 60 meters long, 9.8mm single rope. The rock climb was 30 meters, so this was perfect for the climb and rappel. I also had an avalanche shovel for use around camp, and a bear canister was required for the food. Franzi and I brought 15 pound of food for 7 days, but we only used 11 pounds, and finished a day early.

For shoes I wore light shoes for most of the approach and around camp, and then my Danner Quarry leather logging boots for climbing the snow and rock.

In all, my pack was 70 pounds. I had just gotten the Gregory Denali 100 L pack for this trip. It did well. I didn't get any sore spots, and it held everything. I don't prefer carrying 70 pounds, but I knew we would be moving slow and taking our time, so I decided to prepare for the worst (including bringing a parka in case someone was injured in a crevasse) rather than risk having to abort the activation for lack of something we needed. Once I took the heavy boots and crampons out of the pack and put them on my feet, and took the rope off the pack and on the ice—then the pack was down to 56 pounds and it felt good.

I posted some pictures with captions on the SOTLAS site also:

Here is a link to Dorothy's book, which does include mountain-top ham radio operations: