The Definitive Guide to Climbing Mount Olympus (Washington) and Surviving
Looking for a glacier mountaineering trip that’s challenging, remote, and offers spectacular scenery? Ready to level up after climbing one of the easier routes on Mount Rainier? Well, consider climbing Mount Olympus (Washington).
This mountain may be “little” elevation-wise. But there’s nothing puny about the approach, the glaciers, the crevasses, or the icefalls you’ll encounter on the route. A few times I looked around and felt like I was back in the Andes at over twice the L.
There’s not a lot on teh interwebz about this mountain, so I thought I’d create a little guide for prospective climbers. Feel free to drop any questions in the comments. Or better yet, hop into my mountaineering Facebook group and fart around with the other backpacking/mountaineering nerds. We’re a fun bunch (in my humble opinion).
Climbing Mount Olympus (Washington) FAQs:
Before we dive into a day-to-day narrative of our climb, here are a few Mount Olympus facts and climbing tips:
Why should I climb Mount Olympus?
After all, it’s not very tall (7980′). That’s barely half a 14er. So what’s the point?
Well, here are some facts that might change your mind.
- Mt. Olympus is the tallest peak in the Olympic Mountains and the fifth most prominent peak in Washington (7838′). This makes for some amazing views from the summit.
- It’s also Washington’s third most isolated peak, so there are very few places you can actually view the mountain itself. (If you want to get some photos, try Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.)
- Despite its relatively low elevation and latitude, Mount Olympus is heavily glaciated. Its largest glacier is the Blue Glacier, which you will get quite intimate with when you climb.
- The mountain is entirely located in Olympic National Park, so a climb allows you to check an NP off your list. This also means you will have nicely maintained trails and facilities all the way to basecamp.
- The standard route up Mount Olympus is a great mountaineering challenge that mixes several disciplines: glacier travel, scrambling, snow climbing, and rock climbing.
- From your base camp at Glacier Meadows, you’ll also have a chance to view the Blue Glacier, which is a true river of ice. Sid (our guide) said it reminds him of the glaciers in Alaska. It really blows away the little “pocket” glaciers you’ll see in places like Glacier National Park.
How difficult is climbing Mount Olympus?
Since my climbing partner doesn’t do glacier rescue (yet) and neither of us lead rock, we booked a guided trip. Even if you’re climbing guided, everyone on your Mount Olympus rope team should have some basic snow climbing, roped travel, and rock climbing skills.
If you plan to climb unguided, definitely check out this post. (It’s about Mt. Rainier, but the same checklist applies.) You’ll also need at least one person on the team who can lead the last rock pitch and set up the rappel anchor.
Finally, don’t underestimate the approach. Even if you break your approach into two days, hiking 17.5 miles with full packs can beat you. Start early before the heat comes on and pace yourself appropriately!
When is the best time of year to Climb Mount Olympus?
The main climbing season extends from late June to mid-August. The weather improves as the season wears on. However, the route also becomes more circuitous as the crevasses open.
On July 13, 2018, a crevasse extended across the entire approach to Crystal Pass. At that time, it was still passable by a good snow bridge. (See the narrative below for more details.)
What permits should I get ahead of time?
Wilderness permits are required for all overnight trips in Olympic National Park. You can pick up your permit at the ranger stations in Port Angeles and near the Hoh River Trailhead. (See this page for locations and office hours.)
Because limited permits are available for Glacier Meadows (basecamp), the park service recommends reservations. Make these as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
You’ll need to pay the park entrance fee or show your pass to enter your park. Park in the overnight lot at Hoh Rainforest Ranger Station (to the right, just before the main lot), and leave your entrance fee receipt or park pass on your dashboard. If you come in super early when the gate is unmanned, there’s a self-service kiosk where you can pay your fee and get a receipt.
What gear do I need?
Need a good packing list for all your glacier mountaineering trips? Get my free mountaineering packing list here.
A few additional notes and adjustments:
- If you’re climbing unguided, you’ll need a basic rock rack (The Mountaineers recommends 3–4 small-medium cams) and a rope. Looking at trip reports, carrying too short of a rope appears to be a common mistake on this route that will force you to rappel multiple pitches on descent. Our guide carried a 40m rope, which did the trick.
- Black bears are common in the park. Carry a bear canister or plan to hang your food bag and scented items. The campsites have community bear wires that make hanging easy.
- Shorts and an extra tech T-shirt were helpful, because we got super hot and sweaty on the approach. It was also nice to have flip-flops to wear around camp, as my feet got extremely wet and pruney while hiking. (Sexy, I know.)
- Depending on the forecast, you may be able to dispense with some of your warmer-weather gear. Do be prepared to bivvy in the coldest conditions expected.
- We ran into a lot of mosquitoes in July, especially at Glacier Meadows. Bring some bug repellant spray or wipes. (Be careful not to get the repellant on your gear.)
- Mountaineering boots can be lightweight (La Sportiva Trango Cubes, Scarpa Charmoz). My insulated La Sportiva Nepals, which I wore only on summit day, were actually a bit too hot!
- Many campgrounds (including all the ones described the trip report) have toilets. However, you’ll need to poop in a bag on the glacier. The ranger station hands out free blue bags, but I recommend bringing something a little more hefty like a Restop, Wag Bag, or Go Anywhere kit.
- Water is abundant along the trail and at the established campsites.
- We had a lot of camp time each day, so bring an ebook or download some of your favorite podcasts to enjoy beside the Hoh River.
Is there any chance Mount Olympus will erupt while I’m climbing it?
Nope. It’s not a volcano.
Unlike the nearby Cascade Mountains (which are volcanic), the Olympic Mountains are an “accretionary wedge” formed by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate under the North American plate. The ridges upon ridges of mountains marching into the distance make for some beautiful scenery on this climb.
Climbing Mount Olympus: Day-by-Day Trip Report
This report covers our climb with Pacific Alpine Guides from July 11 to July 15, 2018. (We really loved this company and our guide, by the way. Definitely check them out for your mountaineering and skiing trips in PNW and Alaska.)
Day 0: SeaTac Airport to Olympic National Park (0′)
On July 10, we flew into Seattle and rented a car.
Pro Tip: We don’t recommend renting through Fox, as they had an extremely long line while tumbleweeds were rolling in front of the other counters. They were also sneaky about add-ons and insurance coverage.
For the first leg of our trip around the Olympic Peninsula, we drove south from the airport on I-5, then turned west near Olympia. We eventually merged with Route 101, the beautiful road that circles most of the Olympic Peninsula.
No ferries were required for this route. Total driving time from SeaTac Airport to Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park was about 3.5 hours.
Along the way, we took a scenic drive and a quick hike near Lake Quinault and the surrounding rain forest. Being Colorado girls, we were completely blown away by the greenery and the huge, hairy trees.
To put things in perspective, these rain forests get 140 to 167 in. of precipitation a year (that’s 12 to 16 ft.). Compare that to Denver, which gets 8–15 in. annually!
We camped that night at Kalaloch Campground ($22 per night), which was right on the beach. (You can make a reservation here.) This was a gorgeous place to play in the sand and watch the sunset. If we could do it again, we’d definitely build a fire on the beach (as all the cool kids did at night).
Alternative accommodations: there’s also a campground closer to the trailhead (Hoh Campground). We passed it over because it didn’t take reservations. But it might be worth checking out if you’re climbing during the week or outside the main season.
The town of Forks is about 40 minutes from the trailhead if you prefer to spend one last night in civilization.
Day 1: Hoh Rainforest Ranger Station (573′) to Lewis Meadows (1005′)
We got up in the morning and drove about one hour from the beach to Hoh Rain Forest Ranger Station to meet our guide, Sid Pattison. Spoiler alert: I don’t say this about too many humans, but Sid was f*cking awesome. We’re still telling all our friends about him. Request him for your next trip, and use #SidPattison on all things rad.
We put on our monster packs and hit the Hoh Rainforest Trail to start our two-day backpack to basecamp (Glacier Meadows).
On day 1, we hiked 10.5 mi. and gained about 500′. Even though the terrain was relatively flat, this was a tough day! The heat was much more intense than we were used to. I was glad I put on my shorts at the last minute.
The trail followed the Hoh River, a huge, braided river with blue glacial water and lots of gravel bars. We also had some fun stream crossings on trees.
We camped at the edge of the river at Lewis Meadows and waded over to the gravel bar to enjoy the scenery, do some sand yoga, and cook our Mountain House dinners.
Pro tip: if you can’t see the bottom, don’t step in the water! I learned this when I went to refill my Nalgene and ended up falling in up to my butt. Gale and I went for a walk to dry out my shorts.
On this evening, we had a talk about the climb ahead. Sid told us that the climbing ranger had put up a report about a large crevasse blocking the standard route. (Actually the report said “impassable death fall,” but we didn’t learn that until later.) Sid thought there was a good chance we could find a way around, but no guarantees.
Day 2: Lewis Meadows (1005′) to Glacier Meadows (4300′, basecamp)
This was another day of hiking, but with some views beginning to pop out through thin spots in the rain forest. After some flat hiking, the trail started climbing, though it was never steep.
After a few miles, we crossed the “High Hoh” Bridge. It looks like an ordinary wooden bridge. It’s not until you’re in the middle that you realize the gorge is several hundred feet deep!
Along the way, we met some climbers who were attempting to do Mount Olympus … wait for it … in a day! Yeah, all 45 mi. and 6500′. They’d left the parking lot at 8 p.m. the previous night, but hadn’t made it any higher than the Snow Dome. (See below.) So we got no new beta on the death fall crevasse.
As we approached Glacier Meadows, the trail started clinging to the side of the cliff and became pretty exposed! Along this section, about 16 mi. in, we got our first view of Mount Olympus.
Our last obstacle before reaching camp was to navigate a washout. You can see the ladder we descended at the bottom left of the photo. Several rungs were missing or broken, which made things interesting, especially with our heavy packs.
After setting up camp, we hiked up to a snow field above tree line and did some snow skills practice (rope travel, plunge stepping, self-arrest). Sid’s systems were super simple and intuitive — way easier than what I’d learned as a mountaineering student!
Back at camp, we met another group also making an attempt in the morning who had read the
“impassible death fall crevasse” report. The guides had a good laugh over the drama of it all. (I guess they’re taught to be super objective instead of writing stuff like “death fall” in their conditions reports.)
Then another group came down from the mountain and said the “death fall” crevasse was no big dealio, it actually had a nice snow bridge across it. So we went to bed early (around 6 p.m.) with renewed hopes!
Day 3: Glacier Meadows (4300′) to Mount Olympus (Washington) Summit (7980′)
On summit day, we rose at 2:15 a.m. for a 3 a.m. start. In the dark, we ascended the end of the Hoh River Trail to the lateral moraine of Blue Glacier. Crossing the lateral moraine was a bit like walking a very narrow catwalk in the sky. I was glad it was too dark to see the all the way down!
We descended the end of the moraine to the Blue Glacier. This section was steep, loose, and not a good time!
Next, we crossed the Blue Glacier and watched the alpenglow form over the ice fall. The other teams in the picture are the guys from the IMG group.
The next section was a moderate snow climb to a big round plateau called the Snow Dome. From here, we had amazing views of Glacier Peak and Mount Rainier. Apparently there’s a cabin up on Snow Dome where you can sleep, which would be amazing.
As we crossed the Snow Dome, we got our first look at the impassable “death fall” crevasse, which we crossed (hah!) via a solid snow bridge. It was a pretty big crack, but I’m not sure what exactly made it a death fall. (As Sid said, Isn’t every crevasse fall a death fall if you fall in?)
After we crossed Crystal Pass, the rocky “false summit” came into view. We crossed it via a loose rocky gully.
Our first view of the true summit was pretty rad! Although that crevasse below the route kind of looks like a real death fall, dontchathink?
After a steep snow climb, I belayed Sid up an easy pitch of rock climbing (5.4-ish), and Gale and I followed. If you’ve never climbed on the same rope with a friend, it’s quite a feeling! I was on the end and really nervous I was going to fall and pull her off. But we managed to avoid that bit of fun.
From there, it was a short scramble to the summit. All of these glaciated peaks are stunning, but this really was one of the prettiest summit views I’ve seen. There’s just something about the thick air in Washington that makes the mountains look ghostly and mysterious. (And then I was overwhelmed with gratitude and farted a unicorn out of my butt and was #blessed. Just kidding.)
Sid kept a good pace on the way up, so we had plenty of juice for the descent. Things did start to heat up around noon. Crossing the Snow Dome seemed to take forever. It didn’t help that I really needed to poop at this point, but was trying to hold on for camp.
Advice to future self: just poop. You’ll be in a better mood all day.
We stopped to grab some water at a glacial stream and then headed down to Blue Glacier. Once again, distances were deceptive. Walking across it was like sailing toward a horizon that kept on retreating. At one point, Gale punched a leg through some snow into a small crevasse, which gave us 5 seconds of extreme excitement.
We were not too stoked to climb the scree slope to the top of the moraine. But once we were up there, we were pretty much down alive! We took off our gear and descended to Glacier Meadows, where I made a run for the bathroom.
Total travel time to the summit and back was about 13 hours (9.5 mi., 3680′).
Day 4: Glacier Basin to Olympic Guard Station
After sleeping in and eating a big breakfast, we climbed up to the Blue Glacier Terminal Moraine to enjoy some stunning views:
The 8.4-mi. walk down Hoh River Trail to Olympic Guard Station was a bit of a slog. In fact, this was the hardest day of hiking for me. After the exertion and excitement of the previous day, my body just was not enthusiastic about descending in the blazing heat.
Back at the High Hoh Bridge, we found a steaming pile of bear shit. The campers in the nearest site were having a heenie over it (as would I, probably).
After what seemed like forever, we finally reached Olympic Guard Station and set up camp on the “beach.” We were so hot, we dipped our clothes in the glacier-fed water and put them back on! Soaking our feet felt like heaven.
While we were playing in the river, Gale started shouting. A bear had just walked right past our camp! I’d left a chocolate Kind Bar wrapper out of my pack, so I was freaking out. But he just kept right on trucking into the woods.
We all took about five hours to read, listen to podcasts, rest, and recharge and went to bed early.
Day 5: Olympic Guard Station to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center (573′)
We got up early (6 a.m.) to beat the heat and hiked 9.1 miles to the parking lot. We finished with beer and burgers at the BBG Blakeslee Bar and Grill in Forks, where I ate a
Sparkly Vampire Mill Creek Burger and drank a Silver City Brewing Nice Day IPA. It was the most delicious food I’d ever tasted.
We said goodbye to Sid and headed north along the peninsula, returning to Seattle via the Edmonds-Kingston ferry. The ferry process was a bit of a boondoggle for two Colorado girls. We were amazed that people parked their cars in the line … and then left to get beer and ice cream.
And then we were back at Gale’s sister’s house in Burien and off to the airport the next morning. In true Fox form, we actually waited in line to return our rental car.
And that was that. We took one final hike (with our baggage through the airport), and Mount Olympus was in the books.
We absolutely loved this climb and agreed that it was one of our best vacations ever! Though it left both of us pretty physically wiped out the week after.
Interested in climbing Mount Olympus (Washington)? Comment below to share your questions, or consider jumping in the Facebook Group.
And if you’re considering taking a guide, definitely check out Pacific Alpine Guides and Sid Pattison. Highly recommended.
Originally published July 23, 2018.