Summits: 1380

July 22 – 25 » Mt Olympus

Mt Olympus. An epic mountain for a lot of reasons. Long rainforest hike to glacier to rock climb. The tenth most prominent mountain in the lower 48, hidden deep in Olympic National Park. Most tourists in the busy park hardly know it exists. This trip was memorable for another reason though and his name is Mike.

I’d been talking to Mike online since last year about a go at Mt Olympus. Tony, a regular partner of mine would fly in and we’d meet Mike at the trailhead. We’d make the approach in two days, summit on the third day, and hike all the way out on the fourth. Mike let me know that he had a senior parks pass and could get us all in to the park, though Tony and I had our own passes and it wouldn’t be necessary. I think it was Mike’s way of letting us know he was an older guy, but with his extensive climbing resume it didn’t matter and I trusted his judgement.

The first day while Tony and I are on our way I get a voicemail from Mike. He’d be getting to the trailhead a few hours earlier than us and would meet us at our first camp, about 10 miles in. Tony and I get on the trail late afternoon and walk into camp just before dark. We have a brief intro to Mike before we all hit the sack. Mike would hit the trail early the second day and would meet us at basecamp the second night. We have a lot more time to hang out there, sorting gear, swapping stories, etc. Mike’s an interesting guy, a life-long climber, well-traveled, seemingly interested in climbing, cycling, travel, his family, and nothing else. I have a hard time describing his personality, but he’s kinda spacey and zones out a lot, with bursts of animation. He stumbles around and loses his balance a few times at camp, like he’s not so focused. The summit day would be long, but other than the rock climb finish none of it is really difficult or dangerous so I don’t worry about it too much.

Summit day. We get moving at 3am, first with a steep hike up the moraine, then a drop onto the glacier where we rope up and put on crampons, then a lot of moderate snow up to the summit block. Mike is a little slower and needs extra breaks but is moving pretty well. It takes us a little over 5 hours to get to the summit block and Mike is admittedly very tired but in good spirits. We wait for another party to rappel off, I climb up and give Tony and Mike a belay. The rock climb isn’t very difficult, maybe a little awkward wearing mountaineering boots. Tony is a new climber on technical rock and struggles a little, Mike absolutely crushes it with laser focus. A lifetime of experience. We celebrate and rappel off the top, Mike much more elegantly than us. We put Mike on the downhill side of the rope for the descent (stronger climbers stay uphill) and he’s moving ok but needs a little direction to avoid open crevasses. A long hike back down the glacier and on to the moraine gets us back on the trail where Mike slows down a lot and starts to zone out. He stumbles here and there and takes a few spills. Where he’d been focused on the climb, he just checked out on the trail. After twelve hours on our feet we lay around camp like lazy felines, have some laughs and crash out early.

Day four would be a long one out, 17.5 miles. Mike decides he’ll leave at 4:30am, Tony and I will leave at 8am with all the gear and catch up to Mike near the car. A few hours in we bump into a backpacker, “have you seen the guy with the cut up face? Is he ok?” Shit, it doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s talking about Mike. A few more hours on the trail, we bump into a ranger, “are you Mike’s climbing buddies?” She explains that Mike is ok, looks worse than he is, and we should be catching up to him soon. His face is crusted over with dried blood and his head is bandaged, his shirt soiled. He’d stepped off an exposed section of trail where a tree stopped him from falling further. He’d temporarily lost his vision, climbed back up to the trail, and continued hiking out. He was banged up pretty good and his left nostril was ripped open but it doesn’t seem to matter to Mike. Mike reminds me a little bit like a dog to be honest. A dog will lose its leg and get over it a few minutes later and go about things like its just normal now. That’s Mike. Lucky he didn’t die but he just wants a Blizzard at the nearest Dairy Queen.

I drove Mike home to Seattle after the climb, where his wife Cindy had a delicious home cooked meal waiting just for Tony and I. She takes Mike to the ER and leaves us the keys to their home. Complete trust for strangers. She’d made up guestrooms for us, had gone out to stock the fridge with beer and fruit, and was as warm and calm as anyone I’ve ever met. She’d had other stories of Mike’s shenanigans, was a retired nurse and Mike showing up the way he did didn’t faze her. Tony and I slept in and missed Cindy coming home to put out breakfast and coffee for us, before returning to the hospital. Cindy and I kept in touch through the day, Mike had been moved to another hospital, had surgery to fix his nose, and X-rays revealed a chip fracture on his skull and a fractured T5 vertebrae. Tony and I went back to visit after Mike returned home the next night. He’ll make a full recovery, the hard part was watching Mike realize that his climbing career was over.

This was an interesting trip for me, emotionally. I’d been chasing some challenging summits with Tony since last summer and this was his first time on a glacier and would climb rock and rappel outdoors. He’s motivated and I’m stoked I get to mentor him a bit. Mike reminds me a little of Fred Beckey (and had actually climbed with him). Not on the same level as Beckey of course, but Mike has done a lot of hard climbing, had more stories than time, has handwritten notes from a lot of his trips, and was going to keep going until he couldn’t. A lifetime of climbing begins for one and ends for another. The brotherhood of the rope and the passing of a torch. This one will stick with me.