I first heard about a serene spiritual place near the heart of the Olympics on a dark cold snowy night while hiking with my good friends Mel and Pat up the often forgotten North Fork Quinault River Trail. After dinner, as we often do, we sat around a campfire and began telling stories about the trails we most wanted to visit. It isn’t every day you find people who have the desire to seek out those fearful or hard-to-get-to locations.

When I get the chance to sit with those people, I love to ask them: “Of all the places you still haven’t hiked what is the one you have the most desire to see?”  Mel had two. One was the Skyline Trail. The other was the Bailey Range. He said the “Baileys” were much tougher, but had much greater rewards with multiple peaks to see and climb, river basins with lakes and tarns, big snowfields and places you could see down into several river basins from one vantage point. Since none of us had been there, we could only speculate as to what it was like. I decided to learn all I could about the place.

©Dave Lowman

 

For seven months I read and researched the Baileys. It sounded like it could be an adventure of a lifetime. Slowly researching routes became the drug of the day. I was addicted; I had to do this trip. Finally the day came to leave. We met late in the afternoon in Elwha campground as planned. As we unpacked our car camp gear for the night, we discussed what equipment we could share, possible route changes, and foods to take along. The more we talked, the more the excitement level rose until we were almost shouting. The anticipation of the trail ahead was so thick it made it hard to breathe.

Early the next morning as the dawn crept in, we awoke to a beautiful cloudless sky. We hoped it would be a sign of many more sunny days to come. The Olympics are notoriously as fickle as they are beautiful. It could be cloudless and sunny one day and freezing and snowy or icy the next. But today, nothing was going to rain on the parade.

Since the hike began and ended at two different points, we had to load one vehicle with our packs and gear and drive to the trailhead of our starting point up the Sol Duc River near the hot springs. The first .8 mile of the trail leading up to Sol Duc Falls was more like a highway than a trail, flat and wide. But from there on, we knew we would see fewer and fewer humans until finally we would be alone for days.

©Dave Lowman

The trail up the Sol Duc River to Sol Duc Park camping area was in deep forest with huge trees, gurgling streams and huckleberry bushes. We passed a few backpackers along the way, but mostly we were alone. By mid afternoon we reached our first campsite just below Heart Lake at Sol Duc Park. In the early morning light we hiked up to the meadows around Heart Lake. There were three goats grazing near the lake who barely noticed us as we passed. Just above the lake we came across a large marmot right in the middle of the trail. We stopped to take pictures of him as he surveyed his domain in the morning light. Soon we came to a split in the trail. To the right was the loop trail over the High Divide where all the backpackers below would travel. To the left, lay adventure and solitude. We turned left.

The trail itself was smaller here. It led out toward the Bailey range and goes as far as the Catwalk and Boston Charlie’s campsite. Neither Mel nor I had traveled beyond this point before. It was a new beginning. It seemed much further to the Catwalk than we thought it would be. Mel had trip reports with him that indicated we needed to leave the trail and climb up a steep hillside to reach the beginning of the Catwalk. We really didn’t know where that point was. After a long climb, we came to a dense thicket of trees near the ridgeline. At this point we became convinced that this was the Catwalk. It was nearly impossible to get through.

©Dave Lowman

As we climbed on through the brush, still thinking we were on the Catwalk, we finally came to some clear ground and rose to the top of a small peak. I was beat, I didn’t have any energy left after the climb. We were also about out of water again. Below us was a large talus field and a small, barely-discernible trail. We climbed down slowly and carefully. Once down, we still had a valley of boulders and talus ahead of us to go through. The going was tough and we didn’t know where the trail was through the rock. I was praying for water and to find a suitable camp area by then. We crossed a ridge and came to a small camp area, no water in sight. We stopped to rest and look around. Finally below us we found a small snowbank right on the trail with a 4-foot-by-6-foot puddle at the bottom. Thankful, we got out the filter and pumped water for dinner and filled our bottles. We decided to camp here for the night.

When we finished dinner–even before the first star came out–we went to bed. Not long after, we heard a voice. It startled me. We got up and found a lone hiker who had just arrived and was looking for a spot to stay. I was confused because I hadn’t heard him come past my tent. After much discussion, we realized we had not crossed the Catwalk, but got off trail and crossed Cat Peak. The hiker had come farther along the trail from the real trail and met us at our campsite. We felt stupid, we’d gone through all that brush and pain only to have gone the wrong way. The good news was we were now on the right path to the real Catwalk just a quarter mile ahead. I was too tired to give any more thought to our mistake except to laugh and crawl back to bed and fall asleep.

©Dave Lowman

Dawn broke. Now we knew where we were: the Catwalk lay immediately ahead. The first obstacle of the day was sliding down a very steep hillside grasping trees, rocks and roots to prevent falling from the cliff. Once at the bottom, the real Catwalk began. The route—it would be inaccurate to call it a trail—over the Catwalk was over and under trees, rocks, boulders, scree and talus. There were steep, almost vertical, cliffs on both sides. Just on the other side we found Boston Charlie’s Camp next to a pretty little tarn. We also found a couple of goats munching away, watching us as we pumped more water for the trail ahead.

We meandered through a wide meadow on our way to the dreaded Gullies. The Gullies are another obstacle which turns back some hikers, brutalize others and let a select few through unscathed. We were fortunate enough to be in the latter group. However, had the conditions been wet or rainy, it could have been a totally different story. I was just happy they were now safely behind us while ahead was a reasonably well defined trail.

©Dave Lowman

Eventually, we came to Eleven Bull Basin. This was a wonderful place with great wildflowers, campsites and running water. We stopped there a short while to take in the beauty, take pictures and contemplate how much better a place to camp this would have been than our hillside with the goats.

Not too far past the basin was what some called the Cream Lake Vortex. We’d heard the saying, “Just say NO to Cream Lake,” so we did. It was a funnel down through trees and brush to a mosquito haven of a pond below Stephen Peak. Instead we went off trail again and climbed a steep hillside to a ridge just below Stephen Peak. What a magnificent place! Once we reached the ridge, we found a level camp area adjacent to a pond and several snow patches. There were fewer mosquitoes due to the elevation and a gentle breeze moving through the area. We had wonderful views of Mount Olympus to the West and Southwest, and Stephen Lake to the east. At sunset we were treated to a beautiful golden orange sky that stretched as far South and North as we could see. To the East, an almost full moon was rising over the talus field. It was hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

We slept peacefully that night with no interruptions from goats or anything else. The next day we would begin the second and very different portion of this trip. It was a transition I was anticipating. So far the trail was over-treed and brushy terrain but soon we would be walking over snow, ice and rock.

Unusually, this morning I awoke before Mel. I got up and climbed over the talus field to see the sunrise over Stephen Lake. It was as though I was looking at a mirror image of the night before. On this page the sun was rising in orange hues while the moon set over Mount Olympus to the west. It was a breathtaking experience.

©Dave Lowman

After we packed, it was time to face a new adventure. Although I was excited about the new terrain from here on, it wasn’t an easy change for Mel. He definitely prefers forest over snow. The first difficult transition for him was giving up his trekking poles for an ice axe. Trekking poles are something he has always relied on. He calls them his ‘other two legs’.

Just to the east of the talus field by our camp was a steep hillside covered with a snowfield. It was very steep, but also tempting. Tempting in that it offered a great opportunity to glissade. It was also a fairly safe place for a beginner to try out his new toys. I wanted to try them out right away. Mel on the other hand still had poles in hand and started to walk down talus along the snowfield. “Go for it,” I said to myself. I walked out onto the steepest part of the snow and started glissading down. What a ride. I slid maybe 400’ and came to a slow stop. It must have looked like fun to Mel, because he strapped his poles on his pack and took out the ice axe to began his slide. He came to rest not far from me, but I sensed it was a bit scary for him. I could tell he didn’t expect to keep the ice axe out as he hadn’t even collapsed his trek poles and still had them fully extended while strapped to his pack.

From the bottom of the snowfield just above Stephen Lake we began a traverse around a huge bowl. It was a constant transition from snow to rock, but the angle of the snow was gentle enough that we didn’t need crampons. Going was pretty easy there and I took the opportunity to take a lot of pictures of the lake, snowfields streams and tarns. This, we decided, would also be a great place to camp, but maybe with a few more mosquitoes.

©Dave Lowman

We traversed about a quarter of the way around the valley counterclockwise to where we could see a way to climb over the ridge to the south. We made our way up through a small gulley that was fairly wide and filled with both snow and meadow plants. In a dry year it may be all melted out, but this year was different.

Immediately over the top, we could see we had a lot farther to go and with a lot more elevation to gain. Trees on the next ridge line seemed very small and very far off. Strangely, to me what would have seemed very long and hard on soil, seemed shorter and more easily doable on snow.

We moved on over the snow in crampons with our ice axes out. We switch-backed our way up the snowfields that were the steepest. Dimples in the snow provided good steps on our stairway to the top. Finally we reached the next ridge. From here we needed to make another long traverse to the southwest in a counterclockwise direction to yet another ridgeline below a rock cliff. When we arrived at the next ridge, we knew there would be a route down into Ferry Basin where we planned to camp for the night. Just one problem: There was no visible trail.

Part Two of this article will be published next week.

©Dave Lowman
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