Olympic National Park Through Hike Part 1

Enchanted Valley is a wonderful place that all Northwest backpackers should see, but today, I had bigger fish to fry. I planned to climb the Elk Elevator. As mentioned in last month’s issue, there is no defined trail so finding the start was not all that easy, but with a little help from a NPS backcountry maintenance crew we found it.

The trail starts by crossing a large log bridge over the stream leading to the chalet. Once over the bridge, the “trail” immediately begins straight up the hillside. For the first few feet, there is a discernable path then it disappears.

From here on, it is purely a bushwhack. This part of the valley slope was covered in huge dense tree cover with some understory. The only way to tell if we were on the right track was to follow the elk tracks. Now for those who know how elk move, it is easy to imagine a herd of 10-20 huge animals moving up or down this slope at breakneck speed. On the other hand for mere humans, this is very hard work. The slope is very steep and covered with moss, trees and branches. As we ascended, we had to zigzag our way up over and around many obstacles. After only a few hundred yards, I was sweating profusely and my legs were already feeling tired. I can tell this will be a long day.

Most of the way up, we were moving along the edge of a cliff that overlooked the stream we crossed at the base of the hill. There was an enticing sound of a cool stream and large waterfalls below. We were hot and getting low on water by now. We could not see the stream from the cliff, but hoped at some point we could approach it to refill our water bottles.

There are many types of hiking styles. Some people are fast and have great endurance, some are slow and plodding, others have consistent speed no matter what the terrain. I am and have always been a sprinter. The trouble with sprinting is you tire quickly and need many pit stops. Such was the case on this hike. I can’t tell you how many times I had to rest, but it was a lot. I have to admit, there were times when we questioned if this was a climb we should continue, or give up and go back down. Now I am not a quitter, so on we went.

After about 3 hours of climbing, we began to see the trees were getting more sparse and we caught glimpses of the mountains around us. This gave us great hope that we were nearing the trail above us that would lead to O’Neil Pass. It was all the encouragement we needed to go on. Occasionally when we stopped to rest, we could now see across the valley to the mountains and could judge how far we had climbed. It seemed like a huge elevation gain.

Finally we broke out in subalpine forest. Small stout alpine firs and hemlocks covered the landscape. Views across the valley opened up. We could see the valley floor and all the glaciers, snowfields and peaks to the North of us. What a feeling of accomplishment it was to find the headwaters of the stream we had been following. We crossed a small snowfield, down a slippery slope and refilled our water bottles. You never realize how refreshing water can be until you take a cold drink of water off a melting snowfield after a hard climb.

Finally refreshed and reinvigorated, we continued up the now more gentle slope and through snowfields until we found the main trail. We sat down and celebrated our success with some trail mix while enjoying the open views in all directions. We couldn’t wait to share our adventure with all the rest of our group when we returned to camp.

While we sat and rested, we looked at our maps to figure out exactly where we were. This lead to the realization that we had two choices of how to return to camp. We could go back down the Elevator, or go back along the trail to White Creek and on down the trail to the valley. Since we had not left camp until 2: 00 PM, and it took us 4 hours to climb the elevator, it was now 6:00 PM. We didn’t want to be still on the hillside at dark so we decided it would be faster to go the 6 miles back down the trail through White Creek.  We didn’t know what sort of conditions we would find, but it would also give us a better idea of what we would encounter tomorrow on the way over O’Neil Pass.

As we trekked on down the trail, we found we had to traverse several large snowfields. The going was generally pretty good, but a bit slower than we had hoped. Just as we came out of a small group of trees, we encountered our first bear. It was downslope from us and crossing a snowfield. We are always looking to see bears so this was an exciting addition to our adventure today.

After about an hour, we came to White Creek Valley. It is spectacular.

The hills around the valley were covered in snow and the melt off created a raging stream.

At the edge of the valley we stopped to admire the view and saw 3 more bears including a mother and cub feeding just above the stream. Crossing the stream was quite a challenge in itself. The water was icy cold and very swift. The intense cold feels like fire on your feet and legs.

By now, we see the sun is starting to get low on the horizon. We need to make haste to get back to camp before dark so why not run! Off we go. We don’t want to happen onto a bear or worse yet a mother and cub as we jog at a fast pace down the trail, so we keep yelling “BEAR!”. Now I can only imagine what another hiker going uphill might have thought if we came running down the trail yelling, “BEAR!”, but I’m pretty sure he would s**t his drawers. Fortunately we didn’t encounter any bears, or hikers.

Back at camp we shared our adventure with the group. I could see it only excited them for tomorrow’s adventure.

In the morning the group set off back up the Elevator. With a group of seven, it was a bit slower than with two. The “trail” we found the first trip seemed to have disappeared into the forest floor. It made the trek all the more exciting as it was like creating a new trail all over again. Just like the day before, we had to make many stops to catch our breath and hydrate.

Everyone’s spirits were high and filled with expectations of the trail ahead…and hopefully meeting our other group coming from the West. I was thinking about almost nothing when I heard someone below me yelling. I turned around to see someone holding up the hoof of a deer.

Hmmm, I guess there are predators nearby. I knew there were both bears and cougar in the area. We could only speculate which had taken this deer.

Finally, we all reached the top of the elevator and had a well deserved snack break. It had taken the group 5 hours to reach this point and it was now 1:00 PM.

The trail ahead turned out to be a series of challenges. One of our group had to act as scout to locate the trail as much of the ground was covered in snow. In places we found the trail so we knew we were on the right track. Everywhere we had to be alert for holes in the snow and shallow snow bridges over creeks which could easily become deadly. Some of the snowfields were very large. After a while stomping in steps becomes pretty tiring. Some of the cross slopes are pretty steep so you needed to be on your guard all the time. The challenge was both a bit unnerving and at the same time exciting.

It took us another 6 hours to get to O’Neil Pass. All the scenery along the way was incredibly beautiful. We passed many peaks and enjoyed long views down valleys toward the ocean.

Once we finally reached O’Neil Pass, we were tired and a bit worried we might not find our other team. We were now on the Eastern side of the Olympics and in the shadows. It made it seem much later as we crossed the huge snowfield over the pass.

Looking down toward Marmot Lake, we came across a lone bear who was startled to see us and quickly ran back up the hill away from us.

We crossed a fast moving stream and climbed a small hill and finally we could see the lake where we were supposed to meet the other group. I blew my whistle over and over to see if we could get a response from the other team. Finally we saw a lone figure come out to see what was going on. Immediately we all forgot how tired we were.  After eleven hours of strenuous hiking, we found our friends. The feeling of exhilaration was incredible. It turned out that since it was now 8:00 PM, and getting dark, most of the other group had given up on us getting there, had eaten, and gone to bed!

The party began. We all hugged and talked about our climb of the Elevator, the massive snowfields and as we all stood there sharing whiskey and stories, an incredible thing happened. From behind one of the many peaks surrounding us…a full moon arose. Slowly it emerged huge and orange.  It was the final icing on the cake. I will probably never again have that feeling that all in the world was so perfectly aligned as it was that night.

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