In late July last summer fourteen of us set out to cross the width of the Olympic Mountains. Seven travelled from the East and seven from the West. I was leading the group from the West and an old friend was leading the group from the East. To make it more interesting, we planned to meet in the middle for a day.

Now when you start planning something like this many things need to be considered. One of the most important is transportation. My first thought was to trade cars with our counterparts, drive to our trailhead and park their cars there. When we met up in the middle, we would exchange keys and drive our cars home at the end of the hike. But there are pitfalls to that plan. What if we missed each other? What if car keys were lost, etc. My co-leader had a great idea. We each carried two sets of keys and traded cars before driving to opposite ends of the trail. Awesome idea!

On the first day, we were supposed to meet at my buddy’s house to trade cars.  As I mentioned, there are often pitfalls when planning such a hike as this. When we arrived at my old friend’s house to exchange cars, the other group was not there yet.  Thank goodness my friend had several cars. He was gracious enough to let me trade my truck for THREE of his vehicles! Now that takes trust. We divided up our group up into three parts and set off with the three cars while he waited for the rest of his group to arrive.

About five miles down the road I got a call from my buddy asking about the cars.  I said, “Is there a problem?”

“Well, the last driver in my old truck almost didn’t get out of the driveway. Does she know how to drive a stick shift?”

Oh crap, I’m thinking. We’ve been driving merrily along down the freeway thinking they were just behind us. “Well I really didn’t think to ask her”. I pulled over at the next logical place to wait and see if she was getting on OK. Twenty minutes later I saw her coming down the road in what appeared to be second gear! I have to give her credit, she wasn’t going to give up, but at that rate it would take about 12 hours to get to the trailhead. I waved her over and could hear the laughter from her and her rider even before the truck stopped. Well at least this trip was starting off on a cheerful note. The rest of the journey around the Olympic Peninsula was peaceful and of course, beautiful once she had a vehicle to drive with an automatic transmission.

Often when I plan hikes, I arrange to spend the night before at or near the trailhead and this night was no exception. We reached our campsite just at dusk, built a nice campfire and had dinner. One of my traditions is to cook a marinated steak over the first nights fire. It always tastes better cooked over a flame and eaten by firelight.

Dessert was some Yukon Jack which doubled as a nightcap and off to bed. I was already psyched for the hike and my thoughts were of the trail ahead as I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke early and eager. I was very excited about getting this hike underway. It was a short drive along the scenic Quinalt River to get to the trailhead. Several streams tumbled over waterfalls along the way emphasizing the feel of being in a rain forest. The river itself is broad and swift here. Fishermen worked the waters for that elusive steelhead. Old farms and settlements line the road for several miles before entering  the deep rainforest. Trees of grace and grandeur line the way. Ancient maples are covered with thick moss and ferns. All this and we haven’t even reached the trail yet.

Once we parked and got our gear ready, checked our packs and got to the trailhead it really sank in as to how long and far we had to go. The trip was planned for six days and about 49 miles. It sounds long and arduous, but you get a chance to work into it because the first two days are relatively easy and with minimal elevation gain.

The trail starts out up an old road through very old growth hemlock and fir with red and blue huckleberry as understory. I have to admit, I did step off the trail occasionally to pick some berries. I just can’t resist them. When we would cross a wet area, I had to look for some salmonberrries, too. To me this is just part of the enjoyment of the hike. I hoped I would find some Angel Wing Mushrooms in an old rotting stump or Chanterelles that I could add to my dinner.

The size of the trees always overwhelms me. How long has that giant lived? What events in history took place when it sprouted from a seed? How many more years might it live? Some of the root structures of fallen giants are still seen along the trail.

As the day goes on you begin to get hot and you realize how humid it is. Even in a dry season, it is always moist and the air feels somewhat heavy. You almost feel as though you could breathe out and see your breath from all the moisture.

Our first night, I planned our camp at Pyrites Creek. That is just about nine miles from the trailhead. It is a place where a fair sized stream flows into the Quinalt River. Since we got an early start, we arrived at camp with plenty of time to gather firewood or get a dip in the frigid river as one brave soul did. There is one wonderful member of our group who  takes a daily bath. To this end, she carries a collapsible bathtub along in her pack. Well, at least I call it a bathtub. On this night as always, a bath occurred. Since it was late at the time, the water got left in the tub overnight. In the morning we discovered a surprise in the tub. Apparently, the local mice thought it was a wonderful new swimming pool just for them.

The river was to be our constant noisy companion for the first two days. It is a sound that inspires my spirit. Whenever I hike, I am drawn to waterfalls. This trip is one where waterfalls are plentiful and beautiful as would be seen on our second days hike.

It’s not always easy to get a large group of hikers up and going in the morning. Some like it early and others like to sleep in. I am one of the earlier risers. On our second day into this journey, I was ready to hit the trail and get up into Enchanted Valley. This is a place I know every Northwest backpacker should see. Eventually all of us got up, ate and got on the trail. Today is a short hike day. I planned it that way so all could spend a good long time in the valley hiking, taking pictures, resting or whatever was pleasing knowing the next day would be the most strenuous day of the trip.

This part of the trail is deep forest and the valley gets very narrow which pinches the river and makes more waterfalls. It becomes more noisy and dark…then it suddenly opens up. The trees separate and you see up above the valley all the way to Anderson Glacier. All along your side are huge cliffs over 2,000’ high with waterfalls spilling all the way down. It is a magnificent scene. You come to a narrow steel bridge over a canyon of raging water. If you are afraid of heights, this will be a bit of a challenge.

Enchanted Valley is open meadows and scrub trees. There is a beautiful old lodge there built of logs which the NPS has commandeered for a Ranger Station. When I was younger, it was open to hikers who often used it in inclement weather.

There are many wonderful views of the mountains around as you wander through the open meadows of the valley.

After a brief stop at the old lodge, now called the chalet, we moved up to the camping area. There are several nice large campsites to choose from. Some are near the river which is open to the sun while others are tucked back in the trees near the steep valley wall. We chose the treed area because it had lots of room for tents, a nice fire ring and plenty of firewood. I set up camp quickly because I had something special in mind I wanted to do today. I wanted to find and climb something called the Elk Elevator.

The normal route up to the two passes over the Olympics went up the valley to White Creek then split to go to Anderson Pass or O’Neil Pass. Our plan was to go over O’Neil pass and out the Duckabush River to the East. Now I’m not the kind of guy who just likes to follow traditional routes in any part of my life. In researching the area, I had heard of a little known route called the Elk Elevator. This was in fact the original route up to the pass. It is a very steep and very challenging shortcut which is now not a trail at all. It is the way the elk herd in this area gets from the valley to the lush meadows in the subalpine area above, thus the name elk elevator.

Since it is not a “real” trail, it is not identified on maps. One of my hiking buddies and I went back to ask the ranger where the Elevator was and what the hiking conditions were up toward O’Neil Pass. I was shocked to find that the ranger had no idea what the Elevator was, nor had he been up to the O’Neil Pass area and in fact had absolutely no idea what the conditions were! His only comment was that “someone” had said there was still snow up there.  Apparently to him that meant it was too dangerous to go there. Fortunately, there was a park backcountry maintenance crew working on the chalet. They knew the area and could direct us to the Elevator and gave us a little information about the upland area. Now I don’t want to get down on NPS Rangers. They fulfill a necessary duty of policing and helping people out who get into trouble in remote areas. I just think they also need to be familiar with the whole area they patrol and all the conditions there.

After a short discussion with the back country maintenance crew, we decided to set off and climb the Elevator ourselves to see if it was doable for the whole group. So off we set. Up a small trail, across a log bridge and…Stay tuned. In next month’s issue, we will continue the tales of our adventure and the crossing of O’Neil Pass.

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