Story by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 70 miles – Time out: 9 days
Degree of Difficulty: 4 – Highest Elevation: 6,100 ft.
Pet Friendly: No
July 19th – July 27th 2014.
The Bailey Range begins at the edge of the Seven Lakes wilderness of Olympic National Park, where the maintained trail ends and few backpackers travel. I was part of a small climbing team that planned on traversing miles of the trackless peaks and valleys of the Bailey Range before summiting glacier-shrouded Mount Olympus. We were all very excited! The Mountain Trail Guide says that the Bailey Range Traverse is perhaps the finest high-county route in the Olympics. We’d be far from civilization; it would take us a day of hiking for our team just to reach the start of the traverse east of the Seven Lakes Basin.
I liked our team from the start. Mark, our guide, was from Mountain Madness, the world-famous mountaineering company. Though he had never set foot in the Olympics, the lean mid-twenty year old had plenty of climbing experience all over the Northwest. Just three days before, Mark had returned from guiding a climb up Mt. Denali in Alaska. Throughout our journey, he easily shouldered a backpack loaded with gear that I could barely lift. Julie and Grant, meanwhile, were a friendly married couple from south Puget Sound. They were fit from a daily exercise regimen designed for this climb. I, on the other hand, found myself talking a little too fast and laughing a little too loud during our introductions. I couldn’t stop worrying that I was a decade and a half older than the rest of the team. I was nervous because we’d be spending the next nine days navigating through the wilderness without the benefit of a trail.
The Bailey Range Traverse begins at “The Catwalk.” Mark pointed up to where a jumble of boulders disappeared into the clouds and said this was the trail. I cleared my throat and was about to say that can’t be right when Julie, Grant and Mark began climbing. I shut up and followed. Our team scrambled up Cat Peak at 5,300 feet and then along a narrow spine of jagged rock, squeezing through crevasses among the gnarled branches of stunted, sub-alpine trees. Handholds were difficult to find and I wasn’t used to climbing with a heavy pack. The drop-off on either side of the Catwalk must have been stupendous, but we weren’t sure since it was raining and visibility was poor. Julie said, “I think God made it cloudy so I couldn’t be scared.”
We reached the end of the frightening Catwalk at 6pm where there was a narrow saddle of bare dirt called Boston Charlie’s Camp. There was just enough space for our two tents. Boston Charlie was a mountain man born in the 1860’s. He was the last medicine man of the Klallam people. He frequented Olympic Hot Springs for spiritual cleansing long before they were discovered by Whites, and his encounter with a mountain-sized Sasquatch is part of Klallam history. This tiny bench of ground was one of Boston Charlie’s favorite campsites. After a gourmet macaroni and cheese dinner prepared by Mark, and being warm and dry in our sleeping bags while cold rain pelted our tent, it became one of my favorite campsites too.
After a rejuvenating 12-hour slumber, our team awoke to the clear skies that we had been hoping for. Now we had a stunning view of the entire forty or so miles of the trackless Bailey Range that we would navigate and climb, beginning with Mt. Carrie and ending at our final goal, the glacier-encased Mt. Olympus, far across the Hoh River Valley. I bit my bottom lip at the sight of the countless peaks while Grant kept his thoughts to himself, but Julie confided that Olympus looked intimidating, huge and impossibly far away.
I was waiting for Mark to tell us what was in store for us today, but our guide didn’t say much about our itinerary. As soon as our team struck camp at Boston Charlie we bolted right up the shoulder of Mt. Carrie. At 5,500 feet we turned southeast and stayed roughly at that elevation, traveling horizontally along the contours of the mountains. We traipsed across fields of beautiful wildflowers and through wisps of clouds. When the crude path ended, we struggled along elk and goat tracks. This was the high country trail of Herb Crisler, legendary mountain man and early Disney filmmaker. When Crisler bragged to a Seattle Times reporter back in 1930 that he could survive in the Olympics alone for a month with nothing but an ice axe and the clothes on his back, the Seattle Times slapped $500 down on the table and famously accepted his challenge, but with one addition; Crisler’s isolation would be spent traversing the Bailey Range and climbing Mount Olympus. Now, 84 years later, our Mountain Madness team was tracing Crisler’s route.
The most difficult part of the morning was crossing gullies that were blown out by springtime avalanches. It took us an hour to negotiate the loose rock and scree in one particularly deep gulch. We took a break at noon on a rare piece of flat ground atop the spur of a ridge. There, Julie, Grant, Mark and I ate our meager lunch – necessarily meager because you can’t carry an excessive larder when you are backpacking for nine days. At the very least, I thought, we were eating better than Herb Crisler. Here on the same traverse back in August of 1930 and having taken up the Seattle Times’ survival challenge, Crisler hadn’t eaten in three days. In the high country he swallowed a few shriveled berries, nibbled weeds and tried munching Avalanche Lily bulbs until he vomited. Crisler was so hungry that he admitted, “I could gnaw bones crawling with maggots.”
In the morning I was strolling along a path through the wildflowers and whistling, but by afternoon I was edging around no-name Peak #5978 with a clenched jaw. We followed elk trails whenever we could until we stopped directly above Cream Lake. There, Mark pointed straight down a 700-foot descent along the edge of an avalanche chute to the lake. I was about to stammer out an objection when Mark turned and began to pick his way downward. Julie and Grant followed. Grant didn’t say much, but Julie later confessed to her journal,
We were climbing up and down really steep ridges, fighting against forest trees, surfing down shale, and sliding down dirt. We all fell a couple of times today – especially one where I completely ‘endo-ed’, landing on my backpack in a tree. Kind of scary! We walked for ten hours today. I don’t know how many miles we went but we are very far from where we started. I’m not going to lie: today was 25% fun, 75% life experience.
It was as if Julie allowed fear to affect her for this and only this afternoon – from then on Julie did not panic. When much worse happened to our team over the next few days, Julie would turn off her fears as simply as one turns off a light switch.
We climbed down the shoulder of Steven’s Peak and stumbled into camp at twilight. The next morning when I looked far up at the tree-line and the steep chute from yesterday’s severe scramble, I realized I was capable of more than I had imagined. The same was dawning on Herb Crisler when he was camped in these meadows back in the summer of 1930. Crisler grasped the idea that he just might win that month-long survival bet with the Seattle Times. It was here that Crisler caught forty frogs and ate them all. “The wilderness is accepting me. I’m learning its secrets,” Crisler said. The big secret to me was how Crisler ate all those frogs. Raw? Mark would have sautéed them in butter and garlic and folded them into the Mac and Cheese. Yumm!
We pitched our tents in the Cream Lake basin. The water was so clear and inviting that I plunged in before we struck camp. The lake’s strange-seeming name referred to what was once the water’s permanent milky color which was caused by the fine particles washed-down from the snowfields around the basin. As late as September of 1982, the water was, according to Gods and Goblins, still “distinctly cream-colored.” I observed two tiny snowfields around the edges of the basin. The rest must have melted away. Olympic National Park is monitoring the rate at which their glaciers are melting, but scientist Steve Fradkin added that, “It would be interesting to look at various photos from Cream Lake visitors (there must be quite an archive out there) over the last couple of decades to see when it began to clear up and whether that clarity is consistent across the years.”
Mark guided us out of the Cream Lake Basin and up a steep valley, and three short hours later we were up in the gorgeous Ferry Basin. We practiced safety techniques with our climbing equipment. After the last two punishing days, Mark gave us the rest of the afternoon off to explore Ferry Basin. We camped on the shores of Lake Billy Everett. The lake was blue and the wildflowers abundantly bloomed on the hillsides. Julie and Grant knew the names of every one of the flowers! Julie thought that the views were spectacular and the weather perfect. “Even the mosquitoes seemed friendly,” Julie said. What we didn’t know was that a record-breaking storm would slam into us by morning.
Lake Billy Everett was named after another early Olympic Peninsula mountain man. Billy’s mother died during his birth in 1868 and his father was away hunting much of the time, so Billy was raised by his uncle, none other than Boston Charlie, the last of the Klallam medicine men. Our team had just camped at Boston Charlie’s favorite camp at the end of the Catwalk the previous night. Under Boston Charlie’s tutelage, Billy became an extraordinary mountain man. Before whites began exploring the “unknown interior” of the Olympics, Billy had already discovered the Catwalk and the Cream Lake Basin.
The weather changed and a cold, driving rain soaked us as we climbed out of the Ferry Basin early the next morning. Scientist Bill Baccus, who is monitoring the glaciers at Olympic National Park, told me later that this large lake we skirted was all that was left of the Ferry Glacier, previously one of the 40 largest glaciers in the park. Bill said, “It is now completely gone.” Bill is in the second year of their glacier mass study, and he hoped the project would continue because multiple years of measurement provides a much more powerful understanding of the growth and melt mechanisms on a glacier. Bill is also developing a model that would correlate snow melt data with stream flow measurements. While Mt. Rainier and North Cascades National Parks have fully developed their glacier monitoring programs, Olympic National Park’s program is just beginning. The program is currently being funded with assistance from the Washington’s National Park Fund, but Bill hoped to find a long-term benefactor that might be interested in funding the program.
The storm lashed at us and as the morning wore on my cold fingers were having trouble closing over handholds. I fumbled with my crampon straps and Mark caught that I’d incorrectly clipped my carbineers onto the climbing rope loop. I missed photo opportunities because it became too difficult to remove my wet gloves. Then it began to sleet.
Mark silently guided us up the valley between Mt. Pulitzer and Mt. Ferry and by mid-morning we had reached Lone Tree Pass. Back in 1930, Herb Crisler climbed through here to the shoulder of Mt. Ferry in order to release a homing pigeon he’d been carrying in a cage on his backpack. Incredibly, the homing pigeon was trained to fly back to the Seattle Times with a message tied to its ankle. The message told the Seattle Times readers that Crisler, without food or gun, was still alive and just might win the Times’ $500 bet by surviving in the Olympic wilderness for a month. I, on the other hand, was worrying about just surviving this day. The weather deteriorated as we climbed higher.
We were only at about 5,500 feet high but snow and ice surrounded us. Because of all the moisture from the Pacific Ocean, the snow line in the Olympics is a couple of thousand feet lower than in the Cascade Mountains just across Puget Sound to the east. Julie said, “At times the visibility was down to twenty feet. The temperature was 30 degrees with the wind chill and the wind and rain beat on us. We climbed along the Bailey Range for ten harrowing hours and didn’t eat all day.” During the worst of the weather, my mind drifted back to the New Hampshire of my youth. My Dad and Grandpa were trappers and it was through them I learned to love the outdoors, but the cold, exhausting storm on the Bailey Range was too much. During the really difficult and dangerous climbing, I kept my fears at bay by imagining I was little again, holding my Dad’s hand as I recalled all our wonderful family vacations.
Finally, at around 3pm, Mark located Dodwell-Rixon Pass, the opening to the route that would take us down into the shelter of the Queets Basin and give us relief from the exposed high-country. We were relieved! I had been scared, freezing and exhausted for most of the day. Julie on the other hand seemed to enjoy herself. With an ability to control her fears that I would come to love and appreciate later in the trip, Julie treated the whole day as an adventure. But Julie wasn’t oblivious to how the rest of the team was reacting. She said, “Grant and Bret spent the day planning for disasters. I know our guide Mark did too because navigation in the storm was impossible.”
We left the howling winds behind as we descended into the remote Queets Basin. Here on the Queets headwaters, we were only twenty miles from the trail head of the Lower Queets River valley, with its old farms and homesteads. Between the upper and lower Queets there is no connecting trail; the screaming river is unnavigable and its sheer canyon walls unclimbable. The result is that very few hikers ever have a chance to explore this isolated and rugged high-country basin.
We set up our tent and Mark prepared dinner. The iconic Roosevelt Elk, looking ghostly in the fog, watched us. Back in 1930, Herb Crisler, in the middle of his month-ling survival bet with the Seattle Times, followed an elk herd and found succulent berry bushes, but he couldn’t pick them fast enough. Herb Crisler was starving. Luckily, he was able to club a marmot and quickly roast it over a fire, “Saliva dripping down his chin at the sight of the sizzling fat.”
After a delicious Thai noodle dinner, we all crowded into one tent. Mark was uncharacteristically talkative. He shared the difficulties he experienced in navigating through the storm today. Mark had a Garmin eTrex GPS in which he had manually entered the latitude and longitude of a series of waypoints that he pulled from The Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains. The distance between the waypoints might be only a few hundred feet or as much as a mile or so. The problem was there was no dotted-line on Mark’s GPS screen showing the path we should take. In the blinding storm, Mark could only guess how to get from one waypoint to the next along the maze of peaks, canyons and glaciers of the Bailey Range. The result was that we zig-zagged over challenging terrain and it took us much longer to reach this campsite. The Climber’s Guide to the Olympic Mountains warned that weather is the main hazard for alpine travel and that even hikers knowing the route can become confused in fog, rain or snow. The reason Mark hadn’t been sharing our itinerary is that he hadn’t known it from day to day or even from hour to hour. At every step of the way, Mark had been using all of his senses to discern the safest route. I shook my head in silent appreciation of Mark’s navigational skills. He had guided us through the rain, mist and fog to our protected campsite in the Queets Basin where we were now warm, dry and well-fed.
It was raining once again when we struck camp. We climbed the north side of the basin and traversed a slick, grassy slope at about 4,000 feet. Julie recalled that we began by moving straight uphill through a patch of slippery heather:
We literally had to hoist ourselves uphill by holding onto the heather and huckleberry. In three hours, we had only travelled .18 miles forward. All our footage gain was up – not gaining ground. Brutal. Our hardest terrain yet. I was very nervous. If you fell, you were straight down the hill, although I guess you wouldn’t go far because the bushes would probably stop you.
Grant joked with Mark, saying that we wanted more “tree-work” please.
No trail or cairns – nothing but shattered rock and fog above the Queets Basin made navigating difficult from GPS waypoint to waypoint. While Mark found the way, that wasn’t always the case on the Bailey Range Traverse. Diane Schostak, former Executive Director of the Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau, said that the Bailey Range Traverse is notorious. “We nearly lost a Japanese outdoor writer there,” Diane said. “He showed up at the Hoh instead of the Quinault.”
Suddenly, disaster. While traversing a steep mountainside approaching Humes Glacier, Grant’s hiking pole snapped. He tumbled and broke his ankle in two places. Mark assisted Grant during the four agonizing hours it took for Grant to either hobble or crab-walk a short distance to a boulder-filled clearing at the face of a retreating snowfield. It was clear our team couldn’t go on. We used our ice-axes to clear away enough rock to set up our tents. Mark stabilized Grant’s injury, cooked him a warm meal, and he and Julie slid him into his sleeping bag. We were many days and many mountain passes from any trailhead, so Mark pulled out his satellite phone and called in the cavalry – the National Park Service’s search and rescue team.
The weather was stormy so the National Park Service told us to sit tight. Though Grant was incredibly stoic, it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. We waited nervously that evening and all the next morning at our makeshift camp until the clouds lifted and the rescue chopper from Northwest Helicopter appeared in the blue sky. After three attempted landings, pilot Doug delicately set the helicopter down.
We were so happy that help had arrived. Our lovely search and rescue angel was Olympic National Park Ranger Sanny. She scrutinized Grant’s injury and carefully replaced his makeshift splint. Sanny was calm and experienced. Best yet, she was fully equipped with all that was needed to aid Grant’s injury. Sanny told me that many of the items in her medical kit and the new lightweight titanium stretcher stored in the helicopter were purchased with Washington’s National Park Fund donations. Thanks to all of you who’ve donated to search and rescue – I can personally attest that it’s money well spent!
Being careful with Grant’s broken ankle, Ranger Sanny zipped him into a flight suit and buckled on a helmet. Grant’s wife Julie kissed him goodbye and the helicopter flew Grant to the hospital. Orthopedic surgeons ended up placing seven screws and a plate in Grant’s ankle. It was a really bad break and I don’t know how Grant and Julie remained so calm during the ordeal. Our guide Mark, and his home-base team at Mountain Madness were wonderfully professional during this challenging situation, but special thanks go to Ranger Sanny and pilot Doug for coming to Grant’s rescue.
We quickly struck camp as soon as Grant’s rescue helicopter lifted off. The copter was too small to take Grant’s equipment, so we divided up the contents of his backpack between us three. We didn’t feel like a team without Grant, just three harried climbers rushing to put some miles behind us. It was already 3pm as we struggled up the steep canyon above the site of our makeshift camp, shouldering our heavy packs. With only six hours until dark, we needed to find our way up and on to Humes Glacier, then cross Blizzard Pass to Camp Pan, one of the few level areas to camp upon the Olympus glaciers. Our dream of summiting Mount Olympus was over; instead we’d skirt the mountain over its three main glaciers, the Humes, the Hoh and the Blue and then pick up the trail home. Where previously there was banter, now we climbed in silence.
Mark guided us up to Humes Glacier. We crested a ridge and there was the glacier, like a white tongue lolling out of the mouth of a giant hidden in the cloudy sky. The clouds had thinned where we stood, so for the first time in days it was easy for Mark to look up and discern the correct direction. Julie had cried after she kissed Grant goodbye, and she was quiet during much of the afternoon, but when we reached Humes Glacier, her pace quickened. As the clouds dissipated, so did Julie’s silence. She switched off her fears and negative thoughts. “Suddenly, I was so happy to still be on this trip!” Julie wrote in her journal. Climbing onto the snout of the Humes Glacier was as easy as walking up a ramp. The surface of the glacier was hard-packed, black gravel, and so the rest of our journey up the Humes Glacier was like walking on a paved country road. The sun was burning the clouds away. Now we knew which direction to go. Finally, the journey ahead was looking up for Mark, Julie and me, but back in 1930, here on the glaciers of Mount Olympus, Herb Crisler’s greatest crisis was approaching.
At the head of Humes Glacier, we continued west and slowly scaled the steep snow slope up Blizzard Pass. The pass was a 6,100 foot high saddle between the Humes Glacier and the Hoh Glacier. It was slow-going, but with each careful toe-kick of our crampons, more and more glorious views appeared behind us. We stood on Blizzard Pass at quarter after six. The storm that had soaked us and the fog that had shrouded us over the last three days were gone. Julie said, “The sky was all blue and the sun warmed us. It was beautiful to see the Queets Valley from above. From Blizzard Pass we could see all those mountains we climbed earlier in the week!”
Julie, Mark and I descended along the steep face of Blizzard Pass to Camp Pan at 5,500 feet. All around us were the mountain peaks Aphrodite, Athena, Hermes, Icarus, and lord of them all – Olympus. We watched the last of the sun strike the Bailey Range and fog roll up the Hoh Glacier. Mark, Julie and I enjoyed our dinner reclining on the still warm cliffs of Camp Pan among the gods of the ice and snow.
At Camp Pan we awoke to bright sunshine for the first time in four days. We chatted and joked as we struck our tents and strapped on our crampons, preparing to climb down onto the Hoh Glacier. Our weather was perfect, unlike the weather here on the Hoh Glacier back in 1930, where an already-weak Herb Crisler was exposed to a crazy storm. “The rain turned to sleet and produced a strange phenomenon. Particles of sleet, hitting the cold glacial air, snapped out as instant snowflakes. It was like invisible popcorn exploding into white before his eyes,” wrote historian Ruby El Hult.
We easily crossed the head of the Hoh Glacier in the bright morning sunshine. Because the weather was so beautiful, it was hard to imagine that here, back in 1930, Herb Crisler was fighting for his life in a storm. Just as Crisler’s wet clothes were freezing to his body, he found refuge below a rock wall and kindled a small fire. According to El Hult, the “terrible storm raged around him, with whipping winds threatening to blow out his fire. He passed a night of extreme peril and knew his chances of getting out of the mountains alive were slim indeed.”
When we were resting at the head of the Hoh Glacier and looking up at Glacier Pass, the climb looked deceptively easy, but as we ascended we found that Glacier Pass was steep and the drop-off to our right, precipitous. But after so many frightening experiences over the last few days, I just powered up the hard-packed snow with a deliberate motion; toe-kicking with my crampons for traction then stabbing with my ice-axe shaft for balance. No problem. The dangers we can see pale compared to those unknown and shrouded in mist.
It took an hour of climbing until we stood on Glacier Pass at over 6,000 feet high. This was our sixth and final mountain pass. Far across the Hoh Valley stood the line of the Bailey Range. Julie reflected,
The Bailey Range taught me a lot about myself. The world is big. It is full of things much more powerful than me. I realize that though I am weak compared to such things as peaks and glaciers, I can still do great things and accomplish feats of my own. I am no match for the winds of the storms that loom about Bailey Range peaks, but I can survive when I am cold and facing tricky terrain or trying to balance with my pack. What a fantastic journey I have been on!
When we stepped off Glacier Pass and began the easy walk down Blue Glacier to the Hoh River Valley trailhead, we were headed home. Julie, Mark and I were elated that we were at the end of the Bailey Range Traverse, but our feelings of triumph were tempered because Grant wasn’t here to enjoy it with us. It seemed sad that Grant had persevered through the storm and the other difficulties of our journey but couldn’t enjoy the icy beauty of the Mount Olympus glaciers.
And what about Herb Crisler? Did he live through the storm on Mount Olympus and win his $500 survival bet with the Seattle Times back in 1930? Yes! Not only did he win the bet, but Crisler grew to become one of the last of the Olympic Peninsula Mountain Men. He and old Billy Everett even became friends and shared campfire stories. This 1945 photo is of Billy and Herb at Crisler’s “Castle in the Cat” camp located in the Cat Basin where our team began our traverse nine days ago. Crisler traded his rifle for a camera, and among his many film credits was the Walt Disney classic documentary, “The Olympic Elk.” Herb Crisler built other camps in the Olympic high country and guided many backpackers though what became one his favorite places, the Bailey Range.
We could see the lateral moraine at the edge of Blue Glacier where we would find the trail home. We had completed the difficult Bailey Range Traverse because of the excellent navigation, climbing and leadership skills of our guide. I think those old mountain men, Herb Crisler and Billy Everett, would have been proud of what Mark accomplished. Mark steered us through a storm that set a new record for precipitation and calmly supervised Grant’s rescue. Julie said, “I learned a lot from Mark. When I’d look at something and think, ‘hmmm…there’s no way up that!’ Mark just trekked straight up. I’d follow and realize that I am capable of much more than I know.” All Mark would say is, “It was a difficult trip. I feel the same sense of accomplishment as you.”
At the edge of Blue Glacier, Mark coiled up the climbing rope and we stowed our crampons, helmets, and ice axes for the last time. A trail switch-backed up the lateral moraine, and for the first time since we began the Bailey Range Traverse a week ago, it was a trail that was well-marked and easy to follow. Our journey had taken unexpected turns and though I was disappointed that we didn’t summit Olympus, I knew that the mountain would be there waiting for me next season. After all, our team still managed to hike seventy miles, cross over six mountain passes, climb three summits and traverse the Humes, Hoh and Blue glaciers – it was the journey of a lifetime!
So why attempt such a long and difficult journey? Adventure, of course, but something more. For years my friend Donovan had been filling me with stories about Herb Crisler’s dangerous traverse along the Bailey Range and his transformation from hunter to filmmaker. It’s said that you don’t just journey along the trail, you become the path itself. That was true for Crisler, but that wasn’t why I traversed the Bailey Range. I wasn’t looking for some kind of transformation. I wasn’t trying to become someone else. I didn’t have any delusions of becoming a mountain climber like our guide Mark, or more delusional, a mountain man like Herb Crisler (is that even possible anymore?). After hearing about Crisler’s journey, I risked the Bailey Range Traverse for a much simpler reason; to let that wild place tell me its own story.
It took Julie, Mark and I another day and a half to hike out to the parking lot at the Hoh Valley trailhead. When I returned home I called Grant and found his ankle was healing nicely. Then I called my Dad and we shared a wonderful conversation as I told him all about our adventure. I told my Dad how I prevented debilitating fear from possessing me while I was climbing in the raging storm by imagining that I was little again and holding his hand as he showed me new and wonderful things. My Dad, who was ill, paused and then said, “Maybe I wasn’t walking with you, but I was holding your hand and floating above the snow.” My Dad died that night. I really miss him, but am comforted knowing he’ll forever be a part of my Bailey Range story.
Acknowledgements: I’d like to credit these wonderful sources and authors: An Olympic Enchantment by Ruby El Hult and Beyond the Trails with Herb and Lois Crisler by Francis E. Caldwell for the accounts of Herb Crisler’s Olympic adventure, Gods & Goblins by Smitty Parratt and edited by Glynda Peterson Schaad for information on place names and a special thanks to Julie Jackson for the passages from her journal.
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