Olympic Crossing: An Aging Climber Discovers his Inner Thru-Hiker in the Olympic Wilderness

I quoted Tennyson, “My mariners…you and I are old,” when I proposed the Olympic Crossing to my friends. Quoting Tennyson was standard for me, but proposing a mere hike was not. We were climbers. For thirty years, every wilderness trip we’d taken had set a mountain summit as its goal.

But I’d capped last summer’s climbing season with my fourth knee surgery. Sitting with my leg elevated, I thought, “It might be time for you to finally grow up.” But another line from Tennyson drove that reflection away: “Ere the end/Some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

And thus was born the concept of the Olympic National Park Crossing—up the Dosewallips Trail and out the Elwha, six days and roughly 60 miles in all. The idea of bypassing remote peaks without climbing was too painful to contemplate, so I added side trips to purportedly easy summits. The choice of route even had a bit of gallows humor to it—the park was decaying faster than I was, with road washouts adding five miles at the beginning and six at the end, an unquenchable fire burning in the Queets rain forest canopy, and its classic high routes melting under the glare of one of the Northwest’s hottest summers on record.

So, just like Ulysses, I’d recruited my mariners—my oldest climbing friends—Chris Mackersie and Randy Liefson, to accompany me into the backcountry.

The majesty of the Olympics. Photo by Chris Mackersie

Now, past the washout that closed off the Dosewallips Road, I staggered along the abandoned road bed, struggling to hang with my team. The steep rise to the Elkhorn Campground angled us into the sun’s full glare, etching the outline of my pack along my shoulder blades and bleaching the hard-pack white.

The campground presented its own tale of age and decay. Once, it had been an oasis along the river, buildings and picnic tables and informational signs for overnight hikers and day-tripping families. Now the signs were toppled. Plywood boarded the building’s windows and picnic tables disappeared under chest-high grass.

Past the campground, we fell into a familiar line on the Dosewallips Trail: Chris leading, Randy next, and me anchoring. Even in the shadowed forest, the heat sucked the air from my lungs, and that—combined with my mediocre conditioning—wiped away any sense of joie de vivre. Randy had been ancient when we met, and his unruly white beard made him look like an escapee from the Old Testament. Chris was younger, our best outdoorsman, but even his temples had grayed. Ruefully, I recognized how flawed my partners were. When I collapsed on the trail, neither was capable of bearing me to safety.

I wiped the latest bucket of sweat from my eyes. Clearly all of us were laboring now, wrecked by that hike up the sun-drenched road. Each time we dropped onto the mossy carpet beside the trail, we raised our water bottles, evaluating whether what remained would hold till camp. I set my cell phone’s timer in half hour intervals and marched on, praying for its jaunty ring to reassure me I was alive. Our splits between breaks became laughable—50 minutes moving and ten at rest, 45 minutes and 15, 30 and 30.

“These long hikes, you get faster each day,” I gasped at one stop.

Randy caught Chris’ eye and bobbed his head my way. “Does he ever stop lying?”

Finally, mercifully, a bear wire appeared, tracing a line from a fir’s branches to the ground. I dumped my pack where I stood. Our campsite opened in a clearing beside the rampaging Dose. The rare times we spoke, we had to shout over the river’s roar. We sank onto the logs surrounding the fire pit, shocked silent by our bad judgment in hiking through this scorcher. I attempted to lighten my pack, volunteering a freeze-dried meal for the team, but Randy knew every trick. With a younger man’s speed, he tossed his contribution out first, leaving me to shovel in handfuls of goldfish and gag them down.

looking back over the Dose Valley from somewhere between Hayden Pass and the Sentinel Peak summit. Photo by Doug Emory

That night in the steaming tent, I reflected on why I’d come. This was a reunion with friends, but, more deeply, I’d hoped for a rite of passage, preparation for a new normal, for sane experiences without ropes, crevasses or desperate down-climbs in the dark. To date, all evidence indicated I wasn’t going to age well, physically or emotionally. I never let myself fully heal before blowing out another bit of tendon or cartilage. I’d used the wilderness as a series of personal challenges, obsessively counting peaks, time per mile, vertical feet in a day. My performance on Day One of this trip was illustration enough I’d soon be losing more of those contests than I won.

I didn’t share these dark ruminations over my morning oatmeal. Instead, I kept my negativity generalized. “These peaks we’re gonna bag along the way, something is gonna go wrong. The Olympic Mountain Guide is trash.”

“So?  I’ve climbed with you for thirty years. Something always goes wrong,” Randy said.

Chris duck-walked, rolling up the tent. “I don’t plan for failure.” he said, a comment that explains our climbing partnership in a nutshell—he was a dogged optimist, while I tempered his iron will with visionary anxiety. “Let’s stick with the plan.”

Day Two took us to Dosewallips Meadows, a basecamp from which we hoped to bag several peaks. My mood over the five miles stayed dismal. I had eaten gluttonously, but my pack had gained weight. The trail climbed the valley, popping out of forest and into fields of head-high grass and Russian thistles, the plants holding heat like a sauna and disguising chuckholes deep as tiger traps. Mount Fromme shimmered at the valley’s end, floating in the haze.

At last we hit the meadows, acres of grass and lupine with all color washed away by the intense light. Circling a low dirt hill, a boot path led to another perfect site on the river.

Once the tent was up, Chris and I filled our water bottles and prepared for our first side trip. Randy stood with a book under one arm.

“You sure you’re not coming?”

“You should let me ask him,” Chris said, because over the years Randy had acquired the unfounded belief that I lied about distances and difficulties. “Swear to god, Randy, this is just two miles up. No farther than that.”

But Randy opened his book in reply, and we headed up the Lost Pass Trail, so primitive we had to kick in to stay on the slope. Perhaps because my giant pack lay at camp, or maybe because of the familiar rhythm of the climbing movement, I felt more like my younger self, and that sensation seemed to touch Chris too.

“The last twelve years went by like a dream, Doug. Like I lost them. Where’d they go?”  Once, we’d climbed three weekends a month, but then his little girls came along, I’d moved farther away, and our adventures became sporadic.

“I planned this trip to show I was still capable of something,” I said. “I was going to solo it if you hadn’t come along.”

“You’d be dead already.”

“You underestimate me. I would have hiked a mile in that sun, turned around and driven to the nearest bar.”

Doug, descending the west side of Hayden Pass, Mount Anderson in the background. Photo by Chris Mackersie

Vast, wild country surrounded Lost Pass, the only human sign being our trail continuing toward Hurricane Ridge. Lost Peak looked like a simple rounded dome east of us, and I searched for a rumored way trail until Chris charged off over talus and through krumholz. The slope was parched. Heather snapped as we pushed through, and every broadleaf alpine plant was burned a brittle red, like Johnny Appleseed’s evil twin had doused the slope with Round Up.

The dome I’d assumed was Lost Peak—of course—wasn’t. It topped out at a ridge which continued to a pyramid of boulders.

“Grade one, class one,” I said, as Chris checked the GPS. “Maybe we’re actually higher and it’s an optical illusion.You know, if we were thru-hikers, we’d need only to gaze on the high point then go back and sing campfire songs.”

“The GPS says we’re 110 feet off the top.”

We descended off the ridge, circling the pyramid, questing for the guidebook’s mythical route. Lost Peak refused to comply with its printed description, so we finally just scrambled up the summit block.

Randy was still reading when we returned, reclining against a log in Dose Meadows and bathed in sunset light. He glanced up only long enough to ask. “He was wrong about the route, wasn’t he?”

The next morning, high clouds rolled in and the heat wave broke. For Day Three we’d maintain our basecamp, carry light packs up to Hayden Pass, and then follow climbers’ trails south up Sentinel Peak and north to Mount Fromme. The temperature change brought a brief, irrational exuberance—couldn’t we haul full packs over the pass, drop them while peak-bagging, then descend to the Elwha? Randy, a math instructor by trade, did the calculations for us—that revision would require a hump of 16 miles, nearly as long as our first two soul-crushing days combined. .

Beneath the last bridge over the Dosewallips, the river was just a sheen of water over rock steps. Past that, we encountered our first hiker on this once-popular trail. His beard equaled Randy’s, and his eyes held that unmoored look of someone too long alone. We talked enough to be polite then swung around him, crossing the tundra and following the looping switchbacks to Hayden Pass.

Photo by Doug Emory

Our hunt for another legendary boot path—this one up Mount Fromme—proved predictably fruitless, but a strong trail led south, winding up Sentinel Peak, crossing talus basins and squeezing through clumps of alpine firs. Views opened on the last rock slabs. In the distance we saw the smoke plume from the Queets Valley fire and, nearer, clouds building behind Mount Anderson. Anderson stood a tortuous ridge-run away, its twin summits separated by a glacier and a rock pillar like a knife thrust between them.

Chris bobbed his head at Anderson as we topped Sentinel. “You remember that one?”

“The most terrified I’ve ever been—which is high praise indeed.”

“Hard men then,” Chris said. “Up and back in a day and a half.”

“No tent. Crashed on the ground like dogs.”

“And you didn’t invite me,” Randy said. “Shame.”

We had ascended Anderson from the south, hitting a normally moderate couloir too late in the season. The ice was so hard that I couldn’t set my crampon points. Whenever I tried for a placement, my ice ax bounced. We’d roped up below the couloir, but that was merely decoration. Neither of us could have held a fall.

“Probably good we’ve throttled back on that silliness,” I said. “But cool, don’t you think, having that monster on our resumes?”

Chris pondering Mt. Anderson. Photo by Doug Emory

We tagged Sentinel, and from there something changed without us realizing it. Back at camp, we shoveled down snacks and chattered away. I crawled into the tent for an afternoon nap, but I couldn’t keep my eyes closed, afraid I’d miss the next story.

You might ask yourself, what could friends who have climbed together for decades possibly have to talk about?  Well, we lamented the heat that had parboiled us. We talked gear. And food. We made bad jokes, many at Chris’ expense as he skinny-dipped in the freezing, ankle-deep Dosewallips.

Mainly, we told tales as traditional as those from Hrothgar’s mead hall, all the inflections and interjections timed naturally as breath—how we’d nearly drowned at high camp on Olympus, had a 20-hour summit day on Rainier, knocked off four of the Northwest’s iconic peaks—Shuksan, Constance, the Brothers, and Stuart—in one perfect season.

That evening, a buck stepped from the shadows across the river. Glowing in front of that dark forest, like Zeus come to earth in animal form, he picked his way soundlessly through the brush. Heedless of us, his neck and shoulder muscles rippling, he lowered his head to drink.

The next morning my body still ached, but more like I’d slept face down on pavement than undergone harsh CIA interrogation. We humped along with relative ease, plucking blueberries from the bushes along the trail and tossing down handfuls like kids.

At the pass, the Hayes River Trail began, coasting nine miles to the Elwha. Mount Anderson’s intimidating glaciers disappeared. We navigated a trail washout and shortly after that entered a gentler world. Hikers appeared in bright clusters. The forest blocked the sky, and moss painted earth and blow-downs a delicate green, every image softened as though viewed through a gauze-covered lens.

The next morning, my morale took another uptick on news from a volunteer ranger. Our final climbing side trip involved crossing the Elwha at a ford and following an unmaintained trail to Dodger Point. “Nobody’s been up that thing in two years,” she said. “If you don’t drown, you’ll be smashing through brush for days.”

Chris, though, never planned for failure, so I dutifully followed to the ford and gazed across the water at a dense thicket rising into the clouds.

“That looks nuts,” I said, to forestall any other answer.

He paused a worrisome moment before answering. “We’ll come back and get that next year. Make me promise. No more long breaks before we do something cool like this again.”

The trail climbed above the Grand Canyon of the Elwha to our final camp, sheltered beneath enormous cedars on the Lillian River. The next day, our impending return to civilization became clearer with each stride forward. Hikers greeted us in increasing numbers, and every mile we passed another of Geyser Valley’s early homesteads: Humes Ranch, the grandiosely named Elk Lick Lodge, and Cougar Mike’s equally-dilapidated cabin.

And, too quickly, just half an hour past Cougar Mike’s, we reached trail’s end at Whiskey Bend.

“God, that went by fast.” Chris said. “It’s like we just started.”

“You’ve forgotten those two days we almost died,” Randy said.

“Anyway you look at it,” Chris said, “60 miles, two peaks. Not too shabby for old men.”

We swung around the final barrier, the gate closing the Whiskey Bend Road to traffic, and the triumph of civilization for a moment reversed itself. For a century, the Glines Canyon Spillway had dammed the Elwha at a cleft between rock walls. Now the Park Service had destroyed it, letting the river again run wild. An overlook had been erected atop the spillway’s remnants, giving views of what remained of man-made Lake Mills and of the Elwha roaring through the narrow channel below our boots. .

The former lake looked like a construction site, braided river channels flowing through a mudflat and scrub. The Elwha had ended gently in that lake for a century of placid middle age, but below me it ran with renewed force. I leaned over the railing and watched its waters cascade through a chasm carved millennia ago.

I warned myself against taking the metaphor too far. I’d planned this trip to signal a change, a step through a gateway to another stage of life, but had that truly happened?  Yes and no. Ulysses had acknowledged how ephemeral physical strength was, and no matter how much I willed otherwise, this trip had proven that my best climbing days were behind me—I’d be spending less time with crampons and rope and more on the trail. But what was being taken from us wasn’t as important as what remained. “That which we are, we are,” Ulysses said, and I had to ask, what were my friends and I? We were experiences only a small circle of people could comprehend; we were memories, stories, and dreams of routes yet to come. We were a force that had returned to the mountains time and again over decades.

My pack still felt too heavy, but Randy and Chris waited with theirs on. They shuffled in place, maybe stretching the kinks out of their ancient legs, but maybe impatient as thoroughbreds, eager to race me to the nearest pub.

A well-earned pint at trail’s end. Photo by Chris Mackersie

Doug Emory is an avid mountaineer who lives in Woodinville, Washington. He has climbed over 200 peaks in Mexico and the Western U.S., most of which are unknown to sane people. On these journeys, he’s forged unbreakable friendships and acquired lots of stories, many of which he’s shared in print.

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