Mission Improbable

Still, traversing the rugged and remote Olympic Peninsula is doable, thanks to inflatable boats called packrafts—and a bit of ingenuity

Olympic National Park     Photo: courtesy, National Park Service

ONE DAY, MY LIFELONG buddy Roo, short for Andrew, calls to say he has an idea. Not just any idea. A perfect idea, one that recalls the glory of our past adventures, from skiing clear-cuts in Alaska to childhood days jumping our Huffys—sometimes successfully—over a backyard trench Roo had dubbed the Pit of Death. His idea? We cross the Olympic Peninsula under our own power.

The Olympic Mountains are an exceptional mess; we know this because our families often visited them together. From Southern California to Alaska, the Coast Ranges rise smoothly from the sea in tidy folds, but at the Olympics, where glaciers once did the nasty, ridges and valleys swirl from 7,965-foot Mount Olympus like the tentacles of a jellyfish. Further confounding things, this maze exists in three heavily vegetative dimensions. At bottom is a beach. At top is an alpine region of shale peaks and more than 60 truculent glaciers. In between, a temperate rainforest full of more green and drippy biomass than the Amazon—and virtually every plant that has ever been bushwhacked. And while the peninsula is riddled with trails, there are no direct east-west routes. Most of them simply drown in the prickers surrounding Mount Olympus.

"One hundred and ten miles, five days," Roo says with a joyous cackle.

"Why five days?" I ask.

"It's all the time I can get off work."

"I love it," I say, blissfully unaware that the peninsula has been humbling explorers since 1889, when the so-called Press Party attempted to traverse its mysterious interior.

Funded by the Seattle Press newspaper, the six young trappers and frontiersmen who made this attempt possessed "abundance of grit and manly vim." First they tried ferrying their supplies upriver on a raft … which took forever (they progressed just four miles in almost two weeks). They built sleds … that didn't glide. Even their mule, Jennie, proved little help in the end, since she slipped above a steep ravine and plummeted to a tragic death. After five months, they had advanced less than 50 miles—and drunk all their whiskey.

Abandoning their siege tactics, each man shouldered a 75-pound pack and struck out on foot for the heart of the range—which turned out to be, depending on whom you asked, either "an exquisite panorama of mountain scenery" or "a damned rough layout." While bushwhacking through undergrowth so thick it was like "exploring a dark rat hole," they got lost and took a 12-day detour. They subsisted on "flour soup" for weeks. Nearly six months after departing, they finally rafted out of the mountains, lucky to be alive.

If we had known this, it might have given us pause. But not much. Because we'd still have had our secret weapon: tiny butt-boats!

WELL, THAT'S WHAT I call them. Roo prefers "packrafts," short for Alpacka rafts.

Roughly six feet long and weighing only five pounds, these one-person rafts draw just six inches of water, collapse to the size of a sleeping bag, and inflate quickly with a lightweight air bladder. Originally popular with Alaskan trekkers, the urethane-coated crafts have recently caught the attention of a tiny segment of the outdoor world. With feet braced against the upturned bows, gonzo adventurers have descended long Arctic rivers and explored remote creeks. A guy just wrote a guidebook about using them, and Roo is such a fan he recently became part owner in the company.

Our plan is to start halfway down the eastern rib of the peninsula, ascend west into the heart of the range on the Dosewallips Trail, bushwhack up the Elwha Basin, scamper along the glaciated parapet of Mount Olympus, and then butt-boat some 50 miles due west on the Hoh River, all the way to the coast.

In theory, anyway. None of the handful of rangers Roo interviews can offer much insight besides the obvious—that bushwhacking, glacier travel, or both will be mandatory. Which is fine. Between us, we have a fair amount of experience mountaineering and orienteering (i.e., enough to make us dangerous). But stuffed with equipment for three sports—hiking, mountaineering, and rafting—our backpacks break the scale. We jettison things like passengers on a sinking ship.

Crevasse-rescue equipment is the first to go, followed by underwear. Two headlamps? We can share. Ditto the life jacket. Serious liposuction transforms my first-aid duffel into a sandwich bag filled with a gauze bandage, a stack of antiseptic wipes, and a safety pin. In a final stroke of brilliance, Roo removes the silverware, plates, cups, stove, and fuel.

We'll subsist mainly on military-issue MREs and Coast Guard emergency rations, purchased at an army/navy-surplus store.

Our packs still push 50 pounds apiece.

We'll scrap the MRE heating packs, Roo declares.

Ah … OK. Having never tasted an MRE hot or cold, I'm just psyched to try a clam chowder made with titanium dioxide.

Worried that I haven't made any ingenious contributions, I suggest we start on bikes.

So on an otherwise typical afternoon in July, we kiss goodbye the brackish lips of Puget Sound, shoulder our packs, and spin slowly up the Dosewallips Road.

THE FIRST 15 MILES PASS easily as the two-lane road turns into a dirt hiking trail. We stash our bikes in the woods near the national-park gate and begin hiking. By the swab of light from our shared headlamp, we finally trip into camp just before midnight, later and more tired than expected but still enthusiastic.

I cut open the silver pouch of my first-ever MRE, revealing an oily orange sludge that is either a beef enchilada or the toxic swamp from which life first sprang. I peel the bark off a stick and twig right in. Fantastic! Genuinely spicy, and cardboard-wholesome.

For dessert, we split one of the emergency rations, vaguely biscuit-ish things the size of a gun clip, the texture of sedimentary rock, and conspicuously lacking in flavor.

"Just like the emergency rations Mom used to make," gushes Roo. Cervantes was right: Hunger really is the best sauce.

At nine the next morning, we plod toward 5,847-foot Hayden Pass, past cedars bunched in marshy meadows and through fireworks displays of spreading orange tiger lilies, drooping bluebells, and purple lupines that stretch vertically like rocket exhaust. Most beautiful of all, we are now confident that we packed well.

Roo slept comfortably in his flaccid sleeping bag and Oompa-Loompa suit, a home-sewn fleece onesie, as did I, on a foam pad trimmed to the size of a placemat. Our brand-new approach shoes have yet to cause even a hot spot and, with a bit of futzing, sorta attach to our crampons. Nutella—why didn't we think of this before?!—can double as high-SPF lip balm.

After topping out at Hayden Pass midafter-noon, we descend nine miles into camp, for a total of 21 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation change. Roo is so exhausted that before I can even erect the tent, he lays out his sleeping bag and curls up in the mossy nook of a Doug fir.

THE NEXT MORNING, we awake refreshed beside the Elwha River and knock off ten miles before lunch. Judging from the way the map's contour lines accordion together, we know we can't maintain this pace for long. Roo begins naming the segments of our trip, starting with the Vale of Growing Unease.

Turning off-trail up the Elwha Basin, we find our progress immediately retarded by downed firs and hemlocks. The lattice of timber, some 15 feet high in places, forces us to slither on our bellies or clamber over the logs, legs kicking helplessly in the air. The concertina wire of thorny vines bloodies our legs. Our torsos and arms grow sticky-dirty with sap. Stinging nettles cover every bit of exposed flesh with tiny welts. Once in a while we can leap from boulder to boulder in the frothy river. But soon enough we are back fighting brambles, smelling like sweet pine and feeling that, despite our best efforts, we are choosing the worst possible route.

Then the briar patch tilts. We have no choice but to bushwhack along an avalanche-blasted sidehill, the Subvertical Carnage, thus combining general misery with the acute possibility of a thumping fall. Good thing we brought the safety pin and wipes. We balance-beam over airy precipices and cling to dangling roots as if aid-climbing. I'm about to snap the blades off my collapsible paddle if they catch on another branch. It takes us almost six hours to cover three miles, which breaks down to an average speed of Goddamn Slow.

At dusk, we follow a finger of snow—Slog-asaurus Rex—to higher ground and sleep five hours on a rock island in the middle of a snowfield. Finally, at 9 A.M. the next day, after several more hours of early-morning bushwhacking, we reach the smooth tongue ofour first glacier. Penguins couldn't be happier.

Here, the Humes Glacier is almost flat, with few visible crevasses, and we trudge forward as the clouds break apart and the temperature soars. Because we're almost out of sunscreen, I wear full storm gear and Roo wears his equivalent, a billowy drysuit. At the rock fin dividing the Humes Glacier from our next obstacle, the Hoh Glacier, we break for elevensies, the meal after brunch and before lunch, and inspect the Hoh.

Six hundred feet below, the terrain is sliced up like a rocker T-shirt from the eighties. Popsicle-blue crevasses of unknown depth stretch from one rock wall to the next. Our spirits sink.

WHEN THINGS CHANGE from ops normal to ops critical, nothing inspires confidence like a plan of attack. Having left our harnesses and crevasse-rescue gear at home, we find this easy: Wrap the 8mm glacier rope around our waists and then tie dozens of loops between us. If one of us falls, the other will use his ice ax to stop the fall and then use some as-yet-unimprovised method to haul the buddy up. Best- case scenario: The buddy will be able to climb out. Worst case: The buddy will dangle there, injured or dead, until his partner finally stops agonizing over what to do, cuts the rope to save himself, and flees to live out his days, haunted and hiding, somewhere in India.

We start snaking through the clamped jaws of the crevasse field, gingerly stepping over the smaller ones like businessmen avoiding puddles, giving a wider berth to the darkest envelopes. A couple of times, we're forced to backtrack and pray that our previous path didn't weaken any hidden snowbridges. But our chakra centers must be well charged, because an hour later, we're safely on a sidehill.

We've made it over the crux! Riding high, we reach the Glacier Meadows ranger station, where the ranger and her buddy are lounging outside a yurt, the first people we've seen in three days. Roo's neoprene socks squish with each step. The sections of our paddles dangle askew. With our sunburned, scraped limbs, we look like we lost a tousle with a big kitty. Our lips are flecked with brown bits of dried Nutella.

They smile, bemused, as we recount our grand traverse thus far.

I hold up an emergency ration, about to laud its caloric bounty. The man interjects, saying he's eaten plenty of S.O.S. bars in the Navy. (His advice: "Throw 'em to the bears.")

"What do you do in the Navy?" I ask.

"I'm a diver."

"No way! Roo just crossed the mountains in a drysuit!"

Before leaving, the Navy diver surprises us with an almost philosophical pronouncement. "You know, somewhere the line is crossed, and the scale tips from heroic to stupid," he says. "I'm not sure where you guys are. But I kinda like ya."

Thanks, we say, flattered—and a little taken aback. Even if we have been perhaps, on occasion, a tetch stupid, methinks once we succeed, then we're definitely heroic, right?

Whatever the case, Roo and I choose to skip our planned put-in at the tongue of the glacier, where Class IV–V whitewater courses through a cheese grater of boulders, and instead boogie eight miles downstream, where the rapids look more, well, un-stupid.

THE NEXT MORNING, at Lewis Meadow, we prepare for our two-day float to sea. I inflate my life vest, and Roo improvises a second one by stuffing my sleeping pad inside his drysuit top. The Michelin Man and I don ball caps for helmets and eddy out into the glacier milk flowing by in large, deceptively inviting riffles. We pass herds of elk and all sorts of birds in the wide, wild valley. Warm sun sifts through maple trees draped in witch's hair moss.

If there were an award for high-performance butt-boats, the Alpackas would take top honors. They spin and ferry like champs, and by the morning of our second day on the water, we're ducking river-wide limbo bars, scraping over half-submerged logs, and tempting huge root balls that look like entrances to other dimensions. It's serious combat-boating, and we capsize and lose packs overboard, but otherwise navigate the Idiot Sieve in good style.

Ever vigilant, Roo warns me to keep an eye out for a horizon line near the ocean. "It's the top of a 500-foot waterfall."

"Sorry, Roo," I reply. "According to the map, there's no way we have 500 vertical feet before the ocean."

"That's what makes the falls so dangerous," he says, continuing the ruse.

An hour later, the air has grown softer and a notch in the forest opens onto an expanse of blue. Paddles wheeling like that of a Mississippi steamer, we race through a tidal estuary to the windswept sand beach of the Pacific Ocean, at the Hoh Indian Reservation.

We holler and high-five and strike gallant poses atop gnarled driftwood logs. I can't help but reflect on the Navy diver's comment. To wit: Who's stupid now?! I'm about to share my deep insight with Roo when we see a gray Suzuki SUV bouncing down the beach toward us. It's our ride home—the heroes' dads, with ham sandwiches.

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