On a murky September day, eight Gossamer Gear enthusiasts met at a pig farm in western Washington to plan a route for a week of ultralight backpacking in Olympic National Park (ONP). Back in May, Trail Ambassadors Barefoot Jake and Chad “Stick” Poindexter had sent an open invitation Gossamer Gear’s international roster of Trail Ambassadors to journey to Washington for a group get together and backpacking trip, one of several sponsored by Gossamer Gear for Trail Ambassadors this year. Half the fun of being a Trail Ambassador is meeting the other bad ass hikers in the program and backpacking with them in exotic locales.
The eight hikers standing around the map on the farm’s table were the lucky few who had accepted the challenge and were able to leave their jobs, families, and responsibilities for the week. Although none of us knew the difficulty of the trip, or even our route across the park, we had flown in from all over the country to meet other ambassadors, build camaraderie, and to hike in a new area. The culmination of six months of internet-based coordination, we were about to discover that the rugged and steep mountains of Olympic National Park are not a walk in the park.
Planning a backpacking trip with remote participants is not an easy task. For months, attendees were posting their availability on the Facebook Events page. Many ambassadors knew they would not be able to make it from the start, although some were less sure of their schedules. Eventually, the attendee numbers stabilized to a manageable size of eight.
One huge complication facing attendees, is the inaccessibility of the Olympic National Park. Situated on a peninsula 3.5 hours from the Seattle airport, it took a lot of work to coordinate our travel schedules to and from Seattle. It helped that trip attendees Barefoot Jake, Jeff Knesbeck and Jesse O’Rourke of Washington Wilderness Adventures were all local. Still planning was complicated by the fact that many of us were out hiking most of the year with limited intenet access to coodinate the logistics until the last minute when we’d arived and met in person.
Being the local ONP expert, Jake devised a route that he knew would be appealing to everyone and highlighted the park’s largest temperate rainforest in the continental U.S., old growth trees, the sparse alpine zone, and the rugged moonscape of the mountainous zone.
Although the Park has three-sided shelters in popular areas, we opted to stay in our own tents and tarps to experience wilder areas. Traveling from Park Service maintained trails to thin, primitive trails, our group wandered below dark, old growth forests lined with mushrooms of every color. Waterfalls crossed our trail, allowing us frequent access to water. A cross country route and high meadow wandering brought us to frozen tarns with icebergs floating in brilliant turquoise water.
Working against our favor, the weather for our entire week of hiking was showers, heavy misting, thunder and lightening, light hail, and 30 mph winds. Jake says this is pretty typical for the Park.
We conquered our first pass over a rocky, barely vegetated pass in a windy fog, making us feel even better about our accomplishment. As our pine needle covered path became brushy with several varieties of wild blueberries and huckleberries, it was time to stop and feast on free wild forageable food. These berries were nothing like the store-bought kind. Instead, they were plump and flavorful with hints of apple and pine. It became clear why the Olympic marmots, found nowhere else in the world, are SO fat!
It was a treat to watch, from the safety of a high camp, black bears voraciously gobble berries, unaware of our spying. We followed waterfalls up an alpine meadow to a tarn and meandered along a ridge to peek into two basins at once. The enormous intimidating Eel Glacier on Mt. Anderson, with its snowpack shaped like a serpent ready to bite, stared at us across the valley.
However, it was the rocky, steep, cross country side trip to Sentinel Peak, that gave us the best views. Situated in the middle of the park off a remote pass, Sentinel stands high amongst many lower peaks and provided us with 360 degree views of Mt. Olympus and the other glaciated high peaks of the park.
Trinity Ludwig, another Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador on the trip and I both live in Colorado, and it is was a shock that the ONP mountains standing at the same elevation as say, my favorite Colorado microbrewery, can be so desolate, so remote, so intimidating. The mountains in ONP may not be as tall as what I’m used to back home, but they are every bit as rugged. We went over several primitive trails with more than 1,000 feet of gain over a mile.
Many times, the steep terrain reminded me of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains, yet without the stability of the rocks and roots that hold that trail together. ONP is littered with sharp shale and basalt which cracked beneath my feet and was worthless as handholds.
On our last day, we traversed a wet and slippery spine of this rock, with steep drops into different basins on either side of our feet. Thirty mph winds, horizontal rain, and wind chill temperatures in the 30′s only added to the fun.
Everyone walked off the trail tired, hungry, and incredibly pleased with the wild and diverse places we had seen. I think there are few places and few trips where a hiker can see such different views and terrain as we managed to do in a week. Many thanks to Grant and Gossamer Gear for supporting Trail Ambassador trips and being able to join us.