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Bailey Range Traverse, Olympic National Park, Washington


AUthor: Mike Sullivan

Participants: Peter McLachlan (leader), Dan McLachlan, Liela McLachlan, Mike Sullivan

The Bailey Range is situated between Mount Olympus and the Pacific Ocean on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. The range offers unparalleled scenery, spectacular mountain topography, abundant wildlife, and countless miles of wilderness trekking, often on undeveloped routes. Peter and Dan arranged a plan to traverse about half of the range in a south-north arc. Our route would start at Sol-Duc Valley, climb to the crest of the range, traverse along a half-dozen peaks sitting opposite Mt. Olympus, then gradually descend down to the Whiskey Bend trailhead on the Elwha River. We expected to take 7 days to complete the route.

After a flight to Seattle and an overnight stay in Olympia, our trip started with a very scenic drive out the peninsula to the National Park, and a car drop at Whiskey Bend. We then drove to the Sol-Duc Valley, bought a $50 trip permit, and started our hike in. The trail climbed steeply up through huge forests of old-growth redwoods, passing many creeks and small waterfalls. After four miles, we arrived at our campsite at Deer Lake, and were immediately assaulted by hungry swarms of mosquitoes. We took refuge inside tents and bivy sacks, and began counting the hours until we could resume hiking in the morning.

The second day put us quickly above treeline, where the mosquito hazards were slightly less. We were rewarded with jaw-dropping views of Mount Olympus and our upcoming route over the Baileys, with the Pacific Ocean on one horizon and the spectacular Cascade Range on the other. We traversed the High Divide trail, with a short hike up Bogachiel Peak before camping in Cat Basin, where we were assaulted by another bloodthirsty gang of mosquitoes. We spent a few hours playing cards inside Dan and Liela’s tent, listening to the frustrated buzzing on the other side of the bugnets. Peter’s knee was troubling him, so we briefly discussed contingency plans in case it grew worse.

The next day’s hike brought us past more views of Olympus, plus many alpine meadows blooming with columbine, beargrass, and many other flowers. We also passed right by a black bear, placidly munching new shoots next to the trail. That afternoon, we reached the dead-end of the official trail, at a narrow 3rd class ridge traverse called The Catwalk. Peter’s knee was indeed worsening, and Dan and Liela were having minor foot problems as well. (I think Dan was actually fine, but felt obliged to accompany his wife through thick and thin.) We held a long discussion, and finally agreed that I would continue on solo, as the others turned around. We sorted gear, and took a few photos… Dan called them “memorial service parting shots.”

I trundled off onto the catwalk, with a mixture of euphoria and trepidation at the thought of 4 day’s worth of solo bushwhacking over difficult and completely unfamiliar territory. Meanwhile, the McLachlan clan headed slowly back to the trailhead over the course of the next two days. I set up camp that evening on a snowfield high on the shoulders of Mount Carrie, wondering and worrying about how the route would go. As I contemplated the maps, a pair of mountain goats wandered down off the summit and – much to my surprise – hung out with me for the next hour. They wandered around, grazed, and posed for two rolls worth of photos, all the while making me feel very welcome in their home. Much more relaxed, I enjoyed a glorious blazing sunset over the Pacific, and turned in. (It wound up being the only skeeter-free camp of the trip!)

Early the next morning, I found myself standing on top of Mt. Carrie and examining the ridge in front of me. The next peak was Mt. Ruth, composed of an evil looking shard of crumbly basalt that stuck alarmingly out of steep glacial snowfields. Oh shit! Ain’t no way I was gonna solo that puppy. Even the traverse along the top of the glacier looked very questionable, so I was forced to cross the ridge over to the southeast slopes, and try to work a traverse out from there. I lost my footing twice during the traverse and both times had to perform long, sliding self arrests with my ice-axe, which I found to be very difficult with a full pack. A nearby herd of goats seemed to be rather entertained by the whole affair.

I eventually dropped low enough to find a workable route, and slogged my way around the black snag looming above me. I regained the ridgetop by climbing a sharp buttress, hoping that Mt. Ruth would be the last obstacle. Not a chance! I explored further along the ridge with a daypack, trying to find a workable route for the next day. The ridge was covered with krummholz thickets interrupted by blades and spires of rotten basalt. It took me an hour to travel a quarter mile of ridge, which left me exhausted and wigged-out due to the awful rock quality. The route would be pretty close to suicidal with a full pack. I returned to set up camp, resigned to descend for another traverse the next day. That evening, I saw a large herd of Roosevelt elk moving across a snowfield about a mile below me. The spectacular surroundings helped ease my mind about the route and the persistent mosquitoes.

I dropped back down from the ridge the next morning, descending into the Cream Lake basin via a steep gully brimming with wildflowers. The basin was spectacularly beautiful, but swampy areas brought the mosquito problem to critical levels. If it wasn’t for the weight of my pack, I think the little shits would have carried me off to a more convenient place to butcher me and drain my blood. As it was, I slogged on wearing a self-defense layer of full gore-tex, getting soft-boiled in the warm and sunny weather.

That afternoon I topped out onto the very scenic Mt. Ferry, where the altitude and breeze allowed a return to non-skeeter-proof clothing. From the summit of Ferry, my route broke off of the main Bailey crest, and headed northwest out to Ludden Peak. The terrain eased for a while here, and I had a few hours of pleasant hiking along the ridgetop. The scramble up Ludden was more fun than scary, as I was mostly able to patch together stretches of clean granite and avoid the basalt that I’d come to fear and loathe. Another bugfest bivy site on top of Ludden led me to decide that I would push out the remainder of the route in one day instead of two. Late that afternoon, I scouted out the 4th class descent off the back side of Ludden, so that I would be able to negotiate it more easily the next day while wearing the full pack.

A dawn start down Ludden led me to another narrow ridge traverse, and then back out to an actual trail, the first I’d seen since our group split up. Later that morning I even saw another party, and was glad for the opportunity to chat with other folks for a bit. I don’t remember much of the rest of that day, except that it was a very long-ass walk back out to the trailhead. A great stroke of luck led me to meet up with the McLachlans that afternoon, as they were finishing their first vigil at the trailhead in anticipation of my return. We filled each other in on the details of our adventures, and I learned that they had chartered an airplane that day to see the sights and look for me (or my remains!) along the route.

For our “bonus” day, we all went for an awesome day hike out to Cape Alava on the Pacific coast. It is part of the National Park, but borders one of the indian reservations. The route followed a boardwalk through dense, mossy forests for a mile or two out to the coast. The shoreline was quite beautiful, with huge craggy sea stacks, an indian archaeological site, and thousands of shore birds feeding along the kelp beds. It was a fun and relaxing day, and provided a great contrast to all of the rock and snow of the previous days.

In summary, the trip was a wonderful adventure. I wish we could have stayed as a group for the whole traverse, but it was very nice of the rest of the crew to give me the option of continuing solo. We continue to talk about returning for another try, armed with better knowledge of the route and its quirks…

Anybody know where to get bug repellent in 5-gallon buckets?


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