The day began with an impressive sight. A level layer of clouds had moved in from the coast and up the Hoh River valley below us, hanging motionless over the river at an elevation of about 2000'.
For all the world it looked like a glacier had filled the valley. Above it; blue sky, bright sunshine and us. GBH commented that it is obvious how the Hoh Valley is actually a rain forest. If not for all the rain it receives, the moisture from the clouds we were seeing help perpetuate the setting.
We packed up and set off southward again. Today we set our sights on Ferry Basin, but we wanted to avoid what has been described as the "Cream Lake Vortex" with its steep, unforgiving gullies, thick tangles of slide alder and hordes of blood thirsty mosquitoes, and instead travel off the beaten path, up and over the high ridge above us to the north and east of Stephen Peak before making our way down to Ferry Basin. Looking at the steep terrain above us, it seemed a daunting task indeed. We soon arrived at a large meadow-bowl that had a minor lateral ridge at the far end of it with a treeless saddle near its top. We began climbing the steep, grassy and talus strewn bowl to attain the saddle, switch backing up and up. We found many flattened areas of grass indicating that a heard of elk had recently bedded on the slope. We finally reaching the small saddle on the minor lateral ridge and from there we simply followed game trails another 200' to the top of the major ridge. It was grassy, nearly level with a small snow-melt tarn nearby and would have made an excellent camp spot, having excellent views of nearby Stephen Peak, the south side of Mt. Ruth and lesser peaks. Below us in a beautiful valley was the very large and bright turquoise appearing, Stephen Lake.
We gingerly picked our way eastward down a steep talus slope and to a knoll above Stephen Lake where we snacked and viewed possible routes ahead of us.
We knew that we had to continue east, then climb onto the shoulder of Stephen Peak and continue to traverse to the south side of it.
The best route appeared to be a scramble up a treed gully system on the far side of the lake to the NE shoulder of Stephen. We traversed on scree above the lake to the gullies, then climbed up talus and bushwhacked through the trees in the gullies which opened into a more alpine setting the higher we got. The heat was becoming oppressive and it slowed our progress significantly. Finally attaining the altitude we needed on the east shoulder of Stephen, we could see only barren rock and snow ahead of us on a sloping plateau that we needed to cross. We alternated between rock and snow on the easy traverse, trying to maintain a constant altitude in order to attain the ridgeline on the south side of Stephen.
The snow was severely sun-cupped, making travel all that much slower and we used our ice axes mainly for security. We eventually strode onto the treed ridge and the welcome shade of a copse of trees. It had been nearly 5 hours since we had left our camp at Eleven Bull Basin. We rested and took in the view of the rolling, meadowy terrain of Ferry Basin nearly 1000' below us.
A game trail was very evident going southward right along the ridge crest in front of us, so we followed it until it petered out at a cliff-face about a mile along the ridge. From there it was a very steep parachute drop for nearly 500' down a dirt & scree gully with many Hanging Vegetable Belays and large tumbling rocks being accidentally rolled down the slope in front of us.
We eventually broke out onto the open heather slopes above the basin and made our way downward and across the basin toward our next camp which was Lake Billy Everett. The lake was beautiful! It was set at the base of rolling hills and had a perfectly flat rocky area next to it. Slightly above the lake was a flat grassy saddle that would be our camp because we hoped it would have enough of a breeze to keep the ever present hoard of blood-sucking skeeters at bay.
We set up our bags with only bug netting again, then decided that we were sufficiently sweaty and funky enough to warrant bathing before contaminating our bags. Although beautiful to look at, Lake Billy Everett is not warm! We found a little sun-warmed tarn on the rock flats next to it that had tepid water and made a great spot to wash off a crusty layer of the Olympics. We returned to our camp, and ate dinner while doing the "Skeeter Dance" which consists of moving and walking quickly around the camp site while slapping, swatting and scratching at various body parts all the while eating your dinner. Thank God no one was watching because I'm a horrible dancer! After dark the incessant hum of the little shits quickly dissipated and the night was blessedly free of insects. Every star imaginable seemed to be displayed just for me that night. I drifted off among them as I closed my sleepy eyes.
GBH and I originally had planned to make this a layover day, but after washing our clothes and standing around learning more moves of the Skeeter Dance until noon,
both of us were restless and we decided to forge ahead a few miles to a nice camping spot on the south side of Mt. Pulitzer that GBH knew from his Queets / Bailey trip of last year. Again the day was hot, but we were in no hurry to make this next camp as it was a short distance away so we took frequent breaks in whatever shade we could find. We climbed out of the basin to the shores of Lake Pulitzer,
which is the melt water from the nearly extinct Pulitzer glacier that is just barely present on the north side of Pulitzer. The terrain became a jumble of pulverized rocks and large glacier scoured rocks, showing very distinct striation marks on them from when the glacier was doing it's thing in the past. We went up and over the shoulder of Pulitzer to an altitude of 6100', nervously noting that the boot tread on the route
now followed right along the very damn rim of the sheer and undoubtedly bottomless cliff that separated the east from the west side of the range. We switch backed down a dirt slope to a little flat, grassy spot that is barely visible on the Topo maps just south of Pulitzer. It had a copse of trees and a crystal clear snow melt tarn right there. It made a perfect camp!
Since it had no name that either of us knew of, I have forever dubbed it "Carol Camp" in honor of my wife. (I earned some brownie points there, guys!) Upon our arrival, the wind was blowing and due to the camp's exposed location at nearly 6000' we believed the wind would probably continue all night, so we set up our tarps to shield us from it. Well, wouldn't you know just before dark the wind died down and we didn't need the tarps at all. It was probably a good thing we left them up though, because it got cold that night and they no doubt kept a little of our body heat from escaping!
At 5:15 in the morning, there were ice crystals on my pack and the little snow melt tarn had nearly ¼ inch of ice formed on it! My thermometer read 30 degrees. GBH said that his 45 degree rated REI Travel Down quilt hadn't been a whole lot of help during the chilly night. The hot oatmeal that I had for breakfast never tasted so good! It warmed up very quickly when the bright sun hit us and by 7:30 AM it was nearly 60 degrees and rising quickly.
Our first challenge of the day was in less than ¼ mile from camp. We had to climb up the very steep,
rock hard, icy snow which was just south of the camp. For the first time, we got to break out our crampons which had just been dead weight until now and also use the ice axe for what it was intended for. The crampons only bit into the ice a slight amount, but it was more than enough to give us sure footing as we plodded up the steep ice for a couple hundred vertical feet before turning slightly west and traversing across at a gentler angle to the top.
Off went the crampons for about 10 minutes until we reached the next snow/ice field which was at the north side of Mt. Childs. This time the ice was not so steep, albeit much longer in distance. We could see that this was actually part of a glacier as there were a series of crevasses just below our intended route. Back on went the crampons and I ventured out first, staying well above the danger on firm (but icy) snow. Soon, GBH followed and we eventually met on the far south side at the top of a rocky ridge. Off came the crampons again and we had to scramble down some fairly steep dirt & scree to a narrow snow and rock valley which was east of Mt. Childs.
After a few more ups and down, we sat on barren rock in the slight shade of a large cairn that someone had made and ate our lunch. The route seemed pretty obvious from this point on, simply following the ridge crest as it traveled south. It was getting hotter and hotter. We continued on in the barrens and crossed more snowfields, but these were pretty benign and gentle in slope so no crampons were needed.
GBH commented that he had never sweated so much while walking on snow! Due to the very reflective nature of sunlight on snow, we had to smear sunscreen up inside our nostrils (not pleasant!) in order to prevent a painful inside the nose sunburn. Soon we reached the bottom (north side) of Bear Pass. It is a very large, gently upward sloping snowfield with crevassed ice at its base, far below our route. We were taking a break at a ridge top overlooking the snowfield just prior to venturing out on it. The temperature on my thermometer read 104 degrees! (In the sun) I had my pack off and was applying more sunscreen, when I heard a little "Pop" then a muffled "Sssssssss" sound from the top lid of my pack. I immediately thought that my little can of Deet had exploded in the intense heat! Not relishing the thought of the Deet eating away at all the plastic & nylon contents of my pack, I leapt into action by quickly unzipping the top lid and deftly shaking and dumping all its contents on the ground. GBH had not heard the sounds and apparently thought that I had just lost my mind as I heard him say, "What the..."
Well, the Deet was fine, but I found that my blue colored Bic lighter HAD split its plastic sides from the heat and was in the process of emptying butane everywhere. Fortunately butane evaporates quickly and nothing was harmed. Also fortunately, GBH soon realized that I had apparently not had a brain meltdown like he had probably thought a few moments ago, (I think) plus he had a spare lighter that he gave me. We continued and crossed the snow of Bear Pass, attaining it's rocky crest and got our first sight of Dodwell-Rixon Pass below us. I had a pre-conceived notion of what Dodwell-Rixon must look like and this wasn't it. Somehow I expected a green, Eden-like setting but here was.....nothing! No fruit trees, serpents, singing cherubs or people wearing fig leaves. It was desolate, barren, rolling, scoured rock and a couple of little melt-water tarns. Sigh...yet another fantasy shot down.
It was now about 2PM and after a quick snack and refilling our water, GBH and I decided to "Go for the gold".
We figured that we still had about 8 - 9 hours of daylight left and decided that we'd go ahead and descend the infamous Elwha snow finger which was in view at the head of the pass. It took us another hour to make our way down & across to the snow finger. Peering down the narrow and steep gully, all I could see was rushing water and a lot of big rocks interspersed with bits of chewed up logs and debris. We began our descent from the high country. The way was a rough one, with steep rock and dirt sides, the gully directed us ever downwards.
We had to boulder hop and make our way over the chewed up pieces of logs and debris, apparent leftovers from previously melted snow, slides or perhaps pissed off Bigfoot attacks at previous backpackers that have dared to enter their realm!
The sun was relentless, there wasn't a breeze to speak of and the rocks held their heat quite well. Down and down we went, going slowly so as not to wrench an ankle or fall off a boulder or log. Soon after rounding a slight curve we spotted three humans coming up the snow finger! People...what a treat! As we approached I could see that a male was leading the way and two females followed. I looked harder and said, "Hey! I know you! Aren't you Bryan?!" It was a N.P.S. employee that I know from the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles where he works. In fact just a couple of weeks earlier he and I discussed this trip and he had told me that he would be doing the Elwha trail at the same time I would be on the Bailey's, but I didn't expect to run into him. Small world, huh? We chatted for a few minutes, exchanging route information then went on our ways.
Soon, GBH and I reached the Snow Dome that we had heard stories about and Bryan had given us route advise on. The Snow Dome is the result of numerous converging snow chutes from the surrounding peaks far above the snow finger gully.
As avalanches occur, thousands of tons of snow are dumped into one central spot in the Elwha snow finger gully, and then solidifies into a huge icy plug. The Dome was impressive to say the least. It was probably 75 feet high and has the appearance of a glacier with its blue ice color and many crevasses on top. The Elwha River has carved a huge tunnel through the center of the ice plug, leaving a tunnel large enough to drive a train through. Only a suicidal fool would attempt to walk through the tunnel to the opposite side, so the correct way to continue our journey was to claw and crawl our way up the very loose dirt on the north side of the gully next to the ice and get out onto the top of the Dome.
The whole thing was about 100 yards in length. We put on our crampons since the surface was slick and hard ice, sprinkled with bits of wood debris from the Bigfoot Wars. The top was heavily cracked and crevassed. We gingerly threaded and weaved our way between and stepped over them, being ever so cautious to stay away from not only the crevasses, but numerous large holes that water was pouring down into, and out of sight below. There was the ever present darkened, dirty appearing ice running along the center of the Dome that heralded the huge tunnel that had been carved under it. We stayed a healthy distance from it, trying to tread on apparently thick ice nearer the north side.
Still, it was a puckering traverse. (My doctor says that my sphincter should eventually relax in a few more weeks.) We made our way off the Dome and continued on down the gully, boulder hopping all the way. I slipped off a couple of boulders, not only dunking my foot in the water, but I scraped & bloodied up my shin pretty well. Chicks dig scars though, right? After nearly another mile, we came to a large cairn placed on a car sized boulder in the middle of the gully. This signaled a way trail that would get us up and around a particularly nasty, vertical sided gorge just ahead. We spotted flagging in the trees and began to make our way up the extremely steep canyon walls in the thick trees on what would pass for a poor mountain goat trail. The route was quite difficult to follow, especially with a full pack, but infinitely more do-able than the gorge reportedly was.
Eventually we broke out into a large meadow with a huge waterfall above us. The way trail continued down the meadow and would lead us back to the Elwha River on the far side of the gorge and the actual maintained upper Elwha trail. We followed it and soon saw our first bear of the trip. He could have cared less about us and lumbered off into the ever thickening brush. With the bear lurking somewhere in the thick brush, I was a little worried of being mistaken for a tasty morsel so we began talking and singing to the bear, just to let him know that we were still around. I'm sure the singing scared the hell out of him and he's probably still running! The brush thickened even more and the way trail soon petered out. GBH lamented that today was a hell of a day for him to wear shorts since the brush, stickers and thorns were now shredding his bare legs and the dripping blood would surely attract the rare & elusive Olympic River Shark when we entered the water again. We eventually broke out of the steamy jungle at the edge of the Elwha River again, right where we needed to cross it and begin the Elwha Trail. We had to don our sandals at this point to cross and the cold water really stung the bleeding cuts and scrapes on our legs.
(Or maybe it was the sharks nibbling at us?) It was dusk by now and we thought it was possible that we could make it to Chicago Camp by the time it got dark. We soon found that the "maintained" trail was anything but that! There were numerous trail washouts requiring route finding around them. The Elwha River had done quite a job on these upper reaches of the trail that don't get much maintenance attention. Our pace was slowed significantly and we had to put on our headlamps to continue.
After about two miles we found our haven for the night: The Happy Hollow shelter. No one was there and it was in incredible shape for a shelter that had stood since at least the sixties, judging from the graffiti on its walls. It was 10:30 PM and had been about a 9 mile day. Pretty incredible for the Bailey Range and we were exhausted. We put our bags on the smooth bunk boards of the shelter (I didn't tell GBH about the Black Widow Spiders that I saw in the rafters above us!) and immediately drifted off to sleep.