Across the Olympics, Introduction: Terra Incognita


There was a shelf of hiking guides at the foot of my parents’ bed: the early Mountaineers coffee table books; old editions of Spring and Manning, garishly colored and dog-eared; Fred Beckey’s strangely bound bibles; and Bob Wood’s beautiful Olympic Mountain Guide.

My dad read them before going to sleep. Some nights we’d all pile in, and he would read short sections: understated descriptions of seriously treacherous trails, reminiscences of easy autumn wind through alpine meadows. When I’d have trouble falling asleep, he’d tell me to imagine trails, to imagine the feeling of walking through woods or rock, beside rushing water.


Now, there’s a stack of hiking guides and maps on the side of Krista and my bed: those old Mountaineers books, now rare and impossibly dear; newer editions of Spring and Manning, still garishly colored; first editions of Beckey, which I treasure like the ancient heirlooms they are; and everything Bob Wood ever wrote. I read them just before bed, imagining distant ridges and forgotten lakes. And I think I now understand what they might have been for my dad, because they’re now that for me too: dreams one can watch while awake.


There’s this story I really love—maybe apocryphal but who cares—about medieval monks spending their entire lives copying single manuscripts, spending days or weeks or months on a single page, ornately ornamenting, projecting the prose outward to the margins. The books would then be monuments, not just to the originals, but to the lives of scribes who had carried them forward in time.

The thing I love about Bob Wood is that, in a way, he is that to the Olympics. He spent his life hiking the rivers and ranges, the old routes now almost—though just almost—completely buried under alder and avalanche. And he wrote about everything: the early expeditions, the early myths, the trails that have survived, and the trails that haven’t. His collected works are less clean than a single volume: a few guidebooks, only one now still in print; accounts of the O’Neil and Press Expeditions; an omnibus guide to Olympic history. But I think they’re all part of the same project, meanderings in the margins of a single mountain manuscript.


There’s an old story about Wood and some friends getting caught in a whiteout, in the middle of Mt. Olympus’ Blue Glacier. It was before GPS or anything like that, with visibility less than a hundred feet. Everyone was hopelessly lost, surrounded by snow on all sides, except Wood, who confidently guided all back to camp. When asked how he did, he shrugged. “I count steps.” He knew how many steps it was from their pass to camp. He could walk it with his eyes closed.


When he died, some of those same friends scattered his ashes into the howling summit wind, not far from where he’d saved their lives.


My dad gave me a copy of Wood’s Olympic Mountain Trail Guide for Christmas years ago. For a long time, it sat mostly unopened. It’s not that I wasn’t interested; I was overwhelmed. I would dip in occasionally, and see intriguing flashes, but I was never able to make sense of the thing as a whole. The book contains a dozen maps, each with a dozen trails, webs of routes along rivers and over distant passes. There’s no central peak or range, just a jumble of valleys and divides, all oriented in different directions.


But then, this last year, on the way back from Enchanted Valley, I spent a while staring at the National Park’s trail map. It’s nowhere near as detailed or complete as Wood’s, but it provides some structure, a sort of simplified scaffold for understanding the knot of ridges and rivers, the trails and paths and abandoned ways.

So I re-opened the Trail Guide, buoyed by the Park’s bird’s-eye view. This time, I read it cover-to-cover, like a novel, and then again, skipping between greatest hits: Lake LaCrosse, which Wood still calls Lake of the Holy Cross, after the O’Neil Expedition’s original name; the high plateau from which the Dosewallips, Lost River, and Cameron Creek all flow; the fading path from Low Divide to Martin’s Park; the Skyline Divide, splitting the Quinault from Queets, nearly a mile above either; and Six Ridge, a rough route where O’Neil tried, and failed, to build a trail.


Tracing the tangled lines across Wood’s maps, I started to think of a route connecting them all—a long loop across the park and back: from the North Fork Skokomish to First Divide; down briefly to the Duckabush, then up to LaCrosse Basin; over Anderson Pass; down one fork of the Dosewallips and up the other; over Lost, Cameron, and Grand Passes; down into Grand Valley and back up to Hurricane Ridge; down to Port Angeles and over to the Elwha; up to Low Divide and Martin’s Park; along the Skyline Divide all the way down to the Quinault confluence; then finally up and over Six Ridge, back to the Skokomish.


It was a dream at first, as these things always are, but it seemed doable: 230 miles, give or take, without too much road walking, and only five miles of repeat.

Olympic NP Loop

I planned a two-week trip, with room enough to wander, but miles enough to not be gone for too long.


I planned the trip in mid-winter, then had the next six months to wait, re-reading Wood’s Trail Guide, buying and reading the rest of his books, dreaming. On the bus to work, I’d hope for traffic, so that I could stay a little longer with O’Neil, clawing our way up the “Grand Divide”—his phrase for the high country that separates the Duckabush and Dosewallips from the Quinault. And I’d stay up too late with the Press Expedition, tramping through miles of thigh-deep snow, halfway up the Elwha, in what’s now called Press Valley.


But more than anything, I followed Wood, up treacherous trails, through early autumn wind, across the Peninsula and back. And I followed him through time, as old trails grew over and new ones were built, as O’Neil’s terra incognita became a well-mapped wilderness, as I inherited my father’s dreams.

One thought on “Across the Olympics, Introduction: Terra Incognita

  1. looks really nice. I always enjoy to see high peaks, forests, snow and the element of water (lake or creek).

    In addition, very interesting to read about Mt. Olympus’ Blue Glacier. There are plenty of Mount Olympus, besides the authentic Mountain of the Greek Gods, Olympus, in Greece! 🙂

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