Up to the Blue

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Blue Glacier, Olympic National Park

I’ve seen glaciers before and even walked on one. But the Blue Glacier in the Olympic National Park dazzled me.

 

It was a soaring end to a day that started out low. When we planned the trip to the Olympics, we had planned to camp along the Hoh River at Lewis Meadow one night, then hike to the glacier and come back to stay again at Lewis Meadow the next night. Leaving our tent would allow us to travel more quickly up to the glacier. But Jake woke up in Lewis Meadow with a blister still throbbing from the previous day’s hike. He needed to stay in camp and rest. I didn’t want to go without Jake, but I also knew I would get stir-crazy in camp. I decided I would try to see how far I could go up the trail.

I quickly packed snacks and lunch and started out. The first couple of miles followed the the Hoh River. The trail was fairly flat. Deep in the rain forest, ancient trees were draped with hanging mosses. Even on a sunny day, the air felt thick with humidity. Then I turned a corner, and the switchbacks started. Over the next six miles, the trail gained 4,300 feet of elevation. My legs burned, but I stopped only to filter water and grab quick snacks. I had started out late and wanted to make it back to camp before dark.

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Elk Lake at 2,670 feet of elevation, 4.6 miles into the hike

At one point on a rocky bit of exposed trail I came across two men chatting. Both had separately reached the glacier earlier in the day and were comparing notes. I chatted with them for a moment, lauding the good weather and groaning about the switchbacks.

“Did you hear about the ladder?” one of them asked me.

I vaguely remembered a ranger telling us about some “ladder” when we picked up our permits. That was before the coast and Enchanted Valley. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

“The trail was washed out by a landslide, and there’s a ladder,” the man said. “Follow the purple rope. Then follow the cairns.”

I think I looked a little worse for wear because, as I left, the man shouted after me, “If I can do it, you can do it!”

A few hundred feet later, the trail just… stopped. Instead I saw what looked like a crumbling cliff. I saw a rope, but it was not purple! I panicked for a moment. Did I miss a turn off? Was this a different trail? 

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Rope ladder down a section of washed out trail

Looking down, all I saw were rickety slabs of wood mounted on a wire. This was the famous ladder? This ladder didn’t go up, but instead it went down! I looked around for a moment to see if there was some other option. There wasn’t.

If I can do it, you can do it. The man’s words came back to me.

I inched my way out on the crumbly cliff and grabbed on to the only rope I could see. Hanging there, I examined the rope. It was an orange color with specks of pink. Still, it was not purple. But, again, there was nowhere else to go. Trembling, I edged my way down the ladder. Just when I thought I had gotten the hang of it, I came across a section with a missing rung and a couple of broken ones. I had to balance on the ends of them, shifting my weight and trying not to slip off. After what seemed like an eternity, I neared the end of the ladder.

And what did I find? A purple rope! It led off in a different direction. I shimmied over to that rope, and I was glad I did because it sent me to the spot where the trail resumed. I held on for dear life as I shuffled down the still-crumbling cliff. Then I followed the cairns.

Trails can be tough. Switchbacks can be brutal. But you’ll never know how grateful you are for switchbacks until there are none.

I took a few moments to rest and snack. Then I continued trudging up to Glacier Meadows. I love alpine meadows, and the ones below the Blue Glacier are no exception. The summer flowers were in bloom. There were so many colors and kinds! It was the perfect garden, and it sprung up without tending or weed-eaters.

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Glacier Meadows

The trail continued up steeply through a couple of snow patches. Scurrying over the snow, I saw one of my favorite mammals: a pika. These tiny, adorable creatures are highly susceptible to climate change. They always remind me how important it is to preserve wild places.

After scrambling over rocks and boulders, I came over a rise and there it was: The Blue Glacier sparkling in the sun. I couldn’t help but exclaim when I saw it in front of me. It was so blue! It spread out from the lateral moraine where I stood. The snow-capped ice cascaded down. The glacier moved so slowly, it was imperceptible. But it moved with such power. Giant boulders were carried in its flow. I saw crevasses and ice towers.

All I could do was marvel at this soaring end to a stunning trail.

Author: jenonthetrail

Jen is from Washington state between Seattle and the Canadian border. She grew up hiking in the North Cascades with her family. She went on her first backpacking trip at about 12 years old with her dad and brother. Jen is returning after seven years in Mexico City to the US to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s looking forward to mountain meadows and Cheez-it crackers.

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