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.

Slugging along

There are many things I missed about the Pacific Northwest. Slugs were not on that list. But after visiting Olympic National Park, I’m rethinking that. Slugs are everywhere on the Olympic peninsula — on the coast, on the rocky headlands and in the rainforest.

Slugs were a near constant feature of my childhood. The memories came flooding back. I saw them as soon as I opened the door. Occasionally the crafty creatures even slipped into our house. The acceptable response of course was to shout “Ewwww!” and prance around until someone had removed the offending intruder and its trail of slime.

But those slow-moving mollusks were more than meets the eye. I remember, as a kid, someone in my class ate a slug. That was big news in those days… with more follow up headlines than the Mueller report. Slug slime apparently numbs your tongue. There were health concerns to be addressed. The kid was OK in the end, but far be it from me to ever underestimate the “common” garden slug ever again.

When I was a kid, the most noteworthy slug was a yellow- or beige-hued creature or as we used to call them “banana slugs.” They seemed less common and so usually required more discussion. The Olympic coast and rainforest has these in abundance. Some slugs are fully beige. Others are more yellow. Others are mottled — like the fruit you might use for banana bread.

I realized, after years living in big cities, I really missed slugs. Each time I saw one over the past two weeks, I wanted to squat down and take a moment. They moved so slowly. They seemed so unhurried. They were not bothered by tides or rain or the passage of time. Sometimes they slithered along unhindered and sometimes their slime picked up the needles of trees — how embarrassing! But they were unfazed. While Jake and I bustled from campsite to campsite, slugs seemed like a reminder to take our time and enjoy the Olympics — from the ground on up.

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Slugging around Olympic National Park

 

Training: Desierto de los Leones

IMG_0789 (1)Without a doubt my favorite place to hike in Mexico City is Desierto de los Leones (Desert of the Lions). It’s not a desert and there are (usually) no lions there. It’s a park with natural trails used by walkers, runners and mountain bikers. The high point of the trail is a chapel on a hilltop called San Miguel. At around 12,000 feet, it is no joke. I was first introduced to Desierto de los Leones by a hiking buddy in 2013. Jake discovered the park around the same time. After that first trip, I was hooked. And Jake was too. We both became regulars — even though we didn’t know each other yet. When you live in a sprawling city of million, you need to find natural places to roam.

Roaming was the object of my visits to Desierto. The trails there are barely marked. So if you want to find your way, you need a good sense of direction and a willingness to get lost. I got lost countless times in Desierto. At the same time, whenever I was there, I never felt like I was really “lost.” In Desierto, you can hear the wind rustle the trees. You can watch the evergreens sprout new needles. You can get caught in one of the regular hailstorms. You can sprint down an old creek bed. And you can labor your way along an ancient rock wall.

The park was developed as part of a monastery that dates to the 17th century. It is reportedly named after the big cats that roamed the woods — not lions — but pumas. I’ve never seen a feline on the trail, and hope not too on the PCT.

Today the old monastery is a major draw for families who like to visit it and picnic around it on the weekends. Crumbling hermitages can be found throughout the park and an old rock wall lines some of the trails. Just beyond the parking lots and taco stands, the woods are often peaceful — except when the occasional group of mountain bikers passes, some blaring music out of portable speakers. Sometimes you find them huffing up the trail slower than hikers, which is satisfying.

It’s in this place that Jake and I went on one of our first dates. Jake brought his campstove so we could have a Yorkshire tea break. We climbed to San Miguel and ate sandwiches at the top. Since then, we’ve returned several times. We have found new routes through the park together. And in Desierto, this year, we began the bulk of our training for the PCT. Over several weekends, we added weight to our packs and added mileage. Eventually, we hit around 20 miles on a one-day outing in the park. We’ve done training walks in other places, but, for me, this park will always be the place where our PCT dream started to come to fruition.