Kilimanjaro 2013: Mount Olympus

Summit of Mount Olympus

Sam and I are getting short on time, only two weeks to go before the trip. Most of the equipment is ready to go, just picking up miscellaneous stuff now. Still need more hiking, and I am still worried about the altitude changes, though getting more familiar with the route, altitudes, etc. We’re getting pretty excited, I can tell because Sam talks about the trip in words with multiple syllables, really extending himself out there past the usual “yeah,” “duh,” and “no” we’re familiar with from our fun-loving teenagers.

We decided to make Mt. Olympus our next practice hike, neither of us had hiked it before, and it fit the bill of close and a lot of elevation change, along with a reputation as a strenuous hike. Sam scoped out the route to the trailhead, and on Friday afternoon we headed out. 

I was a little worried reading the hike description online, where it was described as a “steady uphill all the way,” especially knowing it was about 4,000 feet in gain, and in only 3.5 miles. We also had another last minute wrinkle in the plan, as we decided to take our dog Red with us for this hike. Two days later, if I could ask him, I’m sure the poor dog would have rather stayed home and watched a movie.

Following the directions from the website Sam consulted, we got to where the trailhead should have been, and a little past, but no signs, just a little gravel lot that didn’t seem like the right place. It was just off the yard of a residence, luckily the residents were outside wanting to know who was parking outside their house, so they were convenient for a quick question and we were sent on the correct way. The trailhead ended up being around the next bend, just a few hundred yards further down the road.

Start-the-trekWhen we got to the parking lot, we got out of the car and met two young guys getting ready to start off. They were going to hike up about halfway, and seemed a bit dubious when we told them we were going to the top. They were even more skeptical when they saw Red, and said “…you know there’s climbing at the top, right?” I assured them we’d be okay. I should have been a little more wary. We started up at about 4:45pm, it was only later that I found out that the time estimate on it is between four and six hours.

So we got started on the first section, trail was easily marked and a steady climb, and we made good progress, other than taking a wrong turn on the trail almost immediately. Headed north along the base instead of east, I could tell quickly that we were wrong, so headed back. There are not very many signs and marks, and the ones that are mostly point out other trails, such as the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Staying on the trail then means taking those NOT marked. Even these peter out after the first short section. After all, despite its proximity to the city, this is a wilderness area.

Weather was hot and dry, I was immediately feeling bad for Red, figuring the trail had to be pretty hot on his feet. Trusting that things would cool off with a little time and elevation, we headed on up. There was some percentage chance of thunderstorms predicted, but we never saw anything more than lightning off on the west side of the valley the whole trip. One obstacle we would not have to face.

Progress was pretty quick and steady, we gained some elevation and got above what is described on the various web pages as the first, or Bonneville Shoreline, section of the trail. The shoreline section and the next, or Tolcat’s Canyon, section are roughly separated by a creek bed. This was the one place we found running water, and it didn’t look like it’d be coming down much longer. Red took a long drink and rested his paws, and then we moved on. Shortly after, we ran into the two guys who left before us coming back. They said they hadn’t gone more than halfway there and were coming back. They checked to make sure we had enough water, always a nice gesture between hikers, and then headed on. Still a little nagged, but not too worried about time, we pushed on.

Tolcat’s Canyon gets much steeper, with some well-established switchbacks, but then a pretty much straight up trail over rock and root headed east up the mountain and paralleling the south side of the mountain. Lots of vegetation, trees and shade in here, so other than the steepness, not too bad. We sweated a lot as the day’s heat was still on the mountain, but not much trouble other than that. Pretty scenery and quiet, only a few other hikers.

At one point we got off the trail and were headed up some rocky outcroppings to the north side of the trail when we ran across one of these few meetings with fellow hikers. A guy and girl called out to us that we were off the trail but near it, so we tracked across and met them. He proceeded to describe the day’s events, how they had started out in the morning and caught the rain shower that had swept the valley earlier, spent a couple of hours up on the summit, and then started back. By now it’s after 7pm, and I’m thinking, “Sheesh, these guys have been out here all day and I was thinking about a four hour hike, we’ve gotta get going.” So after making sure neither party wanted for anything necessary, we headed on again.

Almost-thereSo I’m worried about time, but temperature is cooling off, so that was an advantage. Also, we’re starting to get to where I can see the skyline, but knowing there some false summits, I just kept my head down and kept climbing.

Around 8pm we came to the section called “the saddle.” Described for the geographical feature of sitting between two peaks, it’s a nice spot with trees, shade and even a couple of camp spots. Supposed to be one of the best spots for seeing wildlife, but it was still too hot and not close enough to dusk for anything to be about. I think we saw one small snake and a couple of birds, but that was about it. A few hundred yards of this and one very shortly comes to the base of the summit.

Although the first three sections are a strenuous hike, this part is what makes this one of the most difficult trail hikes around the valley, my opinion. It’s been described by others as about a 500 foot climb, which seemed about right to me. Almost all of it is hopping up rocks with a couple of spots where some basic hand and footholds are necessary to get up. It seems at this point that there is no real trail to follow, just pick a likely path up some draws. Be careful here to not get sucked into a blind alley, as there are sheer cliffs you can end up against. Just take your time and look back and around, awareness will keep you out of trouble.

As we climbed the rocks, Sam had to help Red up some of the higher climbs, and when we got to within about 50 feet of the summit, we decided to leave him where he could hear us, as he didn’t seem to want to go any further. So we went on and he didn’t complain, which he is usually more than comfortable with doing by a very piercing bark, so we figured we were close enough to keep him happy.

Yeah-that-silly-feet-thingWe made the last push and got to the top in time to see the westering sun cast a beautiful light across the valley and the mountain. Spectacular and inspiring. This is why we do this stuff. Sam and I sat down and enjoyed the view, ate some food and drank a good while, he went through the blood sugar testing regimen, and suddenly we heard some familiar panting. Red had decided we wanted to be up there with us, and had found a way on his own to get up that last 50 feet. I don’t know how many dogs have made that summit, but I know it was not any fun for those that have.

After getting up there, enjoying the view and resting a few minutes, it was time to get down. Light was going fast, and I did not want to be caught up on those rocks, or even in the canyon portion of the trail in the dark. It was a little after 8:30 when we pushed off, and I knew we were really pushing the light envelope leaving that late. I didn’t plan on the trip taking us past dusk, but I did plan for emergencies, so I knew that though we were for sure going to hit full darkness on the way down, I had my headlamp and we had a couple of flashlights between us. Glad we did.

We got back to the saddle within 15 or 20 minutes, and started off down the canyon. I knew this was going to be a likely place to get hurt, being tired, in a hurry and the steepness of the trail, so we tried to be extra careful while trying to maintain speed. This was aggravated by the fact that I chose the wrong hiking shoes to wear, should have had my Dachsteins, but wore a low quarter instead. It was fine on the way up, but was too loose on the way down, and was really hurting my big toes as the toe would jam up against the shoe. Made walking down a painful exercise. I definitely recommend anyone doing the hike to take your best boots. As I said, the hike up is fine, light shoes are great, but the down is almost as demanding technically, and good boots will be a great aid.

I hoped that by going as fast as possible, we could get down the rocks, across Tolcat’s and back to the Shoreline portion before the last light faded. By moving quickly and not stopping for a break, we were able to just make that bend and catch a little more last light around a corner of the mountain before we got back to the creek. We came out of the canyon just as it was fading, and finally stopped for a drink and rest. Poor Red was just about done in, sore paws and joints, and I knew we couldn’t stop long or he would stiffen up. Come to think of it, my muscles and joints, especially feet, weren’t feeling so hot either.

City-at-nightSo we sat quietly for a few minutes, got out our lights, and headed on. At the creek Red got another drink, and as we moved on, I started noticing blue lights reflecting back at me from the trail. Checking closer, I could see they were coming from the tops, (eyes I suppose) of some pretty good-sized spiders. Not the highest concentration of them I’ve ever seen, but the largest was about the size of a silver dollar, so pretty decent size. I’m not naturally bothered by spiders, but having them all over in the dark like this was a little creepy.

By this time we were all good and worn out. Red was limping and had to be encouraged along, which Sam took care of very well, it was nice to watch his concern for the dog. I kept my focus on making sure we didn’t lose the trail, and doing so, we made decent time, but still took a little over two hours to make the return trip.

We finally got down at almost 11pm, called home to let the wife know we were okay, and headed to McDonald’s for a well-deserved diet coke. Sam was too tired to eat anything, and so we headed home. The last laugh of the evening was had by Red, who got out of the car and promptly laid down in the grass and wouldn’t move. We finally got him into the house and to his sleeping spot, and the night was over.

So as far as preparation for the trip goes, the hike was a great success. We were prepared for the unexpected, in this case time, and had the appropriate gear for the need. We had plenty of water and food, and this time Sam’s blood sugar stayed pretty even, though it was still between 80 and 90 most of the time, I’d like to see it above 100. So other than the boots, I think we had what we needed. We also tried out new 35 liter packs up and back, they were great, even with the climbing really no trouble at all. Good and roomy, but light and maneuverable around whatever we climbed over.

So with two weeks to go I hope we’ll get another hike in, but if we don’t, I think we’re just about ready.

A note on Mt. Olympus. This is a very popular hike here in the valley, mostly because of its proximity I would guess. It is a serious hike, and the very next day there was an article in the paper about the number of search and rescue efforts on this mountain every year because of unprepared, tired and disoriented hikers. If you’re going to do this one, just be careful and be ready.