Athena from the Hoh Glacier. Photo by John Myers.
  Valhallas Olympus Traverse  
  by John Myers  


Oith the Olympic Mountains in our Bremerton backyard it is understandable that we would spend our time climbing and exploring in them. Climbers from other parts of the Northwest may understand the attraction of close proximity, but question the quality of technical climbing to be found here. For us, trips into the Olympics have nearly always entailed disproportionate time fighting underbrush and route-finding to reach marginal quality climbing terrain, reason, perhaps, that Olympic climbers remain a small, dedicated group. The Cascades do not lack in bushwhacks. Indeed, tales abound of epic forays through thick jungle as the price of admission to some choice granite wall. So why do the brush-apes of the Olympic Peninsula throw themselves into the tangle of primordial vegetation for the opportunity to ascend crumbling basalt? Kevin Koski, Tony DiBenedetto and I decided once again to put this question to test over an eight-day period in August 2005 in a remote section of Olympic National Park.

Our goal was to hike the south fork of the Hoh River to climb the range of peaks to the southwest of Mount Olympus known as the Valhallas, then traverse to Olympus and walk out the North Fork Hoh Trail. We weren’t so naive as to believe that we would cover any previously untraveled terrain, but the signs, or lack thereof, that we found, made clear that this remarkable corner of the park receives infrequent human visits.

South Fork Hoh River. Photo © John Myers.
South Fork Hoh River. Enlarge Photo © John Myers.
The south fork of the Hoh is the abandoned stepchild of the better-known north fork, which is a conduit for day-hikers enjoying the lush rain forest and mountain climbers making the 18-mile approach to Mount Olympus. The south fork sports the same grand canopy of ancient cedars, firs and spruce, but the trail is abandoned after three miles.

Lucky for us, the previous winter had been mild; the river was seasonally quite low, affording us easy traveling along the river bar in some sections. Nevertheless, the easiest route into the Valhallas took two days to hike 15 miles upriver, with numerous excursions onto steep hillsides to “portage” ourselves around impasses.

On the second day, as we were making our way through a thin canopy of alder, we stumbled upon a herd of about 30 elk bedded down in the shade. One of them let out a sharp bugle and the rest rose to their feet, leaving the trees upriver as we advanced. They then crashed en masse through the woods, making a terrific noise. A moment later neither sight nor sound remained of their recent presence.

Later that day we reached a large mossy boulder field, which was directly across the river from Valkyrie Creek, our rough line of ascent to the base of the Valhallas. We crossed the river over a fallen log. The fun (read bushwhacking) then entered a new level of intensity as we ascended the hillside adjacent to the creek. What began as moderately steep forest quickly became very steep forest. For the first of several occasions my ice axe was put to use on vegetated rock. I lost count how many times I placed blind faith in bear grass in one hand and my pick stuck in veggie-scree. I wished for something more secure, like…basalt? We grovelled our way to more forgiving terrain and scenic alpine meadows northwest of the Valhallas.

Mount Olympus loomed large to the northeast, and caught us off-guard with its markedly dissimilar appearance compared to the familiar view from the North Fork Hoh Trail. Olympus had always been, in my mind, a heavily glaciated and snowy peak. We stared at huge rock walls, looming high over the relatively small Hubert Glacier and the headwaters of the south fork of the Hoh. Next our attention was drawn to the ridge between the Olympus massif and our position. At the near end the ridge appeared rounded and subtle, but as it meandered farther away it became progressively more jagged and bisected with steep buttresses as it neared Athena, the 7365-ft south peak of Olympus. With two gorgeous days already and more forecast for the rest of the week, we were elated about the journey ahead.

After setting up camp that night we were visited by a resident black bear who high-tailed it in the opposite direction once he caught a whiff of our odiferous selves. Once the moon was up we enjoyed an impressive evening gazing at the west face of Olympus on one side and seeing the lights of ships out on the Pacific Ocean on the other.

Geri-Freki Glacier with Thor and Loki Spire left of center. Photo © John Myers.
Geri-Freki Glacier with Thor and Loki Spire left of center. Enlarge Photo © John Myers.
On the morning of the third day we made a failed attempt at a direct ridge approach to the north side of Freya and Frigga that eventually cliffed out. So we dropped into the valley directly below the snout of the Geri-Freki Glacier where we would later set up camp. We then went up to the glacier and roped up. We crossed the glacier, walking over and around a few small crevasses, and reached the high point at the base of Munin, intent upon running its ridge to the summit. We traversed the ridge over 4th class terrain, simul-climbing over the rock as a team of three for the first time on the trip. Kevin and I had never climbed with Tony before, so it proved to be a good group experience, as we would need to cooperate well in the days ahead.

This vantage point gave us an opportunity to survey the Valhallas, as Munin resides at the apex of this horseshoe-shaped cluster of peaks. Directly across the glacier from us was the southwest side of Frigga. It interested us, as the guidebook made no mention of ascents from its southwest side. Many of the peaks here had no recorded first ascents until the early 1970s. It had also become clear in preparing for the trip and discussing the history with members of Olympic Mountain Rescue, that, since those first ascents, the area had seen infrequent use. The reason may be the approach, or because the words “rotten rock” pepper the route descriptions. My partner Kevin coined the saying “real men climb crumbly Olympic basalt.” I’d always cringed hearing him say that and watched with faint amusement as other climbers would slowly back away from us when it was dropped in conversation. But its wry humor had bolstered my courage on several occasions when I was sketched-out on some heinous patch of rock with dreadful protection.

That evening we sorted our collective climbing gear and formed our meager lead rack. We had vowed to travel as light as possible considering the planned days out and terrain to be covered. Thus our rack consisted of ten carabiners, three cams, five nuts, two pitons, and assorted webbing, which served double duty as prussiks for our glacier travel. The pitons were used repeatedly for anchors and tent stakes.

The fourth morning, Tony and I hiked up to the base of Frigga, just below the Frigga-Freya saddle. A Class 5.0 route was listed in the guidebook to the right of our chosen line of ascent. As Tony tied in, I scanned the lower slabby section and, seeing its battered state, I stood well off the base of the wall to prepare the belay. Tony led up from the talus at the base, and for the first 50 feet rained torrents of rocks down at my feet as he cleaned his way up the rock, following a shallow seam. The ugly start was giving me serious doubts about our line. But on the second pitch we entered a chimney that became increasingly more solid. After about 40 feet the chimney exited onto the southwest face. At the top of the second pitch Tony took delight in choosing his belay spot directly behind a dense, squat fir tree growing from the rock. Since I was carrying our small pack on this pitch Tony laughed at my misery of thrashing my way up and through thick branches—branches that smacked me in the face and snared my pack. I led the third pitch, which rounded the southwest corner and ascended larger blocks and short ledges. Tony’s final lead was the most enjoyable of all, ascending a flake of clean, solid red sandstone. Overall the line we had chosen turned out to be a decent, four-pitch, 5.5 route. It was a bit messy at the bottom, but improved in quality with each pitch. Our experience that day showed us that some of the rock in the Valhallas is actually fairly decent, particularly in relation to the range as a whole. We later named the route Black Bart in honor of one of Tony’s charismatic shipmates.

Valhallas from Athena. Photo © John Myers.
Valhallas from Athena. Enlarge Photo © John Myers.
After rappelling down to the glacier, Tony and I rejoined Kevin and decided to forego more climbing here in order to start the ridge traverse toward Mount Olympus. We weren’t sure how much longer the spectacular weather would continue, and we didn’t know what obstacles we would encounter along the way. We packed up then descended through the brush below the Geri-Freki Glacier toward a slope across the valley that we hoped would provide access to the main ridgeline between the Valhallas and Olympus. We’d seen a herd of elk the previous day there, and hoped to find some of their trails; and that we did. These trails led up into more meadows, giving way to higher, rockier terrain devoid of vegetation. After reaching the crest we went down the opposite (southeast) side of the ridge, and then ascended a steep, brushy hillside crisscrossed with more elk trails, which offered the best routes through the difficult sections. The elk paths opened into a broad high meadow and gentle bench below the main ridgeline, where we camped. Below us, toward Mount Olympus, was a vast moonscape of talus and rocky debris, an unusual sight in an area otherwise green or snow covered. We surmised this region was recently covered with ice year-round.

On the fifth morning we rose early to yet more clear, cool, and calm skies. We followed the bench up to the ridgeline and began working our way along the crest. The going was easy at first, the ridge broad and marked with a few patches of snow and small grassy benches. Mt Olympus, Athena, and their satellite crags increasingly dominated our view. By late morning, though, we came to a point where the ridge rapidly narrowed and turned into a long section of knife-edged ridge. Two climbers from France had made the traverse a few years earlier and had descended to the north (left) at this impasse and then crossed the Hubert Glacier to gain the Snow Dome. We had earlier made the decision to reach Olympus by way of Athena, and the southern side of the ridge, which didn't appear any worse than the north side, was more suited for this approach.

We dropped a short distance by sidehilling on loose scree before reaching a steep gully that dropped a couple of thousand feet toward the Queets River. At the far side of the gully a vegetated scree slope rose about 150 innocent-looking feet. It was steep but appeared to require no ropes or pro. The three of us chose different lines of ascent, Tony and Kevin some distance to either side of me. At about 30 feet up we simultaneously realized that the hill was fraught with the potential for an easy slip on moist mossy rocks and hard-packed turf. We were at the point of commitment where downclimbing seemed the worst of all options.

The gully below promised a morbid ending to any accidental slide. With the aid of an ice ax in my sweaty palm I was able to flee to a cluster of fir trees clinging to the hillside. As I hung from a few low-slung branches catching my breath I could hear Tony and Kevin fighting their own personal battles with the slippery slope. They reached the crest of the hill above me after a few swearing sessions. I attempted in vain to climb up through the tree I was holding, but with the pack on I became so ensnared by the branches that movement up or down was impossible. I called up to Kevin, who belayed Tony down so he could extricate me. After dusting off my ripped shirt, shaking off the embarrassment of the situation, and taking some well-deserved ribbing, we forged ahead.

Evening view of low clouds. Photo © John Myers.
Evening view of low clouds. Photo © John Myers.
Throughout the afternoon we climbed over ribs, backtracking where necessary at dead-ends and scouting the route ahead from each high point. We eventually reached the south ridge of Athena II, adjacent to the Jeffers Glacier, late in the day as clouds moved in from the west. Tony checked his weather radio and confirmed a weak system was passing through, forecast to last a couple days. We had to get over Athena and on to the glaciers around Olympus. While Tony and I licked our wounds from the day’s brush battles, Kevin climbed a few hundred feet up and spotted a way onto the unnamed glacier below Athena II’s upper shoulder. We roped up and made our way up firm snow and ice to the rocks above, scrambling through the only notch that provided access to the high benches below the summit. By fading light we looked from Athena’s ridge crest down over the Hoh Glacier and identified a potential path through the crevasses toward the Middle Peak of Olympus. We made camp above the clouds looking back to the west at the ridge we had crossed and, beyond, to the Valhallas.

On the sixth morning we found ourselves enveloped in thick fog. Since we had scouted the upper Hoh Glacier the previous evening, we knew where to drop off and had a vague notion of how we were going to navigate the openings in the ice. Once on the glacier, visibility was poor, but we were just able to see one another at the ends of the rope. Slowly we walked over or around the gaping holes in the ice. Tony checked his GPS once to confirm we weren’t moving in the wrong direction. After an hour we popped out above the fog to blue skies. Out of the abyss immediately behind us rose the sharp point of rock known as Athena’s Owl, and in front of us stood the east and middle peaks of Olympus. Easy glacier walking and 4th-class rock took us to the top of the Middle Peak and its commanding views.

Next we dropped down and crossed the upper Blue Glacier to Five Fingers adjacent to the West Peak (the main summit) of Olympus. By this time the wind had picked up and was blowing steadily. We made camp on top of Five Fingers, just a stone’s throw from the summit of Olympus. That night we looked out over the Olympic range under a faint moon; the only lights we saw were those of Victoria, British Columbia on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island.

Ridgeline between Valhallas and Mt. Olympus. Photo © John Myers.
Ridgeline between Valhallas and Mt. Olympus. Enlarge Photo © John Myers.
On the seventh morning the winds had eased, so we scrambled down Five Fingers and over to the West Peak. The snow conditions were still good for this time of year, so we kicked steps up to the base of the summit block. We climbed the 5th-class pitch and stood on top of the range. On the summit we found the ashes of the late Robert Wood (author of the definitive trail guide to the Olympics), spread the previous summer by his friends.

We descended Olympus via the Snow Dome, taking a sidetrip up Panic Peak behind the IGY hut. We then dropped down to Cal-Tech rocks, where we had our first bath in days in some warm pools of water. Across the Blue Glacier we saw the first people we’d seen in seven days.

On our eighth and final day we hiked the 18 miles out the North Fork Hoh Trail, collapsing in the parking lot in the late afternoon. The highlights of the trip for me were seeing the abundance of wildlife (elk, bears, goats), climbing in the Valhallas, summiting Olympus and traversing one of the more beautiful and remote parts of the park. This special corner of this grand park rivals the Bailey Range, but is rarely traveled.


The Valhallas’ peaks are named after prominent gods of Norse Mythology. These relatively low-elevation peaks are an extension of the southwest ridge of Mount Olympus, where the most notable peaks form a semi-circle around the Geri-Freki Glacier. Starting from the most northerly peak and progressing counter-clockwise the named peaks are:

• Freyja, 5,040 feet
• Frigga, 5,300 feet
• Vili, 5,500 feet
• Baldur, 5,750 feet
• Munin, 6,000 feet
• Woden, 6,038 feet
• Hugin, 5,990 feet
• Loki, 5,700 feet
• Thor, 5,950 feet
• Mimur, 5,400 feet
• Bragi, 5,450 feet