A Mammoth Climb: Marmot Pass

Our alarms rang dark and early on Saturday morning. This was our first jaunt into the Olympic Peninsula wilderness since moving and we had been preparing for it for weeks. After hitting snooze a couple of times and fighting the comforts of our warm beds, we loaded up and started the 1.5 hour drive to the trailhead.

The Olympic Mountain Range is comprised of folded over oceanic crust, which has been rising over the past 40 million years. Surrounded on three sides by water – the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Puget Sound to the east, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north – glaciers, snow, and rainfall feed the entire region through a network of rivers that radiate from the highest peaks. Mount Olympus, at 7969 ft. above sea level, is circled by a multitude of competing sibling mountains. While driving in their shadows, one cannot help but wonder what secrets can be uncovered within the rolling wilderness, along the lifegiving riverbeds, and under the lush canopy of evergreen rainforests.

For this trip, it was me, my boyfriend, our roommate, and Milo, our 2 year old German Shepherd-Husky. Our destination for the weekend was Marmot Pass via the Upper Big Quilcene River trail (check out our GoPro footage). Located in the Buckhorn Wilderness, this trek lies outside the Olympic National Park, meaning that we could bring our canine friend along.

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Doesn’t he look rad with his National Park Paws patch? Milo is growing into his true self – a badass adventure dog!

We arrived at the trailhead around 8 am. We were seemingly behind schedule, as the parking lot was already occupied by several early morning-bird cars. We made some small talk with a pair of day hikers, strapped on our packs, and set out on our climb.

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We made friends with the river flowing beside us. She would be leading the way to our destination and her daughter streams providing water for the long trip ahead.

The first 4 miles had a gradual incline while traversing through the forest. The Big Quilcene River was a constant companion, sometimes babbling in the distance and at other times roaring alongside us. Along the forest floor, plants such as Vanilla Leaf, Lady Fern, and blooming Western Trillium lined the trail, with their tender spring leaves bathing in the verdant forest light.

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Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum) is a native plant with a whorl of three leaves topped by a single white flower, which turns pink or purple as it matures. Also known as the Wake Robin, these heralds of spring are both beautiful and fragile. Picking the blooms will result in irreversible damage that will prevent the plant from producing nutrients, oftentimes causing them to perish. Always practice the Principles of Leave No Trace and tread lightly.

We met up with the River again at Shelter Rock, a peaceful location to set up camp in the forest. All around us, the sounds of the forest created a tranquil symphony. But we were only halfway to our destination, so after a quick drink and snack, we were once again on our way.

Departing from the now-familiar sounds of the River, the trail began steeply climbing out of the forest. During our hike thus far, we wondered if we would eventually end up in the clouds. Beyond the thin tree line to our left, fog and mist obscured the peaks of the nearby hills. Although the cool air was immensely welcome against our flushed faces, the milky whiteness cast a mysterious veil over our surroundings.

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Bitter cherry was found along the wayside. Here, it frames one of the nearby peaks.

We kept climbing, and by now, fatigue was setting in. We had covered at least 5 miles with around 2800 ft. elevation gain, all while carrying 35 lb. backpacks. Milo, however, still as energetic as always, led the pack whilst carrying 10 lbs of his own food and supplies.

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The sun teased us by occasionally breaking through the cloud cover. The warmth helped regulate our core body temperatures and gave a preview of the sights to come.

It wasn’t much further until our destination, Camp Mystery, as we came across stagnant snow fields. The local ranger station and recent trip reports stated that the Camp was still entrenched in snow, while day hikers making their way back down confirmed the conditions ahead. We were prepared, however, and brought along microspikes and temperature appropriate clothes and shelter. Milo himself had his own prototype sleeping bag from Whyld River, which we brought along for product testing.

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Camp Mystery was just barely waking from its winter slumber.

At last we made it to Camp Mystery. Luckily, it appeared as though we were the first backpackers to arrive, so we gratefully dropped our packs and started scouting for a home base location. We found a snow free stretch of earth complete with perfect log benches. It was time to eat lunch, set up the tents, and crawl inside for a much needed nap.

~

We awoke to the jarring sounds of people talking loudly. Looking outside, Camp Mystery had become something closer to a tent village, with perhaps 7-10 groups surrounding us. We suspected the location would be busy with it being Memorial Day weekend, but not with people who were so blatantly oblivious to the silence and solitude we so desperately sought. Nonetheless, we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, grabbed our cameras, and set out for our final destination: Marmot Pass.

Between Camp Mystery and the Pass, there is a relatively short climb with approximately 550 ft. elevation gain over 0.7 miles. However, the trail was completely buried under snow in some places, so we had to rely on the tracks of our fellow hikers who had already made their way to the top.

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What an eerie scene.

A gravelly trail occasionally surfaced under the sheets of snow. Milo as usual, led the way, turning back to check in and coming when called. We allowed him to be off leash for the majority of the time, but always be an advocate for and know your own dog. A good National Park Service (NPS) guideline to follow is B.A.R.K.: Bag your pet’s waste, Always use a leash, Respect wildlife, and Know where you can go. In our case, Milo was outfitted with an e-collar. Our months of training beforehand were paying off and his recall back to a leashed heel position proved solid even with other dogs approaching.

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Good boy Milo B.

With one final push, we were almost to our end goal.

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What awaits us beyond that ridge?

And what a sight it was. We gasped as we looked at the Olympics stretching out before us, as if painted on an impossibly vast, otherworldly canvas. Sheer, snow covered slopes pierced through the swirling fog, while the tree cloaked bases appeared crinkled from the seismic pressures of land and water. Up above, the radiant sun shone down, melting away the lingering mist. Wow.

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Of course, pictures could never do it justice.

We took some time to soak in the view. Far to our right, we could see some brave souls climbing up an arduous, but snow-free path to the peak of Buckhorn Mountain. Far to our left, a couple had set up camp in the snow, right along the edge of the ridge. We decided to continue north, up Tubal Cain trail to see what we could see. As the sun continued to shine, more and more of the Pass became visible.

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Shine bright like a diamond, baby.

We came up to a flat outlook and took plenty of pictures. Looking across the valley, we imagined how peaceful that camping couple must be, and couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy of being able to wake up to this majesty. So, of course, we made the impulsive decision to go back to Camp Mystery, pack up, and set up camp up here.

With the thought of the mountains fresh in our minds, we left behind some items to mark our location, and made a quick descent back to Mystery. It was already past 6 pm and we knew we had to work quickly. We split up duties with the boys breaking camp while I filtered water for drinking and cooking. Milo rooted for us by being a good boy and resting on his 15 ft. line. Within an hour, we loaded up one more time for the most challenging climb of our entire journey.

We treded carefully, with the heavy packs making it difficult to balance while navigating the unpredictable snow fields. Already physically exhausted, the sight of the golden hour light streaking so high above further demoralized us. Did we make the right decision? Would we be able to make it back to Marmot before sunset? If we’re just going to miss it, why are we pushing so hard?

But… we made it. And we were rewarded with another breathtaking view of the Olympics. This time, the valley was clear and the sun was just slipping beyond the horizon, its brilliant orange glow backlighting the mountains.

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This second climb, by far, was one of the most challenging physical (and psychological) feats we’ve ever accomplished. A very proud moment for all of us.

Feeling satisfied, we took our time the rest of the way to the outlook. Donning our headlamps, we once again set up camp and started cooking. No fires were allowed as we were above 3500 ft. (at this point we were above 6000 ft. elevation), so we took out our portable backpacking stoves and rehydrated some spaghetti, ramen, and bibimbap. The food warmed our bodies while our conversations warmed our souls. Although normally raw fed, we heated up some water and poured it over Milo’s kibble, which he ate ravenously. A large waxing gibbous moon illuminated the valley with a pure and cool light. Saying our goodnights, we fluffed up our sleeping bags and quickly fell asleep to the comforts of peace and silence.

~

Early next morning, the out-of-place sound of a phone alarm chimed. It was humorous to look at the battery meter, which still read 76%, despite having not been charged since the previous morning. Allowing it to snooze once, Milo and I clambered out into the breaking darkness, making our way to the ridge to catch the sunrise.

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I was able to capture the sun still rising over the side of Buckhorn Mountain. Far off into the distance, I could make out Mt. Baker, the Port Angeles Bridge, and the Puget Sound through the fluffy morning clouds. It truly felt like we were in another plane, removed from the pressures of work and life.

With Milo blossoming into such a confident and quick-footed adventurer, my slow self hadn’t had much chance to spend time with him so far. But at 5 in the morning, it was just the two of us and a few twittering birds. Some people wonder whether animals have souls, but as I watched how he quietly walked up to the ridge and sat down to watch the sunrise with me, I had little doubt in my mind that he too, could appreciate beauty and wonder.

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When the points of your ears rival that of the mountains.

Our moments of solitude were interrupted by the noisy campers from the day before. Despite my apprehension, we ended up talking for an hour, trading life stories and camera lenses to test out, and, of course, loving on Milo the good boy. His joyful presence lit us up as we went our separate ways from the ridge, with a bigger world view and a little richer in tolerance.

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Our little slice of heaven.

The boys were still asleep so I retrieved our bear bag and busied myself making breakfast. After a hearty meal of spam, eggs, and rice, we broke camp and headed down for the the last time.

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Breakfast of champions.

The descent brought us through the same way but in reverse. It’s always interesting to remember what your team talked about when we encountered this log or how you felt when climbing up this stretch of trail. Although going down a decline the entire time, our legs, knees, and ankles could feel every impact. Milo was finally showing signs of fatigue, so his papa carried his pack while Milo followed behind. It was good to know that he trusted us enough to be his leaders while we trusted him enough to give him his freedom.

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Goodbye Marmot, until next time.

After a long 6 miles, we finally made it back to the trailhead and our car.

Before the whole trip. We’re alive! We did it!

Marmot Pass and the journey there will always hold a special place in our hearts. We all embarked on this adventure with bigger and loftier ambitions in mind, whether that was rekindling a love of the outdoors for one human, dreams of higher peaks for the other two humans, or goals of reducing reactivity and increasing focus for Milo. Together, we overcame both physical and mental obstacles and emerged on the other side a little broken, battered, but ultimately, unbowed.

~

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Our original trip plan and route. Heading west, the waypoints are 1) Upper Big Quilcene Trailhead, 2) Shelter Rock, 3) Camp Mystery, 4) Marmot Pass, and the option of going up an unmarked trail to 5) Buckhorn Mountain. Map and route created via Gaia GPS.

5.26.2018

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