“Its a great exposed ledge. Unfortunately, it ends here, and you still have to make a few tricky moves above the fifty-foot drop-off. Don’t look down! Just focus on the hand and foot holds. No, don’t go up. That won’t help. It’ll just make it harder to climb back down. Stretch your right foot across to this sloping ledge. Now, match your left foot to it. Now reach up and right to this edge. OK, now step across. Nice, work! You got it.”
Like many traversing moves, there is no real advantage to using a rope here. Coaching and spotting are more effective safety techniques. It’s simply a “no fall” zone. You wouldn’t want to do thousands of such death defying “leaps of faith,” but in moderation, they make you feel wide-awake. We’re on the “Traverse of the Goddesses,” between the north and south summits of Mt. Olympus, walking a sidewalk in the sky one vertical mile above the Salt Lake Valley. Cars race by on I-215, and more than a million people hustle around the thriving metropolis, yet we are alone in a spectacular wilderness. We meet before dawn at the Olympus Trailhead, a short drive from our homes, and share a ride to the edge of the Olympus Cove suburb, where swank homes sit on the edge of a rugged, rocky wilderness. We climb steeply up to intersect the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and follow it briefly east before scrambling up a dry streambed to a thin ribbon of solid snow, nestled between soaring parapets. Deposited here by avalanches sweeping down from the smooth, 60-degree slabs above, the summer snow is deep and frozen. Its singular presence, an oasis of winter, far from any other snow, is as improbable as it is convenient.
We strap on crampons and move easily up the white boulevard between amber walls. Couloir is a French word meaning “hallway.” Mountaineers travel these corridors to reach the peaks. In this case we’d be clambering over loose and slippery rocks, eroded from the sheer scarps above and lodged as chockstones in the chimney, if it weren’t for the snow. It’s our friend.
Clomp, clomp, clomp…we switch back and forth crossover stepping and duck-footing to vary the strain on different leg muscles as we rise. We keep or metal footspikes securely in the firm corn snow, created by day-to-night melt and freeze cycles. It is delightfully cool and the snow is well preserved by the sinking of cold air to the bottom of this narrow defile.
Soon we’re at the base of the mountain’s smooth, broad north face. We stash axes and crampons in our packs, tie into a 200-foot rope, and begin scaling the West Slabs, so called because the angle is less than vertical. I lead a rope-length, and the second follows while I give a belay. We greet briefly at each ledge, some being only a foot wide, and others large enough to lie down. Then I’m off again, dancing up the solid quartzite, finding abundant holds and enjoying the moderate angle. It reminds me again that climbing doesn’t have to be steep and desperate to be fun. Every time I find a lack of holds, I move left or right and find more grooves and pedestals for my toes and fingers.
After 1,000 feet, the angle relaxes even more, and we switch to simul-climbing, or running belays, rather than fixed belays. With just 100’ of rope between us, and the rest spun over my shoulder and tied off in a kiwi coil, we move simultaneously. I place a stopper, or cam every so often to protect us in case one climber falls. When the follower reaches the piece of gear, and stops to remove it, I sling another small tree or horn of rock. While not appropriate for difficult terrain where falls are expected, this way of climbing on moderate ground greatly expedites our pace while still providing more security than simply soloing,”where one slip could be disastrous.
My focus on climbing is interrupted by a movement out of the corner of my eye. Pausing on a good, restful foot ledge, I glance up to meet the gaze of a lone billy goat. He seems more curious about me than worried. But as I snap a few photos and start climbing again, he hops away, keeping his distance. He is entirely comfortable in this near-vertical environment. Non-indigenous to the Wasatch Mountains, mountain goats have nonetheless thrived on the flanks of these vertiginous peaks, since being introduced decades ago. They are perhaps better neighbors to humans than deer and sheep, which need more rolling, forested terrain. Most of that is now built up. Instead, the goats occupy the cliff country while people populate the valley. It’s all good!
Topping out on the face we say goodbye to our birds-eye view of SL Valley, and hello to the high, snowy bowls of the Twin and Lone Peak Wilderness areas to our south. We sit for an early lunch and send a text to our families below, before we move east, up the ridge. Finding our way along the undulating crest, we solo climb in close proximity to one another, stopping after each tricky section and spotting holds for the second person. We have to dodge Juniper branches, and avoid loose rocks as we seek out the path of least resistance to the north summit.
We touch the high point, Athena, and take in a unique view down of the Apollo Couloir, Neff’s Canyon and miles of terrain to our north. A sip of water, and a glance at the route info, as we plot our course, and we’re off again, descending toward the next point south, Artemis. A chimney filled with snow is again helpful, offering swift passage over class 4 terrain, i.e. four body parts needed to climb in control.
Previous visitors have appropriately given the names of Greek Goddesses to each of the main high points between the North and South Summits of Olympus, the “Home of the Gods.” If nothing else, it makes it easier to describe the route. From the top of Artemis, we eschew the recommended squeeze chimney, in favor of a way around to the east requiring one awkward move. Soon were at another local low point, and another choice in routes.
We try the inviting ledge on the sunny west side of the ridge crest. A sidewalk-width, mostly flat ledge leads out onto an airy face, where it abruptly makes a left turn. It continues to be a friendly weakness across the mountain, but now its overhanging above and drops off precipitously below. We ignore the exposure, focus on the moves, and soon find ourselves touching our feet down on the snow-filled trough below the next goddess, Demeter.
A short chimney unlocks Demeter’s high point. We down climb easily to the east, follow the crest south and scamper up another small snowfield to the Hestia. Now before is a long, steep descent to the final col before the true summit of Mt. Olympus, aka Hera. Although many parties choose to rappel parts of this face, we know another way. Carefully downclimbing, we pay attention to the immediate terrain, rather than being intimidated by the large drop below.
A zigzagging pattern of cracks and ledges leads us west to a sloping ledge requiring body-length class 4 moves to descend from. I place a couple cams, equalize them, and give a belay as my partner down climbs two vertical cracks and finally a slightly overhanging class 5 move. This involves hanging most of one’s weight off handholds. A tall person can just reach the ground; shorter folks must jump the last foot down into the grassy trough.
We negotiate few more rock moves taking us west around a house-size boulder and find ourselves atop Tolcats Gulch. This gully drops west, paralleling Guert’s Ridge, another fun rock scramble, and can be skied in mid-winter. Water from the snowmelt flows west and south, eventually crossing the Mt. Olympus hiking trail, where Tolcats Creek creates a lush, green oasis and popular half-way-up resting spot below the steep switchbacks known as “Blister Hill.” But we are not following the watercourse now.
Instead, we climb steepening snow up and right to intercept Guert’s Ridge and the standard Olympus hiking trail. Now for the first time all day, we’re surrounded by other people. We’ve emerged from the wilderness of gendarmes and slabs into the midst of T-shirt-clad hikers and speedy trail-runners. We look back at the unlikely puzzle of terrain we’ve just navigated with pride and awe. It looks decidedly improbable from the peak of Hera. At 9,026’ the true summit of Salt Lake’s Mt. Olympus offers a sweet view of big, snowy peaks in the Cottonwood Canyons.
On the hike down, which begins as a steep scramble, we mix with friendly folks, and two Afghan dogs, who are not stoked on class 3 down-climbing! Finally we all get through that, down Blister Hill, and past the hot, dusty lower switchbacks to Pete’s Rock and Wasatch Boulevard, where we cached a car early this morning. But when we drive back to our starting point, the West Slabs Trailhead, we’re missing keys and a wallet! Evidently my friend’s jacket fell off his pack with these key items in it!
He feels like an idiot! It is wise to put the valuables inside the pack. We circle back to Pete’s Rock trailhead again, and start sheepishly asking hikers if they’d seen a jacket in the trail. Our faith in humanity is restored. One of the first queried responds, “Oh, sure. Go up the trail a few hundred feet and you’ll find the party who has it. They’ve been asking whose it was.” Rarely do you meet kinder and more honest people than in the mountains! It’s a good karma end, provided by the Goddesses, to another great day in the Wasatch.