I was so excited to get the email asking if I was interested in joining a guided backpack trip on the Bailey Traverse in Olympic National Park. The Bailey is one of the more significant high routes in Washington State – known for its awe-inspiring scenery and challenging terrain.
There had been a last-minute cancellation and the guide, Andrew Skurka, had uncharacteristically made the opening available to friends of current trip clients, at no cost! He did this because of it being so last minute, and the permit was for the full group of two guides and eight clients. No sense in wasting a permit. It was going to be competitive and no guarantees to be selected. A group guided trip is typically not my cup of tea, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up – both due to the location and trip plan, as well as to spend time with and learn from Andrew Skurka. I would later learn that Andrew mixes in learning with all of his trips. This one included a lot of navigation and also tips on going lighter/faster, and how to optimize food as fuel.
I met Kurt just a couple months earlier on a Mountaineers scramble trip and had been on three trips together. I was his third choice and the first one who could schedule time off work at the last minute. I found out later that one member had contacted eight friends, and not one of them could break way. It was only eight days prior to the trip starting. Kurt put in a good word for me to the guide, and I completed the application material and gear list survey quickly and was accepted.
It was a stressful week to prepare. I had to complete a gear checklist that required I list everything I was taking and how much it weighed. It was a template created and used by Andrew and his team. It contained a list of required, recommended, optional, and not accepted gear. The trip was to be 4-1/2 to 5 days, about 60 miles and 17,000’ gain in some rugged terrain, so keeping pack weight to a bare minimum was important and required.
Katie, one of Andrew’s guides who was covering his office and admin at the time, provided a lot of great feedback on clothing and gear. Fortunately, I was already outfitted with lightweight and ultra-light gear. A big wild card for me was making sure to leave enough space in the bear canister for the provided breakfasts and dinners (I just didn’t know how bulky they might be), while having enough calories packed for my lunches and snacks. We were to shoot for that magical average food density of 125 calories/ounce. I filled my Wild Ideas Bearikade Scout about 1/3 with my lunches and snacks. This left plenty of room for the provided meals and shared-carry ingredients for those meals. I added a few things at the last minute when I found I still had room in the canister 🙂
I can’t count how many times I packed, unpacked, and repacked both my backpack and bear can, and re-evaluated my food density, weight, and volume. With an 8:00AM planned arrival time at the trailhead, I decided to get a hotel in Port Angeles. The Super 8 by Wyndham. A little dated but very clean and friendly. This would save me from waking up at 4AM to drive 3 hours, and risk forgetting something, being overly tired on day one, or being late. I left home around 6:00PM, and arrived at the hotel a little before 9:00PM. I checked in, ran to the store for last minute things and was in bed around 10:30PM. I learned when I got to the hotel that the start time had been bumped up to 7:30AM. Okay. Let’s add one more thing 🙂
Morning came quick. I was able to get breakfast at 6:00AM at the hotel. Two hard-boiled eggs and 4 waffles. Breakfast of champions. Well, not quite. Arriving at the trailhead I was so nervous. It’s less than 20 minutes from Port Angeles. I arrived to a big welcome from Andrew and Hunter (assistant guide), and the other participants. We got a debrief and individually spread out our gear for the shakedown. Mine went very well. I presented my big three, and described all my gear to Hunter. He had a few question sn and suggestions. For me it was, which rain gear, two 4 ounce fuel canisters or 1, etc.? I chose to go super ultralight with the rain bottoms, but medium with my coat (new black diamond that weighs about 12 ounces). I figured if we did a bunch of wet bushwhacking it would hold up, whereas the OR Helium might get shredded. I removed my base layer bottoms, trowel, and one fuel canister. I kept the collapsible cup. I regretted leaving the trowel. A hiking pole is not as functional in my opinion.
My gear changed very little from what I had in my pack to start. Maybe shed 8 to 12 ounces. My biggest angst was the single fuel canister. I know from experience that I get 3 days (6 meals), give or take, out of a 3.9 ounce fuel canister. But I also like coffee in the morning and a hot cocoa or tea in the evening. I decided to be stingy with my hot drinks. And I knew someone would have extra. Over half the group was using Trail Designs alcohol stoves. Ultimately, my fuel was perfect. I had 0.3 ounces remaining when I got home. Perfect! When I got home, I ordered a Trail Designs Stove 🙂
A day before departing, Andrews “B” group, led my two other guides, had just completed a 7-day northern Bailey Traverse. It sounded as though the “B” group had some challenges with the terrain and were getting in later than expected most days. Our group was stronger, but also only 5 days. For this reason, our route was reversed so as to give us more options should anyone in the group feel uncomfortable.
Consisted of a long road walk up past the old Elwah Dam, which was removed in 2012, 99 years after completion. We eventually got past the road, onto the trail. The day ended at Appleton Pass, 18 miles and 5,000’. Our group of 10 had to occupy two separate camp areas about 150 yards apart, which was fine because it was well past the busy season.
Night one dinner was my first Skurka meal, which is a light weight, high calorie recipe that happens to be very tasty All of the meals were fantastic. The base for each meals was in a small, snack sized Ziplock. Basically all the dry ingredients minus salt, pepper and spices. We carried 10 red bowls to divide the other ingredients such as cheese, peppers, bacon bits, etc. Basically, the items put in last just before eating, or that some may not want. Olive oil was carried in a one-quart Nalgene and poured into cook pots to boil with water.
Began with a 5:45 wakeup and a 6:30 boots on the ground itinerary. This plan would continue each day. Breakfast to follow an hour or so into the morning’s hike. Today we were to begin the Bailey on the Catwalk and past some other challenging features.
We eventually got to a narrow track on a very steep sidehill. No missed steps here. At the end of the narrow unmaintained trail, we got to the real catwalk, where we started scrambling. This is where we began with class 2 and 3 scrambling. We were moving well, but some were not keen on the exposure and need to maintain three points of contact. We came to a minor crux area that ultimately turned our group back. The guides held a couple blind votes on individual comfort level and assessed our speed and the terrain we’d be facing if we continued. It was a great learning experience in how to make sure everyone is able to share their level of comfort when facing a decision. I added a tool to my toolbox.
To the disappointment of myself and others, the guides made the call all to turn back. One member had the courage to speak up with his discomfort in proceeding forward. This was a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Everyone was supportive. It was the best thing for the group. So, we turned back and found camp at an old horse camp. It was getting late and we did see a bear up high on a hillside, well above where we would camp.
The day started with a new plan to spend more time on navigation and explore the 7-Lakes Basin area. After breakfast on a ridge near Hearts Lake, we split into two groups of five and navigated our way to a predetermined location. We did this mostly with map and compass, but some Gaia. I was in a group with Andrew and friend Kurt, and two others. We did some extensive scrambling and ultimately found our way to the meetup spot.
The other group took a more direct, less intense route so they’d been waiting for a while when we arrived. After a late lunch we all headed up to the High Divide trail, where we would get the most amazing views of Mount Olympus, the Hoh Valley, and the Bailey Range. From here we took a trail down toward, but not all the way to the Sol Duc, and then branched off and up, back to our first night’s location of Appleton Pass.
On day 4 we had breakfast in camp. It was a bit overcast and a bit dewy, so the optional scramble up Appleton Peak we’d discussed the night before was now off the table. The plan was to descend to boulder creek camp and olympic hot springs and do a day hike up to boulder lake. And that’s pretty much what we did. Andrew and Hunter and one other were starting to feel a little under the weather so they made sure to not spread any possible germs. Soaking in the hot springs was great, but my timing was a bit off from our group, and I ended up soaking alone, but that’s okay.
Another breakfast in camp and then we began walking out. We arrived back at Madison Falls trailhead around 11AM. The three who didn’t feel well, all took covid tests and were negative. We debriefed, said our goodbyes, and 10 of us headed off for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Port Angeles. Andrew and Hunter, really not feeling well, but no covid, skipped lunch so as to not expose anyone to their cold.
I had a great time. And I think the entire group did too. So where is the relevance to the blog title?
Besides the obvious planned destination and turn around, there were lessons in courage, humility, and adaption. While I was disappointed to not make the Bailey Traverse, I also acknowledge this wasn’t the first time I turned back on a trip, and likely not the last. Personal and group safety need to be paramount.
In my opinion, it can take more courage to turn around than continue. Just ask anyone who’s been on an adventure and involved in an incident. Reviews of accidents are filled with shoulda, coulda, woulda’s. I know, I have had my share of incidents, and been on more than one trip where things went a bit sideways. Luckily, they’ve all turned out okay. Some more serious than others.
Adventuring in groups comes with the challenges of what’s known as heuristic traps and the halo effect. It’s when we begin to somewhat blindly follow, put too much confidence in others, ignore our gut feelings and other signs. Frankly, it can happen on solo trips too, it’s just that the heuristic trap or halo effect is more internal/self, or an external condition versus another personality. To be able to speak up in opposition to a planned goal, knowing that some in the party will be upset, is extremely, or can be extremely difficult. It may be one of the most vulnerable things a person can do. But we have to remember or realize, that in groups, when one person is feeling or sensing something, it’s highly likely that others in that group have similar feelings. I am not a psychologist, but I do recall this phenomenon from some basic Gestalt psychology at university.
I think the big lesson I got, was just reinforcing how important it is to speak up, be respectful and supportive, and when everyone in the group understands, it’s still possible to have an amazing time.
Please consider commenting and sharing any thoughts or experiences in similar situations.