Olympian Effort 

Taking a pilgrimage of pain to the summit of Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus—mountain of the gods. One of the most iconic and prominent mountains in the Wasatch range, it rises almost 5,000 feet above the Salt Lake Valley floor, the summit reaching 9,028 feet, topped with an acropolis of red granite. As a devotee of the mountains and a worshiper at the shrine of nature who had never before summitted that mighty peak, I knew when the cool weather blew in during the second weekend in June that the time had finally come.

In 1984, the Utah Wilderness Act established the Mount Olympus Wilderness, protecting nearly 16,000 glacier-sculpted acres across the mountain. Drawn by its inexplicable lure, hikers flock to its slopes every weekend. Undaunted by the trail’s moderate-to-severe rating, children, dogs, puppies, boys with backward ball caps, shirtless trail runners carrying a single small water bottle, and men with Santa bellies all attempt the trek.

Perhaps they know, or perhaps they don’t, that Olympus is more than a hike. Indeed, it is a pilgrimage, albeit one divided into three parts, each with its own test and all requiring dedication and faith.

The first test. A pilgrimage is never easy. Each step asks the traveler to pull inner strength from some higher purpose or worthy goal to confront and surpass the challenges before them. Here, at the start of the Mount Olympus trail, the challenge is exposure. Roaring traffic echoes from below, interrupting hikers’ practiced meditation. And though the path winds gently in a beautiful switchback up the first few hundred vertical feet of the mountain, there is no shelter from the sun, which is why the experienced pilgrims start early, in the cool hours of morning, already heading back down by the time the clock hits noon. For the late hiker, scrub oak, sumac or an occasional feathery juniper offer tauntingly half-hearted promises of shade, but little true relief.

The second test. Over a rise—past the wilderness boundary sign, into the crease of a ravine tucked away from the sound of traffic and dipped mercifully in the shade of pines—begins the second leg of the pilgrimage. The weary traveler thanks the gods, but only for a moment, as the challenge rises up, up, up, the trail becoming a staircase of rock, shale, dirt and rubble with no rest in sight. Quads and calves, back and bum begin to burn. It looks and feels like it will never end. Don’t ask how much farther, as the epic endurance ascent lasts for thousands of vertical feet. Here, many a hiker sits down to rest on a log or a stone and ponders the question, continue or submit?

The third test. A ridge. An overlook. Have we made it? But no, cruel gods of Olympus, this false summit, this saddle, only marks the beginning of the most difficult and final challenge. Here, certainly, less devout and less masochistic seekers are likely to terminate their ascent. With Big Cottonwood unfolding below—all cirques and bowls and lovely granite walls and pristine patches of clinging snow—the saddle feels safe and final.

But, should one push on through the final test, the reward is even greater. Here, hikers are separated from climbers. The trail becomes a Class III climbing wall. No harnesses or special shoes are needed, but balance, good footing, strong arms and fearlessness in the presence of heights are all required.

Many pilgrims have been up to the task of making it to the summit, finding that the way back down brings sweet relief. It is a time to contemplate all that we experienced and all that we discovered, time to contemplate how to make this sacred walk better for everyone. It’s a time to show reverence toward the mountain, a time to thank it for what it gave us.

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