As my water bottle slipped from its holster and plummeted over the edge of the cliff I was clinging to, visions of doling out my mothers meager water supply while the sun beat mercilessly down upon us flashed through my mind. Abandoning the trail, I slid down the near vertical face of the mountain. Clinging to roots and clumps of grass, I descended in an avalanche of dirt and rock. I found the bottle wedged miraculously intact beside a dead log, and, much relieved, but cursing the prospect of the return climb beneath my breath, headed up again.
|The Grave of Carl Putvin|
Upon meeting two old fisherman who warned us that the trail was “nothing but up” from that point on, we replied that “we like up!” - and we were sure that, having hiked the infamous Aurum Lake trail in Idaho with its 2500 feet of elevation gain in one mile, that we did like up.
A mile later we decided that we no longer liked up, and were inclined to fall down. Finally, we saw a
The water bottle had made it’s escape on the most harrowing part of the entire trail, as is the wont of water bottles.
|A typical stretch of trail.|
|Falls of the False Prophets|
|Ponds of the False Prophets|
on the meadows we marched onwards and, yes, upwards. We hardly dared believe it when we found the true lake, an emerald pool fed by ice cold waterfalls and nestled in vast verdant meadows of the appropriately named Valley of Heaven, with towering glacier-frosted mountains hovering overhead.
|Lake of the Angels|
|Wind in the Evening|
|Stars over Lake of the Angels|
Morning brought unexpected visitors. Countless warning signs had been posted about the goats, which purportedly would gore you, push you off a cliff, and steal your food and sweaty clothing. The postings on trees along the trail and at the lake warning of the vicious killer mountain goats were fresh in our minds as a family of goats - a mother, kid and what was probably a yearling still hanging out with it’s mother (kind of like a college drop-out living with his parents) -came wandering through camp. My mother panicked, and said," Scare them away or we will get a fine!!', and we tried to shoo them off.They ignored us and wandered about, nibbling leaves and peering into the tent, and for the rest of the morning they and another family hung around before high-tailing it up a vertical mountain side and disappearing into the crags. In the mornings and evenings, we often saw them wandering through other hikers’ camps, equally unconcerned about the interlopers in their home. These were not angry, ravening, territorial beasts, but much more like the docile animals inhabiting our barn at home. The only time i had doubts was when the large buck came around the lake. He was not shedding his coat and so was not as shabby looking as the females, but was rather long wooled and huge, like a white gorilla, in prime health. At home, in my younger days, I had once been butted halfway across the barn by an unruly buck, so I treated this one with great respect and kept well out of his way, though he seemed no more interested in us than the others. We did discover that they did have a love of salty clothes when we watched a female pick up someone’s salty bandanna, chew it thoroughly, and regurgitate it only to have it chewed up by each successive goat in line behind her.
We explored the Valley of Heaven on our second day, climbing through steep meadows and up to a ridge. Along the way, I noticed the strange absence of marmots, usually found in great numbers throughout the high country of the Olympics. Only once did I hear the familiar shriek echoing off the peaks. There was plenty of evidence of marmots past: a warren of old burrows and narrow connecting trails honeycombed the hillsides. But it was like a ghost town. I wondered what happened to them, thinking,"disease? an increase in the population of predators? or was it the goats?” Mountain goats are not native to the Olympics; they were introduced a century ago so that hunters would have a greater variety of game. At the same time large predators were wiped out, so the goats have had almost nothing to control their population. This has wreaked havok on the ecosystem of what has been called a mountain Galapagos, with dozens of species found no where else. One such endemic species are the Olympic Marmots, and they compete directly with the mountain goats for food. Hiking through the deserted warrens it is obvious who is winning. But it is hard to resent the presence of these invaders , when I can look out of my tent in the morning and see a pleasant family of goats resting beside the picturesque mountain lake, remembering times in other mountains when we have had the luck of peering at a small dot of white on a cliff through binoculars and feeling so fortunate to have spotted a mountain goat.
|Mt. Cruiser and the Gladys Divide|
|The Valley of Heaven|
|Lake of the Angels from the South|
The next morning we sadly left this Shangri-la, and the return trip was if anything worse than the trip in! When ascending, you tend to focus on your destination, on going up. When descending we were all too aware of the yawning depths of the valley below. Finally, our legs so wobbly that we could have poured them into a jelly mold, we reached the trailhead and our waiting cans of sun-boiled soda. We followed the warm pop with an ice cold dip in Whitehorse Creek near the trailhead.
|Cooling off in Whitehorse Creek|
We were happy to be out of the insects and the heat, and having passed several groups headed up to the lake for the weekend, glad to have avoided the crowds. Our sense of accomplishment may have been a bit dulled by a photo I saw on the Internet later in the year, of a family with small children climbing the steep trail that had nearly conquered us. But for us, it was a victory, and at night when I step out in my yard, I remember the stars over the mountains, with the distant lights of cities twinkling from another universe where civilization lurks, and imagine myself there again, in the Valley of Heaven where only angels and a few intrepid explorers dare to go.