Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lake of the Angels

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
    The Carl Putvin trail begins in the deep valley of the Hamma Hamma River, and is marked by the grave of its namesake. The placement of the grave serves as warning to any hikers foolish enough to take this trail. Unfortunately for us, we interpreted this only as an interesting historical marker. The next mile of trail was an easy walk through the woods and we quickly convinced ourselves that all the guide books warning of the trail’s horrors had been written by a bunch of lily livered wimps.
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
Mt. Pershing
sign nailed to a tree ahead, but instead of announcing our destination it merely heralded our elevation: 3500 feet above sea level. Our destination lay at 6000 feet, and according to the map, we had less than two miles to go. Previously, we had been traversing a path softened by pine needles, but now we broke out into meadows and the trail turned to a river of gravel which grew steeper as we progressed. To make matters worse, we kept being passed by mysterious half-glimpsed beings that moved too fast to get a clear look at. They appeared to be mountain goats, walking on two legs and carrying packs slightly larger than basketballs. Eventually we realized that these creatures were in fact humans out for extended backpacking expeditions and those tiny packs contained all the items that we carried in packs that more closely resembled adolescent elephants! The fact that most of them came from Seattle might have explained their strange behavior and appearance.
 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.
They lie biding their time until the moment they consider most hazardous to the hikers health, so as to increase their chances of a successful escape. After its retrieval and the ascent of the cliff we collapsed, staring back down the way we had come and out to Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier, sure in the knowledge that the lake must be just over the next rise. What followed can be described most accurately as a death march. Through bogs and swampy meadows we slogged, scrambling up and down small cliffs made slick by trickling springs and pursued relentlessly by horse flies (so named for being close to the size of a horse).

Falls of the False Prophets

Ponds of the False Prophets
 Eventually we stumbled upon the Ponds of the False Prophets, or into them, as the case was  for me. We spent the next hour following trails that went in circles, or just ended all together. Truly this place is appropriately named, and more than a few times we wondered if this muddy pothole was in fact the Shangri-la promised by guidebooks. Eventually, though, we found a way out, and with the last light of day throwing long shadows
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
This was Lake of the Angels, but Lake of the Winged Bloodsuckers may have been a better name, and I learned an important lesson there: always check that your bug repellent can does in fact contain bug repellant. Our dearest wish was to kick off our boots and lie on the rocks to admire the view, but our feet were at once attacked and the view was obscured by the clouds of insects fighting for position on any piece of exposed skin. We postponed relaxation and set up our bug screen tent with a spurt of energy that came from desperation.Fortunately, the bugs settled down for the night when darkness fell and I got a chance to see the stars which were almost as spectacular as the lake itself.
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. Skykomish
 Our lakeside ramblings led us to the high ridges of Mt. Skykomish, and I clambered about on the crags trying to find a route to the top, but the only good route I could find involved dropping down 200 feet of scree to the bed of an old glacier and climbing out the other side.  Instead, I scrambled carefully along steep bits of snowfields to get a view out to the ocean towards the west. My mother is not a risk taker, and was happy to sit on an outcrop and watch my ascent with trepidation.

Mt. Cruiser and the Gladys Divide

The Valley of Heaven

On our way down to the lake we met a group of foreign hikers on their way up the mountain, and they asked us about the condition of the snowfields that we had avoided earlier, considering them to be icy slopes of death. We warned them that if they tried to cross the snowfields, they could slide all the way to the bottom and be smashed against the rocks there. They thanked us and went on their way. Later, we watched sheepishly as they repeatedly climbed up and then came carelessly sledding down those near vertical snowfields whooping it up before heading back down the trail from the lake.
Lake of the Angels from the South
We took a slower descent to the inlet of the lake and marveled at how the the wide gravel bar appeared to be scene pulled right out the Alaskan wilderness. I couldn’t resist taking the plunge into the beckoning waters. Swimming in the Lake of the Angels turned out to be a......refreshing experience; put simply, swimming in a snowfield would have been a balmy experience by comparison. Afterward, as I lay like a melting ice cube on a rock, attempting to dry out before frostbite set in, I witnessed a strange phenomenon: a teenager, left behind to hang out in his tent while his family went out exploring, emerged from his tent, and began wildly staggering around camp swinging a piece of driftwood crazily through the air as if assailed by invisible demons. Then the flies descended upon us and we realized that the unfortunate camper across the lake WAS being assailed by invisible demons! Flailing in a similar fashion, we high tailed it back to the tent where we sat and stared at the multitude of vicious, winged blood-sucking monsters swarming against the walls of the tent.

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.