Our first hike into Olympic National Park was an explosion of rugged beauty and educational hiking. Before Sequoia, before the tumultuous journey through losing and regaining my bag… before California, we moved through bouts of exhaustion… reaching new heights… enraptured with the pacific northwest. I found myself standing on a ridge, Klahhane Ridge, in Olympic National Park, staring across an expansive view, the wind chilling me faster than comfortable, goats stepping out of the mist towards us… this was our first hike in Olympic and it could be a novel in itself. This place made me feel large and small at the same time. It was transformational, and there is something in it that I desperately want to package up and share with the world, but I can’t get my finger on it. I can’t find its name. I can’t feel its shape. I can’t understand its language. I don’t know its colour or its sound. I can just sense it there, nagging at me, nudging at me to record it.
I don’t know if it was in the wild goats or the reflections on the lake, the snow flurries or the dangerous cold that started to seep through my layers. Was it in the decision to move camp on sunset, or the strenuous and steep climb out of Lake Angeles? Was it simply in all of it? The ‘dry side’ of Olympic National Park? Is it nothing that I can share, that you simply need to go and experience for yourself? Maybe in snapshot moments I could begin to express just a little of what this trip was for us, like a montage, or a deluge of thoughts that lead you to a memory…
* * *
I’ve just made it to the top of the switchback trail, to Klahhane Ridge. I’m in a t-shirt, exhausted from the climb, but there is a consistent wind blowing here and it is icy. I drop my pack to pull on layers before I get dangerously chilled, and Simon has noticed mountain goats on the ridge further along. They have noticed us too, and are walking straight at us. We’ve been warned about these goats. A hiker was killed 5 years previously on this trail by a goat that punctured an artery after charging. I try to change quickly. Simon’s anxiety is audible, literally, he keeps telling me to hurry up, the goats seem not just to be walking but actively coming at us. It’s rutting season. I pull on another layer, another, he says hurry up more urgently, I swing my pack on and we head directly back at them. They’re on our trail after all. We’re heading for a fork in the path that will lead us away from them, but we’re not there yet, and for a moment I think we are crazy charging at these huge defensive goats during the rutting season. But we reach the fork and turn left. For a brief moment we turn to find two of the goats have walked to the top of a cliff, a pedestal of rocks. Time holds still just then. It is immense and quiet. The leading goat stands strong and deliberate. It eyes us from this stance of power, apparently warning us of its domain, and then the magic elapses and we are frantically scrambling away again as they come back towards us.
I’m at the top of the next ridge after fleeing the goats, amused that we had to flee from goats at all. The wind is sharper and Simon is pulling on layers now too. I get my windproof shell on, and as we start to head on further, Simon notices something. It is floating through the air, dancing maybe. It is small and white and soft and perfect: a single snowflake. My enchantment, abated after that moment of intensity atop the previous ridge with the mountain goats, suddenly comes pouring back in. Within minutes we are amid a snowflurry, the soft white crystals swirling around us and across the path, catching our beanies and our eyelashes, like the whole mountainside has suddenly lit up with music and the music has frozen into elaborate microscopic points of beauty and fallen from the sky. We walk through this, alongside pines and back above the treeline again. Past deep red rock and back into the earth browns and greys, until eventually we are climbing up another ridge.
I’m over the next ridge and it is getting late. We are looking at the topographic map trying to figure how far it is to camp, but really, it is far too cold to be debating this here. The snow has started to settle and it has transformed from an enchanting magic into a deadly reality. The wind is still persistent, perhaps even stronger, and with the dampness in the air it is cold. Truly cold. Truly dangerous cold. We can’t linger long. There was a spot just behind us that looked like it had been camped in, it was open and flat and great for pitching the tent, but it is exposed to the wind and there is snow settling rapidly on the ground. Ahead of us though, the path appears to twist back into switchbacks down into the trees. It doesn’t look like there would be anywhere flat enough to camp any further along. Our spot by the ridge doesn’t sound at all how the ranger described Heather Park, but we can’t keep talking about it. We need to keep walking or set up camp, and if we keep walking we might need to turn around and climb all the way back up here just to find a site for the tent. We make the call to stay, and set up the tent as quickly as we can in the whitening world. We try to keep our bags dry under trees, but the snow finds them anyway. With the tent up we dive in and quickly make hot drinks under the fly. It really is truly cold. We move quickly trying to stay warm. I am figuring in my mind how to wrap the emergency blanket around us as we sleep that night because I seriously doubt that our sleeping bags will keep us warm in this weather and I worry about hypothermia. I imagine that we’ll be up all night making hot drinks, just to try and make it through. We hadn’t accounted for this.
I am standing on a ridge and far below me I can see the lights of Port Angeles sparkling through the drifting cloud. It strikes me that someone could die here like this, staring at the town, so close to the help that they desperately might need, and so incapable of reaching out and taking it.
It is only half an hour later and the sun is getting very close to setting. We are standing in Heather Park, exactly as the ranger described it. After finishing our hot drinks and having some food we decided to go on a scouting mission leaving camp all set up, and found that right after a few switchbacks the trail flattened out briefly amongst the pines to a spot that was both above freezing temperature-wise, and sheltered from the wind. We deliberate only briefly because the choice seems reasonably obvious; we race back up the hill and move camp as quickly as we can down to shelter before we lose the light completely. That night was cold, but we slept, cradled by the trees, comforted knowing that it wouldn’t snow at this elevation, the wind wouldn’t freeze us, and we had a water source nearby.
My legs and lungs are burning worse than at any other point so far. Each of my steps must be only the length of my own foot. I feel like I’m barely gaining ground, but I am, slowly. It is steep. My pack feels heavier, though it can only have gotten lighter after two nights out here. Maybe it is just the accumulation of exhaustion, 7 miles and 2000 feet the first day, 9 miles and 2000 feet down and then 2000 feet back up again the second day. Camping at Lake Angeles was stunning and beautiful and wild and we had the whole place to ourselves. The reflections on the lake this morning still echo in my mind, but my entire focus is taken up by this right now: one foot in front of the other. We make it to the top and are rewarded with sweeping immense views of the lake and mountains. Cloud pours over ridges to obscure our view and then lifts off and away again. The lake sparkles up at us. We carry on. I feel relieved knowing that we just have to go along the ridge now and then we can head back down, but of course mountains are deceiving like that. “Along the ridge” requires a further series of ups and downs, and just when my frustration starts to peak I realise we are truly at the end now. The fork to take us back down the switchback trail has to just be around this next bend, and I am about to announce this to Simon and announce the fact that we might just make it out of here without seeing any more goats, when my next step exposes grassy hillside under fog, and on it, goats. I start counting and get to at least 14. Fourteen goats??!! They are on the path, next to the path, all over the path. There is no way to the car except through them, or back down that vicious climb, and the one from the day before, all the way to Heart of the Hill’s Ranger station. I’m not going back.
We step towards the first goat, rocks in our hands, confidence in our step. There are young goats here too and I wonder how defensive the adults are feeling. This one is feeling at least a little defensive, because as she steps off the path and between us and her baby, she looks right at us and stamps her hoof. We ignore her and head towards the next goat on the trail. Heads on the sidelines turn and watch us. I can’t even guess which are the males or females. They are all huge. They all have sharp points on their heads. Two more goats move off the path and away to the side. Up ahead the goats lying across our path eye us, and we decide to go around them. I step lightly to avoid rolling on the tussocky grass, but confidently to tell the goats ‘actually I always intended to go this way’. I doubt it works, but it makes me feel better, and now on the other side of the goats we are free. We keep walking with an aim to avoid inciting any conflict after we’ve made it through so successfully, but eventually curiosity gets the better of us and we turn to stare at the goats. They are truly impressive animals. Immense shoulders, white fur like some of this sweeping fog has been caught on the hillside. They look peaceful and awesome, and I am struck by their wild nature, confident and at home here on the mountain’s spine, watching us. Further along the path we find two hikers that have decided to turn back rather than take on the walk through the goats. We’re back on the switchback trail.
I’m in the car. At last. My feet hurt. My body is spent. But I feel alive and inspired and amazing.
Klahhane left an imprint on me and I’m still trying to understand it’s shape and colour, but I know that in it is all of this. It is something that will follow you and linger in your memory, sneak up on you when you’re feeling low and tired and fill you with quiet inspiration. The Olympic Wilderness will never truly leave you.
* * *