August 7, 1997
Off-trail in the Olympics
By KAREN SYKES
SPECIAL TO THE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Most people like to stay on trails that have a beginning, a middle and an end.
But some of us believe there are times we must leave the beaten trail to explore -- or else something in us dies. A little madness combined with an insatiable curiosity is what hauls us up there, out there, down there.
It is not a Walt Disney movie out there, off the worn trails, in the wild Olympic Mountains. A sprinkle of bread crumbs won't lead you back to civilization. No friendly ranger will materialize to escort you to your car. And if you're in a deep valley, your cell phone probably won't work.
Some people deliberately choose the most obscure or challenging routes, the worst gullies. But these off-trail treks and cross-country traverses are not for inexperienced hikers. You need to be in good physical condition and know how to read a topographical map and use a compass. You'll also need an ice ax and possibly crampons, as there may be steep snowfields or glaciers at higher elevations. You must carry enough food and equipment with you that, if you get into trouble, you can survive until you find your way back or are found.
When you leave the popular trails, you'll step off into silence so deep you may think you've lost your senses ... until you adjust and listen to the whisper of a creek that runs forever, a breeze that has never stopped blowing, the sigh of old-growth forest. You can hear sweat trickle, ants on the trail, pine needles floating down, crows bickering, seed pods rattling.
When you leave the trail, there are rules. It's easier going up than down. There is no such thing as a shortcut. There's a difference between abandoned trails and animal trails. And you urinate on the rocks, to keep mountain goats from wallowing in your scent and damaging sensitive vegetation.
In the Olympics, all paths lead to discovery -- a ruined cabin, an old campsite or tool, or a part of yourself you have never met before.
If you can't spend the rest of your life there, the Olympics offer shorter cross-country hikes such as the trek to Lake of the Angels, which is set like a rare jewel in the Valley of Heaven.
The Putvin Trail leads to it, but it is the path of a lunatic -- more of a scramble than a hike. A strong hiker can do it in a day. It took my husband, John, and I three days to reach Lake of the Angels through St. Peter's Gate, a cross-country route beginning from the Lena Lake trail.
We camped at Upper Lena Lake (altitude 4,550 feet). From Upper Lena we hiked the Scout Lake Way and Stone Ponds Way trails. We set up camp at the larger pond beneath St. Peter's Gate, the U-shaped notch in the rugged southeast ridge of Mount Stone, which forms the divide between Boulder and Wildhorse creeks.
Boxcar-size boulders have come to rest in the fragile meadows around the pond. Braided streams zigzag across lazy meadows splashed with flowers.
From the ponds there is no discernible trail to St. Peter's Gate. We worked our way up a steep meadow and onto a messy moraine that led to the edge of a glacial remnant. We could hear water running under the ice, but there didn't appear to be deep crevasses. A steep descent on scree took us down to Lake of the Angels, where we camped.
If you've got a week, consider other challenging cross-country hikes -- probably the most famous being the Bailey Range Traverse, a spectacular high-country route recommended only for experienced wilderness travelers. We sampled this route on an outing that began from the Dosewallips.
We climbed to Hayden Pass on the Elwha-Dosewallips Divide, hiked the upper Elwha Trail and planned to ascend to Dodson-Rixon Pass (the low point on the divide between the Queets and the Elwha rivers) from the Elwha Snowfinger. We planned to go up and over Mount Olympus and then out the Hoh River Trail, but we were defeated by treacherous terrain and bad weather, not uncommon in the Olympics, even in July.
Rain forced us to occupy the shelter at Happy Four for an extra day to dry out. According to the books, it is relatively easy to climb to the pass, but not that year -- we fought vegetation every step of the way once we left the Elwha. Morale was lower than the clouds and we were running out of time. We bivouacked and grumbled.
The next day we descended through the Low Divide and out the Quinault, but we'd left no car at the trailhead. We had to hitchhike. A medley of vehicles got us there.
You can take a trail all the way to Gladys Divide, but last year we took a more challenging route. Forty years ago when John was a Boy Scout, they approached the divide from the impenetrable Hamma Hamma Box Canyon. We retraced the route with his current Scout Troop 70.
The Hamma Hamma is one of the smaller rivers in the Olympics. We began at the North Fork Skokomish River Trail, which parallels the North Fork and climbs over First Divide.
From First Divide we took the Mount Hopper Way Trail to Fisher Pass, which looks down into Elk Basin. From Fisher Pass the route is obscure and we were forced to rely on John's memory, map and compass. We sidehilled through an old burn to the top of the ridge and were hot and exhausted by the time we got there.
John wanted to camp at Hagen Lake, but we were running out of time and energy. We bivouacked on a shoulder of Mount Hopper. Our site was spectacular, with meadows full of magenta paintbrush and avalanche lilies, and we watched the sun set over the Olympic peaks.
The next day we followed bits and pieces of trail and reached a pass above Hagen Lake, where we were rewarded by a visit from mountain goats.
We found a large arrow made of rocks and learned it was the so-called "Great Stone Arrow," pointing in the direction of Mount Hopper and created many years ago by a hunter or trapper.
We crossed talus slopes on the western side of Mount Stone before climbing to a pass overlooking Lake of the Angels. After a wrestling match with a snarl of trees, we emerged onto the ridgetop. We headed toward Mount Skokomish, climbing southwesterly on ridges, benches and snow to the shoulder of the peak and onto the snowfield on the southeast side and a lake that has formed there, making an excellent campsite. We discussed scrambling to the top of Skokomish, but never got beyond our lawn chairs.
Mountain weather changes quickly and shortly after midnight, we heard the first raindrops hit the tent. By morning, the rain had turned to snow. The boys were cold and wet and wanted to go home. Going home sounded like a good idea to me, but John, not known for his willingness to turn back, suggested we wait. The rain stopped and it was windy enough so that we could dry out our tents, eat breakfast and continue John's desire to repeat his hike of years ago.
He looked for an old path that once dropped from camp into the Hamma Hamma Box Canyon, but no amount of imagination could conjure up a trail here. John said the descent into the canyon might not be possible, but we had to try. So we dropped, tumbled and slid 1,500 feet on wet vegetation and loose rock to the bottom of the canyon, at one point straight down a creek, holding onto alders like characters in an Indiana Jones movie.
Perhaps that's the reason this canyon is seldom visited -- it's simply too hard to get into it and too hard to get back out. This valley has seen little of humans. There are no campsites, no trails, no fire rings, no other people. Just pure mountain meadows stitched together by streams, waterfalls and clumps of subalpine trees.
A 700-foot climb through all-but-impenetrable brush got us to the lake below Gladys Divide, but polite words do not describe the harrowing ascent, the brush, the loose, slippery rocks and the trees that grabbed at our packs, throwing us off balance.
We camped at a lake, just below the divide and true trail, now only a day away from civilization.
We came home with scratches, bruises and bee stings, but we also came back with memories -- of Justin making Jell-O in his climbing helmet, of Willie making a rickety raft that wouldn't float, of Shawn and Matt hiking 20 miles in a single day to get a merit badge, of sunsets slow to rage and graceful dawns where nothing moves but the beat of your heart.
"The Trail Guide to Olympic National Park," by Erik Molvar (Falcon Press, 227 pages, $14.95).
"Climber's Guide to the Olympic Mountains," by Olympic Mountain Rescue (The Mountaineers, 260 pages, $14.95).
"Olympic Mountains Trail Guide," by Robert L. Wood (The Mountaineers, 304 pages, $14.95).