I turn my back to the slope and collapse against it, gasping for air. My pack makes for a nice cushion, but I loathe its extra weight. If you ever need an incentive not to get fatter, just carry one of those uphill.
I chose this hike for an early-season conditioner, and that’s what I’m getting. The unseasonable warmth has melted the snow off the trail to Lake of the Angels months earlier than usual, and in my winter-softened state I learn what WTA means when it says “reaching this divine destination means a passage through hell.”
The hike started off easy, climbing moderately through several ravines, but now I’m on the stretch that ascends over 1000 feet in 0.6 miles. The narrow, rugged climber’s path doesn’t mess around with switchbacks, instead charging straight uphill.
I take 30 more shaky steps before sinking to the ground again. I’m glad no one’s around to see me like this, but one of the disadvantages of solo hiking is the lack of external motivation. I watch idly as moths alight on my skin to lap up my sweat – I have all day to hike this short distance, after all.
The next push takes me to the “headwall”, which is nowhere near as bad as the internet makes it out to be. It’s actually a relief to use my hands on roots and rocks to help haul myself up and over, and I feel no threat of falling over the edge.
Hard part over, I take a reading break overlooking the mountains. A couple college boys come sweating and swearing over the wall, pack-less but looking about as haggard as I feel, and I join them for the last mile. One of them explains that this is his first “real” hike, since he spends almost all his time indoors playing video games. He picked a real doozy.
We move through the flat and boggy Valley of Heaven, steering left around the Pond of the False Prophet. Mud swallows one of my shoes, then a fall in a stream crossing takes the skin off my shin – I’ve yet to find my footing as an outdoorswoman.
Finally, we cross into Olympic National Park, plod up one last steep section and round the corner into the picturesque lake basin. I throw off my pack and shoes and ease my aching calves into the cold water. A few people sun on a nearby rock and a herd of mountain goats graze nearby. I have arrived in heaven!
I set up my hammock in a stand of trees overlooking the lake, then tuck my gear inside and set off up the slopes of Mount Skokomish, feeling lighter than air. I’m amazed at my tired legs’ ability to still bound up rocks, but I don’t want to stray too far from where anyone will find me should those legs fail.
A little waterfall makes me cognizant of my thirst, but I’ve left my camelbak and water filter back at camp. Instead, I scoop handfuls of the rushing snowmelt into my mouth.
There are two other guys backpacking in the basin, their tent barely visible from my perch. We nod amiably each time we cross paths but I make no move to introduce myself, preferring the solitude of my book. Our longest exchange is as follows:
“Hey, heads up, there’s a goat heading right toward you.”
Sure enough, a goat walks into my campsite. I poke my head out of my hammock and we look at each other. His tail lifts and he proceeds to poop, all the while staring deeply into my eyes.
“Thanks,” I mutter again as he wanders off.
Otherwise, the evening is uneventful. I read my book (5 to 1 by Holly Bodger) cover-to-cover, finishing it by headlamp in the warm cocoon of my gently swaying hammock. The isolation is a little more pronounced out here in the wild, but I’m used to being alone – that is, until the boys down by the lake shatter the illusion when they start blasting music.
Peace is further disrupted when I wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach in turmoil. I think back to the waterfall I drank from and the pooping goat. It’s all I can do to run as far as I can from my hammock and squat under the canopy of stars. There’s no hope of packing this mess out – I ashamedly bury it beneath rocks and brush. I must have invoked the curse of Carl Putvin, a young trapper who died on the trail in 1913 and whose grave marker I passed by without paying my respects.
The thrum of hooves wake me up in the morning and I peek out to watch a family of mountain trot graze by, heading toward the lake that sparkles in the rising sun. Now this I can live with.
I’m feeling much recovered, but the hike down tests me again. Even with my poles to help with the impact and balance, my knees scream with discomfort. Then, my spare water bottle wriggles loose from its side pocket and takes off down the trail. I watch it go and go and go with a growing feeling of disbelief.
I should just leave it, but my conscience will not stand for littering. My rescue mission finds me clinging to roots, feet struggling for purchase in the loose dirt. The water bottle tumbles a couple feet further before I have it in hand.
That does it – I’m ready to get OFF. THIS. TRAIL. My newfound resolve carries me swiftly over the last 2 miles. I meet another lone female with a backpack heading in and wish her well with a warm feeling of kinship.
In the end, my solo overnighter to Lake of the Angels was both hellish and heavenly, but even though every muscle in my body still feels like a tender brick, I hope I’m better prepared for every adventure this summer will bring.
- Lake of the Angels Trail Guide
8 miles RT, 3400 ft gain