Olympics: Home of gods and angels

Olympic mountains precipice

Washington’s Olympic Mountains are wet. Their slopes are covered in rainforest, with broad ferns and tall redcedars with soggy, mossy bark. When it isn’t raining, it is drizzling and when it isn’t drizzling, the fog is so thick it soaks your clothes.

The western slopes of the mountains average 140 inches of rain per year; its highest point, Mount Olympus at 7,965 feet, receives the equivalent of 220 inches, most of it snow.

The Olympics are also steep. Everything in the Olympic National Park is vertical. Nearly every mountain is a towering cliff. Driving the 17-mile park road from Port Angeles to Hurricane Ridge, one side of the car views an uplift of rock only inches from the window while the other side looks out over cirques whose centers plummet thousands of feet straight down.

Mountain goats manage to dance up the sheer wall of rock as obliviously as dervishes.Deer at Hurricane Ridge Olympic NP

Hurricane Ridge is the place inside the park most accessible to the outer world, with a parking lot at the end of the road and a lodge and snack bar looking out over the Elwha Valley and the wall of peaks on the other side.

Even in June, the spring wildflowers are just beginning to poke through the snowbanks on Hurricane Ridge. Clouds blow over the mountaintop and sometimes in the middle of a white out, when you are inside a cloud and cannot see what your feet are stepping on, you are treated to the peculiar vision of a hole in the scud, a circular opening that will drift past through which you can see 15 miles to the sunlit peaks across the valley.Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Wash

But my favorite spot in the Olympics is not Hurricane Ridge with its car exhaust and souvenirs, but the trail to Lake Angeles.

Beginning at Heart O’ the Hills, it climbs 2,379 feet in 3.7 miles, or an average loft of about one foot for every eight feet. That is a grade steeper than any freight train can manage.

And the first time I made that hike, I went with a friend who was a bicycle messenger in Seattle, with a stainless steel cardiovascular system. I made the first two or two and a half miles just fine, but the fatigue began to do me in, while my companion might as well have been riding an escalator.

I continued, walking ever more slowly and thinking of Sir Edmund Hillary making those last steps up Everest at a snail’s pace, stopping to breathe after each choppy step.Near Lake Angeles, Olympic NP, Wash

As the altitude changed, so did the weather. What was a pleasant 55 June degrees at the trailhead became sleety as we moved from the Hudsonian biozone, out of the Douglas fir and into the subalpine zone with its spruce and cedar.

When at last the path flattened out and we turned out of the last cove and over the last ridge, we saw Lake Angeles. We had climbed from 1,879 feet to the lake at 4,196 feet and still above us, at the opposite side of the lake, were the triple peaks of Mt. Angeles rising to 6,454 feet.lake angeles

A sheer rock wall, partially obscured by mist, rose straight up to the jagged tops of the peak, like something from a Bierstadt painting.

In the middle of the lake was an island covered with Caspar David Friedrich trees and the colors of the whole scene were Thomas Moran’s.

I was standing in the mizzle, my glasses blotted out with droplets and my clothes too wet to wipe them clear.

Across the face of the cliffs beyond the lake was a line of falling water like a John Martin lightning bolt zagging its way 400 feet down the rocks and silently roaring at its half mile distance into the gray waters of the lake.

“We shouldn’t look at angels too long,” I said and we turned to descend.

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