floating on fog to Lake of the Angels

The image below is from Saturday, a walk by myself in the Olympic Mountains to one of the more fabled alpine lakes of the range that is accessible from frontcountry. Earlier in the week I explored an impulse to go someplace easy in the woods with one of my boys but Grandmother arrived in town Thursday and their allegiances were made crystal clear when I inquired as to their availability. So it was that I chose to visit Lake of the Angels via the Putvin Trail, my feeling that several days in a row of chasing errant frisbees in Volunteer Park had provided me with the narrow window of conditioning I needed to not overly suffer from thousands of feet straight up this rugged route. Suffice to say, I struggled a certain amount but it was a wonderful day in the mountains.

A mile into the journey to Lake of the Angels, this breathtaking scene unfolded! The gruelingly steep climber’s path awaited shortly above and I knew it would significantly delay my entry to what is arguably the hike’s scenic climax (the lake itself) so I took my time here for what turned out to be the most rewarding shooting of the day. I’m glad I followed my instincts because this was not a good day for carrying a ridiculously heavy backpack loaded with extra lenses (deadweight) I would ultimately never use. Even before I arrived at the unofficially unmaintained climber’s path my palms were sweating at a couple of sharp ravines along the Putvin Trail. I tried to reassure myself it was simply an issue of a relaxing wintertime having jiggered my baseline threshold for drop-offs. The clear crux of the entire walk for me was a section commonly referred to as “the headwall”. Depending on who you talk to the Headwall of Terror is an overblown piece of cake or a short, sorta scary scramble up rocks and roots. Sad to say, Headwall of Terror fell into the latter category for me. I approached it as measured and analytically as possible on both the upward and downward track but still came away with a stark, discouraging assessment of myself: I really AM a big scaredy-cat. My mostly-trustworthy field guide described the Headwall of Terror as “not dangerous” but I was somewhat incredulous when I got a look for myself. There was just enough exposure through the trees below to make the idea of a fall downright terrifying. Was it simply my tiredness? It was hard to dismiss overwrought imaginations of a thwack-thwacking Chinook helicopter in the most pathetic rescue of a hiker in Pacific Northwest history. Not being a complete idiot and fully realizing in the event of a mental breakdown on the Headwall of Terror I would merely be forced by a team of ground rescuers to move my catatonic butt down the headwall with a clothesline tied around my waist (they save the helicopters for bigger stuff), I got a firmer grip on reality. I am not going to f**kin’ die on this stupid trail, the worst thing that can happen is my arm and leg bones will all be shattered at the same time and I’ll lapse into shock which will make the pain less severe. I settled myself down enough to do the deed. It was not pretty and entailed grunting. The new-looking nylon rope someone (an angel?) recently tied up and down the headwall was instrumental to my well-being. Without the rope, I shudder to think how I could have negotiated the scrambling on the way down. At the lake I pondered a horrible fantasy whereby the rope was only temporarily-placed and would be gone upon my return to the Headwall of Terror. Holy cow, that would’ve been bad for me. In exchange for the psychological torture of the Headwall of Terror, I was rewarded with a beautiful alpine realm culminating in a lake basin……. closely guarded by shaggy mountain goats on the lookout for scared people. I climbed as high on the upper cirque of the lake basin as I dared for a front row seat of the goats pestering a young man below. I marveled at the calm with which he reacted at the sight of dagger-like horns heading straight for him. I would make the acquaintance of the pleasant young fellow a short time later and learned he was on break from Colby College in Maine. In the course of chatting with each other about how actually harmless in reality the razor-sharp horned mountain goats probably were (what stupid people in horror movies do right before they’re gutted by a faceless menace from the shadows), the young man explained to me how quite large beavers in Maine will menace people in canoes and to tell you the truth I can’t decide which would be worse- mad goats or mad beavers. Beavers don’t have horns but they’ve got water on their side and I’m not a good swimmer. At any rate, I did like the young man on break from Colby College and I was discouraged to see him go but mostly because it meant a new, larger target for the mountain goats. I gave up my plan to explore the saddle above the lake after an even larger mountain goat appeared on the mountainside with a kid in tow but I talked myself down enough to sit and eat lunch. I might have stayed longer but then something practically worse than mountain goats appeared on the horizon: A jackass blaring music from what sounded like a transistor radio. Bozos. Bozos everywhere, even in paradise. But alas, at least Jackass Transistor Radio guy was a fairly amiable fellow as he yelled hello to me from across the lake and I supposed his presence possibly could only discourage the resident mountain goats. And so having at least enjoyed the lake all to myself for half of an hour it was that I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the knee-jarring descent from Lake of the Angels. The trip down through the lower basin (in season, home to the Pond of the Large Mosquito) that shelves below Lake of the Angels was a lovely goodbye. The descent down the Headwall of Terror was as nerve-wracking as I anticipated, requiring a recovery nap below in a brushy avalanche chute containing the puffiest beargrass you can imagine.

At the end of the afternoon, my knees hurt, my bothersome ankle throbbed but……. my heart was happy. I was so haggard from the day on the mountainside such that the ride home was spent listening to songs on my iPod by alphabetical order, a strangeness that worked as well as ten cups of coffee.  It was just an awfully good day. I know I always say this, but I’m looking forward to sharing several more images from this walk. Thank you for reading this morning my dear visitors, I realize this post is sloppy and self-indulgent even by my usual standards and I commend those with the desire and attention span to endure.

9 thoughts on “floating on fog to Lake of the Angels

  1. When I started reading I thought this would be a great hike to try but once you got to the Headwall of Terror I changed my mind… looking forward to enjoying the hike through your photos and keeping my distance. 🙂

    • Lisa, this hike might still be okay for you because my histrionics are due mostly to a barely-under-control fear of heights. However, it’s definitely a rugged path to the lake even without the Headwall of Terror…….

  2. What a great post and good job on making it to the lake. It’s been years since I’ve hiked the Putvin Trail and I’ve only been as far as the headwall. There was snow on the ground when I visited and while clinging to the lower portion of the wall contemplating how I was going to climb up, a group of fellow hikers began their decent and relayed the presence of much more snow above. I opted to turn around. Did you get any pictures of the headwall!?

    • Hi Kelsie. No, I didn’t take any pictures of the headwall. For the sake of balance, I had crammed everything (including camera bag) into my backpack and cinched it down tight. Everything relatively recent that I’ve read about the headwall downplays the hazardousness of that section, it’s a mystery to me. I honestly don’t know how I would have made it without the handline on the way down. Maybe it’s because I’m far less wiry and lithe than the average hiker and so I have an enhanced fear of gravity, I dunno……..

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