Have you ever taken on a task knowing it would be hard, but not really knowing just how tough it would be? Now I’m 60, but I feel like I’m in reasonable shape for an old guy. I thought doing the Skyline Trail in the Olympic National Park would be just another backpack trip through some of the most pristine and beautiful country in this state. Well, at least I was right about the last part.

I was sitting around a campfire along the North Fork Quinalt River last spring talking with an old hiking buddy about places I would like to backpack to in my lifetime. After discussing several places he said “Yeah, one of those places I need to go is right there above that ridge called the Skyline.” Now I’ve hiked the Olympics all my life, but that was a new one to me. So I asked him to tell me more about it. He says, “Well, first you take the trail from Irely Lake to Three Lakes. After that it’s just a way trail along the ridges and valleys leading from Three Lakes to the Low Divide. I’ve read it has over 9,200 feet of elevation gain and there are long distances between water sources. Bears are always around and you can get some great views of the valleys and Mount Olympus. It can take six days to complete the loop trip.”

I liked the sound of it already. “Well, let’s plan on it this summer.” I said. He was agreeable and wanted to be the organizer and list it as his first real event as an organizer. That sounded good to me. He scheduled it for mid-September so we would be after the mosquitos and during the time blueberries were ripe.

So when summer came, he listed the hike and a few hardy souls signed up even knowing it would be tough, but with big payback in terms of beauty and seclusion. Just before the trip, my buddy had to bail out because of work he couldn’t get out of. I was bummed, but determined to get out there. The remaining three of us headed out for Quinalt with great hopes for another awesome trip. The sun was shining and warm. Everything was going our way.

As we left the trailhead we passed through low flat wetlands with slow moving streams. Deer and elk tracks littered the ground. Huge banana slugs struggled to cross the trail before something big stepped on them. You had to watch closely to avoid crushing all the frogs on the path. In this part of the rain forest everything was moist. The humidity made the heat feel even hotter. Walking was easy as the trail was so flat here.

After a short walk we came to the side trail to Irely Lake. It was a pleasant place with many small trout nipping bugs off the smooth flat surface of the water. In my thoughtful, still moments there I reflected: What a peaceful location. I could take a long nap in the sun… but there was still a long way to go today.

Not far beyond Irely Lake the trail began its ascent. Now the heat and humidity became an even bigger factor to me. I thought I was ready for this vertical gain, but it didn’t take long for me to feel tired and cramped. I kept drinking water to try to overcome the effects of the hike, but as time went on and we gained more elevation, I became even more tired. Eventually we came to Three Lakes at dusk. I was ready for bed as soon as dinner was over.

When I awoke the next morning and looked out of the tent, I realized the weather had changed dramatically. It was totally foggy and drizzling. What a difference 12 hours can make in the Olympics. Well, no sense worrying about a little weather. We still had a long trail before us. A quick breakfast and off we went.

The rain didn’t let up. I was bummed that we might go the whole 49 miles and never see more than a few hundred feet in any direction but I was determined not to let it get me down. I decided to take the time to notice the little things and those close to me. The first thing I noticed was the striking contrast between the grey rocks and the bright red and orange colors of the blueberries. Up close, even the contrast of the “blue” berries and the reds of the leaves was beautiful. All along the trail were rock outcrops with wildflowers and junipers clinging on for dear life. The alpine firs and hemlocks were windswept and bent from years of drifting blowing snow and wind. Shallow tarns provided shelter and life for large tadpoles. AWWWWWWK! An explosion of grey brown feathers beside the trail as a startled grouse is flushed from the cover of brush. That will get your pulse rate up as if the trail incline hadn’t already.

When we stopped for lunch, we all were feeling a bit wet and cold. Should we hunker down here or move on? We knew that if we didn’t press on today, tomorrow would be an even longer day. Not knowing what the trail conditions ahead would be, and having seen our pace had slowed considerably gave us reason to go on. From here on though, the trail got tougher.

Our feet and hips got more tired as we moved across side slopes of hills at 40 degree angles on a trail that was almost nonexistent. I found myself saying over and over, “This trail is unrelenting!” As soon as we got to the top of a hill, we saw the trail went down into another valley. When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw the trail went up again. All the brush was wet so every bush I touched dripped even more cold water on me.  By this point I was feeling very cold and pretty tired.

Finally, part way up a hill we found a small ledge. I turned to my compatriots and asked if they were as tired as I was. There was general agreement that although we hadn’t gone as far as we hoped, this was a place we needed to stop. As I started setting up my tent, I began to realize I was getting colder and more sluggish. I could barely move my fingers and I wasn’t thinking too clearly. These are the signs of hypothermia. All I could think about was getting in my sleeping bag and trying to warm up. I had no appetite at all. My friends kept coaxing me to eat to replace the energy burned on the trail and keeping warm, but I couldn’t. Once in my bag, I found I wasn’t getting warmer as fast as I hoped. We kept talking about how cold I felt and my feet weren’t getting any warmer. One of my friends taught an old dog a new trick. He heated water on his stove and filled my water bottle with it. I held it to my chest and began to warm up right away. Before long I was warm enough to go to sleep.

In the morning, one of us got up and headed up the hill to get the food bag and of course a potty break. This event was shared with a large black bear just a short distance away.  They both just stared at each other for some time as if to say, what are you doing here? As it turned out, this was our only bear sighting, but we knew they were all around, just out of sight.

The fog was thinner that morning and we had high hopes it would dissipate. As we hiked on through the morning, our hopes were realized. First we saw a view up a valley to a green meadow, then a glimpse of a distant rocky peak. By noon, the clouds disappeared and we could see for miles. We were going along a ridgeline with valleys 3,000’ below on one side covered with dense forest. Ahead was a peak over 5,000’. On the other side was another valley covered in scree near the top and huge landslides farther below. It resembled what you would expect a moonscape to be.

The trail was still tough and at places I was still mumbling, “Unrelenting!” as I climbed a new and even steeper hill. The scree fields and boulders all around made travel slow. We realized we were only making one mile an hour over this terrain. Many places you couldn’t see any sign of a trail, but at least there were cairns to show you the way.

In late afternoon, we looked for Lake Beauty, our destination for the night. It was off the main trail below the ridge. We weren’t sure of the way to it so we dropped over the edge to a series of tarns and found a way-trail which led us to the lake. The lake lived up to its name. It was deep and clear green set in a hollow between two small ridges. Below the lake was the Queets River valley and just beyond that  Mount Olympus. What a spectacular view! You could see several of the glaciers on the mountain and its ridgeline stretched out to the west toward the Pacific Ocean. It is at this point I realized I was standing in the middle of the Olympics and could see many miles out to the ocean.

Overnight we saw yet another weather change. When I awoke and unzipped my tent, I was hit by a rush of very cold air. Everything around was covered with a thick layer of frost. I didn’t have a thermometer, but I would guess it was only 25 degrees. It was a bit surreal to see everything so white. It was cold enough that all the ground had frozen and long ice crystals had emerged and stretched as much as 2” up in twisted bent shapes. The good news was the sun was out. If it had been wet, I am sure we would have been snowed in.

The trail was still tough and at places I was still mumbling, “Unrelenting!” as I climbed a new and even steeper hill. The scree fields and boulders all around made travel slow. We realized we were only making one mile an hour over this terrain. Many places you couldn’t see any sign of a trail, but at least there were cairns to show you the way.

Overnight we saw yet another weather change. When I awoke and unzipped my tent, I was hit by a rush of very cold air. Everything around was covered with a thick layer of frost. I didn’t have a thermometer, but I would guess it was only 25 degrees. It was a bit surreal to see everything so white. It was cold enough that all the ground had frozen and long ice crystals had emerged and stretched as much as 2” up in twisted bent shapes. The good news was the sun was out. If it had been wet, I am sure we would have been snowed in.

When everyone got up we decided to stay at camp a while and put our wet gear out to dry in the sun.  Our campsite looked like a yard sale. Everything from sleeping bags to boots to undies strung out on every dry surface facing the sun. It was well worth the time to get some gear dry and to enjoy the time in this beautiful serene place.

Back up another hill to the ridge we went. The views from here were nothing short of spectacular. Mount Olympus, Mount Seattle, Mount Christie and Mount Lawson as well as the North Fork Quinalt and Queets valleys were visible. This is what I came here for.

The trail was pretty good as we made our way around a ridge and looked across Seattle Creek valley to Mount Seattle. We saw the trail we needed to be on almost at our present elevation on the other side. “Why couldn’t they have made a trail that traversed the ridge instead of down and up?”, we keep asking ourselves, but nooo, it has to go down switchbacks and up switchbacks to get back to the same elevation.

Once we crossed this valley we were back in open alpine meadows. It was time for lunch and a good long last look at all the peaks and valleys around us. After this we went down to Low Divide and a long valley hike back to the truck. I couldn’t help but feel reluctant to go down. As hard and grueling as this all had been, I would miss it. From here on, it seemed like all our thoughts were of the work we had to go back to or the beauty of the land we were leaving. What a stark contrast.

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