Don’t Climb Every Mountain

A dozen mountain goats halted my husband and me in our tracks near the summit of Mount Ellinor. I’d read the guidelines and watched the video on hiking safely before our outing and knew the goats were after salt they find in perspiration on backpacks and clothing. I knew to stay 50 yards away, to back up and give the goats their space, to take aggressive measures—yelling, waving my arms, clacking my trekking poles, even throwing rocks—if they didn’t yield ground.

Every guidebook says the steep hike—a 2,500 foot elevation gain in 1.6 miles—is a must, with a 360-degree Puget Sound to Pacific panorama at the summit. From Ellinor’s ice field, we gloried in the view of Lake Cushman, Hood Canal, Puget Sound, Seattle, Mounts Rainier, St. Helens and Adams. The summit was almost in sight when we encountered the goats.

They didn’t act like wild animals. Habituated to humans—10,000 people summit Ellinor each year—they didn’t move, even when we dutifully yelled and clacked our hiking sticks.

Their bodies clamored for salt and I was a walking salt lick.

“Take a deep breath,” my husband said, abandoning his “let’s summit” pep talk in lieu of strategies for descent. At each switchback, we encountered more goats—the same group actually—descending with us. I froze each time I saw them.

“The goats won’t hurt you. I won’t let them,” my husband said. “Get outta here, goats!” He beat his hiking staffs, brandishing them like spears.

I’d read an article days earlier about the Forest Service considering whether to relocate the mountain goats to the North Cascades, where they’re native, or kill them since they’ve become such a nuisance. They were brought to the area in the 1920s, presumably to build a hunting population. When national park status was granted to Olympic Park in the late-1930s, they became protected and their numbers swelled to 1,100. In the 1980s, the park had a budget for capture and relocation of nearly 500 animals. But funding dried up and the mountain goat population is now estimated at 600 to 800. Human-animal encounters have intensified: In 2010 a man was killed near Hurricane Ridge when a goat gored his thigh, severing arteries. He bled to death protecting his wife and friend.

The goats stared at my yelling husband unimpressed and I worried he’d be injured trying to protect me as we crept toward the ice field we thought would return us to a goat-free trek. But our first steps onto the ice found three goats at our heels. I kneeled, thinking I’d shimmy down one cheek at a time using my boots for traction, but as soon as I sat I slid toward a huge boulder rising out of the ice and had to stab my poles into the snow to stop.

My husband pulled me up and we descended sideways. He kicked one level step at a time in the ice, then planted his pole to stabilize my foot as I stepped into the space he cleared until, after nearly an hour, we reached the trail below.

The goats followed us until we were well into the forest.

“I hate goats,” I said.

“OK,” my husband said, swatting at the cloud of blackflies that dogged him like goats.

“And I hate ice, too,” I added.

Back at the trailhead, I climbed into the car, exhausted from goat-induced panic. Driving away, we came upon a view almost as dramatic as the high mountain vista.

“We could watch the sunrise from here,” my husband said.

I pictured us bundled in his truck on a clear cold morning, drinking hot chocolate, watching Mount Rainier glow pink to herald the coming day with no mountain goat, ice field or biting blackflies in sight. The perfect way to mountain climb.

Cathy Warner lives in Wauna.
Key Pen and Ink
Key Pen and Ink