Navigating the moment of truth: Mountain goats at Flapjack Lakes

On October 16, 2010, a mountain goat stood guard at the top of a rocky, open ridge in the north end of Olympic National Park. The mountain goat had just plunged his long black horns into a man’s thigh and was defending the man from his wife and friend. The hiker died later that day. Park rangers found the goat with blood on his horns later and killed it.

Two years later, on the south end of Olympic National Park, rangers closed the Mount Ellinor trail for three months to “retrain” aggressive mountain goats. The goats saw humans as a source of food. Not only do the bipeds leave crumbs and food scraps in camp sites and on the trail, they also urinate a delicious salty brine, which is scarce in the mountain goats’ alpine environment. To change the mountain goats perspective on people, rangers launched what they called an “aversive conditioning plan.” According to local newspapers, one ranger hiked the trail daily. He hung out on Mount Ellinor’s rocky summit and the cliffs below and threw rocks, shot paintballs, and yelled at goats that approached him. When the trail reopened, rangers told hikers to throw rocks at goats if they felt uncomfortable.

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Mountain goats at Gladys Divide, in the Olympic Mountains.

I love mountain goats. They captured my attention years ago and I see them everywhere. I see them scrambling impossibly steep cliffs, plunging their hooved-feet into frozen snow, bounding over loose talus and rock. I’ve even seen goats in seemingly improbable places, like the gentle meadows of the Indian Heaven Wilderness. But before this summer, I had never seen them in the Olympic Mountains, where – according to the stories – they are more aggressive.

In the Cascades, mountain goats are isolated into tall, cliffy islands of habitat. Low valleys peppered with roads and other human development prohibit mountain goats from easily getting from one island of habitat to another to breed with someone other than their closest relatives. Overhunting reduced their numbers in the first half of the last century, and human development keeps their population small.

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Mountain goats in the Enchantmets.

That is not the case in the Olympics, where mountain goats aren’t native. Hunters introduced the ungulates in the 1920s from a population of goats in British Columbia. In the Olympic alpine terrain, roads don’t divide goat habitat into islands. Even the low green gulfs and rainforest valleys that break up habitat are wild and protected. Also, In 1938 – most of their habitat became a national park, so they hardly learned to fear humans. After being introduced to the Olympics, their populations exploded.

The goring death – the only recorded mountain goat-caused fatality – didn’t make me fear the animals. I made sure to keep my distance when I saw them in the Cascades, and I began to find their confident stares unnerving as they waited for me to finish peeing on rocks.

The possibility of seeing aggressive goats didn’t occur to me on my first foray into the Olympic high country last summer. I was more worried about bears, which are also abundant on the Peninsula

I woke shortly after dawn, leaving my sister and my girlfriend in the tent at Flapjack Lakes, and began the quick hike to Gladys Divide. I planned to explore the divide and scramble around on the steep snow hanging to the shoulders of the Sawtooth Range – some of the craggiest peaks in the Olympics.

On the trail to Flapjack Lakes

On the trail to Flapjack Lakes.

Flapjack Lakes and Mount Lincoln.

Flapjack Lakes and Mount Lincoln.

Nearing the divide, gardens of flowers gave way to patches of ice and lone glacier lilies poked through frozen snow. Views opened up into the upper Hamma Hamma River valley as I crested the gap between the dark spires of Sawtooth Ridge and the gentle hump called Mount Gladys.

A high-pitched call broke the early morning silence. I wondered if it was a marmot whistling. Then I heard it again, accompanied by falling rock. I looked up and saw a white figure sprinting down a cliff face on Mount Gladys. It was a reckless mountain goat moving full speed in my direction. After a series of precise leaps down the rock, it disappeared into the subalpine fir trees below the cliff. Then another goat careened down the cliff and into the patch of trees. Then another and another. It was a whole goat family.

Seconds later, I glimpsed the lead goat sprinting between a lower patch of trees. I had never seen goats moving so quickly, and they seemed to be coming right at me. Thinking the high-pitched bleating was a war cry, or maybe uncontained excitement upon discovering a source of salt (me), I took my ice ax off my pack and grabbed a rock.

Mountain goats are sure-footed and confident in the mountains, But the speed at which they move over rugged terrain is what impresses me most. I have never seen one out of breath. It would have taken me five minutes to scramble from the cliff face on Mount Gladys where I saw the goats down to Gladys Divide. The goats made the trip in less than 30 seconds. In that time, I had retreated from the divide into some bus-sized boulders.

The goats saw me and stopped. I froze. But they continued cautiously through the divide and up the snow toward Mount Alpha. Apparently they hadn’t been pursuing me for a taste of my salty brew. They hadn’t seen me at all. And once they did they were wary. I watched a conga line of shaggy goats walk cautiously past, their black hooves crunching into the ice.

I watched the goats climb until they crested a knoll and went out of sight. I waited another five minutes, and then began climbing a snowy slope, moving diagonally away from the mountain goats. At the top of the snow slope, a gaping moat kept me from climbing onto the bubbly volcanic rock at the base of Mount Alpha. Tired from the climb, I thought about breakfast – we brought pancake mix to cook at Flapjack Lakes.

I turned to take in the view one last time and spotted the goat family on the next ridgeline. Some of them were nibbling at the tiny vegetation growing between the rocks and ice. The younger goats were chasing each other in a steep circuitous route. They live in such a desperate environment, and yet they had the energy to play. The younger goats traversed great distances, scampering down loose cliffs, and crossing icy slopes where a fall could be fatal, and none of it had to do with eating or surviving. At least as far as I could tell.

I like to think that the goats were equally impressed with me. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m an incredible boot-skier. As I slid down the hard snow toward the trail, fighting to stay upright on my hiking boots, I came to a stop at a flat spot in the slope. I glanced at the goats. They had stopped grazing and playing to watch me slide down the snow.

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4 Responses to Navigating the moment of truth: Mountain goats at Flapjack Lakes

  1. Andy Zahn says:

    Great story, I love your photo of the mountain goats on the snow with the sun shining in their wool! I visited Lake of the Angels (which is over the next ridge you can see in the distance from Gladys divide) last year and saw lots of mountain goats, none of which seemed the least bit blood-thirsty! You might enjoy my account of the trip which I have posted on my blog: http://illuminationsfromtheattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/lake-of-angels.html

  2. Thanks Andy. I had a trip to Lake of the Angels planned late this Fall, but something came up. It’s high on my list now!

  3. Bill Dietrich says:

    Oliver, working on a mountain goat story for the Seattle Times and found this post – great story!

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