For the past three years living in Washington, I’d heard stories about the Enchantment Lakes Basin hike in the Central Cascades, a difficult, permit-only traverse through some of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness’ most spectacular scenery. The stories I’d heard tended to go along similar lines, it was brutal but beautiful, and due to the National Forest Service’s restrictions on access, almost impossible to get a permit to backpack through. Typically, to backpack through the Enchantments, one must take part in a permit lottery in February, something I never trust and rarely take part in, not wanting random chance to dictate my ability to hike somewhere. Though I’d had success in other lottery-style permit situations, namely the Wave in Arizona and the Subway in Zion National Park, I didn’t want to risk missing out on the Enchantments because I didn’t score a permit.
The poor logic of avoiding doing the hike for three years because I was worried I would be told I couldn’t do the hike is not entirely lost on me. But, there it was, sitting as this unattainable sparkling jewel on a pedestal, walled off to me by little more than a barrier of paperwork and chance, teasing me with the stories of its beauty by too many friends who were not so put-off by the concept of a lottery.
There was of course an alternative to the lottery, one which a few people I know and work with have tried over the years, that of the notorious “Death March” through-hike, a 20.5 mile slog from end to end along a trail that most hikers take at least three days to accomplish. Despite my experience hiking long distances, I doubted my ability to pull this kind of hike off for some time, until an unexpected moment of confidence this past summer during my UK hike told me that there was nothing I couldn’t pull off in terms of hiking. I’d crossed the Alps, I’d walked 100 kilometers in three days, I was at the peak of my hiking ability and confidence/arrogance. There was no way I couldn’t handle this.
I arrived in the small german-styled town of Leavenworth around 8:30pm, hungry and looking to indulge in some pre-hike Octoberfest eats. Unfortunately, most of the town had closed at 8:00, but I managed to score an excellent sausage plate and equally excellent beer at the Bavarian Bistro and Bar before setting out into the mountains. The bar was filled with hikers of all ages, most of whom had, I assumed, just come down from the Enchantments, and all looked decidedly weary and spent from the experience. I ate my food, enjoying my meal and left, driving up the long, winding forest road up to the Stuart Lake Trailhead, where I planned on sleeping in my car for a few hours before an early leave.
It was a restless night, and I was frequently awakened throughout the course of the night by headlamps and incoming cars driving in to have similar nights. I finally gave up on sleep around 5:30am and dressed hurriedly in my car, the mountain cold having descended on the trailhead and turning my backseat sleeping situation into an icebox. I threw together my day-pack with enough food and water to last me the whole day and set out into the darkness of the forest, my headlamp lighting the way up through the oppressive woods.
There’s a primal sort of nervousness that hits you walking through a dark forest at night, one of the reasons I generally hate leaving on a hike before sunrise, or finishing after sunset. I kept my head down, watching for roots and rocks in the well-trodden trail, of which there few, and made good time pushing up toward my first stop, Colchuck Lake. The night seemed to swallow even the considerable light from my headlamp, and a still silence hung heavy over the forest. Even the churning waters of Mountaineer Creek, not more than a few hundred yards away at any given time, seemed muted, distant. Despite my lack of sleep, I felt alert in a way I can only attribute to my wariness of the woods around me.
The sky started to lighten and trees lessen as I reached the first crossing of Mountaineer Creek, some two miles into the hike, and stowed my headlamp as the first group of hikers and trail runners passed me on their way up. I kept moving, pushing along steadily, ignoring the voice in the back of my mind telling me to move faster than other hikers, the voice that always gets me in trouble when I listen to it.
The air felt like autumn, the crispness of it, the wafting smell of decaying leaves, the chill borne of mountain snows. As I continued to ascend, the trees parted and I arrived at the second bridge crossing of Mountaineer Creek, and found that the sky had finally illuminated enough to allow for photography.
I crossed the creek along a sturdy log footbridge and passed along the talus slope upstream toward a heavily-switchbacked section of trail climbing up toward the Colchuck Basin above me. I climbed steadily, avoiding the urge to take a break, though my instincts told me I should do so. I paused as the trees opened up across a huge granite outcropping, and the valley floor carved by Mountaineer Creek opened up before me.
In the distance, the bowl of the Lake Stuart Valley stood on the edge of illumination by the rising sun, the morning clouds parting to reveal lightening sky just barely kissed by morning light. Colors climbed the peaks of the Stuart Massif, purples and oranges and yellows in the distance teasing me with the sights I had come to these mountains to see.
Energized and full of adrenaline with the beauty around me, I continued to ascend, ignoring the tightness of my legs and increasing chill in the air. Before long, I reached the first campsite along the trail, and took a small spur trail behind it to my first view of the Colchuck Lake Basin, with the looming Dragontail Peak and Asgard Pass behind it.
Dragontail loomed over the lake, and the remnants of the Colchuck Glacier clung to the rocky talus slopes on its northern side. To the other side of the mountain, rose the precipitous incline to Asgard Pass, what I’d been told was the most difficult section of the whole trail. I watched other hikers from across the lake, small black dots barely discernible amongst the boulders of the slope, winding their way slowly upward toward the pass. There was no trail that I could see, no line in the slope that I could follow. It seemed daunting, but I was determined to get up there to see what lay on the other side.
Following the line of the lake, I made my way along the serpentine trail, past campsites with still-sleeping hikers waiting for their day to start. I stopped for breakfast at a small pond barely separated from the main lake by a small spit of land. My first up close look at the larches I came to the Enchantments to see was across this pond, casting their golden reflections in the glass-still water, the sun just barely kissing the top of the peak that they climbed.
The water was so serenely still and clear, the colors and smells of the mountain autumn pervading the air. I sat and sought out every detail I could of the surrounding scene, munching on my trail bar, sipping at my water, feeling peace wash over me.
My break only lasted about ten minutes before I pushed back to my feet and continued on. A few hundred yards along, I passed a large camp of hikers busily working their arms in puffy jackets and sipping their coffee trying to bring warmth into their bones, having slept outside in what I could only imagine was near freezing temperatures. I pushed on, seeing the sun slowly cresting above Asgard Pass, looking for an opening in the trees to capture the perfect moment.
A few more bends around the lake brought me to the slopes of the Colchuck Glacier talus slope, a boulder-strewn expanse where the trail ceased to exist and only cairns showed the way.
I cautiously traversed the field, slipping once and banging my shin and almost dangerously twisting my ankle more than a few times. It was a hint of what was to come, I knew, but I managed well despite a few bumps and bruises, and their accompanying swear words yelled in anger, and soon reached the other side, where the trail resumed for a time, passing through one last stand of green trees before the steep slope up to Asgard Pass
The trail ended almost as soon as it resumed, and I found myself stowing my trekking poles so I could have my hands free for the scramble ahead of me. Each step felt laboriously slow as I ascended, picking my way through the surrounding rock fields, pausing at each cairn to spot the next. It felt like climbing the worlds longest staircase, an unending assault on my quads as I pushed ever upward. Behind me the whole of Lake Colchuck spread out in all of its still, reflecting beauty. In the distance, layers of mountain peaks receded into the distance.
Halfway up the slope, a massive granite outcropping rose from the center of the talus field, it’s top capped by a tuft of golden larches. Here, at higher elevation, the autumn colors were in full force, in every bush and tree that I passed, pulling me upward toward the summit I knew was full of more golden splendor.
The climb grew steeper, and every small lean away from the slope felt like it would pull me backward and down the rocky slide, and made me measure each step to ensure my footing. As I climbed onward, the summit of Dragontail Peak loomed, the namesake fork in the rock coming clearer into view, towering above me and the rest of the Colchuck basin like an austere granite guardian.
Soon the creeks that trickled down the slope turned solid with ice, and small fields of snow blanketed the rocks, making traversal precarious at best, and outright dangerous in some spots. In my foolish rush to get packed in the morning, I had left my microspikes in the car, so each step needed to be sure, lest I slip and fall to a severe injury or worse.
The trail became indistinct with the snow cover, sporadically showing then disappearing, with no more cairns to be clearly seen. At several points I climbed up sheer rock faces as tall as I was, wedging myself into cracks in the rocks or pulling myself up with the trunks of some of the sturdier larches. Each time I did so, I reached a bend in the trail that seemed obvious from above, but had been completely hidden from below, which caused me no end in frustration.
As soon as I had started to doubt the trail, however, it opened up, and one last cairn signaled my arrival at the rocky promontory of Asgard Pass, crowned on its north end by the still looming summit of Dragontail peak. Beneath me, in a small glacial basin, an ice-covered tarn rang like a church bell as the ice cracked and shifted, and I joined the other hikers at the top for a satisfied and admiring view of the slope we had just climbed.
Beneath us, Colchuck lay blue and distant, and further out, the towering white slopes of Glacier Peak could barely be made out far to the north. It had taken me six hours to reach the top of Asgard, and I had only gone six or seven miles. I knew I only had seven hours of daylight left, and time felt increasingly against me.
Despite my pressing concerns about my timetable, I allowed myself a brief moment of reflection and joy at achieving the summit before turning away, toward the south and the bounty of the Enchantment Core Zone that I’d worked all morning to reach. As stunning as the climb had been, I knew it was just the beginning.