Time was against me as soon as I reached the summit of Asgard Pass. Already six hours into my Enchantments Death March, I still had 13-14 miles to go and only seven hours of usable daylight remaining to me. Normally, I’d have no trouble making the mileage, but the amount of time it had taken me to get up to the pass was already telling me that this was no normal trail. I didn’t know what was ahead of me, but I knew I had to move.
I moved down from the pass in the most efficient way I could, forgoing the need for a break in favor of making up miles. My legs, still tired from the climb up Asgard, delighted in the newfound well-worn trail and spongy earth that I was now walking on, weaving through the barren glacial flats of at the top of the pass, pushing deeper into the highlight of the hike, the Enchantment Lakes Core Zone.
The Enchantments are located at the top of a glacier-carved terraced plateau between the 7800′ Asgard Pass at the western end and Lake Viviane at the eastern, the last of the lakes in the Core Zone sitting at 6600′. At roughly 6 miles in length, the trail that winds its way through the lakes is, for the most part, well worn and easy to follow, and the damp, alpine soil was perfect for cruising in most parts.
With one last look to the still looming peak of Dragontail Peak behind me, I moved down from the rocks, following the curvature of the barren rock field down to the first, and highest lake in the Enchantments, Tranquil Lake.
The conditions were perfect. Crisp mountain air, chilled by the small snowfields that clung to the surrounding peaks, blew peacefully along the high basin, and the noon sun played hide-and-seek through the drifting clouds, throwing random shadows and patches of light upon the lakes and granite walls as I passed through.
Further along, the trail wound down and around the periphery of Isolation Lake, nestled beneath the remains of the Snow Creek Glacier, feeding the creek which shared the glacier’s name, the water source for all of the lakes in the Core Zone.
Larches clung sparsely to the thin, nutrient-barren dirt of the pass, ground more suited to alpine grass and lichen, but provided just enough color and texture to the surroundings to accentuate the beauty of the area. Ice and snow lay in patches everywhere, hinting at the coming winter that was threatening to descend on the mountains any day.
Further on, the trail followed the undulating snake of Snow Creek, here and there little more than a trickling stream, through a series of unnamed alpine ponds and glacial tarns, laced at the edges with creeping ice, ringed with lichenous granite and yellowed mountain grass.
Further along, as the basin opened up into a wide expanse of water and rock, the stoney crag of McLellan Peak, at the eastern end of the Core Zone, rose above the larch-lined horizon. Surveying the tree-line, I knew I was approaching the first terraced drop of the hike, and the start of the larch forest I had come to see.
The whole of the upper basin felt like a place pulled from a different mountain range. It reminded me of the High Sierra, more than it did the Cascades I was accustomed too. Where most of the Cascade Range is volcanic uplift, dark black mountains and verdant coniferous valleys, here there were thick slabs of granite and golden colors everywhere, looking like the high lakes of King’s Canyon or Sequioa more than the mountains of Washington I knew. The marked difference even between the forested shores of Lake Colchuck that I had passed through just a few hours prior and this place seemed so dramatic that I felt in another place entirely.
Before long I reached the line of larches marking the end of the upper basin, and the start of the golden forests I’d hoped to find up here. Larches are coniferous trees, like pines or firs, whose needles change and drop in the winter like a deciduous oak or maple. Their golden hues are found marching up the high slopes of the northern Cascade range in Washington and further on into Canada, but here, in the Enchantments, was one of the most fantastic displays of fall color I’d ever seen.
Just past this line of larches, the trail started its descent toward Inspiration Lake, following the steep cliff face that looked out over the Crystal Lake Basin to the south. A few twisted larches clung precariously over the edge of the sheer granite walls as the rush of water from a spur off Snow Creek descended in a splashing waterfall through a narrow crack in the rock. Above, Little Annapurna, so named because of its resemblance to its namesake in Nepal, loomed against a backdrop of darker clouds, but the lake below sparkled in the mid-day sun, a deep blue reflecting the sky amongst the gray and gold of the larch covered mountain slopes around it.
As I moved on, another hiker, coming up the slope from Inspiration Lake, paused to chat with me about the trail ahead. Noting my small pack, he asked how far I was headed, and when I told him the whole way, he nodded and warned me about the drop above Lake Viviane. There, he warned, a sheer rock face marked with hand holds was all that stood between me and a 20-foot fall, and that there was no shame in sitting down and using my butt for stability. I thanked him for the advice, not fully understanding but glad for the warning, and wished him well as he took off toward the Little Annapurna summit.
The trail here descended down a rocky chute carved by the flow of Snow Creek toward Inspiration and Perfection lakes, and the thicker larch forests of the middle basin. Snow and ice lay thick on this stretch of trail, and once more I lamented my lack of traction spikes, but with some slow going and a few twisted knees, I made it to the shores of Inspiration. Here I saw the first camp set up by overnight permit holders in the Core Zone, a small tent set on a granite ledge, perfectly situated to catch sunrise over the lake.
The trail around Inspiration Lake was easy enough to follow, though the multitude of cairns in the area made route-finding a little more difficult than it should’ve been. I crossed the outflow where Snow Creek continued its descent toward Perfection Lake and circled the larch-forested eastern shore of the lake marveling at the rich colors juxtaposed against the starkness of the granite walls all around me.
Rounding a bend, I caught my first look at the towering pinnacle of The Temple jutting out above a forest of larches. I had never seen the sheer concentration of larch trees before that I came upon here, a forest of golden trees marching up the rocky slopes toward the knife-edged mountain above me.
I entered the forest along the edge of Perfection Lake, and after an inadvertent detour up a spur trail, followed the shoreline around the lake. The trees glowed in the afternoon sunlight, and red heather carpeted the forest floor, creating one of the most stunning autumnal displays I can recall seeing.
Further along, Little Annapurna once more rose high above the lake, looming above a rocky outcropping in the lake that I’d seen in dozens of photos prior to my hike. My legs cried out for a break, my heart begged me to take a moment and savor the scene, but the ever-present ticking of the clock pushed me on, through the forest and down, ever down, toward the lower basin ahead.
After Perfection Lake, the trail resumed its parallel course to Snow Creek, through another section of unnamed ponds and pools, toward Leprechaun Lake, the second to last lake in the Core Zone.
As I reached Leprechaun lake, the sun became almost fully obscured by the increasing cloud cover above, and I felt the chill of the autumn air more distinctly than I had up to that point. Looking back, I saw low angled sunlight shining through in patches, only a hand-and a half’s width above the top of Little Annapurna, signaling that it would be obscured by the summit in an hour and a half, give or take. I paused for a snack break for a few minutes, letting my increasingly sore knees take a break, pulling my shoes off to soak them in the icy waters of the lazy creek. Time was against me, I knew, but that kind of thinking had gotten me hurt in the past, I knew I needed to rest.
I rounded the shadowed shores of Leprechaun Lake and again took a wrong turn, following a goat-track toward Lake Vivian halfway down to the lake before realizing it was a dead-end.
I climbed back up and found the correct trail, following it around a steep escarpment to the the rock-face that the other hiker had warned me about earlier. Here, the expanse of the Snow Lake Valley opened up before me, and I stood on the angled granite rock face nervously looking at the distance I still had to cover before darkness fell. More daunting than the angle of the stone on which I stood, or the miles I had to cover, however, was the amount of elevation I still had to lose before I reached the Snow Lake trailhead and the end of my hike. at around 6600′, I still had nearly 5000′ of elevation to lose, 1600 of which would come in the next mile and a half. My knees screamed at the thought of it, downslopes always being the most painful for me, but I had no choice, the hour was waning and I had to move.
I scrambled down the steep slope, occasionally dropping onto my butt as the other hiker recommended to increase my surface area contact with the rock. I didn’t use the handholds, but counted all of my blessings that it had not rained or worse yet, snowed, during the day. The rock down which I scrambled was already slick, as granite has a tendency to be in even its driest states, it would be beyond treacherous with any sort of wetness. I tend to do well with heights, but memories of a 15′ fall in the Zion National Park backcountry that almost ended me made me nervous as I made the slow descent, picking my way carefully down the rocks to firmer ground.
I crossed the outflow of Snow Creek at the eastern end of Lake Viviane and began my descent, picking my way down the unending steep rock face and narrow switchbacks toward Snow Lake. Above, the jagged escarpment of McLellan Peak marked the end of the Core Zone, and the beginning of my final push to the end of the hike.
At the base of the down climb, I stopped for another break, snacking on two packages of caffeinated energy chews and mustering up the energy for the final push. I looked at the map, and my watch, and noted that I had 8 miles still to go, and only two and a half hours til sundown. I’d spent almost 5 hours in the Core Zone, with nearly a thousand photos to show for it, but I’d cost myself the chance of making it out before dark.
I hit the trail hard, nevertheless, refusing to give up on making it down on time, churning miles despite my sore knees and aching muscles. I put on a pace I normally reserve for mid-day long distance hiking, a long-striding ground-eating rhythm fueled by the need to go far, fast. I let the hunger for real food that gnawed at my belly drive me forward, thoughts of getting back to Leavenworth before the restaurants closed pushing me down the much smoother, well-trodden path along the edge of Snow Lake and beyond.
I moved down, always down, through the talus slopes between Snow and Nada Lakes through the forests down the Snow Creek Canyon. My knees screamed in pain, joints inflamed by repeated twisting and impact threatening to drop me with each step, but I pushed on. Darkness fell, and I threw on my headlamp, marching laboriously toward the trailhead I saw ahead of me. It was so far below me still, and each step send jolts of pain through my legs and into my back, but I kept moving, refusing to stop.
When I reached the Snow Lake trailhead at 8:20pm, I had been walking steadily for over 14 hours, and everything hurt in a way I hadn’t felt since climbing to the top of St. Bernard Pass in the Alps a year prior. To this point that had been my most difficult hiking experience, but the Enchantments made that 24-mile climb feel like a simple excursion in hind-sight. I checked my gps, noting that I had climbed almost 6000′ and descended over 8000′ in the course of just over 20 miles.
I hitched a ride back to my car, and drove barefoot back into Leavenworth, dejectedly anticipating a meal from McDonalds because I’d returned so late. I pulled into town and parked, and noticed that one beer garden was still serving the delicious sausages I had been craving all day, and really all week prior. I got two bratwurst and a huge pretzel, and washed it down with the most welcome beer I’ve had in a long time. The girl taking my order asked how long I’d been in the mountains, noting my hobble and overall disheveled nature. I told her I’d done the Death March, and she laughed, congratulating me and saying she’d never be stupid enough to try it. I settled in to my meal and smiled, feeling accomplished and inspired, and ready to find the next challenge ahead of me.