THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUGUST Part 1: Aasgard Pass and the Upper Lakes
My right ankle kinda collapsed under me as I stepped on a rock in the trail, then my left foot sought stability as I pitched that way. I didn’t find it, and instead plunged off the trail and fell down the slope. Fortunately, it was a short fall and I wasn’t hurt, but it was still another reminder that I am getting older. Everyone gathered around to help pull me up to the trail, but I was more embarrassed than shaken. And my camera–the most important part of me–was fine.
That was on the last day of the hike, about two miles short of the finish line and just short of where I had fallen last fall on the same route. I must let my guard down when I approach the end of the hike and am tired.
Five of us had set off on this hike seven days before, on a beautiful Sunday morning after the drive from Seattle to Leavenworth, Washington. Karen and I drove together, and the other three drove in another vehicle so that we could have two cars, enabling us to start at one trailhead and end at another. There was Sue, a retired geomorphologist; Terry, a retired lawyer; and Phil, a retired state department official who had worked in embassies around the world. Plus Karen and I, who are still working. I was the oldest in the group by a year, but all of us were in our ’50s and ’60s.
We left one car at the Snow Lakes Trailhead, then drove to the Lake Stuart Trailhead. Scores of cars were parked at the trailhead, but we found a good parking place and set about organizing our gear for the first day’s hike, which would take us up Mountaineer Creek for several miles, then up to Colchuck Lake, which is a stunning aquamarine lake located just below Aasgard Pass–our killer destination for the second day.
Karen and I had heavier packs than the others, thanks to my camera gear (it isn’t fair to Karen, but I don’t have a Sherpa or a pack mule). My pack weighed in at 57 lbs., the same as my pack weighed last fall on the same trip. This time, I had a lighter tent and sleeping bag, but I was bringing a star-tracking gizmo for long exposures of the night sky, and that added about four lbs. of weight. I had briefly thought about bringing my underwater camera and a dry suit, but the reality of carrying about 30 lbs. more gear hit me like a big wet trout upside the head–though I might have made my nephew carry it all if he hadn’t canceled out of the trip. Karen’s pack weighed 42 lbs., and we were glad that we had done some rigorous training hikes all summer.
We were tired upon arriving at Colchuck Lake. Actually, we were tired whenever we arrived everywhere, so maybe I’ll just assume you know that. After inspecting our Enchantments Permit, Wilderness Ranger Carly of the U.S. Forest Service recommended a beautiful campsite on Little Colchuck Lake. We nestled our four tents among the fir trees (Karen and I shared a tent; the others each had a one person tent), then we set about hanging our food to defeat any bears. We went to bed early, having taken our little blue pills (more on that later) and cooked our Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried dinners. A few raindrops spattered the tents.
The next morning, Karen found that every time she brushed up against a fir tree next to our tent, she got a sticky load of pitch on her hands and clothes. Let me tell you, pitch is a bitch in the back country, because we didn’t have the right solvents to remove it.
We pumped drinking water from Little Colchuck Lake, then cooked our breakfast of black bean soup, doctored with dried peanut butter for protein and ground nuts for texture. After two cups of Taster’s Choice freeze-dried coffee, I was good to go.
Our vertical gain on the first day was some 2,100′ in about five miles. The second day, which would take us up Aasgard Pass, would only be about two miles, but what a two miles! The first stretch of trail took us through a boulder field at the upper end of Colchuck Lake, in which we climbed over and under and around huge boulders. It was tiring and challenging, but then we reached the slope that would lead up to Aasgard Pass, which ascends 2,300′ in about one mile. This, for those not used to hiking, is steep. Really steep. Muscle-killing steep. Did I say it was steep?
The ascent would have been far, far easier with lighter packs and if we had been more accustomed to the roughly mile-high altitude, but we took our time. We were passed by a lot of people, including a 76 year old man. Later, a 20 year old young woman with thousands of sparkly gold sequins shimmering on her stylish black day pack left us dazzled in the dust.
My shirt was soaked with sweat, and my face was smeared with SPF 45 and Deet, which melted down into my eyes as perspiration streamed down my forehead. Both Karen and I ended up with blood trickling down our sweaty legs from run-ins with granite. It was fun. Karen commented how stupid we were to attempt this climb, but we soldiered on, eventually reaching the pass, where Phil calmly waited for the rest of us after having surged on ahead, beating the rest of us by two hours.
Fortunately, we enjoyed some of the sights as we ascended. There were Arctic Fireweed plants blooming–a species we had first seen in northern Alaska during a backpack 29 years before, when I had carried a 78 lb. backpack on my then-145 lb. frame (we’re not going to talk about my current weight, thank you, but suffice it to say that my pack-to-body weight ratio now looks better, at least on paper). A Mountain Goat mother and child sauntered by, wondering to themselves why the climb was so difficult and why we were producing so much sweat and so little pee. More on that later.
By late afternoon, we had reached the pass, briefly rested, and surveyed the Upper Enchantments. This stark and amazing basin sits below the towers of Dragontail Peak, which looks like it could be one of the dark and jagged mountain ranges surrounding Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. We found a campsite about 1/4 mile from the pass, right along Lake Freya and, more importantly, just a few steps from a great open-air toilet hidden among the larches and granite just above our campsite. A tarn ringed with granite boulders was perfect for obtaining water.
Some of our group had diarrhea, which I blamed on the stress of two days of climbing. In any event, when older people travel together, the talk often turns to regularity or lack thereof. Which brought about one of the frequently used acronyms on the trip: TMI (too much information). Three members of our group said they had experienced an odd sensation of shivering or hypersensitivity that they blamed on their bodies’ electrolyte balance being tipped because of the extreme exertion.
That night, the sky cleared off and we enjoyed the Milky Way splayed across the vast dome overhead, at least when we got up after midnight to attend to nightly rituals. We saw the advance contingent of Perseid meteors streaking across the sky, with no moon in sight and just a hint of the lights of civilization to the east.
The next morning, human visitors arrived to use the nearby toilet and goat visitors arrived to enjoy our company. I think we counted about ten different Mountain Goats, including mothers who were still shaggy from shedding, their small young of the year, yearlings, and a big male. Throughout The Enchantments, these creatures come around daily to see where their human guests have peed, so that they can lick up the golden liquid or the salty traces of it. I don’t know if these animals need some minerals contained in the urine, or if they are simply peeaholics, addicted to the pleasant taste of the salt.
We had learned from a sign at the trailhead that it is best to pee on granite, since peeing on bare soil will encourage the goats to dig up the soil. What we learned, in reality, was that peeing on slabs of hard granite causes the pee to splash back up–on legs and shoes. Yuck. Well, nobody ever claimed that backpacking was a clean and tidy affair.
Around camp we also saw two Hoary Marmots, who may or may not have been dreaming of getting into our Fritos. But the Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, who look a lot like big chipmunks, certainly did try to raid our food. One of them even made off with a bag of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries before Karen chased after him and convinced him by overwhelming force to drop the bag. Too bad, he thought his raid had been a triumph.
We chose to camp a second day in the Upper Enchantments, so that we could better take in this austere landscape, with all its lakes and ice and granite. It was a perfect day, and we simply wandered in the high country. There were waterfalls and ice cave entrances to explore, and streaks of watermelon snow (red algae) on the snowfields. A few small icebergs floated on Isolation Lake, calved by snowfields along the lake. This was also a day of relative ease, after the struggles of the past two days in climbing up here.
That night, I set the alarm for 1:00 a.m., so that I could work with my new AstroTrac star tracking device. When I got up, I found it was a warm evening with perfectly clear skies. I walked back toward Aasgard Pass by the light of my headlamp, then set up my tripod and set about figuring out all the equipment. By the time I returned to camp, it was 3:30 a.m., and I was exhausted, knowing that morning was coming in two and a half hours.
The next morning, our plan was to hike down to the Middle Enchantments, where we would camp for two more nights. We hiked down the trail, and three of us took a side hike to see a lake that Karen found on the topo map. This lake, named Lake Ladgunn on our Stark Enchantments map, proved to be the most beautiful lake in the Upper Enchantments. It was a bit higher than the others, and it still had substantial ice on the surface. It was magical, with its isolation and stunning colors and textures of ice. One American Pipit loudly called out to another of its kind from the surface of an iceberg. On the route down from the lake, Karen found a White-tailed Ptarmigan–it was the first I had seen in Washington in 24 years.
We then walked to the lip of the Upper Enchantments, where there is a granite bluff looking out over the expanse of the Middle and Lower Enchantments. Here we enjoyed our lunch of cheese and crackers and dried raspberries and chocolate. While eating, a young woman in her early twenties breezed up to the cliff and started immediately chatting with us, while her boyfriend explored the area. She was in aerobics clothing, and was trim and athletic and pretty, without a pack, and without a bit of trail sweat or dirt within yards of her. If she had been a step closer, we probably could have caught the scent of her morning shampoo. While we thought it was a significant accomplishment to get this far on the trail, she and her boyfriend had started at 7:00 a.m. at the same trailhead where we started, and now, five hours later, they had come all the way up to and over Aasgard Pass and across the Upper Enchantments to where we were eating lunch. She made all of us feel inadequate!
When people do the whole 20+ miles of The Enchantments in one day, it is known as the “Death March,” but this girl didn’t even look tired at the halfway point. We deemed her “Wenatchee Girl,” because that’s where she volunteered that she lived, and we compared our aging and tired bodies to her trim and athletic youthfulness for the rest of the trip.
And that is where I’ll end today’s part of the tale. In Part 2, I’ll describe our descent into the Lower Enchantments, where we encountered the magic of Alpine Larches, goats and more goats, and screeching upon plunging into a glacial lake with snow still clinging to the shore.
For more information about hiking in The Enchantments, go to Washington Trails Association and Recreation.gov. To read my other blogs about The Enchantments, go to The Long Ascent, Mountain Goats, and Forests of Gold. There is also a good web site that is based upon the autumn experiences of the Starks and another couple called 50 Years in the Enchantments.
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date)
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