If you agree that Mount Baker would be a fine addition to the National Park System, please let your national congressional representative or senator know your feelings. National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea,” and it is time to expand the system to include all the other great areas that represent the best nature of America.
Thousands of years passed, blizzards howled over Iceland’s Katla Volcano in whiteouts that blocked out time and place. Uncountable snowflakes fell, dissolving the landscape. Immense compression squeezed the forming ice, forcing out air bubbles and creating a material of intense clarity and glacial plasticity. Gravity took over as the ice accumulated, and glacial ice flowed like a river that ignored time, down the volcano’s hidden ridges, scraping and sculpting the mountain, which was now hundreds of feet below the gleaming ice cap.
When we arrived at Kötlujökull glacier, a lobe of Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, we saw ice that was thousands upon thousands of years old. It ended abruptly at the glacial terminus, which was a sheer wall of ice over 100 feet high. Our small group entered a cave in the glacier, created by a flowing glacial stream and polished by air currents. These photographs represent the incredible sculpted and colored walls of the inner sanctum of the glacier.
We visited Iceland in March of 2018, with the intent of seeing the Aurora Borealis, which we did on three nights, and the South Coast, where these glacier pictures were taken. We also wanted to experience the Westfjords region in winter, which was also spectacular. We rented an all wheel drive Subaru so we could have more freedom of movement and spontaneity than a bus tour allows, and we stayed in modest AirBnBs to keep down the costs. Except for a couple of meals at restaurants, we ate simply, buying from small grocery stores (and Costco!). Our biggest splurges were for two guided ice cave tours, in which a driver and guide using a SuperJeep 4wd vehicle takes visitors to really spectacular places that would otherwise not be accessible. Well worth it!
Most of my work is available as prints on metal or cotton rag paper. To see a large selection of my work go to leerentz.com.
The place is profoundly inspiring. Ragged ridges slice the sky. A pale sun dances off aquamarine tarns. Golden larch needles tickle my arm. Towering Mt. Stuart creates its own clouds. Mountain Goats greet us like long-lost friends. Is there anywhere as enchanting?
We drove from the Seattle area to Leavenworth, in the heart of the Cascade Mountains, on an early October day. Our backpacking permit from the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest allowed us four nights in a lesser-visited part of The Enchantments that included Lake Stuart and Horseshoe Lake. Our goal was to hike to Lake Stuart, camp one night, then hike the unofficial route up to the real high country of Horseshoe Lake, then spend three nights there among the golden Alpine Larches.
We drove up the steep access road to the trailhead, which wound through patches of scarred trees where forest fires had raged in recent years. In fact, two years previously, we had been blocked from this access road by a big wildfire.
At the trailhead, we joined scores of other cars in a big parking lot. When I got out of the warm car, I was immediately struck by the chill in the air. We were used to warmer weather all summer for our hikes, and this was a change. Even so, I started the hike wearing shorts and a nylon shirt, knowing that I would heat up immediately as we climbed the trail toward Horseshoe Lake. After eating a trail lunch of crackers, cheese, cookies, and dried mango at the trailhead, I donned my 47 lb. pack and we headed up the trail.
It was a long slog upward through the evergreen forest and along Mountaineer Creek. Hikes ascending through dense forest are never my favorites, but they are almost always necessary to get to the more desirable high country. And let’s face it, the long trek through the forest makes the high meadows seem even sweeter by comparison.
The afternoon went by quickly as we climbed the five mile trail toward Lake Stuart. Eventually we reached the shores of the lake. Swaths of bright green horsetails in the lake’s shallows were glowing in the late afternoon light, against the mountainsides in deep shade. I was immediately inspired by the scene, grabbed my camera, and asked Karen if she could set up the tent while I photographed. The downside was that I was chilled in the cold and windy mountain air after the sweaty hike up the trail. This is a time when I should have immediately changed into warmer clothes and ingested some calories but, no, I just HAD to get those photographs! As a result, I was really cold when I eventually got back to camp. Too cold to even fix a tripod that needed repair. In these circumstances I get the symptoms of Raynaud’s Disease, which cuts off blood flow to the fingers and leaves them ghostly white and unable to work properly.
After a good backpacking dinner of dehydrated Pad Thai, I felt revived, but was still a bit chilled, and that’s how I would feel all night. To cut weight on this trip, we brought our lightest weight tent; unfortunately, the tent achieves much of its weight savings by using insect netting instead of solid nylon walls, so the wind on this breezy night blew right through the tent. We also skimped on sleeping bags to save weight, given the favorable forecast, but ended up wearing nearly all our clothing inside the summer-weight sleeping bags. Oh well, the first night was to be the coldest.
The next morning, we awoke early, knowing we had a difficult day ahead. Lake Stuart was still. We discovered that our latest technology–a UV blasting Steripen for sterilizing drinking water–had stopped working. Fortunately we had a backup plan: using iodine tablets and an iodine neutralizer that we carry for just such situations. It worked just fine.
After packing up, we walked to the end of the lake, then started following a route throught the woods. This is not an officially maintained trail, so the hiking was difficult, with lots of fallen trees to climb over or crawl under. Eventually we came to a big open wetland filled with cottongrass and Wet meadow along the route from Lake Stuart to Horseshoe Lake, with Mt. Stuart towering above
other boggy plants. Skirting the side of it, we began searching for a horseshoe tacked to a tree that would signal the place to start climbing the mountain. We ran into two older (well, older than me!) guys crashing through the woods behind us. One knew exactly where the horseshoe was located, and told us how to get there. He said that he first came to The Enchantments with his older brother (the guy with him) in 1959, when he was 12 years old, so he had a long love of the place.
Upon reaching the horseshoe, we celebrated; after all, some people get lost at this point and never make it up to Horseshoe Lake. The trail ascended. Steeply. Over and under endless fallen trees. Some steps up onto granite were so steep that we had to help pull each other up.
We reached our first golden larch. Then another. The path rose into a huckleberry meadow glowing with red leaves. Sparkle off distant water. We were there!
After a brief break, we split up to search for a campsite. The lake was small, and we chose an established campsite on a peninsula jutting into the lake where there were two flat spots for our tents. We set up our tents, established a line to hang our food from a tree branch, and soaked in our good fortune at having an entire high country lake to ourselves. The Alpine Larches were at their peak of color and the granite spires soared above us. No place on earth could be better.
I stayed up well beyond dark watching the fading light, then photographed the scene using my headlamp to illuminate the larches against the deep twilight blue of the sky. A 60% waxing moon gave light to the landscape.
A waxing moon appeared over Mt. Stuart. On our last night, we saw the headlamps of a pair of climbers high on a cliff below the summit; the climbers were bivouacking high on the mountain for a morning attempt to summit the peak.
The next morning we were again up early; after all, who wants to remain in a cozy sleeping bag in the presence of such beauty? Well, it depends how cold it is outside; fortunately the morning was chilly but not frigid. Karen and I have a typical trail breakfast of dried bean soup spiked with PB2, a powdered peanut butter product, and ground almonds. It is good and gives enough energy for the day of exploring. I don’t function without my morning coffee, and little tubes of freeze-dried work just fine in the wilderness. My companions preferred tea.
We made our plan for the day: we would hike along the lake shore as far as we could, then explore toward the base of the ridges surrounding this big glacial cirque. We hiked for a while, then had an early lunch atop a granite outcrop overlooking the lake and Mt. Stuart.
After lunch, we wandered down to a wet meadow that had recently melted out, though first we had to negotiate a boulder field that included a lot of scrambling and climbing over big rocks. When we reached the meadow, we found a beautiful meandering stream, with its banks bordered by a few summer subalpine wildflowers that we didn’t expect to see in October. The Shooting Stars and Red Bell Heathers and White Bell Heathers and Yellow Arnicas brightened the day.
I found that the stream flowed down under a small remnant snowfield. I knew what this meant: there would be a scalloped ice cave where the stream flowed through. I found and photographed the cave. Then we set about building a great little snowman atop the snowfield.
After playtime was over, we walked along the edge of the meadow, at least until I layed down to photograph a vivid magenta Shooting Star. After three shutter clicks, I noticed a white shape moving toward me from the mountainside. It was a female Mountain Goat, and she came down the mountain just to be with me. How sweet! Her presence consumed most ot the rest of the day, but I’ll get to all that in another blog entry.
It was getting late in the day, so we started hiking back to camp, with the Mountain Goat tagging behind like a kid sister. We enjoyed a hot dinner, and repeated the activities of the night before. We watched the stars and planets poke one by one from the deep twilight sky, and the now 70% moon washing the landscape in pale silvery light.
We slept well, then awoke the next morning to a cloudless sky. During breakfast, we suddenly spotted a group of four Mountain Goats running and bouncing (really!) along the shoreline toward us. They seemed overjoyed to see us. But, again, more on that experience in an upcoming blog entry.
One of a group of four Mountain Goats that came to our campsite early the next morning. There was an adult mother, her kid of the year, and two yearlings; all four constantly challenged other members of the small family for dominance. One time, I even saw the tiny kid try to stand up to one of the yearlings. She had to back down.
Hundreds of photographs later, we left camp to search for Jack Lake, the mythological body of water that we thought we had found the day before, but were mistaken. It turned out to be a real lake, small and lovely, ringed with golden sedges and golden larches. We ate our trail lunch on a granite bluff overlooking the lake, where we saw the four Mountain Goats and realized that they had wandered over to the hills where we were exploring. We also saw a couple of groups of hikers enjoying the larch-covered terrain.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around, going back to the wet meadow of yesterday to check on our snowman–it had fallen into scattered dirty snowballs–and to photographs the Pikas living in the boulder field above the meadow.
That night the weather was unsettled, with some winds and clouds that made it less desirable for night photography, though I did manage to squeeze off a few shots.
The next morning was our last morning on Horseshoe Lake. As happened yesterday, the gang of four Mountain Goats showed up and demanded our attention, so we were late in leaving the lake for our hike out. When the goats lay down to chew their cuds, I finally decided that it was time to give it up, after having taken about 500 photos of the goats over three days.
We hoisted our packs for the seven mile hike out. We knew that the infomal trail back to Lake Stuart was going to be difficult, even though it was all downhill. I asked Karen and Junko to count the logs crossing the trail that we had to climb over, step over, or shimmy under. That gave us something other than the physical difficulty to think about and, by the time we reached Lake Stuart, the total was 137 downed trees over the path!
Beyond Lake Stuart, the forest started smelling like mushrooms, so our attention changed to searching for edibles. We didn’t find any of the Golden Chanterelles like we find in the Puget Sound lowland forests, but we did find some midnight blue-colored relatives of the chanterelles, as well as a few Hedgehog Mushrooms. The former weren’t very good to our palates, but the Hedgehogs were terrific when fried in butter.
We were tired and sore, but the parking lot came into view earlier than I expected. We encountered a lot of day hikers on our hike out, and the parking lot was still overflowing when we arrived. The drive home was long, but we stopped to get boxes of excellent apples fresh from the orchards.
When I titled this blog post “My Last Hike in the Enchantments,” I was thinking of Karen’s repeated statement that entering The Enchantments is always a hard hike, and she has now done it four times, and that is enough. However, my title also refers to what was simply my most recent hike to The Enchantments. And it was so enchanting, I prefer to think that I might return in the next few years.
The Enchantments is a stunning landscape of sharp granite peaks and open country studded with small glacial lakes. With the explosion of backpacking in the 1970s, The Enchantments became overrun with hikers. Hundreds of hikers would be in the high country at one time, trampling the fragile heather meadows and lighting campfires fueled by fallen larch and pine boughs. The area was being loved to death. Eventually the U.S. Forest Service stepped in and established a permit system that controls the number of backpackers. Some freedom was lost in the process, but the beauty of the area was maintained.
We received a permit for our third visit in three years. A lottery is held in the early part of the year to determine who receives most of the permits, although some permits are available every day to hikers who show up at the last minute and a few permits are available immediately after the lottery for days that have not met their quota. This was my third trip here, and I would love to return.
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.
When I backpacked to Horseshoe Lake and Lake Stuart in The Enchantments in early October, I knew that I would be photographing lovely landscapes filled with rugged mountains, serene lakes, golden larches, and (hopefully) Mountain Goats. All of those scenes came vividly to life in a landscape so breathtaking, I could hardly bear to leave. I took hundreds of photographs of the Mountain Goats that joyously greeted us, and hundreds of photographs of Alpine Larches and dramatic mountainscapes.
But when I’m out in the wilderness, Big Landscapes are only part of what I seek. I also like the sun on my face, the scent of forest mushrooms in the air, the way scarlet autumn leaves play along a granite surface, the perfect reflections of golden sedges at the edge of a pond. In short, I love the intimate landscapes as much as I love the Big Landscapes, perhaps more. This blog post is a visual celebration of the intimate landscapes that caught my eye. Think of these as haiku, in comparison with the epic poetry of the vast and breathtaking scenes.
We are familiar with Cottongrass from sphagnum bogs in the midwest and vast stretches of Alaskan tundra; it was good to see it again here in the wetland. It actually is a sedge rather than a grass, and the seeds float in the air to new destinations much like dandelion or milkweed seeds.
There were numerous large mushrooms, about four to six inches in diameter, that live in association with the Alpine Larch roots; these relatives of boletes MAY be edible and excellent, but there are two species with similar habits and one is less edible than the other, and we weren’t able to identify them in the field
In the cirque, a couple of remnant snow fields remained and, where the tiny creek flowed under the snow, an ice cave formed. Such caves can collapse, so I just crawled into the entrance to take a series of photographs.
Here it was October, and there were still some wildflowers blooming because the snow had melted out so recently. Shooting Star is among my favorite mountain flowers; it thrives in wet meadows, and I inevitably get soaked when I lay down to photograph it.
The talus slope above the wet meadow was alive with Pikas, those small rabbit-relatives who live among the rocks and put away cut greens in order to get through the long winter under the snow. They don’t hibernate, so they need plenty of food.
Alpine Larches and Whitebark Pines live to a hearty old age in the high country. When they eventually fall, the weathered wood shows one of the secrets of their strength: spiraling twisted grain that can withstand high winds and heavy snows better than perfectly straight grain
Speaking of aspens: on the hike out, we came upon a couple of Trembling Aspen groves trying to compete with the Alpine Larches for the camera’s attention; aspens are not nearly as common in the Cascade Mountains as they are in the Rocky Mountain West
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.
I would like to thank my wife, Karen Rentz, and our companion, Junko Waibel, for all their patience during my epic time spent making photographs on this trip.
After two nights in the Upper Enchantments, we descended along a stream that ducked in and out of a steep snowfield, eventually reaching Talisman Lake, and then descended further to Perfection Lake (aka Rune Lake). We passed the campsite where we had camped last fall, and the tent area was flooded to perhaps 4″ deep with recent snowmelt. From the placement of the rocks in the campsite, it looked like our camp last fall was the last time it had been occupied (we had used rocks to secure several of the tents).
Taking a long drink of cool water
Then we hiked around the lake toward a campsite on Sprite Lakelet that we hoped would be vacant. Karen had noticed this site last year, and thought it would be a wonderful place to camp. It was indeed vacant, and we set up camp in this beautiful site among the Alpine Larches.
As a precaution against possible raids by bears and other hungry creatures, we hung our food each night; on the first night, it took two of us to lift the bags, but they got progressively lighter every day.
Sprite Lakelet sits just below an extensive snowfield, but we decided to go swimming, and it sure felt good, or at least really, really cold. It was a “one yelp” dive before I was ready to climb out and dry off.
That night I got up at 12:30 a.m., and climbed the granite hill behind our camp. I stayed up there in the dark for 2 1/2 hours, trying to get night pictures of the stars over iconic Prusik Peak. I succeeded, but there sure are a lot of techical steps to get just right in order for the night pictures to work out. It doesn’t help to be trying it in the middle of the night, after inadequate sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, we took a hike to Crystal Lake, where we explored the lake shore and an ice cave above the lake. Sue, the geomorphologist, interpreted a delta at the head of the lake and how it was formed. I spent quite a bit of time photographing trout along the lake.
Ice cave at the mouth of a snowfield covering the inlet stream to Crystal Lake. I climbed into the mouth of the cave, but just barely, since there is always the threat of a catastrophic roof collapse.
That night, after dinner, I noticed five goats bedding down around our campsite. We had previously noticed that there were goat beds around camp; these are places where Mountain Goats have pawed up the soil to loosen it, effectively making a soft bed. These beds are used repeatedly, and some of them were located just a few feet from Sue’s tent. Once the five goats settled in to chew their cuds, we thought they might be there all night, but then another group of goats came along and that led to a fascinating chain of events that I’ll describe in another blog. Suffice it to say that this was one of our best insights into animal behavior ever.
For the first time, I was challenged by a big male as I was taking pictures from atop the tallest rock along that section of the stream. He was coming straight toward me with head a bit lowered and eyes intent on me, so I backed off. Quickly. Never occupy the high ground unless you are prepared to defend it with your life. I wasn’t.
That night, we had cloudy skies for the first time since the brief showers on the first night, meaning that I didn’t have to spend half the night working with my camera gear. That was probably a good thing, because I needed a good rest before the strenuous hike the next day, though Wenatchee Girl (see previous weblog post) probably covered the distance in two hours and looked fresh as a spring breeze afterwards.
We packed up the next morning for our hike out of the heart of The Enchantments, and down to Snow Lakes. This was not an easy hike, as it led down over numerous steep descents on sloping granite, where we had to use our leg muscles continuously in order to step down safely.
Descending a steep snow field; since I carry a tripod in my hands, I don’t use trekking poles and am at a disadvantage in descents like this–which is my excuse for falling more than everyone else. On one snow field descent, Karen fell twice and finally ended up sliding down gleefully on her butt!
When we finally reached Upper Snow Lake late in the afternoon, we were tired, so I started looking for a campsite. All were occupied, but then I noticed a faint trail leading toward the water. I asked the group to stop while I investigated, and quickly found a wonderful place to set up all of our tents on a sandy beach.
We had a cool swim, which reinvigorated us, then we set up our tents. Phil was a bit apprehensive about whether it was safe to camp on sand, after his experiences in New Zealand. There, everyone avoids sandy beaches at all costs because of the sandflies or sand fleas. In New Zealand, these irritating insects were first called sandflies by Captain James Cook, who said:
“The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.”
Actually, in reading about the sandflies, I believe that they may be the same as what we in the USA call blackflies. Karen and I have encountered swarms of them in the Adirondacks and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Or they could be more like the no-see-ums that are the scourge of the earth, but you don’t see or feel them when they bite. But several minutes after biting, the itch becomes intense.
Phil’s apprehensiveness here was appropriate. I used Deet on the beach, but I was bitten six times on the forehead–below the baseball cap bill and above my eyeglasses–where I didn’t apply the Deet because I don’t like it going into my eyes. Nearly two weeks later, these six big red bumps still itched like crazy, despite my daily treatments with Benadryl. I suspect that these were no-see-um bites; I’ve always had a really strong reaction to these creatures, and we did get a major rip in the no-see-um proof netting of our tent at Sprite Lakelet, so believe I got the bites overnight, when my face was the only part of my body exposed. Or maybe they’re smallpox.
After dinner on the insect-infested beach, a green-clad Forest Service Ranger suddenly appeared through the brush next to camp. We were apprehensive about whether this was an okay campsite, but he assured us that it was. He checked our permit and I asked him a few questions.
Me: Why are you carrying a shovel?
Ranger: It’s for poop; I don’t like picking it up with my hands. It is also for fighting forest fires.
Me: What’s the weather forecast?
Ranger: There is a 20% chance of thunderstorms tonight, with a greater chance after 11:00 a.m. tomorrow.
Me: Has there been any major news from the outside that we don’t know about after a week out here?
Ranger: It has all gone to hell. If I were you, I would ration whatever food you have left and head straight back into The Enchantments!
With that, he vanished up the lake to warn others of impending doom.
After our tough day, I suggested that everyone take their little blue pills. One of the female members of our party said that little blue pills come in several prescriptions, and asked if I was thinking of Wenatchee Girl. I said “I don’t need THAT kind of little blue pill” and Phil said “No guy would ever admit to needing THAT kind of little blue pill.” Okay, so I forgot that Viagra is a little blue pill. I was thinking of Naproxin Sodium, the generic pain pill that is also little and blue with effects that can last all day. I certainly don’t need the other kind of little blue pill. Really.
We went to bed, confident that we could get up early and head out before the thunderstorms hit. Little did we know …
At 10:15 p.m., the first flash of lightning was visible over the High Enchantments. Soon after, the first rain splattered the tent, and I got up and went out to my pack to retrieve delicate photo gear and bring it inside the tent. Karen saw me go outside, then saw the strobing of the lightning and thought that someone had gone outside and had their headlamp on “strobe.” Though why they would do that is beyond me.
A bit later, torrential rains hit our tents, and we endured five long hours of lighting, thunder, and deluge. This was the biggest thunderstorm we’ve endured in the mountains in 20 years. I would try to drift back to sleep, but soon Karen would be up and finding new places in the tent where water had gotten in. It was a REALLY long night.
The next morning, we assessed how our equipment had done. Our tent had let water in at the base and along some of the edges, probably because when nylon gets wet it stretches out and needs to be restaked. But during a torrential rain with lightning crashing doesn’t seem like the best time to go outside and play with tent stakes. So we got a bit wet. Our comrades in their one person tents ranged from completely dry to somewhat wet. We all set out our sodden stuff to dry a bit, but most of the drying would have to be done at home.
Karen reassessed our hike out, and realized that it was longer and required a steeper drop than we had first thought. It was going to be seven miles with a 4,100′ vertical drop. Doable, but tiring. We left camp by 9:00 a.m. and made good time at first, but then there were a lot of rocky stretches of trail where we necessarily slowed to maintain safe footholds.
When we got down near Nada Lake, Sue and I walked over to see the immense jet of water spraying out of an 18″ pipe, coming out of Snow Lakes and destined for a fish hatchery and irrigation downstream. Near the pipe, I glanced up and saw a Pine Marten staring at us from the sharp granite of a big boulder field. I raised my camera by instinct, and managed one grab shot before the creature vanished. Pine Martens are relatives of weasels, but are much larger. This was only my second or third confirmed sighting of one of these animals, and my first in the Cascades.
The rest of the hike out was uneventful until I tripped and fell off the trail, injuring my pride but not my camera or my body. Fortunately, we all got safely down to the car, and then went out for a wonderful milkshake and meal at ’59er Diner, where every waitress is named Flo and every waiter named Joe, and the men’s room is a shrine to Marilyn Monroe.
Driving back to Seattle took us through the heaviest rain I’ve seen in Washington State, and cars were pulling off the road because visibility was so reduced. I didn’t pull off because I didn’t think I needed to: after all, I had taken my little blue pill.
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, Forests of Gold, and Aasgard Pass and the Upper Enchantments. 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)
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website
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.