Posted tagged ‘ice cave’

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUGUST Part 2: Lower Enchantment Lakes

September 4, 2013

Enchantments_Little_AnnapurnaWildflower meadow with Little Annapurna towering above

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).

The_Enchantments_Summer-936Taking a long drink of cool water

The_Enchantments_Summer-963A lone Alpine Larch with Little Annapurna in the distance

The_Enchantments_Summer-843Beautiful aquamarine Talisman Lake, ringed with granite outcrops and Alpine Larches, with Prusik Peak and The Temple in the distance

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-945Our campsite among the larches along Sprite Lakelet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1137As 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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-859My Lapsang Souchong tea, which Karen says smells like dirty socks, and her Tazo Passion tea; together, they catch the low evening sun

The_Enchantments_Summer-878Phil enjoying a quiet moment along Sprite Lakelet 

The_Enchantments_Summer-1129Larches gracing a point in Perfection Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1109We birthed a snowman on the granite above Sprite Lakelet; the snowman was necessarily created with watermelon snow, since the algae-stained snow was all that was available

The_Enchantments_Summer-1126The snowman then proceeded to preach to the snowy choir

Heather_and_Stream-1Heather blooming near a small waterfall where Perfection Lake empties into Sprite Lakelet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1387

The_Enchantments_Summer-1005Small Cutthroat Trout thrived in the lakes of the Lower Enchantments; I wish I could have carried fishing gear along with all my camera gear

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1087Thinking about going for a swim in a snowy mountain lake … don’t do it!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1093Too late, as I whoop with the blast of cold. And, in case you are wondering: no, I wasn’t skinny-dipping!

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.

Prusik_Peak_StarsGalaxies and stars looking down on Prusik Peak

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.

Little_Annapurna_Flowers-2Wildflower meadow with Little Annapurna Peak along the hike to Crystal Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-947Little Annapurna reflecting in Perfection Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1072Arctic Fireweed thriving in an unusual place–a crack in a large granite boulder

The_Enchantments_Summer-1017Lunch break along Crystal Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1033Ice 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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1020The beautiful shore of Crystal Lake with its miniature forest of Alpine Larches

The_Enchantments_Summer-1145Alpine Larch needles up close

The_Enchantments_Summer-1101Crossing an outlet stream

The_Enchantments_Summer-1320Mountain Goat crossing the outlet stream near our camp; goats would often cross streams on stones and logs that people had laid down to create a safer and drier crossing

The_Enchantments_Summer-1302Youngster learning to cross a human bridge

The_Enchantments_Summer-912Goats don’t like to get their feet wet any more than we do

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1172A big male goat using one of the goat beds we had seen before Sue set up her tent

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1402Hiking down granite so steep that the trail builders put rebar staples into the rock to improve hikers’ chances of making it down when the weather is rainy or wet

The_Enchantments_Summer-1396Terry was feeling like a Mountain Goat on this narrow granite route

The_Enchantments_Summer-1406We had to lean in close to the granite to make it around this sheer cliff

The_Enchantments_Summer-852Descending 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!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1409Self portrait of my legs and feet on a rickety log bridge over a raging creek

The_Enchantments_Summer-1375A big waterfall drops over the glacier-sculpted granite as we descended toward Leprechaun Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1377One of our group wetting her hair in a waterfall on the way to Leprechaun Lake, on our sixth day in the wilderness

The_Enchantments_Summer-1398Phil crossing a stream with Prusik Peak towering above 

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1422Cooking a meal along Upper Snow Lake

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-1427The morning after the thunderstorm

The_Enchantments_Summer-1424The torrential rain splashed sand up onto our tent

The_Enchantments_Summer-1429I used one of my underpants to clean sand from the tent; it certainly wasn’t comfortable to wear afterward!

The_Enchantments_Summer-1426Drying all our wet stuff

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_Enchantments_Summer-1438A quick grab shot of a Pine Marten hunting a boulder field between Snow Lakes and Nada Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-1436A butterfly drying its wings and warming up in a shaft of sunlight on this wet and chilly morning after the storm

The_Enchantments_Summer-1444Beautiful and peaceful Nada Lake on a still morning

The_Enchantments_Summer-1451We’re just about at the trail head when we cross Icicle Creek on this long wooden bridge

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

THE ENCHANTMENTS IN AUGUST Part 1: Aasgard Pass and the Upper Lakes

August 30, 2013

The_Enchantments_Summer-239Clouds that look like the cooled breath of a dragon above Dragontail Peak

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-6Crossing Mountaineer Creek on a rustic log bridge

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_Enchantments_Summer-23Colchuck Lake is a stunning aquamarine pool, surrounded by high granite mountains

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.

Little_Colchuck-Pan-2Little Colchuck Lake reflecting the sunset; shown here are the end of Enchantment Peaks on the left, Aasgard Pass in the center, and Dragontail Peak on the right

The_Enchantments_Summer-53Reflections in Little Colchuck after a brief storm

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_Enchantments_Summer-94-2Working our way through a boulder field at the upper end of Colchuck Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-109Arctic Fireweed and shadows on granite, viewed while resting on the Aasgard ascent

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-119Stream that paralleled our ascent of Aasgard

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-106When skin and granite collide

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-158View back down to Colchuck Lake from halfway up

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-249We set up camp among granite boulders in the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-627Karen dipping water for coffee and tea from the nearby tarn

The_Enchantments_Summer-660Mommy taking a drink while junior waits, at the tarn we also used for drinking 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.

Enchantments_PortraitsThe Aasgard Adventurers: (clockwise) Sue, Phil, Terry, and Karen. I’m hidden behind the lens.

The_Enchantments_Summer-256Last sunlight on McClellan Peak, with one of the lakes of the Upper Enchantments in the foreground

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_Enchantments_Summer-609Our four tents illuminated at deep twilight, with the jagged skyline of Dragontail Peak rising in the distance

The_Enchantments_Summer-292Sunrise light on Dragontail Peak

The_Enchantments_Summer-633Karen viewing the morning light from atop a granite outcrop

The_Enchantments_Summer-638Our beautiful camp in morning light

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-211

The_Enchantments_Summer-230

The_Enchantments_Summer-344-2

The_Enchantments_Summer-366

The_Enchantments_Summer-361

The_Enchantments_Summer-320The Mountain Goats came and went on their own schedule all day long; often we saw a mother and her young of the year, but there might also be a yearling tagging along, or sometimes a big male

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-577Hoary Marmot checking out our camp

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-395-2Terry exploring the glacier-polished granite of the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-313The stillness of Isolation Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-317Still still

The_Enchantments_Summer-671Glacier-forged landscape of granite, snow, ice, and meltwaters

The_Enchantments_Summer-515Entrance to an ice cave at the lower end of a snow field

The_Enchantments_Summer-377This is how we hung our food: we gambled that bears wouldn’t be in this barren location and that we mostly had to keep the food away from ground squirrels

The_Enchantments_Summer-465Suncups with an intense concentration of “watermelon snow,” which is an algae that thrives on summer snow remnants in the high country

The_Enchantments_Summer-385Channels of intense watermelon snow reflecting on a lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-420Karen videotaping above tumultuous mountains waters

The_Enchantments_Summer-492Elephant Head, a classic wildflower of wet meadows in alpine and subalpine habitats

The_Enchantments_Summer-476Mountain lake in the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-479Ripples and sun patterning a mountain lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-507Granite and reflections of the blue sky in a zen garden

The_Enchantments_Summer-256Last sun on McClellan Peak

The_Enchantments_Summer-267Smoky sunset from our campsite; there were several large forest fires in the mountains around Leavenworth and Wenatchee

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_Enchantments_Summer-617-CombThe Milky Way splayed across the heavens above Dragontail Peak

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.

The_Enchantments_Summer-688Hiking down the valley of the Upper Enchantments

The_Enchantments_Summer-423Identifying peaks

The_Enchantments_Summer-563Reflections of waves and sun on the face of a permanent snowfield, once a glacier, along Isolation Lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-651

The_Enchantments_Summer-674Ever-present Mountain Goats, our high country companions

The_Enchantments_Summer-694Lake Ladgunn, the hidden lake we investigated off the trail

The_Enchantments_Summer-705Ice and reflections of watermelon snow at Lake Ladgunn

The_Enchantments_Summer-697Glacier-polished granite with the aquamarine waters of the little lake

The_Enchantments_Summer-711Fanciful floating ice with its own shadow

The_Enchantments_Summer-714Melting ice and reflections

The_Enchantments_Summer-744An American Pipit stayed on the remnant lake ice for as long as I watched

The_Enchantments_Summer-762The stunning alpine setting of Lake Ladgunn

The_Enchantments_Summer-826White-tailed Ptarmigan with Arctic Fireweed

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!

The_Enchantments_Summer-754Sue and Karen with iconic Prusik Peak in the distance

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) 

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

ICE CAVES: Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness

October 3, 2011

Interior of ice cave carved by the Cispus River in the Goat Rocks Wilderness of Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Standing before the ice cave entrance, I felt the menacing breath of the ice age upon me. Outside, the day was sunny and mild; inside the cave entrance, the atmosphere was dark, with a thin fog carried by the breeze coming down the long and icy corridor. The wind smelled of elemental rocks and ice, and carried a message of unrelenting cold.

Lower entrance of an ice cave in the  Summerland subalpine meadows of Mt. Rainier National Park

Ice caves, as they are known here in the Pacific Northwest, occur where a creek tumbling down a mountain cuts under a snowfield. An ice cave gradually enlarges as the summer wears on, and it eventually collapses and disappears with the melting of the snowfield. The summer of 2011 was colder than normal, and there was a heavy snowpack from late mountain snows last spring, so some of the snowfields will remain and will grow in thickness with new snow in the cold seasons ahead.

Translucent walls of the Summerland ice cave

The walls of ice caves become scalloped, much like the sun cups that form atop snowfields. The flowing stream, warmer than the frozen snow and ice, causes melting. And the patterns and colors are extraordinarily beautiful. In fact, I could become addicted to photographing every ice cave I found, except for one thing:

ICE CAVES ARE NOT SAFE!

The constant melting and collapsing along the route of the stream is exceedingly dangerous for humans. This point was brought home to me several years ago when my wife called and said she had been on a backpacking trip and was one of the first on the scene of a tragedy. A woman from Seattle had ventured into the entrance of an ice cave, and the roof suddenly collapsed, sending tons of ice down on her head and completely burying her. Despite the heroic efforts of hikers to dig her out using an ice axe, she was dead. This kind of tragedy has happened with regularity during the years I’ve lived in Washington State, and it serves as a warning to me.

Cispus River Ice Cave

Despite the look of my pictures here, I did not venture more than five feet into an ice cave, and I was crawling on cold earth with my feet in a frigid stream. Overhead, the ice layer was up to maybe six inches thick, and I made a calculated risk that even if the ceiling collapsed it didn’t have far to fall and wouldn’t have the momentum to kill me. To further hedge my bets, I had the camera on autofocus and autoexposure and shot blindly, by instinct, rather than trying to contort myself impossibly (and thus disturb the walls and roof of the cave) to look through the viewfinder. I used the LCD to check my results, and adjust my angles and exposures accordingly.

By the way, the beauty of these ice caves is an ephemeral beauty, since they normally disappear each year. Almost none of them have names, since they are essentially invisible to most hikers. In fact, the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington State’s Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest is the only named ice cave I can think of. These caves are off-limits to hikers because of deaths that occurred in 1998 and 2010, though there is a well-maintained trail that leads to the vicinity of the ice caves so that people can see the entrances.

 A Summerland ice cave at Mt. Rainier

There is another type of ice cave I would love to photograph: an ice cave through a glacier. Mt. Rainier had a spectacular ice cave near Paradise that lasted for decades, but it disappeared in the late 1980s with climate change and the retreat of Rainier’s glaciers. This cave was immense and was flooded with an eerie blue light that I associate with nuclear reactors. Alas, I’ll have to go somewhere else to see such a sight. Perhaps Iceland.

Upper entrance of a Summerland ice cave, with a torrent of meltwaters cascading into the snowfield

Scalloped walls of a Summerland ice cave

Atop a snowfield at Summerland, showing the melting formations known as suncups

Entrance to a Summerland ice cave

Upper entrance of the Cispus River ice cave, with the Goat Rocks (remnants of an old volcano that blew its top) in the distance

The Cispus River ice cave is colored by the deep blue of compressed snow and ice, and the red tint of watermelon snow–a coloration caused by a dense concentration of algae

Sculpted interior of a Cispus River ice cave

A final view of the Cispus River ice cave, which was small enough that it may no longer exist this year

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

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


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