Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Enchantments via Aasgard Pass

McClellan Peak and the Enchantments
15 miles round trip, 5300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous due to elevation gain, excessive rock scrambling, and rockfall danger
Access: $5 Northwest Forest Pass ($30 annual) required at trailhead; arrive by bumpy gravel road that is 2WD accessible; backpackers must obtain camping permits by lottery months in advance

There are few places on Earth more appropriately named than Washington State's Enchantment Lakes. A string of clear and turquoise gems splayed across the alpine granite of the Stuart Range, the Enchantments are both one of the most gorgeous and one of the most sought-after hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest. Meandering through the Enchantments is the highest form of hiking bliss: few experiences can match that of gazing across sparkling, reflective pools to rugged granite peaks, golden autumn larches, and munching mountain goats. It's easy to dismiss such talk as hyperbole; yet the steady stream of hikers who submit to the siren song of the Enchantments despite the extraordinary physical demands necessary to reach the lakes attests to the extraordinary beauty of this landscape.

It is important to note that this route up Aasgard Pass is extremely difficult. While experienced hikers will probably find the terrain manageable, this hike is not kind on hikers who are not prepared. Both 2016 and 2017 saw hiker fatalities along the route up to the pass. If you don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't attempt this hike.

Don't visit the Enchantment Lakes as a day hike. In fact, unless you're in good shape, you probably shouldn't visit the Enchantments at all. There is no easy way into the Enchantments. The two access points are from Snow Lakes and Colchuck Lake, on opposite sides of the basin. Access via Colchuck Lake is probably faster and is definitely shorter and requires less elevation gain, but involves the arduous ascent up Aasgard Pass, one of the steepest sections of trail probably anywhere. The trail via Snow Lakes may be gentler, but requires over 18 miles round trip of hiking and over 6000 feet of elevation gain. Thus, one may conclude that backpacking the Enchantments is surely preferable to a day hike.

However, backpacking to the Enchantments isn't as easy as it sounds, for not only physical but also bureaucratic reasons. From the beginning of summer until mid-October, a very limited number of backcountry camping permits are issued for camping in the core Enchantments zone- those wishing to visit and camp must enter a lottery with slim chances of snagging a permit. Due to these restrictions, most people who end up visiting the Enchantments do so on a day hike. A popular journey is the 18-mile one way push from the Colchuck Lake/Stuart Lake trailhead to the Snow Lakes trailhead, but this shuttle hike requires dropping off a car at each trailhead. When my friend and I tackled the Enchantments, we decided to do visit the lakes as an out-and-back hike from Colchuck Lake, tackling the ramparts of Aasgard Pass to reach the high lakes of the Upper Enchantments. Of the three separate groups of lakes at the Enchantments, we ultimately only had time to visit the Upper Enchantments.

I hiked to the Enchantments during the fall, when the alpine larches of the high basin were turning brilliantly golden. Since autumn days were short, my friend and I realized that we would need all the daylight we could get for the hike, so we drove out to Leavenworth and camped nearby the night before. We set out from Seattle in late afternoon on Saturday, taking US Highway 2 east and crossing Stevens Pass just before the sun set, arriving just after dark in Leavenworth. The town was packed: we had unwittingly arrived in the faux Bavarian town during Oktoberfest. Poor timing. We initially felt it would be most appropriate to grab a German-themed dinner before heading out to Icicle Valley to camp, but the long lines at most beer and brat places drove us instead to a Mexican restaurant. After dinner, we backtracked slightly on Route 2 to Icicle Road; here, we turned left and followed the road south into the canyon of Icicle Creek. We initially hoped to camp at Eightmile, but the campground was full by the time we arrived, so we continued onwards along Icicle Road to the Johnny Creek Campground, where we were able to snag one of a few remaining open campsites.

The next morning, we were up by 5 AM. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal, we packed up our campsite and backtracked along Icicle Creek Road to NF 6701, which led towards the Eightmile and Stuart Lake Trailheads. We turned right onto this gravel road and followed the bumpy, washboarded track uphill past the Eightmile Trailhead to its terminus at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. The air was chilly and the sky still dark when we stepped out of the car. Other headlamps dotted the trailhead parking: we were far from the only hikers about to attempt a day hike to or through the Enchantments.

We started up the Stuart Lake Trail from the parking area in the dark. The first two miles of the hike were a bit of a blur: we made a steady uphill along a creek and crossed the creek on a bridge before delving into a steeper climb with some switchbacks, but I saw very little of our surroundings as we were hiking in pre-dawn light. By the time we reached the turnoff for Colchuck Lake, a little over two miles in, it was finally becoming light outside. Along the way, we entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, one of the most heavily used wilderness areas in the nation that, true to its name, contained the densest concentration of alpine lakes on the continent.

We took the left fork for Colchuck Lake, which took us back across the creek and then along the side of a boulder field. The trail then began a steady switchback climb through the drier forest characteristic of the Eastern Cascades. This section of somewhat uncomfortable, rocky trail was a harbinger of the conditions on the route to Aasgard. After a mile and a half of steady uphill, the trail began to pass a few rocky viewpoints of the granite crags of the Stuart Range, Cashmere Mountain in the distance, and the sheer wall of Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks close by.

A little over four miles into the hike, the switchbacks finally leveled off as we approached Colchuck Lake. The trail headed off to the right when it approached the lake, staying in the trees for a while and passing a camping zone and a toilet. We came to the main viewpoint of Colchuck Lake, an open slab of granite along the trail. From the rock, we looked across the aquamarine waters of the lake to the imposing granite peaks of Dragontail and Colchuck. Midway through fall, all of the snowpack from the previous winter had melted, making the remnants of Colchuck Glacier clearly visible high in the crevice between Colchuck and Dragontail. The lake and most of the peaks remained in the shadow, but a beam of sunlight poured out over Aasgard Pass, the steep saddle to the left of Dragontail. The shadowy, sheer face of Dragontail seemed almost menacing. Colchuck Lake was already the equivalent of a moderate strenuous day hike, at over 4 miles and 2000 feet elevation gain from the trailhead, but the path to the Enchantments was about to demand even more from us.

Colchuck Lake
We followed the trail past the viewpoint. A first short scramble section ensued. Soon after, we came to a small pond just barely separated from Colchuck Lake. The calm water of the pond perfectly reflected the Stuart Range peaks surrounding the lake basin and the golden larches higher up on the mountains.

Pond reflections near Colchuck
Past the pond, the trail stayed on the west shore of the lake, often cutting through the forest well above the lake itself. At the far end of the lake, the trail descended towards a large talus slope at the base of Dragontail Peak. As we dropped towards the talus slope, a stunning view of morning light pouring over Aasgard Pass and into the lake basin appeared before us.

Morning light pours over Aasgard Pass
Upon reaching the talus slope- really more of a boulder field- we realized the navigating the field would be quite difficult. There was no true trail here, simply cairns marking the way through bookshelf and car-sized boulders. Finding the route through the rocks difficult to follow, we decided to scramble down the boulders to the lakeshore and walk east along the beach towards the foot of Aasgard Pass.

The beach was much easier hiking than the boulder field, but at a few points a boulder would come down and meet the lake itself, requiring some scrambling to work our way around. As we hiked along the lakeshore, a perfect refleciton of rocky Cashmere Mountain appeared on the surface of Colchuck Lake.

Cashmere Mountian reflected in Colchuck Lake
At the far end of the beach, we followed a path back through the trees towards Aasgard Pass. This path quickly joined back up with the trail coming out from the boulder field. Here, the forest was a mix of conifers, with many gorgeously yellow larches mixed among true evergreens.

The path was angled gently uphill until it emerged from the trees at the base of Aasgard Pass. Before us lay one of the single most formidable segments of trail in the state. A poorly defined footpath of loose scree cut nearly straight uphill, covering 2400 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile. We tried to follow the cairns but often found ourselves slightly off-trail as we worked our way uphill. About a third of the way up, the trail came to a massive rock blocking the route towards the pass. Following the hiker ahead of us, we initially went towards the right, but quickly found that route impassable, forcing us to backtrack and ascend around the left side of the rock.

At times, the ascent was made easier with views of the perfect waters of Colchuck Lake below and with the morning sunlight brilliantly illuminating the golden larches. The ramparts of Dragontail Peak soared above us to the west. The massive granite wall remained in the shadow even as the sun began to move towards midday.

Dragontail above the larches on the climb to Aasgard
The ascent was excessively grueling. It took us nearly two hours to get from the lakeside to the pass, meaning that we traveled at a pace of less than half a mile per hour. I was glad that I brought a helmet: even though it never actually came in use, the loose rock on the trail and what would surely have been high rockfall danger from the cliffs on either side of the route to the pass made it a reasonable precaution.

Harvey Manning, a famed guidebook author who wrote some of the definitive guides to hiking in the Northwest, considered the Aasgard Pass route to be "tasteless" and claimed it to be the realm of mountain climbers alone, discouraging hikers from the route by claiming it to be "silly to the point of suicidal." I wouldn't go as far; once the route is clear of snow, it is doable by fit hikers. However, Manning was spot on about the route's dangers and the level of caution appropriate for tackling the route. If you have to ask yourself whether or not you could hike Aasgard Pass, you probably shouldn't.

As we ascended high above Colchuck Lake and approached the pass, mind-blowing views began to unfold behind us. Colchuck Lake appeared like a jewel nestled beneath Dragontail Peak. The many peaks of the Stuart Range rose nearby; Cashmere Mountain's distinctive shape was particularly memorable. In the far distance, Glacier Peak and Mount Baker appeared on the horizon. Sloan and the other sharp peaks of the Mountain Loop also appeared quite prominent.

Colchuck Lake from Aasgard Pass
The trail passed by a small bowl along the steep slope to the pass about 80 percent of the way up to Aasgard. After passing the larches in that bowl, the trail made a final steep push through massive piles of granite boulders towards the pass. To our right, we could already see the back side of the sheer face of Dragontail: the south side of the mountain hid a cirque with a small glacier and a tiny milky-colored glacial tarn.

Glaciers on Dragontail Peak
At noon, we finally came to the top of the pass. Dragontail dominated the view to the southwest; Colchuck Lake was now hidden below. The far side of the pass was much flatter than the approach from Colchuck Lake: we could see that this side of Aasgard Pass was a gentle but rocky basin stretching towards McClellan Peak. We had arrived in the Enchantments.

Dragontail from Aasgard Pass
A narrow trail led through the boulders and the meadows through the Enchantment basin. The generally flat nature of the hiking in the basin was a welcome reprieve from the brutality of the climb to Aasgard Pass. The first lake we came upon was Tranquil Lake, a small and appropriately named lake just pass the Pass. Another minute or so of hiking brought us to the much larger Isolation Lake, which was boxed in by the smooth, silvery granite of Dragontail and Little Annapurna Peaks. Among these highest lakes in the Upper Enchantments, there was little plant life to be found: this world was too harsh for even the hardy alpine larch.

Isolation Lake
However, grasses in the sparse meadows near the lake were sufficient enough to allow mountain goats to graze. We spotted a nanny and kid munching on the dried autumn grasses above Isolation Lake. Mountain goat sightings are frequent in the Enchantments. It's important to be careful though: mountain goats are occasionally aggressive around humans. Goats crave salt, attracting them to human urine. This brings them closer to heavy-traffic trails and increases the chance for human-goat interactions. A fatal encounter occurred a few years ago when a man was gored by a goat in Olympic National Park.

Mountain goat
We continued past the gleaming granite at Isolation Lake and began a gradual descent past a series of small ponds. The contrast between rock, water, and sky was striking. We caught our first glimpse of the Temple, a serrated granite fin that rose to the east. Before descending to one of the ponds, we could see past both the Temple and McClellan Peak to the flat dry desert of the Columbia Basin near Wenatchee. We hiked past trickling waterfalls and scrambled across smooth granite benches above calm ponds. Although there were no sustained up or down hill segments, the trail still posed some challenges: my friend missed a step during part of a rock scramble and ended up plunging his foot into one of the many ponds in the basin.

At the far end of the Upper Enchantments, larches began to reappear. After circling around a beautiful, nameless pond, the trail followed the lazily flowing outlet stream through the isolated stands of larches. Larches are rare deciduous coniferous trees: although clearly conifers, with needles rather than leaves, larches shed their needles annually. In early October of each year, the high country on the dry side of the North Cascades lights up with a brilliant display of autumn gold. The Enchantments and Lake Ingalls in the Teanaway are the southernmost reach of the alpine larch.

Upper Enchantments
The trail through the larches very abruptly came to an outcrop with a stunning view to the south. McClellan Peak and Little Annapurna framed a wild canyon that dropped down towards Ingalls Creek and the Teanaway. Shimmering Crystal Lake and a few stands of aurulent larches were nestled in the head of the valley below McClellan Peak.

Crystal Lake
Past the viewpoint for Crystal Lake, the trail began a descent down the right-hand side of a narrow ravine. We had to scramble during sections of this somewhat rocky descent. When the blue waters of Inspiration Lake came into view, we scrambled onto a ledge overlooking the lake. The Temple and a forest of larches rose across the lake; we caught a view of a corner of Perfection Lake, which lay just downhill of Inspiration Lake. Enchanted by the view and realizing that it was getting quite late in the afternoon, we decided that the ledge would be our stopping point for the day. The Middle Enchantments lay just downhill, but the views along the shorelines of Perfection and Inspiration Lakes and the Lower Enchantments would have to wait for another day.

The Temple, Inspiration Lake, and Perfection Lake
I ate lunch and gazed out at the Temple; my friend took a nap while drying out his socks and shoes in the sun. We were both tired: the combined challenges of waking up so early to get to Colchuck Lake and tackling Aasgard Pass had done a number on us. During the middle of our reverie, a man walked by to ask if we had cell phone service. We didn't: the Enchantments are at the heart of Alpines Lake Wilderness. He informed us that a hiker had broken a leg on Little Annapurna and was in need of medical assistance. We promised to make a call as soon as we were off the mountain and back in service range.

We made fairly quick time from our turnaround point back to Aasgard Pass. Just as we were about to begin the descent down the pass, we heard a faint buzzing: a search and rescue helicopter had come for the hiker on Little Annapurna. We stayed at the pass to watch the helicopter hover above Little Annapurna and ferry out the injured hiker. Gazing down the treacherous downhill before us and realizing that we had a vertical mile of descent to go before we returned to the car, we joked about how we too could have used a helicopter ride out.

It took us as long to descend Aasgard Pass as it did to climb up in the morning. By the time we got back to the lakeshore, my knees were shot and the sun was about to set. We made the final descent from Colchuck Lake back to the Stuart Lake Trailhead in the dark. Oktoberfest was long over when we rolled into Leavenworth at 9 PM: the town was quiet and every restaurant was closed save McDonalds. We chose to drive back to Seattle for dinner instead, traveling another two hours across Stevens Pass to pick up the last slices of vegetarian pizza at Hot Mama's.

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