Sun 23 Nov 08

Trip report from last weekend’s hike in the Enchantments. The forecast for the Leavenworth area Friday looked tolerable but not great. And if Leavenworth was only just tolerable, then that held the potential of turning unpleasant a couple thousand feet higher up. I waffled a bit Friday morning while sitting in my warm, dry house in front of the computer before eventually getting out the door around 9 am. By 11 I was bumping up the dirt road toward the Eight Mile trailhead. I was a little surprised to see anyone else parked in the mucky parking lot, but there was one pickup parked when I pulled up under cloudy skies.

After several days of consistent rain the trail was super sloppy from the start. Some smaller creeks had overrun and were running down the path in places. High winds had also left dead trees and branches scattered about. It didn’t take long though to reach more frozen territory. Within a mile the running water had turned to frozen puddles and patches of snow. A couple of water crossings were particularly treacherous as you can see in the picture below where the boulders were thoroughly glazed in thick ice.

In the snow I picked up a single set of bootprints (presumably from the pickup owner) and I was actually thankful to have them as the snow was thick enough where the trail disappeared in places. I followed the tracks upward for a couple miles trying to figure out what other kind of person would come out for a solo hike on a chilly weekday on November. I tried to make guesses based on the boot tread (looked like industrial work boots), spacing on the footsteps (slightly smaller stride than mine), and other patterns. The prints didn’t stray at all from the path. No stops at scenic vistas, no confused stops at ambiguous gullys. It sure looked like the person knew where they were going and had a specific destination in mind. In the end I figured it was another fairly young backpacker headed toward the Enchantments. On I followed.

I caught up with the bootprint owner about four miles in where he was enjoying a view of Colchuck Lake and Dragontail Peak (view pictured in my last post). A guy probably in his forties just out for a day hike. Close enough. We talked for a couple minutes and then I passed by into untrodden snow.

I was glad when the trail around the south side of Colchuck Lake was fairly apparent. Following the path of least resistance for the most part kept me on track with landmarks that were clearly part of a well-traveled trail. The south side of the lake is dominated by a field of gigantic boulders and I picked my way carefully across their icy caps toward the base of Dragontail Peak. At this point I had still been planning on heading up Colchuck Glacier to the right of Dragontail with summit of Colchuck Peak to follow. But looking up at the cloud cover I realized I wouldn’t have much of a view from the top and decided to head up Aasgard Pass to the left of Dragontail instead. Into the Enchantments, saving Colchuck for another day. Below left: Colchuck Lake from the boulder field. Below right: looking up Aasgard Pass.

Had this not been my first time here I certainly would’ve picked a much better line up the pass. Snow and ice though made following any sort of established trail all but impossible. What followed was an exceedingly unpleasant couple of hours pushing up ice-covered rock covered in inches and eventually feet of snow. It was actually strikingly similar to my trek up Mount Stuart last October, only colder and icier. At one point I found myself pulling myself precariously up a large rock outcropping and quickly realized that any route that required the use of all four limbs was probably the wrong route. I carefully eased back down, reassessed, and worked my way around it instead.

Lots of post-holing (where your leg punches through the snow and plants like a post), at first just knee deep, but eventually hip deep in places. This is especially fun when you get even the smallest bit of momentum going, take a step, punch through, and immediately halt that momentum via a thigh or knee wedged between two rocks. Even in the clouds though the scenery was still striking. I liked the natural snow donuts curled up like cinnamon rolls.

Working higher, the terrain steepened slightly and I still hadn’t located anything approaching a definitive correct path. I looked up at the cliffs to my left, an icy waterfall looming overhead, and a wide stream of water cascading over more icy rocks to my right. Hmmm. Locating the correct path sure seemed like a good idea. I was guessing that I had to cross the cascading stream at some point, but I also saw a set of mountain goat footprints meandering upward. Well if the goat can do it… So I followed the goat footprints. If nothing else it meant I could see the spots where he stepped and didn’t post-hole. The goat picked his way up and over the waterfall and I followed. Again using all four limbs at times, but content enough to have an imaginary guide.

I assumed that once I crested the waterfall portion I would be treated to sweeping views of the Enchantments. Nope. I skittered across the icy rock, stepped into a three-foot-deep snowdrift and was treated to a view of more upward sweeping rock. Oh come on. As the wind blasted across my back, I stood in the snow for about five minutes contemplating. Well if I turn around right now I could at least be off Aasgard Pass by dark. Right? Below left: Ice waterfall; check out the trees for scale. Below right: My view after cresting the falls.

My boots and feet were completely soaked, darkness was closing in, and I was exhausted from slipping and sliding up a couple thousand feet of unstable footing. I knew the forecast for Saturday was better though and it sure would be a shame to come this far without any payoff. So I kept going up, this time cresting what clearly should’ve offered views of the Enchantments, but instead offered only clouds and disappearing daylight. I tromped around in the snow looking for reasonably level ground to sleep on and any sort of shelter from the wind.

I picked a spot behind a large boulder, sloughed off my backpack and tried to dig out enough snow to provide a platform for my tent. As I broke out my gear I realized just how strong the wind was blowing. Even with all of my equipment chucked inside, my tent was still catching air, tipping and lifting like crazy. After one of the straps on my rainfly snapped, I gave up all attempts at attaching what would clearly only function as a sail and decided to hope for the best under the open mesh. I tucked my rainfly under my tent, hoping it would be a good waterproofing barrier, then tried to settle in for the thirteen hours of darkness.

I curled into my sleeping bag, leaning out to jetboil some oatmeal (no asphyxiation danger in my open air fortress of solitude), then lay down hoping morning would come quickly. It did not. The wind continually whipped spindrifts of snow against the mesh of my tent where it would stick and be blown through as mist onto my face moments later. Eventually I had small pools of water collecting on the floor and my sleeping bag was sopping. The wind yanked at my tent, buckling the poles and collapsing the ceiling against my head.

At about 7:30 pm I was able to fall asleep for about half an hour. I woke up shivering in the wind and curled into a tighter ball, promising myself I would never do this again. I fell asleep again at about 9:00 and woke at midnight with the nearly full moon shining brightly overhead. The fog had lifted leaving wispy clouds in its wake. I propped up on my elbows, still shivering, but now able to see the silhouettes of rock in the distance. I took out my topo map and a tiny pen light and eventually aligned the murky shapes with lines. I was happy to see that I would wake to views of McClellan Peak and Little Annapurna. I woke for good at about 6:00 just as flecks of red sunlight were peaking into view to the east.

It was not a morning to be rushed and I took my time making more oatmeal and shaking the water off of my soaked gear. The wind was still gusting but not quite as vociferously as the previous night. And sunlight makes a world of difference. I broke camp, slipped on my soaked boots, and headed off into my own private wilderness. The vows of the previous shivering night were quickly rebuffed. Below: Witch’s Tower and Dragontail in the morning light.

My toes were freezing for the first thirty minutes of hiking but eventually warmed up once the blood was flowing. I hiked around Isolation Lake looking for signs of wildlife (none) and snapping pictures of snow and rock. I wanted to get a view of the lower basin of the Enchantments and decided to hike up Enchantment Peak (pictured below, bottom-right) to find my vantage point.

Hiking up the frozen snow was very straightforward and by kicking steps in the top ice layer I was able to march right up. I didn’t top out on Enchantment Peak as the west face that I was approaching looked a little dicey, but I was more than content with the views from the slightly lower points to the west (elevation 8100 ft or so). Looking down on Inspiration and Perfection Lakes I was slightly tempted to extend my outing for one more day to go exploring, but there was no way I was going to spend another night getting pummeled.

I ate lunch (a partially frozen Cliff Bar and water) sitting on top of the rock in the below-left picture, thawing out my boots, gawking at my surroundings, and listening to the quiet. Then headed down to start the slog back down Aasgard Pass.

Aasgard was still plenty snowy up top, but much improved from the previous day. The ice layer was mostly gone and I could actually see my guiding rock cairns, now snow-free. It was still a long down-climb, but actually having a definitive path helped a ton. I didn’t meet anyone on the trail until well below Colchuck Lake and was glad that to have had the mountains to myself for a full day, shivering and all.

5 thoughts on “Sun 23 Nov 08

  1. JOZ

    Josh, I’m just amazed how you find your way alone through all that treacherous beauty–and survive–but i love reading your telling of it, holding my breath and hoping you’re once again safe at home, warm, dry, rested. Thanks for sharing your adventures this way.

  2. jordan

    Wow, let me know next time you do a trip like this and I’ll come along. Those pictures are awesome.,

  3. Josh Post author

    No plans other than Mary’s home-cooking on Thursday. I’m most likely out of commission for the moment though with what feels like a fairly serious shoulder injury. Since last Thursday, I can’t raise my right arm laterally at all without an excruciating amount of pain. Probably no hiking until I figure out the problem. Unfortunate, as the forecast still looks decent (though cold). You’re welcome to come up any time though.

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