Being the ultimate weekend warriors, we decided this Thursday that we should put Justin's two day weekend to good use. A few months ago we attempted to score one of the permits to backpack the magnificent 18 mile route known as the Enchantments. Even though it's not in a national park, it's so popular that in the summer and late spring, traffic is restricted via a permit system. Most of the permits are reserved in advance, but each day they hand out one permit for the "core" trail and a few other permits for the surrounding area. We did our usual show up in the middle of the night and sleep outside the ranger station stunt, fully expecting to receive that one pass since we were definitely the first in line. So it was bitterly disappointing to find out that the permits are given away lottery style! And to top things off, the ranger was... well I'll be polite and go with "unique". She came stomping out of the station and announced that we couldn't stand on the porch or steps while she handed out the passes. The girl standing next to us leaned over and whispered "She does this every time - clears everyone off the porch". She handed out paper for us to write our names on and then put them into a container from whence she drew the lucky permit winner, which happened to be a very outdoorsy couple who immediately set off for the trail head grinning ear to ear while the rest of us stared dejectedly at one another. The ranger announced it was time to draw for a lake near the trail and we were unlucky again. One permit remained for an area near the Enchantments, and instead of drawing it lottery style, the ranger ascended from her lofty spot on the porch to us mere mortals below and handed it to one of the remaining couples. The rest of us were flabbergasted and pretty miffed, especially us since we'd just spend half a night sleeping in front of the station! After that the only thing that made sense was to hit the McDonald's across the street and drown our sorrow in sugary treats. It was a long three hour drive home. Now that you're filled with pity for us (right?), moving on. Come October 15th, permit season is over and anyone who wishes to may backpack the Enchantments. Having just crossed into no permit season we decided that this was the perfect way to spend our weekend.
We left Friday evening and drove up to Leavenworth (WA) which is the nearest town to the Enchantments. The Enchantments is not a loop, so it can be hiked either direction from two different trailheads. We decided to hike straight into the Upper Enchantments via the Stuart Lake trailhead since this route reduces the total elevation gain by 2,600 ft. The bad part is that you have to climb Aasgard Pass, which rises 1,900 ft in less than a mile. Regardless of which route you take, to reach even one lake the minimum price is a seven mile hike with at least a 4,400 ft elevation gain. The Enchantments are not for the faint of heart.
After bumping along a dirt road for about half an hour we pulled into the Stuart Lake parking lot to discover than everyone else and their cousin, and their cousin's kids, and their kids friends and so forth had also decided to take advantage of the end of permit season. The place was packed. So much so that cars were lined up along the side of the road for the entire last mile leading to the parking lot. Amazingly, we found an open spot and settled in for the night. Not wanting to unpack my backpack to get out my sleeping bag I decided to just wrap up in our down jackets since the car was pretty warm. Justin, on the other hand, unpacked his sleeping bag (zero degree down) and thus almost immediately begin to sweat. So we cracked the windows but within short order any part of me sticking out from under the jackets was uncomfortably cold. Justin unzipped his sleeping bag so that it was more like a blanket and threw an edge over me which helped. Needless to say our sleep was a bit restless.
The next morning was cool, sunny, and clear, and we hit the trail feeling pretty stoked. We spent the next four miles going back and forth between passing and being passed by the same groups of day hikers and backpackers since the trail was pretty crowded. It was like when you're driving and you keep going back and forth passing and being passed by the same cars depending on the terrain. Two and a half miles in we reached the Colchuck Lake trailhead and took it towards Aasgard Pass. When we came out of the woods onto the banks of Colchuck we were greeted by a glassy glacial blue lake with broad sandy white beaches.
We skirted the edge of the lake heading towards the ragged peaks directly across from us. Pausing in a boulder field for a brief lunch, it was not at first clear to us where Aasgard Pass was. And then with mild horror we realized that the boulder field in which we sat was the beginning of Aasgard Pass, as we could see tiny ant-like figures laboriously making their way up the rocky landslide to a cleft in the peaks high above us. Justin: "I think I see little people climbing up the slide. This must be the way up to the pass!" Me: "No way! You can't see that far. And this is just like... scree. There's no trail." Justin: "I'm serious. I can see little figures all the way at the top. Those black things. See? They're moving." Me: "#@*%!" Basically you just climb up a 2,000 foot landslide to a little notched pass, which looked pretty sketch to me. Nonetheless, we began to wind our way up the slope following cairns through the boulder fields and a dusty semi-packed trail through the scree. About a quarter of the way up we caught up to a girl and started chatting with her, learning that she was a backpacker from Seattle who had done this route several times. "It's agonizing going up and down" she notified us morosely. Hmm thanks for the encouragement. The good part was that as we climbed we began to have insane views of the valley floor and got to see a little mountain goat family just off the trail. The bad part was, like Seattle Backpacker Girl had warned, we were starting to feel very fatigued. The pace was slow since all the scree required careful going, and at times things got so rocky and steep that scrambling with hands and feet was required. Two hours in, the summit came into view - at least we thought it did. We were truly depressed to climb over its lip only to find that it was a false summit and we still had a ways to go. Almost three hours in we stepped with relief onto flat ground at 7,800 feet and made our way the short distance to Isolation Lake and the much smaller Tranquil Lake, the first bodies of water after Aasgard Pass.
We set up camp right there between Isolation and Tranquil Lake since we didn't feel like hiking a minute more, filtered water, and cooked our backpacking special: a huge pot of ramen noodles. Slightly more energized, we hiked past Isolation Lake for a look into the valley below and were rewarded with an amazing view of numerous small lakes and ponds spreading across a broad plateau. Man, we were so bummed that we'd been lazy and not bothered to hike just a little further to see if there was a better place to make camp.
Anyways, back at camp we were treated to our second mountain goat encounter when Justin spied one grazing on the shore of Tranquil Lake. I positioned myself on a rock with my camera and, as if aiming to please, the goat trotted to the water's edge and took a drink. It was like a freaking National Geographic moment. So picturesque. So much so that I ended up with about 100 pictures of that goat that all look almost exactly the same. Less picturesque was the fact that the area's outhouse was located on the rocks just above the goat. Being on the cusp of winter the foliage around it had thinned enabling everyone passing Tranquil Lake a clear view of whichever poor soul happened to be using the bathroom at that time. Interestingly, the reason there are outhouses scattered throughout the Enchantments in the first place is due to the goats. As the mountain goats in this area became accustomed to people they began to take a liking to the salt in people's urine. As such, they turned into creepy stalkers and began to follow people in search of pee, even acting aggressively at times. A quick Google search brings up all sorts of goat stories and news reports, including one from a Portland news agency urging, "Hikers: avoid goat attacks, be careful where you 'go'" in which they describe the situation in the Enchantments, warning that a few years before a man was fatally gored by a goat in Olympic National Park. I mean, can you imagine getting to heaven and everyone wants to know how you died, maybe thinking something along the lines of grizzly or avalanche and you're like, "Well... I ran into this pissed off goat." Anyways, all of this has led to park rangers building outhouses in hopes of clearing up the problem.
That night we were lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on our tent. I fell asleep thinking, "Please don't let it be raining or snowing when we have to go back down Aasgard Pass in the morning!"
Instead, we woke up to heavy fog and were pleasantly surprised to find that it hadn't reached freezing temperatures over night. We were also happy to find that our pack covers had indeed kept our things dry - thank you very much Arc'teryx and REI. Unfortunately, the tent was super wet and it didn't look like the kind of day where it was ever going to dry out, so we had to pack it up in its bedraggled state. We decided to hike with our pack covers in place and pulled on rain jackets as we headed back towards the pass. Blue skies are nice, but the fog was pretty awesome. The Upper Enchantments already look other worldly in their barren splendor, so being enshrouded in mist only heightened this sentiment. We felt like we were in Lord of the Rings.
The climb back down Aasgard felt quicker, but in reality took us the same amount of time as things were rather slippery. We remained cloaked in swirling fog until we emerged onto the beach at Colchuck Lake, at which point it began to rain. I was beginning to get a bit grumpy so, rain and all, I insisted on sitting miserably on a wet log eating cornbread muffins while Justin stood by, patiently watching.
For the next three hours we trudged down the trail in anything from a drizzle to a moderate down pour. Eventually the trail began to resemble a small creek and the seeming endlessness of it changed our chatty hike into one of gloomy silence. And then suddenly there was packed dirt beneath our feet, and we saw our car at the end of the parking lot. We may have only had two days, the weather could have been better, and I may have gotten some seriously painful blisters, but it was worth it. Adventuring outdoors always is.