I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.
For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.
For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.
Trekking Aasgard Pass
The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin. I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.
Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:
Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.
Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.
Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.
And it was absolutely worth it.
The Enchantment Lakes Basin
Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.
It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.
Being One with the Mountain Goats
Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.
Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).
The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.
Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.
I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.