Granite and Glacé
by Lisa Roberts
The long awaited day finally arrived. After trying, unsuccessfully to obtain a pass in the mid summer to hike into the Enchantments, we resigned ourselves to waiting until after October 15th, when a pass is not required. My husband, Randy, spent weeks preparing, making sure we had the right clothing and gear to climb late in the season. Now we were ready to ascend into the enchanted lands that were so close to our beautiful home town of Leavenworth, and yet so far away.
We were up at our normal time in the morning, getting the kids off to school and making final preparations for our trip. My father, who offered to stay with the kids, drove with us up to the Snow Lakes Trailhead parking lot, where we dropped off a vehicle and then on to the Lake Stuart Trailhead where we started our journey.
The first part of the hike went quickly and uneventfully. We felt we were back with an old friend as we hiked up the familiar trail, recognizing the bridges, bends in the creek and the boulder fields on the journey. On the last steep part just before Colchuck Lake, we met some people hiking out, well clothed for inclement weather, with the finest high end gear. They had spent three days at the lake and had made a day trip up to the Enchantments. They asked if we’d been up there before.
“Oh yeah”, says Randy, thinking they are talking about Colchuck Lake.
“Nice trail huh,” one hiker says with a smile; more a smirk, that belies something I can’t quite put my finger on.
“I haven’t” I replied, wondering what Randy is talking about. “Is the trail easy to follow?”
“Just follow the cairns and stay to the left”, he says. “Follow the cairns” he repeats. His voice softens a bit and I wonder what I’m getting myself into.
We continued on to Colchuck Lake and looked up at Aasgard Pass. By now it was mid afternoon, and we thought we could still make it up the pass before dark. Fortunately, we decided against it and found a nice place to camp for the night.
In the morning, we woke to an ominous roaring sound. A deep rumbling with staccato like gunshot sounds ricocheting off the mountains around us enshrouded us like a cloak. I poked my head out of the tent to see if I could see the rocks plummeting down the mountain, but I couldn’t see source of the sound.
After a quick breakfast, we broke camp and started our final leg into the Enchantments. The first challenge was to get across a large field of boulders at the end of the lake. Without packs it would have been much easier. As it was, I sprained my ankle and we briefly considered turning around. Had I known what was ahead, I may have made that choice.
The ascent up Aasgard started out easily enough. We gained altitude quickly and seemed as if we were making good progress. The cairns initially were easy to spot and we were confident enough to not pay too close attention to them. That would change.
The higher we climbed the longer the pass seemed. The cairns became more elusive as we relied on them more and more to point the way up the treacherous path. Randy who was carrying the heavier pack needed to stop and rest frequently and didn’t feel well. I would scurry up, stop and wait for him to catch up, admonish him to eat and drink, then scurry up the next section.
Rocks tumbled down the right side of the large rock outcropping, about halfway up the mountain, hitting the rocky slope with large cracks and pings. We were careful not to hike inline with each other, in case we loosened rocks, and risk pummeling the hiker below. Cairns guided our way; marmots followed us, curious and looking for handouts.
The cairns varied from a simple stack of 3 rocks, to large stacks of rocks with a broad base climbing to a point like a pyramid. Some were more like people, with arms extending, and sun streaming through their stone bodies, their qi radiating through vibrantly.
As the route got steeper and higher, ice encased our path. At one point I did some more technical bouldering, straddling a small waterfall of ice as I clambered up the rock. Knowing Randy was tired, I took off my pack and found an easier route for him to come up.
After endless climbing, cresting the top, my spirit soared as I realized I was at the top. The stark surreal landscape opened up before me, as I seemed to float above the ground, the weight of my pack off my back. Small glaciers, sharp spires, a granite desert, friendly cairns and directional toilet signs, oddly out of place, peppered the landscape. Spots of green ground cover, contrasting against the stark landscape poked through the snow, softening the environment. Sheets of ice nestled in the rocks, molding the granite beneath.
The Enchanted Lakes and ice, sand and granite, were hard and glaring, unfriendly and awesome.
We meandered from lake to lake, stopping to take pictures of small waterfalls, cairns we had grown to appreciate, and tall peaks with the names of Prusik and Little Anapurna. White ptarmigan in the snow, unafraid, nonchalantly led us away from their nest.
We gazed down from heavenly heights on a lake far below, my soul expanding until I felt one with the spires.
Towards the end of the afternoon, as the sun was dipping low in the horizon, we paused on the trail and watched a mother goat and her two babies heading on the trail toward us. Startled, they diverted their path to the hill above and looked down on us, curiously at first, then uninterested they ambled away. We back tracked to find a place to camp near one of the lakes. The goats meandered through our camp as we were setting up, this time not even bothering to give us more than a glance.
We dined on a pasta dinner which I burnt. We invited the goats but they declined. I don’t even think the squirrels were happy with us and our burnt offerings.
This night we fell asleep with no problem when it got dark at 7 pm. The wind and rain started sometime during the middle of the night. We woke and dozed on and off again, until the early gray light allowed us to dimly make out our surroundings around 6:30 am. We ate, and hurriedly broke camp trying to keep things as dry as possible.
The way down Snow Lakes Trail should have been easy. We followed the impeccably constructed cairns, pointing the way, each with its own personality, some unobtrusive and shy, others seemingly proud and confident. We looked for these friends, desperately when they weren’t readily visible, sometimes going back to the previous one, looking for clues, wanting to ask them where the next one stood. At one point, as we were on a well marked trail we came upon a toilet. “That’s odd”, I thought. “Usually the toilets are way off the main trail”. We attempted to find a way over sheer drop offs and down an uninviting ravine. After about 20 minutes we realized we needed to backtrack to find the main trail. The rain made the rocks slippery, and we wondered if we should have brought ropes “just in case”. I wouldn’t allow myself to look too far down on some of the steep parts as I thought I might freeze, unable to go further due to fear. I kept pushing those thoughts out of my head and just took the next step and the next. Randy, knows my fear of heights and kept a watchful eye out for me.
Upper Snow Lake was a welcome though not beautiful sight. It signaled our last leg of our journey down the mountain. We continued our descent down to Nada Lake and past, through a boulder field that was a scramble the previous time I had been there. The trails were well maintained except for some areas of windfall.
We arrived at the Snow Lakes Trail head parking lot around 3:00, happy to be down, happy to be soon dry and thrilled about our exhilarating late season experience in the Enchantments.