Day 2 — Day hike to Enchantments via Aasgard Pass
I awoke early Saturday morning, as is my normal habit while backpacking. Almost always I am awake before first light, and lie in bed waiting, watching, and listening…for daylight to come and the first birds to sing. At times I wish I was one of those people who could sleep in when circumstances allow for that. But that’s not my pattern, and I have come to accept that I will always be awake early and ready to get into whatever adventures the day holds. This day was no exception.
Retracing Stuart and up to Colchuck
I hit the trail early, before Shannon and Kevin even stirred. I left them a note, wishing them well at Horseshoe Lake, and saying I’d be back late afternoon or early evening. I didn’t have a time check, as I had no watch or phone. I made a mental note to purchase a watch before my John Muir trip in August, as I will be in a similar boat with no phone reception. Instinct told me I left camp about 7:00, and I was accurate enough. When I encountered the first hiker on the trail coming into Stuart, I asked him the time. It was 7:30. I knew I would have time to do whatever amount of hiking my soul desired and my body allowed.
The morning was quiet and contemplative, and I felt pretty good. I had doctored my left foot with a blister bandaid and tape to hold it in place, and it felt OK. The trail out of Stuart is a great warm-up for a long day. Slightly downhill and very straightforward, it’s mindless and easy. I reminded myself to enjoy it, as it was the last of the easy hiking until I hit it again in return after whatever else took place that day. I kept a good pace and the 2.2 miles passed quickly.
The trail to Colchuck is a different story. It’s only 1.6 miles to the lake, then .6 around the lake to the base of Aasgard. But it’s somewhat steep, and full of roots, rocks, and obstacles. There is little to distract, although a nice waterfall provided a good picture op.
Waterfall from Colchuck Lake trail
Otherwise, I occupied my mind with memories of past trips. This was my 6th time up Colchuck and Aasgard Pass. The first time was with my first husband, back in the rock climbing days and before kids. We climbed Prusik Peak, which is a stellar multi-pitch rock climb in the heart of the Enchantments. The second time I day-hiked it from Stuart when I was pregnant with Shannon; the third was a backpack trip with friends and co-workers when my kids were very young, and I left them at home with their dad for the first time ever. The fourth was another backpack trip in my 30’s with my second husband, whom I almost killed off when he fell on his face at the top of Aasgard Pass from exhaustion; and the fifth was the thru-hike of the Enchantments two years previous. Now, at age 52, I felt good and reflective about how much life has changed since those early days, and yet I am still up to and loving the same sorts of activities. I felt grateful and blessed that I can still do it, and reminded myself again to enjoy each step along the way….even the harder ones to come.
Colchuck Lake with Aasgard Pass (left of peak)
One of my favorite views occurs when you first break out at Colchuck Lake. The lake is a deep green color, apparently from all the algae it contains. You can also see Aasgard Pass, and it looks just as intimidating as it is.
After a pause here, I continued around the lake, right by multiple campsites occupied by numerous hikers, and finally through the boulder field that is notoriously challenging. Soon I was at the base of the pass, where I ate, drank, and refilled water for the upcoming endeavor.
Up Aasgard and into the Enchantments!
I vowed to take it slow and steady up the pass. It’s steep, advertised as “2000 feet in 3/4 of a mile”. That distance, I swear, is if you head straight up. The “trail”, for what it’s worth, does not do so. It winds up and around cliffs, waterfalls and other obstacles impossible to navigate. The elevation gain I believe…the distance seems much farther than 3/4 of a mile. But as with so many other things in life, it just is what it is, and it must be tackled one step at a time.
I stayed with the “route”, as much as possible, which is loosely defined by “cairns”. Cairns, if you are unfamiliar, are rock piles that hikers place to mark an otherwise not so obvious route. The problem with Aasgard is that there are many different “routes”, and sometimes following “lesser cairns” is not helpful and can get you off the “main” route. This often happens to me, for whatever reason, and I end up somewhere other than the most travelled path. This trip was no exception. I was trying to avoid the steep snow traverse on Aasgard, as I didn’t bring my poles. I am not sure why I left them behind…sometimes, I don’t like to hike with poles, and I want my hands free for other things. This trip was probably one time I should have brought poles, to help with the challenges both uphill and certainly down. But I didn’t, and the snow traverse made me nervous without them. So instead I went up and around, and got into some precarious bouldering. It wasn’t really dangerous but definitely not something I would choose again as a fall would have been dicey.
Colchuck Lake from
At the top of my route deviation, I came upon four young guys laughing and playing and having a grand old time. They reminded me of the mountain goats that you see in abundance in the Enchantments…cavorting around, as if not a care in the world. At first I looked at them like they were crazy, then said hello. Their carefree attitude reminded me not to take myself so seriously…at no point had I felt at risk for my life, even when off course, and sometimes my own seriousness gets to me. “Lighten up, Kathie!” was my motto as I continued on. At this point, I was back on the established route, and the route was quite obvious for the remainder of the pass. I topped out at 7800 feet shortly thereafter.
The views from the top are magnificent. You can see down to Colchuck, out to the Upper Enchantment lakes, as well as multiple peaks and stellar rock formations all around. It’s simply other-worldly, as if you have entered a different universe entirely. I climbed to and sat on the very highest rock, and enjoyed it all. I felt on top of the world! The same four guys came up shortly after, still laughing, talking, and now taking photos. I asked them the time (11:15), and where they were from. They were Navy guys, stationed at Whidbey, out on a long weekend.
Sitting on top of the world!
We chatted and they took some photos of me and I of them. They were through hikers, headed out via Snow Lakes with a car at that trailhead. They invited me to join them…I felt flattered, and wished I could. But I told them I would have a very worried daughter back at Stuart Lake if I didn’t return that evening.
The Enchantments are, well, enchanting. Words cannot do the magnificence proper justice; nor can pictures. The upper lakes on this day were mostly snow covered, with glimpses of them a deep aqua hue. Mountain goats are always plentiful in the area, and this early in the season, the babies were young, small, and adorable.
Momma and babies
Mostly snow covered lakes
I dropped down over snowfield after snowfield, getting farther into the Upper and Middle Enchantments basin. I didn’t want to turn around, but I also didn’t want to linger too long as I still had to retrace my steps and do everything in reverse. I went as far as the overlook to Prusik Peak, and had a hiker take a photo.
Prusik is beautiful, and seeing it made me nostalgic for the good old rock-climbing days. I felt satisfied enough at this point to turn back, and began the snow ascent back to the top of Aasgard Pass.
Down Aasgard — during a helicopter rescue!
I said a final goodbye to the goats and the lakes before heading back down. I had decided to go across the snowfield on the way down, as it seemed the best route even without poles. I stayed true to the course in the upper half of the descent. I crossed the snowfield using my uphill hand as a balance point, and took it slowly and carefully. The grade is steep enough that a fall would be bad, so I made sure to stay focussed.
Shortly after the snow traverse, I started hearing the distant noise of a helicopter. At first it didn’t really register, but soon it was obvious what it was as the noise drew ever closer. A helicopter in that area can only mean one thing: search and rescue. I was instantly on guard, and soon the helicopter was hovering right in front of me, just a bit down the pass. I watched with amazement as a rope was lowered, and just as quickly a stretcher was apparently tied on and airlifted up and out. It happened so fast, and I found myself wondering what had gone on. An accident of some sort, no doubt, but they swooped in and out with incredible speed. As I was trying to puzzle all of this out, I discovered that I had gotten distracted and off route — again. This time, I was, perhaps subconsciously, headed towards the side of the pass where the rescue had taken place. I found myself in amongst steep trees with no cairns, and staring down a long and steep snow field to the left of me. I could see the rescue crew down below, and they were clearly not on any established route. It freaked me out, surmising just how such an accident could take place. Get a bit off the trail, think you can keep working your way down, take a fall and off you go!
I immediately turned around and headed back up. Soon I heard voices above me and knew I was almost back on the route. It shook me up, not because I felt I would actually fall and get hurt, but because I could see how it could happen. I paid close attention after that, and continued working my way down. I felt grateful to be navigating with all body parts intact.
A short bit farther down, I caught up with the rescue crew (three men and two rangers). I asked them what had happened, and learned that a dead body had just been removed from the pass. Apparently, a hiker had slipped and glissaded over a waterfall four weeks previous, and his body had been buried too deeply in snow to evacuate at the time. The three men, all volunteers who did not know the hiker, had hiked in to dig out the body when enough snow had melted. The rangers helped facilitate the helicopter evacuation of said body. Again, this really impacted me, and I kept thinking about it as I finished the descent of the pass. I have hiked for so long without serious injury, and never think something like that will happen. But there was something about being right there that brought it all home, the realization that you can never be too careful in that type of environment.
Down Colchuck, back to Stuart, and straight into the lake!
After the events on the pass, I just wanted to be done with the day. I got my feet wet coming around the lake on the way back, and my tape job worked it’s way off. I had a mess of tape all balled up at the toe, and I stopped to re-tape before heading down from Colchuck. I didn’t use a blister bandaid, though, telling myself it was less than four miles total. My foot complained loudly at each step of those four miles, and the pain really started to get to me. So did my fatigue from the day, and I started to get cranky. There were also tons of people on the trail, which meant lots of starting and stopping to let others pass. I kept my wits about me, but had to work to keep myself from feeling frustrated.
Finally I was at the Stuart turn-off, and into the last 2.2 miles back to camp. At this point, I knew I would make it, and my thoughts turned to jumping right into the lake when I returned. The day had been warm, and I felt sweaty, sticky, and dirty. The image of the lake and jumping in kept me going at a good pace, and I made it back to camp by 6:00, before Shannon and Kevin even returned from their day at Horseshoe Lake. I was truly exhausted after the 15 + mile day, and I jumped in the cool water with all my clothes on. It was refreshing and healing for my tired body and very sore feet.
Dinner followed my swim and Shannon and Kevin’s return. We swapped stories of the day, and made plans for the next one. I told them as much as I could about the route, conditions, and degree of challenge we would all face should we decide to go up Aasgard the next day. Both Shannon and Kevin really wanted to go, and, since I had promised I would go another round, we made plans for an early start that next day. I went to bed with seriously aching feet, a great sense of accomplishment, a sobered sense of what it means to hike in the mountains…and more than a bit of trepidation about doing it all over again the next day.