The Enchantment Lakes Basin is considered one of the best hikes in in the Northwest United States. Settling just outside the Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth, Washington you begin to realize the incredible diversity of the terrain with each mile driven on the way to the trail heads. The popularity of this area and the need for care and conservation has led to a lottery system for anyone who wishes to backpack in. Planning over 6 months in advance means you have time to prepare and plan for the journey. This also means you have very little control on what the conditions entail.Â
A couple years ago I was lucky enough to be granted a permit for Colchuck lake, which is one of the key spots to create a base camp for exploring the area, including what can be seen as the holy grail, The Upper Enchantment Lakes in the core. Our dates were timed well with extremely favorable conditions and picks for camping spots. This trip can be seen at Journey Into the Enchantments.
Moving onto present day I was able to get another permit for similar dates and following the same plan and trail path as we did before. Unfortunately 3 of my past companions weren't able to come along, which led to 4 new people signed up for the journey. In a much different pattern of events this time through we were only 2 hikers in number by time September 4 came along. Also, after researching the conditions a bit we realized we were going in under unfavorable conditions. Unlike before we found ourselves looking at 100% chance of rain and possibilities of scattered thundershowers. Usually in a case such as this it would be good to reconsider the plans and alter them for better conditions, but being as things are with such advance planning we decided to chance it anyways. Signs of a challenging adventure began to arise only half way to the Enchantments from Portland. Driving along the highway just north of Yakima the car began to shutter as the smell of torn rubber trailed close behind. The side walls of the front tire blew out and we came to a halt on the side of the road. A quick ten minuted change and an old spare secured to the car and we were on our way again. We pulled into the parking lot of the Stuart Lake Trailhead around eleven at night. This is where we would begin our journey early the following morning. Sleep was essential , but not until I got a few shots of the night sky.
At the time we didn't realize this would be the last time we saw completely clear skies for the rest of our trek. Within a few hours the first wave of heavy rain, and thunder and lightening began. "Good thing we weren't camping yet", is what we were considering. Early the next morning we climbed out of the car with the increasing light to prepare for the hike in to Colchuck Lake.
The heavy rain from the night before didn't cause too many issues on the trail in. A few puddles and looming clouds were all that remained. Soon after we started in I began to notice a stark difference from the last trip up here; the trail was empty of any other hikers. About 3 1/2 hours into the first part of our hike we arrived at Colchuck Lake. This alpine lake that sits just above 6,000 ft. in elevation would become base camp once again.
We found almost every camp site open, besides the ones occupied by backpackers from the night before.
Not long after we built camp I started to notice the numbers of other campers dwindling as they began to hike out. Soon we were all that remained; besides the hawks fishing in the lakes from above and the chipmunks who are less intimidated by people and more interested in what you may have for a snack.
As we explored the area around the lake and relaxed with the site of Enchantment Peak (8250') and Dragon Tail Peak (8,842') looming in the background we started to consider what was in store for us the following day.
Aasgard Pass sat in between these two giants, almost taunting us with breaks in the fog shining sunlight down on it. Josh, who made up the other half of our group sat with wonder at what we were about to attempt. We figured the bad weather for the day came early that morning and we would hopefully be waking up the next day to great weather. After a warm meal of trail tacos we climbed in the tents and laid down to sleep. Not long after the flashes of light began, followed by distant rolls of thunder. Within minutes the tent began to light up with flashes Â over and over again. Five seconds between some flashes, ten seconds between others, the site of the peaks being assaulted just outside the tent began to bring some concerns on. I considered maybe this is why we don't have any neighbors around the lake or on the trail with us. As the heavy rain began to batter the tents, the flashes becoming brighter and the thunder growing louder I realized there was not much else to do but lay down and hope for the best until it was over. After four hours of a constant attack and a few moments of sleep the storm finally passed. I took the time to assess the damage with the break in the rain to find channels of water passed by the edges of my tent leaving me unscathed. Josh wasn't so lucky and awoke the next day to a wet floor inside the tent. We considered ourselves lucky to witness such a dramatic scene and decided to prepare for our hike into the core.
The weather seemed to lighten up and besides the shroud of thick fog that rolled like a wave over the peaks we figured we may have a good opportunity to explore everything the core had to offer. The first, and most grueling step of the trip was the hike across a slippery boulder field and up Aasgard pass. The trail up the pass is a strenuous 2 mile hike with an elevation gain of about 2500'. The trail on a nice day can only be navigated by the cairns (rocks piled up for markers). By time we even found ourselves at the bottom of the pass we had already lost the trail a few times due to washouts and fast-moving streams that replaced the once worn in trail. The pass on this day was engulfed in thick fog and drizzling rain. We started up hoping for better weather to be waiting just over the top in the core.
As we continued on we noticed the rain was beginning to take a harder form and hail was the result. After a steep hike, sometimes requiring hand over hand climbing, we found ourselves cresting the top of the pass. We had a short opportunity to look down on the lake, just before the clouds once again filled the area. We continued deeper into the core considering the different areas we wanted to see. The dark clouds to the east created some skepticism, but after all that work we were not going to be turned around so easily. We pushed in a few miles, exploring the many glacial waterfalls and runoff that filled the aqua blue lakes.
The peaks jetted out of the clouds, looking down on us.
Within an hour we had noticed the weather rolling in and decided to set a limit. We would reach a point where the land cascades steeply into a lake on the far side of the core. At that point we would assess the situation again and start our hike back to the pass. Once again the weather had something else in mind. The minute we arrived at the point we were inundated with hail and freezing rain. It didn't take long before we decided to make a speedy walk back towards the pass. Within ten minutes the thunder and signs of lightning began to appear again. In the core you don't have too many, if any options for cover. Just large boulders and tall peaks remain as the last defense. In a short amount of time we found ourselves back at the top of Aasgard pass, where we stopped briefly to commemorate the days adventure and consider our accomplishments. Not long after we began to start the descent, battering our knees with every step we took. Not too far from the top we came across a group of four women with shorts, thin shirts and small packs making their way up. As this was the first sign of people we have seen in a day we stopped to warn them of what we came across up in the core. Even as the rain continued to fall the women decided to ignore our warning and push through to complete their long and strenuous day hike through the enchantments on a 16 mile loop. I hoped the weather improved for them, since even with our thick layers and rain gear we found ourselves becoming cold.
At the bottom of the pass we began to see other hikers pushing around the lake and passing it on the way up to the core. After a few conversations we found out about the severe weather warning issued by the forestry service the night before. Almost all of the people we came across had decided to forego the first night and wait for the better weather to roll in on the following day. Due to our wet gear and exhaustion from the bad weather we decided to rest up for an hour, pack up, and make our way down, opting out of the last night around Colchuck. Â Halfway down towards the trailhead the sun began to break through and shine down on the saturated trail. We laughed at the irony of the weather timing itself so well with our every move and discussed how lucky we were to be able to enjoy this mystical area, even with the harsh conditions we had. In one day we ascended 2500' and descended 5,000', along 12 miles of trails. That was one of the longest days I have had with a full pack on.
On the drive home Josh and I talked about our adventure and what could be in store for the next trip up in 2014, with luck of obtaining another permit. Some may regret the hiking and camping in harsh conditions, but this was an adventure to be experienced, and now we both have a great story to pass on to others. The only thing different I would recommend is to take the weather warnings more seriously the next time.