The Enchantments

Death March Through the Larches

October, 2018

For my first three years living in Washington, I'd heard stories about the Enchantment Lakes Basin hike in the Central Cascades, a difficult, permit-only traverse through some of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness' most spectacular scenery. The stories I'd heard tended to go along similar lines, it was brutal but beautiful, and due to the National Forest Service's restrictions on access, almost impossible to get a permit to backpack through. Typically, to backpack through the Enchantments, one must take part in a permit lottery in February, something I never trust and rarely take part in, not wanting random chance to dictate my ability to hike somewhere. Though I'd had success in other lottery-style permit situations, namely the Wave in Arizona and the Subway in Zion National Park, I didn't want to risk missing out on the Enchantments because I didn't score a permit.

The poor logic of avoiding doing the hike for three years because I was worried I would be told I couldn't do the hike is not entirely lost on me. But, there it was, sitting as this unattainable sparkling jewel on a pedestal, walled off to me by little more than a barrier of paperwork and chance, teasing me with the stories of its beauty by too many friends who were not so put-off by the concept of a lottery.

There was of course an alternative to the lottery, one which a few people I know and work with have tried over the years, that of the notorious "Death March" through-hike, a 20.5 mile slog from end to end along a trail that most hikers take at least three days to accomplish. Despite my experience hiking long distances, I doubted my ability to pull this kind of hike off for some time, until an unexpected moment of confidence this past summer during my UK hike told me that there was nothing I couldn't pull off in terms of hiking. I'd crossed the Alps, I'd walked 100 kilometers in three days, I was at the peak of my hiking ability and confidence/arrogance. There was no way I couldn't handle this.

I arrived in the small german-styled town of Leavenworth around 8:30pm, hungry and looking to indulge in some pre-hike Octoberfest eats. Unfortunately, most of the town had closed at 8:00, but I managed to score an excellent sausage plate and equally excellent beer at the Bavarian Bistro and Bar before setting out into the mountains. The bar was filled with hikers of all ages, most of whom had, I assumed, just come down from the Enchantments, and all looked decidedly weary and spent from the experience. I ate my food, enjoying my meal and left, driving up the long, winding forest road up to the Stuart Lake Trailhead, where I planned on sleeping in my car for a few hours before an early leave.

It was a restless night, and I was frequently awakened throughout the course of the night by headlamps and incoming cars driving in to have similar nights. I finally gave up on sleep around 5:30am and dressed hurriedly in my car, the mountain cold having descended on the trailhead and turning my backseat sleeping situation into an icebox. I threw together my day-pack with enough food and water to last me the whole day and set out into the darkness of the forest, my headlamp lighting the way up through the oppressive woods.

There's a primal sort of nervousness that hits you walking through a dark forest at night, one of the reasons I generally hate leaving on a hike before sunrise, or finishing after sunset. I kept my head down, watching for roots and rocks in the well-trodden trail, of which there few, and made good time pushing up toward my first stop, Colchuck Lake. The night seemed to swallow even the considerable light from my headlamp, and a still silence hung heavy over the forest. Even the churning waters of Mountaineer Creek, not more than a few hundred yards away at any given time, seemed muted, distant. Despite my lack of sleep, I felt alert in a way I can only attribute to my wariness of the woods around me.

The sky started to lighten and trees lessen as I reached the first crossing of Mountaineer Creek, some two miles into the hike, and stowed my headlamp as the first group of hikers and trail runners passed me on their way up. I kept moving, pushing along steadily, ignoring the voice in the back of my mind telling me to move faster than other hikers, the voice that always gets me in trouble when I listen to it.

The air felt like autumn, the crispness of it, the wafting smell of decaying leaves, the chill borne of mountain snows. As I continued to ascend, the trees parted and I arrived at the second bridge crossing of Mountaineer Creek, and found that the sky had finally illuminated enough to allow for photography.

I crossed the creek along a sturdy log footbridge and passed along the talus slope upstream toward a heavily-switchbacked section of trail climbing up toward the Colchuck Basin above me. I climbed steadily, avoiding the urge to take a break, though my instincts told me I should do so. I paused as the trees opened up across a huge granite outcropping, and the valley floor carved by Mountaineer Creek opened up before me.

Lake Stuart Valley

In the distance, the bowl of the Lake Stuart Valley stood on the edge of illumination by the rising sun, the morning clouds parting to reveal lightening sky just barely kissed by morning light. Colors climbed the peaks of the Stuart Massif, purples and oranges and yellows in the distance teasing me with the sights I had come to these mountains to see.

Energized and full of adrenaline with the beauty around me, I continued to ascend, ignoring the tightness of my legs and increasing chill in the air. Before long, I reached the first campsite along the trail, and took a small spur trail behind it to my first view of the Colchuck Lake Basin, with the looming Dragontail Peak and Asgard Pass behind it.

Lake Colchuck

Dragontail Peak loomed over the lake, and the remnants of the Colchuck Glacier clung to the rocky talus slopes on its northern side. To the other side of the mountain, rose the precipitous incline to Asgard Pass, what I'd been told was the most difficult section of the whole trail. I watched other hikers from across the lake, small black dots barely discernible amongst the boulders of the slope, winding their way slowly upward toward the pass. There was no trail that I could see, no line in the slope that I could follow. It seemed daunting, but I was determined to get up there to see what lay on the other side.

Following the line of the lake, I made my way along the serpentine trail, past campsites with still-sleeping hikers waiting for their day to start. I stopped for breakfast at a small pond barely separated from the main lake by a small spit of land. My first up close look at the larches I came to the Enchantments to see was across this pond, casting their golden reflections in the glass-still water, the sun just barely kissing the top of the peak that they climbed.

My break only lasted about ten minutes before I pushed back to my feet and continued on. A few hundred yards along, I passed a large camp of hikers busily working their arms in puffy jackets and sipping their coffee trying to bring warmth into their bones, having slept outside in what I could only imagine was near freezing temperatures. I pushed on, seeing the sun slowly cresting above Asgard Pass, looking for an opening in the trees to capture the perfect moment.

A few more bends around the lake brought me to the slopes of the Colchuck Glacier talus slope, a boulder-strewn expanse where the trail ceased to exist and only cairns showed the way.

I cautiously traversed the field, slipping once and banging my shin and almost dangerously twisting my ankle more than a few times. It was a hint of what was to come, I knew, but I managed well despite a few bumps and bruises, and their accompanying swear words yelled in anger, and soon reached the other side, where the trail resumed for a time, passing through one last stand of green trees before the steep slope up to Asgard Pass

Ascent to Asgard

The trail ended almost as soon as it resumed, and I found myself stowing my trekking poles so I could have my hands free for the scramble ahead of me. Each step felt laboriously slow as I ascended, picking my way through the surrounding rock fields, pausing at each cairn to spot the next. It felt like climbing the worlds longest staircase, an unending assault on my quads as I pushed ever upward. Behind me the whole of Lake Colchuck spread out in all of its still, reflecting beauty. In the distance, layers of mountain peaks receded into the distance.

Halfway up the slope, a massive granite outcropping rose from the center of the talus field, it's top capped by a tuft of golden larches. Here, at higher elevation, the autumn colors were in full force, in every bush and tree that I passed, pulling me upward toward the summit I knew was full of more golden splendor.

The climb grew steeper, and every small lean away from the slope felt like it would pull me backward and down the rocky slide, and made me measure each step to ensure my footing. As I climbed onward, the summit of Dragontail Peak loomed, the namesake fork in the rock coming clearer into view, towering above me and the rest of the Colchuck basin like an austere granite guardian.

Soon the creeks that trickled down the slope turned solid with ice, and small fields of snow blanketed the rocks, making traversal precarious at best, and outright dangerous in some spots. In my foolish rush to get packed in the morning, I had left my microspikes in the car, so each step needed to be sure, lest I slip and fall to a severe injury or worse.

The trail became indistinct with the snow cover, sporadically showing then disappearing, with no more cairns to be clearly seen. At several points I climbed up sheer rock faces as tall as I was, wedging myself into cracks in the rocks or pulling myself up with the trunks of some of the sturdier larches. Each time I did so, I reached a bend in the trail that seemed obvious from above, but had been completely hidden from below, which caused me no end in frustration.

As soon as I had started to doubt the trail, however, it opened up, and one last cairn signaled my arrival at the rocky promontory of Asgard Pass, crowned on its north end by the still looming summit of Dragontail peak.

Asgard Pass

Beneath me, in a small glacial basin, an ice-covered tarn rang like a church bell as the ice cracked and shifted, and I joined the other hikers at the top for a satisfied and admiring view of the slope we had just climbed.

Beneath us, Colchuck lay blue and distant, and further out, the towering white slopes of Glacier Peak could barely be made out far to the north. It had taken me six hours to reach the top of Asgard, and I had only gone six or seven miles. I knew I only had seven hours of daylight left, and time felt increasingly against me.

Despite my pressing concerns about my timetable, I allowed myself a brief moment of reflection and joy at achieving the summit before turning away, toward the south and the bounty of the Enchantment Core Zone that I'd worked all morning to reach. As stunning as the climb had been, I knew it was just the beginning.

The Upper Basin

Time was against me as soon as I reached the summit of Asgard Pass. Already six hours into my Enchantments Death March, I still had 13-14 miles to go and only seven hours of usable daylight remaining to me. Normally, I'd have no trouble making the mileage, but the amount of time it had taken me to get up to the pass was already telling me that this was no normal trail. I didn't know what was ahead of me, but I knew I had to move.

I moved down from the pass in the most efficient way I could, forgoing the need for a break in favor of making up miles. My legs, still tired from the climb up Asgard, delighted in the newfound well-worn trail and spongy earth that I was now walking on, weaving through the barren glacial flats of at the top of the pass, pushing deeper into the highlight of the hike, the Enchantment Lakes Core Zone.

The Enchantments are located at the top of a glacier-carved terraced plateau between the 7800' Asgard Pass at the western end and Lake Viviane at the eastern, the last of the lakes in the Core Zone sitting at 6600'. At roughly 6 miles in length, the trail that winds its way through the lakes is, for the most part, well worn and easy to follow, and the damp, alpine soil was perfect for cruising in most parts.

With one last look to the still looming peak of Dragontail Peak behind me, I moved down from the rocks, following the curvature of the barren rock field down to the first, and highest lake in the Enchantments, Tranquil Lake.

The conditions were perfect. Crisp mountain air, chilled by the small snowfields that clung to the surrounding peaks, blew peacefully along the high basin, and the noon sun played hide-and-seek through the drifting clouds, throwing random shadows and patches of light upon the lakes and granite walls as I passed through.

Further along, the trail wound down and around the periphery of Isolation Lake, nestled beneath the remains of the Snow Creek Glacier, feeding the creek which shared the glacier's name, the water source for all of the lakes in the Core Zone.

Larches clung sparsely to the thin, nutrient-barren dirt of the pass, ground more suited to alpine grass and lichen, but provided just enough color and texture to the surroundings to accentuate the beauty of the area. Ice and snow lay in patches everywhere, hinting at the coming winter that was threatening to descend on the mountains any day.

Further on, the trail followed the undulating snake of Snow Creek, here and there little more than a trickling stream, through a series of unnamed alpine ponds and glacial tarns, laced at the edges with creeping ice, ringed with lichenous granite and yellowed mountain grass.

Further along, as the basin opened up into a wide expanse of water and rock, the stoney crag of McLellan Peak, at the eastern end of the Core Zone, rose above the larch-lined horizon. Surveying the tree-line, I knew I was approaching the first terraced drop of the hike, and the start of the larch forest I had come to see.

The whole of the upper basin felt like a place pulled from a different mountain range. It reminded me of the High Sierra, more than it did the Cascades I was accustomed too. Where most of the Cascade Range is volcanic uplift, dark black mountains and verdant coniferous valleys, here there were thick slabs of granite and golden colors everywhere, looking like the high lakes of King's Canyon or Sequioa more than the mountains of Washington I knew. The marked difference even between the forested shores of Lake Colchuck that I had passed through just a few hours prior and this place seemed so dramatic that I felt in another place entirely.

Before long I reached the line of larches marking the end of the upper basin, and the start of the golden forests I'd hoped to find up here. Larches are coniferous trees, like pines or firs, whose needles change and drop in the winter like a deciduous oak or maple. Their golden hues are found marching up the high slopes of the northern Cascade range in Washington and further on into Canada, but here, in the Enchantments, was one of the most fantastic displays of fall color I'd ever seen.

Just past this line of larches, the trail started its descent toward Inspiration Lake, following the steep cliff face that looked out over the Crystal Lake Basin to the south. A few twisted larches clung precariously over the edge of the sheer granite walls as the rush of water from a spur off Snow Creek descended in a splashing waterfall through a narrow crack in the rock. Above, Little Annapurna, so named because of its resemblance to its namesake in Nepal, loomed against a backdrop of darker clouds, but the lake below sparkled in the mid-day sun, a deep blue reflecting the sky amongst the gray and gold of the larch covered mountain slopes around it.

The Middle Basin

As I moved on, another hiker, coming up the slope from Inspiration Lake, paused to chat with me about the trail ahead. Noting my small pack, he asked how far I was headed, and when I told him the whole way, he nodded and warned me about the drop above Lake Viviane. There, he warned, a sheer rock face marked with hand holds was all that stood between me and a 20-foot fall, and that there was no shame in sitting down and using my butt for stability. I thanked him for the advice, not fully understanding but glad for the warning, and wished him well as he took off toward the Little Annapurna summit.

The trail here descended down a rocky chute carved by the flow of Snow Creek toward Inspiration and Perfection lakes, and the thicker larch forests of the middle basin. Snow and ice lay thick on this stretch of trail, and once more I lamented my lack of traction spikes, but with some slow going and a few twisted knees, I made it to the shores of Inspiration. Here I saw the first camp set up by overnight permit holders in the Core Zone, a small tent set on a granite ledge, perfectly situated to catch sunrise over the lake.

The trail around Inspiration Lake was easy enough to follow, though the multitude of cairns in the area made route-finding a little more difficult than it should've been. I crossed the outflow where Snow Creek continued its descent toward Perfection Lake and circled the larch-forested eastern shore of the lake marveling at the rich colors juxtaposed against the starkness of the granite walls all around me.

Rounding a bend, I caught my first look at the towering pinnacle of The Temple jutting out above a forest of larches. I had never seen the sheer concentration of larch trees before that I came upon here, a forest of golden trees marching up the rocky slopes toward the knife-edged mountain above me.

I entered the forest along the edge of Perfection Lake, and after an inadvertent detour up a spur trail, followed the shoreline around the lake. The trees glowed in the afternoon sunlight, and red heather carpeted the forest floor, creating one of the most stunning autumnal displays I can recall seeing.

Further along, Little Annapurna once more rose high above the lake, looming above a rocky outcropping in the lake that I'd seen in dozens of photos prior to my hike. My legs cried out for a break, my heart begged me to take a moment and savor the scene, but the ever-present ticking of the clock pushed me on, through the forest and down, ever down, toward the lower basin ahead.

The Lower Basin

After Perfection Lake, the trail resumed its parallel course to Snow Creek, through another section of unnamed ponds and pools, toward Leprechaun Lake, the second to last lake in the Core Zone.

As I reached Leprechaun lake, the sun became almost fully obscured by the increasing cloud cover above, and I felt the chill of the autumn air more distinctly than I had up to that point. Looking back, I saw low angled sunlight shining through in patches, only a hand-and a half's width above the top of Little Annapurna, signaling that it would be obscured by the summit in an hour and a half, give or take. I paused for a snack break for a few minutes, letting my increasingly sore knees take a break, pulling my shoes off to soak them in the icy waters of the lazy creek. Time was against me, I knew, but that kind of thinking had gotten me hurt in the past, I knew I needed to rest.

I rounded the shadowed shores of Leprechaun Lake and again took a wrong turn, following a goat-track toward Lake Vivian halfway down to the lake before realizing it was a dead-end.

I climbed back up and found the correct trail, following it around a steep escarpment to the the rock-face that the other hiker had warned me about earlier. Here, the expanse of the Snow Lake Valley opened up before me, and I stood on the angled granite rock face nervously looking at the distance I still had to cover before darkness fell. More daunting than the angle of the stone on which I stood, or the miles I had to cover, however, was the amount of elevation I still had to lose before I reached the Snow Lake trailhead and the end of my hike. at around 6600', I still had nearly 5000' of elevation to lose, 1600 of which would come in the next mile and a half. My knees screamed at the thought of it, downslopes always being the most painful for me, but I had no choice, the hour was waning and I had to move.

I scrambled down the steep slope, occasionally dropping onto my butt as the other hiker recommended to increase my surface area contact with the rock. I didn't use the handholds, but counted all of my blessings that it had not rained or worse yet, snowed, during the day. The rock down which I scrambled was already slick, as granite has a tendency to be in even its driest states, it would be beyond treacherous with any sort of wetness. I tend to do well with heights, but memories of a 15' fall in the Zion National Park backcountry that almost ended me made me nervous as I made the slow descent, picking my way carefully down the rocks to firmer ground.

I crossed the outflow of Snow Creek at the eastern end of Lake Viviane and began my descent, picking my way down the unending steep rock face and narrow switchbacks toward Snow Lake. Above, the jagged escarpment of McLellan Peak marked the end of the Core Zone, and the beginning of my final push to the end of the hike.

At the base of the down climb, I stopped for another break, snacking on two packages of caffeinated energy chews and mustering up the energy for the final push. I looked at the map, and my watch, and noted that I had 8 miles still to go, and only two and a half hours til sundown. I'd spent almost 5 hours in the Core Zone, with nearly a thousand photos to show for it, but I'd cost myself the chance of making it out before dark.

I hit the trail hard, nevertheless, refusing to give up on making it down on time, churning miles despite my sore knees and aching muscles. I put on a pace I normally reserve for mid-day long distance hiking, a long-striding ground-eating rhythm fueled by the need to go far, fast. I let the hunger for real food that gnawed at my belly drive me forward, thoughts of getting back to Leavenworth before the restaurants closed pushing me down the much smoother, well-trodden path along the edge of Snow Lake and beyond.

I moved down, always down, through the talus slopes between Snow and Nada Lakes through the forests down the Snow Creek Canyon. My knees screamed in pain, joints inflamed by repeated twisting and impact threatening to drop me with each step, but I pushed on. Darkness fell, and I threw on my headlamp, marching laboriously toward the trailhead I saw ahead of me. It was so far below me still, and each step send jolts of pain through my legs and into my back, but I kept moving, refusing to stop.

When I reached the Snow Lake trailhead at 8:20pm, I had been walking steadily for over 14 hours, and everything hurt in a way I hadn't felt since climbing to the top of St. Bernard Pass in the Alps a year prior. To this point that had been my most difficult hiking experience, but the Enchantments made that 24-mile climb feel like a simple excursion in hind-sight. I checked my gps, noting that I had climbed almost 6000' and descended over 8000' in the course of just over 20 miles.

I hitched a ride back to my car, and drove barefoot back into Leavenworth, dejectedly anticipating a meal from McDonalds because I'd returned so late. I pulled into town and parked, and noticed that one beer garden was still serving the delicious sausages I had been craving all day, and really all week prior. I got two bratwurst and a huge pretzel, and washed it down with the most welcome beer I've had in a long time. The girl taking my order asked how long I'd been in the mountains, noting my hobble and overall disheveled nature. I told her I'd done the Death March, and she laughed, congratulating me and saying she'd never be stupid enough to try it. I settled in to my meal and smiled, feeling accomplished and inspired, and ready to find the next challenge ahead of me.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In