Memorial Day, 2021
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 29, 30, and 31-May-2021
I went on an adventure to a new part of the mountains!
Running through the Pacific Northwest is a mountain range called the Cascades.
In the middle of the range, though still fairly well North of where I live, is a past of the Central Cascades called the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Within the Alpine Lakes wilderness is a region a little bit North of a small Bavarian-themed tourist town called Leavenworth – an area known as The Enchantments, and that’s noted as one of the most spectacular sections of the entire central cascades.
I’d been to the Central Cascades, of course, and had even been out to the Alpine Lakes wilderness before, but I’d never had a chance to actually venture all the way to the Enchantments. Somehow it always felt a little bit unapproachable to me… Partially due to the distance, partially the mystique of everyone holding it in such high regard. But mostly because permits are required for any overnight trips. Permit that are, as I’ve learned, quite difficult to get.
See, the permits are assigned via lottery… and there’s dozens of applicants for every single permit issued, if not more.
I’ve applied, of course, but never had the luck to actually get drawn for one… and so I’d kind of written the enchantments off as a fairy tale.
Until I was talking to Aliona, and she proposed a rather ambitious trip – To hike one of the most picturesque portions of the trail, the legendary Asgard’s Pass, in a single day.
I’d never considered this. It’s a backpacking trip, man! Not a day hike!
It’s not even a simple backpacking trip… it includes high-angle snow travel! It’s long! It’s sustained elevation gain! It’s… I mean, it’s a major backpacking objective! How could I possibly hike it in a day?
The first step, it turns out, is to find someone who’s not only a morning person… but is also an ultra-runner who isn’t even remotely intimidated by the miles or elevation.
Our adventure started on Saturday morning. Interestingly, we didn’t start early at all – I met Aliona at her apartment right around 11:30, after having a lovely pancake breakfast. Pancakes, Asparagus, coffee… it was relaxed and lovely, and a beautiful way to warm up before a bit weekend adventure.
“But wait, Ben! You said you needed a morning person to do this hike!”
Of course, of course. We weren’t starting the hike on Saturday, silly! We were just doing the approach drive!
The trick, I learned, was to camp out at the nearby national forest the evening before. Most of the area isn’t open for camping without a permit, but there’s a small road in the Enchantments that dips into a nearby National Forest. And National Forests are open for roadside camping – made easier by the many established campsites by the road.
We drove and drove, 5 hours or more, then spent a bit of time searching around for just the right campsite… once found, we made some vegan Hawaiian burgers on gluten-free buns (that looked better than they tasted, I’m sorry to admit), had a nice little fire, and were in bed before 9pm.
You read that right, dear readers. I, the night-owl that I am, was in bed before the sun had even dipped below the horizon.
The next morning started before dark. A counterpoint to going to bed before dark, I guess?
Aliona had coffee going by 4:30am, and graciously slid a steaming mug of it (along with a warmed up mountain-house breakfast pack) under the fly of my tent. With those lovely smells buoying me up, I was out of my sleeping bag and mobile by 4:45am… though I can’t say that I was really conscious or sentient just yet.
That happened later.
For now, I was mobile, and had a way-too-energetic-for-this-early-hour guide helping keep my feet plodding in the generally right direction.
6:15am saw us leaving the car behind as we forged onward into the woods. I felt pretty awake at the time; chatting and enjoying the sunrise peaking over the nearby peaks. In retrospect, I don’t think I was actually quite that alive… but the fact remains that we were able to burn the miles away below our boots, and that soon enough we found ourselves arriving at the destination of a lifetime…
Colchuck Lake, with Dragontail Peak rising above it.
I mean, just… wow. I take good photos, but these don’t do this lake justice.
I’d seen photos of the area beforehand, of course. The elements of the scene weren’t surprising to me at all – I knew that there’d be a lake, and a huge granite scale of rock soaring above it.
But… the photos don’t quite do justice to the sheer scale of Dragontail peak. It’s singularly massive, soaring above the lake… seemingly dozens of times larger than the lake itself. When I saw pictures from other hikers, I was absolutely expecting a large rock face – I mean, the climbing route that I’ve drooled over is up to 13 pitches long, nearly 50% more than the longest route I’ve ever done. But even that didn’t prepare me adequately…
Once I finished scraping my jaw out of the dirt, Aliona and I moseyed onward toward our main objective – Asgards Pass. A quick chat with another hiker, and a break to put on crampons and pull out our ice axes (as well as candidly discuss how comfortable we were with the ascent, and review alternatives / escape routes), and we started up the steep slope toward the pass.
As we made our ascent, I was grinning like a maniac.
When I first moved to Oregon, one of my goals was to learn to mountaineer. I wanted to practice snow travel, to use my ice axe, and to feel my crampons bite into the crust of a glacier.
I’d done that, to an extent, but not nearly as often as I’d hoped that I would. Through the years since I moved here, life had gotten in the way more often than not, and lethargy had pulled me down as I’d been dragged into a less adventurous life.
Feeling the snow and ice surrounding me, and being brushed by the cool breeze off the snow, I was happy. I was energized, and I cruised up the steep snow far more quickly than I ever would have expected. I reveled in feeling my axe plunge into the snow, and I reveled in tracing a boot path in sweeping curves through the steeper sections.
I really do love the snow, if you couldn’t tell.
Soon enough, we reached the pass itself. We looked around, drank in the views and the crisp air, and collapsed onto a waiting rock formation.
I can’t really describe it. The photos are gorgeous, if I may say so myself, but they don’t quite capture the majesty of the views, or the exhilaration of finally reaching flat ground. The sandwich that I made tasted better, and the air felt more earned. Even as I type this out, more than three weeks afterward, I can feel the happiness that I felt.
We rested, ate, and chatted with an exceptionally excited backpacker that we’d talked with on the ascent. We didn’t quite take naps, but it was a pretty close thing… resting in the sun at that elevation, after forging through quite a few feet of elevation gain, can make it pretty challenging to keep your eyes open…
Soon enough after regaining our energy, we started the long trek back to the car.
After regaining the lake, I took a bit of time to enjoy the views and get more pretty pictures for all of my lovely readers… but aside from that, we mostly just trucked onward down the mountain and toward the trailhead.
On the way up, I could have sworn that the trail was nearly flat – I legitimately don’t really remember much of any elevation gain. On the hike down though, I knew that wasn’t quite an accurate memory as I slowly plodded down the trail. My legs were tired, my knees were hurting again, and my arms were actually getting a bit tired from the hiking poles. I knew that I’d be sleeping well once we got back to camp… but as we worked our way down the mountain that beautiful campsite seemed like a lifetime away.
After a while I could tell that Aliona was starting to go crazy from the slow pace that I was keeping. My knee’s been healed for years, but on major hikes like this it does tend to flare up a bit… which makes me slower than normal. Which, interestingly, is quite a bit slower than an ultra-runner who’s used to literally running down the trail after a hike.
“If you want to zip ahead, I’m fine clunking down the trail after you” – After my second time offering, she took me up on the chance and was out of sight within a minute.
I continued my plod.
I wasn’t fast, but I was happy.
Hiking itself is fun for me – even the pain was interesting, since I haven’t had much occasion to push myself this far in recent months. The last time was probably the backpacking trip in the snow, now that I think about it… but that was more brute strength forcing my body through the snow drifts, whereas this was sheer endurance, continuing on far after I’d prefer to have been napping by the side of the trail.
It was getting late though, and a nap was absolutely out of the question. I had to forge onward, and forge onward I did… ’till soon enough I saw the parking lot, and Aliona with the car and a snack all ready to ferry us back to camp.
Dinner was a quick event – I got the fire going while Aliona cooked up an amazing tomato and burger soup, which we then inhaled before sweeping off to a very well earned sleep.
Monday dawned bright, but we let ourselves sleep in for a nice while… we did have a deadline to be back in Portland, but it was late enough that neither of us were particularly worried. It was nice, and a solid day to rest and relax.
Oatmeal and coffee, then a quick drive through the Bavarian tourist town of Leavenworth.
Then the open highway beckoned us, and the five hours of driving meditation as we cruised back to Portland…
(Ed Note: See a previous post from this same area, though a different mountain, here: https://talesfromthehutt.com/2019/09/13/backpacking-to-peggys-pond-and-summitting-mt-daniel-17-19-aug-2019/)