Enchantments Day Hike – June 23, 2017

In January 2017, I tore my ACL (partially, according to the MRI) playing soccer. It was the first injury I literally could not walk away from. My teammates carried me off the indoor field, the game continued, the opposing player checked on me after the game. After consulting with the physician’s assistant who saw me at the hospital I picked arbitrarily off a list of local medical establishments, I decided to see which activities could be undertaken with only a period of rest and no other medical intervention. Nothing against modern medicine or healthcare providers but I’ve always preferred to let my body do it’s own thing. On the PCT in 2016, I never used pain killers or caffeine. However, after the ACL injury, I was never able to run without pain and became resigned to surgery, scheduling it for August. In the mean time, I was determined to make the best use of the summer and that meant hiking.

On Friday night, I cached a bike out of sight at the Stewart Lake trailhead which is monotonically uphill from the Snow Lakes trailhead where my trip would start the next morning. This meant several thousand extra feet of climbing on Saturday morning but the end of the day would be a lot easier. To sleep, I “stealth camped” just down a small dirt turn-off on Icicle Creek Rd which is sufficiently rugged that I doubted my two wheel drive station wagon could make it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover other people had had the same idea, I wound up talking with a young guy about the resupply packages he was putting together for his girlfriend who was hiking the PCT. He’d put a bunch of creativity into it and we connected over interests relating to the freedom of the outdoors. Then I slept in the back of my car. Why set up a tent when one of my primary criteria for car buying had been that I could sleep in the back?

The trail up towards Snow Lake starts with an unrelenting though gradual climb which isn’t particularly pretty. There’s a large burn area and the sun exposure makes an early start important. Eventually you reach a field of granite boulders and the trail switchbacks up. I missed a switchback somewhere and blindly followed what I guess was was a dry rivulet until I saw some hikers above me and could course correct towards them. On reaching the trail I was met by a mountain goat who for several yards would walk away down the trail as I walked forwards though in a casual manner as though to say it wasn’t really from which it was keeping its distance.

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Can you find the mountain goat?

There’s a dam which separates upper and lower snow lake and a logjam behind it. The dam was just overtopping by less than an inch and so I could walk across though I took my shoes off. On the far side, I dried my feet and dug into the loaf of bread I’d baked the night before. There was something incredibly rewarding about tearing hunks of bread off a loaf and bread and stuffing them into your face as recovery food.

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The dam and logjam between Upper and Lower Snow Lakes.

A group of hikers passed and I moved on around Upper Snow Lake where I saw a deer. Wildlife sightings seem to correlate more with the protections on an area than how many humans pass through it. The Enchantments are so popular that it’s hard to feel alone when you pee but I several animals on this trip.

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Above Upper Snow Lake, the trail gets steep and rocky. It’s easy to lose when it runs over a granite rock face or switchbacks in the middle of one. I spent several minutes near the top trying to find where a trail exited a larger rock face before giving up and finding it by accident as I retraced my steps. There are several short traverses across smooth granite which slopes down to steep rock faces. Despite the good weather and dry surface, I step across them carefully because there is no place to grip if you started sliding. At the end of this climb is the Core Enchantments Zone.

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Lake Viviane. This is just the beginning.

The Enchantments are what make it hard for me to explain to a Washingtonian what makes the Sierra Nevada in California special. Clear lakes in pristine granite bowls? Check. Decorated with lingering snow and stunted trees? Check (in the Enchantments they even turn colors in the Fall). The Sierras are a lot bigger than the Cascades but bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better and so I struggle to articulate what the Enchantments might be lacking since as I walk, nothing comes to mind.

Just around the corner from Lake Viviane is a a switchback with special significance to me. You’re following the trail over granite and having to look for clues as to where it goes since there aren’t any markings on the granite itself other than sometimes a little dirt. The trail seems like it would start climbing and so you take a few steps up but it doesn’t really look like it continues. As you begin to look around for hints of a trail further off, some cuts in the dirt below and to the left catch your attention and so you follow them. This leads you on, though never in a very distinct way, but always with some hint of human passage, until you end up at a lake with a trail which is completely disconnected from the main corridor. This is what happened the first time I came through the Enchantments with a friend in the fog and no map and was too tired to take just a few extra steps. Those extra steps get your head up high enough to see concrete steps and rebar have been put in to the smooth shallow incline sharply to the right making an obvious trail. I don’t miss it this time but didn’t see the rebar where I thought I would and so might very well have gotten lost again if I didn’t know to keep looking.

After that, the trail much runs a course up to Aasgard Pass with so much visual stimulation that it could keep an ADD child engaged. I won’t give away the crown jewels (you can look hike it yourself) but here’s the first example of a couple of features which I happened to capture on my cellphone.

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Water pouring over granite.
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Ragged peaks rising dramatically into the sky.
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Families of goats.
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Discovering that there are some things which even mountain goats have trouble climbing.
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Cairns guiding you through otherwise invisible trails.

I don’t seem to have taken any pictures of Aasgard Pass or its ridiculously steep descent Colchuck Lake which seems to grow significantly you drop towards it the way that buildings grow as a plane lands. At the bottom as you start around Colchuck Lake there’s a boulder field which feels like a jungle gym and which I always think would be so much more fun if I hadn’t just burned up my legs coming down Aasgard Pass.

By the time I’ve rounded Colchuck Lake, I’ve seen it all and am ready to be done but still have several miles of downhill. I’m back in the forest and forest can be experienced off any trailhead. I come off the high of the Core Enchantments pretty hard.

Coasting on my bike down from the Stuart Lake trailhead to where I’ve left my car a the Snow Lakes trailhead cures all that. The breeze and feeling of motion are good. The washboard road requires focus to avoid spine jarring bumps. I try to use the brakes as little as possible so I can stay ahead of cars and not get caught in their dust. It’s just fun, even if sometimes it’s type-II fun.

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