Enchantments Traverse

Aasgard Pass ~ Snow Lakes

OCTOBER 3 - 6, 2010   I won the Enchantments lottery in March and scored a 4-day permit to the core zone during prime larch season.  In the days leading up to the trip, the weather forecast was laced with plenty of four-letter words:  rain, snow, wind, cold…  But it softened the grim outlook with the promise of “partly-sunny” days, so two friends and I geared up and headed into the mountains outside Leavenworth. 

 The trail to Colchuck Lake gains 2200’ over the course of 4 miles, then crosses a boulder field at the far end of the lake, where the boulders are the size of SUV’s.    From Colchuck Lake the trail is primitive and steep, gaining over 2200’ in less than a mile as it charges up Aasgard Pass.   As you top out at the pass, you step into a landscape like no other.  The upper Enchantment Lakes basin is starkly beautiful, ruggedly beautiful, hauntingly beautiful.  No wonder the earliest explorers gave the Enchantments mythical, magical names:  Aasgard, Dragontail, Valkyri, Freya, Talisman, Rune, Gnome, Troll, Leprechaun, Sprite, Viviane, Excalibur and more.   The lakes and tarns are crystal clear, and the white granite basin showcases the deep blue water.  Comical ptarmigan and mountain goats thrive in this harsh environment, where the winds can be fierce and the snow deep.  The few larches that grow here were at their golden best for our visit.

 The drop to the middle lakes basin is dramatic.  The trail plunges down a rocky gully where snow often lingers year-round.  This year the snow field was large and icy—a misstep here could send a hiker into the frigid waters of Isolation  (Talisman) Lake.  This basin is less stark, but no less beautiful.   Larches thrive here and turn the basin into gold in the fall.  The trail is mostly gentle as it winds its way through lakes and across streams, but there are a few places where it clambers up rock slabs and clings to the sides of steep cliffs.  Prusik Peak draws attention to itself from every direction.  The classic view as seen on postcards is seen from Gnome Tarn.  Equally stunning, however, is the view of Prusik Peak reflected in Leprechaun Lake. 

 The final lake before leaving the basin, Lake Viviane, is a beauty in a land of beauty.  Quiet, elegant, mesmerizing, it is nestled in a granite basin under the watchful eye of the imposing Prusik Peak.  At the outlet stream, Excalibur Rock rises above the crystal clear water.  Beyond this point the trail works its way down the rocky face of Trauma Rib.  Rock cairns guide the hiker across slabs and alongside the rushing waters of Snow Creek.  Rebar has been pounded into sections of the rocks and footholds have been blasted into others.  The route is open, airy and exposed down to Snow Lakes, where it becomes a long, tedious slog.  

*Additional photographs coming soon*


Day 1 - Colchuck Lake  The hike to Colchuck Lake was uneventful, and since I have hiked it so many times before, I took few photos along the way.  There were larches in full color as we reached the lake, and my companions were duly impressed with imposing Dragontail Peak and the gem-colored lake.  Although it was still early in the day, we decided to camp the first night at the far end of the lake, where there is a campsite under a lone larch tree in the boulder field.   We had great views from this campsite, and alpenglow painted the western aspect of the mountains as evening fell. 
Day 2 - Aasgard Pass to Inspiration Lake  The morning was clear and bright , but our last weather forecast had indicated that the weather on our second day would be wet and windy, with gusts up to 38 mph, so we broke camp early in the morning to tackle Aasgard Pass.  A primitive trail, marked with cairns, leads up to the pass.  It charges up  through friable rock and loose soil, past a large stand of larches, and then gets seriously steep as it continues up and up and up.    The views grew better with each step.  Colchuck Lake glowed in the sun as it retreated behind us, and the surrounding mountains grew as they advanced with us.   We stopped often to enjoy the views along the journey, so we were in no danger of breaking any speed records.    Mountain goats greeted us as we topped out at the pass.  A nannie was perched on a rock slab, while her kid stood watching our progress intently.  It seemed perplexed with our clumsy method of hiking on two legs—it would have bounded from rock to rock and made short work of that trail!    A few steps farther, and we were in a landscape like no other. 

We hiked slowly through the upper basin, cameras at the ready, past one breathtaking lake after another.   It was a beautiful day, clear and sunny, and the few larches we passed glowed like candles in the sun.  But the wind was rising, and the upper basin is an inhospitable place to camp in foul weather.  We picked up the pace and dropped to the middle basin to camp for the night.   The descent to the middle basin was a little challenging.  The trail plunges down a steep gully, where there was a steep, icy snowfield to cross.   A path of sorts crossed the snowfield and hugged one side of the gully, and we donned Yak Trax and carefully made our way down to the shores of Inspiration Lake (Talisman Lake).  We crossed the outlet stream and set up camp in a rocky nook just as the wind began to pick up.  I tucked my tent under a low-growing tree and was sheltered from the wind, but the storm raged most of the night. 

Day 3 - Inspiration Lake to Lake Viviane  Inspiration Lake is nestled in a white granite basin, and the morning sun set the landscape on fire.   Breakfast was the furthest thing from our minds when we stepped out of our tents, especially when the goats showed up.  A nannie and kid followed us around camp for a while, until another, bigger nannie and kid appeared on the cliffs above us.  The interlopers were clearly dominant, and for a while the tension among the goats was obvious.  The larger pair finally moved on, and our original guests seemed content to just hang out with us for another hour.  They settled down on a rock just above my tent and chewed their cud until we began to break camp.  They paused for a photo op as they headed back up the gully to the upper Enchantments. 

It was a beautiful sunny day, and we strolled rather than hiked from Inspiration Lake to our final campsite above Lake Viviane, passing Perfection Lake with Little Annapurna rising above it.  We hiked through forests of larches but opted out of the trek up to Prusik Pass and Gnome Tarm.  We stopped instead for a long lunch at beautiful Leprechaun Lake.    The distance between our two campsites was minimal, so our third day was leisurely and relaxing.   The temperature plummeted after dark, but the night sky was filled with stars. 

Day 4 - Trauma Rib and the long slog down the Snow Lakes Trail  We woke early to watch the morning alpenglow.  We weren’t disappointed—the sun painted the granite basin with pastel pinks and blues, then burst into a dazzling display of gold.  After the show was over, we packed up and began the hike down the rocky face of Trauma Rib.  My nemesis.  I had been dreading the hike down to the Snow Lakes trailhead, to the point of almost canceling the trip.  I was so far out of my comfort zone on my first trip here that I swore I would never hike this trail again.  It has the dubious distinction of being the only trail I’ve ever cried on.  In the years since that first trip, though, I had gained trail experience and confidence, and I was surprised to find the hike much easier and less intimidating than I recalled.  Another demon conquered!  We stopped at upper Snow Lake and looked back up at the route we had just descended, then headed to Nada Lake where we stopped for a leisurely lunch.  The lake level was down, and it wasn’t as pretty as it had been on other visits.  Back on the trail, we encountered a nannie, her kid and a yearling goat about a mile below the lake.  The rest of the hike is a long slog, and we were glad to finally reach the trailhead before dark.