Mention the Enchantments, and the name conjures up magnificent images, especially in the minds of backpackers. It refers to the coveted part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness above Leavenworth — an area widely considered to be the most beautiful alpine spot in the state and so unique that people come from worldwide to see it. Hence, they’ve employed a complicated permit lottery system to minimize human impact on this fragile environment.
My husband, John Rompala, and I were lucky enough to obtain a backcountry permit in 2006. It was gorgeous and our timing was ideal, since it was the “Golden Week” of October. This annual ceremony of color is when the larch — a chameleon pine tree that turns from green to yellow to gold, and one of the region’s only deciduous trees — are at their prime shine.
Now that I have done the Enchantments I have to question the need for the permit system. The approach to the area is so grueling that anyone who reaches it should be awarded an opportunity to camp there. That said, though, I think I would feel differently had we not had 40-pound packs and had we paced ourselves like we initially intended. Then it would seem to be much more doable for the average REI-clad, weekend warrior coming by the droves.
Here’s the nitty-gritty. We dropped our car at the Snow Lakes trailhead along Icicle Road and had a friend drive us to the Colchuck Lake trailhead up the road several miles away. We had done this first leg of the hike several times before, which helped us know what to expect, and we made it to Colchuck Lake (4.5 miles) before noon.
From the weather forecasts we knew that cold, wet stuff was on its way, and I thought it was better to get up the pass in decent weather than to get wet while camped at Colchuck and then deal with an icy, rocky scramble the next morning. We made the right call.
I had become curious about how challenging Aasgard Pass would be since most of the accounts I had read seemed to build it up as some disaster scene. I feared this boulder-field scramble of talus and scree would have to be hand-over-hand. So I came to rather dread it, hoping we were up to the task, allowing John to curse me if he wished, but assuring him the worst would be over once we ascended.
The climb itself was not so bad. I could imagine it being treacherous when icy, but it was fine even with my big pack, and it only took three hours with us going super slowly because John was feeling sick. I really think he would have thought it was much easier if he had felt better.
I am also glad we ascended Aasgard because I would hate to go down it.
When we were about one-third up the pass it started raining, and eventually that turned to snow — only a light flurry — but snow and cold nonetheless. I felt pretty warm and energetic all the way up until we reached the top of the pass and paused for a break and pictures. Unfortunately, I waited five minutes too long to don my woolen gloves. My core started losing heat and I remained chilled pretty much until the next day.
But the scenery was spectacular. Through the flurries we could see Little Annapurna and several small alpine lakes that almost looked like mere ponds in the vast, barren, muted landscape.
We continued hiking another 30 minutes or so until John happened upon the perfect campsite — a low spot surrounded closely by rock on three sides and shielded by a mountain on the fourth.
We woke the next day to a fantastic sunrise, which highlighted the larch and the odd moon pools. We were off for another full day of hiking by 9 a.m.
It really does look otherworldly up in that place. The blazing larch — bright, full-bodied — were a cast of characters all their own. I imagined their golden coats as medals for enduring yet another harsh year.
Then we trudged down to the more-vegetated Isolation, Inspiration, Viviane, Leprachaun lakes section. It was gorgeous weather by now and we took our time soaking in the sunlight and the scenery but also wondering what made the most sense: Find a place to camp among the “hordes” at Snow Lakes and risk another chilly night in our most likely damp-at-best tent or hike out the remainder of the trail in one day (almost 14 more miles).
I was torn. I wanted to experience another day and evening up there and was fairly confident our fly would dry if we found a spot to camp at early in the day — but I also didn’t especially want to spend a whole new night shivering.
So, on we hiked. First it was through The Wall — an almost completely vertical granite slab that seemed endless but was apparently “only” about 1.5 miles. Then came the boulder fields of doom and I thought my foot would never uncramp again. We took a quick lunch and continued onward.
At this point it was well into afternoon and we found ourselves at Lake Nada. I was now salivating at the thought of a Gustav’s burger. We had only 6.5 miles left.
Little did we know there were more of those granite talus fields to cross. And more streams to ford.
Fast-forward to 5:30 p.m. — through sweat, strap burns and jello knees — and I finally recognized the burned out ridge that you see from Icicle Road. Phew! We must be getting close! “A half mile more,” John announced. “Maybe 20 minutes tops,” I thought. But just then, out of the blue came some guy who was one hour up from the parking lot. That probably meant we were one hour away, too, all things considered. How could that be?
It now became a race for sunlight. Onward yet. Finally we spotted the parking lot, even our car, and the headlights of cars driving on Icicle Road. Must be getting closer. Switchback. Getting closer to the hour mark. Switchback. Closer to dusk. Switchback. What a gorgeous sunset. Sunset? Oh no! We’re still so far away! Switchback. Car closer now. Dusk approaching. Switchback. Bridge. Raindrops (the irony). The short burst uphill I had looked forward to all day. And finally, at 6:45 p.m., our car.
It took all the strength we had to hoist our packs and ourselves into the car and drive away. We stopped at the nearest 76 station for Gatorade, where the clerk took one look at John and said, “Been up in the Enchantments, I see. I recognize the look.” Then we stopped for the requisite salt fortitude, er, burger and fries at Gustav’s, drove home, popped some Ibuprofen, took a bath, slept, and eased back into our normal routine.
About two days later.