So I’ve somehow weaseled my way into backpacking in the Enchantments every year for the last four. This time, we decided to thru hike the thing, starting at Stuart TH, heading up Aasgard, then taking the comparatively smooth descent down to Snow Lakes TH. With a day in the middle for playing around in the upper basin—summiting Little Annapurna, one of Dragontail’s several peaks, and a coupe unnamed bumps on the north side of the basin—the whole thing took three days, though one could, with a bit of determination and a good headlamp, do it in one.
We spend the night in a sort of creepy Airbnb in Wenatchee—the bottom of some dude’s swanky house—then head out early and get to the Snow Lakes TH around 7:30. Our buddies are already there, brushing their teeth in the parking lot. After a remarkably efficient bit of throwing gear from one car to another, we pick up a hitchhiker and caravan up to the already-full Stuart TH. I remember the road as being terrible, but it ends up being fine, even in our little Honda.
For the first couple miles, the trail follows Mountaineer Creek as it gently flows down from Stuart Lake. It’s easy, fast walking. Then there’s an abrupt junction, and the trail turns east, first crossing the creek, then climbing up a thousand feet to Colchuck Lake.
The trail here used to be really bad—all roots and muddy rock—but the WTA came last year, and now the whole thing’s like a staircase. You could almost—almost—forget you’re going up.
We arrive at Colchuck after a couple hours of easy walking, then make a meal out of wandering around the thing to Aasgard. The trail braids a bit passing a tarn on the west side, then largely disappears into a boulder field on the south. But know the way and the bouldering’s just fun and soon we’re standing at the bottom of Aasgard.
Aasgard seems to get people irrationally scared. For instance, in their 100 Hikes volume on the Alpine Lakes, Spring and Manning describe it as follows:
They also claim it will take your first-born child.It’s not easy; actually it’s a very steep climbers’ route, gaining 2200 feet in 3/4 mile, which may require an ice ax, sometimes rope and crampons, and in early summer the ability to recognize avalanche instability. It’s dangerous, not only from falling off cliffs or slippery boulders or snowfields or from being fallen upon by snow or rock, but also from summer storms that at these elevations can be distinctly hypothermic and from summer snowfalls that can make the already difficult descent of boulder fields a very long nightmare.
But the thing’s never actually that bad: the trail braids and fades and switchbacks in ways that aren’t always obvious, but there’s always something like a trail, and I only end up using my hands once—in a gully that I’m pretty sure I could have avoided with a tiny bit of looking around.
The biggest danger seems to be the goats, who, in several cases, have mistaken the trail for a bed, and seem utterly disinclined to move.
From the top, we follow the way east, as lakes and long slabs of shining granite peek out from each new corner. One of the things I love about this place is that it’s difficult to see it all at once: every turn’s a new blue pool or bright white expanse or cluster of burning orange autumn larches.
We pass by the crowds at Tranquil and Isolation Lakes, and settle in to a lovely set of sheltered spots in the center basin, overlooking Crystal Lake.
It’s still early, so I coerce a friend to ramble up to Prusik Pass and Gnome Tarn with me. I’ve never seen the core without snow, and it feels like a dream, running on easy slabs down to Inspiration and Perfection Lakes, then following the well-worn climber’s trail up to Prusik.
As we climb, the sun starts to set behind Little Annapurna, and the larches all match the sky.
There’s apparently a trail from the Pass to Gnome Tarn, but it seems to peter out after a couple switchbacks, so we just cut across the route of least resistance down to the Tarn. It’s basically just a puddle now, but a beautiful puddle all the same.
Back at camp, the sun’s somehow still setting, and I spend an hour running around, trying to take pictures of all the things.
Some goats come to say good evening, then a group of panicked dayhikers asking for water. They still seem strong, and I’m sure they’ll make it, but it won’t be a great night, and I spend the next few hours worrying. Is there anything else we could have done? Provided they get down to Snow Lakes before the light’s completely gone, they should be able to make it out tonight. Maybe one or two in the morning? I guess it’ll make a great story.
The night is cold and condensation-y, and we wake to clouds covering the nearby peaks. But they start to lift with the sun, and we eat a quick breakfast, then follow the light up west, up lovely polished slabs to the top of Little Annapurna.
On the way, we meet a family of ptarmigan, freshly molted into their winter whites. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, and I spend several minutes chasing them around with the camera. They are remarkably uncompliant with my demands to “work it.”
From the top of Little Annapurna, the views stretch south and west, down to Ingalls Creek and all the way to Rainier, hiding behind two layers of clouds.
We spend a while whooping on top, then cut down to West Annapurna, and further, across what’s left of the Snow Creek Glacier to the ridge that runs south from Dragontail’s main summit complex.
There are a few steep spots getting onto the ridge—a climber we meet calls them “spicy”—but nothing above low class three. And, once we’re on top, the thing opens into a large plateau, punctuated only by smooth, black and grey boulders.
We follow the plateau to its northern tip, then traverse around a few small spires to the pass just south of Dragontail’s main summit. Stuart comes in and out of view, as do Glacier Peak and the North Cascades. I take a hundred pictures in less than an hour.
The scramble to the proper top seems doable, but we’ve left some people (and our lunches) back at camp, so we eat a small snack and turn back, zigzagging along the ridge and back down to the lakes.
After a long lunch at camp, we set out again, this time north up to the Enchantment Range. There are a bunch of ways up to the ridge, all at most class two, and we play around a bit, zigzagging between slabs and ravines.
On top, Little Annapurna and Dragontail spread out to the south, while an unnamed basin housing one of several southern forks of Mountaineer Creek fills the north. We walk west along the ridge for a while, watching the light change on the upper lakes as Colchuck and Stuart come into view, then Glacier Peak and Baker. I could stay here for hours, mistaking clouds for mountains and mountains for clouds.
It snows overnight, and frosts around all the trees. We pack up quick, then trundle down to the lower core, all still in long underwear and puffy coats. No one else seems to be awake yet, and the place feels impossibly still, icy larches reflected in still lakes.
We stop for breakfast at Lake Vivian’s outlet stream, then ramble down the scramble trail to the Snow Lakes. This part always goes faster than I think it will: down to Snow, around the lakes and across the old masonry dam, down to Nada Lake, and finally switchbacking all the way down to Icicle Creek. It all seems to pass in a single, long stride.
Soon we’re at the Snow TH, shuttling back up to Stuart to get the cars. Then we’re driving through Leavenworth, thinking seriously about stopping for a cleverly named sausage. Then, finally, we’re passing through the Yakama Lands and over the Columbia, as the last of the light gives out and it starts to softly rain.