After 6 months of planning, permit obtaining, vacation reserving, and gear preparation, September 8th, the start of our four-day hike into the Enchantment Lakes region, had finally arrived. At 5:00 am myself and one other prominent member of 2DrX Explorations loaded our packs into the recently purchased 4wd Ford Ranger, cranked the Zeppelin and Jeff Beck CD's, and blasted off to Leavenworth via highway 2. We arrived at the ranger station around 7:30 am where we found our pre-arranged permits awaiting us in the box outside the door. There were several parties hanging out at the ranger station waiting for it to open in hopes of getting a "day-of" permit. The envious looks and comments we received from these people as we casually stepped passed them and retrieved our permits were well worth the effort of putting in advance reservations.
At 8:00 am we were at the trailhead and the weather was perfect. We displayed our parking permit on the dashboard, attached the camping permit to my pack, locked the truck, laced the boots, hefted the packs, and hit the trail. We wanted to get up the Snow Creek canyon before the sun rose overhead and made things unbearably hot. Also, we knew we were asking a lot of our not-so-prime physical conditions, but we did have some hope of making it all the way in to the Enchantment Lakes in one day.
After discussing the merits of Husky football, last year's Rose Bowl, and last year's Husky team, we soon found our selves up the initial set of steep and dusty switchbacks, out of the blackened forest fire remnants, and into the green forest. We were pleased to find that a Wenatchee station that was broadcasting the Husky-Michigan game could be received on a Walkman radio this far into the granite-walled canyon. This kept us going up the next set of switchbacks up to Nada Lake. Relishing the thoughts of a nice lunch break by the lake, we headed for a spot near the shore. As we came over the rise, we were extremely annoyed to see the view of the lake eclipsed by the 'moons' of two dudes bathing in the lake. This was not the picturesque rest stop we had envisioned. We settled for a place back in the woods instead, and had lunch.
At this point, one of us was voicing doubts about going all the way in one day. The option of stopping and camping at Snow Lakes was beginning to appeal. Not wanting to completely rule out the possibility of going all the way, we decided to head on to Snow Lake, see how we felt, and see how we were doing time-wise. However, Between Nada Lake and Snow Lakes are more of the dreaded switchbacks. Our fully loaded packs and the afternoon sun took their toll. The steep grade of the trail was grueling. The only highlight was seeing the flume of water spewing from the large man-made spout in the side of the hill. This is where Upper Snow Lake drains out from above like a bathtub to serve the farmers and the fish hatcheries downstream. This system is a relic from a time when environmental concerns were quite different than today. Finally, at around 2:30 we reached the dam that divides the Upper and Lower Snow Lakes.
We had made excellent time, but we were reaching the limits of our endurance. We decided it would be best to relinquish our hopes of hiking in to the Enchantments in a single day. Although one of us was not quite willing to admit exhaustion, we decided it was best. There was no point in killing ourselves. That was not the purpose of the trip. We soon discovered that we weren't the only party with that plan. We hiked from one end of Snow Lakes to the other in search of an available campsite. All of the campsites were taken. Eventually, we came upon a ranger who was preparing his own camp near the inlet creek to Snow Lakes. He agreed to share his camp spot with us as long as we promised not to get too loud and obnoxious. The other 2DrX member sealed the agreement by offering the ranger one of his four 14oz brews that he had lugged in his pack. The ranger appreciated it, but was actually doing the 2DrX member a favor - lightening his pack! That evening was spent resting, relaxing, listening to the Mariners game, exchanging stories with the ranger, and preparing a certain infamous stew that has become standard fare on 2DrX overnight trips. The stew was a little spicier than it should be, but not too bad.
As soon as the sun went down, the air temperature dropped noticeably. The temperature drop apparently causes a barometric pressure differential because it was accompanied by a strong wind that blew down the slopes from the Enchantment Lakes area. I spent the night trying to ignore the howling wind, which was doing its best to rip the tent apart, and also trying every sleeping position humanly possible in a mummy bag in search of elusive comfort on my "Therma-Rest". The other 2DrX member insisted his "Z-Rest" was even worse. Somehow, I must have managed to get a few hours of sleep. Morning seemed to arrive a couple of hours sooner than the actual length of the night.
Once again, the weather was spectacular. As further proof of the pressure drop theory, the wind died down as soon as the sun came up. After some coffee, Clif bars, and other unremarkable breakfast food, we packed our stuff and headed up hill. This part of the trail is very steep and slow going, but since we were tackling it early in the day, it didn't seem quite as bad as it could have been. Had we pressed on the day before, we would have been two miserable hikers on this portion of the trail. Up to this point the trail had excellent tread and was well maintained. Beyond this point, things change. The trail is rough, steep, and often passes across large granite slabs with the only indication of a 'trail' being the cairns erected by previous hikers. After numerous breaks, gulps of water, Clif bars, Snickers bars, and what ever else, we topped out at Lake Viviane at around 11:00 am. This point is somewhat deceptive. The arrival at Lake Viviane leads one to believe he has finally made it, but this is not quite true. There is still a significant amount of boulder hopping, and granite slab traversing to do. There is even a slightly treacherous part where someone has embedded re-bar steps into the rock to hopefully keep hikers from slipping and falling to the rocks hundreds of feet below. This would be especially precarious in inclimate weather. Fortunately, we were enjoying warm sunny autumn weather. Finally, at about 11:45, Little Annapurna came into view and we knew that we had arrived in the Enchantment Lakes area for certain. We had talked about making the climb up Little Annapurna a number of times as we were planning this hike. When we saw the mountain, we knew we had to make the climb. Not today, however, as the steep hike left us with only enough desire to locate and set up camp, and then maybe go around and explore some of the easier terrain.
We found a suitable campsite at the outlet of Sprite Lake. It was a little too close to the trail for me, but at least we could talk to passersby and ask what they knew of the area. On two previous trips I had camped on the little peninsula on Crystal Lake. That is a secluded campsite, but has the disadvantage of being down in a 'bowl', making access to everything else in the Enchantments less convenient. Also, the Crystal Lake site was far from where we were at, which was a crucial factor in our decision at that point. So we pitched our camp and ate a leisurely lunch of tuna sandwiches. We brought tuna in little foil packets, which make an expeditious hiking meal. The tuna sandwiches were a little on the warm side, but were tasty none the less. After lunch, the other 2DrX member rigged our 'feed bags' up and out of the reach of rodents in a far more meticulous manner than I thought necessary. We then changed to lightweight shoes, assembled small daypacks, and set out to explore the area.
We worked our way around the northeast side of Perfection Lake and hiked up Prusik Pass. Prusik Pass is short but steep. Our leg muscles were protesting the cruel punishment so soon after making the climb up into the Enchantments. Once at the top of the pass, we sat down, off loaded the daypacks, ate some trail snacks, and studied the valley to the North. The other 2DrX member suggested that Shield Lake would be more appropriately named Apple Lake. I agree that its shape is more apple-like than shield. Also, the proximity to Wenatchee, the apple capital of the world, would add to the effect. But 2DrX Explorations was not consulted when they named the lake, so Shield Lake it is. We then shifted our gaze to the awesome site of Prusik Peak looming just to the East. Prusik Peak is particularly knife-edge-like from this perspective. Just as impressive were the two climbers that we saw reaching the summit of Prusik Peak! I admire people's ambition and courage who climb such vertical faces, but I have no desire to join them. Instead, I decided to make a short side trip up the boulder-strewn shoulder of Prusik Peak. The other 2DrX member stayed back at the rest point and maintained communication with an "FRS" radio. As I came over the ridge of the shoulder, I saw Gnome Tarn on the other side below. We wanted to visit Gnome Tarn and it looked fairly accessible from this point. I radioed the other member of 2DrX, told him as much, and asked him to bring my stuff up. He did and we worked our way from there down to Gnome Tarn. Gnome Tarn is the small lake with Prusik Peak in the background that is always shown in the hiking books when describing the Enchantment Lakes region. We found the lake and the surrounding views to be gorgeous and were compelled to take a few photos of our own. After some searching, we found the trail that most people probably take when coming up to Gnome Tarn and we headed back down. It didn't take us long to get back to camp.
When we started to get things out to cook dinner, we didn't immediately find the Coleman PowerMax stove. I began to get the sinking feeling that we had left it at the Snow Lake campsite that morning. We had another stove, but we had planned on using two. Luckily, I eventually found the PowerMax stove buried deep in my backpack. Soon we had the stove fired up and boiling another infamous 2DrX stew Ð a chicken, vegetable, and rice concoction. During this meal and others previous, we had debated the strategy of hauling high calorie/weight ratio food, as opposed to just hauling lightweight food. Neither of us complained about the chicken stew, however. After the day's efforts, the stew (and all of its calories) hit the spot.
Just like the previous evening, the setting sun ushered in the horrendous wind. We crawled into the tent knowing that the wind would be an annoyance throughout the night. We turned on the Mariners game for a few innings in an attempt to distract ourselves from the wind. Not only did the wind follow through on its promise to thrash at our tent, but my Therma-Rest also proved just as torturous as it had the night before. Each new sleeping position caused a different body part to go numb in a matter of minutes. My hips, elbows, and shoulders became painfully obvious. But of course the Z-Rest was once again "far worse that your Therma-Rest", according to the other 2DrX member.
Somehow, sleep apparently unknowingly occurred at various times throughout the night. Just when I thought I couldn't stand the torture any longer, the morning daylight began to illuminate the tent. We immediately threw off the sleeping bags, exited the tent, and ate another nondescript breakfast. After washing up, lacing up hiking boots, preparing daypacks, and hoisting 'feed bags' with the meticulously designed rigging, we were ready to make our assault on Little Annapurna. We set out around the north end of Perfection Lake and then ascended the small grade up to Isolation Lake. The clear glacier-fed water and the cloudless sunny skies make these mountain lakes appear incredibly blue. While stopping for one of countless photo opportunities, we noticed a hawk circling high above Isolation Lake in search of fish. I thought at that moment that if I had to be an animal in the wild, I would want to be that hawk.
On the south side of Isolation Lake we carefully chose our steps up the trail which ascends a narrow avalanche chute to the Upper Enchantment Lakes area. The Upper Enchantment Lakes area is at about 8000 feet elevation, very barren, completely covered with house-size boulders, and yet still beautiful in its own way. Our original plan had been to enter the Enchantment Lakes region from Asgaard Pass. However, the forest fires of the previous month prevented entry via the Asgaard route and we had to switch to the Snow Lakes route. In hindsight, this was probably for the best as Asgaard is even more difficult than the climb up from Snow Lake. Furthermore, after making that climb, we would have wanted to pitch camp immediately after, which would have placed us here in the Upper Enchantment Lakes. In my opinion, The Upper Enchantment Lakes area, although interesting to visit and explore, is not the most appealing place to pitch camp.
We worked our way across the boulder fields to the base of the "ramp" leading to the Little Annapurna summit. We had talked to some people who had made the climb the day before. They said to stick near the edge where you can look down and see Crystal Lake. We followed their advice and even managed to locate some cairns marking the way up. Nothing very technical was encountered, but there are a few steep sections where we were using hands as well as feet. With each step the view grew more and more spectacular. Eventually, we made it to the gentle grassy slope of the summit approach. Summit fever overtook the other 2DrX member as he scrambled out ahead to locate the highest point. I began to grow a little uneasy knowing that just beyond the edge was a sheer drop of at least 3000 feet! Mr. Summit Fever ventured out onto the little promontory that constitutes the true summit, but the queasy feeling about the edge and the drop off prevented my brain from willing my legs to take me out on that point. I settled for a point a few feet below the true summit. We then walked back to the grassy approach where we kicked back, took in the view, and ingested sausage and cheese sandwiches. I couldn't pass up this opportunity to take a multi-photo "panorama" shot.
We descended down the Little Annapurna slope with amazing ease and speed compared to the ascent. After returning back across the boulder field, we came upon a stream flowing across some large flat rocks. We stepped across to one of the flat rock islands in the stream and sat down to enjoy the view and soak up some sun. We wished that we had more time to explore some of the many other intriguing aspects of the Upper Enchantment Lakes area, but the afternoon was growing short. We needed to get down the trail and back to camp.
That evening's meal was not as sumptuous as the two previous. A large can of chili had to suffice. After the usual ritual of evening camp chores, we turned in and listened to the Mariners game once again. Two things were different this night, however. The wind didn't seem to be quite as prevalent and I slept through about 70 percent of the night instead of the usual 30 or 40 percent. The Therma-Rest was still punishing, but lack of sleep was finally enabling me to overcome the impediments to sleep. The other 2DrX member made no such claims. He declared that the Z-Rest was going in the dumpster as soon as we finished this hike.
The next morning, we ate breakfast, broke camp, hefted our packs, and headed down trail. Our time in the Enchantments had been incredibly fun, but we were eager to get back to family, showers, and real beds and pillows. We paused occasionally to take a few more pictures of the Japanese-garden-like surroundings, the reflective lakes, and the wind tortured trees. We then made the decent down to Snow Lakes. After a short break we progressed around Snow Lakes and down to Nada Lake. On the way down to Nada Lake we passed a party of women hikers that, from the back, looked like four large backpacks with legs sticking out the bottom. We stopped at Nada Lake, found no one bathing in the lake to detract from the view this time, and ate lunch at the picturesque location that we had in mind on the way up.
This adventure was nearing completion. Only a couple more hours would have us back to the truck. However, at this point things began to go awry. I hiked out ahead of the other 2DrX member and passed a lady hiking up who said something like, "You're returning to cruel reality, huh?" I wasn't sure why she said this, but I smiled and kept going. The other 2DrX member said at one point he stopped to take a break, started walking again, and then heard a loud crash. A tree had fallen in almost the exact spot he had just stopped. He also encountered the lady who had spoken to me. The lady filled him in on the news that I would find out later. Just as my knees were starting to feel the cumulative effects of the total hike, the trailhead and the truck came into distant view. This tantalizing sight invigorated me somewhat and I picked up the pace. Soon I was back at the trailhead where I overheard the disastrous news; the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit by terrorists that very morning and thousands of American civilians had died.
Soon the other 2DrX member arrived back at the truck and we left. As enjoyable as the Enchantment Lakes trip had been, we were in no mood to reflect on it after hearing the news. We just wanted to get back home. What a horrible way for such a great hike to end. Many days later, after the initial shock of the terrorist attacks had subsided, we agreed that the hike, aside from the way it ended, had been spectacular. We also agreed that if Osama bin Laden is caught alive, he should be forced to spend the remainder of his natural life permanently strapped down on a Z-rest.