The Enchantment Lake zone in the Central Washington Cascades is a high alpine playground for backpackers, climbers and mountain goats alike. Due to hosting some of the best alpine rock and scenery in Washington, the U.S. Forest Service has strict permit restrictions for staying in the area overnight. From May 15 to October 31st, all overnight visitors must apply via an online lottery for permits. The permit system is frustrating, but necessary to protect this truly incredible place. But luckily, during snow season, self-served permits are available at the trailhead. And that is how friends and I found ourselves on a ski traverse we’ll never forget.
After the fitful night of sleep in the car, we awoke at the Snow Creek trailhead outside of Leavenworth, WA. We had already packed, so after choking down oatmeal and Red Bull, we started up the Snow Creek Trail with skis on our backs.
About a mile in, we hit snow and transitioned from trail runners to skis. It was the last day of March and the early morning snow was a bit firm but made for fast, efficient skinning. Unfortunately, despite every member of the group having spent a lot of time in the area, route finding was not as straightforward as anticipated.
The sun rose and with it came what seemed like the start of the spring shed cycle. Around this time we saw a solo Leavenworth local skin effortlessly past us as we started feeling our heavy packs. She turned out to be the only other person we saw over the next three days. Later we found cell service but sadly she was not on Tinder.
Because our only feasible route side-hilled avalanche prone slopes, we spread out and took turns crossing the more open sections. These quick breaks gave each of us a chance to catch our breaths and realize how beautiful this zone is. After a couple more hours, we finally reached Snow Lake: the largest of the Enchantment Lakes.
After another thousand feet of vert we reached our home for the night: Lake Vivian. It began to get dark as Shawn set up our tent and I boiled water. Dinner was a quiet, but stoked affair as we experienced the total feeling of contentment you get while eating a warm meal after a big day in the mountains.
We went to bed feeling toasty (thank you down sleeping bags and Kentucky bourbon) and optimistic about the days to come.
We moved to Prusik Pass, our final campsite for the trip. Todd and Mike climbed the ultra classic Solid Gold (5.11A III) on Prusik Peak while Shawn and I took photos and actually skied. That’s why we were up here, right?
The wind began to pick up as Todd and Mike down climbed the west ridge. Shawn and I started beefing up camp for the increasing winds and boiling water for dinner. The wind was bitter cold, and Himalayan Rice and Lentils had never sounded so scrumptious.
To Todd and Mike’s intense displeasure, the 60+ mph winds had destroyed their tent. As Mike set up for another night bivying, Todd told Shawn and I proud tales of downclimbing the west ridge in “Patagonia style” winds. I took this as the cue to bring out the bottle of bourbon I had been lugging the whole trip. Pro-tip: Jim Beam sells plastic fifths at Safeway, #ultralight.
Opening the tent only to pass the bottle between Shawn and I in our nylon cocoon, and Todd and Mike behind their rock pile (which the wind would periodically blow down), we’d take a look at each other and laugh. We were in the most heinous winds we had ever seen, in big mountains, drinking bourbon and listening to Taylor Swifts “1989” album on repeat.
Life is what you make it and it turns out, with skis and friends in the mountains, it can only be completely stellar. Shouting expletives at Mother Nature over the wind helps too.
After eating the last of our food and breaking camp, we started our tour out. We shredded a few hundred feet of corn down to the next lake.
Reaching the end of the Lower Basin, we began our final ascent, few hundred feet. The skinning was getting really sloppy, but the promise of skiing Aasgard Pass kept us going: over 2500 feet of sustained steep skiing down to Colchuck Lake.
We reached our first crux looking for a way into the Upper Basin. We could:
Option B looked simple enough, and we all agreed that would be the best route.
What looked like a nice steep snow slope, turned out to be a rotten snow covering a granite slab. But after about an hour, and a classic existential crisis on my side, we were up and over. Maybe class-5 rock in ski boots isn’t so bad? (Update 9/2016: it’s still bad).
Aasgard Pass was boilerplate. Realizing this day was going to be much more involved than we anticipated, we made our transitions to get back to the car before they stopped selling cheeseburgers.
The next few hours were a haze of mild exhaustion and suffering. The trail from Colchuck Lake was already melting out, so our trail was a combination of rotten snow and deadfall. We all took our share of slips and finished the last few miles without too many words.
Once we got to the trailhead, we still had a few miles of hiking to go. The road wasn’t melted out enough to drive but Shawn volunteered to run ahead of us (with skis and overnight gear on his back) 7 miles back to the car to pick us up when we arrived at the gate, 3 miles below us. I’ve never been sure where Shawn gets his energy — he doesn’t exercise and pretty much lives on Taco Bell and Red Bull. I’ve learned to stop questioning it.
After multiple cheeseburgers and gallons of water, we already started planning to tour the Enchantments again next season.
(Guest blogger Blake Coudriet (IG: @bc_low) is a climber, skier and all around mountain connoisseur out of Seattle, WA. After jumping head-first into professional life, Blake has maintained an unrelenting love for dawn patrols and full-value weekends in the mountains. While he’s always eagerly awaiting the next deep storms the PNW is best known for, he still believes that there is no such thing as “bad snow.”)