Recently, I joined a group of women with an age range of late 30s to 50 to go on an epic hike through “The Enchantments” near Leavenworth, Washington, USA in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We read blogs and reviews. We watched videos made by other hikers. We purchased and gathered supplies. Arrangements were made to rent a cabin near the trail where we would gather and sleep the night before and be able to rest and recover the night after. One friend of the organizer of our group had given her advice on what to take, what to expect, but then also told her to not do it. Some of us were physically preparing by going on hikes and increasing our exercise routines to build strength and endurance. We knew that not all of our group would choose to press on once we got to the first destination on the hike. Those who turned back from Colchuck Lake completed a challenging, nearly nine-mile hike, and had done what they felt able to do and were proud of themselves for having accomplished it.
(Colchuck Lake as we arrived. Aasgard Pass is the low point in the mountains behind the lake. Photo credit Kristin Robinson)
At this point, two of our group needed a little more time before they could go on, but eight of us continued around the lake and up Aasgard Pass which has an elevation gain of 2,000 feet in the distance of 1.25 miles. This part of the adventure was extreme. We were climbing up, over, and around boulders or dealing with slippery rock trails. We knew we needed to stay to the left of the trees, but there are several trails, and they are hard to find and follow. Here, and throughout most of the rest of the hike, we watched for and followed rock cairns. As we would come to one, we looked around to find where we were supposed to go next. Sometimes they were easy to see, sometimes not. Sometimes the route from one to the next was clear, sometimes not. Frequently, one or two of our group would climb up a little and be able to look back and tell the others a better way that could be seen from that different vantage point. Adding to the difficulty of the trail, one of our friends was being adversely affected by the rapid elevation gain and needed frequent stops because she was feeling ill. We pressed on as best we could, but took longer going up than we had expected.
As we neared the final false summit, we were encouraged by other hikers who were coming down after some exploring in the alpine lakes and not continuing through. When we came to the Upper Enchantments, we felt the climb had been worth the effort. We stopped at a lake that had snow on one bank and rested. Most of us put our feet in the clear water, two of our group took short swims. We refueled with shared snacks and celebrated having made it past the hardest climb. Then we continued on after what we realized later was probably too long of a break. We would find out later that our two friends had made it up the pass shortly after us, but stopped to rest closer to the top, and did not catch up with us.
We followed the cairns through an almost otherworldly terrain with ponds, streams, and lakes with names like Isolation, Tranquil, Sprite, Crystal, and Rune. In this upper area, there were no trees, just lichen, granite, an occasional small wild flower, pink snow, and mountain goats. There was a gradual descent, and eventually shrubs then trees that obviously fought with the elements for survival became part of the landscape.
On we marched with our hiking poles aiding our trek. We marveled at the peaks around us and in the distance. We saw views that relatively few people in the world see in person. We came to Inspiration and Perfection Lakes and agreed that the names were fitting. Grass and heather grew more as we continued past lakes and streams and waterfalls.
We passed Leprechaun and Viviane Lakes and came to a rocky cliff. We had seen pictures from multiple sources. We all agreed that the pictures we had seen and the pictures we tried to take did not really show the enormity of what the trail ahead of us had in store. At that point, we laughed, because it was either that or cry! The next mile and a half had been described as a steep descent.
We realized then that it meant literally going to the edge of that cliff and climbing down to the next ledge, carefully moving down large, bald, granite rock, sometimes climbing up onto boulders, finding and following more cairns, losing the trail and back tracking, and basically working through an extreme obstacle course created by nature. It was physically and mentally challenging, but as we passed each difficulty, before the next was faced, it was also exhilarating. We cheered ourselves and each other on. When we finally came to the flat and easy trail around the side of Snow Lake, we were exuberant to have made it! We knew that there were still difficulties to face, but we figured we had made it past the hardest parts.
A dam that we had expected to have to cross with water flowing over it was dry and easy to traverse. Then we faced another steep descent through another boulder field and forest. We knew we were losing daylight and tried to press on as quickly as we could, but we were feeling the exertion of having been hiking all day, and the terrain was difficult. When we stopped to filter and refill our water one last time at the edge of Nada Lake, we got our headlamps out of our packs as well. We would face the last 5 miles in the dark.
We had climbed over Aasgard pass, made it down and through the granite cliffs and obstacles, trekked over 14 miles – because losing the trail and taking bathroom breaks adds to total mileage – and now we knew we had to just keep walking. Down, down, down the trail went over rocks and dirt with meandering parts through the forest and innumerable switchbacks. While we had spread out on the trail earlier in the day, we tried to stay closer together in the dark. Someone’s headlamp went out, and a small backup flashlight was shared. Never would we have guessed that going down would hurt so much, but our knees, ankles, and feet protested at the constant pounding. Finally, we crossed the bridge and followed the trail up one final hill to the parking lot where our friends were waiting for us.
Our two friends that hadn’t caught up with us were constantly on our minds. We worried that they had tried to negotiate the cliffs and granite obstacles between Viviane and the Snow Lakes in the dark. We prayed that they had found someone who was camping near the lakes to stay with instead. When we finally got to where we had cell reception, a miraculous message was received that they had indeed found people to stay with and were safe. The next day we were able to pick them up shortly after noon. The kindness of strangers, tender mercies and miracles, and a few emergency supplies had kept them safe.
(Our friend who picked us up just after 12:30 am was kind enough to try to get a picture in the dark. )
Sore muscles, joints, feet, skin – blisters and rashes and sunburns – had us all declaring that it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, certainly the hardest hike any of us had even attempted. The trail we hiked was supposed to be 19.25 miles. My phone recorded that I walked a total of 24.22 miles that day with an additional 1,429 steps after midnight. Most of us proclaimed that we would never go back. Now, almost a week later, with my bruises fading, I find myself thinking I would like to take my family to see it. I think of the things I would do differently, that I learned from my first trek through, that I could share with my family and help us to have a better experience. If nothing else, I would like to go to the end trailhead and hike back to Nada Lake and see what I didn’t see because we hiked it in the dark; but if I’m going that far, why not continue on to the prettier parts? Perhaps I could be one of the very lucky few to get a camping permit in the lottery.
Frequently in life we find ourselves facing difficulties, sometimes they are the result of our own choices, sometimes the choices of others cause us pain. Hard times may come because of outside forces such as natural disasters, war, or economic problems like inflation, recessions, market failures, and depressions. Chronic or life-threatening illnesses can afflict anyone at any time. Life is hard for everyone at different times in different ways. When we are experiencing these hard parts of life, we have to choose how we will face it. Will we press forward, onward and upward, and be able to celebrate when we overcome? Will we keep putting one foot in front of the other even when it is hard to see? Will we watch for others on the path who might need our help or encouragement? Will we gain insight to share when we have overcome? We get to choose to learn from our experiences to be able to help others who may face those problems in the future. When a new boulder is in your path and your only choice is to figure out how to scramble over it, be thankful for your abilities and watch for lessons you can learn. When you feel like you are trudging through the dark and only able to see a few feet in front of yourself, stay close to your friends and keep going. And when you see someone who is facing something you have navigated before, offer your encouragement, your help, maybe even your shoulder to cry on, or your arms to help hold them up.