“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
Echoing over and over again, this piece of advice from Papa, as I hunched over breathing hard. It was maybe 5:45 am, and the snow steps I was following up were icy little clamshells, spaced just too far apart. Ugh, why is the act of reaching beautiful places always preceded with pain? To appreciate it more? That certainly would have held true the first 1,000 feet. I had 1,200 feet left to climb. Appreciation my ass. The Norse gods housed above just enjoy seeing men suffer.
My “weekend” plan was to bug out of Seattle, get over Stevens Pass, and hike at Leavenworth–enjoying sunshine and beautiful views at alpine lakes without too much fuss. Monday night at Colchuck Lake, and Tuesday–relaxation, tanning by the frozen lake, a sauntering return to the trailhead–what a way to recharge!
I arrived to a light sprinkle at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. This increased to a downpour as I climbed, head bent against the wet, up through the forest. Two descending hikers, escaping the weather, gave me the dish on the snow at Colchuck–not much! Easily attainable! Mountain goats! Enlivened, I continued, crossing fingers. And lo, the weather broke! At the granite outcroppings overlooking Mountaineers Creek, the sun warmed the granite, and I dried myself out. The sky blued deeper and darker as I approached Colchuk Lake. The approach to the lake is magical, as Dragontail Peak, which is visible from the lower trail, hides behind the granite bluffs until, in the last steps to Colchuck, the mountain interrupts reverie violent and immediate. Colchuck Peak slices the sky to the west and Aasgard Pass beckons a frozen stairway to the Enchantments.
My campsite called to me–directly across from Dragontail on the granite outcroppings
falling into the frozen lake. I smoked a congratulatory pipe, watching the light change across the peaks. Alpenglow, collapsing rocks and ice, reflecting sun in the melt puddles on Colchuck. Oh, did I mention I had packed up a 22oz Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA? Ahh, great idea! In a mild state, I told myself I would just check out Aasgard Pass the next day–early, before the snow melted, just see what it’s like…And as the light drifted off Dragontail, I congratulated myself on my plan.
Thus, at 5:00 am I started over to Aasgard. Losing myself slightly on the Colchuck glacier climb, I traversed across some frozen boot prints to the Pass. Foolish pride from my self-boasting the night before lingered in the air, and I was already partially up, so why not a little further?
At a certain point, I don’t really know where–perhaps once past the frozen waterfall at midway–I was fully committed. The snow refused to soften, and I was mixing it up between the ice/snow and the rock/talus/pines. For two thousand feet of climbing. The lake fell away below, which I paused to admire frequently (just to appreciate the landscape, not because I was tired–no, no way…) I scrambled up some large granite boulders, and a pale half moon appeared over the pinnacles of Dragontail. I was climbing to the goddamn moon! Beyond my breathing, the squeak of my poles against the snow, and gurgling unseen waterfalls, the angled landscape was quiet. The moon hovered above the white and black totem stacks; the lake two thousand feet below glittered in a breaking sun line. Transcendence.
The Enchantments. Rock and ice and the ancient ingredients of a world still young. Contrasts hard against snow and sky and granite. Two small birds glide above snow. A ptarmigan, white bodied with the season, stands his ground over a fortress of boulders. Peaks uncurl and flicker pinnacles and turrets into the air. Two, maybe three sets of tracks, mine the fourth. I break my own way, passing teal meltwater. Quietus. A meditation on endings and beginnings. I am the sole human being in this hallowed basin, a hermit convert and proselytizer to the wind and sun.
After meeting the guru, the petitioners must walk back down the mountain and forget his lessons. I was no different. Leaving, but not breaking, the spell of the Enchantments draped in snow and silence, I began to descend the 2,200 feet. Very soon, I was sweating and route-finding and far from the magical world protected by Aasgard Pass. My feet were tired and my leg muscles were a riot of lactic acid, and it wasn’t yet noon. I arrived at camp, and made myself coffee and oatmeal. The sun shone warmly and I sunburned with a purpose.
I watched the play of clouds and mountain for some time, then packed up and headed down. I made a small side trip to Stuart Lake, because a glutton for punishment is still a glutton–I just didn’t want to return yet to reality, but the graspings of the slowly drowning are feeble. I returned to the trailhead and drove back to the city. The price of the small moment in paradise has been my destroyed legs for the past week. Was it painful and dumb and–at times–a little scary? Sure. But was it worth it? Leave that to Papa…
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another”