I used to joke that the only reason I worked was to earn the money and vacation time I needed to get out and hike. I hiked much of the year, with multiple big trips. These days I am grateful to get out once a year. My annual hike is worth celebrating though. What joy to be on a trail again.
The Enchantments Area in northern Washington state is so popular that people can only get hiking permits by lottery. I did not win the lottery this year (again), so I had to purchase outside the peak season, which ends October 15th. The earliest permit available was this past week, October 24th-27th. That’s pretty late. I paid my fee and told myself that if the winter snows had not begun in earnest, I would hike. If they had, I would consider it a donation to Recreation.gov. (That’s a marvelous website, by the way. Please check it out.)
The Snow Lakes trailhead begins just outside of town on Icicle Road heading out of Leavenworth, WA. Hit the link there and just look at a couple of photos to get a sense of the town. It is totally kitschy and totally touristy but oh, so, beautiful that it’s worth every potential drawback. I reserved a room at the Leavenworth Village Inn, where I have stayed before, and was equally pleased. They offer a military discount, which I used. This lovely little Bavarian-styled town is smack in the middle of Oktoberfest. So Plan B was that if the trail was snowed out, I would drink some ale. Admit it, you love my Plan B.
Prior to the trip it rained and rained and rained and then! Tuesday morning was spectacular.
Because it was so late in the season, and also because I don’t have my mountain legs anymore (spending most of my life decomposing in front of a computer screen all day long), I invited a friend along. As you may recall, this is not my usual approach as I really do prefer hiking alone. However, I am also smart! And hiking in the mountains potentially in snow, for days on end, alone… Well, let’s just say I was relieved when Josh said, “Sure, I’ll go.” (of course, I am stubborn enough that I would have gone on alone anyway if he was not interested…but that’s a psychology session for another day)
The trail begins with a shameful number of brutal switchbacks. Up, up, up. I am a good hiker when it comes to “up.” I complain, but my trusty little legs just keep going. Josh (big tough guy) was feeling strong that morning and teasing that we should do the whole 18-mile loop in a day, then do it again the second day. It was his first backpacking trip ever. So I just smiled and kept plodding along. After 1000 feet or so, he was humbled. I offered to let him go ahead and set the pace. Gasping on breaks he insisted that I had to be in front of him for motivation. “I can’t let you beat me at this!”
Trail descriptions really downplay this part of the trail, recommending to start at the other end because there isn’t much to look at on this side. I beg to differ. It’s truly magnificent, and especially so in October, where yellow trees pour down mountain valleys like molten gold. The air was crisp and hinting at afternoon warmth. The sky blue as only October blue can be.
The sun drops early in the evening these days, but we made it to the first lake before it got dark and set up the tent while it was still light. It got really cold, really quick, and soon we escaped into the tent for shelter.
Wednesday morning was beautiful and I was energized as I boiled up water for coffee and made breakfast. It was the debut of my new MSR Whisperlite stove. My old whisperlite had been a solid and reliable companion ever since I bought it in 2000. This last camping trip, when I watched the eclipse, it stopped working. I suspected the lines were clogged. Prior to this trip then, I took my little stove out on the deck and pulled it into all its pieces and began cleaning the fuel line. I went into the house to grab some steel wool for scrubbing the soot, and when I came back out I saw that a gust of wind had come up and the teeniest little stove piece had bounced away, off the deck, and likely through a crack and into the weeds underneath. I hunted on my hands and knees under the deck with the slugs and spiders that day for approximately 4 hours (remember how I said I am stubborn?). And then I went on Amazon and bought a new stove. Whatever I paid for that last one, 17 years is a good run and I did not feel bitter about the purchase of a replacement. The brand new stove worked great (of course I had tested it before we left).
Then we loaded everything up and went uphill again. This was a short hike, only a few miles and 1000 more feet. It wasn’t as pleasant as the first day because we were tired, but also because the clouds rolled in while it was still morning, and a light rain began to fall. It rained all day long, but luckily just a light rain that frizzed my hair but didn’t soak through anything. We found a spot to camp at Upper Snow Lake at about 5400′ elevation. As we were looking for a place to camp, we met two hikers that had just descended from the next lake up. They said to be sure and use our ice cleats and snowshoes because of all the ice and snow on the trail. Well, we didn’t have either. Most of my hike life I’ve been a fair-weather backpacker and only recently learned that camping is fun when it’s cold, too. But I won’t go so far as to invest in snow hiking gear. I’m not crazy.
We spent the remains of the day running around in the forest and climbing on rocks. You can act like you’re 10 years old when you camp in the mountains. In fact, it’s pretty much expected.
It rained harder in the evening, and rained during the night. Thursday, to my delight, it dawned spectacularly clear again. It was the warmest day so far and after the fog burned off, not a cloud to be seen. We were still chilled from the wet night and took a long time to get moving. I was trying to decide whether to do a day hike up to Lake Viviane without snow climbing gear. It must have been noon before we were finally packed up. Didn’t even try to dry the tent out. Everything was just going to have to be wet. I was tired and after a tentative query to Josh, who didn’t really warm up to the idea of a few more thousand feet, I committed to heading back down the mountain.
This was the hare’s turn to shine. After the stolid and steadfast tortoise was a clear victor in going uphill, the hare practically caught the trail on fire going back down. We went down all 4000 feet in just a few hours – a record for me. He was very patient at first, because we found a couple of places awash in sunshine and I wanted to do nothing but lounge. I wet and re-braided my ratty hair. I climbed up and down hills and boulders and over logs with my camera. I snacked. I smiled. Josh laid on a rock in the sun and didn’t say a word. But when I finally gave the green light and we hefted our packs and buckled in….whoosh! He was gone.
The rest of the day I barely saw my traveling companion.
And hiking alone is my comfort zone, so it was no big deal. But I did get very tired. And my feet were aching. And then my knees started to hurt, and still I had not caught up. Sometimes he would spot me from hundreds of feet below and holler up, “Everything ok? You taking a nap up there or what?” I would signal a thumbs up and voom, off he’d go again.
At one point as I was about to step over a pile of bark from a tree that had fallen over the trail, I noticed that some of the pieces of bark had been shaped into an arc. Only the curve was sideways, making it look like the letter “C.” And I laughed out loud. Yes, that is something he would do: leave me a message to let me know I was not forgotten. What a sweet gesture. It kept me going for another 15 minutes and then I was just about to despair in pain again, but I came across more bark that was indisputably an “R.” And that time I really laughed! That crazy guy was going to spell my whole name! Sure enough, 20 minutes later I found a “Y.” And it wasn’t until “S” that I finally had the sense to take a photo.
After T and then A, I spotted him waiting for me at a great place beside Snow Creek where we had stopped to eat something on the way up two days before. He asked how I was doing and I said, “I want my L!” I told him I was in pain and was about to suggest a longer break, but he took off my pack and proceeded to transfer about 15 pounds from my pack to his. Well, he did need a little slowing down, so I let him. I am proud and stubborn, but…
It didn’t slow him down at all. Zoom! Gone again. I found my L. And you would not believe this, but he did my last name too.
The lovely day and the lovely foliage did as much to cheer me as the letters on the trail. I kept plodding along, but tortoises apparently are not made for rapid down hill trekking with no breaks and no meals – just snacks on the go. My feet were killing me and I had to stop a lot to sit down and get the weight off my soles. Josh hit the parking lot, ditched his pack, ran back up the hill to where I was, teased me for napping, then took my pack and went back down again. It was still daylight when I finally hit bottom. Well, you know, “finally” as in finally caught up to Josh. But in terms of backpacking down a mountainside, we really smoked.
I’m glad I took the chance on the late season pass. Everything worked out perfectly. It didn’t snow too much before last week, and the weather was splendid for two of the three days. On the trail is where I find my bliss.