An Enchanting Weekend (see what I did there?!)

Jenny, me, Shams, Kyle and Paula. PC: Dude walking along who kept losing the trail, with Paula's camera.

Jenny, me, Shams, Kyle and Paula. PC: Dude walking along who kept losing the trail, with Paula’s camera.

I thought originally that, after Baker, WAC was over. We climbed our mountain and now it was time to disperse into our ordinary lives, with our friends and lovers from before WAC, and that would be that. It’s a class. Classes have an end point. I’m not really sure why I thought this—I never thought of poetry as being “over” when classes ended, I never thought of my writing community as something that would disappear once we stopped sitting shoulder to shoulder, pushing papers and books back and forth between our bodies.

WAC is a network, a friend group, a community. It’s so much more than the class, so of course it didn’t end. One week after summiting Baker, I find myself driving against morning traffic to the Eastgate Park and Ride, my pack in the trunk, running for a bus I hope will take me back downtown for work. I’m not familiar with this Park and Ride; my friends usually meet at Mercer, so even the bus ride is an adventure that involves finding my bearings and a last minute bolt to the stop.

Our plan is to summit Enchantment Peak and then, the next day, McClellan. Both routes are scrambles nestled in the core of the Enchantments, and we’re headed out today because it’s the last weekend before permits go into effect. Shams and Kyle have a plan in mind but they ask Jenny, Paula and me to figure our own ideas out before they weigh in. They ask us questions about weather and gear and it’s an instructor climb, true, but it feels just like friends planning together. We decide to leave our tents behind in an effort to lighten our packs and we figure out who should bring stoves, who will bring fuel. I’m worried about my foot—the hike from Baker ended with me limping into the lot and bursting into tears as I hid in Sham’s car, pretending to look for something. It’s felt ok all week, and the Enchantments are too tempting to stay home. The last time I was here we through hiked the whole thing, and the idea of stopping along the way is enticing.

We pull into the Snow Lake trailhead and already the lot is packed. This is not going to be a wilderness experience—the snow levels are low enough that casual hikers and climbers alike are doing their best to get a weekend in before permits restrict access. We pile into Shams’ car and head up to the Stuart Lake trailhead, leaving Kyle’s car behind. We plan to hike in to Colchuck Lake and bivy there, take on Aasgard Pass in the morning and climb Enchantment, then bivy near McClellan, summit Sunday and hike out. It’s about 18 miles from trailhead to trailhead, with 4500 feet of elevation gain, not including the peaks. Without his tent Shams tells us his pack is empty and starts taking things from us—my stove, all of our mountaineering boots, anything he can grab. “It’ll carry better if it’s packed” he tells us, but I think he’s also remembering how beat up we all felt a week ago and is trying to make sure we can survive this weekend without too much pain. I want to put up a fight, I can handle the weight and the rigor, but I’m also pretty worried about my foot and I’m happy to have a lighter pack and to be starting in approach shoes with more flex.

PC: Shams

PC: Shams

The hike in is fairly mellow and, surprisingly, fairly empty. We run in to one other group that seems to have lost the trail and they start to follow us, passing back and forth as we go. They keep wandering off trail and joining us again, head lamps bobbing along in the night. At one point Kyle calls off into the darkness “This way!” and they follow us like ducklings. We get to Colchuck Lake and climb up a few boulders for a place to sleep. I’ve slept at a trailhead in a sleeping bag before, but this is the first time I’ve properly slept in the backcountry without a tent. With the mountains rising around us it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re in some adventure story, striking out into unknown territory, until we see tents glowing around the lake and catch headlamps of a party taking on the pass under darkness. Our team is split into two and Jenny and I take “high camp” a few feet above Kyle, Shams and Paula. Venus and Jupiter dominate the sky and we fall asleep to shooting stars and muffled giggling from below.

In the morning we can see flashes of color from the other folks bivying and camping around the lake—there’s a good reason the Enchantments generally require a permit. There’s frost on my pack and sleeping bag and Jenny and I make oatmeal while we wake up. Before we leave I start a dance party and succeed in getting Shake It Off stuck in everyone’s heads for the duration of our weekend. We leave camp in good spirits and head to Aasgard Pass. The trail around the lake is well maintained, but as we near Aasgard we have to trust ourselves that “up” is the right way and pick out cairns as we go.

When I through-hiked this a few years ago, I remember Aasgard Pass being the hardest thing I’d ever done. This time, it’s merely brutal and manageable, a boulder field staircase next to a cascading stream with snow at the top and a beautiful lake at the bottom. We get to the top and stop to snack. “I’m lost, I don’t know where to go,” Kyle says, and hands us the map. We can see boot tracks following the trail through snow and we point out different peaks on the horizon, matching them to the topo. Dragontail, Prusik, McClellean. Paula takes the lead and we follow cairns and footprints towards Enchantment Peak.

PC: Shams

PC: Shams

We’re almost to the base of Enchantment Peak and I’m limping; my left foot is on fire. We’re barely anywhere, we haven’t climbed anything yet, and already I’m limping. Shams tapes an insole to the ball of my foot and it helps a little, but not enough. Paula’s feeling pretty tired too and we decide to sit at camp while the others summit. I can feel myself retreating into quiet. I’m angry at my body and I feel stupid. My pack isn’t unreasonably heavy and it’s still too much. My boots are perfect in so many ways except this, and I’m at a loss. While the others get summit packs ready, Paula and I nestle down to wait. The summit team should be back around 5.

It starts to snow slowly, startling us. Graupel really, a light, hail-like snow. I don’t realize I’ve been asleep until it wakes me up. Paula and I look at each other in mild disbelief. When we checked the weather on Friday we saw wind predicted, but no precipitation. We cannot argue against the snow falling around us, though we keep waiting for it to just magically stop. Soon we’re moving, taking everything to the middle of a stand of trees, covering packs with our rain shells and stuffing clothing left behind into waterproof sacks. We curl up next to each other with Jenny’s waterproof bivy sack over our sleeping bags, fading in and out of sleep as the snow starts and stops. I’ve only known Paula for a few months, and yet here we are, nose to nose, laughing at ourselves under a tree as people hike by, figuring out a rescue plan if the team isn’t back by 6, talking about what to do if it starts snowing in earnest. This is why I am here, for this moment and all the others like it, where we stop being random people and become something larger. All around us the lakes mirror the sky and the ground turns white and we are ok.

PC: Shams

PC: Shams

That night we find a bivy spot high above Lake Viviane, Prusik Peak rising in front of us. We pass around whiskey and heat food as the light fades. There is a goat on the skyline and Venus seems to rise out of its back. Headlamps dot the rocks and we can see a team benighted on Prusik. Time seems suspended, caught on an outcrop of rock. And then it is properly night, getting colder, and our bodies are slowing down. We sleep.

Goat! PC: Paula

Goat! PC: Paula

Sunrise is pink against McClellan Peak and sometime in the night a goat has joined our camp. He sleeps on a rock above Jenny and Kyle, used to people but still cautious. We break camp and walk a bit along the lake before making summit packs and hanging the bags we’re leaving behind to get the salt stained fabric as far from goats as possible. Helmets on, ice axes ready, Paula leads us along Leprechaun Lake and towards McClellan. We follow the boot steps of an earlier team, snaking up the snowfield. It’s firmer than we thought, and icier. At one point I glance down and realize, this is where I shouldn’t look down. It’s steep and the run out is into boulders. A fall here is a bad fall. Paula kicks steps and we follow, curving around a rock and up to an island of trees and exposed dirt.

View up McClellan. PC Paula

View up McClellan. PC Paula

“What do you guys think?” Paula asks. I’m sketched out. Kyle was out here a week earlier and the snow was soft, so we made the decision to leave our crampons at home. But over the week the temperature dropped; this snow is hard and we have much steeper sections to go. Kyle and Shams are a little behind us while Jenny, Paula and I talk about conditions and how, even after we summit, we have an 11 mile hike out. We decide to bail right as the guys catch up.

“Good.” Both nod in approval. It wasn’t a test, exactly—they weren’t going to let us try for the summit, but they’re happy we came to the decision on our own. Another day, less of a hike out, softer snow—one small adjustment in what is in front of us and we’d go for it. But we have this: firm snow, no crampons, a late start and a long hike home. We take some pictures and pick our way back down the slope. It’s the right call, but it’s disappointing. I poke at the thin skin of ice covering Leprechaun Lake—it breaks easily and in a few hours it will melt away entirely. McClellan is behind us and, with only a few glances backwards, we start the trek home.

Leprechaun Lake at the base of McClellan.

Leprechaun Lake at the base of McClellan.

The hike out is beautiful and long. At one point Jenny and I take our shoes off to cross a dam with a goat watching us. At another point baby goats frolic between trees. Mosquitos are out and find every patch of exposed skin we have. We walk across shoulders of granite. I remember this stretch, I remember having to be told where to put my feet. I remember being scared. Shams says, “I don’t think you were afraid of heights, you were afraid of death. Now you understand this differently and death seems like a more distant possibility.” We descend and descend. The final switchbacks are grueling, dusty, and hot. We play the movie game to keep moving without thinking about our feet and how we can see the parking lot and are still a mile away. It is hard to see the final stretch as anything besides not-alpine-terrain. Already the realness of sharp peaks against the sky is fading slightly, the contrast of snow against lichened rock a surreal dream. In the parking lot dust rises with each car pulling in or out and I am dazed, tired, and sore. The guys jump into Kyle’s car and head off to collect the other car. We change into bathing suits by the side of the lot, half-heartedly covering ourselves, shedding sweaty layers. I give Paula some of my water, Jenny dips into the river and I stretch out in the shade.

When I finally crawl into bed back in Seattle, it’s hard to believe where I spent the previous two evenings. These weekends feel like bubbles outside of real life, full of dirt and laughter and sore muscles and one foot in front of the other until we arrive somewhere else. I find myself leaning against strangers who are no longer strangers, I find myself trusting my own body more, moving on snow with stronger and stronger confidence, moving on rock with a sense of balance I hadn’t realized I understood. Most surprisingly, I find myself writing again. Travelogues in a way; not quite trip reports, not quite essays. Whatever THIS is. There’s a project percolating. I’m not sure what it will be or who will want to read it, but it’s starting to take shape and I’m pretty excited. There’s always a new place to go.

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