Alpine Lakes Wilderness

 

The Alpine Lakes Wilderness is a beautiful and rugged area in central Washington, within the heart of the Cascades Range. I planned to head to the Enchantment Lakes Basin, one of the most photogenic places on the planet. This would be my first solo backpack into a true wilderness area, and I planned to face snow, ice, and backcountry navigation. In hindsight, it might have been wise to practice facing these challenges in a less extreme environment, but that isn’t my style.

I arrived in the small town of Leavenworth and secured a permit for the hike, which is typically hard to come by. The ranger told me that none of the other parties had picked up their permits, likely cancelling their plans due to an impending weather system. Wonderful. I spent the first day scouting out the first few miles of trail – I wanted to be familiar with the area in case it got socked in with snow the next day. The next morning, I headed up with all my gear. It started to snow an hour or two into the hike, and by the time I got to Nada Lake, it was coming down pretty hard. I passed three parties, all on their way down, and some of these people appeared to be equipped for an Everest expedition. Warning bells start going off in my head.

I continued on to Snow Lake, about 8 miles in. At this point, the trail was becoming hard to follow so I decided to make camp for the night. I found a large boulder and thought to myself, “That will make a great wind-break” and set up camp. The conditions prevented me from taking many pictures, though I was able to snap a couple before climbing into the tent for the evening. At some point in the middle of the night, it became apparent that my tent was going to be buried in snow, and I began to panic. It wasn’t really snowing that much – maybe a foot and a half by then, but it was accumulating along the walls of the tent, which were starting to collapse. Then, a bunch of snow slid off the stupid rock and landed squarely on top of the tent, and for a second I thought I was being attacked by a grizzly. I didn’t get much sleep that night.

The next morning, I put on all my clothes and began hiking up towards the Enchantments. Only a mile or so to go, but it was steep and there was no trail to follow. I postholed my way up until I reached a steep, slabby area, where I decided to put on my crampons. Not the best time or place to try crampons on for the first time, I quickly realized. It was starting to snow again, I had no idea whether I was on the trail, and my route was becoming steeper and more exposed with every step. I spent the next hour making slow progress, taking a few steps, re-evaluating, resting, cursing, and so on. I was starting to question the risks vs. reward and whether I had any business being up there in the first place.

By late morning, I decided to call it quits. I was no more than 1/2 mile from the start of the Enchantment Basin, but it just wasn’t worth it. I felt confident that I could make it up to the Basin, but I had no idea if the weather would continue to get worse, and I didn’t have the proper clothes or boots to deal with the heavy snow. Above all else, the thought of climbing back down those slabs under icier conditions scared the hell out of me. So I turned around.

The hike back to the trail head was not without excitement. Even though it was fairly easy to navigate my way back down the valley, there were times where I felt genuinely lost and I had to stop, relax, and find my bearings. My feet and pants were soaking wet and I was getting cold, and I did not want to spend another night out in the snow. At one point, I decided to ignore my map/compass and I just followed some deer tracks that appeared to head in the right direction. Indeed, the tracks led me over a small hill and back to Nada Lake.

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