Skiing across the Enchantments
The Enchantment Lakes region, a pair of alpine basins sandwiched by the parallel crests of the Stuart Range, is the most storied backpacking destination in Washington State. In summer and fall, despite a strict permit system for overnight trips, the crowds are equally storied: on a given weekend, it can seem like most of King County has made the 2.5 hour drive over the crest to secure a lakeside tent site. Habitat degradation, wilderness character, and basic manners are perennial concerns.
But in winter, solitude returns to the Enchantments, with heavy snowfall down to Icicle Creek at ~1300’ ASL closing road access to the popular Stuart Lake Trailhead, and a very long approach to the high basins via Snow Creek discouraging day trippers from going the other way. The majority of human visitors in the offseason are campers at Colchuck Lake, or climbers and skiers headed for aesthetic routes on menacing Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks, a relatively small area. The remainder of the classic 19-mile horseshoe remains largely abandoned to wolves and wolverines. Which is why, since I’d yet to complete the full circuit, winter seemed the best time to do it.
Erik and I knocked it out two Saturdays past, starting at 5AM at the Snow Creek trailhead. Our full route (including the ski back to Icicle Road from Stuart Lake TH, a road run to retrieve Erik’s van, and a ski descent of the summit of Little Annapurna) was approximately 27 miles with 8500’ of gain, which we covered in a hair under 12 hours.
Photo credit and (c) Erik.
It’s a long, remote, laborious day, and not something to underestimate: there’s unlikely to be a skin track for most of the traverse, and travel both 1) up Snow Creek as far as the lower basin (~11 miles and 5700′ above the car) 2) down from Colchuck Lake to the trailhead can be very tedious. But with efficient gear that still affords a margin of safety, it’s a doable fast-and-light tour of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most spectacular high country.
Possibly the crux of the day: navigating steep granite slabs coated in isothermal snow on the way up to Lake Vivian. Erik demonstrates exemplary kick-turn technique.
Our first view of the lower Enchantment Lakes basin, with Little Annapurna merging into cloud center horizon.
Erik, with Prusik Peak arrears.
It’s a long, long way down to Ingalls Creek.
While I tagged Little Annapurna, Erik opted to briefly bivy above Asgard Pass. Weather was closing in, and we were both glad to have the option to continue. Unfortunately, the descent to Colchuck Lake — 2500′ of steep, fall line skiing, and usually highlight of the traverse — was an ordeal, alternating between skittery ice and breakable crust. It’d be nice to return and milk the run in friendlier snow conditions. However, given the low elevation of much of the Snow Lake Trail, waiting for a reliable corn cycle would likely mean substantially more hiking.