Editor’s Note: After a year's hiatus, the chronicle of Bryan Snyder's misadventures in the Western high country, "Off The Map", returns to the pages of The Evening Sun. Besides the usual tales of Rocky Mountain mischief, Bryan will report from the drought-afflicted backcountry of Southern California and the snow-capped, slumbering volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.
The stout, aging Forest Service ranger shambled out the front door at 7:45am, wearing a scowl on her face that would have caused even Smokey the Bear to think twice before crossing her. “First thing,” she announced to the crowd of expectant backpackers, “I need everyone to get off this porch because I have claustrophobia.” She then rattled off a list of backcountry regulations in a voice that managed to sound nervous and unbelievably bored at the same time. There was something funny about sending a claustrophobic woman out of the ranger station every morning to deal with a throng of hikers hoping to get a camping permit, but I wasn’t brave enough to point it out to her.
The Enchantment Lakes Basin in central Washington had grown so popular over the years that the Forest Service had to first ban motorcycles, then horses, then dogs, and then finally institute an online permitting system where one had to make reservations six months in advance. The alternative was to show up at the station at opening time and enter a lottery for the pitifully small amount of permits that had been set aside for last-minute hikers, like me.
After standing anxiously in the crowd for two mornings, I finally won the permit needed to access the Enchantment Lakes. While filling out paperwork at an inside counter, I struck up a conversation with a father heading into the wilderness with his sons. “Hey, you should hike Dragontail Peak!” he excitedly suggested. Before I could ask how one approached this dramatic-sounding summit, the disagreeable ranger with the bureaucratic superiority complex returned to process my permit, and by the time I dared to turn away, the father had left the building. Guess I’ll have to figure out how to tame this Dragon on my own.
I would have thought that an elevation gain of 5,400 feet should have deterred more people from attempting to hike into the Enchantment Basin, but a good majority of the people I met on the trail were technical rock-climbers, who are mentally unbalanced to begin with. I progressed steadily up the valley, aided by my sturdy hiking poles, and with stubborn determination I finally attained the promised country – a region of tranquil lakes nestled amidst smooth granite domes on the edge of treeline. Ospreys swooped low to snatch trout from the frigid waters, and the shouts of climbers scaling nearby Prusik Peak echoed through the clear mountain air. Mountain goats were everywhere you turned, especially mothers and their newborn. I’ve never seen so many in one place. If I wanted to improve a photograph, all I had to do was hold the camera long enough, and a mountain goat would inevitably wander into the frame.
After a night of well-deserved rest on the shores of Leprechaun Lake, I set off to explore the Upper Enchantment Basin. The retreating of glaciers had awakened several long-buried lakes over the last century, and remnants of those glaciers and snowfields still clung to the sides of Dragontail Peak – the highest point in the ridgelines surrounding the basin. The steep pitch of the snowfields prevented any sort of safe access to Dragontail’s summit, and I suspected that advice from that father back at the ranger station would have helped immeasurably.
Lacking that information, I criss-crossed the basin instead, climbing three lesser peaks and eating up the afternoon hours. On the summit of the third and final mountain – Dragontail’s neighbor – I was positioned to view the backside of Dragontail for the first time. And I could see that with the absence of steep cliffs or glaciers, this side was actually climbable. My tired legs said no, but my brain fatalistically grumbled, “Oh good grief… we’re still gonna do this mountain, aren’t we?”
Yes, we were. Atop the shattered pinnacles of Dragontail Peak, I surveyed a hazy and tumultuous landscape. The mountains of the Stuart Range were coated with black lichen so that all the ridgelines and edges appeared charred. It looked as if someone had gouged the landscape and then torched the place afterwards. Spires threatened the valleys below with the intimidating weight of a thousand upraised spears. Each of the surrounding peaks had their own individual presence, but I could tell they were all warriors.
My attention kept getting drawn back to the most menacing character of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness – Mt. Stuart, who was as evil-looking a peak as I’ve ever encountered. Its name sounded benign, but it loomed above the other mountains like a Mongolian overlord. The jagged ridgelines extending from its blackened crest were its sword and spiked shield. False summits flared outward from its shoulders like samurai armor, and it seemed angered that I had dared tread upon one of its minions, especially the highest-ranking general in its army - second only to itself in terms of height.
I felt more at ease once I descended five hundred feet and removed myself from Mt. Stuart’s smoldering gaze, but then I was presented with a difficult choice. Either I could retreat the way I had originally approached Dragontail, along the east ridge, which had its own cliffs and dangers to surmount, or I could take my chances with the steep snowfield below the north face. I had accidentally left my hiking poles back at camp, which complicated matters. Without poles, I couldn’t stop myself from sliding uncontrollably into the rocks below the snowfield if I happened to slip and gain too much speed. On the other hand, without poles, I couldn’t cushion my knees while descending the rocky hills below the east ridge, so perhaps I should slide down the snowfield and save myself some joint pain. Decisions, decisions…
The possibility of a quick descent won out. I peered out over the lip of the snowfield and could see that trying to glissade straight down could be lethal. There was no way I would be able to slow down before slamming into the boulders at the base of the slope. But an old trail of melted-out footprints traversed the upper edge of the snowfield, leading to a section where the contour was less severe. Carefully, I stepped from imprint to imprint, following the path of these previous hikers, who I imagine had worn crampons on their boots to maintain a decent grip. A premature slide would have been my doom, but mercifully, the snow held my weight without collapsing. Once the slope leveled out to a safe enough degree, I pointed my toes downhill and glissaded, skiing on the soles my boots to the foot of Dragontail Peak. Hooray for shortcuts!
On the third day, I made one final trip above treeline to Enchantment Peak to take some parting photos of the glaciated setting. Overnight, high winds had blown away the haze that had obscured the massive stratovolcanoes of Glacier Peak to the north and Mt. Rainier to the south. But new storm systems were stirring, and grey, overcast skies were steadily growing greyer.
The first wisps of vapor were coalescing around Mt. Stuart, lending the impression that the overlord was responsible for the change in the weather and was marshaling his forces. I sensed that the guy was still offended that I had bested one of his top generals yesterday. The cloudbank swelled wickedly, then dropped, and the overlord’s armies began their conquest. First the clouds reclaimed Dragontail, followed by Little Annapurna, and when the first drops of rain fell from the skies, I realized it was best to retreat from the high country before the Enchantment Peaks were swallowed up as well.
I packed up my campsite in a rush, hit the trail, and Mt. Stuart chased me clear out of his domain. He spat raindrops at me the entire way down to the trailhead, which I suppose was the meteorological equivalent of shaking his fist at me. I let him have his victory, for I already had achieved mine. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I returned someday to tempt fate and challenge his dominion once again.