Colchuck Lake Snow
A trip that was almost 2mo in the making finally happened! The Enchantments in the snow!
See, behind the scenes I have quietly been working on adding to my outdoor skillset. One area of that is mountaineering. Now don't get all worried. I'm not talking about the Mt. Everest type of mountaineering, but the much more reasonable and safe end of mountaineering. My best friend Justin Pucci has a background (and plenty of experience) in mountaineering, and my desire to learn seems to have re-kindled a very deep passion of his for the mountains.
I have been diligently working at night on techniques, reading tons of books, practicing knots, and making multiple trips down to Justin's house to work on these techniques and skills. This is where the Colchuck Peak idea came to begin.
Step one to implementing this new journey was to get some snow camping, and higher slope angle experience. I've spent MONTHS researching gear, and slowly building myself what I would consider to be a very nice and lightweight gear setup. We've been watching the weather very closely, and with only a single open weekend in May to make some sort of gear shakedown/skills training trip happen the weather window magically opened up so off to Leavenworth, WA went!
Leaving my house at 2am on Friday morning I picked Justin up at his house, and we were rolling into Leavenworth at around 5am. A quick stop into Starbucks for coffee and a poop (hey, any outdoors person can appreciate minimizing the need for crapping in sub-freezing temps) and we were on our way. Unfortunately the road to the Colchuck Lake trail head was still closed so we had to park at the gate.
The 3.8mi road portion went quickly as we were in great spirits due to the PERFECT weather. The main trail was snow almost 99% of way. What began as a well packed-in trail with relatively low risk, turned into a much more interesting route finding experience once we passed the boulder fields. There were random tracks EVERYWHERE as one of the more challenging parts about snow navigation is that there really isn't any "trail" to follow. After some serious post-holing, and careful navigation we finally hit the lake.
Wow, wow, wow!! The beauty of the Enchantments is hard to put in words. If there's a word that means majestic times ten then that's what should be used. After picking our jaws up off the ground we made our way along the frozen lake until we found a spot right below Asgard Pass to setup camp.
Having done my research quite well my first snow camp building experience was a huge success and showed no problems whatsoever other than it simply takes a fair amount of time to dig out that much snow for a good tent spot. We got a spot on the lake cleared of snow and managed to make ourselves a nice little "water hole" so thank goodness we didn't have to melt snow for water the entire weekend. We fired up the stoves, ate some lunch, had a cup of coffee, and then grabbed some gear for training time!
Training went EXTREMELY well! We worked on self arresting techniques, foot/axe work, and glissading. Again, it really goes to show that prior reading and watching tutorials really pays off when it comes to how quickly you can learn. Next step we went through some snow pack analysis testing. Upon arriving at the lake originally we could see tons of avalanche activity, and it was easy to spot about 1/2 a dozen spots where avalanches recently occurred. Because of this, we initially wrote-off the chance of a Colchuck Peak ascent, but the snow pack analysis showed otherwise. Avalanche risk was low, weather was looking perfect, and training went flawless so we decided to go ahead and plan an alpine start in the AM for an ascent. This was not the sole intent of the trip, but we had intended to leave the idea open if everything made sense for it to happen.
I woke at 3:30am to a not-so-enthusiastic Justin. What I found out made me feel horrible. His brand new sleeping mat had a leak which in turn gave him a very long, uncomfortable, frigid, and ultimately ZERO hours of sleep night. We've always had a very open and honest line of communication so after a very short discussion it was easy to decide the safest decision was to bail on the idea of an ascent. Shivering all night had cause his body to use an excessive amount of energy to create body heat, and you could just tell he was chilled to the core. When it comes to objectives like Colchuck Peak (or anything similar) mental sharpness, and physical condition are the difference between a great trip or a horrible accident. Justin is tough, and like me, has the ability to function amazingly well on little-to-no sleep. I have no doubt he could have made the peak, but we were very concerned he would hit that "wall" that inevitably happens when you run on no sleep. If he were to hit this on the descent from the peak it would be a very serious situation. One slip or mis-step can make you a story in the paper. Decisions like this aren't easy. I mean hey, we wouldn't get another shot at a winter ascent on Colchuck until next year, but these are also the decisions that guarantee you get to go home and see your families. So, yeah, they're hard, but not really that hard when your priorities are right. Finding a climbing partner that you are dialed in mentally with can be one of the hardest things to find, yet one of the single most important things to ensure you stay safe.
By the way... did you know that it's almost impossible to physically get your feet into boots that have been frozen in 26* temperatures. The laces will freeze solid and the boot will not flex enough to allow you to put your feet in. Just one of the many little nuances and "joys" I learned about as I was getting up, lol. We got some breakfast, and were able to watch some headlamps slowly make their way up Asgard Pass. One group that appeared to attempt the infamous Triple Couloirs route up Dragontail Peak bailed and came back down. Since we had watched Dragontail shed rock and ice all day long our guess is the ice was simply too thin to be safe.
After some food, and getting camp packed up Justin's spirits were back to great so we headed back to the trail. We started across the lake, and about a third of the way I thought I heard something but wasn't sure. About 30sec later I heard it again except this time it was VERY obvious! "Stop! Back up and get away from me!", I told Justin in a very firm voice. In the silence of no movement the sound of ice cracking was very prominent. After a quick retreat we made it back to the edge of the lake and decided on a safer route around the lake that kept us closer to shore. From the lake we hopped back on the trail and headed down the mountain. A nice little bonus was that we managed to blaze a far more efficient path on the way down and cut about half-a-mile off the trip so that was nice!
The hike back was uneventful although the warm temps of the day before combined with the deep freeze we got that night made for a VERY slick trail. Snow bridges were crumbling, and it was all too apparent that the spring weather was rapidly transforming the area.
Counting the hike in, training below Asgard, and the hike out. We totaled about 17.5mi and 4,000ft of elevation gain. No injuries, beautiful weather, and a great friendship made for the absolute PERFECT first alpine adventure!