My plan for the trip was to camp in the Enchantments and climb Dragontail and Colchuck peaks; the first of which I had climbed before, the second I had not. Most people (including myself on three previous trips to the Enchantments) camp at Colchuck Lake for those climbs but because I was training for Rainier and assumed, correctly as it turned out, that it would be more difficult to get a permit for the Colchuck zone, I planned to camp somewhere just over Asgard pass.
Hoping for a permit I arrived at the ranger station in Leavenworth a good 45 minutes before they opened, I had planed for 7:30 but arrived early, it turn out they don’t start the lottery until 7:45. There were two other groups also wanting day-of permits but we were lucky to be all going to different areas.
The trail to Colchuck Lake was much as I remembered it, though I had never crossed the creek when the water was quite so violent. I got my first view of Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks by scrambling up a boulder and snow patches appeared after the junction between the Colchuck Lake and Stuart Lake trails. About a mile past the junction snow began to cover the trail in increasing amounts, by about a quarter mile around the lake the boot-path became difficult to follow and I lost it several times.
Asgard was much harder than I expected, burdened by a thirty pound pack it took me over three hours to cover that three fourths of a mile. In the past when I have climbed it in the snow I had camped at Colchuck lake, allowing for a much earlier start, the heavy, wet slush of mid-day heat was far from pleasant. An additional frustration was that the angle of the slope was such that the other tracks were only half-melted, with ice in the toe section of each step and the rest ready to sink five or six inches, eventually I discovered it was easier to just kick my own steps. Because I was heading for Dragontail and didn’t much care where I camped in relation to the Enchantments proper, I ignored where I thought the summer trail was and took the west (right-hand if looking at the pass from Colchuck Lake) gully. When I finally reached the pass I found a descent spot among some rocks with a flat section of snow nearby where I would pitch my tent and took a much needed break. As I had not brought a filter I was just about out of water and began to melt snow immediately. Too lazy to bring it to a rolling boil, I found the cleanest snow I could, from a two foot hole I dug, and tried to ignore the suspended particles. I assured myself that if I got giardia it wasn’t too far to hike out, and I have drunk late-season snow melt before to no ill-effect.
Around four in the afternoon, with the route around the south face of Dragontail shaded, I set off for the peak. When I had climbed it years before the weather had been much worse and we had been unable to see more than a few hundred feet, so I had only a dim recollection of the route. The snow was somewhat firmer and without a full pack I made good time to the notch, from there the snow conditions deteriorated sharply. The snow pack consisted of several feet of slush covering a boulder-field with substantial gaps beneath, such that one could never tell when one was going to suddenly plunge three or four feet down around an otherwise hidden rock. I regretted wearing my crampons but having left the rubber spike-covers at my camp I had no way to carry then without risking them puncturing either my pack or my legs. Having worn them on Asgard and not needed them I had considered leaving the behind but the last thing I wanted was to reach a patch of ice and either have to turn around or precariously affix them on a 45% slope. Regardless, I reached the peak with only minimal leg gouging and enjoyed one of the more magnificent views in the Cascades. I could see most of the major peaks in Washington, including Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, Glacier Peak, Mt. Baker, Mt. Stuart and the less major but very distinctive Sloan Peak. Back at camp just over Asgard I enjoyed a warm evening but found once I got in my tent how uncomfortable the snow patch I had pitched my tent on was. Moral of the story: do not bring a therm-a-rest z-fold pad when expecting to sleep on snow.
The twenty-second was somewhat cloudier than the twenty-first but the forecasted thundershowers never showed up. I packed up and by nine was descending Asgard, I then left my pack on an outcropping of trees near the lowest point of Dragontail’s north face and headed up to the Colchuck col. That slope, which apparently contains a glacier, was both shorter and more gradual than that leading to Asgard. The route in my guidebook indicated that I should take the right side of the left gully, which would avoid most of the rockfall off of either peak. After the col the route turned to the right, up a steep incline for no more than a quarter mile, at which point it leveled. The snow conditions were much the same as on the final accent of Dragontail, but even worse, the flatter the ground the worse it seems to have become. The actual summit of Colchuck Peak was about a fifteen foot scramble over rock, with views similar to those on Dragontail. The descent down to the col was even more nerve racking than the accent, as it is far more difficult to walk softly downhill than up, multiple times I fell through and spent several minutes extricating myself. From the col I was able to glissade much of the way, which I hadn’t on Asgard due to my large pack and the threat of snow-bridges. I heard that some years ago on Asgard someone fell through a snow bridge and drowned or was battered to death by the river, though I’ve also heard that a man was recently killed by rock fall about twenty feet off the summer route. After traversing back under Dragontail to pick up my pack I descended to Colchuck Lake and hiked out to the trailhead.
I found the scramble route on Colchuck easier than that on Dragontail, though I feel like a wuss for not doing real climbing routes - I’m an extraordinarily terrible rock-climber. I think both peaks would be better climbed earlier in the year, when the snow is less slushy, or later, when more has melted and what is left has solidified. I didn’t feel like there was much avalanche danger but the slush on the flatter sections was frustrating and my camp spot was less than satisfactory. Snowshoes, rather than crampons, might have been helpful for certain sections, but neither was necessary.
for additional photos: http://ifiwereacrow.blogspot.com/2012/01/colchuck-and-dragontail.html
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