July 02, 2012

Enchantment Traverse: Medium and Light Style

With mediocre weekend weather in store once again, Ava and I decided it would be a good weekend for a long hike.  We devised a plan to hike through the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in a day, intent on going fast and light.  This is a more or less horseshoe shaped traverse, starting and finishing at two different trailheads about 8 miles apart.  The idea was to run/hike from the Snow Lake trailhead to the Colchuck Lake trailhead via the glorious Enchantment Traverse,and hitchhike back to the Snow Lake trailhead.  Reliable reports of the distance and elevation gain for the route were hard to come by.  My current best estimate is about 18-19 miles with 6,700 feet of elevation gain.

About 2 minutes into our run, we were forced to admit that hiking was a more appropriate mode of travel given the incline of the trail, our fitness level, and the long day ahead.  So, 2 minutes into the day we set a standard of overestimating our abilities and underestimating our adventure, which would last for the next 9 hours.

For the first several hours, we walked, ate, and drank in a repeating fashion as we ascended deeper and higher into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  As we neared what we thought was the halfway point, we were continuously assessing our decision to commit to the traverse or turn around and retrace our steps.  The main unknown in our decision centered around the fact that the highest point on the route, Asgard Pass at about 7,800 feet, would meet us at about mile 12.  Most of the trail was snow free, but we were unsure of how much snow the pass would hold and how steep of snow slopes we would have to travel on in our running shoes without ice axes.

With no shortage of people scattered about this popular wilderness destination, we stopped to ask people with a trustworthy appearance about the conditions on Asgard Pass.  Descriptions ranged from, "It's really steep and we heard you need spikes," to "It's not bad.  You should just go for it, but leave now because it's getting late and it will take you a while".

I failed to mention that we didn't leave the trailhead until 12:45, thinking we could optimistically complete the run/hike in 5 hours, maybe a couple more in a less optimistic, more realistic world.  I think it was about 6:45 when we were still 2 miles from the pass and asking backpackers what they knew.

One favorable report was all we needed.  Thankfully, that report came from a group of backpackers who had just come over Asgard Pass and left a nice trail of boot steps in the snow for us to follow.  Without their tracks in the snow, I'm sure we would have turned around as the navigation is less than straightforward up there and we were sans map and compass.

So, we kept walking, drinking, and eating, but now with a slightly higher degree of urgency.  We arrived at the top of the pass to be pleasantly surprised by finding the other side almost completely free of snow.  However, the reports of steepness were not exaggerated.  We descended about 2000 ft in the next mile, at which point we reached Colchuck Lake and the trail became much flatter and well-maintained.  We actually did run some of the last few miles to the trailhead, partly motivated by the waning light.

We arrived at the trailhead at 9:45, taking exactly 9 hours to complete the traverse.  Since it took us much longer than anticipated, our hitchhiking plan more or less turned to shit.  I'm sure many vehicles were travelling the gravel side road to and from the trailhead about 2 hours earlier, but that didn't do us much good.  So, we kept walking.

About 3 or 4 miles later, the first two vehicles travelling our direction approached.  The first drove by without slowing, but the second stopped and happily gave two smelly hitchhikers a much appreciated ride.

I think we traveled 22 miles in total, running for about 1.5 of those.  Despite our underestimation of our objective, we had a great day out and felt surprisingly good at the end.  Given the rugged nature of large sections of the trail, I don't feel too bad about our final time, even though it was much slower than expected.  While I can't call our speed fast, it also wasn't slow.  And since we didn't take very much with us, thereby travelling very light, I'm quite comfortable referring to our style as "medium and light".  I hope we inspire others to partake in this new offshoot style of backcountry travel.  It maintains many of the benefits of fast and light while proving to be much more pleasant and enjoyable.

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