Enchanted Lights

4/24/12 to 4/27/12 – Words by Jonny Cromwell, Photos by Yours Truely

It was a muted grey Tuesday morning in central Washington. Clouds spilling over from Stevens Pass speckled the hazy blue sky, alternately hiding and revealing the late April sun. It was actually pretty warm out too; one of those surprisingly nice days during spring that remind you summer is on its inevitable way. Rock climbers and tourists milled about the parking lot looking incredulously at our skis and oversized packs, questioning our motives and sanity. There was no snow in sight from the trailhead much less any at the trailhead, but we were confident, laughing off their doubts and concerns, determined to find white gold atop the Enchantments.

The weather forecast for the next four days was a mixed bag: clouds, rain, snow, some sunshine, maybe, but we longed for variety, for a sense of wonder and diversity in our impression of the Enchantments. To go and visit wild places in fine weather all the time is beautiful and exuberant, but there is something compelling about seeing wild places in different lights; to see the majesty of the mountains raked by wind and snow, to be lost in the milky, dense fog, to see the fury and the stillness, the light and dark, sun and clouds, rain and wind, all chaotic and intertwined. We hoisted our packs and traipsed into the woods.

A uniform, slow kind of light that made no impressions and cast no shadows followed us up the Snow Creek drainage. The wind was calm, the animals quiet, and an overwhelming sense of detachment and indifference permeated land and sky; it felt like tiptoeing on the unremarkable doorstep of a hallowed place, where time itself slowed down and took on a dispassionate, muted feel. It was still and lonesome, giving the impression that no one had travelled these trails or seen these hills in years. We climbed higher and higher through the forest: consistent, unrelenting and unwavering, surrounded by the uninspiring light. A broken maze of tangled, downed trees and dirty, patchy snow seemed to drag on forever, stuck on repeat, slowing our progress yet lending authenticity to our the experience. This was a slow and thoughtful day.

We set up our tent in quickly fading light and settled in just in time to see the orange glow of the sun blaze across the horizon. Suddenly there was colour in our world again. The mountains stood starkly against the final rays of sinking light and we knew we were in our place. The monotony of Snow Creek was a necessary guard to the majestic Enchantments. Up here we will find our place, climb our mountain, and see what we came to see. That glimmer of orange light was a brush stroke of hope across the sky of our minds.

Night fell hurriedly over our small perch, reducing our world to headlamps and blackness. We felt small and unsure of the world outside, and yet perfectly at home inside our humble shelter. The singular focus of our headlamps lead us to the comforts of home: food, drink, warm sleeping bags and good company. Outside in the blackness, we were reduced to ants playing on the world’s stage, groping blindly through a world infinitely larger and more complex than our precious, limited perspective could grasp.

Morning came and went; we skinned slowly around the questionable ice on Snow Lake not saying much, but just soaking in the stillness. We travelled into the mountains knowing the weather was likely to be less than stellar, and yet that was part of the allure. To be swept away by the mysterious beauty;mountains cloaked in fleeting mystery, and then they are gone: retreated back into the thick, marine clouds. There is nothing but two small souls wandering among giants, captivated by what could be beyond the enclosing veil. A storm is rolling in now, blanketing the final climb up to the Enchantment Plateau in wispy clouds and long tendril like streaks of moisture. Up into the abyss we go, determined to find the discordant and raw land of wind, snow and ice. The landscape is oppressive and weighs accordingly on our minds. It starts to rain.

We push against wind and driving rain, feeling the raw elements. There is no regard for our comfort, safety or dryness. We are humbled by our own insignificance. We are miniscule, strangers in a stranger land. No one is looking out for us, nothing cares up here; there is only us and earth. This is what we came for, to feel that disregard: to feel the wind blow and the rain fall, and the cold creep into our bones and to know that just as the earth can dish it out, we can take it. The forces of earth present us with indifferent stoicism, and in return, we give the same. There is no jubilation, no crowning moment, no exuberant high fives; just more clouds and discordant windy silence. Oh that divine silence.

The wind blows harder and the rain has turned to snow. We are pipsqueaks in the grand show, high on the Enchantment plateau. Alpine walls, and jagged peaks rise every direction about us. The mist swirls in and out, the wind pushes harder and harder against us, and we can’t see anything. We shout to hear each other over the unabating gusts. This is it! What we want! To feel our temperament match that of the land, to blur the lines between landscape and self, to feel the earth and know just as we are on it, we are in it, we are subject to it.

Home is a thin nylon structure, dug resolutely into the snow behind a tree in hopes of somewhat abating the wind. Fingers numb, and soaked through to base layers, we work to build ourselves temporary residence: a place to escape the rawness that the elements have rubbed in our beings. Inside our tent, the storm subsides and we go about trying to comfort ourselves with the basics: food, water, hot drink. The clouds have lifted slightly, releasing its consuming grip on our imaginations. Blue sky pokes through, and once again the land flickers with excitement and colour, relieved of the cloaking burden of the heavy clouds.

The day after the storm: the skies are high and cold, ushering through a cold front from the north Pacific. Without the low hanging storm clouds, the land loses its texture. We are standing on high, flat plains, a place where time flows steadily through the land, passing evenly and without hurry. We cross the sea of ice and snow, braced against the cold wind and awed by the craggy summits of the upper plateau. One foot in front of the other, we climb the gentle slopes of Little Annapurna, gaining a view of the cold, bleak expanse below. Off the backside of the mountain is a precipitous drop, 5000’ feet down into the heart of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We sit in a cold, reverent silence, gazing out into the blank landscape. We are on the edge of the world, and to look off the edge is to want to jump.

In desperate need of relief from the cold and wind, we carve firm turns down Little Annapurna to the head of the Enchantment Lake plateau and peer over the edge of Aasgard Pass. Below, waves of pine and spruce fall and roll down towards the fractured blue and white ice of Colchuck Lake. We ski off the plateau and into another season: birds are chirping, the sky is clearing and pollen chokes the air. We are flooded by a sense of relief and accomplishment.

Our final campsite is at the foot of the lake, dwarfed by Colchuck and Dragontail looming thousands of feet above. We watch the blue sky slowly fade to purple, yellow, orange and red as the day slowly disappears over the horizon. And suddenly it’s all worth it: the wind, the rain, the snow, the oppressive light of a relenting winter in the Cascades. We sit in silence and watch the day slip into night once more.

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