1 October 2018
If you ask Fern, he’d say I’m easily convinced. It doesn’t usually take much for me to get on board with big objectives. I like missions perfectly on the fringe of the team’s collective capability and experience. It helps to have an equally motivated climbing partner. Over the past two weeks Fern has gone from World’s best off route scrambler to full blown rock climbing addict. We spent his initiation exploring the Vantage crag where he sent his first and second lead on his second and third outdoor routes, after a quick top rope. Basic belay, rope and lead skills checked off, we pushed the grade a bit at exit 38’s Deception Crag. He felt comfortable with sport climbing so next we got into a little trad at Index. At least there were bolted anchors. One step at a time.
Fast forward a week. Fern had dropped a number of suggestions for things like Chair Peak, The Tooth and Prusik. I had shrugged these off. We still needed a bit more practice, blah, blah, blah… That was, until this past weekend, when I felt that familiar, inescapable drive to try push it a bit farther. The Enchantments had fall turned all the way up last week when Kyle, Ryan and I climbed McClellan Peak from the Ingalls Creek approach. The weather looked solid again and if I have a choice, I’ll always go granite. “Ok Fern, want to car to car Prusik?” No surprise, he jumped all over it. We met up in Monroe after he got off work on Saturday and hit the road.
That night we still had time for a warm up. Ranchstlye (5.7) at Domestic Dome ended up being a perfect intro to no-hand friction moves for the Prusik pitch three I had heard so much about. One where you clip into an old piton, apparently placed by Beckey himself, and send an airy, run out slab with no hands. I finished my lead of Ranchstyle just as light was failing. We drove back into Leavenworth for dinner and then 180’ed out to the Colchuck Lake trail head. Bags packed, we hit the sack, alarms set for 3:30am, plenty of time to wake up, eat some breakfast and hit the trail by 5:00.
That morning was cool and comfortable. Any shivering was only the nerves playing their tricks as we set out with only a guess as to how long we would be on the move. It was just light enough when we reached Colchuck Lake to see Dragontail presiding under clear skies, gray as the cloak of night was shed. It was quiet. The crowds so many other people report this time of year, still soundly asleep in their tents. We moved swiftly through familiar terrain. Around the lake, over the talus at its south end and on up to Aasgard. I remember a time when just this was a big day. Years ago, my buddy Taylor and I got swatted off by Mother Nature about halfway up the wrong side on this now familiar, steep gateway to the Enchantments. It was that day I learned to always check the weather.
First light hit Cashmere. A bank of clouds rolled in from the west. These dispersed upon impact with Stuart. Aasgard Sentinel and Witches Spire welcomed us to a crystal clear, upper core at 8:45am. Fern and I couldn’t have been more stoked. We had been totally content with the mostly cloudy forecast. But unlike Taylor and my reversed experience, the mountain had us in her good graces. This is my favorite part of the Enchantment hike. The larches aren’t so thick but the landscape is other-worldly. Dragontail, Little Annapurna, and Enchantment Peaks surround a granite moonscape, dotted with small, vibrantly blue lakes and tarns. The trail winds through these mythical undulations, McClellan and Prusik eventually breaching the skyline on the south and north as you travel due east. The trail winds to your left and descends to Inspiration Lake, in the sea of golden larches. Not getting too distracted took some serious will power. We allowed ourselves the first real picture break upon reaching Gnome Tarn to the southwest of Prusik. It was nearly empty but there was just enough water to get the classic shot of Prusik and its reflection, mirrored between the rocks. This vantage provides the most impressive perspective of the peak’s sharp spires, reminiscent of the Chamonix aiguilles.
We reached the base of the route just before noon. It was windy and mist had started to collect on the peaks of the upper core. Clouds slowly passed overhead. We unloaded the unnecessary items from our packs and racked up. The guide book recommends singles from tips to #2. This was my first all 5th class trad lead so I opted for doubles up to #2 and a single #3. I figured it was a good way to be safe in case we found ourselves off route as I hone my route finding and anchor skills. Racked up, tied in, “Ready to climb,” “Climb on!” I set off up the distinctly clean 5.6 hand crack of pitch one. From here I don’t think there’s any set route through the blocky corners that lead along the north side of the ridge crest and eventually up onto the ridge proper. It was fun, quick climbing and after a bit of route confusion, belayed Fern up to somewhere between the prescribed pitch one and two.
Our pitch two followed directly along the ridge and required a tricky move over a couple offset blocks followed by a short down climb. A low angle slab behind me, the obvious “crux,” friction slab appeared. It was a short pitch after the stretch on one. I felt it was best to bring Fern up to belay the reported crux from a clear vantage. The friction slab rises, angled to the south, for about five meters. The old, rusty piton is set just at its base. Airy NF exposure is situated below. I backed up the piton in the cracks next door, gave Fern a fist bump and launched in. The granite was like glue to the bottom of my shoes and my hands quickly found purchase on a jug up to the right and eventually the flake at the slab’s crest.
I’m pretty sure I also took this pitch a bit farther than described. A local summit followed on the ridge crest. I worked around to the south and peered over the edge. Shear exposure plummeted to the talus below. The Enchantment lakes spread across the valley to McClellan. There is a nice horizontal crack for your feet to traverse just below a sharp point in the ridge. The route wound back and forth between two large horns and over to a terrace where I belayed Fern up the famous pitch.
The terrace extends across to the base of the summit block. A couple large standing belay options are available here. If you look up, there is an obvious corner with a bit of a roof offset to a chimney on the lookers left. The book described a couple different options from this point so I went up to investigate. My favorite part of the climb was a finger crack in a curved corner to the climber’s right after the first scrambly moves. This led to the lie back flake which has a delicate shelf, perched half way up. To avoid the roof I explored around the corner to the right finding a couple other chimney options. One, on the left, looks like a hallway and the other on the far right, a deep corner. I placed a single nut back in the corner and made a big mantle move onto the summit. It felt like the rope drag threatened to pull me off. Fern cruised what was easily the hardest climbing he’d done to date and joined me on top.
The summit is wide, flat and quite spacious. A perfect place to break out the good camera and take a couple sips of celebration. We did notice that a thick cloud had sunk into the upper core between Dragontail and Enchantment Peaks, but for now, we enjoyed the moment, relishing in the fact we’d summited Prusik. It was a goal high on both of our lists. It was 3:30pm. Time to head down. There is an obvious rap anchor on the eastern part of the summit block. The route from there drops down a series of ledges. It was a beautiful line that overlooked Earle and Mesa Lakes to the north, under Cannon Mountain. On the second or third rappel, fine autumn snow started to fall next to us on its own descent to the valley below. The tat is easy to find and five rappels brought us to the climbers path that wraps west back to the notch at the start of the route.
Nine miles left. We packed up and scrambled back down to Gnome Tarn. The wind continued to pick up and temps dropped as the light faded. The promise of a long night set in. By the time we climbed up from Inspiration Lake it was pitch black and we entered a thick cloud that reduced visibility to a few feet. It became a game of, “Spot the cairn,” to navigate back to the top of Aasgard Pass. Not too difficult of walking but tough on a weary psyche. We made it through with no incident and slogged down Aasgard Pass. That damn thing is way worse going down. Probably a function of limb freshness but nevertheless, we sagged over a log down at the lake around 10:30pm. Back around the lake, down to bridge one, on to bridge two and out to the lot, the four stages we manufactured to compartmentalize the effort. Ultimately we reached the car at 12:45am. A 20 hour epic. Funny how such a mission can materialize out of a single question. Got it done!