How much snow can a Colchuck chuck…

Years ago Kyle and I thought we were going to go climb Colchuck Peak, right after we finished Boealps. But instead we suckered ourselves into a thru hike of the Enchantments which I still think was the right call. The Enchantments are basically shuttered to everyone who isn’t lucky enough to pull a permit – that was a golden opportunity that we were wise to seize. Colchuck on the other hand is a peak right above Colchuck lake, a little over five miles from the trailhead, totally doable as a day climb.

And so we easily talked our friends Molly and Josh into joining us for a Sunday car-to-car climb of Colchuck. We had planned on rafting the day before but for stupid flat-tire reasons that I won’t go into we ended up just driving to Leavenworth on Saturday night and camping with the rafting folks. Then, at 3 o’clock in the morning, under a blindingly full moon, the four of us were up and driving for the trailhead.

We started our hike in around 4:15am and the sun began to rise shortly after we began walking. Before we knew it our headlamps were no longer needed. The trail in to Colchuck lake is deceivingly calm for the first couple of miles and then, after the Stewart Lake junction, it shoots upwards with abandon. The first couple miles lull you in to a false sense of security and then the last couple beat you over the head with granite stairs and baffling sections of down before heading straight back up. Finally we topped out at the lake, having a hard time believing we still had a whole mountain to climb. We skirted the shores of the lake until we were standing at the entrance to the boulder field.


None of us really wanted to climb through the boulder field, it’s just a pain in the butt in your mountaineering boots. So we opted to head up the snow slope that stayed to climbers right of the boulders and would meet up with the Colchuck Glacier at the top. The snow was firm enough to keep us from punching through and so, with our crampons on (we wore our nice steel Grivel ones this time and there was no slippage), we switchbacked up to the glacier.


At the top of our snow slope we came to a little bowl before stepping out onto the glacier. Up we went and then fifty feet of mellow before up again. The route continued this way, alternating between steep and very steep, throwing in a mellow moment here and there but never something you would feel comfortable setting your backpack down on without a protective grip. As we went the steep wore on me. It wasn’t any steeper than Shasta or anything else we had done before, but it was so sustained that eventually my mental strength weakened just enough for some scary thoughts to creep in. I had to hunker down on the slope, gripping my ice ax anchored in the snow, for a bit before I could move on. Once again, I wished for the security of kicking steps. I missed the kindness that a staircase of steps provides and the knowledge that snow you can kick steps into you can probably self arrest in.


Upwards we went. Finally we were at the saddle between Colchuck and Dragontail Peak, stepping from ice to rock. Not knowing how much scrambling we had ahead of us we kept our crampons on. We had to do quite a bit of traversing and climbing up and over the rocks and heather until we got back on snow for the final gradual push to the summit. The summit block protruded from the blank canvas in front of it and our footsteps punched fresh holes into it’s surface.


We had enjoyed beautiful views of Colchuck Lake from the glacier but now that we were up on top the mountain was thwarting us with a low cloud cover, socking us inside a grey ball of linty sky. We dropped our packs and scrambled to the true summit, the exposure on the other side a bit dizzying compared to the way we came up. We wondered aloud if anyone ever climbed straight up that side.


We lingered on the summit, hoping for sun and views but none ever presented themselves. We had really wanted a little warmth to break through and heat up our descent down below – no one likes going down in crampons. Alas, none ever came and we all agreed, we couldn’t just sit around snacking all day. So down we went, trying to keep our crampons off for as long as we could. But the glacier demanded that we put them back on and so we did.

As we crunched down more and more people were coming up. We had been the first people on the summit and the only other folks we saw were headed up a couloir on the other side of the peak and we hadn’t seen them since. We didn’t do any glissading on the route, mostly because someone had died glissading Asgard Pass just a week or so prior to our climb. Out of both respect and fear we stayed on our feet. From just above the boulder field we could see over to Asgard and it terrified me, imagining that someone was still there, waiting for summer to bring on the thaw. Moats scare me more than almost anything else on a mountain. I gulped and looked around – making notes of indents in the snow to avoid.


The last little snow slope seemed to last forever but finally we were standing next to the boulder field, happy as clams. That was until we remembered, “Oh wait! We aren’t even close to being done with this climb yet! We still have the entire hike out.” We sighed and got on it with. And by got on with it I mean we commenced with bitching about how bad our feet hurt for the next two hours. Kyle had actually hiked in his approach shoes and hidden them in a bush, but then he just couldn’t stand the thought of the rest of us deriving all that pleasure from taking our boots off and him getting left out, so he picked them up when we went by and proceeded to hike them back out. We groaned and we moaned and we limped but in the end there is nothing to do but keep moving. We even schemed to mug the next group we saw on trail and take their sneakers. We were pretty desperate.

Seeing the parking lot was a relief. And taking off my shoes while sipping a surprisingly cold Rainier and eating some Beechers Cheese Curds was practically heaven. Even though a climb only has one true summit there are always multiple highs on a climbing trip – seeing the sun glint off an alpine lake, standing on top of  a craggy summit block, drinking ice cold water out of a gushing stream, spending good time with great friends, and getting back to the cars, safe and sound and finally mountain boot free.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

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