Enchanted Climbing: 18 Miles, 18 Pitches, 18 Hours

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We are 12 hours into the day, with 12 pitches climbed and 12 miles hiked, and not nearly close to the end. Full-bellied clouds lazing in the sky above, my partner Whitney and I weave through a field of avalanche lilies, our pace somewhere between a walk and a run. As the jagged point of our previous summit waves its last fingertip farewell and disappears behind us, we switchback down to the forest toward our final objective.

Headlamps forged our entry into the day, illuminating a thin passageway from the trailhead to the base of our first route: two pinpricks of light bobbing through a dense northwest forest, around a sub-alpine lake and across a boulder field, then up a talus field with the first light of dawn. As the sun’s gleaming hair tickled the skyline to the west, we switched off our lights at the base of Acid Baby, the first objective of the day. In a rock climber’s version of connect the dots, we hoped to link up a trio of six-pitch routes while following the Enchantments loop, a popular 18-mile hike through the spectacular Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington’s Central Cascades.

female climbing up a hand crack in the Enchantments

Prusik Peak now fading into memory behind us, my aching knees push me toward an escape. Daydreams pulse with the rhythm of each step: Almost a decade ago, I am perched on the West Ridge of the same peak, my mom’s fraying blue swami belt linking me to the rock and to my sister above. Dutifully following the line of rope in front of me, I fearfully cling to each hold and step timidly from toe to toe. At a belay, my mind flutters to anxieties about what I want to do with my young life, wishing it was as simple as following the defined curvature of a rope through the ridgelines of career, relationships and the pursuit of happiness. The world decidedly more terrifying than exciting, I am far from enchanted—with climbing, with life, with myself.

female climbing a rock ridge in Washington

Photo by Forest Woodward.

A parched mouth brings me back to the present. As we hopscotch across a creek, I stop to dip my small water bottle into the clear elixir, bringing it immediately to my lips. Small sips and often, although metaphorically speaking, I’m taking a pretty big gulp today. This challenge is years in the making, from backpacking past these granite peaks unaware, to camping overnight at the base of routes we now solo, climbing a route in a day from town, then upping the ante to two, and now three.

We leave the loop trail, following cairns and a series of downed logs into a starkly burned forest, rediscovering our uphill legs for a steep ascent to the base of Iconoclast on Snow Creek Wall. Two summers ago, I led my way up this formation for the first time, ambition and passion finally trumping fear. Climbing had since become my life’s microcosm: Finding confidence on the rock taught me greater ownership and self-efficacy in life. I was learning to forge my own path, to believe in my abilities, to risk falling—and flying.

female flakes rope high on a rock wall

Now as we don our harnesses for the last time today, Whitney begins to flake the rope and I gear up with our small rack. It’s five o’clock; we’ll reach the summit by seven and the trailhead by half past eight, finishing our 18 mile, 18 pitch day in just over 18 hours. Joy bubbles up from my heart and takes a victory lap around us, then settles back in to stay. The cliché holds truth: If I can dream it, I can do it.

Birds fly overhead, crossing rays of sunlight on their afternoon commute to nowhere. I climb upwards through a series of cracks, feeling as though I could go anywhere. Nearing the end of our day’s mission, I’m only just getting started in life. More and more I’m leaving fear and timidity cowering at the trailhead, setting out in search of that which makes my heart beat. And I’m beginning to understand: The world is here to enchant me.

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