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The Hardest Hikes

Posted by davidrosslevy , 16 March 2017 · 727 views

hiking canyonlands rainier aspen colorado enchantments lakes cascades
As head of ProTrails content I'm often asked, "what are the hardest hikes?" As much as I enjoy this question, it's nearly impossible to provide a satisfying answer without context.
To be sure, it's all relative.
What makes a hike 'hard' depends on a range of factors such as distance (multi-day treks vs. day hikes), absence or presence of navigational aids, time of year, and age and health of the hiker. And many more variables which are easily inferred from the broad nature of the question.
A simple summer trip up Mt Audubon in Colorado's Indian Peaks Wilderness becomes a much longer and potentially technical ordeal in February. Backcountry hiking in Capitol Reef National Park can be tricky on a good day, but what happens after a snowfall and already hard-to-see cairns are buried? (This is an issue I recently faced, and will address in a future entry.)
Given the inherent subjectivity of what makes a hike hard, I'll omit most edge-cases (like climbing 14ers in winter or the PCT) and highlight three 1-2 day hikes which stand out among the toughest I've experienced:
4.) Syncline Loop, Canyonlands National Park
While the description provided by ProTrails is very detailed and useful, comments left by others are most telling. No matter the hiker's skill level, just about everyone I've spoken to agrees this relatively short loop is not to be taken lightly - and can easily end in tragedy.
Before setting out on the loop I encountered a ranger conducting intercepts at the trailhead. He asked a number of questions testing my preparedness, experience and expectations. I readily answered, and in turn asked about his deliberate inquiry - I'd never had to pass an 'interview' before setting out on a day hike.
The ranger explained that just the night before his Search and Rescue Team pulled 6 people from the trail - two separate parties in various states of lost, dehydration and injury. Once satisfied I was in fact prepared, he left me with a final warning: "Just know that if anything happens, no one is available to get you today. My team is wiped out and it'll be at least another day before anyone can reach you."
It didn't take long for me to understand what all the caution was for.
The Syncline Loop runs through and across several canyons that ring Upheaval Dome. This cairn-marked route traverses a spectacular red rock landscape with many repetitive and indistinguishable terrestrial features. Cairns can be very hard to see, quickly lost and impossible to regain.
You're constantly having to make navigational decisions - your brain can never turn off on this hike. You have to be on point.
And then there's the boulder field, also referred to as 'the breach' - a steep canyon wall comprised of large, sharp boulders with unnerving exposure and fatal drop-offs. If traveling clockwise you'll encounter this later in the hike when legs have already been thoroughly tested, and if heading CC you'll have to descend it with gravity working against you.
This is a dangerous section, even for skilled scramblers. Two points of precarious contact are all you may have while holding the sharp nose of a boulder and swinging to the next.
And even if you manage to stay on course and make it through all obstacles on this unmaintained route there's still full exposure to sun, heat and fast developing storms.
But yeah, I loved this one and highly recommend it for those who are physically and mentally prepared for a long and challenging day.
3.) The Mildred Lakes, Mount Skokomish Wilderness WA
The Mildred Lakes Trail was created by ambitious anglers some years ago who (rightfully) believed there would be some amazing trout in these off-the-beaten-path lakes. They were right of course - they hold abundant, sporty fish. I was lucky to meet two guys camping at the upper lake who pulled two huge rainbows in the span of 15 minutes. 
The lakes are not far or at high elevation, and maps make it look simple enough. But the Mildred Lakes Trail is not fully maintained by the Forest Service, and even if it were, I'm not sure it would matter.
This is a very rugged, steep and shifty trail with some near-vertical climbs up root walls. That term meant little to me until I was dangling with two precarious points of contact from hemlock roots over fully exposed drop-offs. Anyone who's done this trail knows what I mean. It can get a little dicey. And a few tough climbs in each direction keep you working hard the whole time.
The trail is marked with pink ribbons, but these are hard to see and easy to lose. There are many quick, counter-intuitive shifts that demand your full attention. Even small patches of snow can completely throw you off track. And I mean completely. So many people have made the same wrong turns that these mistakes have become as established as the 'correct' trail.
There were several times I was just going in circles trying to determine which was the right way. GPS won't save your bacon here.
In my opinion the lakes' aesthetics don't quite equal the effort you'll put in, but that's not why you come. You come to fish, and to be able to tell others you've done it. It's a great test of conditioning, navigation and resolve. And yeah, I can say I've done it!
2.) Pierre Lakes, Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness
The Pierre Lakes occupy a massive rocky basin under Capitol Peak, one of Colorado's most formidable 14ers. No maintained trail leads to the lakes, but an intuitive route follows Snowmass Creek and Bear Creek into the basin. It's possible that only several dozen people reach the lakes each year - an unimaginable few given the area's popularity. 
The roughly 17 mile roundtrip distance and 3700' net elevation gain are hardly excessive, but challenging terrain and route finding at high elevations earn it a place on this list.
First, you have to cross Snowmass Creek and funnel into the Bear Creek drainage. Easy on paper, hard to execute in the field - especially with precision. Cross too early and you'll have some really tough bushwhacking to Bear Creek; too late and you'll run out of viable terrain and need to backtrack.
Once along Bear Creek you'll find remnants of a once-maintained trail up to the base of a spectacular waterfall. Scaling the waterfall is very difficult and potentially dangerous no matter your route. You can easily get 'cliffed-out' (or worse) on these near-vertical rock faces, and have to fight through cheese grater-like brush before reaching the top.
This relatively short vertical climb can take 1-2 hours, especially if carrying an overnight pack or on a less-than-direct route (which for those with no prior route knowledge will likely be the case). Descending the falls is equally precarious and time consuming.
Once above the falls you'll toggle between remnants of the old trail, game trails and bushwhacking segments before things get prohibitively steep and rugged through 11,000'.  
From treeline you'll enjoy one the most spectacular and least-visited alpine valleys in the MB-SM wilderness. Navigation gets easier here, but extensive talus fields separate you from the lakes. And there's not a lot of air to work with above 12,000'...
By description this won't discourage experienced hikers - but trust me - travel is very slow, strenuous and tedious. Should a storm move in you'll have nowhere to hide and it'll take a really, really long time to reach any semblance of cover. 
The Pierre Lakes is a must-do for adventurous hikers, just make sure you're prepared for the waterfall climb, intermediate+ route finding, steep bushwhacking and some really tough talus leading to and around the lakes.
1.) The Enchantment Lakes Loop, Washington
This 20+ mile semi-loop runs across the Enchantment Lakes Basin in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. It features some of the most stunning scenery in the Cascades, and for this reason camping permits are limited and tightly regulated through a lottery system. Pulling a camping permit for the Enchantment Core is like finding a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket - and arguably more valuable to the lucky few who receive one. 
Before you read on I want to emphasize that the Enchantments are as beautiful as I or anyone you speak with describes.
Whether done as a multi-day trip (preferred) or a masochistic day hike (like me), the nearly 8000 foot vertical climb from Icicle Creek, improbable pitch of Aasgard Pass, and countless intervals of rock slabs, perennial snow fields, talus and eroded tread make this one of the most challenging hikes featured on ProTrails.
Traveling clockwise from Icicle Creek you climb 4000' in 8.35 miles to Upper Snow Lake. That would be sufficient (if not impressive) for most day hikes, but you're not even close to reaching the core at this point. Here the trail steepens even more with less clarity and security before reaching Lake Viviane. 
Travel eases across the Core - heaven on earth, really -  before scaling several steep walls to Aasgard Pass, perhaps the most notorious / infamous / feared / revered pass in Washington. Opinions differ greatly on whether it's better to ascend or descend the pass. It's utterly brutal either way. I'll repeat - Utterly. Brutal.
I descended the pass - which earns the superlative of 'steepest thing I've ever seen' - only to meet a very long and unexpected scramble through challenging talus around Colchuk Lake. Admittedly I hit the wall here - my legs had little left and I was not prepared for the necessary route finding. (It appeared that once down from Aasgard I was home free, but reality was far from it). 
From Colchuk you'll endure a knee-jarring descent on woefully rocky-rooted terrain to Stuart Lake Trailhead to complete this epic route. 
The Enchantments live up to its reputation, and avid hikers should make every effort to experience this route at least once. But like any outdoor endeavor, planning is essential. And it helps to be in the best shape of your life before you try this one!

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