The day opens with a bright pink sky. Oh no, rain coming? So far just windy and gray. The towers still in place and impressive as ever. As we ascend it becomes obvious we may the perfect choice to camp at the view. It’s beautiful, but wild and barren. Trees give way to rock and tussock, the trail thankfully still well worn.
We pass Billy and Barren Lake and curl around the towers in stair steps of hanging valleys towards the final lake, Texas under its eponymous pass. Camping here is possible, but it is rocky and cold with views mostly to the wall that must be climbed.
We’re pros now and when one asks if anyone wants to stop for a rest, we shake our heads and plunge ahead. Steep? Yep. Slippery? Sure. Difficult? Nah, there’s a trail!
At the top, a sign flat on the ground and seemingly crushed by years of harsh winters, informs us we’ve entered the Shoshone National Forest. Over that rise and down a ramp opens up a view to one of the most sensational sites in the world.
The Cirque is a semi-circle of fifteen, 12,000 foot granite crags, the most spectacular, the jutting Pingora looking smooth and solid from our vantage, though considered one of the best climbing walls in the world.
We clown around on the massive slab ramps, taking pictures and stopping to admire this unreal setting. Again, our choices are rewarded as the sun shines directly on the mountains and we spy climbers already scaling the biggest.
On the descent, we meet a lone hiker from Israel who takes my photo. It’s surprisingly devoid of many people even though the trail is rutted. Most consider the arduous Jackass Pass, which we see far across the valley, enough and skip this high altitude view.
Down and down we go, watching Pingora appear to grow. Superlatives fall flat when describing this place – glorious, grand, awe-inspiring, spectacular, magnificent – and there’s all the time in the world.
It’s steep on eroding trail to Lonesome Lake where we find sitting spots for a snack and check on the climbers. Nearby, campers seem to be calling to them or commenting. Still, the place feels surprisingly empty.
We round the lake then climb steeply up Jackass Pass. The views back reveal individual peaks at new angles – Lizard’s and Wolf’s Heads, Shark’s Nose, and Warbonnet.
Our last pass complete, I adopt a nonchalant attitude figuring it’s all downhill from here.
The trail is steep into a bowl where yet another magnificent tower looms, Warrior Peak. I snap pictures of its magnificence happily marching along until I see ole Warrior is shedding its bulk right across the trail.
At first, I follow a cairned trail straight up believing it will take me over the worst of the talus, but the girls yell back to follow cairns which guide me past yet one more pile of rock. I misjudge and go low requiring a few moves to shimmy back to a more doable route.
Maybe that’s the last for this trip. And it is so, except around another lake, it’s all up and down on rocky ramps. A bit more work requiring a change in attitude that this is not simply an easy downhill.
But how lovely it all is as the humongous, seemingly impossible peaks recede and give way to a final lake and a long walk through deep woods following a crashing stream.
We share one last rock couch, a last fill up on water from the giant jug and scrounge for the last of our snacks before marching out to a very full parking lot and waiting partners. Richard even brings chips and beer and we clink cans (with Kelly’s kombucha) to a route well walked.
Parting words? The Dixon Route for the Wind River Range thru-hike is a stupendous walk with plenty of challenge, variation, and thrills. We easily found good camping although some rocky areas would be less ideal without a bivy. In fact, a tent is not really necessary when a tarp will do.
Kelly suggested our start date of August 22 which turned out to be ideal for warm days and few bugs. I suggested seven days, but it could be walked in six even at our pace although I found a week just right. At the very least, pack traction for the shoes to avoid a slip and take all the time you need on talus. This might be hardest for thru-hikers wanting to ’crush miles’ but why would anyone rush through this wondrous country?
It’s possible to get off trail and resupply in Pinedale, but it’s best to stay on trail in my opinion. The couple we met on Knapsack Col was carrying ten days food, so a longer trip is possible, just heavier.
We all walked well in trail runners wearing long pants and layers including rain gear. Temperatures never dropped below freezing. We used Alan Dixon’s maps as well Backcountry Banter’s on the Gaia app and had no trouble finding our way.
I believe an experienced and fit hiker can accomplish the high route though best to walk with friends and carry a gps with SOS capability due to the high risk of injury.
All this bring said, my favorite part of all was how a route changes the way I hike. Every muscle is used for such a wide set of needs – talus, snow, scree fields, tussocky meadows, bogs – and I never slipped into the mind numbing quest for miles. In fact so much of the route felt like I was playing at a jungle gym and trying to solve problems. I was happiest when letting myself simply be in the problem at hand and figure it out piece by piece.
It’s windy, cold and – praise the goddess – dry. My black bear bag is twirling in the air on a branch. No visitors.
I burned my lower lip and it’s swollen. I wear lip balm all day but heavy breathing must leave it exposed. The hike will soon be over and I’m sad, but I am really beaten up. I can’t walk so well just yet.
And all those bad dreams! Why does anxiety follow me here? We’re all a bit keyed up and start walking with little discussion, first losing the use path, then heading in exactly the wrong direction. I notice it when we stop for a break and see Dragonshead and Pronghorn Peaks from behind.
And we were having such a great conversation too.
Katlyn calls it a “three hour tour” and I suggest we stop talking altogether. The steep climb takes care of that, but at a bench, Kelly begins descending towards sage-covered flatlands.
Wait! We need to be to the other side of Raider Peak!
I guess we were all kind of ready to head down. I lead up practically vertical now on rock and into a bowl filled with talus and snow. Tired and cranky, we pop over without a word into another deep valley, a wall of impossibly angular peaks in a long line. An enormous jagged black dike intrudes through the slabs.
It’s stunning and imposing but after our detour, I’m distracted and weary. And to get down, once again, is a talus slope if monstrous proportions.
We begin on benches with a trail appearing now and again, then buried under an SUV of rock. I try to stay balanced, often sit and use my hands or slide. But just when I get going, obstacles appear that require negotiation – too steep, too pointy, too big a gap.
It takes an hour at least to cross as I swear, cry, laugh, scream, cheer myself on and fall twice ripping off a some skin. But all my self talk and noisiness moves me along, albeit slowly, and my falls don’t shatter bones.
The girls wait and tell me I’m doing great as I cry in frustration. I guess so. I don’t have as much bounce in the joints or balance, but I’m still standing. Shaken and tired, we meet grass just as two men cone up.
Uh-oh, they’ve got immaculate, brand new white packs, clompy hiking boots and all smug striding along without trekking poles. Ugh. Just what I need right now – a coupla man-splaining types right after a breakdown
I say hi and the lead splainer gives us directions on the descent, as if we don’t have eyes. He then stares at our packs. “Ice axes? Wow!”
“Yes, well we used them to cross a glacier,” I offer.
“Where?” he asks as if he doesn’t believe us. I tell him Knifepoint, then change the subject to ask for beta on our next pass.
“Oh, we didn’t do that pass. We’re walking the – high – route,” that last part emphasized as if talking to a very small – somewhat dense – child.
“Ah-ha, we just finished walking the high – route,” I say with equal emphasis before turning to go. Man Splainer One gives us a look of shock and wonder.
That’s right, smarty pants! Good luck in those clodhopper boots and overstuffed packs without poles, fellas!
Aw, geez, I need a bitch session. Kelly wisely reminds us all that we’re tired and ready to get down so we need to stay focused or could get injured. Katlyn immediately trips over a rock as if on cue and takes a classy fall (on grass)
I find a large rock facing the impossibly giant slabs of rock, sunny and out of the wind and we eat and talk. I bitch about talus and getting old. Katlyn bitches about the men talking down to us about carrying axes like we’re idiots. Kelly has hit her limit with the wind.
But after talking we all feel better walking a long way along a ridge with stupendous views before the long drop to Pyramid and Maes Lake under a triangular shaped mountain. The Towers are in the distance.
I forgot to mention we meet trail – really good, eroded, braided, overused trail, but trail nonetheless which lets us move fast and fluidly. It’s always a whoop session when we come to anything resembling trail but after talus nightmare, this is smooth sailing. We meet backpackers at Skull Lake and one says Texas Pass is steep and loose, never mentioning talus. I think people generally choose to avoid talus.
At Washakie Creek, more backpackers, many carrying fishing poles, seem to appear out of nowhere. We’re back out of high country or at least the remote country. At a creek, we meet more and take a sharp left towards the Pass and the famous towers.
The air is delicious, dry, cool and less windy than the pass. In a few miles, we round a corner and we’re looking directly at the backside of the towers. The sun is setting and clouds move past creating glorious shadows at the aptly named Shadow Lake. It is one of the most stunning scenes I’ve seen in my life.
But our goal is up and over the pass. If we hadn’t taken that three hour tour of a side trip going the wrong way (to lovely Surprise Lake, surprise!) we would be up and over by now.
But hold on. It’s beautiful right here, right now. And the sun is angled just so as if flood lights on these towers. 5:00 may be early for stopping, but a campsite is open with the best seat in the house.
We consider our timing and know we’ll still have Texas Pass plus Jackass Pass tomorrow. We have the time, and starting in the morning will offer up time to linger as we descend into the Cirque.
Once the decision is made it’s as though our bodies give up and it takes extra long to set. I ensure a perfect view and watch the towers supine before venturing out as they turn magenta while the sun sets.
It’s 5:20 when the wind picks up. It doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. More like everywhere, gusting and slamming the alicoop. Did I put the stakes in deep enough? I unzip to reach out and pull the guy-lines tighter just as the rain starts lashing down.
I lay there waiting and planning. If it crashes in, what do I do? I’m warm and dry in my sleeping bag but I really ought to put on my rain gear.
Like a child king having a tantrum, the wind seems to die only to slam again harder and more fierce. Off with their heads! And those other guys too!
But we’re lucky because it lets up just when it’s the actual time to wake up. I make a move to pack when a hand reaches in and delivers my bear bag. Lower in these trees, we tightly tied and hung our Ursacks in trees. Not high enough to ward off a bear, but to keep out mini-bears like picas.
I’m so grateful for the delivery and eat my cold cereal and drink a shake before venturing out. Today is bogs which we locate immediately in this long river valley. I see why Alan called their camp “crap” without a dry or non-lumpy spot around. We scored in our bowl.
And this bog here is amateur league. The girls hop over deep trap doors and wet pools while I splash through, highly experienced after Scotland.
It’s an odd place with mystery of its own in the slowly lightening sky, a remote wasteland with only stunted trees. More gulleys and ramps on talus take us up and over a small pass on soft grass.
Now it’s a maze of rock around Long Lake our intended camp for last night. As the sun brightens the sky, we approach a small peninsula fit for a castle – for our child tyrant maybe?
The lake leads beyond peaks appearing to drop off to nothing at the end of the horizon. I almost expect falls into space. It’s steep climbs with more ramps and gullies on rock to avoid a cliff. I lead up the final push to another grassy meadow, shallow tarns dotting the landscape.
We arrive at Europe Valley where a lake nestles in crumbling talus. It reminds me of England’s Lake District and I expect Wordsworth to meet us on the path. From above, the talus looked challenging, but we find it’s relatively easy for these experts and hop across while large fish swim up from the depths for a peak and a merganser waddles off shore. Thousands of fat black spiders build webs between the rocks and I carefully step around.
It’s another 300 foot climb on tussock to more tarns and erratics, an array of pointy mountains in the distance. Are those the Cirque of the Towers?! Katlyn find a surfboard boulder and each of climb up for our portrait.
We walk abreast now across meadows, following one set of prints through a dry pond. Mountains loom above us like ramparts as black clouds move in. Alan directs us to a lake and a tough navigation through willows at the outlet. I suggest an alternate which sends us past a basalt uplift deeply pocked and scarred.
But soon we get off course and follow elk paths up and down on repeat through trees, dry lakes, and willows. At a cliff we come out onto a view straight down to huge Middle Fork Lake and jagged Nylon, Dragonhead and Pronghorn peaks.
We navigate through lakelets and bogs, willows and pines, bright flowers still in bloom. Thunder courses through the valley, a few icy splats land on my arms and I wonder if a big pass is a good idea.
But everything changes out here and the rain passes by, leaving us looking for shade and water before climbing. A use trail makes the going fast and we find a stream to fill up while our gear dries in the sun.
The use trail continues past this lake and up to Lee nestled directly under the huge triangular monolith of Dragonhead, pointy and seemingly ready to breathe fire at a moment’s notice.
And that’s the end of any sort of trail. The direction now is up; up through willow and rock, making things up as we go. It always amazes me how fast I climb, at least in how the terrain changes with the mountains appearing to come down to my level.
Before being completely swallowed by willow, we find an opening up a nose of grass just as the wind begins to howl. At a shallow bowl filled with talus, I fear spending too much time mid air on each step that the wind will smack me down. We all stow our hats.
Above a bench, it’s loose scree to Lake Donna swallowed in gargantuan rock slabs leaning forward as if peering into her depths.
Up some more and we reach a T-intersection, the way down obscured. Again , it’s s ramp system on shelves of grass like tiny mountain terrace gardens. It’s not exactly easy walking, but we progress faster than on the XL talus surrounding the first of the Bonneville Lakes.
The wind is relentless cutting through to the bone. A short bit of grass delivers us to more giant talus and Katlyn remarks that even she, the talus skipper, is sick of it.
The outlet takes us on rock ramps and more grass terrace ramps past a waterfall pouring out of a cliff with blocky crystal structure. It’s steep on ball bearings and we’re all tired. Maybe this meadow will work, but it’s full of trap door water courses, so we climb up on granite slabs which lead to an apron directly on the lake. A wee spot opens up sheltered by pines and big enough for three.
The wind won’t let up but I sit on our rock verandah looking towards rocky islands as the sky turns orange then pink, purple and finally a deep indigo.
Light, tinkly, pitter-pattering rain relaxes me – and the muscles – to sleep. It’s when it builds and lashes the tent while the sky lightens that I realize I’ll be packing up in this.
The sound of rustling from my neighbors means no sleeping in, so I put on the rain gear and push out just as the rain pauses. Everything is Scotland loch-esque especially now as ‘weather’ pushes in. We were warned Thursday would be the bad day.
Fog floats over Alpine Pass (How the hell does it look so close? We killedourselves to get here) Do I need to point out that this trio is made up of some bad ass chicks? They’re packed before me and I’m even considered a morning person.
On the border of Bridger and Fitzpatrick Wildernesses, this stunning meadow has – in the words of Stefan) everything: glacier, waterfall, randomly strewn boulders, a loch (lake) towering pointy mountains and an air of mystery.
Richard messages me on the GPS a new term: URS, unstable rocky shit. That is so yesterday. Today is just regular rocky shit. Within a football pitch heading down to the outflow, a carpet of boulders greet us.
You have to understand, we need to find a path through. Up, down, slanty, wobbly, damp, sharp corned, these rocks could care less about our progress. Their sheer size creates trap doors where a fall might mean a broken leg, followed by a concussed brain on the way down as an ice ax slices an essential vein.
Thanks, I’ll pass.
Katlyn moves fluidly like a cat and Kelly skims over, albeit a bit more warily. I whine and sit on my butt at any whiff of fear. I’d be happy for any solid structural mountain boulder leading deep into the recesses of this now black lake, one I can spend the rest of today sitting on.
This is all about balance. I trust the stickiness and stop entertaining retiring to this lonely lake and continue my spider-like walk.
The good thing is wet makes no difference to staying upright as the
rain falls in earnest and we dive under a rock ledge cracking our axes against the wall. Snacking, shivering, finding yet another rock couch we wonder aloud if this will be an all day thing.
The rain lets up as we peak out, following a third lake under the towering Fortress. We choose counterclockwise since Alan warns of a class 3/4 exit crack on the other side of the lake. He offers it as a choice since except for that awfulness, the walking is much easier over there.
We look longingly as we scramble on wet rock, pealing off for an arduous up and over, past more lakes (water is never a problem out here, had I mentioned?) The sun comes out in a burst of heat and off goes the rain gear.
Ahhh, warm and dry and now meadows with boulder erratics ‘outstanding in their field.’ As we cross above, we see white pines climbing up the valley. Even here, we squish through marshy patches filled with bright flowers.
The rock seems to flow out of the mountains as if melting wax. A cascade jettisons from our class 3/4 crack lake and we come to the edge looking for the secret slab ramp to take us down into the trees.
All of us make a few interesting butt moves on what Alan calls a ‘system of ramps and gulleys’ before Katlyn picks through the brush to out exit.
And it’s so much fun!
The granite is pink and exfoliating but mostly in one long gentle incline, my feet clinging effortlessly even on such a grade.
Coming around a corner, we bump into a couple. Katlyn tries a “hi” three times, but they’re snobby and unfriendly, pissed off about the rain because they had to skip a pass – although that may be more because they hadn’t done their homework.
From the other way, we could have chosen the pass, but it frankly looked like a giant scree pile from hell. They continue to speak of their high route as the real route, the man adding Green River Lakes will be their day five.
Good for you! I say continuing my downward journey to piney aroma, butterflies and birds. Slightly annoyed we miss a clear path and dive straight into a boulder field. I blame it on gorgeous Camp Lake luring us like a siren to our doom.
Well, just ten minutes really of balancey trickiness with added tree branch interaction to a shaded spot next to a falls replete with three rock couches.
I don’t know what motivates people to brag on the difficulty of their chosen route. Although maybe it’s sheer disbelief and an underestimation of our doggedness. Katlyn carries a gallon-sized milk jug with its top sliced strapped to the top of her pack. She uses it for scooping water, rinsing clothes, sponge baths and right now, to hold chips. Kelly wears a turquoise wide brimmed visor more appropriate for the tennis court. And me? My pants are a few sizes too big and my hoodie makes me look like a muppet. Maybe it’s hard to believe we’re actually pretty tough.
Lovely trail follows this gorgeous lake protected by sharp mountains though we lose it in bog and huckleberry bushes filled with succulent red juiciness. We’re warned to find that trail or it will be horrible on yet another unnamed pass of 500 feet or so.
We start anyway on rock strewn mountain and scream ‘trail!’ when meeting it. After talus boulders it’s a joy to rise on a bona fide footpath even if I’m short on breath. The views are gorgeous back to these gem-like lakes tucked in trees and meadows. Does the other high route skip such loveliness?
While contemplating, I enter another glacial lake in a deep bowl of rock. For a moment, panic tightens my throat. I have a case of talus PTSD. Overcoming my fear, I look for a route until Kelly spies a trail beyond a tiny snow field.
It’s up and up, revealing the backside of the missed pass near massive Douglas Peak but ahead another chain of deep blue lakes appear. So many lakes. Upper Golden is our first, surrounded by grass, trees and birdsong. Then Louise and Golden where we fill up on water before yet another pass.
And then we hit a new obstacle. The willows. These willows are less tree and more hardy shrub with thick, solid branches. I hesitate and Katlyn crashes ahead, even in shorts. I guess that’s the way. Kelly and I follow pushing back at leaves and branches threatening to engulf and right in front of us is beautiful trail!
How do these trails get here? They’re minimally maintained but cairned and obvious making a climb far easier – I mean, you don’t have to think or decide.
The lake chain is revealed behind us, as stunning from this side with peaks reach high beyond. It’s not like I can see to where we started, but it is a massive expanse.
Dennis Lake opens up far below in a derp bowl though still a high hanging valley above the Goldens, fed by falls loud all the way over here on a ridge. It’s mysterious, empty, tundra-like with no trees but also few rocks.
Hay Pass opens up above another glacially scooped valley as the wind picks up. We had planned to camp much further today, buy talus and pass upon pass slows the walker. We sit down on the pass and just contemplate.
A lake lies ahead and we could set there plus one beyond still on trail before we cut off overland into bog and risk ending up where Alan camped at what he called ‘crap camp.’
The wind is chilly and the sun is making long shadows so down we go taking it as it comes. We skip the lake to cut off near a stream and a grassy bit with stunted trees and shapely clouds. Maybe right here is just the spot? It’s not entirely out of the wind, but low enough to feel some protection. Again the grass is soft on our feet and water is nearby.
I’m so tired I can barely move but rehydrated chickpeas and mayo revive. We set in a circle, wrap in our bags eating, talking and laughing as the clouds turn pink.
I love this hike maybe especially because it’s hard. The Talus Hopper the Cairn Whisperer and me, the Trouper who moves slowly and often awkwardly, but keeps up are seeing some of the wildest alpine country ever and going to sleep in the middle of it.
Since Katlyn and I both walked the Te Araroa, we share a few Kiwi expressions: ‘heaps’ as in Today’s walk on the Wind River High Route had heaps of talus grinding our forward progress to less than a mile per hour and ‘hard as,’ which pretty well described all of the route start to finish.
Well, that’s not entirely fair since the start from our sweet peninsula camp begins on traditional tread, obvious trail barely requiring a glance at feet placement. It’s back to 12,000 feet under a crystal sky, a sliver of moon setting behind the massive hunk of Fremont Peak.
The views into Indian Basin are stupendous, the lakes puddles from here under towering rock in shades of blue to the horizon, the high desert beyond. Our camp is below and I laugh thinking how much I love seeing the tiny coffin shape dry patch of grass when I take down the alicoop (my tent) How safe and warm I was last night even with rain in this extreme landscape.
The trail curves up and around looking deep into a canyon I can’t imagine anyone visiting, peaks shooting straight to the clouds, triangular spikes. A wee lake sparkles below.
Over the top, we lose any semblance of trail as we cross from the Western to Eastern Divide, glaciers plastered to a series of mountains. It’s all boulder balancing now to carefully lose altitude and reach the sweet spot of 11,600 and cross the glacier.
What glacier? I wonder not seeing it until we descend quad burning step by step to a saddle. Oh, that glacier! It’s hidden behind more rocks tumbling down this slowly eroding mountain, huge, gleaming, stretching from high up on the cliffs down to wee silty lakes below.
A hiker comes up seemingly from nowhere and tells us he traversed in his sneakers – very carefully. He also warns us to stay on glacier as long as we possibly can. As global warning melts the glaciers quickly, the surrounding boulders haven’t had time to settle. They’re loose in a muddy gumbo of ice and water.
I found out just how unsettled things are sliding on a muddy face and loosening an avalanche of suitcase-sized rocks towards a more solid looking boulder. No harm, no foul, but the speed with which things happen leave me a bit shaken.
My solid boulder makes an ideal seat to attach microspikes and pull out the axes. Katlyn wisely uses one trekking pole for balance too and we slowly navigate onto the ice. Almost immediately, Kelly loses a water bottle which fortunately skids to a stop within reach.
The angle is not great (yet) but spikes give us the confidence to glide fluidly over crusty ice, hundreds of streams coursing down in snakelike channels. Boulders perch precariously above, sometimes on ice stands. Will these ice bridges hold? How about those rocks bigger than me?
It’s fair to say the added weight of snow tools is well worth it. Especially when the angle sharpens and the ice hardens. The glacier itself hangs above and a crevasse opens up, easily stepped over. My feet touch ice, soft, then crunchy, wet, then dirty. The sky is lapis.
And just like that, the ice disappears replaced by mud and the aforementioned unstable rock. Forgive me that no pictures were taken here. Was it because I wanted to simply hold the experience dear to my heart or more likely, every bit of my body is required to stay upright.
This is not a familiar kind of mud to just plod through. Rather it’s piles and piles and piles of rock, shifting and threatening to tumble right out from under our weight. And it’s exhausting inching along, each rock a different size and shape. Hands get in on the action, butts, the pointy bits of our tools until after an hour of frustration, things seem to stabilize somewhat.
We take off our spikes, secure the axes and slowly work our way through a maze of rock to where we see people come down the pass. They’re flying down and choose another route out, but their speed cheers us.
It’s a thin trail ‘suggestion’ with a tad more friction, only small, ball bearing stones in a direct line to Alpine Pass. It’s heavy breathing the entire way, but climbing is easy because you really just hurl yourself forward.
It takes us to a fairyland of a glacier-scoured basin, a necklace of aqua lakes flowing into the distance far below. Katlyn finds a ‘couch’ on rock and we bake in the sun eating lunch,
thirsty for water which lies far below.
From here, a glacier shoots off like a lolling tongue, steep and too dangerous, so we opt for the talus slope – solid, settled, unmoving. I’m amazed I move so well across it, I mean down it, steeply dropping to the lakes. It’s stupendous beauty, but all erosion and change in action.
Katlyn begins a philosophical talk about talus, all of it so different that a culture living with it on a daily basis would have different names for each type. Ours so far include mover, shaker, shifter, wobbly, solid.
Merriam Webster describes talus as
1: a slope formed especially by an accumulation of rock debris
2: rock debris at the base of a cliff
Debris gives the false impression it’s simply broken shards of stone to march over when in reality it can be as large as a house with deep cracks opening between. A phone, a water-bottle, your foot (and its delicate talus bone) can slip between and end a trip then and there.
The descent looks impossible, but the rocks hold solidly and we drink from a waterfall cascading loudly from the glacier above. I may not have pointed out that we are walking a route developed by “Adventure Alan” Dixon with a friend. As one if the original ultra-light backpackers, I interviewed him on the Walking Distance podcast to share insights about the gear he packs. He’s a cool guy and was less of a ‘gram weenie” than I’d expected.
There’s another much harder high route that stays closer to the divide with terrifyingly precipitous drops from knife edges and likely far more talus than I want to think about. People have told us they prefer this rout, though, one that still touches grass every now and then. It’s certainly challenging enough and it would be nice to succeed.
From Alan’s description, I had thought this downclimb would be the worst, but that was still to come.
Ahead are two impassable cliffs dropping deep into the azure lake (technically Lake 11,335)
Although we’re warned all of this will be tedious, he leaves out some details like a steep climb back up over the first cliff on large talus, each step a negotiation. The rock itself is grippy, but our packs make us top heavy. Our calves burn from the sharp angled ascent and the quads tighten up from try to stay balanced.
Sometimes I go well, finding just where to step and skimming over the jumble. Then I’ll need to sit down and slide on my ass to ensure I don’t drop into one of the deep holes. I try to put out of my mind what breaking so many bones at once will feel like.
Boulder to boulder to boulder to boulder – and we’re there! Where? A Class 3 “ramp system.” Scrambling is divided into classes with 3 meaning the terrain is serious and the consequences are real. The moves may be moderate, but they’re on loose rock and the holds are small and hard to find.
Tufts of grass seem to guide us steeply up and around a sheer cliff with only a glance at exposure (true exposure would make this scramble a class 4) Kelly crashes down off one and scrapes her hand, not too badly but she tells us it hurts. I try to downclimb so my pack won’t throw me off and end up needing Katlyn’s knee to make the hold.
Just as I wonder about climbing above all this challenge, we’re ‘cliffed out’ and need to ascend using our hands like a ladder in the air. I pass my sticks to Kelly as I hug a wall, trying to keep the bag out and not touching so as to throw me off balance.
Katlyn certainly was the best invitee with her experience and love for talus.A few more tossed sticks and sliding ramps bring us to giant boulders and the pace slows to a crawl. Hey, at least I’m moving.
I hold my own with women who could be my daughters – and also feel so relaxed and full of joy. It’s hard going now to the outflow of this first lake and another fill up of water. A man camping here and coming the other way helpfully tells us to go straight through the boulders, saving us another cliffing out.
Talus, gullies, drops, ramps and many, many choices bring us to the middle lake (Lake 10, 988) sitting flush with cliffs, encircled by mysterious mountains made even more-so by the gathering clouds. A bay opens across the lake as we climb onto a grass meadow. Like a Scottish loch, I expect to see castle ruins. Fat ruddy-red crickets click past. Picas squeak. Another loud waterfall cascades from a nearby glacier where we collect water before a loud clap of thunder encourages us to set up camp.
We’re up with the light. Well, 6-ish. A bit of negotiation got us to a 7:00 am departure and we’re all on time. Knapsack Col awaits, the first ‘real’ pass, though I already found Cube a challenge. I feel good and the day is crystal clear, not too cold or windy.
I had weird dreams about people I’d prefer to forget. Why do they follow me to this stunning place? The tent is damp with dew and hard to pack.
Two guys camp nearby and snap our picture. They’re too sick to go on. I’m glad I acclimated. Here’s what I did:
no booze the week before
loads of water
two diamox (a glaucoma drug that helps with pressure changes) per day starting two days before
sleeping at 8,000 feet for two days before
We cross the outlet on rickety rocks then sidle an eroding mountain on slippery sand. I skid down on my bottom and hope the girls don’t think I haven’t got the goods for this walk.
It’s gorgeous trail into a bowl of rock, the wildflowers strikingly brilliant in the stark landscape. Water is everywhere, so I refuse to carry any. That still requires making myself drink enough as I breath heavy going up.
A couple shoots out from a flat spot where they must have camped, flying ahead of us. I keep my breathing controlled and steady, marching up over 12,000 feet today.
We’re confused briefly when the brisk stream becomes falls and a sharp climb is required. Kelly spots the way and I call her the ‘Cairn Whisperer’ as she bolts up to a rocky ledge.
Water runs beneath the rock and I watch for trap doors in the talus. It’s not easy to balance so I dig my poles into crystal fissures, not so much leaning on them but checking myself as I climb.
We stop at the last water and I down an electroyted liter. A very tan man carrying a tiny pack catches up. ‘Chef’ is thru-hiking the CDT and this pass is an alternate loop. He’s fast, but has that relaxed vibe of someone in no hurry. We discuss other alternates like the Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park and I notice that even with a tiny pack, he carries bear spray and a gps tracker.
It’s nice to have someone ahead – even if half ibex – showing the way. Honestly, it’s straight forward on big rocks which turn to slippery dirt, switching back and forth to avoid the deep gully carved by the water.
The col is revealed through a tight slot opening onto enormous pointy mountains and a very steep ascent on scree, or loose stones. I have jumped off passes on scree, skiing down laughing the whole way.
This is not that kind of scree.
Poles help a little as I aim myself down, but most falling happens backwards, a quick wipe out as if wearing roller skates, hands, wrists, shoulder, head all at risk.
So, I slide on my butt, one foot raised for speed, one foot out as a brake. Of course I release stones which fly ahead and smash into a snow field.
That could be me.
I do eventually follow those out of control rocks to the snow, but can’t stand. Melting glaciers create a muddy, shifting mess and I need to crawl to one solid rock for balance.
The others arrive (far more controlled) and we put on our microspikes for the short cross on slushy iciness. It’s still a long slog down loose rock but with less incline as we approach astonishingly beautiful Titcomb Valley. The sounds of crashing water from glaciers hanging as if suspended in mid air surround us in this magnificent bowl filled with flowers in intense brightness.
We meet a trail and pass many tents. A man snores on a mat under an overhanging rock. Thunder jolts us as thick black clouds come down on the pass. Talk about timing. We keep moving on slabs of rock with swirling colors from mineral intrusions.
The stream is our trail past lake after lake. Glaciers are revealed in basins among jagged peaks. A few raindrops hit us where the water flows down long slides of granite but we keep hiking. Even when hail pings us we move on.
At a certain point, the heavens open up and on goes full gear, including rain mitts. The couple from below passes us now commenting how glad they are we’re all off the pass.
We slosh through mud and tussock and I think about Scotland where most of the trail was wet. I don’t bother jumping past the mud and just plow through.
A half hour later, the sun appears, hot and steamy, rocks gleaming. We stop for a wardrobe change and snack. It’s truly amazing how much a hiker can eat. I like watching my food bag shrink.
The trail winds around rocks past more tarns and tussock. It’s here we meet the CDT again but turn up to Indian Basin to continue staying high. Harrower Peak and Elephant Head tower above this new valley of rock and lakes. Four backpackers with pack covers in primary colors stand on a peninsula watching the huge cumulous clouds move off into the desert beyond.
We’re told good camping is available at the “last lake before the pass,” but it’s hard to determine what is a tarn and what a lake, so we begin looking early hoping for a soulful and private spot.
I spy a grassy peninsula jutting out with room for three. Katlyn runs ahead and when we see her throw her body down flat, we know we’ve scored.
Out meadow is dry with few humps sitting on muddy sand, no shoes required on soft grass. Again, a waterfall is our soundtrack and we lazily set up, gather water, eat and stretch. The sun angles low through moist air and turns the mountains a deep magenta.
Taking a small break under the cooling shade of tall pines, a stream gurgling nearby, Katlyn leans up from her pack-as-couch and exclaims, ”I just had deja-vu!”
Kelly and I look at her quizzically.
“It means I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
I have long wanted to walk Wind River High Route, a variation from the more plodding Continental Divide Trail that follows the peaks from below, never quite touching their rocky passes or the wild (yet extreme) grandness.
But as a route, it was not something to do alone. It’s not so much getting lost since I have access to several bread crumb satellite tracks. It’s more how to manage all an off-trail route can throw at a hiker – snow fields, talus and scree, endless up and down on elk paths and many micro decisions better negotiated as a team.
I put out an all-call on social last June and put together a trio able to travel in late August – when it’s not yet too cold but the infamous swarms of mosquitos have subsided. Also, the daily afternoon electrical storms begin tapering.
Kelly Floro is a 28-year-old editor at The Trek and has walked the Appalachian and Colorado Trail. She lives a ’van life’ with her partner, Harv and has trained in Colorado for a month with a heavy pack.
Katlyn Pickett is 34 and has walked the Pacific Crest and Te Araroa, though most important, she’s done many routes and is fearless crashing through willows on a 65-degree slope or skipping over Volkswagen-sized talus.
I am old enough to be their mothers, and took two days to drive to Green River Lakes Campground about two hours southeast of Jackson Hole, where I took a few days to acclimate to the altitude with the help of Diamox.
It was a perfect spot to spread out gear like a garage sale and let the ’committee’ decide what should stay and what goes – like my two pounds of gummy bears (I swear it was only a half pound!) and snow gear like our axes and microspikes, plus bear spray for the extremely rare but possibly devastating chance we encounter a grizzly.
Kelly suggests we move fast and far on day one to set the pace and prepare us up for the hard bits to come which can slow a hiker to a crawl. So we shoot for Peak Lake, just under Knapsack Col.
This requires 2,400 feet of climbing over 18 miles but begins gently via the Highline Trail, part of the official Continental Divide. Right away, the group moves well. I’m not as fast, but no one seems in a big hurry. It’s more steady and full of conversation as we push along humpy moraine covered in blue bells, paintbrush and lupine. The water is a cool turquoise. The fortress of Square Top Mountain leads us like a massive cairn past both lakes then up into the high country.
The first day is always the hardest. I cut my food weight to twelve pounds for seven days, and cut three panels from my sleeping mat – the same one trail angel Margaret delivered to me on the Arizona Trail. I pack my fears taking my warmest bag, justifying it as something I can wear if the temps drop below freezing.
We meet lots of backpackers and day hikers before entering the forest to follow a waterfall, the trail on long and easy switchbacks. I take note the diamox is working and I feel good – also that we won’t have trail this good again for a while.
Clark Creek is lovely and we find more rock ’couches’ in shade to relax because soon we leave the Highline to meet to high country. It’s still clear and easy trail up to Vista Pass. Katlyn announces we’ve passed 10,000 feet and we’ll stay up here all week.
Our innate skills reveal themselves: Katlyn easily balances on a single log across a stream and runs ahead for a perfect photo. Kelly keeps us moving and on task, her pace quick and steady. I power uphills without a problem, though I hate leading feeling I’m holding everyone up.
“You’re too self conscious!” I’m told and just laugh. Right. Who cares anyway? As stunning Vista Pass reveals itself and pointy peaks reflect in an Alpine Lake, I realize we’re becoming a team and just moving ahead bit by bit and enjoying this spectacular place is what matters. It’s a shocking contrast to last season’s group, where it was all competitive jockeying for speed, leaving me to hike alone in truly dangerous country.
We hear thunder and feel a few drops, but never take out the rain gear. It’s a gray day, keeping things cool and we dive down into the woods, the fresh pine smell overwhelming.
We follow another enormous waterfall, crawling on our hands and knees under blowdown and into a shallow bowl under a seemingly impassable rock wall. Cube Pass.
We’re tired, but determined and there really is nowhere to camp. Thus begins the boulder hopping with overloaded packs. (three ounces less after lunch!) Someone has placed cairns which make little sense taking us straight up, but we oblige using our hands to reach a trail of boulders.
Lovely Dale Lake appears with views down a deep canyon, almost on top of Square Top now. It reflects Stroud Peak, Oeneis, Sky Pilor and with that struggle of rock, the high route initiation begins.
It’s easy now on a use trail to a large lake, Peak Lake, our planned campsite. We set in grass looking straight into tomorrow’s pass. Katlyn dunks in the water and I go so far as to wash my dusty feet. I am so tired, but so happy.
It’s important to recognize good fortune and enjoy it. It’s also important to know the difference between between quality partners and less quality partners.
My food bag is a little less now and I’m tucked in before dark. The water flowing from the lake sings me to sleep as it works its way into the Green River and eventually the Colorado to the sea.
I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.
Isabella L. Bird
It’s dark in no time once I cuddle into Big Greenie. I look out occasionally, but I can’t see too many stars through the pines. It’s damp and is feeling a bit colder. And then, it begins to thunder.
From about 2:00 am to 3, the lightning is on full blast, a kind of strobe light with long, rolling thunder following. It never seems to hit the ground and once my nerves calm, I just lie there enjoying the sound. Surprisingly, this last night is the best sleep of the trip. Deep and long. Someone walking past early waking me. A person? An animal? They don’t stop or answer when I call.
I guess it’s best I didn’t sleep up high last night.
The tent is soaking wet and cold as I take it down. No one touched my bear bag and I pack it up, planning to take the lot up to Ski Lake. It might have made a good camp spot, but I’m thrilled I set the alicoop2 just in time to jump in before the rain came last night.
After my one flat bit, the trail heads steeply down again, eventually reaching a dry stream and a meadow where another tent is set. The path to Ski Lake heads steeply up just for a mile, but I’m out of breath and wondering if I need more than a week to get used to the altitude.
The view opens up as I ascend of rounded mountains and a fuzzy sunrise in smoke. There are also many camp spots – with views! – but I would have been walking up here in rain and put out of my mind any idea of having camped here.
The lake itself is perfectly round under a huge eroding cliff. I’m surprised to see piles of driftwood leading away from the lake, and these are not tiny pieces but entire trees. It leaves an air of violence in this absolutely silent place. I walk around the lake, carefully stepping over fallen rock, then depart looking for a place to have breakfast.
There’s a rock looking out to the mountains and above the trail that fits my bottom just so. I take out the last of the food and begin devouring it, most of the crumbs and powders and grease ending up on my $3.99 trousers. In between bites, I take out my tent to dry in the sun. A couple arrives, led by a guide. They laugh when I warn them how messy I am not expecting guests.
More people arrive, and I become the de facto greeter, some passing quickly and out of breath, others joining me to talk hiking and favorite spots in the Tetons. Most are surprised this middle aged gal is out here alone and finishing her hike today.
It’s not far to the road, just two miles of descent, the sound of cars and trucks managing a 10% grade over Teton Pass into Idaho reaching me way up the mountain. More and more hikers come up with dogs, running and carrying babies on board. I’m so delighted I had the place all to myself most of the morning.
At the road, I get a hitch within minutes, riding in an overloaded truck with vacationers from the midwest. They take me to Wilson, where I phone Bear and make plans for the evening.
And just like that, the hike is over.
Let’s face it, it was not all that hard, especially since I cut my daily mileage by about 2/3rds. I had very few obstacles, except for a few moments of worrying thunder. I stayed pretty healthy, even with one episode of tachycardia which I was able to get under control. All in all, it was a hike I savored, spending more time just looking and studying my surroundings, simply being in them, rather than passing through them.
Does it make me braver for the next hikes, and perhaps ready to take on one of more magnitude? I don’t know. But one thing is absolutely certain, it’s reminded me why I love backpacking so much – spending day after day outside, carrying all I need on my back, and becoming, at least for a short time, a resident in the wilderness.
So it’s exactly what was needed to overcome any lingering doubt that this activity is one I love, one that expresses the truest part of me and one that I can handle doing all the way into my old age. The Teton Crest Trail was absolute bliss and I am sated, yet also cleansed, like the intervening bit of ginger between bites of sushi. I’m ready for the next course.
Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.
A creature rustled in the bushes just outside my tent. I heard him twice, yelled twice and shined my light twice, but never found the rascal. I pulled everything into the tent just in case he’s a thief.
The stars were dulled by the smoke even if to wake up looking right into a canyon. I crawl out eventually and wander towards the lake for breakfast. The water is perfectly still, the reflection exact lit up in orange. The imposing walls are crumbling into triangles dumping into the lake. There’s bright green grass working its way into the most crumbled shelves and pines at the top like lookouts.
A loon paddles across slowly, then dives under. He’s got a fish and eats it, then spreads his wings, flapping them and showing off his white belly. It’s so quiet but for a few chatty squirrels, a squeeze-toy pica, and crows echoing on the cliffs.
I eventually return and eat a second course on our veranda again, right at the edge where I don’t want to drop my spoon. The sun peaks in and out of clouds. A dead tree still stands on a private peninsula, with branches reaching to the sky.
Eventually I pack up and head on saying goodbye to the three older people with everything spread out like a garage sale. They wonder if I do this often. Ranger George mentioned some good scrambling to the west, so I take the trail, then veer off to climb loose stone up above the lake. I crack straight up, then meet boulders, so need to sidle closer to the edge before getting to grass and a bit more loose rock.
It’s cool up here looking down on the sweet lake, but to the south, clouds are building in an aggressive dark gray, so I quickly pick my way down to avoid being at least part of the tallest object.
The trail heads steeply down to the junction for Granite Canyon. I meet another solo female hiker who points out an all black marmot. I see him sunning on a boulder unafraid of me, and then another run/waddles over. They can really move fast!
From here, it is straight up, no switchbacks to soften the climb. I feel good though and stay ‘under my breath’ and in rhythm. It’s forest here, so I call for bears, but still views back to the gorgeous canyon and rock mesas.
As I reach the top, the sky completely clears to a robin egg blue. I get views back to the Tetons, but can only just make them out now. Below is a massive meadow with a river running through it and white bark pines standing straight and tall.
I begin descending and see about a dozen backpackers milling at a rock outcropping. It turns out they are all family – three adults with kids, the youngest only 11 (and carrying 19 pounds!) We chat for a while and snap each other’s pictures, and one takes pictures of my shoes for study purposes.
It’s a delight to meet a family arranging this. It takes a lot of planning, but they’re all out carrying their packs and walking each step. I didn’t begin hiking until I was 13 – unless you count long, solo rambles of my neighborhood – and I began backpacking in earnest when I was an adult. I hope these kids like it.
As I say goodbye, I notice the clouds moved in while we were talking and thunder rumbles in the distance. I get a move on, knowing the turn off for where I plan to camp is not far. I’m out in the open in a large meadow between mountains. It rolls and is not completely flat, and was carved this way by ice.
I come upon a tiny pond, then turn towards another canyon, zigzagging steeply down. I’d read that Moose Lake was a cool place to camp, but it does make my day short. As my trail begins to level off, I come to the cut off and try to decide what to do.
I see the trail heading up again to the left, at the top of the canyon. Is it a good idea to go up while it’s thundering? I take a seat for a moment and consider my options. Continuing means climbing over 1,000 feet to a pass, while heading up to the lake is also a stiff climb, but more like 800 feet.
Below me is Moose Creek and worse case, I can set up my tent and wait out a storm somewhere down there. So I head down to meet the trail that goes up, and of course, the sky clears out completely. So up I go, heading through low willow where I call out for bears, and dried plants rattling in the wind.
I see a moraine above me and assume it’s holding back my lake. But as I come closer, I see it’s only a marshy field and the trail veers to the left, heading up. I see tall trees on a moraine which conjure up memories of my rock veranda in the Alaska Basin. But again, there’s only a puddle of water amidst aquatic plants as the trail turns sharply right and goes steeply up on a narrow esker.
Now I see rock holding back a hanging canyon, yellow flowers in huge bunches growing from cracks where water spilling out has widened the space. This has to be it as I breath heavy, but move steadily up towards the wall. The path jogs to the left up a steep ramp and deposits me on a moonscape.
A helpful sign says camp only 1/2 mile from the lake. What? That seems a bit drastic and furthermore, what lake? It’s less of an incline now, past beautiful rock and towards one last wall. The lake is tucked deep in and surrounded by thick plants.
This would not be an easy place to get water, and I can’t see anywhere people camp. It’s very windy, and while wildly beautiful, it feels weird to set up. Suddenly I feel a kind of pain in my chest, kind of like a gas bubble.
Oh for heaven’s sake, tachycardia again. I sit down and have a snack and try to relax, but my heart is racing. Well, I don’t think I really want to stay here anyway, and going down should help.
I forget how steep it is until I rewind and head down. I’m breathing hard, but I think the best thing would be to stop at the creek where it’s easy to get water and I can set up in trees without having to contend with the wind.
I laugh as I pass the ‘false lakes’ and yell for bears in the willows, and it’s not long before I’m back and can filter water and rest. It’s a pain because my body feels heavy and everything is a chore, but my doctor gave me beta blockers, so I take one, then proceed to eat all of the beef jerky.
I’m in a totally safe place where I can set my tent, fetch water and I still have a decent amount of food. I’m just a bit leaden. So I wait and see. More storm clouds move it, then move out again. I have a good seat in shade, but shift to the sun to get warm when the sky clears. Then I do my deep breathing exercises. Six seconds in through the nose, six out through the nose – 25 times, about five minutes.
The breathing, the beta blocker and meat did the trick and my heart is back to resting rate. I’ll go slow and keep moving. It just feels so good to move and no rain’s come yet.
I head up through crunchy bushes, the Prairie Smoke completely blown out in a wild swirl of cotton. I meet the trail and it moves up so gradually, I barely feel it.
This whole set of trails could be walked as a loop, and I actually might have chosen the Moose Creek instead of the pass since it eventually meets a road. But I’m stubborn and want to walk the Teton Crest end-to-end, which includes this long climb.
But right now, it feels as if the canyon is pulling away from me, every so often I see it further away through V-shaped toboggan runs through tall pines. It’s not the spectacular features of the Grand Tetons here, more walls eroding into deep canyons and being taken over by meadows and pine. But I love it, especially when I catch a glimpse back to where I climbed to all my false lakes.
It’s silent in here, and I’m completely alone, except for a hawk who flies straight towards me on majestic wings before lifting up and out over the canyon.
I enter deeper forest and cross a few blowdowns, only having to step high to get over. And then, the trail goes up. And up and up. On the map there’s no indication of switchbacks which often means there’s no room. So the only path forward is the shortest distance between two points.
I go into low gear and inch up. At first on a fairly wide bit of land which then gets thinner. I’m headed to a kind of dead end of rock wall and pines. Now how are they getting me out of here?
A tiny ramp right on the edge of the rock. Small stones cause me to slide a bit, but I keep moving like the Little Engine that Could and soon reach the top. It’s a startling view looking back, seeing today and yesterday’s walk.
Continuing is along a catwalk. The trail is wide enough, but one step to the right and you’re over the edge 1,000 feet. I press on gingerly, not looking down (much) and finally come to a saddle far below that either finishes this loop or takes me off trail.
The ground is a soft green-brown. It’s sage and the first I’ve seen it on the trail. Dark green pines huddle in groups and I wonder if now I’ll find water and can set camp. It’s still a good ways down and I see no sign of it. Checking my map, I’m fairly certain I’ll cross a stream just below.
As I begin to descend into Phillips Pass Canyon, I notice the hills are a dark pink. It’s millions of Fireweed, the leaves turning as well as the flowers exploding in cotton and corkscrew curls. The leaves have a kind of sap that sparkles in the light. It’s absolute magic.
I reach the water right away and have learned to get it when you can because you never know if a stream will go underground or be inaccessible to the trail. I delight in the pink hills while the water filters then set off to find a place to camp along the trail.
Surely there are a few sites people gave created over the years. No, not a one. And those flowers I love so much make for lumpy ground, completely unsuitable for a tent.
Making matters worse, the trail does not just head down to the road. Rather it goes up, and steeply, rising far above the creek.
It’s not just the plants that make it hard to set, but all the pica burrows in long dirt piles, crisscrossing like an outdoor version of Habitrail. Even under the pines, which is usually a good bet for a flat, pine needle bed are invaded by plants.
As I come up a particularly steep rise, I meet another backpacker. He’s desperate for water, me for a camp site. I tell him water is running, but might be hard to get to from the trail. He tells me meadows are ahead, then proceeds to discuss his plans wanting recommendations.
I apologize profusely, but it’s going to be dark soon and I really need to find a site. I head on to those ‘meadows’ which ate really just more of the same. Argh, he uses a hammock! What does he know of tent camping?!
I begin to wonder if I should just walk out and set in the parking lot, when it begins to thunder again. OK, that does it. By these trees will work. And it does, except my tent covers the trail.
I set fast as the thunder rumbles, getting everything inside just as it begins to rain. What timing! It’s not a long shower, and I exit in rain gear to a monstrous thunderhead now turning pink and seemingly out of juice. I sit on a damp but well placed log to make dinner and just as I clean up, a woman arrives with her dog!
Bridget is amused by my set up, but gets around just fine as she’s headed up to meet a friend at the pass. She assures me this is not a popular trail and besides it’s night, I should be fine in this awkward spot.
I hang the bear bag and make a wish no creatures show up tonight. It’s already pitch black and I’m cuddled in smack dab in the middle of the trail for my last night in the Tetons!
I life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view, and legs aching with remembered effort.
The sunrise is delicious – as good as my sunset, just from the other side. I may have missed it taking care of business and having to pull down my perfect bear hang first to get my garbage. As I return to my tent, a young woman has her camera out. I go to talk to her in whispers and we agree, this place feels holy.
She’s impressed I’m alone. But not so much; this trail is busy with hikers. Only at Kit Lake was I completely alone. Is the smoke clearing, I wonder? Suddenly, blood drips from my nose. No more headaches, but now the altitude has me bleeding. Both nostrils spurt and I’m glad I thought to bring a bandana.
I eat kashi, bananas and pecans on my beloved granite slab, then pack up and head on for more adventures. I meet two Mexican Americans near the stream who tell me they barely made it here before dark. Nearly everyone I’ve met is happy to be here.
It’s up steeply, winding through fissures in the seemingly impenetrable wall of ancient sea floor. I breathe heavily and wonder if I’m out of shape. Then I just pull off the gas a little.
I end up on a massive plateau. All three Tetons peak out behind me and I’m surrounded by mesas, walls and a few jagged peaks. It’s phenomenal up here – flat, sparse, open, yet somehow deeply calming. Picas squeak from rocks and one fat marmot poses. Wildflowers still in bloom eek out an existence in this arid, high altitude environment. The wind blows hard and I put my scarf over my cap.
Two backpackers come my way and stop to chat, again happy to be here. I notice the gal has a Kula Cloth pee rag and her beau takes our picture. Streams still run up here fed through limestone cliffs. Above me, a Red Tailed Hawk soars on the thermals. A naturalist told me birds enjoy that because it’s like sitting on the couch, relaxing and keeping them cool.
I meet a father and daughter, she with bright blue hair and he in tight lycra shorts. They camped in this wild openness, telling me the wind flapped their tent all night. Soon, I head down towards a canyon and the trail hugs its edge.
This is the Death Canyon Shelf, a fantastic place to camp, but it’s far too early. A stream crosses the trail and I find a place for second breakfast looking straight into the abyss. Behind me is a huge wall with two-story house sized boulders ejected below. Geologic time is slow, but some things happen in a hurry and best not to be in their way.
The view is glorious, but filled with smoke so in soft filter. I feel sad we’ve brought this on ourselves and I hope we come to our senses and stop burning fossil fuels. If anyone has any doubt what our future will be should we not act now, just look at my pictures.
As I continue, the wind picks rattling the dry plants. I still see the Tetons receding behind me. I’ve come a long way. I meet more hikers, warning me there’s only one more stream until Marion Lake, so I fill up and filter water in the shade with a view into the canyon, though much higher now where I can make out the trail below.
More backpackers come up, and I talk to everyone. It’s so nice to be this relaxed. I remember hiking the John Muir Trail portion of the PCT and also meeting happy hikers taking their time and taking it all in.
I’m glad I got more water because George the Ranger suggested I scramble up Spearhead Peak. It looks like Devils Tower in miniature. George said there are climbing moves, but I see a lovely scramble to a rounded bit next to it which would suit me just fine.
The trail goes under it and up and it appears the approach is somewhere at that saddle. Indeed, there’s a faint trail headed straight up through bushes and trees. This is my most favorite thing to do, to clamor straight up and look for the best route.
The path, of course, disappears entirely, but it’s obvious I simply need to get to the base of the monolith. The rocks are loose and large. I don’t want to disengage one on my foot or while standing on it, so I go slow and look for the most solid.
This rock is dark brown and broken, for the most part, into rectangular slabs. When the going get steep, I zig zag, using my sticks, then my hands. Soon, I’m below the block. I find a reasonable place to sit where I can remove my pack and leave my sticks. There are holes between the rocks, so I’m careful not to drop anything or I might not get it back.
On this side, the monolith is less a wall and more a series of steps. I carefully move to the beginning, but now I’m on slick stones. Getting up, I realize, is one thing. Down on these, quite another.
I see the moves for the ‘stairs’ but look down to where I’d fall. OK, this is just stupid. Maybe if someone else was here. I look down to my backpack below and then out to the more rounded summit. That I can do.
It’s not in my nature to give up – or maybe it is like in Montana. But falling would be awful here and even now carefully picking my way down, I know it was right to bag it.
I grab my bag and carefully step from rock to rock, all of it changing to a mottled and sharp limestone full of holes. My feet cling tightly to it and I easily reach the top of my lump. The views are fantastic looking down three canyons – Death, Granite and Fox Creek. I look for a place to sit out of the wind, and someone has helpfully laid down a flat stone.
I make lunch and hang out in my cool spot for hours, maybe this is the best part of this thru-hike is all the time I have to just be in the environment, studying the rock around me and below my feet. I also love that I made time to take side trips and push myself ever so much out of my comfort zone.
Eventually, I head down, picking my way slowly on the clingy, white rock, careful not to pick loose ones. I’m deposited on open mesa, picking up burrs as I march towards the trail I see in the distance. I cross dry stream beds, large crickets hopping out of my way.
The trail leaves this table top and shoots straight down to Marion Lake. I meet a man carrying a gun and another who tells me a bear followed me along the ridge. That’s when I was singing. I wonder if he liked my voice?
Pretty Marion sits in a bowl of massive, crumbling walls, one separated from the others in a thinner layer, perhaps ready to peel off. This is a popular camp spot and has been seriously overused, so no lake side camping is allowed. Only three permits are given out per night and we camp away from the lake.
Two Mexican American men are here and I tell them I’ll be their neighbor.
“But how do you know I won’t be awful?”
“One can hope!”
I set the alicoop2 right on the edge (ok, near the edge) with a spectacular view into Granite Canyon, then head back to the lake to rinse my body and get water. Again, I sit on a rock for hours just enjoying the scenery, birds catching gnats in the willows and picas warning everyone of my presence.
I come back to the tent and join my neighbors on the cliff edge to talk hiking, renewable energy, the fact that Santa Fe is the number one city for film (one os a makeup artist) and listen to a howling wolf. It gets chilly and we all turn in as the sky turns pink, then deep blue, even with smoke, the stars are bright.
Some animal crashes around outside, so I bring everything in the tent just in case he’s a thief – and also keep my bear spray handy.