Teton Crest Trail, Day 5: Alaska Basin to Marion Lake, 6 miles

I life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view, and legs aching with remembered effort.


Sylvain Tesson
The exposed plateau after Sheep Steps with the Tetons far in the distance.
The exposed plateau after Sheep Steps with the Tetons far in the distance.

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. 

Morning light at my breakfast rock.
Kula Cloth babes.
Kula Cloth babes.
Marmot of the Mountains.
Marmot of the Mountains.
Metamorphic rock wall.
Metamorphic rock wall.
It was a pretty easy day once I got up on the plateau, so I added a small peak to keep things interesting.

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. 

Tundra Aster
Tundra Aster
Pale Agoseris
Pale Agoseris
Pearly Everlasting
Pearly Everlasting
Sticky Purple Geranium
Sticky Purple Geranium

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. 

The "cobble stones" above Death Canyon.
The “cobble stones” above Death Canyon.
Eating a second breakfast at Death Canyon Shelf, out of focus due to wildfire smoke from California.
Eating a second breakfast at Death Canyon Shelf, out of focus due to wildfire smoke from California.
Rock fall the size of two-story houses.
Rock fall the size of two-story houses.
Geologic time is slow, but you don't want to be under it when it happens.
Geologic time is slow, but you don’t want to be under it when it happens.

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. 

“Good!” 

“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. 

A fellow solo hiker palming Spearhead Peak.
A fellow solo hiker palming Spearhead Peak.
Sticky and sharp limestone on top of Spearhead was wonderful to walk on.
Sticky and sharp limestone on top of Spearhead was wonderful to walk on.
The alicoop2 on the edge of Granite Canyon.
The alicoop2 on the edge of Granite Canyon.
Dinner.
Dinner.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

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