Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.Mark Twain
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!