Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 3

Day 5

About 10:30 last night I felt Kye growl against my leg and then I heard her. She was alert and there was something beyond the area we had tied the food bags that she didn’t like. Then she barked…there was definitely something out there as she never barks otherwise. I hollered at Jerry but neither of us heard anything. He got up to check out the area but still nothing. Kye finally relaxed and we went back to our sleeping bags. It was still a little unnerving as I completely trust my dogs’ instincts…they’ve never let me down yet.

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We awoke to a chilly morning but with blue and cloudless skies, finally. There was a thin layer of ice on the water in the dogs’ bowl and Colby had ice on his tent. I had a small amount of condensation but nothing my camp towel couldn’t handle. My quilt was the wettest it had been on this trip so far but it quickly dried in the morning sun.

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We left Summit Lake and climbed through the trees until we were once again above treeline. We wouldn’t be facing any more large passes and we climbed in and out of small alpine valleys and saw dozens of alpine lakes all surrounded by the majesty of various Wind River peaks. Each day was just getting better and better as far as the scenery went and I was quickly running out of words to describe just how amazing it was…things were starting to get a little repetitive on the vocabulary front in trying to describe how amazing everything looked.

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Finally we climbed out of our last mini valley and looked out towards Elbow Lake, and in the distance the backside of some of the jagged spires of Titcomb Basin…there are truly few words to describe the view. Photos couldn’t do it justice although we took an awful lot in an attempt to capture the beauty and serenity of the landscape. Sadly smoke from Montana fires inhibited the views slightly but at least we could see them.

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For a couple of miles the trail wound between black-rock tarns of clear water before finally rounding the corner and circumnavigating Elbow Lake. We stopped for lunch just above the creek crossing and then hiked up and over a small pass to look down on Upper Jean Lake. The views remained staggering and we were now much closer to the serrated teeth of the peaks of Titcomb Basin and they truly were jaw-dropping. We said goodbye to that valley and dropped down to the valley of Lower Jean Lake. The views were still gorgeous and we could see glaciers on the peaks to the south but the peaks didn’t quite match up to those we had just passed. Jerry kept swearing he was done taking pictures, and said so at least a dozen times…right up until the next view came into sight.

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With Lower Jean Lake at our backs we crossed the bridge at Fremont Crossing where the guys got all gushy about meeting Andy Bentz as we got water. Rarely does one run into a hiking legend on the trail (who also owns the company Pa’lante packs) but we did and we chatted for a while about backpacks and various trails as everyone loved on Kye and Cody and took pictures of them. As we crossed the bridge the guys lamented about not having taken a picture with Andy and I made a comment relating the situation to Justin Beiber and teenage girls.

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With our celebrity meeting out of the way we hiked on. Black clouds were appearing and rain was looking imminent. I pre-empted the coming storm and put on my poncho as the guys pulled on rain jackets. Of course the rain didn’t end up being as bad as it looked but one does get a little gun-shy after an experience like we had on day 3 and we hid under a tree for 10 minutes while the worst of it passed and the sun came out.

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Very quickly we were removing rain gear and sweatshirts in the hot sun as we hiked on. The now-glistening rocks made for a very pretty view. More rain clouds were coming in as we reached the turn-off for Island Lake and Titcomb Basin and I quickly put my poncho back on before the rain started to fall again.

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With the first drops of rain we looked for a suitable campsite for the night but they were few and far between as level, dry ground within the area’s camping requirements was minimal. I waited out the rain beneath some pine trees where we thought we might camp with the dogs and the packs while Colby and Jerry checked out other possibilities.

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In the end we stayed put and got tents set up just as the sun was coming out…just long enough, and with a decent-enough breeze to dry everything out. Of course the sun didn’t stay for too long and came and went all evening. It made for a chilly couple of hours before bed but we all curled up under our quilts and Jerry and I talked as he ate his cold re-hydrated meal (not appealing when you want something hot at the end of the day).

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Finally it got dark enough to head to bed and the wind died down making it a cold, clear, crisp night.

Day 6

I slept pretty rough last night. I woke while it was still dark with a raging headache and something that felt similar to the flu. I fumbled around with my first aid kit cussing that the superglue had leaked and melted everything plastic. Thankfully the ibuprofen was still good and I downed a few and finally fell back to sleep.

I slept until 8:30am, and while it was needed it was was to our detriment as we got nailed with ticket from the NF rangers for camping too close to the trail. I was awakened by rangers’ voices chatting with Colby and Jerry. Big Oops. I waited until they left before I let the dogs out and extricated myself from the tent…I still wasn’t feeling great.

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We finally left camp just before 10am to hike into Titcomb Basin. The trail went by Island Lake and it was definitely the busiest place we had yet seen. I was having serious pain in the gluteus muscle in my right hindquarter and only hiked to the beginning of the basin, half a mile beyond the trail junction with Indian Pass. It was close enough for me to appreciate it and really feel small in the grand scheme of the range.

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The jagged peaks of Titcomb Basin were like teeth grating against the sky and were certainly some of the most impressive I have seen. I enjoyed the views and the sun for an hour while Colby and Jerry headed deeper into the basin.

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Around noon I loaded back up, talked a passing group into relaying my destination information to the guys and headed west. It was slow going as every step upward with my right leg was painful and I figured the guys would catch me sooner rather than later. I stopped often, taking very pleasant naps in the sun at Island Lake (where I also had lunch) and Little Seneca Lake.

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I talked to more groups about passing on my destination information, and probably told the first ten groups I passed…I didn’t want to miss connecting with the guys before we camped.

I usually don’t choose to be alone in grizzly bear country, even with minimal bear presence (hence this being a group trip), but the trail to Titcomb Basin is one of the busiest in the Wind River Range and thus I felt safe enough to hike alone.

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With a few more stops on a trail that followed the edge of Seneca Lake, and couple of short and steep climbs I finally reached Hobbs Lake around 5pm…it took me that long to hike such a short distance with the pain in my leg. I found a great campsite with room enough for three tents far enough off the trail and away from the lake to be legal. It was a gorgeous spot looking over Hobbs Lake, although sadly it was also extremely busy and there were a few loud groups but at least we had a site…many groups came by looking for a camping spot and struggled to find one.

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Colby showed up thirty minutes later just as I was starting to put up my tent. We both cooked and waited for Jerry to arrive, which he did around 7pm…later than expected, but understandable as he had spent considerable time exploring the end of the basin and the route to Knapsack Kol.

The night drew in quickly and it hit me that this would likely be the last camping night I would spend in the US before returning to the UK. The week felt like it had flown by but Monday night felt like it had been an age ago. I was ready for the trip to be over as I was ready for a hot meal (of real food), a shower and a beer but I was also sad that this was the end and I was only too aware than just 6 miles lay between me and my truck.

Day 7

For the second day in a row we awoke to zero condensation inside our tents or on our quilts. It was a still morning but the breeze was picking up quickly and it was cold…it smelled like snow. With as busy as Hobbs Lake was it was difficult to find some privacy, let alone find some soft ground in which to dig a cat hole…so I was out of bed briefly at 6:45am to take care of business in the best place I could find without an audience.

For the second morning of the trip I left my base layers on but I also left camp earlier than the others, at 8:15am, to get a head start. I knew that Colby and Jerry would catch up pretty quickly and I hiked fairly slow. The first hour was ups (which really slow me down) and downs and within an hour they had both caught up.

The scenery was minimal, compared to what we had been hiking through recently, and we passed a few lakes, crossed a few meadows but mostly the last six miles were flat, easy and surrounded by trees (it would have been a much easier first day if we had hiked in a counter-clockwise direction). We passed a lot of groups going in, most with packs many times larger than ours (especially Colby’s and Jerry’s), who all looked and smelled very fresh…we all knew we smelled appalling at that point.

Finally, just after 11am we arrived back at the trucks and had a celebratory soda, beer, Red Bull…or all together…before we headed into Pinedale.

Once more we ended up at the Gannet Peak Lodge (where we had stayed last year), a clean and moderately-priced motel (for the area) where more beers were consumed, much-needed showers were taken for long periods of time and pizza was ordered. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying mindless entertainment (watching Deadpool) before heading out for dinner to the Wind River Brew Pub again (another repeat of last year).

Monday morning Jerry and I said goodbye to Colby as he headed home to eastern Wyoming. Jerry spent most of the morning getting ready for his next hike…a 10 day excursion back into the Wind River Range to do Andrew Skurka’s Wind River High Route with another member of White Blaze (whose trip report and pictures can be found here). I helped with shuttling but headed back to the Bighorns on Tuesday morning after a final night of camping with Jerry and Pat.

***

After-thoughts

The 2018 trip was so different from the 2017 in many ways and not just because of the route. The dynamic of the people can make or break a trip and this year was just as good as last year albeit in a different way. The scenery was definitely more spectacular and the trail was certainly tougher. We picked the toughest uphill climb to do on our first day (to the detriment of one of our party) and got rained on (and thus very cold) to the point that it was getting dangerous for myself and made that particular day far less enjoyable than it could have been.

For the first time on a backpacking trip I consistently drank the water without filtering. I do not necessarily condone or recommend this for other hikers but it was a choice I made after my experience in the Wind River Range last year. The sources I didn’t filter were only fast-flowing high alpine streams and creeks that had a very, very low risk factor. I did filter when the only water source was from lower-elevation lakes or slow-moving rivers (so for the first 48 hours, the Green River and Hobbs Lake). I would do the same thing again but having a filter or chemical treatment back-up is vital.

As with other multi-hiker trips backpacker talk centered around things like Dyneema count, quilt comparisons, pros and cons of cook vs no-cook, cat holes and poop, trail habits, trail names…and how a backpacking date would tell you all you ever need to know about someone. There is no hiding anything on a backpacking trip…if you have a wedgie you fix it, everyone makes prolific use of the “farmer blow” and everyone knows when you have to poop.

This particular backpacking trip was very bittersweet for me. It was my last trip in the US before my move back to the UK but it was also amazing and I’m glad that this particular trip WAS my last one as it leaves me with some amazing memories. As mentioned last year the bond I created with Doug and Jerry continued this year; Jerry was there right along with me and we both missed not having Doug with us and lamented his absence. Colby was a lot of fun to have along and definitely added a positive and fun vibe to the group. Who knows where the next trip will take us, but we are already contemplating the TGO Challenge in Scotland.

Backpacking the Wind River Range, August 2018 – Part 1

Our first up-close views of the peaks we would be hiking through, and the too-friendly local wildlife:

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Day 1

We started pretty slow this morning as we all stayed up too late and enjoyed a few beers but we did manage to make it out of Elk Hart Park by 9:30.

From left to right: Jerry, me, Colby and Dave

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For 3 miles the trail wound down through the pines with some great views to the north. I lead for a while as we climbed down into the valley. In planning this route I knew we had a decent climb ahead but apparently I had missed the steep descent beforehand and by the time we reached the lake and then the creek after a few miles my legs were like jelly and were visibly shaking with the exertion. On the way down we passed a couple from Rochester NY coming up which was crazy as Jerry lives about hour from there.

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We grabbed a bite to eat Upper Long Lake and took some pictures before crossing a nice bridge over Pine Creek. The sign mentioned the trail was technically abandoned, was not suitable for pack stock and was not maintained. A lot of blow down trees confirmed this.

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The initial climb wasn’t too bad but once over a low saddle it got super steep and made for some tough going. However in the steepest section the trail was generally clear and easy find. It was here that Dave started feeling the affects of the altitude and of not having hiked as much as the rest of us. We paused to wait for him to catch up several times but it was obvious he wasn’t enjoying himself at all. Words of encouragement were spoken as we stared out at the views from the Crows Nest.

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From the Crows Nest onwards the trail leveled out considerably and we were all appreciative of the mostly-level trail for a while. We stopped to get water at a lake below the trail and then it started to rain. It wasn’t serious rain and just a summer shower that last for half an hour but it was enough for us to don rain gear for a while.

And then we ran into a big old moose with wonky antlers that trotted across the trail. He stared at us, we watched him and I was glad Jerry had finally seen one in the Winds. Our last trip here and proven to be utterly wildlife-less with the exception of a deer and a couple of marmots.

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We moved on and had another short climb up and over a saddle. Thankfully this one was nowhere near as steep as the torture we had endured earlier when I had been wondering who the asshole was who’d mapped this route…yup, me.

From the top of the saddle the trees opened up into grassy rock-strewn meadows with yet more stunning views of northern peaks. The trail remained on a moderate decline but was, in most places, level and we finally reached Trapper Lake sooner than I had anticipated we would. This wasn’t a bad thing at all. We took another break and Dave was holding up well…he was definitely hurting though.

From Trapper Lake we had a little over a mile to our intended campsite for the night at Section Corner Lake, a short climb followed by a rocky descent dropped us out on the edge of the lake and we started scouting for a campsite. The first we came across was nice but wouldn’t see the sun early but the other place that looked decent was very rocky and would have been hard on the tents.

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We got camp up quickly although Dave struggled to find two good trees for his hammock. And when you’ve had a tough day the last thing you want to deal with is struggling to set up camp and deal with more frustration. We all ate dinner and hung or tied our food bags away from camp as dusk settled in. We then talked for a while, Jerry, Colby and I trying to be encouraging to Dave to focus away from the pain and be positive about the trail for the next couple of days.

With darkness all around us and the clock saying 9pm we all headed for our respective tents for what hinted at being a cold night.

Day 2

I slept like a rock and I couldn’t believe I didn’t wake up until 7:45am. I never sleep that late when I’m backpacking, and especially not on the first night. I hollered at Jerry who sounded like he was just waking up.

Dave dropped off my bear bag and said he was heading out shortly so he could get a head start and not slow us down. We showed him where the trail was across the creek and he headed out.

We took our time packing up camp to give Dave a decent head start and left camp at 10am…the latest I have ever gotten out of camp. We backtracked to the lake slightly and followed the trail around the water’s edge before turning north again up the valley.

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With only a granola bar in my belly I struggled with the uphills more than I had the day before and was soon left behind…something I found myself agreeing with Dave about was that it was kinda demoralizing to be at the back and not with the group. I could certainly understand why yesterday was so hard for him on that level.

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I caught up to Colby and Jerry at Round Lake and grabbed a snack before we headed down. We were keeping our eye out for Dave ahead of us but didn’t figure we would catch him quite that quickly as he had an hour or more on us.

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With a few calories in the system we circumnavigated Round Lake and met up with the connection of the original trail we were supposed to take. The sign was on the ground and the only obvious trail was the one we would have come down. We checked the GPS and got on the right trail for 1/2 a mile before making a brief error and having to back track slightly. It was also the time we were beginning to wonder where Dave was and worry was starting to niggle at us, but he still had a decent head start and my pace certainly isn’t speedy.

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The climb from Round Lake was brief before the trail plateaued and then peered down at Palmer Lake. At the far end we could see two guys and one was wearing similar clothes to Dave. Sadly the person turned out to be a young man fishing with his friend, and not Dave. We were now getting more worried as the guys hadn’t seen a solo guy backpacking by himself on the trail.

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We made slow progress to the top of the hill and then enjoyed they awe-inspiring views of Palmer Creek Canyon.

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We descended amid stunning wildflowers along a steep and rocky pass to a low, rock-bound creek that showed obvious signs of being a raging torrent at other times of the year. It was this creek we followed for a while until losing the trail in the marshy areas where there were few signs and only hoof prints to go by.

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With the aid of the GPS again we managed to keep on track until we found the trail again (after a ridiculously steep climb up a tall embankment) and continued our way down the valley with magnificent walls of towering granite that made us feel extremely insignificant ahead of and beside us. It was also through here that we came across our second and third moose of the trip as we disturbed a momma moose and her calf. She eyed us with uncertainty while the calf did what his instinct told him to do and ran (or trotted) away up the hill.

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We passed a couple of guys camping prior to the trail intersection and stopped to ask if they had seen Dave, and gave them his description. They hadn’t seen him and some serious concern was starting to set in. With no way to know where he was; if he was on a different trail, if he was backtracking, or even if he was truly lost we were starting to question if and when we would need to hit the SOS buttons on our GPS units.

We tried not to think about it too much as we crossed another creek and started our climb towards Porcupine Pass, which, while moderately steep wasn’t too bad. Two miles below the summit of the pass we crossed another creek and eventually, after much hmming and hawing, we decided to make camp there and blitz the pass in the morning.

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With tents set-up and dinner cooking our thoughts were very much on Dave and what had happened to him. Colby and I both theorized that he had taken a wrong turn at the badly-marked trail junction north of Round Lake and had followed the trail back around to Trapper Lake as the rest of the trails had been obvious and well-marked…and that was the place we could easily have made an error without a good map.

We continued talking as the sun sank behind the mountains and finally, just as Colby was about to turn his InReach off we got a message from someone at The Great Outdoor shop to say that Dave was fine and would be hiking back out the same way we had hiked in, and going back to Elk Hart Park. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief and knew we would all sleep better for knowing that. We felt bad but there was little we could have done at the time.

With dark clouds drawing in and a few raindrops starting to hit us we all withdrew to our tents for the night and listened to the thunder grumble away to the south.