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 2

Day 3

We got out of camp a little earlier than planned and were covering the last couple of miles to the top of Porcupine Pass (the second one of the same name in the less than a month for me) by 8:45am.

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The first few switchbacks were tough but the trail soon opened up into a gorgeous alpine valley surrounded by towering peaks of granite on all sides and a fabulous view of the 2000ft descent we had made yesterday, and the 2000ft climb we were now doing.

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At the end of the valley we stopped for a quick snack break before the final switchbacks to the top. The weather was partly cloudy and perfect for climbing in open terrain and we stopped to soak in the next valley of absolutely stunning beauty.

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Pictures were taken in abundance before we started down the nice and not-too-steep switchbacks on the north side of the pass. I kept stopping to take pictures, not just of the views ahead but of the pass and Jerry and Colby behind.

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We filled up with water at the first creek crossing, grabbed a snack and I pulled my poncho out and stuffed it at the top of my pack…black clouds to the west looked pretty ominous. We followed the trail into the trees and within five minutes we were feeling the first raindrops and then hail. We all donned rain gear quickly and continued down the trail. The hail petered out and soon it was a light off again-on again shower. But eventually it got worse and the rain became more persistent and was less like a passing rain shower and more like a blanket of wetness. We hiked on and thunder grumbled around us.

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With a large pine tree providing a dry respite just off the trail we took a break. I was doing okay but wasn’t sure how I would do if the rain continued. We waited for 20-30 minutes in the shelter of the tree before I started getting cold and was beginning to shiver slightly. Despite the rain I knew I had to get moving to stay warm.

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Despite my poncho keeping most of me dry my hands were getting wet and they were going numb with the cold. And wet plants drenched my feet. I was starting to worry about me staying warm and what we would do as a group if the rain continued…I knew if it didn’t break soon I would be facing some serious issues. Jerry kept a check on me to make sure I was doing okay (he admitted later he was worried about me too).

Finally after another 20 minutes of steady rain (not torrential downpour thankfully) we started to see a break in the weather. Sadly there was a creek crossing that had only one log for the crossing (and it was a no go as it was wet and slippery) so with already soaked and frigid feet I just barreled through the water, cussing the whole way. And on the other side of the creek, just as we reach a beautiful open meadow and the trail junction to Green River Lakes (30 miles from our starting point), the sun came out and immediately began to warm and dry us. I was beyond thankful.

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We crossed another creek, thankfully by log bridge this time, and covered the final switchbacks to Green River Lakes and crossed yet another creek. I took my shoes off for this one as my shoes were finally starting to dry and I wanted to keep them that way. Of course there was a log at the crossing that I had completely missed but it gave me a chance to get my now-stinky feet and socks clean. As we crossed the meadow at the southern end of Green River Lake we got our first glimpse of Squaretop Mountain.

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We finally turned north on the Highline Trail aka CDT (Continental Divide Trail) and circumnavigated the lake, all the while getting some quite impressive views of the aquamarine-colored lake and Squaretop Mountain. The trail was mostly level and we made good time, conversing with another hiker briefly and asking about camping spots ahead. He mentioned one but also that another group of six guys had seen a bear sow and cub in the area ahead of us…thankfully it was a black bear and not a grizzly.

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We hiked on a short way and found an amazing campsite 100 yards off the trail and just below Squaretop Mountain…and probably one of my favorite campsites of any trip in the Winds so far (including last year’s trip). We were watching the weather closely and wanted to get camp set up before any more rain came in.

 

 

 

 

 

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We got settled and ate, and most stuff had dried out from the night before when the rain, lightening and thunder hit about 6:30pm. We scurried for our tents. Thankfully we had been watching the clouds encroach on the valley and all gear had already been safely stowed in protective DCF cocoons.

Rain and thunder continued for almost two hours before finally abating at about 8:15pm. We were glad to see the end of it and made a move to hang our food bags before we completely lost the light.

Day 4

We awoke to mist and fog shrouding everything, including our tents. It would break briefly and then come back in and it certainly provided for a couple of pretty pictures of Squaretop Mountain. But it was not a morning that was conducive to wanting to crawl out of warm sleeping bags and even the dogs were shivering a little.

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Everything was damp. Even my camp towel couldn’t get my tent dry this morning although it got it close and the dogs soon warmed up as I let them out of the tent and they enjoyed 20 minutes of running and playing together.

We eventually got on the trail and I was still wearing my fleece base layers and gloves to stay warm. The sun was starting to break through a little and after a mile or so I packed away my gloves and base layer top.

 

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The trail continued for another four miles on a pretty level trail beside the meandering Green River. We crossed a couple of fairly wide and deep creeks that required some serious balance and careful stepping to stay dry on rocks or logs. Jerry, who doesn’t hike with hiking poles, had the toughest time and started crawling across the logs on the first crossing. On the second crossing I had the guys hold the dogs back so they didn’t try to follow me immediately as it was a precarious crossing. Kye, as always, tried to rush across the log and slipped a couple of times but the double log bridge meant she didn’t fall in.

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Eventually the trail split and we crossed the now-raging Green River via a foot bridge and climbed above it. The sun was beginning to come out more consistently and make the day warmer, finally…we were all glad for the warmth. Another mile and a half put us at the base of the switchbacks and before the climb I packed away my base layer pants; it was still chilly but I didn’t want to sweat in my sleeping clothes.

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The switchbacks were a pretty easy climb and we stopped for views of distant waterfalls and peaks as we hiked up, eventually crossing Trail Creek were we ran into the six guys on a guided family trip who had seen a black bear sow with her cub not far from where we had camped the night before. We chatted for a while and climbed the final switchbacks to Trail Creek Park.

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Soon the trees deserted us and we we surrounded by grey boulders, green meadows and fields of talus all interspersed with reds, golds and blues of wild flowers. It was a beautiful sight and just kept getting better as we hiked up through the valley, each step providing a better view.

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Eventually, after much stopping to take dozens of pictures, we reached the plateau that is Green River Pass. It was not an up-and-over pass like I was expecting but was an open-ended expanse of rocks, emerald carpet and alpine lakes glistening in the now-warm sun. It was stunning.

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We reached the end of the plateau and looked over Summit Lake towards a grove of trees that looked like a good place to camp. We were high and exposed and wanted a little protection if a storm came through. But the skies remained clear and the sun, despite the wind and chilly air, was very welcome.

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We had camp set up quickly so everything could dry and then sat for a while and enjoyed the view as the sun set and the moon rose. Soon it was too cold to remain outside of the tent and we all departed for bed.

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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.

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 2

Day 5

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We got a late start again today but at least the sun peaked over the horizon to the east sooner than usual and got us warmed up after a night below freezing. The mile hike down Ranger Park was gentle and easy and we kept watch for wildlife. We had to duck under a rope crossing the trail as the guys who had generously donated the beer the night before were blocking their horses’ escape route. We passed their camp, wished them a good morning and moved on. The trail split and we took the upper trail to Grave Lake. The initial climb was moderate and it soon leveled out. We passed two amazing waterfalls before we reached the lake and took a moment to enjoy the scene.

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Grave Lake was beautiful and more still than I think I have seen any body of water. It was like a mirror for the mountain surround. We paused for a snack and to take pictures…right up until I dropped my camera in the water. Yes, the second camera I have now drowned but the first that was almost brand new. I wasn’t happy but I hope I saved the SD and dried it out quickly. (How many photos were posted earlier in the blog will attest to how successful this was!)

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Thankfully I still had my phone and could continue to take pictures (which ironically turned out to be better quality than the ones from my camera). Of course the guys are taking plenty too so there will more than enough to choose from.

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We circumnavigated Grave Lake and climbed up over a boulder field which had taken out the old trail. The trail could be seen below us. We soon faced another steep climb to yet another waterfall, and then above it to cross the creek that flowed out of Baptiste Lake.

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We stopped for lunch and to refill with water while we enjoyed the incredible view of Mt. Hooker, a slab of sheer granite with a vertical wall that just didn’t look real.

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From the creek crossing it was all uphill to Hailey Pass. What looked like a short 1000 ft climb over 1.2 miles ended up being one mile of easy hiking followed by .2 miles of snow fields and a near-vertical trail of marbles. It was a trail where one false move would send you crashing to the bottom. Jerry said we could be at the top in 40 minutes. I thought that would be impossible and just laughed, but with that challenge in my head I motivated myself to get moving.

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Initially the trail meandered through rock-strewn grass meadows next to a snow-melt-fed creek before ending at the bottom of another snow field, beneath which was buried the switchbacks of the trail. We eye-balled the trail above us in order to give us a rough direction of travel and then went for it. Shoes with good grip and my hiking poles helped immensely to stop me from slipping more than a few inches in the melting snow. If I fell too far I’d probably have taken Jerry’s feet right out from under him too as he wasn’t far behind me.

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The trail after the snow field then got tough…and I mean one of the more nerve-wracking and steepest climbs I have ever done. I was amazed at how tough it was but also at how fast we managed to do it. Although it wasn’t 40 minutes we did make it to the top in 50! Now that was something I was proud of…and I still felt good and like I had energy. It was pretty freaking awesome.

We spent a few minutes at the top, hollering down the valley at Doug way below us, just a tiny dot on the trail, before turning west and heading down towards Pyramid Lake.

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We passed two alpine lakes immediately, one with a massive snow field to the side that looked like it would be fun to glissade down and fly off straight into the lake…if only it wasn’t so cold.

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We crossed the stream leaving the lakes and followed a rocky path down the valley for two miles before reaching a trail junction…and a bunch of tethered llamas! It was an odd site to walk on. From there we hiked another mile to Skull Lake where we made camp for the night at 4pm…a good time to allow for eating and relaxing.

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It was still warm and breezy and our tents dried quickly as we did camp chores. (We hadn’t had one morning where we woke up with dry tents…frozen, but not dry). Jerry had erected a large sign for Doug to see when he arrived in camp comprised of a dead-fall branch and his Ursack (I forgot to take a picture of it though). He wandered into camp a little before 6pm looking a little beat and voicing the same disbelief at the pass we had all just climbed, crossed and descended.

With dinner eaten we discussed the next day’s plans as I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm. We talked together as day faded to night, and waited for the moon to rise. We went to bed before it did.

Day 6

We were out of camp by 9am this morning with a short day ahead of us. We hiked only a mile before I emptied my pack, Doug pulled out his sleeping pad and umbrella, and Jerry and I made the 2.2 mile side trip up to Shadow Lake. Both of us wanted to hike more miles than the approximately 5 miles from one camp to the next.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we saw a group of 4-5 people with a loose dog that didn’t look like it was under control. We stepped way off the trail, more than 40ft (further than I usually do), and as usual I put Kye and Cody in the down-stay position. This dog barreled up to us and then after sniffing introductions the dog laid into Cody. I kicked the dog who backed off and Jerry grabbed my hiking poles from me and stood on the defensive. One of their group hurried over to get their dog and several of them apologized although I wasn’t exactly in a mind to accept it. (Forgive the rant here: Dogs should always either be on a leash if they are not under complete voice control at all times. I always think it’s a little sad that people feel like they have to thank me for having well-trained and well-controlled dogs).

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The hike to Shadow Lake was easy terrain and we made the 2.2 miles in 50 minutes. We passed or talked to several groups going up over Texas Pass and into the Cirque. The pass looked pretty intimidating…as steep, or steeper, than Hailey Pass and no maintained trail over the top. As we ate a snack and drank some of our water we could see two tiny dots that were people on the top of the pass. That is what we must have looked like to Doug when we were at the top of Hailey Pass.

Texas Pass is the saddle in the far left of the picture:

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We returned back to the trail junction to see Doug taking a nap under his umbrella. I ate lunch and then we headed down the trail for a few miles. It was a short day, mileage wise between camps, and we set up camp in Fish Creek Park. Still no wildlife to be seen anywhere…this certainly isn’t the Bighorns where I usually see a ton of wildlife.

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We talked and did camp chores, ate dinner and talked some more with some very interesting subjects coming up. Once the debates on some of the more popular conspiracy theories came out I kept my mouth shut…not a subject I generally get into as it can get pretty heated and I don’t argue a point without facts to back me up.

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We had the clearest night yet and spent a while watching the stars and the Milky Way appear overhead before finally retiring to bed for our last night.

Day 7

We woke up to an earlier-than-usual-sun due to our camp site location which was nice as our tents and sleeping bags were once again soaked. I ate breakfast and brushed my teeth in my tent as I let my sleeping bag dry in the warming sun. We were slow to get going (again) as we only had 4 miles to hike to the truck…and from there a few decisions were going to have to be made.

Jerry and I talked most of the way back as we followed an easy trail down a mild grade with very little in the way of the spectacular scenery we’d been seeing over the past few days. Doug mentioned he wanted to take his time and savor the last few miles we had left in the Wind River Range.

Jerry and I got back to my truck around 11am, removed our packs and I grabbed a much needed diet Pepsi…it tasted pretty awesome. We found a note on the windshield from Jeri and Wayne and we set off to find them in the campground, just next to the trail head. They had done some hiking while we had done the loop but Jeri had remained sick the entire time we had been gone although she was starting to feel better, finally.

Upon a brief discussion all agreed that a hotel, a shower and beer and burgers in Pinedale were definitely called for. After that had been decided (we already knew Doug’s opinion on the matter) Jerry went to wait for Doug by the privies so he didn’t walk all the way back to the truck at the other end of the parking lot as Jeri and Wayne packed up their camp.

While Jeri and Wayne packed up, and Doug threw his pack in the car, Jerry and I headed for my truck to go see if we could find my misplaced headlamp at the place we had camped the first night. We had no luck.

With no headlamp to be found (I did find it in the camper when I got home) we headed down the mountain towards Pinedale and I pointed out the original trail head we had planned on using (Scab Creek TH) which was much further out in the basin than Big Sandy TH. We agreed we had made a good choice in changing it.

The sign as we drove into Pinedale was pretty apt. It read “Pinedale: All the civilization you need”. After a week in the wilderness a small town was exactly what we needed to ease back into the world of motors and money.

The first stop in Pinedale was the liquor store during which time Jeri, Wayne and Doug must have passed us as they called us from outside the brewery, and they had originally been behind us. We drove to meet them and I made a few phone calls and managed to locate enough hotel rooms in the same hotel to accommodate us all for the night. With beer in tow we headed for the Gannett Peak Motel, and despite desperately needing showers we all opted for a cold beer or two first. Showers did follow quickly as we were all hungry and ready for a good meal and did not want to completely offend the Pinedale locals with the smell of the mountain and hard-earned sweat.

With everyone showered and in cleanish clothes we finally walked the couple of blocks to the Pinedale Brewery and Grill where everyone ordered the much-talked-about burgers, except for Doug who had been more vocal about steak (and Rocky Mountain Oysters but they weren’t on the menu). We were also joined by our motel neighbor, Ramone, who was heading out for his own solo trip in the Wind River Range the following day.

Burgers, beer and steak disappeared fast and the conversation flowed well. Dinner was followed by Jerry riding a moose and then a brief visit to the Cowboy Bar where we listened to the jukebox and played a couple of games of pool (Wayne and I won both games as a team). We headed back to the hotel shortly and all headed to our respective beds to get some much needed rest.

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Day 8

No one slept well last night. I think we all slept worse than we did on the mountain, which is saying something for me since I did a lot of cussing at my hammock quilt (such a small one is not recommended for ground sleeping).

Coffee was found across the street, as was a cold diet Pepsi. Bags were packed and loaded in vehicles, dried tents were folded and put away and final pictures were taken. Dogs pouted and sulked as they knew something different was happening with people they had bonded to. With not much left to do we said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes and I watched everyone drive away.

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It felt strange and kind of empty now that I was alone. I had spent 24 hours a day with Doug and Jerry for a week and we had certainly built a bond between the three of us with our shared time on the trail and the experiences we had. If this is what it feels like coming back to civilization after only a week on the trail, and creating amazing memories with new friends, I can begin to understand how it feels for a thru-hiker who has spent many weeks and months on the trail creating these relationships and then having to go back to “real life”.

Summary

The Wind River Range loop we did was brutal, beautiful and challenging but all those facets came together in the most amazing way to push me harder than I have ever been pushed before and also to learn how much more I can challenge myself. Depsite how tough it was there was never a moment in my mind I thought I would quit or couldn’t do it and I thrived on the challenge.

We had impeccable weather despite most nights dipping below freezing. We saw almost no wildlife (a couple of deer, multiple marmots and lots of squirrels and birds) which was surprising, but the majesty of the mountains mostly made up for it.

I created some friendships that I believe will last a lifetime and we are already talking about other trips together. This really was one of the most amazing weeks of my life and I look forward to repeating it in the future.

Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 1

Day 1

I awoke early to frost on the windows and a frozen water bowl for the dogs. I heaved myself out of the warm confines of my cozy bed to let the dogs out, brush my teeth and grab a diet Pepsi (my coffee). We were soon on the road and heading over South Pass at the southern end of the Wind River Range, and a well-known re-supply hub for CDT thru-hikers.

A right turn onto Lander Cut-Off, a well-packed dirt highway, would take us straight to the turn-off for Big Sandy trail head where I was to meet the others backpackers I would be hiking with but whom I had never met. The road was typical Wyoming dirt highway and it was safe and easy to drive at 40-50 mph, except on the frequent and often-unmarked curves. After 26 miles I took the right turn up to Big Sandy trail head. The road was slightly rougher but still a decent 20-30 mph road with a few washboards and some small rocks, but the views at the top were stunning.

I had planned on arriving early as the fishing looked promising in Big Sandy creek. After finding a good campsite 3/4 mile south of the trail head I checked the creek out for a hour or so using the 2-weight fly rod my dad had left in my care. Other than being completely thrown by the right-hand reel the fish just weren’t interested no matter what fly I cast out into the water. I could see a handful biting but just not where I was. The creek was wide enough that my 4-weight might have been a better choice for fishing. After just over an hour of attempting to catch a fish I gave up and went back to the truck.

I ate lunch and took the dogs to the creek to play since there were no fish biting and no fishermen to disturb. I threw sticks and rocks for them to chase and go after in the current (the sticks not the rocks) and Kye brought me at least half a dozen 1lb rocks that she had dragged out from the bottom of the creek, and not the ones I had thrown. With the dogs worn out and thoroughly soaked we headed back to the truck where I set up a chair, grabbed a beer, turned on the music and made bets with myself about when the others would arrive.

Arrive they did, right at 3:15pm (I had bet myself 3pm) and introductions were made as we talked and drank a few beers. (Despite comments on White Blaze not enough beer had been brought in their cooler). One by one everyone grabbed their packs to set-up tents and roll out sleeping bags and pads…I was the only one who didn’t as I was going to use and appreciate one more night in a bed with sheets and comforter in my truck. As dark settled over us we gradually dispersed to our sleeping areas, all excited and looking forward to the week-long adventure that lay ahead of us.

Day 2

Last night was slightly less chilly than the night before which was surprising since I believe the elevation was higher.

I awoke to the sounds of car doors slamming before the sun had peeked over the horizon. I think I was the last one out of bed, but the window coverings I use keep my truck a lot darker than the tents were. It was a slow start to the morning as everyone made their coffee or oatmeal, stretched, warmed up and eased their way into the day. Camp was packed up and we hit the trail head parking lot at 9am where we made good use of the privies before heading up the trail.

Doug and Jerry:

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With the exception of a few rocks and a couple of short, steeper sections the trail was easy hiking through old pine forests with a lot of ground debris and dead fall (not on the trail). We passed dozens of parties coming down the trail, pulling off to the side almost once a minute for the first hour. Couples, singles, groups with dogs…most of which also carried packs, and almost all of which were well behaved…hiked down as we hiked up. We took our first break at the half hour mark as Jeri was struggling slightly. It was a good place for a snack and we BSed for a while until everyone was ready to continue.

Wayne and Jeri:

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The trail remained mostly flat and easy to hike and I barely used my hiking poles…they began to feel like a useless appendage. Within another half hour Jeri was really having a hard time and we took another break with an amazing view of green meadows beside Big Sandy Creek. Sadly Jeri became unwell and decided to that she needed to rest a while before continuing. She told Doug (Huck), Jerry (Not Bad) and myself to continue. We left Jeri and Wayne and hiked on, all three of us feeling terrible about leaving them behind but also knowing what we had each committed individually to this trip, financially and emotionally. We committed to only hiking as far as Big Sandy Lake and waiting for them, camping the night there.

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So on we went, taking our time to meander the four easy trail miles, enjoying some stunning views in between the trees and taking breaks to refill water and BS. We all hiked at our pace and caught up with each other every 10 minutes or so. Jerry, with his long legs and tiny pack was way out front leaving the rest of us in the dust. I found myself in the middle of the pack hiking my normal moderate pace with a heavily loaded pack set up with seven days of supplies. Doug brought up the rear, enjoying a leisurely stroll.

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By 2pm we arrived at Big Sandy Lake and stopped to eat a late lunch as yet more groups passed our phenomenal lunchroom-with-a-view lake-side eatery. We looked at the map and got our bearings, picking out a good spot half way around the lake to stop for the night, flat and easily visible if and when Jeri and Wayne showed up.

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We picked our tent spots and got our tents up in between gusts of wind, and despite the rocky terrain the ground was surprisingly easy to put stakes in securely…always a nice thing to have. Sadly Doug’s tube of pesto sauce had leaked in his food bag and all over his now-smelly bear-resistant Ursack (so much for the smell-proof Opsak liner). At a suggestion he grabbed his soap and headed to the creek to at least try and get some of the oil and smell out before dinner (and no, he didn’t wash it in the creek).

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We had plenty of time to kill so we took pictures, I sent my check-in message to a friend via my InReach and we talked. We hoped we’d see our missing companions but none of us were optimistic, sadly, and all of us were bummed as this trip had been long in the planning.

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With evening drawing in we cooked and ate dinner as the wind remained strong and kept me a little chilled…the other two were fine. We debated about hanging food. We had Ursacks which are bear-resistant kevlar bags with odor-proof liners and can be tied to a rock or tree to prevent bears taking off with them. However, with the area known to have habituated black bears around we decided to try and hang them too…just to err on the side of caution. It was an interesting hang and definitely a team effort to get 3 7lb bags of food high into the chosen tree. On a positive note for me I managed a personal best for rock throwing…made it over the branch on my second throw. Yay me! Hope we still have food tomorrow or this is going to be a very short backpacking trip.

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After the bags were hung and camp was set for the night we looked at the map and brainstormed about the trail for the next day or two and made a rough plan, all the while still watching the trail across the lake for the others.

Finally it was too cold to be outside the tent and I crawled into my tent with the dogs and under my nice, snug quilt. Just as I was switching my socks for bed I got called back outside to watch the moon rise over the peak to the east…it was very cool to watch but tough to take a good picture of.

The guys talked for a while as lay in my tent writing…of course, being guys and knowing my feelings on bears (this trip was only going to be a possibility as a group trip for me) they tried growling, which I just snorted at. Then, of course they had to give me a hard time about not providing them with epic Dune Elliot reading material for the trip…something they had both asked for prior to the trip. Funny guys, and good entertainment too. They don’t know I hid peanut M&Ms under their tents for the bears to find!!!

Day 3

For some reason we seem to be slow getting started in the mornings. It might be something to do with it being damp and cold and it is hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and into cold clothes.

The view was just as stunning this morning as we packed up camp, retrieved food bags, ate breakfast and tried to warm up. The only bad thing about such an amazingly gorgeous location was the tougher-than-normal search for a private location to dig a cat hole!

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We were out of camp by 9am (again) and the trail immediately started out steep, turning and curving up some switchbacks before flattening out for a short time but the grade and foot-bed was generally pretty good…not the incessant rocks I’m often subjected to on less popular and more remote trails. Each step higher gave us more and more incredible views as we approached treeline. Every time we paused to look back at the view the cameras were immediately pulled out.

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There were a handful of other hikers on the trail but there were far fewer than yesterday. We finally asked a group of climbers to take a group picture of the three of us. We took our time, slowly climbing towards Jackass Pass that would lead us into the Cirque of the Towers. Each panorama was more spectacular than the last, although how I am not sure.

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We crossed the creek and bypassed the first lake as we looked down into its clear blue waters, which looked inviting but were bitterly cold. At the head of the lake we were half way to the top of the pass and we snacked and refilled with water before making the final push to the top. Another steep tail led up from the lake before once again flattening out for a short time before we reached our biggest challenge.

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Between us and the pass into the Cirque was another small lake. On one side was a solid wall of granite with a pretty deep snow shelf hanging above the water, on the other was a small boulder field followed by a large boulder field…this is where the trail went.

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Initially it wasn’t too bad as most of the boulders were hoppable and easy-ish to navigate. A short dirt trail led onward into another boulder field and then led up. This was no longer hiking…this was bouldering and climbing. The dogs did superbly although Kye got stuck in one place and almost fell into a hole…thankfully Doug was behind her…but she managed to extricate herself and move on. It had my heart pounding slightly as I couldn’t get to her quickly and she could have fallen. It was a pretty gnarly section of “trail” and we agreed to stop and have lunch before hiking the last half mile to the top.

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Some of these boulders were as big as trucks and small cabins:

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I gave the dogs a reprieve and removed their packs as they had done a lot of hard work in the boulder field. They took naps and we ate. It was the first glimpse we got of one of the towers that comprised the cirque. We also watched two rock climbers either climbing or repelling a seemingly sheer rock face.

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The last half mile was the steepest yet and nothing but loose sand and a few rocks. I was stopping often, not just to give my muscles a break but to visually inhale the view. Nothing up until that point compared to the towers, peaks and valleys of granite that assailed our eyes as we reached the apex of Jackass Pass (aptly named) and the beautiful Lonesome Lake at the base of the Cirque. It was too much to take in…there were just no words to describe what it looked like or how it made me feel to see. If I could imagine a cathedral God would create…that would be it.

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Feeling dumbstruck and slightly emotional we descended towards Lonesome Lake (the first test if how my knee was holding up, and it did good), stopping every five minutes again to take more pictures of the snow and intense fields of wild flowers that were still bright and blooming in vivid reds and yellows and blues at this time of year. It seemed surreal.

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We took yet another break at the edge of Lonesome Lake, trying to absorb the majesty of what we were surrounded by before covering the final two miles to our camping spot. A great trail, stunning views and good conversation helped the final 45 minutes disappear beneath our feet and we made it to the trail junction at about 4pm.

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We all scouted the area for suitable places to camp and I found one just south of the trail with several nice, flat tent spots:

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I got my tent up quickly, as did Doug and Jerry as we all needed them to dry out from the condensation and dew from the night before. We ate dinner, looked at the maps again, hung our food bags and then went to spend the final hours of daylight watching the sun set over the Cirque’s towers and listen to the bugling of bull elk next to the creek. It was a pretty amazing evening and we all went to bed tired.

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Day 4

We all awoke to the sounds of elk bugles this morning and were up and at ’em at 6:30am as I yelled at the guys in their tents. We had decided we wanted an early start as we had a big climb ahead of us and a long day. It was definitely cold and I tried to do as much stuff from the warmth of my sleeping bag that I could…it wasn’t enough and I still had to brave the frigid air for multiple things. I’m definitely a little jealous of the guys as they don’t feel the cold like I do.

The sun finally peaked over the tops of the trees as we were finishing packing up and the guys went to replenish water. I always do mine the night before so I don’t have to deal with more cold stuff in the mornings.

With water bladders and bottles full we started up the steep and grueling climb from Lizard Head Meadows to Lizard Head Pass. The trail started in trees but soon climbed above them for more views of the Cirque of Towers and dozens of other granite walls and peaks, valleys and lakes. We could see down to the place we camped and the probable location of the elk from the night before. Walls still towered above us and the alpine tundra soon lay before us, criss-crossed with natural springs and plenty of water (we had been a little worried before as some of the water sources were seasonal).

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Rocks and short-tufted grasses and low-scrub plants were abundant, with the plants starting to turn pretty fall colors of reds and yellows.

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We finally reached the top of Lizard Head Pass and a gently-graded but rocky path led us down the far side until we reached the bottom of another short but steep climb that circumnavigated Cathedral Peak and down the other side. We stopped for lunch to fuel up for the final climb of the day and it was then that Doug told us that he’d tweaked his knee and that it wasn’t doing so good. He was just going to take it slow and easy as we continued.

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Nap time while we waited for Doug:

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From Cathedral Peak we descended along the side of the hill to our first snow-field traverse. I picked my way across rocks for the most part on the near side of the snow as it seemed to be the easiest and safest route and had less snow to fall through. The snow was solid, though, albeit a little slick and Jerry and I made it safely to the bottom. Doug, on the other hand, chose a different route as he caught up with us and managed to slip twice and fall once…it was definitely graceful. Two thumbs up and a high score.

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Can you see Doug on the snowfield in the picture below?

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The trail followed the valley for two miles, high above the creek and I ran out of water half way down. Thankfully Jerry had caught up with me and helped me out with a little water.

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We reached a trail junction where we left signs and arrows for Doug to follow so he knew where we went and then headed past Valentine Lake were I chugged half a liter of water after filtering two liters. Jerry and I then quickly covered the last mile to Ranger Park, crossed a creek shoe-less which was uncomfortable, painful and cold to say the least…thank God for hiking poles. We found a gorgeous tent site…the best one of the trip so far…with an amazing view akin to Devils Tower. Doug showed up within the hour.

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As we were setting up camp two riders with pack horses veered off the trail to come and talk to us. Jerry, the sweet-talker that he seems to be, managed to wrangle three beers out of the riders who were heading up to Grave Lake, fulfilling our much talked-about interest in a cold beer while hiking this amazing place. It was awesome trail magic and a wonderful gesture, so thank you to the two kind gentlemen from Casper, Wyoming. There’s a reason I love this state and will always call it home.

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We ate dinner and watched a mule deer wander near to camp before hanging our food bags and talking for a while as the moon rose. It was a grueling but amazing day. A few coyotes and a couple of elk bugles were the farewell song of the day.

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