Part I: I Will See How It Looks When I Get There

“The route over Knapsack Col, really is just picking your own way. It is a bit southeast facing, but I think it is going to hold snow. You might be able to come to the head of Knapsack from Peak Lake, but not sure you are going to want to descend down. You’ll have to see how it looks when you get there.” –Meredith M., National Forest Service, Pinedale Ranger District

Looking back, from the base of Knapsack Col

The route over Knapsack Col into Titcomb Basin is not on the map, because it is an aspiration, not a route. To get here, I had already hiked over Lester Pass and Shannon Pass, which weren’t particularly difficult but now gave me pause to reflect on the difference between a “pass” and a “col.” Both indicate low points between peaks, but standing in the clouds as a rain began to whip around me, looking at the snow-white sheet of mountainside in front of me, I understood that you can pass over one, but probably not the other.

Most people get into Titcomb Basin by a direct route out of the Elkhart Park trailhead near Pinedale, WY, a two-day, fifteen-mile hike, but I’d taken the long way around: down Pole Creek to the Cook Lakes, up the Highline Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and off the top of my map to Peak Lake at the urging of Charles Kemp, an amazing human being (http://ckjournal.com). Charles had taken this route almost a decade ago, had inspired me to start backpacking when my time was finally right, has inspired me to many, many things. Everyone should have a Charles Kemp in their lives.

Shannon Pass

I researched Knapsack, and worried about the lingering snow, and worried about the steep eastern side, with or without snow. “I’ll give you my ice ax” Charles had cryptically written. I realize now–as in many things in my life–that what seemed cryptic to me was clear to everyone else.

I had crossed a couple from Kalispel on the trail, among the surprisingly few people I saw in eight days. They said they had just come from attempting to go over Knapsack, had made it to the top, but had turned around due to extensive snow on the other side. “It’s a 1,700 foot drop, and a 70 degree slope, and there’s an enormous cornice of snow running the width of the other side. But you look sporty; if you’re comfortable down-climbing and have an ice ax, you can probably make it.” That “probably”: you either do or you do not make it. I thought about that for a long time. And about Charles’s ice axe, which I did not have.

And now, facing the way up that Meredith from the Forest Service had expressed doubts about, well past the end of any trail, I realized that even if I did make it up this “easy” side of Knapsack, I would never make it down the “hard” other side. It was like standing before what I’d always imagined the Greenland ice pack must look like. Before turning around and heading back down to Peak Lake, I noted that there were unquestionably no tracks whatsoever left by anyone else who may have gone up Knapsack, including the couple from Kalispel. I really stood there a long time, scanning the snow, looking for proof that what I hesitated to do was possible, looking for someone else’s confirmation that I should continue on. But lacking that, I took a moment to take it in–the black rock faces, the unmarked snow field and mountainsides, the clouds and rain I was standing within, the glacier and waterfall to the south, close enough to touch. For a moment, I had everything I needed. Except an ice ax.

Peak Lake campsite. You can see my tent on the rise, just below the little copse of stunted trees, a bit right of center.

5 thoughts on “Part I: I Will See How It Looks When I Get There

    • We’d have blown right over the top and down the other side together, I’m sure. There are so many Class 2 peaks around there, you’d have a field day. Do you know I have now hiked a (small) segment of the CDT in 4 out of the 5 states it traverses?

  1. Copse and cul. I like new words like this because they are so relevant to me. On the coast a small group of trees is called a mott.

    • There’s actually a small town near here called Elm Mott. And there’s a scene in The Revenant where Fitzgerald is talking about his father finding refuge in a mott. Pretty cool. “Col” I have a fair amount of experience with, cycling in France. There, “col” and “passe” are the same thing, but when I backpack I’m always thinking about the people who tried to make the same passage before there were nice trails to follow, and why they would try to get through. What incredible strength they must have had.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s