My fourth night up I was furtively camping in a place I really shouldn’t have been, very near a trail juncture next to Gottfried Lake, which is really just melted snow trapped in a pocket between a bunch of mountains. The Forest Service asks that you not camp within 200 feet of a trail or water source, but this was the only flat spot I could find as night fell, and in the Winds there is water literally everywhere. Anyway, I hadn’t seen anyone for four days, and didn’t think my campsite was going to bother anyone.
But sure enough, the next morning just before sunrise I heard a noise coming down the trail, and judging by the racket it had to be somebody with a pack horse; there is not a creature in Nature that makes that much noise. I just laid there in my sleeping bag, listening to these rocks getting kicked and things banging around, and I thought “geez, it’s not even light yet; this guy would have had to have gotten on the trail hours ago.” So I popped out of my tent in the faint light, and met the world’s clumsiest mule deer. If there was a rock in his path he stumbled over it, and I swear he actually tripped a bit at one point. But then he looked up and realized he was not alone, and instantly assumed a more deerlike demeanor and bounded off.
I think this is the latest in the year that I’ve ever taken an extended hike, and I was worried about the cold. After “do not break a leg,” “do not die of hypothermia” is next on my list of solo hiking rules. The forecast just before I left was for lows in the mid-20’s in Jackson, and I’d be higher up so I was a little intimidated. But it wasn’t that bad, and I was beginning to doubt that it was even freezing most mornings until I noticed the inside of my tent was covered in thick frozen frost.
It is just cool to walk in these places. I simply like to walk. There is no logic to it. I carry just what I need to live for however long I plan on being out, and then I walk in these amazing places we are blessed with in this country. You see wondrous things, and if you are fortunate meet wonderful people. The picture above is near Elbow Lake, and those are called “glacial erratics.” The big one in the foreground, the one that looks like the chair in George Jetson’s living room, is taller than me–you have to re-set your references for everything in the mountains. A glacial erratic is a big rock that a glacier just left in some preposterous spot many thousands of years ago, and this part of the Winds is littered with them. You look at these giant rocks that couldn’t have fallen from any nearby peak or been pushed there by a river, and you just shake your head and say “how did this get here?,” and you feel so fortunate to be there.
I was disappointed with myself this trip. I am constantly so grateful for my body; it does amazing things for me, carries my brain where it desires to go. But I found I was moving at a glacial pace the first few days; I kept saying “any slower, and physics won’t be able to explain your forward motion, George.” I resent growing old, although I accept it. But then near the end, somewhere above Palmer Lake near Doubletop Mountain, I looked back and saw where I’d been two days before (the little arrow above the peak in the middle), and thought only “How did I get here?”
So, about those bears: I could be wrong. I came across this pile of black bear poop (the bear is black, not the poop) somewhere along the trail between Summit Lake and Dean Lake, which is a new part of the Wind River Range for me. That scat looks like it’s at least 5-6 days old–I’m not showing off my mountainman skills by saying that, it’s just that I’ve seen still steaming-fresh black bear poop before and I’m extrapolating from that. Still, you don’t see the fauna here you see almost constantly in more protected national park backcountry such as Glacier. In a single day there I have seen close-up mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, deer, bear, eagles, and elk. Here, I am fortunate to see poop.
I deeply enjoy being in a place where I am not the apex predator. And I don’t need to actually see them, I just like knowing that they are there, and that they are so much better at being there than I am. It keeps you humble, and helps you find your place in the world you are passing through. They are to me a natural resource, like timber or oil, but worth so much more than their meat or mounted head. When they are gone, they are truly gone. And with them, a part of who we are as a species.
In the Winds you can get up high and be alone fairly quickly, but it’s a lot of work first to get there. I’ve always said things don’t turn cool until you’re at least one day out from a trailhead, but even before that long first day’s lightening-filled night I knew I was pretty alone. That’s the attraction of hiking solo in wild places, the knowledge that a certain amount of risk is present, and no one to help you if things go wrong. But then once you’re actually out there, all you can think is “don’t mess up.” I don’t know how many times I repeated to myself this trip “Solo Hiker’s Rule Number 1: do not break a leg.”
I sort of mis-calculated the effort involved in “getting up high” this year; I made only eight miles horizontally my second day, but 2,000 ft. vertically following Clark Creek. Once you leave the valley of the New Fork River, the entire rest of your day is spent walking uphill until you get to the ridge above Clark Lake. I had expected colder weather, and so my pack was a little fuller than usual with extra calories and foul weather gear, and believe me when I say that the longer you walk uphill, the heavier each extra ounce becomes. But as relieved as I was at that point to finally stop walking uphill, when I got to the top and saw the mountains before me that I was headed for dusted in fresh snow, I reflexively said “oh shit.”
Well, no, you’re not. This was my third trip to the Wind River Range, and I promise you there are probably no resident Grizzly Bears. There are Black Bears in there somewhere, but you’re probably also not going to see one. This is the difference between a National Park and a National Forest. More on this later. I’ve flown in to Jackson Hole each trip and rented a car for the hour and a half drive south following the Hoback River down to Pinedale. It is a strange drive, because the Hoback is right next to the highway and in places you will appear to be driving uphill yet the river is clearly flowing the same way. I’ve yet to figure out the physics on this. But it’s a beautiful drive, an overwhelming place. It is all mountains and surprising prairies between them and austerity. Wyoming is not yet conquered.
That night there was a lightening storm, and it was so cool to be right up there in it. From inside my little tent, it’d flash and it was like it was right there, like right there outside. You got to hear Nature come at you.
The next morning I lay there in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to rise above the surrounding mountains and warm things up. I’m sort of a pussy about getting up cold and wet if I don’t have to, so I just lay there, waiting for something so much bigger than me to get things going. But I finally crawled out into the wet morning, knowing I’d get soaked just walking a few feet to pee. And then that sun came up in that clear, clear sky above the mountains all around me. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening: I could see steam or smoke or mist rising on the other side of the stream, but I didn’t understand what it was. But I watched it coming my way, like a wave, like a wall–a wall of fog rising with the advancing morning sun. It was an amazing way to wake up.
“If ever I should tell the moment: Oh, stay! You are so beautiful! Then you may cast me into chains, then I shall smile upon perdition!” Faust’s deal with the Devil, from Faust, Goethe.
“Don’t come back early.” I had just told my wife I was going to miss her as she dropped me off at the airport at 5 a.m. for my trip back to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, so her farewell had the taste of “come home carrying your shield, or on it.” We’ve been married a long time and I knew what she really meant, so I silently translated that to “enjoy your trip, don’t worry about me.” She’s funny that way.
My starting point was the Green River Lakes trailhead, about 80 miles south of Jackson, Wyoming. On Wyoming trail maps they call flat areas by rivers “parks” and claim they are great places to camp, and so I’d planned my first night’s stop at a place called Beaver Park. The trail is unremarkable, with the exception of Squaretop Mountain off to the west, which caused me to hear an endless mental loop of the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind during the entire hike.
After about five hours of walking, a sharp pain had mysteriously begun in my right knee–it’s the only part of my body that has never hurt at one time or another up until now–and when I arrived at Beaver Park it was occupied by a large pack train run by rough women. No beavers were sighted. Feeling out of place and crowded, I continued on. By the time I got to Three Forks Park two miles further on, my knee wouldn’t take any more and I decided to camp. Amazingly, the one flat, dry area I could find in what turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp had someone’s bag of food suspended directly over it in a tree, where bears couldn’t get to it. There was no one around to claim it, but I wasn’t going to camp directly underneath bear-bait, and so finally found a tiny spot of grass right next to the river and passed out without eating. I’d covered 13 miles of trail my first day, and the only thing I had eaten was a bag of pretzels on the airplane.
When I awoke the next morning for my first full day of hiking, the knee felt fine. I ate last night’s bag of dinner for breakfast–I recommend that everyone eat lasagna for breakfast at least once in their life–and took off for Vista and Cube Rock Passes. The Vista Pass Trail isn’t used very often because it takes you to only one place, and then once you get there it is even more difficult to get out of. The pass is a 2000-foot altitude gain in perhaps a mile and a half of walking, but as I said it is not much of a trail and the higher you go the less trail you’ll find. But I worked my way up the boulders, and could see above me where the pass topped-out.
Vista Pass Trail, lower and upper
Suddenly, sitting there in the shade of some very big boulders, were three fit older hikers, just sort of relaxing while one of them stared at their map. “Excuse me, but do you think we may have missed the trail to Vista Pass?” I promise you, when you think you’re lost, your brain dispenses with pleasantries until it gets the only important question out of the way. I told them they were in the right place although it might not have looked like it at the moment, and that I could actually see a bit of trail and the top of the pass, although they sounded doubtful when I tried to get them to see what I saw in the boulders above.
I’m always amazed at the wonderful people I meet once I’m at least one night out from the trailhead. “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?” said one without the map, even though he thought he was lost. He told me that as a teenager he’d hiked into the Winds from the WR Indian Reservation on the east side, all the way up Glacier Trail to the Divide and all its glaciers, and that now he was finally back. “I’m 68 now, so this is sort of a last hurrah” he laughed. “Speak for yourself, old man!” yelled across the rocks the third, a woman. “No last hurrahs for me yet.” He explained that she was from South Africa, as though that explained her.
Anyway, I told them I was heading that way, so if they saw me make it over the top they’d know it was the right trail; otherwise, I’d come back because I’d be lost, myself. Halfway up, in sight of the pass over the top, I realized we couldn’t see the trail because it was covered with a recent avalanche, and that the boulders I was scrambling over were moving and unstable. I’d reach and jump from one rock to another–not a childlike maneuver with a 35-pound pack on your back–and occasionally one would move slightly, and I’d be aware that the whole mountainside could just continue it’s way on down any moment it chose. I did finally make it over the top, but never saw them again.
The place Vista Pass takes you is Peak Lake and the source of the Green River, which eventually becomes the Colorado River. But people aren’t going to Peak Lake, they’re going to try and go over Knapsack Col above Peak Lake. I tried last year, but the snow turned me back.
What you get a lot of going to Knapsack Col is liars. On the 18 miles or so of trail up the Green River to Vista, I passed three other small groups. You run into backpackers in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly it is some kind of competition. “Where are you headed?,” they ask fake-innocently, “Knapsack? Us too!” I’m not the strongest hiker on the trail, but I looked at them and instantly thought “oh, heck no you’re not.” I never saw any of them again, either.
Amazingly, after I’d made it over Vista and Cube Rock Passes and was on my way down to Peak Lake, I met a woman at precisely the point where the only other trail coming into Peak Lake met my trail. After who knows how many dozens of miles in the backcountry, we each arrived at the precise point where we could neither avoid nor ignore each other, and I immediately saw that same look of fear I see every trip when a young woman alone encounters an old scruffy guy alone. “Did you just come over Shannon Pass?” I asked just to be polite; it was the only way she could have possibly come. “No, I’m doing Shannon tomorrow. I think I came over Vista, and then Knapsack.” I tried to get it straight in my mind, explained that the trail she was coming down came over Shannon (I came that way last year), and that Knapsack was across the ford below us and then up the Ice Age-looking valley after. “The rest of my party will be here any minute” she lied, really uncomfortable there in the middle of the mountains and glaciers and no one else except a strange man.
I made my camp that evening just beneath Stroud Glacier and the enormous waterfall pouring out of it as it melts. I had seen it last year, and thought “who’d want to camp with that constant roar?” But it was exactly where I needed to camp this year to be ready to try Knapsack early the next morning, and so when I stopped there this year the only negative I could find was a very bold marmot that was obviously going to try and steal my food the instant I turned my back if I camped there. This turned out to be that central moment I experience on each of my trips: when you start walking, everything is a jumble. You are still thinking about your life and the world and all the transient problems, and you just have this persistent feeling of being off center. And then you have this instant of perception, a moment where suddenly everything becomes clear, and the scene composes itself around you, as though that precise moment has suddenly become a snapshot, and you are so extraordinarily content. The trail, the glacier, Knapsack, myself–everything was so clear to me, both in its relation to me and taken alone. Except that marmot. He was a problem. And my knee had suddenly locked up again.
Knapsack Col is sort of famous, mostly because it is the only way out of or into the back end of Titcomb Basin–one of the most incredible places you will ever see on this continent. You can hike into Titcomb’s front end, but unless you’re willing to risk going over Knapsack, you just have to turn around and walk out the way you came in. Going up Knapsack from the west was not easy, but I didn’t really give myself a choice this time. I thought “other people have done it; there is no reason I cannot do it.” Last year I turned back because of the weather, but this was an extraordinarily beautiful day. So I made it over and down, and am proud of that and will never have to do that again. At the bottom, I met the only CDT through-hiker I’d cross this entire trip. He asked some questions about Knapsack, and I said I was glad I’d done it west-to-east because I didn’t envy anyone going over the other way–his direction. “It is straight up a scree slope, about 70 degrees, with that big snow cornice on the other side. Just big boulders down the back, also steep” which is what he said he had heard. When I told him that I hadn’t met any other through-hikers, he said forlornly “I’m all alone,” and I realized how late it was in the season to still be so far south. I met some hikers three days later who had seen him, and he was bloodied and torn from that scree ascent, but on he walked toward Canada.
There isn’t a trail at all between Knapsack Col and the end of Titcomb Basin; you cross a big snow field, and then snow turns to water flowing over rocks the lower down you go, and then you are basically walking down a waterfall. My knee had felt amazing once I understood I had made it over the pass, and I made very good time–ahead of schedule, even–as I met the trail and headed out of the Basin. But the knee suddenly hurt again, right around my tenth hour of walking, and so I found a wonderful campsite in a spot that had seemed totally inhospitable to me when I passed the year before. Outside my tent, just before retiring, I sensed again that feeling of sufficiency, of each thing clearly in relation to each other. And then a bald eagle, which I had not even seen until then–which is not easy to miss because it’s a really big bird and the sky was mountain clear–dropped straight down out of the sky like the finger of God and killed something for dinner, reminding me that even when you feel a scene composing itself around you, to never let down your guard.
I shot out of the front end of Titcomb the next morning and turned back north, up the Fremont Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and before I realized it was already on the section that cuts west across the Elbow Lake plateau to Summit Lake. The knee felt fine, fantastic even . . . until, again, it suddenly stiffened and stopped in the middle of perhaps the least welcoming landscape I have ever seen.
When you stop and look and listen hard at Elbow Lake, you understand what it feels like to be truly alone. It is as if the Ice Age has just ended, the glaciers receded, and you are all that is left. I have rarely heard such silence, and I realized that despite the great amount of water up there, there was no sound of running water. No wind. Only rock. And mosquitoes. I finally found a small patch of flat, rocky soil to pitch my tent on, prepared dinner, and took a moment to be grateful for the experience. And then I took another moment to laugh at the mosquitoes. They had been of Biblical proportions last year, but this year I was ready for them. It took considerable mental re-training to allow dozens of mosquitoes to gather on the netting inches in front of my face, and understand that I did not need to swat them away.
When I awoke the next morning, the knee felt fine. Reasoning that if I had injured it, it would hurt worse as time went by rather than feel better each morning, I decided to continue on. “The worst that can happen is that you will die” I said, and that is not much of a threat when the issue is that you are too old.
Several hours of trail later, I did not realize that I had reached Summit Lake. I knew only that I had suddenly come upon a scene from a more beautiful world, something before us. After the severity of the Elbow Lake landscape, it was like walking into a Luminist painting. Faust would have spent eternity in Hell had he even murmured “make this moment last forever,” and although I was way ahead of schedule and had plenty of daylight left to cover more miles and build up a cushion if the knee gave out, I stopped long enough to allow life to stand still a brief moment.
I met three very friendly hikers, based lower down and out for a long day-trip with lighter packs. When they asked where I was headed, and I answered “I’d like to get as far as Summit Lake,” there was an awkward pause as they stared at me blankly, and then informed me that I had arrived. I could not believe I had come that far that fast, but they were correct. I should have taken note, because this was going to be a problem later.
From Summit I passed quickly “No Name Lake,” which is the actual name of the lake on the map, leaving me to wonder what they call lakes that have no name (there are plenty up high). I was so unbelievably ahead of schedule that I stopped for a real lunch at Cutthroat Lake–boots off, food you need to eat with a spoon, fill up the water bladder, maybe take the shirt off and get a little tan.
No sooner had I found a comfortable spot to relax by the lake than an angry front of black clouds roared over the tops of the surrounding mountains, pelting me with enormous rain drops. During the frenzy to don my rain gear, a barrage of marble-size hail began to fall, and it seemed strange to get hit with balls of ice when it was only in the 60’s. The storm of course ended as soon as I had all my rain gear on, but somehow its passage made the lunch seem more delicious.
At Palmer Lake the trail turned north again, and I planned to camp that evening just after my trail’s wishbone juncture with parallel trail coming in from the other side of the mountains to my left at a place on the map called “New Fork Park.” I felt great; the knee felt great. At 5 pm I came upon another one of those Luminist scenes, a site so beautiful, so still yet full of potential, so pre-mankind, that I considered stopping early and camping there. But I knew I had at least another hour of walking before I reached New Fork Park, and there was still plenty of light, and so I walked on.
And on. And on. At 6 pm I thought “I should be there by now.” I knew there was a ford just before the park, and finally by 6:20 I crossed it. But then it was 6:45 with nothing but steep slopes, and then another ford where there shouldn’t have been one, and I understood that somehow I had missed my turn. Miraculously, I stumbled upon a lovely woman camped in a niche off the trail, and she confirmed my mistake. She was older, perhaps my age, with a beautiful ponytail that ran down her back past her waist. She asked where I’d come from, and when I said I’d slept the night before at Elbow Lake she said “you poor thing, you’ve gone a long way today (a little over 13 miles),” and invited me to share her campsite in the fading light. Despite this being a variation of every guy’s backcountry fantasy come true, I had distance to make up: I’d passed my turn by three and a half miles, and New Fork Park was the inviting spot I had wished I had time to camp at. I made it three miles back before nightfall, camping just the other side of the ford I had made, sharing my spot in the woods with a young moose and a really big deer, each of which walked through my campsite with a total lack of concern.
I had been worried about Porcupine Pass the next day: I knew that Knapsack looked easy on the map but wasn’t, but it turned out that Porcupine looked difficult but was relatively easy. Coming into Porcupine Pass from the south, there is a fairly steep and wooded trail to what looks deceptively like the top of the pass. But arriving at the top, you realize that you have reached simply the first step, a beautiful alpine meadow where grazing herds of elk are quite easy to imagine.
Across the meadow and up the last level to the top of the pass, where the wind suddenly roared above the shelter of my leeward side of the mountains. I had to lean into it to look down the steep other side, and the way down.
Standing at the top of Porcupine Pass and looking down, I thought “this is my last ‘down.’ I’ll not be going up again, at least not on this trip,” and so I took an extra moment or two in that blasting wind to take it all in one last time, and then started the trail down and home.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the bottom and the Porcupine Creek drainage. My knee felt fine. I stopped for lunch at a stream crossing in the shade, and the deer that wandered literally right in front of me as I leaned against a rock was more surprised than I was, although it seemed entirely proper that we were each there.
I flew down the trail after lunch; I felt free. My knee felt great, and I knew I was moving fast, very fast. Until suddenly, still inexplicably, the knee simply stopped. By good fortune I was in a beautiful place to stop; it would have been a beautiful place to stay forever, but I decided to take a nap. I have never taken a nap on the trail. But I took my last two ibuprofens, put on my raingear and mosquito netting so that I could sleep insect-free, pulled my pack under my head as a pillow so that nothing would be tempted to steal my food, and curled up on my side on the cushioned forest floor, surrounded by pine trees, and beyond them the river, and beyond that those mountains.
When I awoke, I felt good enough. I was now more than a full day ahead of schedule, despite the knee. Between the layers of DEET and sunscreen and a week of sweat and grime and inadvertently peeing in my right boot and face due to poor decision making in a strong wind up in Titcomb, I really needed a shower. Even my left index finger smelled like bad cheese, something I noticed my next-to-last day while sucking water out of my hydration tube, and I began anticipating that extra day in a hotel, with a bed and a bath. But it would have been useless to make it to the trailhead this late in the day: it would take a couple of hours to drive out and find a hotel, too late to get clean and then find some meat and beer, and so I camped at the foot of Green River Lake.
That last morning as I broke camp, I went through my usual routine. Everything one step at a time, everything in its place so that nothing is misplaced. I irritate even myself, because I’m so slow getting out of camp every morning. I boiled water for my coffee, and as I broke down the stove and put away the gas canister I thought again “this is the last time I’ll do this on this trip. This is perhaps the last time I’ll do this, ever.”
And then suddenly, as if by magic, I realized that unseen spiders had in an instant spun single-strand gossamer webs horizontally from pine tree to pine tree–hundreds of them between the trees, all seemingly perpendicular to the sun’s rays, all spun only between my spot on the spinning Earth and the lake and rising sun–as though created simply to catch the morning light streaming over the mountains and glisten to my eye alone.
Somewhere there was a waterfall that had roared all night, but I hadn’t really heard it until then because I couldn’t see it, and I suppose by then I was used to the sound of constant waterfalls. Standing there, I thought “please God, I know I haven’t seen a soul in two days, but don’t let anyone come down the trail just now and see me like this.” There’s a line in “A River Runs Through It,” my favorite book: “What a beautiful world it was once,” a wistful reminder of the transience of things. I would not hold a moment forever, not ask Life to stand still. But suddenly that is all I could think about, this beautiful world, and the line repeated itself, over and over, as I walked out and home
“Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence.” Thomas McGuane, Weather
Where I live, we do not observe the changing Autumn leaves with melancholy, or wait out the cold, dark Winter, or burst with life at the coming of Spring. We have days short and reasonably cold, and then days long and unreasonably hot. But I know there are seasons up high, and my year turns around following the melting snow, and beating the first flakes of September, and seizing the moments between that new life and the long, silent sleep that follows. You can confirm an entire life in that breach.
And here I am, inside my tent, waiting out the rain. Wind River surprised me with the quantity of water I’d have to deal with, water in every facet of your day. Rivers to ford. Melting glaciers pouring water across and along the trail. Biblical plague-level mosquitoes. And light rain showers every evening as the clouds spun by mountains cooling at the end of the day.
Backpacking is full of ironies. I stop to rest in the shade during a long hike, worried that I won’t find a good place to camp before nightfall, and suddenly realize that there are no mosquitoes, there is a breeze across this small patch of flat ground, and I am sitting in a perfect spot to pitch my tent. And the instant my tent is up, the breeze stops and mosquitoes swarm. They are undeterred by pants and long-sleeves, requiring me to don my rain gear to eat. They cover my spoonful of food before it reaches my mouth, and blowing them off just sends one up my nose. I blink, and trap one squirming between my eyelids. Ironic.
Wind River mosquitoes do not care where you are. There are mosquitoes in mountain passes. There are mosquitoes in the morning, at noon, and at night. There is a smaller species that swarms the instant you stop moving, requiring you to pace back and forth to eat your dinner at the end of the day, when all you want to do is sit down and rest. And there is a larger, malevolent species which you will not see until you are zipped safely inside your tent. You will look out the mesh entrance, and they will have covered it and filled the tent foyer, waiting until you need to come out to pee. In Wind River, you will have the unanticipated opportunity to kill a mosquito with a snowball.
I hadn’t realized it from my reading or from studying the map, but there are two roaring rivers pouring into Island Lake, both of which you will have to ford. You cannot believe the quantity of water released by the melting snow up high. You see entire mountainsides covered in snow, and waterfalls at their bases pouring out millions of gallons of melt-water, without a hint of diminishing snow cover. As I came up to the first ford, there was a guy standing there, eyeing me suspiciously, which is a strange sensation when you feel so entirely immersed in original innocence and wonder. I greeted him, noticed that he was wearing a holstered Glock handgun, with the safety snap undone. I wanted to know why anyone would feel the need to carry a weapon in this place, but kept my mouth shut. I marveled at the irony.
We talked about where we were standing, about the mountains, and he was amazed that I was solo. “Aren’t you afraid?” I just said “no,” but didn’t ask of what. As I started to leave, he said “wait a minute, I want to show you something,” and pulled out his iPhone to show me pictures of his trip last year to Yosemite as we stood there, surrounded by mountains. Ironic.
To make it out and back home, I needed to leave my hidden campsite above Island Lake on Saturday, which would get me within a day’s hike of the trailhead that evening, my car, and the two hour drive to the airport at Jackson and my plane home. I woke up at sunrise, thought “there’s no rush today, I’ll sleep another hour,” but when I woke again I could hear light rain falling. It is not easy crawling out of a cozy tent into rain, so I lay there another 15 minutes. Unfortunately enough time for a wall of cold air to pass through my plateau and bring on a hard rain. Now I was suddenly in trouble.
Luckily I’d slept with my pack inside my tent (I was not worried about bears; this would never have worked in Glacier National Park), and was able to pack all my gear while covered. But once I started taking down the tent, my shelter itself would get soaked, and I didn’t want to try and sleep inside a wet tent that night. And so I waited, angry at myself for sleeping in, watching the time, setting a limit of 11 a.m. if I was going to get far enough to make it out the next day.
I think about a lot of things as I walk, but mostly I think “don’t mess up.” You feel so small and insignificant surrounded by mountains indifferent to your existence. You feel humbled by water that shapes rocks over spans of time incomprehensible to you. Backpacking solo is a very selfish enterprise, and it is a gift to be able to receive that kind of understanding. But during the time alone you understand how many people you carry along with you, and how some depend on you coming safely back. And so at 11 a.m. sharp, rain still pouring down, I angrily got out of my tent, broke it down–rain-soaked and heavy–and headed down the drainage, back onto the map, and down the trail out. Five minutes later, the rain stopped.
I’m standing near the deep end of Titcomb Basin, a tiny, tiny speck surrounded by these enormous mountains, feeling like the Ice Age never ended, and a twenty-year old girl saw instantly who I was: “Did you have an ice axe?”
After turning around at the foot of Knapsack Col, I’d hiked back down toward Peak Lake, past Stroud Glacier and its thundering waterfall. I’d heard that there was a great campsite up there, but who’d want to sleep with that constant roar? Fifteen miles later, I came into Titcomb through the front door, like a normal person. And here I was, once again, well past the end of the actual trail, seeing what that “hard” side of Knapsack was going to look like when I ran into some of those rare, incredible people you meet far from the trailhead.
I hadn’t seen anyone except a Forest Service trail maintenance crew since passing Island Lake, so I was surprised to see these two coming out of the dead-end of Titcomb, each carrying full-size climber’s packs, at least a 70-lb load. “Did you guys just come over Knapsack?” I asked, because I thought that was the only way into that deep end of Titcomb. I suddenly felt guilty about aborting my own attempt. He was tiny and dry and wiry and smiling and very alive, and standing there like he was walking the dog with that pack on his back. “No, we just did Gannett,” which did not compute at the moment, because Gannett Peak is the highest point in Wyoming at 13,810 feet, and would have required going straight up from there to the Continental Divide through all that snow that had stopped me lower down, navigating between Mammoth, Dinwoody, and Mirror Glaciers and over Glacier Pass, and then summiting Gannett. With those packs. Did I mention that he was at least 70 years old?
That’s when I explained my attempt on the other side, and the girl–who I’m going to assume was his granddaughter–looked straight into my eyes and asked the question which I had learned by this point was obvious: no, I did not have Charles’s ice ax. I am thinking hard, but I can’t recall ever meeting women like this anywhere other than far past a trailhead. For some reason, she made me think of Sandra Day O’Connor, a woman who knew precisely who she was. Grandfather cut the tension when I explained that it had been two days earlier, when the storm passed. “Oh, yes, that was a heck of storm to be up high. We were up on Dinwoody and had to come all the way out. Let me tell you, we drank some brews that night!” That’s the second time an old-timer has mentioned the joy of beer after a long spell up high ( https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/georgeschools.wordpress.com/2336 ), making me feel much better about my own love of beer. If I can just end up like these guys, I’ll be alright. He had that pure, unpretentious love for being alive, being outdoors, for the gift of beer. Or, as Barry Lopez wrote of the Eskimos, “that quality of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive.” The girl just stared at me silently, a look of contempt tinged with pity, and I loved her for that.
I am always amazed at the trails in our National Parks and Forests. I look at them and think “how did they ever do this?” So I was happy to run into the trail crew earlier on my way in. I stopped and talked to the guy who appeared to be in charge–he seemed slightly older and had the fullest, bushiest beard. There were two pack horse trains there in the process of resupplying them, and I watched these 20-somethings digging and lifting and working together, smiling in the rain and mud. He asked where I was going, said they’d be there three days and then move to another section, we talked about the trail, and I thanked him for what they were doing, which seemed to surprise him. “Hey, do you have any recommendations for a good place to camp down there?” I asked as I was leaving. You’d be surprised, but you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere. You need some flat ground, access to water, but you have to obey the rules and stay at least 200 feet away from a trail or a lake. “Well, right there at the eastern tip of the lake, there’s a little trail veering off from the main trail that’s not on the map. Follow it up, and a mile or two in you’ll find a really cool spot.” Excited, I thanked him and the crew again, started to take off, and then he paused, looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and asked “do you have a good map?” I knew what was coming. I was so happy. I felt like I had just been accepted into the cool kids group.
He told me to keep going when that trail ran out. Just keep going, higher and farther, following the drainage, which actually turned out to be more like hiking up a waterfall. He said “you’ll eventually camp overlooking Wall Lake, there definitely won’t be anyone else, and it will be amazing.” Trail people are amazing.
“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
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.
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.