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.