Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Twelve Rounds with Mother Nature
They're called the "Wind Rivers" for a reason.
Over Labor Day weekend 2016, I hiked a marvelous route in a marvelous mountain range. The Wind River Range of Wyoming is Wyoming's tallest, largest, most remote mountain range - and that's saying something given the competition. The Winds are a quintessential backpacking destination and rank near the top of any hiker's bucket list. With a map, a plan, and a three day weekend, I had the perfect opportunity - sort of.
The weather was forecasted to be a bit unsettled, as mountain weather often is. My route climbed Temple Pass and Jackass Pass (yes, I know, the twelve year old inside of you is giggling right now) on-trail. In addition, my route headed off-trail over little-known "Coon Lake Pass" as well as the crown jewel of the southern part of the range, Wind River Peak. At 13,000+ feet, it towers above everything in its neighborhood. Aside from Wind River Peak, the route also passed through the Big Sandy Lake area, the upper Little Sandy watershed, Pinto Park, and the legendary Cirque of the Towers. It was to be a tour de force of the southern Winds.
The long, long drive instantly set a tone for the trip. The trailhead itself lay fifty miles beyond the edge of pavement. But despite the remote nature of the trailhead, the road was busy. Several hundred cars packed the parking lot when I arrived at dusk. I set up my shelter near the parking lot and tried to fall asleep as an evening thunderstorm rolled through and cars drove in and out of the parking lot all night. It was clear that this would not be a solitary adventure.
Or would it? I was up with the birds the next morning and started hiking early. I walked alone on a well-trod trail. The miles passed quickly, and soon I found myself at Big Sandy Lake. I turned off of the main trail and onto a side trail - one that would lead up to Temple Pass. I wandered my way around the lake and bushwhacked up for a few hundred vertical feet until I regained the trail. As I ascended the trees thinned, then disappeared. Alpine lakes started appearing, each more majestic than the last. The wind speed increased, and those puffy white clouds transformed into billowing gray clouds. As I neared the crest of the pass, thunder boomed from the west. I raced down the steep south side of the pass on a sketchy trail as graupel and hail began to fall.
As I neared the base of the pass, I skirted small alpine tarn. Trees began to reappear, and a trail began to emerge as the brush got thicker. Hail and rain continued on and off, and thunder continued to rumble from all directions. My lunch stop was abbreviated by the weather, as I opted to keep moving to beat the worst of the weather.
I was searching for a very specific spot, a break in the cliffs to my east as I continued south. I had scouted a pass on the map but wasn't sure if it was doable. I scrambled up a steep embankment, around large boulders, through some thick brush, and over and under fallen trees. Picking my way carefully, I kept ascending, and soon found myself at the top of the pass, the only navigable gap in a ten-mile-long sheer ridge. I named it "Coon Lake Pass" in honor of the lake to my east - my next destination.**
The rain and hail continued off and on for most of the afternoon, as I descended to Coon Lake, and then farther down, on-trail now, to a meadow at 10,200'. Although I had several hours of daylight remaining, I opted to camp as low as possible and in a sheltered location due to the threat of the weather. I ate what must be the nastiest dinner of all time. It was so repulsive, in fact, that I could not physically choke down all of it. Stuffing mix, prepared with sausage bits and tomato powder may sound delicious, but it tastes like something that leaked out of the sarcophagus at Chernobyl. For your own sake, just don't. Ever. Please, I'm begging you.
My dim view of the weather was well-founded. It stormed through most of the night, and I was glad to be cozied up in a thick forest as lightning crashed off the high peaks. The rain and thunder subsided a few hours before dawn. As you might imagine, I didn't get too much sleep.
I woke to dreary, overcast skies and low-hanging clouds. I packed up my stuff and climbed 800 feet to Toyo Lake, at the foot of Wind River Peak. Clouds hovered a mere 200 feet above the surface of the lake, and it was clear that my ascent of Wind River Peak would be a zero-visibility climb. But I didn't have many good options - an ascent of Wind River Peak was the only non-technical route to where I was going, and waiting until later in the day would only increase the chances of a lightning storm. I began my ascent into the clouds.
At times, I could only see twenty feet in front of my face. Once in a great while, the clouds would clear enough for me to see a few hundred yards. They lay thick and heavy on the peak, graupel and mist stinging my cheeks as the wind howled. Wind River Peak, while probably not a hard peak in good weather, challenged me. It was nothing more than a large, steep pile of boulders - a pile that became a wee bit slippery when wet.
Unable to make out any terrain features, I navigated with compass alone and sooner or later ended up near the summit. I don't know exactly how close I got (I reckon a few hundred feet below the summit), but given the conditions, I decided not to make a summit attempt and head down the eastern flanks of the mountain instead. I wouldn't have a summit view anyhow!
I navigated east-northeast past deeply gouged alpine cirques, down the broad ramp that lead to the Deep Creek Lakes. at about 11,500 feet, I finally emerged from the clounds and picked my way past the lakes, over a small pass, and down to a trail.
A trail! It was a novel thought. I had spent the past twenty four hours mostly off-trail, traversing a couple of passes and making an ascent of a prominent peak, all in bad weather. And right as I got on trail, another round of weather moved in. More thunder. More hail. Same old story. I hadn't taken my raincoat off, except to sleep, since Temple Pass a day and a half earlier. I cozied up under an overhung rock and ate lunch as Storm # 837 raged.
The latter half of the day was marked by a mixture of sun and rain - enough sun to make me sweat inside my raincoat, but enough rain to make it a bad idea to remove said raincoat. I saw a few people and more than a few llamas. In theory, llamas are a great backcountry pack animal. In reality, they cause significant trail erosion and spit on long-haired backpackers with rainbow-colored bandanas. Eww.
I made camp that evening a mile east of the famed Cirque of the Towers - and just in time too, as Storm # 894 rolled in. I prepared my significantly-less-disgusting dinner and fell asleep.
At some point during the night, it stopped raining and everything grew quiet. Suspiciously quiet. The wind continued to scream, but my shelter didn't move an inch. That's strange.
And my living space grew smaller. the head and foot ends of the shelter sagged inward. I grabbed my trekking pole and used it to bang off the...
Yes indeed, brought to you by the Wyoming Board of Tourism. At that point, I just had to laugh. I'd had rain, sleet, hail, graupel, and now snow. Paradoxically, the snow served as a nice little insulator on outside of my shelter and kept me rather warm. Every few hours though, I woke up to clear an inch of snow off of my shelter.
Snow does have its upsides though. I woke the next morning to a Christmas card scene. Everything was coated in a thin, fluffy blanket. A hint of pink sunrise peeked through the clouds. The breeze was frigid and the trails had turned into a system of canals, but the beauty of the Cirque of the Towers with a fresh coating of snow cannot be surpassed.
I climbed Jackass Pass (I'll wait here while you snicker) and the snow got steadily deeper. By time I reached the top of the pass, there was close to six inches on the ground. The whole experience seemed rather polar. And this in the first week of September!
I headed down Jackass Pass, promptly lost the trail, and spent the next hour in a miserable boulder hope until I found the trail again. The problem with doing a lot of off-trail hiking is sometimes you do it by accident. Oh well.
As I descended to Big Sandy Lake, the sun came out, for the first time all trip. As I re-joined the main trail and hiked the five miles to my car, I discovered where all two million people in their two hundred cars had gone - right here. But I couldn't complain too much - the rest of the weekend I'd seen almost nobody. I changed into short sleeves for the last few miles and finally shed the rain gear. The weather just had to taunt me like that. Or, just perhaps, I had gone twelve rounds with it - and won.
*It turns out that the pass I climbed is crossed from time to time by other backpackers. In fact the author of "The Book" on the Wind Rivers calls it Coon Lake Pass as well. Great, albeit unoriginal minds think alike!