Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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!
Monday, November 21, 2016
I've written and re-written this post about five times now. Each draft has left me unsatisfied. How do I describe nine days in the desert? Do I focus on the landscape? The human experience? The solitude? The climate? The route? The quiet confidence? How do I tell the story of a silent, harsh, brooding, beautiful landscape? And how do I tell the story of my experience within it?
I close my eyes and let my memories wander. On the last day, Sam had asked me, "If you could keep going right now, would you?" Misinterpreting the question, I mumbled something dumb about running out of food and needing to resupply. That's not what he was asking. He was asking whether I'd had my fill, whether I was ready to return to civilization. I hadn't had my fill. Not by a long shot.
I parked my car down an obscure dirt road in a place described best as "eighteen miles south of Hanksville, Utah". Don't know where Hanksville is? That's ok, most Utahns don't either. From the very beginning, this section was remote. Dirt roadwalking gave way to following a wash upstream, which gave way to more roadwalking. I encountered a cold, clear creek and watered up gratefully. It was a gentle introduction on a trail not exactly known for gentle introductions. I kept a certain spring in my step - the telltale sign of a hiker on Day 1. The telltale sign of a certain newfound freedom.
The day's challenge was the Henry Mountains - the last mountain range in the Lower 48 to be discovered and named by Europeans. I followed dirt roads almost all day, stopping a bit early as an afternoon thunderstorm lashed the mountains. I huddled up under my tarp and waited out the storm. Tomorrow, Day 2, would be summit day.
It dawned dank and dismal. Wind had whipped my shelter all night long and made for poor sleeping. I got up with the crack of dawn and was hiking soon thereafter. I waved to a passing ATV driver - the last person I would see for almost a week. The ATV passed and soon I found myself hiking along under cloudy skies. The only sound was the crunch of my footsteps. Quietness.
The quietness wouldn't last long though. I left the dirt roads and climbed steeply up a wet, muddy mountainside, toward the summit of Mt Ellen. Mt Ellen, due to the Henry's remote location, offers tremendous views of the southern Utah desert in all directions - mesas, mountains, deserts, and canyons extend to the horizon. The guidebook and map promised amazing views.
Continuing my descent down from the Henrys, I encountered wonderful, clean water, and tanked up. I followed a rather annoying little drainage downstream, bypassing pouroffs and slipping and sliding my way over treacherous, slippery mud.
Progress is slow when walking through mud, but by late afternoon, I got to the bottom of the canyon and spent a few miles on a boring, yet quick roadwalk. I cowboy camped at a solar-powered water catchment installation, using cow patties as a pillow. Standards: lowered. Heat lightning flashed in the distance as I rolled my sleeping bag out and fell asleep under the brilliant stars.
Sometime during the night, that heat lightning became real lightning, and my tarp-pitching skills faced a stiff test - how many seconds does it take you to set it up a windwhipped pyramid of nylon? I am proud to say that I got it set up with seconds to spare, and spent the rest of the night trying to hide from the sandblasting wind.
Morning dawned clear though, and it was evident that the pattern was changing after three days of iffy weather. It's a good thing the morning consisted of a roadwalk, because the afternoon was significantly more exciting: I crawled my way down a series of ledges. I braced myself with my trekking poles as I descended down a steep dirt slope. I tried to find cattle trails that didn't exist. I pushed my way through thick brush. The Hayduke - in a nutshell.
It was also remote. Aside from an ancient, almost imperceptible mining cart track, there were no signs of human activity on this mesa - Swap Mesa. A crypic route across a desolate and beautiful landscape. Quietness.
I dropped down into the eponymous Swap Canyon. A marginal spring, slightly green, represented my last water for twenty miles. Time to grin and bear the algae. But a little so-so water couldn't spoil my evening - it was too beautiful for that. The new moon revealed a tapestry of stars. It was cold. Frost formed on my sleeping bag. I had to toss and turn to stay warm. I didn't mind.
Swap Canyon is one of those forgotten places in the desert Southwest. It's pretty, but not world-class gorgeous. It's got water, but the water isn't great. But what it does have is a certain remoteness. Only a tiny handful of people, I'm certain, pass through here every year.
Swap Canyon feeds out into Capitol Reef National Park. On a dirt road, I climbed up the Waterpocket Fold, a giant ripple in the Earth's crust a couple hundred miles long. Next up - the amazing Lower Muley Twist Canyon. Muley Twist's gigantic sandstone walls and deep alcoves were a treat. I camped in one particularly large alcove, at least a hundred feet deep. Scratched into the walls with bullet lead were the names of cowboys from a century ago - "E.G. Slocomb, 1921" was my personal favorite.
Miles in Halls Creek were alternately boring (when I was able to find cattle trails) and frustrating (when I wasn't able to find said cattle trails). I tried to avoid walking in the wash as much as possible - the mud was unbelievably slippery and generally nasty. Near the end of the day, I reached the Halls Creek Narrows. Halls Creek abandons its broad valley for several miles and twists and turns its way, carving a narrow serpentine canyon into the Waterpocket Fold. While the mapset I was using recommended following the valley over Halls Divide, I decided to check out Halls Creek Narrows.
It was a hard day. I backtracked to Halls Divide and continued my journey southward, toward Lake Powell. The miles themselves passed easily - however the day was a mental struggle. The desert sun blazed fiercely. I had to ration my water and I was running short on food. My appetite had been turned up to eleven over the past few days, and suddenly my nine days of food looked more like seven. And I knew that, at the end of the day, I would encounter a tricky navigational section as I finally left Halls Creek and climbed over the Waterpocket Fold to the west.
But the day presented a reward along with its challenges. I climbed the Waterpocket Fold and was rewarded with outstanding views - I could see the Henry Mountains, Navajo Mountain, Fifty Mile Mountain, and every other prominent feature for a hundred miles. This was the heart of the American Southwest.
The Waterpocket Fold's elevation also afforded me the opportunity to send a text to my buddies Justin and Sam, who were due to meet me in Coyote Gulch on Day 8. I was close enough to the Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell to have cell service. I felt a twinge of guilt for taking advantage of that amenity - one that came at a terrible price: the damming of Glen Canyon a half century ago.
I slept just below the crest of the Waterpocket Fold, in the upper reaches of what would eventually become Stevens Canyon. With the lake out of sight (and therefore out of mind), the feeling of big, deep wilderness returned.
On every long hike, there's a particular day I look forward to most. On the Appalachian Trail, it was Mt. Washington Day.. On the Wind River Fun Route, it was Blaurock Pass Day. On this section of the Hayduke, it was Stevens Canyon Day.
Stevens Canyon is, in a nutshell, the reason why I hike the Hayduke. It's a big, long canyon. It's got spectacular views, occasional good water, and only a handful of people visit it annually. Several impassible dryfalls block the path along the canyon bottom. The only route involves significant sidehilling along the south wall of the canyon, several hundred feet above the bottom. While not for the fainthearted, the traverse offered spectacular views.
After several hours of traversing high above the canyon floor, I dropped back down to the canyon bottom on a steep shoulder of slickrock. The next four miles were lush and green - and plenty of poison ivy attended my way. As I approached the Escalante River, the canyon got wetter, deeper, and darker, and soon I found myself slogging through thigh-deep mud. Exhausted and dirty, I stumbled my way to the confluence of Stevens Canyon and the Escalante.
The Escalante was my Rubicon; my Jordan River. On the other side of the Escalante lay Coyote Gulch - a well-trod backpacking destination with abundant water, helpful use trails, and plenty of tourists to yogi food off of if necessary. A land flowing with clear spring water, which is the next best thing to milk and honey.
But the final obstacle was the Escalante itself. I had to walk a mile and a half down the river to where the Escalante and Coyote Gulch flowed together. And the recent rains had increased the flow of the river. Travel on the Escalante is exceedingly difficult. Thick tamarisk chokes each shore, making travel on the banks impossible. The water resembles chocolate milk, making it impossible to see any obstacles below the surface. And to top it off, I was quickly running out of daylight.
The splash down the river was a battle. I prepped my backpack in case I needed to swim. I avoided all the deep spots and still contended with waist-deep water. But presently I arrived at the junction with Coyote Gulch. Home Free. I turned around to see Stevens Natural Arch ablaze with the setting sun. I found a campsite under a rock overhang. What a day. What an adventure. Freedom. Beauty. Quietness.
A trip through Coyote Gulch should never be considered anticlimactic, but there's a certain sense in which I had "made it". I had agreed to meet Sam and Justin near the lower end of Coyote Gulch, so I had all morning to explore. I climbed up and out of the canyon on a massive sand dune, through a crack in the canyon wall (fittingly named "Crack-In-The-Wall") and soaked in an incredible panorama of the Escalante canyon country. I meandered my way back down into the canyon, devoured the remainder of my food bag, and relaxed while I waited for Justin and Sam.
I saw people! For the first time in six days, I saw other humans. I wanted to say something to them but didn't know what to say. For their part, they seemed relatively uninterested in making conversation - Coyote is a fairly busy place; I imagine they were experiencing social burnout. I felt completely out of sorts. Soon enough, Justin and Sam showed up. We took brief side trips to the confluence with the Escalante, as well as Crack-In-The-Wall. I took a certain joy in being able to share these amazing places with good friends.
We hiked a few miles up the canyon and made camp. Unlike my quiet, remote camps of the last week, this was a lively experience. We sat around late into the evening, chatting and eating. I was so hungry that I shamelessly accepted (ok fine, I begged) excess food off the guys. And if that act of generosity wasn't enough, they produced celebratory beers that they had packed in. Rigorous scientific inquiry has proven that finely-crafted India Pale Ale tastes far superior to muddy water and off-brand Crystal Light. Guys, if you're reading this, I owe you one.