Friday, February 24, 2017

Wind Rivers: Criss-Crossing the Divide

The first pass. Texas Pass. More than two miles above sea level, towering a thousand feet above the Cirque of the Towers below. It's a big pass, but it's not the biggest. It's off-trail, but heavily used. No big deal.

CRACK. I turn around to see Zippy sitting with a bemused expression on his face, holding the two pieces of his trekking pole that's just snapped. We're down to three trekking poles between the two of us, and we need three poles to set up our two shelters. This is not exactly an auspicious start.

Zippy and I were on our second day of the Wind River Fun Route, a route that we created to traverse the length of the most beautiful range in the Rockies, the Wind River Range. Other people had created routes before and we gratefully drew on their work for inspiration. But this was our project. We'd planned it for months and spent countless hours pouring over maps. This was going to be amazing.

Day 1

After a car shuttle, we hiked what seemed like an eternity - a full day, close to twenty miles, just to get into the heart of the range. It was all on-trail, with only occasional glimpses of the alpine terrain that lay ahead. We bumped into an amazing couple - Derek and Michelle, who were doing a different variant on the same route we were doing. It was a fun day, but we knew that the main act had yet to arrive. We camped a mile below the world-famous Cirque of the Towers and watched the sun set over the ridge. The Cirque would be the next day's project.

Day 2

The fun had finally begun. Cirque of the Towers amazed us. Rock spires pierced the sky like a hundred massive spears. Pingora Peak towered sternly over the shimmering waters of Lonesome Lake. And the Cirque marked the true beginning of our hike - off-trail, crisscrossing the Continental Divide, the roof of America, as it were. The weather held up and the sun blazed intensely at this altitude. We crossed Texas Pass and learned the hard way that carbon fiber trekking poles just aren't cut out for adventures like this. We meandered around three massive alpine lakes and took a trail northward - our last trail for a long, long mile. It was a long day but our energy was high. We toured past Pyramid Lake around the north end of the East Fork basin. The East Fork basin, lesser known than Titcomb Basin or Cirque of the Towers, is no less spectacular. Twelve-thousand foot peaks dot the sky in all directions; blue lakes frost the basin bottoms. Oh, and annoying talus guards the slopes of Bonneville-Raid Col.

Bonneville-Raid Col was a sign of things to come. An hour of talus hopping between washing-machine sized boulders slowed us down and soured our attitudes, but the payoff - the view- was more than worth it. On the way down the other side, into Bonneville Basin, we downclimbed a very steep pitch. Zippy knocked a large rock loose, and it tumbled down a little too close for comfort.

Since our energy was still high, we passed the Bonneville Lakes and climbed yet another pass - our third of the day. Steep but grassy, it proved far easier than Bonneville-Raid Col. But scrubby willows choked the lake on the far side of the pass and travel became a little unpleasant. It didn't help, of course, that I was exhausted, probably from not eating enough during the day. We crawled into our shelters on the shores of Lee Lake and fell sound asleep within minutes.

Day 3

The night was cool and starry, and the day dawned perfectly clear. After thrashing our way through more willows, we climbed a steep hillside to Bewmark Lake. While a trail was depicted on the map, we never found one. We passed through another vast alpine basin and climbed to Photo Pass, crossing the Continental Divide for the second time on the trip. We were entering the Wind River Roadless Area, a part of the local Indian Reservation (permits required). If the trail on the south side of the pass was nonexistent, the trail on the north side was really non-existent. We soon dropped into the trees and were tasked with off-trail navigation below treeline- not an easy task. We ended up detouring around a bit, but soon found our bearing and traversed up a series of ramps and shelves, past a couple of cute glacial tarns, to the ridge overlooking Europe Pass.

The ridge was easy walking, but the winds were fierce. At one point, the westerlies blew me off my feet. Faced with another five miles of ridgewalking in high winds and billowing afternoon clouds, we decided to drop back down to lower elevations to avoid the weather. At Europe Pass we headed northward, onto more Reservation Land, following more non-existent trail, to the Milky Lakes.

As we walked down the valley, we dropped in elevation - down under 10,000 feet briefly, the only time on the trip that we were below 10k. Thick underbrush and irritating boulders frequently choked our way, and our below-treeline navigational skills were tested once again. The sun was fading on the western horizon, and this time it was Zippy's turn to crash and burn. We set up camp at the bottom of a valley which is rarely, if ever visited by people. Alone, very alone, in a vast, vast wilderness. I love the Winds.

Day 4

We hadn't slept particularly easy overnight. That was partly due to the fact that we had both of our shelters set up on a piece of ground the approximate size of a dollar bill. But in addition to our cramped accomodations, we knew that a navigational challenge awaited - more below-treeline fun.

We packed up and hiked westward up a steep valley, following animal trails and dodging the worst of the underbrush. We paused to admire a series of cascades that tumbled down a charming creek. Had anybody seen this waterfall before? Had anybody stopped to appreciate God's handiwork?

Soon enough we arrived at the top of the valley. We splashed across a lake and found - for the first time in two days, an honest-to-goodness trail. Following it northward, we passed Golden Lake, Lake Louise, and the oh-so-cleverly named Upper Golden Lake. After another mile we reached an unnamed lake, in the shadow of Douglas Peak. We had a choice to make - up and over Douglas Peak Pass, or a detour around.

The only person we knew of who had gone over Douglas Peak Pass is Andrew Skurka - and calling him a "person" may be inaccurate. He's a hiking machine, by far the world's most famous hiker and among the most elite. And Douglas Peak Pass looked steep and, frankly, terrifying. Zippy was game to try it, but I wasn't so sure. We opted for the detour.

In retrospect, the detour was certainly longer than the pass, and not much earlier. We reprised the hopping-over-giant-boulders thing, but this time up a steep hillside choked with trees. Our day did not get easier after lunch, as we entered the much-maligned Alpine Lakes Basin. Wind River hikers apparently talk in hushed tones about Alpine Lakes Basin, and it quickly became apparent why - hours and hours of endless boulder hopping along the shores of three large lakes. Throw in some Class III scrambling, and you have a recipe for half-a-mile-an-hour slogging.

We met a group of people, a rare sight in the Winds, who mentioned that the east side of the upper lake was easier. We had routed ourselves around the west side due to beta we found online, but this group had done it with a dog apparently, so how hard it could it be?

Bad idea. We crossed some sketchy steep talus that threatened to plunge us into icy-cold lake water if we slipped. We traversed several snowfields. And then we hit the crux - a low-end Class V traverse along a tiny shelf with a straight vertical drop into the lake below. We turned around. Two hours - wasted.

Those two hours would have been valuable too, as a storm moved in right as we turned around. Rain, lightning, wind, snow - the whole enchilada. The nearest tree was miles away, and the nearest soil wasn't much closer. Here in the basin, there were just rocks- everywhere. We found the most sheltered spot we could - without much success - and set up camp for the night. We anchored our tent stakes with rocks and built windbreaks with more rocks and hunkered down for a long night, our lightweight shelters flapping in the stiff breeze.

Day 5

It rained and snowed throughout the evening, but eventually overnight, the storm broke up. Another bluebird day was forthcoming. The west side of the lake wasn't easy, but it certainly wasn't as hairy as the east side was. Lesson learned. We filled our water bottles with some glacial meltwater and climbed over Alpine Lakes Pass, our first time over 12,000 feet on the trip.

The scenery blew us away. Glaciers clung to the slopes to our west. Forested valleys, miles away, lay to our east. Smoke from wildfires to our west turned everything a little more whispy, a little more experience. The breeze was pleasant and our spirits were high, having conquered the dreaded Alpine Lakes Basin. We descended down the pass, up the tiny remnants of a glacier, and down a steep grassy hillside. The walking was easy and pleasant.

Then came more uphill. It wasn't hard uphill, but my right Achilles tendon started to tighten up. I tried to ignore it but it grew more painful as we walked farther. I rested it at lunch and loaded up on Vitamin I (for the uninitiated, that's Ibuprophen), but to no avail. By time we descended to the North Fork of Bull Creek, it was howling. It was only 2pm, but I couldn't go any farther.

If there's any place you want to be laid up with an injury, it's the North Fork of Bull Creek. It's got a rotten name, but it might be the most stunning location on the entire route. A panorama of glaciers surrounded us as we looked west, streaming out of the highest peaks in Wyoming. We had a relaxing afternoon, and we'd need it - because tomorrow's objective was Blaurock Pass.

Day 6

Blaurock Pass is daunting on two ankles - on one, it's downright scary. But there was no way to avoid Blaurock - it was the only way out of here. So up and over we went, over (you guessed it) steep, giant talus. A rock jungle doesn't prove particularly pleasant your ankle emits waves of searing pain. We made our way, slowly, to the top of Blaurock. We sat down and enjoyed the amazing views of Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest point. We had a decision to make.

My ankle was only getting worse. We had the time to complete our route, but the next fifteen miles were all above 11,000 feet, exposed to the weather, and featured glacier travel. There's no way I could do it on one ankle. We had, of course, made backup plans, and we knew that at the bottom of Blaurock Pass we could follow a trail all the way out if we had to. So with great reluctance we headed down the pass and onto the trail. Our lunch break confirmed our decision - it stiffened up as we sat, and I could barely hobble on it.

It's never fun having to bail. Gannett Glacier, Grasshopper Glacier, Pedestal and Yukon Peaks, Downs Mountain - these were going to be the highlights of our trip. And instead we were stuck two thousand feet below on a trail - beautiful in its own right, but not the wonderous scenery we were looking forward to.

Day 7

We followed trail the whole day. I moved very slowly, but steadily. Zippy, to his credit, managed not to pull out too much of his own hair over my slow pace. We passed through a massive burn area - dead trees littered the bare ground. Some of their dead cohorts remained standing - for now. We passed several alpine lakes and crossed a massive high plateau - more plains-like than mountainous, its 11,000-foot height notwithstanding. Our backs now to the high peaks, we trudged down an endless series of switchbacks, losing elevation quickly.

One of the benefits of mindless miles is the chance for conversation. We discussed food, gear, food, occupations, food, family history, and food. I still wasn't moving quickly but by end of day, my ankle was feeling a bit better than it had the previous day. We still made the right choice.

Day 8

After a windy night, we got up early the next morning and made a (slow) beeline for the trailhead. As we arrived at the trailhead, we noticed a note under Zippy's windshield wiper - it was from Derek and Michelle, who had arrived at the trailhead the day before. They had traversed the section we skipped due to my ankle - and it apparently was everything it was cracked up to be. The weather held up and allowed them to do the very exposed walk atop the Continental Divide. What a treat!

We piled into the car and drove down to the beginning of the route to complete the car swap and get a cheeseburger in town. As we ate, we reflected on the route that we had just walked - a hundred miles, a week in the wilderness. The most beautiful place either of us had ever been. The most demanding terrain, the most remote, the most magical. I'll be back.