View my gear list
View my videos of this trip (Pics are embedded there to save space here)
It all started March 31 when the Montana BSA Lightweight trek for which I had been accepted as an assistant crew leader was canceled because group permits were no longer being issued. Despite being called the “perfect candidate” by Mr. Jordan, I felt the single major trip I had done (11 days solo in GSMNP in July, 2009) wasn't sufficient to prepare me to help lead a group of Scouts through the Rockies wilderness. It had also been 25 years since I'd been able to even hike in the National Parks & Monuments areas so I was anxious to get back West to see what the real backcountry was like. Thus, since I had already made child care arrangements so my wife could get her work done in my absence, I put out a request on BPL for a partner. Only one person responded, but his schedule required me to make more arrangements as his plans were already made for late July and early August. After several emails and calls, on May 26 I purchased my flight into Denver where he would pick me up. On July 29, our adventure began.
James Byrnes (backfeets1) from Kansas City picked me up close to 6 pm and we headed north on I-25 and then I-80 to Rawlins, WY, where we spent the night in a motel. While he had already been in CO for a week on a job, I was fresh from 600' ASL so this was my first night to acclimatize (~6700'). Ironically, the only elk we would see for our whole trip were grazing on a ridge near I-25. The next day, we drove to Pinedale, WY, and stopped at the outfitter and snack shack before heading to Elkhart Park. We paused at the overlook and he pointed out various places we'd be going while my jaw lay slack and I believe I mumbled something like, “Are you kidding me???” We hit the Pine Creek Canyon Trail at 4:32 pm and descended about 1500' to Long Lake in 2 miles and 65 minutes. A family of 3 generations was already present nearby. We set up out tents, James in a new Sublite with a MYOG mylar inner and me in a MYOG low density polyethylene floorless tarptent I wanted to test.
James is truly lightweight by definition since his base weight is a bit over 9 lbs. He hit the trail with a skin out weight of around 16 pounds, but he only takes 16 oz of food per day as he intends to lose weight on his trips. I on the other hand haven't reached that blissful 10 pound limit yet, but I'm getting closer. Even with my new tent that weighed less than half my SMD Lunar Duo, I was still at over 13 base. In reality, however, it was better than it appeared since I had lost 5 pounds from my first trip the previous summer. However, I had to add in 24 oz for my insulating jacket and pants for this trip. My skin out weight was also heavier than required because I was carrying James' 32 oz spare tarptent in case my prototype failed somehow and I had packed 5 full days of food since it wasn't clear just how long we would make our loop. Thus, my starting skin out was less than 32 pounds, carried in a trimmed down GoLite Pinnacle.
That evening we walked down to the bridge where Pine and Fremont Creeks join and simply enjoyed the symphony of cascading water for half an hour before returning uphill to our campsite. Even though the mosquitoes were out, they were more an annoyance than anything. I was thankful I had treated all my clothing in a concentrated solution of permethrin though. My only concern at this point was the new rechargeable batteries for my camera seemed to be losing their juice quicker than their predecessors. We had a gorgeous night by the lake with nearly a full moon and a mostly clear sky. I still didn't sleep well despite the comfortable 60 degree temperature. The second night at 7900' was again to help acclimatize me as well as save the 1800' climb we had ahead for the cooler morning hours.
Because of several changes I had made in my packing routine that I hadn't been able to practice beforehand, I left my plastic spoon in boiling water to sanitize too long, causing it to crack. Nothing a little duct tape can't fix, right. :) We left at 7:45 and I made it to the Crow's Nest on top of the ridge 2 hours later. The pine beetle damage was obvious and there was a lot of blowdown as you make the final short ascent northward up the ridge on this now unmaintained trail. We did see 3 grouse and met a BSA Troop coming out from a few days fishing at Borum Lake that thankfully didn't have huge packs and boots. We stopped for lunch at the north end of Trapper Lake, and I learned I shouldn't use Walmart snack bags again as they split in several places along the length of the bag. Maybe I got a bad batch?
Not having enough experience backpacking yet, I was late again in applying duct tape to the hot spots on the back of my heels. I should have stopped on the uphill climb when I first noticed instead of a couple hours later. I should note this is the same place I had an issue with last summer, with the right foot again being the worst, but I was using different shoes now (Inov8 315s) so I was giving them a chance. To be fair though, I did not heat mold the heelcup, but it may be that I have particular bony heels that I need to proactively apply bandages to in order to prevent a blister in that area.
When we reached Borum Lake, we forked off to the south on what must have been a horse trail as it eventually faded out and we ended up doing some off trail work to get back onto the real trail, adding at least a half mile to our journey to Summit Lake, which we reached just after 4. After another brief off trail experience, we reached our campsite just SW of where the Highline Trail crosses Pine Creek. It was a long day for us (13+ miles) and our feet and legs were tired. Even my shoulders were somewhat sore, but I had tightened my hip belt about as far in as it could go.
After we set up camp, we watched some storms coming our way so I hurried to fix dinner. My spoon had broken at the neck while packed so I borrowed James' short titanium one to eat my ramen pot pie (minus the chicken) quickly. It was neat watching the clouds swirl up and over the ridge immediately to our west, and I lowered that side of my tarptent to the ground right as the wind picked up and rain started to fall. The temperature must have dropped 20 degrees in about 15 minutes, which caused significant condensation even inside my tent. I had to put up my storm door, but since I had left the one corner up, the elastic connectors were stretched to their limits. Thankfully, it held long enough to last through both storm cells that moved through before the tape connection to the tent gave way during the night. Yet another lesson learned: if at all possible don't push your gear in the wild beyond what you tested it at home. I'm lucky this was a quick and easy fix, but that is why I carried James' tent as backup, too.
Normally condensation is pretty minimal in this material, appearing as a thin film you can hardly see versus droplets running down most fabrics. However, because of the quick temperature drop, I did have enough for misting to occur for a while so to protect my down bag more I pulled my DriDucks jacket over the foot end and draped the pants over my midsection. It turns out I ended up using my jacket in that manner for the rest of the trip for added insurance since it was impossible for me to not touch the tent as I tossed in the night or stretched out. Another thing I learned was to remove duct tape, bandages or whatever from your blisters so they can dry out at night.
We were greeted with a lovely morning though cooler than it had been. We took a while packing up, trying to dry off our tents as much as possible, which caused us to depart about 9:40. I had never tried moleskin before so I applied that to my right heel and a large bandaid to the left. We stopped for a long lunch east of Sky Pilot, talking with another hiker we met, Duane, about lightweight backpacking. He was just older than James and had been working on lightening his load the past few years. He was still a bit over 30 total, but making progress.
We continued down the Highline and James was amazed how little snow and water there was this year. He said in past years he'd have to kick steps or not even be able to find the trails in some places. I noted if that had been the case this year, I'd have been in trouble. I don't carry sunscreen since I wear a hat and long pants and sleeves. While the backs of my hands did get burnt somewhat, my face surely would have with snow on the ground. I decided I could use the chapstick I had, but it was lower SPF than I thought and peppermint scented. It was better than nothing and I applied only in the morning so the scent would wear off by evening.
At Fremont Crossing, we veered west to camp near Big Waterslide, arriving at 4:15. James commented how he could kick himself for not checking that out the first 3 years he came to the Wind River Range. After setting up our tents we had a brief shower come through preceded by 40 mph gusts in the opposite direction as the wind had been blowing so we rotated my pitch 180 degrees. We were blessed by a nice double rainbow for our troubles though. I prepared orange rice and salmon for dinner and used my potty trowel for a spoon – dual use! :)
I was greeted to a cool (40 degree) and clear morning at 6 am. I seemed to be drinking enough water now (about 2L per day) as my urine wasn't the darker yellow it had been. Both of us had to prime our little alcohol stoves for some reason. I think that's because I had put mine on shallow, damp sand on a granite slab and James had put his directly on the slab, which must have acted like a heat sink. I had also discovered the limb I had to use to bear bag must have been a wee bit small as it was a real challenge to lower my bag. I ended up just tying off high up onto another tree so I wouldn't have to pull it all the way up with the standard PCT method. As our trip continued, I discovered that finding a suitable limb on a lodgepole pine in these areas was a major pain so I'll be investigating something like the Ursack for future trips.
We left camp at 9:15 and made Island Lake in 3 hours, meeting along the way a BPL user from AZ named Tom who was carrying 21 pounds for 7 days. There was also a couple teachers with a group of middle school kids with large packs. I felt sorry for them. On our way into Titcomb Basin, we chatted with Russell from Casper about the bear problems they've had in recent years. He shared that some locals won't hunt, fish or camp in some areas anymore. As we strolled into the Basin proper at 2:30 there were a few tents set up on the S end and it appeared through James' monocular there may have been one at the north end also. One thing I had noticed about this part of the Wind River area at least was the lack of mountain springs and stream crossings. I didn't even know springs were at the top of mountains until my Smokies trip so I assumed it was the same everywhere. However, there were several parts of the trails here that were marshy, which I did not expect. Also, while I knew significant amounts of snow can fall nearly any time of year here, I would not have expected the large amounts remaining on the trails as James experienced in past years and was puzzled that many of the remaining small snowfields we did see were on south facing slopes. One last thing that struck me by this time was how easy off trail travel was here, the dense “jungle” of the Smokies again clouding my perceptions.
On our way back around Island Lake, we met some nice couples from GA going fairly light that had done the AT & JMT before. We continued off trail along the little chain of lakes west of the south end of Island Lake and set up camp at 4:15 near the top of the knob south of the fourth lake. We had a great view of Elephant Head and Harrower Peak as well as Jackson and Fremont Peaks. Another pair of hikers had already set up what looked like a Shangri-la a couple hundred yards to the south of us. The hiking weather so far has been nearly perfect. It was 71 degrees at 6:40 at 10300' though it did cool to 59 just an hour later.
I discovered that moleskin is worthless when it gets wet. So much for that experiment. My 2 blisters haven't gotten any worse, but decided to add a bandaid over the moleskin in the morning. I also noticed I had a bad habit of walking on smaller rocks with my arches sometimes. That obviously makes the feet get sore quicker so I've been trying to work on ball or heel placement as needed. I normally walk pretty nimbly and lightfooted and favor landing on the balls when possible (and I'm not being lazy).
Tonight's meal was cranberry chicken rice. James has been tasting my meals and has been quite impressed, being used to the freeze-dried Mountain House fair. Most of my stuff is inspired from Sarah Kirkconnell's trailcooking.com recipes. I normally leave out some items I don't consider important, change various quantities, or add or substitute things in that I think would work well. I'm by no means a chef, but just a basic cook who likes to experiment. I also had some items from PackitGourmet.com, some of which were left over from last summer's trip (!!!) and some I had just gotten on credit to try because I managed to take 3rd place in their photo contest last year.
By 8:30 we were enjoying the alpenglow on the surrounding mountains. It was too bad the skeeters were heavy there so I couldn't peacefully enjoy it outside my netted LDPE home. I awoke at the very moment the moon rose over Elephant Head only to have clouds obscure the view moments later when I had my camera and mini tripod ready. I could also see the glow of thunderstorms to the southeast, but there wasn't enough lightning to get a decent picture. My hopes of a nice sunrise shot were dashed by a storm that required me to repitch the front so I could put up my storm door. It lasted for a couple hours so we didn't leave until 10:30. We tried doing a low route around the east side of the last lake in the chain to get back to Highline, but we were faced with a pretty steep granite face that ended well down in the lake. Perhaps in our younger years, we would have still attempted such a foolish route, but wisdom saved us a swim and we went up and over the knob to rejoin Highline. The skies had cleared by the time we reached the Seneca Lake Trail junction at 11:30 and we decided shortly after that to hike out rather than layover at Eklund Lake. We had already decided the prior night to forgo Lester Pass to take it easier on our feet and have more time for Phase II of our journey, the Maroon Bells Wilderness in CO.
The remainder of the trip was rather uneventful but our best weather yet as it was just a bit cooler. We leapfrogged the GA couples a few times and saw a NOLS group and the group of middle school kids again. We forgot to eat lunch because we stopped to chat with a Chicago couple originally from Poland that were heading up to Mammoth Glacier. A storm appeared on the horizon and skirted just south of us as we made our way to the aptly named Photographer's Point. What a view of where we had just been the past 3 days! The exhilaration of that experience was quickly doused by the boring monotony of the Pole Creek Trail. I know we were tired and pushing to get out before more rain hit, but there was like zero variation, and trails with “creek” in the name should at least let you hear a creek every so often. We made the trailhead at 5:15 and changed. As we drove down to Pinedale, we could see the downpour just to the west ready to pounce upon the Range's central region.
We were struck by the number of people at least trying to go lighter and how many were not wearing the old heavy leather boots. I was amazed that I saw 4 times the number of people in 4 days in a fairly remote and sparsely populated area as I did during my 11 days in the nation's busiest national park. Perhaps because of this, we didn't see any large wildlife.
Read the TR for Phase II of this trip