Twelve Days in the Wind River Region
This was the first Wilderness Trekking II course offered by BackpackingLight, advertised as a primer for thru-hikers with world class instructors Andrew Skurka and Glen Van Peski. The class was treated to an amazing trek the length of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, crisscrossing the continental divide several times over high mountain passes. Travel was both on and off trail, traversing glaciers, late summer snow packs, and talus. As a final treat, we crossed Texas Pass to view the Cirque of Towers and climbed Wind River Peak. Every member of the class will treasure their memories of that singular experience, for, as one friend commented after seeing pictures of the trip, "It makes everything else a little bland."
As with all BPL courses, the participants were encouraged to exchange ideas before coming to Bozeman. Enrollment for the class started off slowly, but some, like Joe and Pat, got a head start and actually met at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. They selected topics about the Winds in order to develop a short presentation to share with the group during class, and topics ranged from the wildlife to the geology of the region. The night before the course, the group planned to meet at Montana Ale Works, a local restaurant, for some pre-trip carb loading. This turned out to be a great way to introduce ourselves and share our anticipations and a few reservations about the upcoming trek. It's not hard to spot fellow backpackers, and we all found our way to the same table. Lisa, Matt, Todd, Pat, and Joe passed the time with good food, cold beer, and conversation that could have gone on most of the night. Alas, our chauffeur, Ryan Connelly, arrived to take us to Lion's Ridge, a cozy mountain retreat in the forest outside of Bozeman.
On Sunday, we met upstairs first thing in the morning to start getting ready for our adventure in the Winds, with one additional member. Lars had missed out on the night before, so we filled him in on names and faces. Mike Clelland, Backpacking Light's course coordinator, introduced the instructors. In addition to Andrew and Glen, we also would have Sam Haraldson joining us for the second half of the trek. We quickly got to work, weighing gear and ensuring every item in our packs was truly necessary. Postage scales dotted the room so that we could carefully weigh each item before making the decision to carry any additional ounces. Food was distributed for breakfast and supper and was combined with the snacks/lunch we brought, then carefully weighed as well. Demonstrations for the day included bear bag hanging and Mike's famous poo-poo class. We finished the afternoon session by selecting items to carry in the first aid kit. We were especially mindful of foot care items, which would come in handy the second week. After all the choices were made and the gear packed and put away, we were treated to a slide show and presentation about planning Long Distance Excursions by Andrew. We saw how he used his maps, planned his routes, and formulated his meticulous spreadsheets and data books - it all added up to many hours of work, all required for a successful adventure.
The First Half
We were up early on Monday and anxious for the walking to begin. Packed, with breakfast eaten, we filed into an old school bus piloted by Ryan C. We had a bumpy seven-hour ride ahead of us, and we wanted to get to the trail by mid-afternoon. Lunch was a stop at grocery store with an amazing deli. It had a Chinese hot bar and a sushi bar that made plates to order. After lunch, we rolled through Jackson Hole Wyoming and got a great view of the Tetons. We were impressed, but we had no idea that this was just a sample of the sights that were in store for us.
At around 4:00, we arrived at Trail Lake Trailhead. Dry and dusty, it didn't look like much.
That changed as Andrew guided us up Glacier Trail. We came to a good-sized stream crossing within the first few turns and scattered up and down the bank, looking for a way to cross without getting wet. Crossing streams and wet marsh areas quickly became a common event, belying the trailhead's dusty introduction. As we gained 2,800 feet in elevation, the scenery grew more and more spectacular. As twilight settled, we did too, choosing a bench near Arrow Mountain. We were not near water, so we all raided our snack supplies to make a supper.
At first light, we broke camp and headed out to find a source of water and therefore breakfast. We walked up on two other backpackers who were finishing a trip, and while we would see a few other travelers in the Winds, they were few and far between. Breakfast was enjoyed beside a glacial lake. Gear was laid out to dry under the bright sun, and Andrew demonstrated an alcohol stove and caldera cone. After breakfast Glen and Andrew gave a demonstration on how to pack up in the morning with an emphasis on efficiency rather than speed.
At lower elevations, the trails are used by horses. Their hooves leave the damp trails in pretty rough shape. After a couple of hours of stumbling over softball size rocks and dirt clods, Andrew suggested we travel off trail. We approached our first major obstacle - the Dinwoody Creek. "Creek" is a misnomer, as all the group saw were rocks, rapids, and fast moving water. Although Andrew assured us we could ford, the group decided to travel along the river and find a more comfortable place to cross. A slower moving section was located after a short hike, and everyone got to try something new: swimming with a pack on their back. Well, almost everyone. Glen is so tall that he just walked across!
After the swim, the group split, with the idea of meeting at Upper Inkwell Lake. Following vague trails and steep terrain, several of us went ahead to set up camp. There are literally dozens of lakes in the area, and it was hard to be certain that we were at the right lake. Given that, the two groups missed each other and ended up spending the night apart at separate lakes.
The next morning, Wednesday, Glen told his group that he and Andrew had discussed going over Scenic Pass during the day's hiking. So Glen, Pat, Matt, Joe, and Todd decided to head for the pass and wait for Andrew's group. Meanwhile, Andrew, Lars, and Lisa thought it best to stay put - they were confident that they were at the right lake and assumed that the others would realize their mistake and find them. After waiting patiently at the lake for a bit, Andrew decided to take a leisurely run through the area looking for Glen's group. On the way, he encountered some climbers that had camped at Echo Lakes and confirmed that the other group had not camped there. While Glen's group was eating breakfast at the pass, these same climbers approached and informed them of Andrew's search for them. After a brief hike back down, Glen's group came across Andrew running through the woods. They all headed to Inkwell Lake to find Lisa and Lars comfortably waiting and watching fish jump out of the water. We used this situation as a valuable learning opportunity on many levels, but most importantly on map reading and route finding.
Andrew decided to have members of the crew take turns as navigator to help improve these skills. Joe was the first "volunteer" and was handed the map and given a destination. Being from the east and accustomed to well-maintained hiking trails, this was a challenge. With help from Andrew, Glen, and Pat, he managed to navigate across a ridge and up to a snow pack. He was probably the most surprised person in the crew when he eventually reached the correct destination. His navigation skills improved to the point that he became comfortable finding routes and locating positions on maps.
Moose Lake 1, 2, or 3?
That night, our goal was Moose Lake. It's funny how maps and terrain all begin to look alike. We were sure we had found Moose Lake no fewer than three times, and yet each time we crossed another ridge, there was another lake that could fit its description. Even Andrew and Glen were baffled by the similarity of the series of lakes. Switching to a larger scale map helped to locate us and prevent further confusion, and we enjoyed a tasty supper and made camp, falling to sleep quickly and deeply.
Thursday would be our first big climb. The route headed above treeline and approached the Continental Divide. We passed glacial lakes, snow packs, and talus fields. The air got thinner and the views more breath-taking. We finally reached the top of North Indian Pass and were greeted by spectacular views of our next challenge - Knife Point Glacier and South Indian Pass. While the climb up was challenging, the trip down the other side was thrilling. Each of us got to experience "screeing" down a rock slope: balancing on your feet and letting the loose scree carry you along. At the bottom, we decided to clean up and go swimming. Glacial lakes are cold, no matter how bright the sunshine, but the result is a briskly refreshing dip in clear, turquoise water. After a short nap on the warm rocks, we started to climb up to a bench for supper and camp. The night was spent at the base of Knife Point Glacier and a roaring river of near freezing water.
Friday morning was highlighted by the crossing of South Indian Pass by way of Knife Point Glacier. Knife Point is among the largest grouping of glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and walking on a permanent slab of ice and snow was a real treat. Our afternoon consisted of heading for an overnight camp near Barbara Lake about five and a half miles from the re-supply point, where Glen would leave us and Sam would take his place.
The Resupply (aka "The Switcheroo")
Waking before dawn on Saturday morning, we packed up what little trash we had and prepared to hike to the designated trailhead. In a tearful revelation, one of our fellow trekkers, Lars, told us of his plans to leave the expedition. Lars was struggling physically - he had lost his appetite and had "the runs," arriving at the Switcheroo with over half of his food uneaten. He was concerned that should this continue, there would be no good place for him to bail out, and his condition was unlikely to improve on the trail. Sharing good-byes and shivering in the chilly morning air, we left Lisa at Barbara Lake with most of our gear. She volunteered to stay behind with the extra gear, to rest, to save room in packs for the coming week's worth of food, and to lighten the others' loads. Matt, Todd, Joe, Lars, Andy, Pat, and Glen bolted for the trailhead near Fremont Lake, about an eleven-mile round-trip from our campsite. After a couple of miles, Pat treated a hot spot on his left foot that would slowly morph into a full-blown blister. The parking lot at the trailhead was crowded with cars, horse poop, and conventional backpackers overloaded with what looked like literal tons of gear.
Experiencing the tiniest bit of front country after six days in the backcountry was a strange feeling. We arrived at the trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and met an energetic Sam Haraldson: hyped-up on caffeine and waiting for us with decadent doughnuts. Sam also had food, fuel, Aqua Mira, and miscellaneous materials for our resupply. After repacking, we said our last goodbyes to Lars and Glen, slathered on sunscreen, and charged back down the trail to rendezvous with Lisa around midday. The group outdid themselves racing down the trail and back, something that would haunt us a few days later. The day ended with ten more miles back up into the high country, and we all were tired and footsore by evening.
The Second Half
While the pace of the first half of the trip was fueled by enthusiasm, the second half was tapered by blisters and weariness. Pat's came first - a hard to treat blister on the ball of his foot. Dr. Skurka's foot clinic was officially opened each morning, payment in anything edible cheerfully accepted. First we tried superglue, which didn't work. Leukotape alone seemed to make things worse. At one point, when we thought infection was imminent, we discussed exit strategies for medical attention. We finally hit upon the solution - triple antibiotic ointment, gauze bandage, leukotape and mole skin. Once Pat's foot was on the mend, Joe appeared at the doctor's door with the same ailment. Could blisters be contagious? At least we now had a solution that worked.
Breaking throughout the day to check on blisters slowed our pace, yet we all continued on as a now well-oiled team. In order for the group to make any progress, we had to learn to get water together, have snacks ready, adjust layers, and we even tried to time our "bio breaks" in sync!
The next couple days were shorter in mileage, adjusting for a longer in-camp breakfast and an earlier evening camp. This gave us time for an evening campfire, which further enabled us to get to know one another. Our group was diverse in ages and backgrounds, yet we all shared a common goal and bond - lightweight backpacking. The campfire discussions were sometimes serious, often educational, and occasionally hilarious. The same can be said for the campfire building, but that's a whole 'nother story.
On Sunday, not only did we have a "double pass" day, we also tried to outrun a thunderstorm. The morning started with Angel Pass and was followed shortly by Hay Pass. We then skirted a rather large lake and headed for a saddle and Boulder Creek Valley. The skies were darkening, but we thought we could miss the rain. We all scampered along the talus as the winds picked up and the temperature dropped. We were treated to some raindrops and chilly weather, but we managed to miss the worst of it. This was to be our only thunderstorm, although we did get sprinkled on a few more times.
By Tuesday, blisters were on the mend, and we could pick up the pace a little. First, we headed to Bonneville Basin, then on to the Washakie Drainage, where we caught our first glimpses of the backside of the Cirque of the Towers. We got to camp a little later - a nice spot along Washakie Creek and were treated to a blue and gold sunset. We decided to forgo the campfire in order to get up early head for the Cirque.
Wednesday and Thursday were the scenic highlights of the trip. Wednesday started with a hike up the often sheep-infested drainage to Texas Pass. It looked harder that it was - a well defined use trail helped us along. Now if only we had a way to get more oxygen! This was one of our highest passes at 11,400 feet.
The Cirque is an amphitheater of vertical walls, jagged peaks, and pointed spires - all with whimsical names like Wolf Head, Shark's Nose, Warbonnet, and Pingora. We sat in amazement and digested the beauty for a couple of hours before heading down to Lonesome Lake. Our armpits told us it was time for another bath, so we all jumped in for a brisk but refreshing - and much needed - clean-up. Once dry, we continued down the drainage to a camping spot that would put us in striking distance to Wind River Peak - our grand finale at 13,192 feet.
To say the climb went on forever would be an understatement, though we knew it had to stop at SOME point. The clear air made landmarks appear closer, the lack of oxygen made for a snail's pace. The airplane-like views from the top were well worth it, though, and we enjoyed a long and well-deserved rest. We thought it an appropriate place for a final group photo, and just as we had finished, a NOLS group arrived at the top (with much larger packs!). They were kind enough to take a few more photos of the group. We discovered that they were a Wilderness Medicine Institute Course and were all doctors. Thankfully, we didn't need their services and headed on. "It's (literally) all downhill from here!" we all thought as we set off.
Back to the Front Country... and Sidewalks... and Grocery Stores... and CHEESEBURGERS
After fourteen miles or so of horse-trodden trail, we paused just short of the parking lot along the east bank of the Popo Agie Creek and began to unwind. We found a picnic area at the trailhead that would be the setting for our last trail supper. Just as we finished eating, reminiscing, and suggesting, Ryan and the magic schoolbus pulled up. We loaded the bus, opened all the windows, and began the drive back to Bozeman. After nearly two weeks of scrambling on rock and hiking off trail, it felt a bit creepy to step off the bus at an all-night convenience store and set foot on a flat surface. It's not something you'd notice living in a city, but flat surfaces are largely a human artifact. No other creature feels an apparent need to level terrain.
A microwaved cheeseburger temporarily satisfied Pat's craving for protein, and we stayed overnight at a flatlander's camp to sleep under the stars on a levee beside the Wind River. Motorhomes, travel trailers, and generators to power televisions and light up the night - dependencies we had briefly escaped - crept back into our reality. The grassy soil along the river bank cradled us all to eventual, pensive sleep. Up at dawn and eager to reintroduce restaurant foods, we made our way to Thermopolis for a pig-out-style breakfast at the local diner. The long ride back to Bozeman was filled with recollections of the trail, stories of what we would do back home, and card games. At times, the bus fell silent as we pondered the separation of the strong fraternity that had developed during the trek. A lunch stop at the grocery in Livingston, Montana was almost surreal. Scanning the grocery aisles, some saw only inedible packaging concealing something within. The produce department, bakery, and delicatessen finally turned up items that could be visually enjoyed and eaten. You couldn't help notice the stares and distance most of the other shoppers gave us; the wilderness aromas had left us unapproachable. Finally, the welcome sight of Lion's Ridge was a homecoming of sorts.
Debriefing, Showering, and Gathering for a Last Supper
On Saturday afternoon, we all gathered with Mike Clelland and Jamie Hunt upstairs at Lion's Ridge. Everyone raved about the experience and gave even higher praise for all three of the instructors. It was agreed that the beauty and grandeur of the Winds was the perfect backdrop for this course. The remoteness of the area required us to rely on our skills to remain both safe and comfortable. We were forced to find our direction and routes solely from map and compass, without clues from trails and signage we would have come across in many other locations.
There were a few suggestions offered to help improve the course. The first was to take steps to ensure that all participants were physically up to this type of expedition. This is a very strenuous course, and each person involved should be in top condition in order to travel 143 miles at high elevations over such rugged terrain.
Finally we were free to head to the showers. Water never felt so good. Dirt that was earned honestly washed down the drain, and without two weeks' of facial hair, familiar faces we had known just two weeks before were still somehow changed from our experience. A little more skilled, but more connected with both the land and each other. With cleaner clothes and fresher smells, we headed out to celebrate our reentry into the civilized world. We gathered where it all started: Montana Ale Works, for one last meal among friends that had experienced an unbelievable odyssey. Recounting the trip with smiles and laughter, we shared great food and cold beer. The evening ended with goodbyes in the parking lot. We each went our separate ways, but we will always be connected by our Wilderness Trekking experience.