Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 2

Day 5

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We got a late start again today but at least the sun peaked over the horizon to the east sooner than usual and got us warmed up after a night below freezing. The mile hike down Ranger Park was gentle and easy and we kept watch for wildlife. We had to duck under a rope crossing the trail as the guys who had generously donated the beer the night before were blocking their horses’ escape route. We passed their camp, wished them a good morning and moved on. The trail split and we took the upper trail to Grave Lake. The initial climb was moderate and it soon leveled out. We passed two amazing waterfalls before we reached the lake and took a moment to enjoy the scene.

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Grave Lake was beautiful and more still than I think I have seen any body of water. It was like a mirror for the mountain surround. We paused for a snack and to take pictures…right up until I dropped my camera in the water. Yes, the second camera I have now drowned but the first that was almost brand new. I wasn’t happy but I hope I saved the SD and dried it out quickly. (How many photos were posted earlier in the blog will attest to how successful this was!)

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Thankfully I still had my phone and could continue to take pictures (which ironically turned out to be better quality than the ones from my camera). Of course the guys are taking plenty too so there will more than enough to choose from.

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We circumnavigated Grave Lake and climbed up over a boulder field which had taken out the old trail. The trail could be seen below us. We soon faced another steep climb to yet another waterfall, and then above it to cross the creek that flowed out of Baptiste Lake.

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We stopped for lunch and to refill with water while we enjoyed the incredible view of Mt. Hooker, a slab of sheer granite with a vertical wall that just didn’t look real.

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From the creek crossing it was all uphill to Hailey Pass. What looked like a short 1000 ft climb over 1.2 miles ended up being one mile of easy hiking followed by .2 miles of snow fields and a near-vertical trail of marbles. It was a trail where one false move would send you crashing to the bottom. Jerry said we could be at the top in 40 minutes. I thought that would be impossible and just laughed, but with that challenge in my head I motivated myself to get moving.

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Initially the trail meandered through rock-strewn grass meadows next to a snow-melt-fed creek before ending at the bottom of another snow field, beneath which was buried the switchbacks of the trail. We eye-balled the trail above us in order to give us a rough direction of travel and then went for it. Shoes with good grip and my hiking poles helped immensely to stop me from slipping more than a few inches in the melting snow. If I fell too far I’d probably have taken Jerry’s feet right out from under him too as he wasn’t far behind me.

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The trail after the snow field then got tough…and I mean one of the more nerve-wracking and steepest climbs I have ever done. I was amazed at how tough it was but also at how fast we managed to do it. Although it wasn’t 40 minutes we did make it to the top in 50! Now that was something I was proud of…and I still felt good and like I had energy. It was pretty freaking awesome.

We spent a few minutes at the top, hollering down the valley at Doug way below us, just a tiny dot on the trail, before turning west and heading down towards Pyramid Lake.

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We passed two alpine lakes immediately, one with a massive snow field to the side that looked like it would be fun to glissade down and fly off straight into the lake…if only it wasn’t so cold.

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We crossed the stream leaving the lakes and followed a rocky path down the valley for two miles before reaching a trail junction…and a bunch of tethered llamas! It was an odd site to walk on. From there we hiked another mile to Skull Lake where we made camp for the night at 4pm…a good time to allow for eating and relaxing.

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It was still warm and breezy and our tents dried quickly as we did camp chores. (We hadn’t had one morning where we woke up with dry tents…frozen, but not dry). Jerry had erected a large sign for Doug to see when he arrived in camp comprised of a dead-fall branch and his Ursack (I forgot to take a picture of it though). He wandered into camp a little before 6pm looking a little beat and voicing the same disbelief at the pass we had all just climbed, crossed and descended.

With dinner eaten we discussed the next day’s plans as I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm. We talked together as day faded to night, and waited for the moon to rise. We went to bed before it did.

Day 6

We were out of camp by 9am this morning with a short day ahead of us. We hiked only a mile before I emptied my pack, Doug pulled out his sleeping pad and umbrella, and Jerry and I made the 2.2 mile side trip up to Shadow Lake. Both of us wanted to hike more miles than the approximately 5 miles from one camp to the next.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we saw a group of 4-5 people with a loose dog that didn’t look like it was under control. We stepped way off the trail, more than 40ft (further than I usually do), and as usual I put Kye and Cody in the down-stay position. This dog barreled up to us and then after sniffing introductions the dog laid into Cody. I kicked the dog who backed off and Jerry grabbed my hiking poles from me and stood on the defensive. One of their group hurried over to get their dog and several of them apologized although I wasn’t exactly in a mind to accept it. (Forgive the rant here: Dogs should always either be on a leash if they are not under complete voice control at all times. I always think it’s a little sad that people feel like they have to thank me for having well-trained and well-controlled dogs).

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The hike to Shadow Lake was easy terrain and we made the 2.2 miles in 50 minutes. We passed or talked to several groups going up over Texas Pass and into the Cirque. The pass looked pretty intimidating…as steep, or steeper, than Hailey Pass and no maintained trail over the top. As we ate a snack and drank some of our water we could see two tiny dots that were people on the top of the pass. That is what we must have looked like to Doug when we were at the top of Hailey Pass.

Texas Pass is the saddle in the far left of the picture:

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We returned back to the trail junction to see Doug taking a nap under his umbrella. I ate lunch and then we headed down the trail for a few miles. It was a short day, mileage wise between camps, and we set up camp in Fish Creek Park. Still no wildlife to be seen anywhere…this certainly isn’t the Bighorns where I usually see a ton of wildlife.

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We talked and did camp chores, ate dinner and talked some more with some very interesting subjects coming up. Once the debates on some of the more popular conspiracy theories came out I kept my mouth shut…not a subject I generally get into as it can get pretty heated and I don’t argue a point without facts to back me up.

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We had the clearest night yet and spent a while watching the stars and the Milky Way appear overhead before finally retiring to bed for our last night.

Day 7

We woke up to an earlier-than-usual-sun due to our camp site location which was nice as our tents and sleeping bags were once again soaked. I ate breakfast and brushed my teeth in my tent as I let my sleeping bag dry in the warming sun. We were slow to get going (again) as we only had 4 miles to hike to the truck…and from there a few decisions were going to have to be made.

Jerry and I talked most of the way back as we followed an easy trail down a mild grade with very little in the way of the spectacular scenery we’d been seeing over the past few days. Doug mentioned he wanted to take his time and savor the last few miles we had left in the Wind River Range.

Jerry and I got back to my truck around 11am, removed our packs and I grabbed a much needed diet Pepsi…it tasted pretty awesome. We found a note on the windshield from Jeri and Wayne and we set off to find them in the campground, just next to the trail head. They had done some hiking while we had done the loop but Jeri had remained sick the entire time we had been gone although she was starting to feel better, finally.

Upon a brief discussion all agreed that a hotel, a shower and beer and burgers in Pinedale were definitely called for. After that had been decided (we already knew Doug’s opinion on the matter) Jerry went to wait for Doug by the privies so he didn’t walk all the way back to the truck at the other end of the parking lot as Jeri and Wayne packed up their camp.

While Jeri and Wayne packed up, and Doug threw his pack in the car, Jerry and I headed for my truck to go see if we could find my misplaced headlamp at the place we had camped the first night. We had no luck.

With no headlamp to be found (I did find it in the camper when I got home) we headed down the mountain towards Pinedale and I pointed out the original trail head we had planned on using (Scab Creek TH) which was much further out in the basin than Big Sandy TH. We agreed we had made a good choice in changing it.

The sign as we drove into Pinedale was pretty apt. It read “Pinedale: All the civilization you need”. After a week in the wilderness a small town was exactly what we needed to ease back into the world of motors and money.

The first stop in Pinedale was the liquor store during which time Jeri, Wayne and Doug must have passed us as they called us from outside the brewery, and they had originally been behind us. We drove to meet them and I made a few phone calls and managed to locate enough hotel rooms in the same hotel to accommodate us all for the night. With beer in tow we headed for the Gannett Peak Motel, and despite desperately needing showers we all opted for a cold beer or two first. Showers did follow quickly as we were all hungry and ready for a good meal and did not want to completely offend the Pinedale locals with the smell of the mountain and hard-earned sweat.

With everyone showered and in cleanish clothes we finally walked the couple of blocks to the Pinedale Brewery and Grill where everyone ordered the much-talked-about burgers, except for Doug who had been more vocal about steak (and Rocky Mountain Oysters but they weren’t on the menu). We were also joined by our motel neighbor, Ramone, who was heading out for his own solo trip in the Wind River Range the following day.

Burgers, beer and steak disappeared fast and the conversation flowed well. Dinner was followed by Jerry riding a moose and then a brief visit to the Cowboy Bar where we listened to the jukebox and played a couple of games of pool (Wayne and I won both games as a team). We headed back to the hotel shortly and all headed to our respective beds to get some much needed rest.

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Day 8

No one slept well last night. I think we all slept worse than we did on the mountain, which is saying something for me since I did a lot of cussing at my hammock quilt (such a small one is not recommended for ground sleeping).

Coffee was found across the street, as was a cold diet Pepsi. Bags were packed and loaded in vehicles, dried tents were folded and put away and final pictures were taken. Dogs pouted and sulked as they knew something different was happening with people they had bonded to. With not much left to do we said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes and I watched everyone drive away.

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It felt strange and kind of empty now that I was alone. I had spent 24 hours a day with Doug and Jerry for a week and we had certainly built a bond between the three of us with our shared time on the trail and the experiences we had. If this is what it feels like coming back to civilization after only a week on the trail, and creating amazing memories with new friends, I can begin to understand how it feels for a thru-hiker who has spent many weeks and months on the trail creating these relationships and then having to go back to “real life”.

Summary

The Wind River Range loop we did was brutal, beautiful and challenging but all those facets came together in the most amazing way to push me harder than I have ever been pushed before and also to learn how much more I can challenge myself. Depsite how tough it was there was never a moment in my mind I thought I would quit or couldn’t do it and I thrived on the challenge.

We had impeccable weather despite most nights dipping below freezing. We saw almost no wildlife (a couple of deer, multiple marmots and lots of squirrels and birds) which was surprising, but the majesty of the mountains mostly made up for it.

I created some friendships that I believe will last a lifetime and we are already talking about other trips together. This really was one of the most amazing weeks of my life and I look forward to repeating it in the future.

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