We woke on day 5 and quickly moved into the familiarity of our daily routine - eat, pack the tent, and depart. Our annotated mapset merely showed us moving from page 4 to page 5 ... away from the last protected campsite on the route, up and over Douglas Peak Pass and down into the Alpine Lakes Basin. We didn't have a lot of mileage to travel, but we knew that today would be tedious and technically challenging. We started moving just after dawn - the air was icy cold, and I shivered as we walked, my feet crunching on the newly frozen muddy path that we were following around Upper Golden Lake.
As we began our ascent out of the Golden Lakes Basin, we encountered a solo male hiker. After exchanging a few words about our respective adventures, he told us that he wanted to impart some of his 60-year-old wisdom on us. "The mountains don't care", he said, "They've been here for eons, long before we ever dared to hike through them. And they are a metaphor for life too - when it comes down to it, the world doesn't care about you - all you can do is try your best and take care of yourself." I tried to absorb what he was saying at the time, but all I could think about was pushing forward - so that we could continue to make progress and hopefully de-thaw my frozen toes. With that, we wished him well on his journey, and continued to push upwards.
We finally reached the top of our ascent out of the Golden Lakes Basin, and we had our first look at Douglas Peak Pass, our big climb of the day. According to our map, there was a "stunningly good" route at the base of the wall that led to the pass. In order to access the base of the wall, we had to find a route around a lake, and up and over some shoreline cliffs. Realizing that it was going to be much more difficult to find the route once we were on the cliffs themselves (due to a lack of perspective), we took some photographs of the cliffs so that we could reference them, and hopefully choose a feasible path.
From a distance, the route up to Douglas Peak Pass looked anything but, "stunningly good". Naturally, it looked almost impossible, but we hadn't come this far to backtrack. We found a route up and over the cliffbands, and finally arrived at the base of the wall. To say that the route was, "stunningly good" is actually relatively accurate, given that my initial impression was that we were walking into "certain death." However, I might add that, "stunningly good" on the Wind River High Route is more accurately translated as, "extremely rocky and steep as %$#@!". Lungs and legs burning, we slowly made our way up towards Douglas Peak Pass.
Prior to our hike, I had scoured the internet for trip reports and photos - I had seen images of where we were going, and I had the entire route completely memorized. I knew what each pass would look like, and what was beyond each pass. If you had showed me a photograph from the area, prior to even stepping foot on the high route, I could have told you exactly where it was. And yet, absolutely nothing prepared me for the overwhelming sense of scale and beauty that struck me at each high pass. Climbing for an hour or two - staring at the rocks on the ground in front of us and concentrating on carefully picking our line, we were sometimes in an exhausted stupor. But cresting a pass, the view would hit us so powerfully that we could almost feel it. No longer were our eyes staring at the ground in front of us - for a moment, we were devouring the landscape... absorbing the monstrous scale of the mountains, rocks, lakes and the route before us. I had been imagining where we needed to go for months and months, and now I could see it.
If the route up to Douglas Peak Pass was, "stunningly good", then the route down the other side of Douglas Peak Pass and into the Alpine Lakes Basin was, "stunningly cruel." We half-hiked/half-slid down an incredibly steep, "trail", before scrambling onto larger boulders to make our way down into the basin. The best way for me to describe the Alpine Lakes Basin is that it is the most tedious, rocky, unforgiving terrain in existence. From Douglas Peak Pass, we embarked on nearly 3 solid miles of rock hopping. Some of the rocks were huge, intimidating boulders - others were smaller, looser rocks. We cautiously picked our way through the terrain - being extremely careful with each step, delicately testing each rock before we put our full body weight on it, for fear that it would roll and result in catastrophic injury.
When Aaron and I met a few years ago, he was not what I would have called a, "hardcore hiker". Our first hike together was a simple local hike called "Poo Poo Point" (I have no clue why it has such a horrible name). Poo Poo Point is 4 miles round trip, with meager elevation gain. I remember that first hike together vividly - Aaron was out of breath practically instantly, and I was left wondering not only if he could keep up with me, but also if he would even want to keep up with me. That first hike led to more hikes, which led to training for hikes, which led to climbing mountains, which led to climbing all the volcanoes in Washington, which led to hiking and climbing anywhere that we could go together. On this particular day in the Wind River Range, I couldn't help but grin as Aaron confidently picked our route through the Alpine Lakes Basin - this may sound trivial, but I assure you that picking an efficient, safe route in an area comprised of 97% boulders, is anything but trivial. Over the years, I've learned that I can no longer keep up when Aaron is hiking up hill in front of me (he's too fast), but "letting go" of route finding is a little harder for me. On this day, however, Aaron blazed a brilliant path through the rocks - our conversation through the basin consisted of, "Watch that one, it wobbles!", and "This one's loose!", and "Don't step on that!", or "Careful here!" as we slowly made our way through the endless boulder fields. At one point, hearing rockfall reverberating through the basin, we looked back and horrifyingly watched as a massive rock crashed through an area that we had just hiked through. Our ears clearly needed to be attentive, and our eyes needed to be peeled.
As we hiked, clouds started to build in the sky and the temperature was dropping noticeably. We knew that we were going to have to stop and find a place to set up our camp for the night. Alpine Lakes Basin is extremely exposed, so our campsite locations were narrowed down to two choices: 1. extremely windy and exposed, or, 2) insanely windy and exposed. We opted for option 1, and we set up our campsite at the final lake in the basin, setting us up to ascend Alpine Lakes Pass the following day.
As we set up camp, bracing ourselves against the gusting wind and desperately attempting to maintain a firm grip on our tent, I happened to glance back towards Douglas Peak Pass and the lower reaches of the Alpine Lakes Basin. To my (somewhat) surprise, a massive wall of clouds, precipitation and wind was very obviously racing towards us. Frantically, we scrambled to finish setting up, and we hurriedly threw everything into the tent. I (stupidly) thought that we had escaped unscathed, when I looked down and noticed a rip in the wall of our tent. Mercifully, I had some repair patches handy, and we were able to patch the tear and dive back into the tent, just as the wind blasted the basin and small bits of hail and snow started to fall. Huddled under our quilts, listening to the storm, I was struck by one thought - "The mountains don't care."
Mountains, rocks, storms, and lakes - every bit of the wilderness - these things have existed for longer than I am able to comprehend. They ebb and flow with their own rhythm - one that adventurers are constantly seeking to be a part of. We shiver when the air is frigid, we slow down when things are treacherous, we brace ourselves when the wind pushes us, we scramble for cover when a storm approaches, we close our eyes and breath deeply when we smell the freshness of the air, and we open our eyes and hearts when we see things so beautiful that we can't describe them with words. Wandering through the seemingly endless ranges, we are constantly adjusting to remain in that rhythm, because it is in that rhythm that we can survive - we can continue to walk another day, to see another pass and to find our own place in the mountains that indeed do not care.
The brief storm that deposited approximately 2 inches of snow, was gone as quickly as it had arrived. After devouring our dinner, we scrambled around the area taking photographs and enjoying the respite from the wind, which had also calmed significantly. The snow melted and blew away, leaving hardly a trace that the storm had even happened. The whole of the earth seemed to give a deep sigh - another day had passed, as they had been passing for millions of years in that exact spot. The sun flicked its last rays across the sky and as our basin dipped into twilight, we responded by retreating to the confines of our thinly-walled abode. Indeed, the mountains may not care about us, but I do. And, ultimately, we all care deeply about something or someone. When you find that person or that thing that you would die for, you have to dig deep within your heart and live for it, with every ounce of your being.
The mountain metaphor gifted to us that day by an anonymous hiker, was of course, not about mountains at all. As I've found throughout my many years of hiking and exploring, the mountains are secondary to the experiences shared by those who dare to tread in their shadows. Now, as I looked over at Aaron while he was reading - the light of his phone screen gently illuminating his face - I realized that the unforgiveness of the mountains was dwarfed only by one thing - love. Love of adventure, love of life and love of each other. As much as we couldn't predict when rocks would tumble or storms would brew - love was the one thing I knew I could rely on. It would keep us curious. It would keep us cautious. It would keep us together. As the poet Rumi once wrote, "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along." Right then, nestled in our tiny tent together, I knew I was safe.