The Wind River High Route does not "let you out" without a fight. As rocky and strenuous as day 7 had been, day 8 would prove to be just as challenging. We woke in our tent to a bitterly cold morning and a spectacular sunrise. Achingly familiar with our daily routine, we loaded up our packs (which were now, mercifully, much lighter), and headed out. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Breathe. Repeat.
Our objectives for the day were:
- ascend to the Continental Divide
- stay on the Divide for about 5 miles
- cross a bajillion rocks without tripping and/or catastrophic injury
- climb Downs Mountain
- descend Downs Mountain
At 5:30 AM, I was already looking forward to the final two objectives. Yep, it was going to be a long day.
The last time that we crossed the Continental Divide was 25 miles ago, just before dropping down to Golden Lakes on day 5. Now, in the early morning of day 8, we needed to cross the Grasshopper Glacier and ascend diagonally to the Divide. From that point, we would remain on the Divide for 5 miles - all of the elevation was above 12,000', save for one short descent to 11,780' at Iceberg Lake Pass. The big ascent of the day was to climb to the summit of Downs Mountain - the northernmost named thirteener in the Wind River Range. Downs Mountain is significant, because it is essentially the final "bookend" of the Wind River High Route. After Downs, only about 13.8 miles (10.3 of it on a real trail!), separated us from my vehicle which was (hopefully) still parked at the Trail Lakes trailhead.
The best way that I can describe this portion of the route is that it felt like we were on another planet. This is one of the most barren landscapes that I have ever seen - miles upon miles of absolutely desolate, sepia-toned heaps of rocks and jagged ice walls. The landscape, in combination with the fact that I literally could not breathe due to the altitude, almost had me convinced that we had somehow slipped into an alternate universe with an inhospitable atmosphere.
For hours we wandered up snow, down snow, across snow, up rocks, and down rocks. We finally came to the spot above Iceberg Lake Pass, where we knew we had to climb down some steep slabs. The route started out very gently at first, but quickly deteriorated into knee-banging precariously steep rock. We picked our way down one "rib" of the slabs, only to dead-end into a dangerously vertical snowfield. Backtracking, we finally found a route down to Iceberg Lake Pass. As we descended, some movement caught our eyes - a person! A solo male hiker was wandering through the pass. I wondered if he had seen us, but there was no way to know. All I knew was that I felt good in the knowledge that, at a minimum, there was at least one equally crazy person that existed in the world. Aaron and I slowly continued our descent until we reached a beautiful little tarn at the pass where we could refill our water and wash our socks.
The sepia toned landscape of the divide was loudly punctuated by the stunning color of Baker Lake at Iceberg Lake Pass. I was struck by how incredibly unique each day of this trip had been - it was hard to believe that we were even in the same mountain range - the lushness of Golden Lakes seemed like it might as well have been a million miles away. Every so often, we would glance back at the route - it was so hard to fathom how far we had travelled. Similarly, it was hard to fathom that we were getting closer and closer to my vehicle with every passing step. I felt so torn - on one hand, I obviously wanted to finish - I was tired, I wanted to eat a burger, and, yes, I wanted to be successful and complete the high route. On the other hand, I didn't want it to end. The thought of leaving this place made my heart ache - everything that I had experienced, everything that Aaron and I had experienced together, was something that I wanted to hold onto for as long as possible.
Andrew Skurka describes this section of the trip as follows, "At its best, this section is covered in tundra, gravel, level granite slabs or snow. At its worst, it's endless rock-hopping." Oh good! After 8 days, our feet were finally starting to beg for a break. Aaron got his first blister of the trip, and our pace slowed significantly due to the fact that we were both physically and mentally exhausted. Once again, the Winds delighted us - just when our spirits were waning, we not only found a bighorn sheep skull, but we also had the opportunity to watch an entire herd of bighorn sheep sprinting across the tundra.
Like it happened yesterday, I can close my eyes and picture our short lunch break. We were both exhausted, and we stopped to sit on a boulder in the middle of a massively expansive saddle of tundra and rocks. We sat, in silence, watching the Bighorn Sheep graze on the slopes above us while we nibbled our snacks and shuddered in the cool breeze that quickly whisked by. Such a beautiful, simple moment - finished nearly as quickly as it began (because, of course, we had to start walking again) - but forever saved in the archive of my mind.
As the day progressed, we graduated from feeling merely, "fatigued" to feeling, "debilitatingly exhausted" to "more horribly debilitatingly exhausted than we had previously felt". On our annotated map, we finally reached an area that joyously indicated we were about to embark on, "1 mile of rock-hopping to the summit of Downs". I'm not sure why this mile of rock-hopping seemed more difficult than every other mile of rock-hopping, but it just felt brutally difficult. We were traversing the flank of Downs Mountain, so we were hopping massive rocks at an angle. It might have been that, or it might have been the fact that we had likely rock-hopped over 40 miles at this point, and one more mile of rock hopping was the last straw. Either way, it was brutal. This was one of many moments on our trip where we had to dig deep into a secret, hidden, long-forgotten store of motivation and energy and absolutely beg ourselves to use it and to keep moving. Consolation prize: the scenery was so breathtakingly spectacular that we couldn't help but feel at least moderately inspired.
Reaching the summit of Downs Mountain was one of those moments on the trip that I had visualized, but now that we were here, the magnitude of what we had accomplished to get to this point was overwhelming. As we scrambled up the final rocks to the summit, I was drenched with a mix of emotions - exhaustion, relief, joy, awe and fear of descent. I took my shoes off on the summit and stood on the highest rocks and looked out over the route we had come - in the distance I could even see the saddle of Blaurock Pass - it looked so tiny and so far away! When you are hiking, you are immersed in your, "own little world" - sometimes completely oblivious to time and distance. Now, looking back at the high route, it was hard to comprehend how far we had come. That first day in the parking lot, worrying about whether or not we were completely prepared for this adventure - that day seemed to be just a figment of my imagination. For the past 8 days, carrying everything we needed, propelled only by our own feet and our own desire to keep moving forward, every single step had brought us here, to this very summit. Looking around us in every direction, we were perched on the highest point in the northernmost reaches of the Winds. There was only one way to go from here - down.
The thing about climbing up a mountain is that you also have to climb down the mountain. After 20 euphoric minutes on the summit, it was time to quit having fun and get back to work. We headed down into a sea of boulders that were strategically (obviously this was done on purpose) arranged in such a way that they required uneven and awkward steps to walk across them without tripping. The boulders deposited us at the top of a ridiculously steep snow/ice slope, where we had two choices:
1. traverse across the ridiculously steep snow/ice slope and then descend it
2. descend more steep boulders
The disadvantage of traversing across ridiculously steep snow and ice is that if you fall, you will likely be whisked to your death rather quickly. The advantage of traversing across a ridiculously steep snow and ice slope, is that you get a temporary reprise from walking on boulders. As such, we opted for the snow. The traverse itself was moderately tricky, because the "runout" (aka distance to fall) was relatively intense. Our microspikes didn't provide much traction, because the snow was a little bit slushy, so we essentially tip-toed our way across the slope until we reached an area of the snow that felt a little bit safer. From this point, we were able to descend relatively quickly into another sea of boulders. Our map indicated that there were a few walled campsites in this area, and after about 10 minutes of poking around, we located a suitable spot for our tent.
At the time, we didn't know this would be our last night on the route. We were just under 14 miles from my car - so close to civilization, and yet, this location felt so desolate and completely removed from everything in the entire world. In the midst of our trips, I often wonder if anybody else is out in the wilderness doing the same thing that we are doing. In my heart, I hope that they are. I hope that we aren't the only ones fortunate enough to surround ourselves with a place this magical. I hope we aren't the only ones with this inner aching for adventure. As we sit outside, eating our last meal-out-of-a-bag, I can sense that we aren't alone - and not in the creepy way - but in the way that hundreds of other adventurers are sitting around their tents doing the exact same thing at the same moment - hearts beating in unison with a deep, resonating love of the mountains that only we can truly feel and understand.
Weeks after returning home from our adventures, I was perusing a local hiking forum, when I noticed a trip report from the Wind River Range. Naturally, it peaked my curiosity and I opened it. Quite quickly, I recognized the location and the tent in the photographs - it was the trip report from the solo male hiker that Aaron and I had seen at Iceberg Lake Pass! Immediately, I reached out to him - and coincidentally enough, he had seen a report that I had written, and had reached out simultaneously to me! He had seen Aaron and I descending to Iceberg Lake Pass and was similarly curious about our adventure. He wrote me a letter that described his experience while exploring the Wind River Range - witnessing the beauty of the mountains to the point of being completely overwhelmed. I couldn't help but feel struck by his sentiments - we had been miles apart, and had never even waved at each other, much less spoken to each other at the time, and yet the three of us were simultaneously experiencing such similar emotions. In his letter to me, he described the raw, guttural sensation of literally feeling the mountains around him. As I read his letter, I wanted to scream through the computer - YES, YES!! I understand that! You're not alone - I GET IT!
I write about mountains a lot, and mountains are indeed very interesting, beautiful piles of rocks, but I really try to write about them within the context of life. It is one thing to read a step-by-step trip report with specific directions and route beta ... it is another thing to dig deeper into the WHY. WHY am I drawn to the mountains? WHY do I have an insatiable thirst for adventure? WHY am I here? Slowly, but surely, the mountains have revealed answers to me, not only about their own mysteries, but about mine. Friendship, love, family, health - the importance of these things are glaringly obvious in the wilderness, but they can sadly get lost in the day-to-day routine of "normal life", when it is easy to focus on things like buying the most fashionable yoga pants or getting angry at your spouse for breathing too loudly (No, I have not done that, for the record). With each passing step, I learn something new - I piece together the clues, and I try to make sense of this crazy gift of life. I know I'm not the only one - there are others out there, just like me, searching for answers. Keep exploring, my friends, every answer you've ever wanted is waiting for you... just around the next bend in the trail.