13 Jul 6 days in the Wind River Range
A few years ago I saw a photograph from the Wind River Range in Wyoming, and I decided that I needed to go. I did countless hours of research, poured over maps and scoured the internet for trip reports before settling on a route. We decided to do a 50-ish mile loop, starting at the Big Sandy Opening, near Pinedale, Wyoming. While some of the route was on maintained trails, much of the route required off-trail navigation and a few sections of class 3 scrambling. Last summer, with great anticipation, we loaded way too much gear into the back of my tiny Honda Fit and headed off for a long 1.5 day drive to the trailhead.
Even as we pulled into Pinedale, I was having some anxiety about our choice of route. I had read a bunch of reports that basically made it sound like the road to the trailhead was impassable unless you owned a 4WD truck. I meekly looked at my Honda, dwarfed by every single other vehicle in Wyoming, which happened to be either a Subaru or a monster truck, and I gulped. I mean, really, how bad could this road be? With much trepidation, we decided to go for it – and before long, my little blue Honda was buzzing down the road to Big Sandy.
I want to ask a question to people who complain about dirt roads – are you crazy??? EVERY report I read about this road led me to believe that I was going to be doomed if I didn’t have a Land Rover with an articulated suspension and a snorkel. My only feasible theory is that there is a massive conspiracy involving SUV makers who post elaborate trip reports describing atrocious road conditions, so that people like me run out and buy a 4WD vehicle. Then, since I wouldn’t want to feel stupid for making such an impulsive decision, I would rationalize my purchase by agreeing that the road was absolutely horrible. Here’s the truth – I drove 30mph most of the time on the road, and had to slow down in one extremely short section to go over a few rocks. They weren’t even big rocks. We made it to the trailhead, completely packed with SUVs, with no trouble at all. After a quick bite to eat, we waved goodbye to “civilization”, and started walking.
Living at 233ft elevation and then starting a hike at around 9000′ is really a bit of a shocker. Our first day was only 8 miles, but by the time we found a campsite at Marm’s Lake, we were exhausted. We had brought our fly rods with us for the trip (the Wind River Range is famous for trout fishing), and another hiker gave us some sage advice on the way in – “If you aren’t catching anything, then something is probably seriously wrong with you.” Well, this comment really struck a chord after an hour of not catching anything at the lake, even though we could see trout coming up to the surface by the hundreds. We tried using different flies – wet, dry… I tried something that looked like an ant because I thought it was cute (I’m the hiker in the family, not the fly fisher). Apparently, something was seriously wrong with us. We retreated to the campsite, feeling slightly demoralized and proceeded to have a near-emergency when the cord for our bear wire wrapped itself into a death knot in a tree and we couldn’t get it down. I miraculously invented a technique called the, “tie the bear wire onto a hiking pole and run away from the tree as quickly and aggressively as possible” method, which mercifully worked. Exhausted from the long day of anticlimactic 4×4 driving in my Honda Fit, lack of success at fishing (and subsequent realization that we were complete failures at life in general) and near-disaster with the bear wire, we finally drifted off to sleep.
The next day, our route took us from Marm’s Lake to the Shadow Lake trail. As we climbed out of the small basin we had camped in, suddenly the monstrosity of the Wind River Range was in front of us – more expansive, more dramatic and more spectacular than I had ever imagined. We were hiking in a massive, flat plain and the mountains to our north seemed jagged and endless. We easily found our way to the “Shadow Lake Trail”, where we would start to head east to complete our loop. From there, we had to pick our way on relatively well defined “social” trails to ascend Texas Pass, so that we could drop into the famous “Cirque of the Towers”. As we gradually gained elevation from Shadow Lake, the trees became more sparse. More dramatic alpine lakes, like turquoise gems nestled in a sea of granite, greeted us at every turn.
The descent from Texas Pass started innocently enough – a steep, off-trail, rambling descent down a slope into the Lonesome Lake Basin. While Lonesome Lake is a beautiful spot, we had more mileage to complete for the day in order to stay on track. We stopped for a quick snack, and when I stood up I felt a small pang of pain in my right ankle..”Hmmm. That’s not good.”, I thought to myself – not wanting to make a big deal out of it immediately. As we continued our descent, the pain in my ankle quickly escalated from, “well, this is annoying” to, “holy $hitballs, I think my ligament snapped”. We stopped on a rock so that I could take off my boot and prod my ankle with absolutely no rhyme or reason. It didn’t hurt when I pressed on it, it didn’t hurt when I walked around without my boot on, but it did look a little swollen. I took my buff off my head, wrapped it around my ankle, untied my boot so that there was no pressure on my leg, and we headed off again.
We plodded along, marching endlessly – my ankle reminding me how uncomfortable it was with every step. I stopped multiple times and manipulated my foot and my ankle – absolutey no pain. I came to the conclusion that I must have sustained a severe bruise from my boots. Oh, perfect – because it’s only day two, and barely being able to walk is definitely going to help for the more challenging bits of the trip yet to come. Finally, mercifully, we reached our goal mileage for the day and found an amazing little campsite near Papoose Lake (although we never actually saw the lake). We decided to once again test the theory that, “something is seriously wrong with us”, by trying our hand at fly fishing. This time, Aaron decided to try an entirely different technique – instead of trying to “trick” the fish into thinking our flies were real, he just smacked the water with the fly and reeled it in quickly. As luck would have it, we caught three beautiful little trout. Apparently, nothing is wrong with us afterall.
Miraculously, my strange ankle ailment disappeared without a trace. The next day consisted of a lot of uphill climbing to Deep Creek Lakes, where we lounged and relaxed in preparation for our climb of Wind River Peak the following day. When I started researching our Wind River trip, Andrew Skurka (author of the National Geographic book The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide) was a huge inspiration for me. In fact, I had e-mailed him with some questions about our selected route, and he was kind enough to respond to me with some beta. As we were packing up our little campsite at Deep Creek Lakes on the 3rd morning of our trip, a lone male hiker walked by and said hello. I blinked. I blinked again. Could it really be? No. Yes. NO WAY!! It was Andrew Skurka, hiking past our campsite – on his way to complete his first thru-hike of his official “Wind River High Route”. Of course, he had probably already hiked more in the first few hours of the morning than we would hike all day, but that’s beside the point.
Years ago, I knew a couple that hiked together and they spent about 95% of the time arguing. I never understood why they did it – they both just seemed so miserable. Our days during the Wind River trip were long – we started hiking in the early morning, and didn’t finish for the day until the late afternoon. For six days, the only time that we weren’t in eyesight of each other, was when one of of disappeared to find a “bathroom” in the woods (we do have some boundaries, you know). One of my friends asked me once, “What do you even talk about for that long?” I had to laugh. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t – but the silence isn’t uncomfortable. The sound of our feet on the trail, the mutual curiosity of absorbing our surroundings, the exhausted gasps on a steep ascent and the deliberate deep breaths on a quiet break – these are the things that keep us connected at all times. And, of course, we do talk. We point things out to each other – making sure that the other doesn’t miss something amazing.
On the fourth afternoon of our trip, we arrived at Coon Lake, a spectacular spot that sits right at the edge of the Continental Divide. This was the only part of the trip that I had questions about – I was unclear how to descend from Coon Lake down to the Little Sandy Trail. According to the topography, Coon lake sits perched on a ledge, with cliffs directly to the west. Through my e-mail communication with Andrew Skurka, he told me that the route over the divide was due west of the northern most point on the lake. After making camp, Aaron and I immediately headed out to scout the route – we found numerous “ledge systems”, but all quickly led to harrowing cliffs or steep, dangerous gullies. We scrambled around for hours – retracing our steps, backtracking, double checking – but we could not find a route. We retreated to the tent in a rainstorm, feeling frustrated. If we couldn’t find the correct route over the divide, our only option was a 20 mile detour. We had enough food for at least 2 days, but adding on an additional 20 miles was seriously pushing it. We started to freak out a little bit.
I turned on my phone, and found the e-mail that Andrew Skurka had sent me. I re-read it again to verify that we were looking in the right spot. As darkness started to descend on Coon Lake, Aaron and I put on our headlamps and decided to dash out for one last attempt at route finding. When I think back to that night now, it is one of my favorite memories from the trip. In the middle of the wilderness, completely alone and unbeknownst to anybody else in the entire world, there we were – two adults running around in the rain, headlamps bobbing in the dark – our excitement growing as we suddenly realized that we had discovered what we believed to be the correct ledge system that would safely lead us on our way. Laughing and soaked, we dashed back to the tent – joking that maybe we should “separate” to find our campsite in the dark (bad hiker humor, I know).
Because I love to write about my adventures, I’m always watching for a “theme” to appear during the experience. I like themes that everybody, even if you’ve never been on a hike in your life, can relate to. A few weeks ago, I asked Aaron what he thought the theme of our Wind River trip was and he immediately responded, “I don’t know … it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.” Apparently, this is also a quote from the The Simpsons, but it actually really struck a chord with me. Maybe there wasn’t a common theme for this trip – maybe it did really just represent everything that I value. Maybe it represented the best and worst parts of being alive. Maybe it was just about being, about existing. Maybe it was, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.” I reflected back on everything that happened over those 6 days that we spent together in the Winds – how can I possibly “package” that experience as a single theme?
Over the course of six days together, we walked nearly 50 miles in some of the most beautiful, rugged and majestic terrain that I have ever experienced. We talked for hours and we hiked in silence for even longer. We ascended and descended thousands of feet. We climbed a mountain. We were demoralized by rain, and fearful of finding our way. We were nervous and overcame challenges. We laughed endlessly. We saw the most beautiful things that either of us could have ever imagined. We grew stronger physically and mentally. We drank tea and and ate chocolate sitting on slabs of granite while watching a sunset. We felt simultaneous physical pain and overwhelming joy. We were brutally exhausted and deeply energized. We felt so many emotions and experienced so much over the course of a mere six days, that when the trail finally “spit us out” back at the parking lot, it was hard to process.
Aaron reads this blog, and often asks me how I come up with the ideas for my writing. I tell him that I’m not sure – not to sound cliche – but ideas just seem to flow through me when I’m inspired by an experience. I don’t make things up about our trips or over-dramatize them. I simply write how they make me feel. Nature is a powerful force – the most powerful force in all of the world. It has the ability to crush us, unforgivingly, in the blink of an eye. And yet, it also has the ability to give us the most joy, the most beauty, the most quiet and the most patience. Each challenge, each moment of joy, each millisecond of fear or wonder is a gift – it’s not just the “stuff that happens” out there that makes it special… it’s that we are blessed enough to be there to see it. To hear it. To feel it. Above all else, to be a part of it. Even if it is only for six days, nature teaches us to become more connected to each other and the beautiful world that makes life worth living.
Stay tuned – We are heading back to the Winds this summer for an even bigger, more epic trip!