Off the Beaten Path - The Wind River Valley, Part I
"I think true wilderness can still be found, but it's hard to reach and dangerous when you get there, which is probably why it still exists." - Machelle Paver
A year, it was a full calendar year before I left the swampy suburbs of Houston for an adventure in an alpine environment. I found myself relocating to Texas after graduating from a university in Pennsylvania. I chased after dreams of making it big in a new city with little regard to how important setting was. Desipte quickly and helplessly falling in love with the wacky southern metropolis, I am avid hiker at heart and I could only think of one thing - the mountains. I grew up taking the hills and mountains for granted but now I found myself desperatly trying to get back to them.
A lot can happen in a short amount of time, especially in the chaotic window after graduation. Everyone is scrambling to find jobs in fear of the growing student loan ‘grace period’ shadow. That tiny period of time is the perfect opportunity to disconnect from society and reflect on what you really want. But I had already made my decision, and after a year I was ready to get back where I belong.
I took two weeks off from work, packed up my car, and drove north. It was the first time in a year that I requested even a day off, every time I was going to take time off the phrase “we are really busy right now” came into my head. I found that right now was actually always and despite loving my work, I realized that I needed to break away from the tedium of daily routine.
The plan was to drive to Wyoming, a state my travels had not yet taken me, and explore the Wind River Valley south of Yellowstone National Park. I had been dreaming and planning this trip since spring figuring that August would be the perfect time to take a sabbatical from Texas’ unrelenting heat. What I had not planned was the craze that started to stir, a single word that dominated the news and social media: Eclipse.
Everyone was rushing from all over the country to get under the once-in-a-lifetime American super eclipse umbra. Every hotel room was booked along its path from Nashville to Charlotte, and the state of Wyoming was expected to double in population. Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks were about to become a spawning ground for campers, RV’s and a sea of cars - not something that interested me, I was hoping to get away from all of that. However, our plans fell perfectly in line with the plans of the moon falling perfectly in line with the sun. We were going to be right in its path, with 100% clarity, in the most remote mountain range in America. Sometimes it pays to look beyond the brochure.
The Treck North
After thirty hours of driving through the heart of America I made it to the rendezvous point. The meeting spot was a tiny town in Wyoming called Pinedale. The town rests comfortably in the shadow of the Wind River Mountain Range. The Winds, as I found the locals call them, are a stem of the Rockies that follow the continental divide. The mountains themselves are solid granite behemoths creating a single, massive wall that obscures one of the last true wilderness in the continental United States -an unforgiving, primeval, pristine, untouched American wilderness.
I found myself ahead of schedule and waiting on the rest of the group to make it to Pinedale. The rest of the group were driving in from Pennsylvania, which was about ten hours longer than my trip from Houston. While I waited, I visited the one-street town’s local brewery and stopped in for a specialty beer. I appropriately ordered the ‘Rendezvous Wit’ - a foamy and delicious dark beer. As I sipped on the bitter suds, the gentleman nursing his own beverage next to me teased me into conversation.
“You’re not from Pinedale are ya?” - managed the man in his early thirties after a few tries.
“No, just visiting for the night, heading into the Wind River Range tomorrow.”
“The Winds! Ha! Good luck with that.” he responded while he was trying to get the bartender’s attention.
“Have you been into the range?” - I asked as he handed me an overflowing beer to keep my other still full glass company.
“Not in a few years, but when I was a kid we used to explore them all the time, they are a bitch!”
“I think we’ll be able to handle it, do you have any advice?”
“I would see the boys next door and pick yourself up some bear mace, it's been a bad grizzly year.”
I swallowed my beer wrong and tried to suppress the desperate chokes for air.
“What does a bad grizzly year mean exactly?”, I asked between gags.
“They’ve had to relocate three, five-hundred pounders this month alone from the Green River.”
“Well, I guess I’ll deal with the bears tomorrow,” I responded, thinking to myself that the Green River Lakes Trailhead is exactly where we decided on setting off into the Winds.
“I just need to find a place to park my car tonight..”
“I own one of the businesses right down the street, feel free to park behind it tonight if ya want!”
I thanked him for the advice and place to stay for the night, and helped him make it to the door of the brewery. The ostensibly drunk man slurred something about “damn grizzlies” as he stumbled down the road. I figured that the encounter was a productive meeting, it certainly beat sitting at the bar alone. The locals always have the best information on the area and I planned to truly heed his advice and visit the adventure store that was across the street first thing in the morning to get some more information on this ‘bad grizzly year’.
I finished both of my beers before I tried to get in contact with the rest of the gang to see where they were and how far away they still needed to come. No cell service. I sent Andy a text saying where I was going to be parked for the night hoping reception would pick up just enough to send a bit of text.
A large vehicle blasting their high-beams directly into my cabin woke me up; the gang had made it and found me. I jumped out of the car, greeted the bleary-eyed boys and clamored in the back of the large pickup truck’s bed where we made our beds for the remainder of the night. Sleep instantly found us despite the excitement of the assembly, and we snored until the sun rose over the mountains in the horizon.
Morning sun brought a bustle to the little town. Trucks of all colors and sizes rumbled down the single road. I rallied the weary congregation to the adventure store, where we bought maps, bear spray, bug spray, and warm mittens - as we were warned it was going to get cold in the mountains. The owner of the store said the bears shouldn’t be a problem since there were four of us, but suggested to get bear spray as a reassurance.
Excited, we left the store fully stocked and ready for a week in the Wind River Range. I drove my Camry as far as I felt comfortable going. Each mile became more treacherous for the vehicle than the last until I finally called it quits and ditched my trusted companion on the side of a road. The last thing I wanted to do was thank the car that drove me safely 1,500 miles by taking down a two mile stretch of road that would total it. I joined the rest of the crew in Big Blue, Juan’s 1992 Ford F-250 pick-up which became the unsung hero of the entire journey. I made the right decision because soon after switching cars, the road became impassable to anything that didn’t equal 16 after some multiplication.
The drive to the trailhead was magical. The countryside was a panorama full of green rolling hills, old log cabins, and wooden fences. It was glaringly apparent that we were in the most remote county, in the most remote state. The Winds were truly among the last unvarnished wildernesses left in the continental United States. An ancient, primitive land, apart from the footprint of civilization and progress of a first world country.
After some legitimately scary miles of backcountry, rally car driving, we made it to our destination, the Green River Lakes Trailhead. The trailhead was a passage from our world, a world full of twenty-first century problems, to a world of first century problems. A place where survival meant eating rather than getting the most recent Apple product. Sometimes, the trailheads also represent a physical passage, and what a passage it was!
Green River Lakes Trailhead
The trail lay in the mouth of a prehistoric valley. It demanded no creative mind to imagine giant beasts grazing among the foothills. The water in the lake below us was a color unlike anything I had ever seen. It was a milky green, but a healthy green. A green in which you would feel comfortable swimming in but probably think twice about sipping on. The most noticeable, dominating, absolutely stunning feature of the scene was a very particular mountain. Sitting just barely in view, at the very end of the valley was Square Top. Square Top might very possibly be the most distinct mountain I have ever personally seen. Of course you are going to recognize Yosemite’s celebrity mountain, Half-Dome, or possibly the stunning summit of K2, but Square Top was, for me, the most remarkable mountain I had seen. First, it was enormous, taller than most of the mountains directly around us. It was also fat, almost as wide as it was tall. Second, it resembled a square, or moreso a box. The sides of the mountain followed exactly no resembling features of any other mountain I had seen. It was as if the laws of erosion turned a blind eye to that piece of granite.
Square Top was also our destination for the night. We wanted to make it all the way down the throat of the valley and set up our first camp in the protection of the mighty monolith. However, the mountain was deceptive in more ways than one. The size made it seem like we were closer than we were, and it took hours before we could even rest in the shade of the stone. We followed the trail for miles along the coast of the green lake, occasionally breaking eye contact with Square Top, but it would always return.
For the most part, the trails were extremely well maintained for a wilderness area. I figured it was because of the high volume of equestrians we met along the way. Horseback riding was popular close to the trailhead, but nonexistent further back into the country.
The First Night In the Winds
After a few hours of hiking we decided to find a place to set up camp before the sun set - it is always best to set up with a little bit of light. We found a clearing in the woods a few hundred feet of the trail, and a few hundred feet from the bank of the Green River. In wilderness areas those are really the only rules, set up camp away from the trail and away from water.
We managed to construct camp before the sun went down. For the first time in my backpacking career we decided to make a small campfire. Normally, it would either be against the rules of the park, or dangerous to start a fire, but the site we found already had an established fire pit (or one someone used recently at least) meaning we didn’t have to make a new one and scar the land. We kept the fire small, but the warm, orange light illuminated our immediate area. The tree trunks and low branches glowed in the dark night.
There is something magical about a campfire. It allowed us to stay up much later in the night and that meant conversation became fascinating. Without the fire, the night would be too cold and dark to bare, and we would ultimately climb in our sleeping bags as soon as the last of the sun’s light left the atmosphere. A campfire also allows for long periods of silence. The crackle of twigs, the flickering of the flame, and the smell of the smoke seems to be the perfect amount of entertainment needed to keep us occupied. It is like watching an ancient movie. There can’t really be awkward silences because everyone is fixed on the watching the fire. Finally, I have a theory that sitting around a campfire lowers people's natural inhibitions. Watching a fire is the epitome of natural tranquility, humans have been doing it for centuries. Sitting around a fire makes us feel safe, warm, and relaxed and we tend to be more willing to share in those kinds of environments. Once the fire died down, it was time for bed.
The first thing we did in the morning was check the map to see what we were going up against for the day. The day before was a relatively easy hike. There was little elevation, there was no need to climb any mountains and passes, and the trail was well kept and clearly marked. We knew that if we wanted to get into the mountains, the path would soon start to gain seriously altitude. The map indicated that the trail would remain quite easy for a few more miles, and then make a steep climb out of the valley to get above the treeline. It was a mess of switchbacks for a few miles straight and we knew it was going to be rough, but were in high spirits anyway.
A Change of Plans
The morning enthusiasm faded with each step. The trail was hard, really hard, at some point I realized that it was the hardest hiking I have ever done, but the views were spectacular. They never get old. It was a mental battle as well as a physical one. I counted four times that we were tricked into thinking we had made it up the pass, and each time we were welcomed with a false-summit. There would be a little plateau, and then the trail would once again begin to rise. Whatsmore is that at this time, Mikey informed us that he was not well - fighting off headaches and nausea.
At one of these points we had to make a decision. Due to the difficulty of the trail, and an equally steep drop in moral, we figured that there was no way we were going to make it to Elbow Lake, our agreed destination for camp. We reached a split in the trail, the sign indicated that the split off of the Continental Divide Route was a shortcut to Elbow Lake through Shannon Pass. An option for a shortcut could not have come at a better time. After consulting the map, the shortcut would save us a considerable amount of miles, but it would also be another day of difficult hiking. We agreed to camp just below the pass and hit it early in the morning.
Cube Rock Pass
Juan and Mikey were struggling, so Andy and I decided to head out ahead of them and find a good place to start setting up camp. You know in movies when you yell at the characters for splitting up, that is what I was saying to myself minutes after cutting the group in half. Andy and I, a few miles later, came across a place to set up came at the mouth of Cube Rock Pass, the final pass before hitting a large lake that sits at the food of Shannon’s Pass. As we waited for the rest of our party to catch up, the weather started to change. It grew cold, dark and windy within a matter of minutes, and soon hail was beating down on us. Andy and I sought refuge under a large boulder, and made friends with the marmots that chose the same spot. We waited, and waited, but the other guys were nowhere to be found. Andy and I never left the trail, and it was clearly marked. We couldn’t have missed them.
Finally, we saw Mikey stumbled over the ridge. He was alone and had no backpack which was a worrying sight. He called to us and said that Juan needed help. Immediately, I started thinking of all of the horrible things that could have happened to him. Andy ran down the trail and I tended to Mickey. He wasn’t looking good. His normally pale skin was ghost white, he was breathing heavily but I noticed he wasn’t getting any oxygen, and he was extremely haggard. I ushered him to sit and drink some water. We waited in silence for news on Juan. It turns out that Juan was uninjured he just needed help carrying Micaiah’s backpack the last mile - a distinction Mickey could have told us.
A Teammate Down
Our group has been known to rag on each other, especially Mikey, him being the sandbag of the group. That being said, we were genuinely worried about our friend. He was clearly sick, but we didn’t know what from. Merely hours ago, good health and spirits blessed all of us, there was no sign of illness. We had all been eating the exact same thing, and had been for the last three days, so I ruled out food poisoning. Dehydration was my next thought, but he had actually been drinking more water than any of us. We ruled it elevation sickness, but were also baffled by that because we had all hiked at higher elevations in the past and had been completely unaffected by elevation.
Elevation sickness has confused scientists for decades. It is probably the least discriminatory illness in that it seems to target everyone regardless of age, gender, or even level of fitness. The most hardened athletes can suffer from it as much as anyone else. Elevation sickness can also be extremely dangerous, and really the only way to deal with the symptoms is to get to lower altitude or hope your body acclimates. We were all praying for the latter, after all, it took all day to gain the elevation and the trail was just started to smooth out a little. But things only got worse. Mickey began vomiting, a lot, which is bad news in the mountains. Vomiting leads to more serious issues like dehydration because the body is trying to get rid of everything and you can’t keep water down long enough for you to absorb it. Additionally, we didn’t have many options. It was starting to get dark and there was no way we could go back down the trail at night, we also didn’t want him to get any worse because there was no one out there to help us. So we asked the man himself what he wanted to do. Mikey, not surprisingly, was ready to go home, but recognized there was no way of doing that - he said the next best thing was for him to rest.
We set up camp like we had originally planned with the strategy of hiking out (or at least to a lower elevation) in the morning. Our vision for a glorious trek in the most remote mountain rage was over, and concern for the safety of our friend consumed us. When we awoke, we were happy to discover that Mickey was back to his normal self! Mopey and whiny, but for the most part healthy. He said that he wanted to keep going, at least for one more day, as to not disappoint us. I slapped him on the back and said that I would even fill his water up for him.
With Mikey feeling much better, we once again met to discuss our plan. We agreed at few more nights in the Winds would be enough and plotted our next point.