The week of July 23 - 30, 2011, Will McElwee planned a backpacking trip through the Wind River Range of west central Wyoming. At this altitude in the northwestern Rocky Mountains, there is a short, three week window in mid-to-late August to get in your trip after last year’s snow melt-out, when the mosquitoes are gone, and before the next fall’s snow flurries start. It turned out we were about two weeks too early.
The other campers were Jim Smoak, Kelly Pipes and Bob Laney (me). We were in the Bridger Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, just west of the Continental Divide. The Wind River Range contains 15 of the 16 highest peaks in Wyoming. The trail head was Green River Lakes campground and the trail end was Elkhart Park campground. Leaving home at 2:45 a.m. Saturday, I ran the carpool from Wilkesboro to Charlotte, NC. At the end of Will’s, mine and Kelly’s flight to Jackson Hole, WY, Jim picked us up at the airport. He hosted us at his cabin adjacent to the airport, and by the Snake River on the edge of Grand Teton National Park, for Lucy’s wonderful fresh lunch. Then Jim distributed the non-flight supplies he bought for us, including bear spray, stove fuel and lighters.
Jim then drove us south in his ancient Suburban, “The Beast,” to Pinedale, WY, where we met an old codger named Rick, the driver from Great Outdoor Shop. While Rick ran our shuttle, he turned out to be a little too full of himself – offering strongly worded, unsolicited advice about the wimpy ease of our planned route, and blowing off any difficulties of the much tougher trails that he recommended. A few days later, after seeing the trail conditions for ourselves and talking to other backpackers who took some of Rick’s preferred trails, we decided that Rick had not been in the backcountry any time this year and did not know exactly what he was talking about.
We spent the first night at the Green River Lakes campground. The mosquitoes quickly asserted their presence, so we all donned Deet and head nets. Supper was our first of many freeze dried trail dinners. During the night we made our pee breaks to crisp clear skies and brilliant stars. All the constellations were visible, including the Milky Way. The next morning, despite short sleeve hot weather the afternoon before, we woke to heavy frost on our gear. But the sun made all the difference. As soon as the sunrise broke over the eastern horizon, it was warm enough again for short sleeves.
All our meals were some kind of dried something. Most suppers were freeze dried, ready-to-eat foil pouch meals. Lunches were Clif bars, protein bars and trail mixes of peanuts, raisins and granola. Breakfasts ranged from a single granola bar (Will) to hot oatmeal or grits and coffee (Kelly and Jim) to concoctions of oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, pecans and butter; or grits with bacon bits, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and butter and a drink of cold dried milk and Instant Breakfast (Bob). We all had thumb sized stoves that fit onto tea cup sized iso-propane fuel canisters to cook our meals. [Note to self: I could get by for a week on a single 4 ounce (small) canister.] We did not see any bears, but they were in the area and the rangers advised to keep our food safe from them. To save the weight and bulk, we opted to skip the hard sided food canisters, but most nights we hoisted our food bags into a nearby tree.
The next day saw us following the Highline Trail as we circled Lower and Upper Green River Lake and ascended the fabled Green River trout stream. Jim and I talked about taking our fishing rods, but in the end left them at home in favor of lighter and less bulky packs. In fact, the Wind River Range is a trout fishing paradise and we passed right many other fishermen. Our second night at Island Lake, our fly fishing camper neighbors returned from Titcomb Basin with four huge golden trout fillets, which they fried over a camp fire with cornmeal, olive oil and various spices and ate with freeze dried pasta primavera. I did not get a taste, but it sure smelled good. When I go back to the Wind Rivers, I want to hire a horse pack outfitter to carry me and my gear deep into the wilderness. Then I will set up a base camp and day hike to fishing spots.
We were lucky on water in that the Wind Rivers is loaded with creeks and lakes. Mostly we carried 2 quarts of water (weighing 4 pounds), and many times we could have gotten by with 1 quart. When we needed water, we stopped and used our filters to pump more fresh water into our canteens. Due to the glacial silt in the larger rivers, which clog the filters, we limited our water sources to small creeks and ponds.
Our itinerary had us camping the second night at Beaver Park, but we got there too early in the afternoon. So, we continued upstream to Three Forks Park and plopped down beside the first available camp site that was cramped and lumpy. Fortunately, Will and Kelly forged ahead and found a ten times better site at the far end of Three Forks Park. It was on the Green River bank with trees for shade from the hot afternoon sun and on a flat carpet of green grass in a meadow. A pleasant evening was spent in our most pastoral site.
The next morning took us further upstream. The trail turned steeper, muddier and rockier. Tall mountains closed in on each side of the trail and occasional melting snowfield waterfalls crashed into the Green River. Bob and Jim planned to stay on the Highline Trail while Will and Kelly branched off on the shorter but steeper, rougher and higher altitude Shannon Pass trail. Our itinerary called for us to camp that night at Elbow Lake, but that would require Will and Kelly to back-track to meet us, so we changed our plan to meet beyond Elbow Lake at Upper Jean Lake.
Will and Kelly encountered the expected bad trail conditions. They climbed Vista Pass, Cube Rock Pass and Shannon Pass. On several long, steep and somewhat dangerous snow fields (with, of course, no trail) Will wished he had worn heavier boots to prevent a narrowly averted dangerous slide onto rocks far below. Kelly wished for gaiters as he post-holed into the deep snow.
Post-holing is when you step on snow and it gives way, with your leg going all the way down in the snow to your crotch, making for a difficult extrication. Sometimes the snow is over water in a creek or pond, so the cave-in can result in a dangerous dunking and wet boots. When I started to post-hole, I learned to pitch forward and catch myself on my knees.
Bob and Jim encountered unexpected trail conditions about as bad, just not as steep, but longer. While traversing Green River Pass we had several wet wade creek crossings, steep, rocky and muddy trails, and many short snow fields. At one point we came to a trail fork not on the map. We took the left fork, but within a few minutes we doubted our choice. At some distance we saw some other backpackers passing on the trail that we skipped. I pulled out my trusty whistle on the cord around my neck and caught their attention with three long blasts. They stopped and let us catch up to ask directions. They confirmed we were on the wrong trail, so we switched over to theirs.
Then about Summit Lake, the route got worse. We went east on the Highline Trail for miles, past Pass Lake, with only short snatches of trail in view. In between trail views, it disappeared for long stretches under wide snow fields or disappeared across bare rock. Many times prior hikers’ boot prints would be visible on the dirt trail, then upon reaching the next snow field, they would simply disappear, as if the hikers floated over the snow. We did not know where to go and lost the trail. Other times, we would be following boot prints over the snow, and then upon reaching the other side of the snow fields they would disappear into grass fields or rock hills with no trail. Again, we got lost. We continued this disconcerting pattern for several miles and several hours, passing north of most of the length of Elbow Lake.
Today was my trial by fire to navigate by GPS. I had a DeLorme Earthmate 40 for several years, but I never learned to use it. Finally, before this trip, I figured out most of the angles, programmed it to follow a route, set it to keep a track, and downloaded USGS 7.5 minute quad maps with most of the trails. The GPS was my main solace in times of navigational stress. But nothing is perfect, and sometimes the trails on the map did not match what was on the ground. There is no substitute for wilderness experience, calm reflection and common sense. Thanks, Jim! [For future reference, I found it took 2 AA batteries for each day and a half of GPS operation.]
We were never totally lost, because we had maps, an altimeter and compass. Plus my GPS showed us where we were located, and roughly (but undependably) where the trail was supposed to be. Eventually, at the far north eastern end of Elbow Lake, we reached a point with nowhere to go. Ahead were many creeks, small ponds and swampy areas with no trail. Surrounding us was a host of mountains. In one direction, to the northeast, was a tall pass that likely contained our route, but we did not know how to get to the pass or where to traverse it. We briefly contemplated the terrible prospect of turning back, thus abandoning Will and Kelly, and losing our shuttle.
Jim then let me know that he had been sick for a day or so, had not eaten several meals, and was feeling weak. It was getting late in the afternoon and, even if we found the trail, we could not make it over the pass and down to Upper Jean Lake by nightfall. He wisely counseled that we camp for the night. We had already discussed that Elbow Lake sucked for camping and it was a good thing we did not plan to stay there, because the steep, rough and wet ground provided no good camp spots. Now, we had to do just that! Jim expertly scanned the terrain and found the only flat, dry spot in sight. We set up camp.
Then, while I was at the closest creek pumping water about dusk, I saw two characters traversing a dry route through the swamp and coming right at me. It was Will and Kelly! Miraculously, they had spotted us from far away and hundreds of feet higher, at the end of the Shannon Pass trail. When they saw us pitching camp, and clearly not joining them, they wisely and kindly descended the pass to our camp site. The creek between us was too deep to cross without a wet wade, so we shouted some changed plans back and forth. They would camp at Upper Jean Lake and Jim and I would meet them there tomorrow morning. They then re-crossed the swamp and re-ascended the pass. By visually following their progress, Jim and I were able to discern the route through the pass.
Going to the bathroom (doing # 1) was easy –just stand up and take a whiz anywhere. But the other kind (doing # 2) was sometimes a small adventure. A couple of our campsites had no woods for privacy; others had no dirt to dig in – just snow and rock. Most of the sites had a plethora of mosquitoes to attack our exposed privates. We learned to find a big rock to block some of the view closest to the ground; and Will and I used the snow for toilet paper. Brisk and refreshing!
The next morning started roughly for Jim and me, with a hike in sandals across a snow field to the same creek that Will and I had shouted across the night before, and then a deep, cold wet crossing. We followed Will and Kelly’s route across the swamp and up the pass. Jim and I went cross county by dead reckoning, since we never saw the Shannon Pass intersection nor found the Highline Trail, until we got to Will and Kelly’s campsite. It turns out that they did not make it to Upper Jean Lake, but were stopped by dark at a no name lake above Upper Jean Lake. After a happy re-union, we continued south on the Highline Trail.
Sometimes several hours apart, sometimes 15 minutes apart, we encountered stream or lake crossings. A few streams had bridges. A few more had various combinations of logs that may or may not be dependable. The trouble with trying and failing on a log was a dangerous fall into deep water and wet boots. Other times we could boulder hop across. Often we had to shuck our boots and socks, put on sandals, roll up or zip off our pants legs and do a wet wade.
At one particularly bad spot near Lower Jean Lake, the crossing was perhaps our deepest one (about crotch deep) with a heavy current. The trail on the other side went up nearly vertically for 30 feet. Jim had his gaiters in his hand, slipped in the deepest water, and in regaining his balance, he dropped his gaiters, which swept over the next little water fall and out of sight. I tied my boots and gaiters to my pack and used both of my trekking poles for balance. I was able to piece together enough boulders just below the surface that I could dance across without getting wet deeper than my calves.
We continued southeast on the Highline Trail, past Upper and Lower Jean Lakes and across the bridge at Fremont Crossing. Along the way we came to a creek with several small, semi-submerged, slippery and bouncy logs. I jitterbugged along in a dry crossing. Everyone else elected to shuck their boots and make it a wet crossing. At the Titcomb Basin trail intersection, my blisters were hurting me badly. All the wet crossings tended to pull off the bandages, and they kept the skin wet, which is anathema for blisters. Jim acknowledged he was still weak from being sick for several days and eating few meals. Jim and I camped at the intersection for the night while Will and Kelly ascended the Titcomb Basin trail.
Following our plan from the prior evening, the next morning Jim and I ascended the Titcomb Basin trail behind Will and Kelly. We were to look for their tents at Island Lake and camp at the same spot. Then we would meet up with them that evening. As we descended the valley to Island Lake, I was dismayed to see many acres of potential camping spots where the trail curved around the lake about 90 degrees for most of a mile. Finding Will and Kelly’s camp would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. By miraculous luck, as we crossed the last pass from far above nearly half a mile away, we spotted one end of Will’s tent sticking up over a large rock. Kelly’s tent was more deeply hidden between some boulders and pines; we did not see it until we walked up on it. We happily set up our camp on a prominent ridge near theirs with a fantastic view of the lake and the Titcomb Basin mountains beyond.
While Jim and I were setting up camp at Island Lake, Will and Kelly were day hiking into upper Titcomb Basin. From there they passed beneath Fremont Peak, which they had tentatively planned to climb, but passed on it as inaccessible due to deep snow fields and deep water runoff in the creeks. They took a look at Knapsack Col, which had been a potential trail choice for us (and strongly recommended by the shuttle driver Rick), but we wisely skipped it as too snowed in, steep and treacherous. That afternoon, Jim day hiked into lower Titcomb Basin. I doctored my blisters and took several naps on the big, sunny boulders in our campsite. By mid-afternoon, Jim was back in camp. By late afternoon, Will and Kelly returned to join us. We shared stories, cooked our suppers and hit the sack.
Most of the time, most of the campers in the Wind Rivers at this time of year are assaulted by mosquitoes. Generally, the higher the altitude, the colder the temperature and the more wind, then the less active are the little buggers. We alternated between liberal applications of 100% Deet, head nets, and going commando with no protection. For some strange reason, my body chemistry was different. The flying devils hovered around me, but unlike all my partners who got dozens (hundreds?) of bites, I never got a single bite. Go figure.
We saw osprey, golden eagle, marmots, mule deer, prong horn antelope, otter, chipmunks, a badger and other small wildlife.
The next day we back-tracked southwest on the Titcomb Basin trail to the Highline Trail, then merged with the Pole Creek trail. After many steep ups and downs we rounded Senaca Lake, where Karen McElwee’s Dad’s ashes are scattered. Where the trail left the lake and briefly angled directly west, we could see it snaking down into a rugged valley, and in the distance we could view the much lower plains of western Wyoming. Eventually we came to our planned camping spot at Hobbs Lake. But the conditions were poor – hot, dry, not shady and loads of mosquitoes. Since it was still early in the afternoon, we elected to eat lunch there and push on to camp at Barbara Lake. In less than half an hour we were at Barbara Lake and found the same conditions.
The group decision was made to combine that day’s hike with tomorrow’s hike and go all the way out to our trail end a day early. By then, a cold beer and a hot shower sounded better than another night on the trail. In deference to my hobbling gait due to multiple bad blisters, Will took my tent and Kelly took my food bag to carry the rest of the way. Thanks, guys! We made it all the way to Jim’s Beast, our shuttle vehicle, waiting at the Elkhart Park parking lot on the dot of 5 p.m.
When we got back to civilization, we spent the extra night at the Smoak's cabin and the extra day driving through the Grand Teton National Park in "the Beast." Then Jim and Lucy graciously drove us to the airport. Thanks for your wonderful hospitality!
We covered 55 miles in 5 days. Our packs weighed about 45 pounds. The trip started at 8,000 feet altitude, ended at 9,000 feet and averaged during most of the trail miles above 10,000 feet. Because I was the slowest hiker, the other guys kindly let me hike in front and set the pace. That way the group did not get stretched out, and I did not get left behind. Also, we scheduled the rest day for me at Island Lake. Plus, I took two Aleve pills each day. This combination gave me the best results I had experienced on a long, tough trip in years. Other than the frustrating blisters, I did not suffer any significant tiredness or soreness. I had felt much worse after several two day trips on the Appalachian Trail. The altitude also did not seem to bother me. Despite no time to acclimate, I did not suffer any extended episodes of shortness of breath.
In the Jackson Hole airport heading home, I saw a face that rang a bell with me. Around 1996 there was an abnormally bad series of storms on Mount Everest in which several climbers were killed. Another climber, Beck Weathers, became so cold that he suffered a coma and was left for dead, completely exposed outdoors, and abandoned by his crew. After about a day just below the summit, he staggered into the highest camp and collapsed into an open tent. Then he was abandoned again! He was eventually saved by another group. He lost part of his nose, most of both hands and some of his feet to frostbite. John Krakour wrote a bestselling book about the episode, "Into Thin Air." I saw Beck once on TV about 14 years ago. In the Jackson airport, I somehow recognized his face and approached him. We struck up a conversation and chatted amiably for half an hour. What a nice guy. He is still a medical doctor and is now also an airplane pilot. Talk about fortitude and overcoming adversity!
If the reader wants to plan a trip to this area, the best map is Earthwalk Press, North Wind River Range Hiking Map and Guide. The best guide book is Falcon Guide, Hiking Wyoming’s Wind River Range. No permits are required. The closest town for weather reports is Pinedale, WY. The US Forest Service contact is the Pinedale Ranger District office, 307-367-4326. A good time was had by all!