The week of August 13 – 20, 2016, Jim Smoak, John Willardson, Drew Willardson and I went backpacking in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The original impetus for the trip was that I had been on several prior hiking and backpacking trips to GTNP and I had approached a particularly high altitude and somewhat difficult trail section called Paintbrush Divide two times – once each from the north and the south. Both times I was feeling tired by that part of the trip and had taken a bail out route; I had not crossed the divide. I suggested this trip for the purpose of crossing Paintbrush Divide and the Willardsons agreed to go. Then Jim Smoak joined us, and he and his wife Luci graciously offered to host us by running our shuttles to and from the airport, the trailheads and allowing us to stay at their cabin in Moose, WY, the days when we were not on the trail. Jim also provided us the supplies that could not be brought with us on the airplane – bear spray and stove fuel.
Since Jim has been all over the park dozens of times and knows all the trails, he planned our route. Fortunately, his route provided bail out trails each day. The plan was to start the trip by riding the Jackson Hole ski resort tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain at about 11,000 feet altitude. From there we would be at an average of about 10,000 feet for four days and go to Death Canyon Shelf for the first night’s camp. The next day we would pass outside the park to Jedediah Smith Wilderness and cross Alaska Basin. Then the same day we would go off trail, descend a scree field, cross a snow field and camp the second night off the regular camping system at Snowdrift Lake. This camp site was Jim’s incentive to go on this trip, since this was the only part of the route where he had not been before. The third day we would rejoin the Teton Crest Trail and hike to one of the backcountry camp zones near Lake Solitude for the last night’s camp. The fourth day we would hike over Paintbrush Divide and down Paintbrush Canyon to the trailhead at String Lake, where we had parked a shuttle vehicle.
Before I arrived on Saturday afternoon the other three campers took a hike to Surprise Lake for conditioning and acclimatization. The next day, on Sunday, we spent in Moose at about 6,000 feet acclimating to the altitude and shopping for food and final supplies.
In an unfortunate circumstance, I had biggest and heaviest pack of the group. I carried one of everything, which others either shared or did not carry at all. Besides the usual tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, pots and clothes, my pack was further stuffed with a bear food canister, water filter, GPS, satellite emergency locator beacon, map, multi-tool with pliers, metal and wood saws and screw drivers, a big first aid kit, a repair and survival kit, compass, altimeter and on and on. The only thing that I did not carry was bear spray, which Jim carried.
Monday morning we started the hike by driving to Teton Village and riding the tram. From Rendezvous Mountain we backpacked cross county and up and down several small mountains. By noon I was sucking air big time. I could not seem to get my breath or keep it, unless I stopped moving. Going downhill or on a level trail was okay but abnormally tiring. Going uphill was all but impossible. At various times I felt dizzy and nauseous. I lagged behind the others. They let me go in front so we would stay together, and I held the group back. Our leader Jim reconnoitered the situation and made an executive decision. He determined that I was not in condition to finish the trip and needed to take tomorrow’s bail out trail. To keep me from hiking out of the park alone, which is bad form due to the danger of bears, Jim volunteered to accompany me out. I quickly agreed.
Within last few years I have been on several longer, tougher and slightly higher altitude backpacking trips. Carrying a big pack up and down big mountains is always a tough job, but I have usually managed to get through. Whatever I was suffering from on this trip was not a normal sickness, like a head cold or a stomach virus. We guessed it was altitude sickness and treated it accordingly by planning to hike down to a lower altitude. Since I have returned home all the symptoms have improved but the breathlessness. When doing anything mildly strenuous I still get out of breath too easily to be normal. I will check with my doctor and get a referral to a pulmonologist.
Monday afternoon we changed our plans. We followed our original route to Marion Lake. Going there I got so slow that Jim and Drew volunteered to carry some of my gear, so I gave each of them one of my stuff bags. That was not enough. Then Drew carried my pack while I carried his pack. Then finally John carried his pack AND Drew’s pack while I carried only my gear vest. John worked like a Trojan carrying two packs up the steep incline the last half mile before our campsite. You guys are my heroes.
Jim and I stopped at Marion Lake and set up camp. John and Drew filtered more water and got a thorough review of the rest of the route from Jim. Jim gave them his map, water filter and camping permit. I gave them my emergency locator beacon. Then John and Drew continued on our original route to make their Monday evening camp on Death Canyon Shelf. Mine and Jim’s campsite at the southeastern side of Marion Lake was at the top of cliff, so we had a great view of a large swath of the park. That evening and for the rest of the trip, whenever I made the slightest exertion, such as bending over to tie my boots or squatting down to light my stove, I got out of breath. Strangely, I slept well Monday night. It is the first time I have ever slept camping without my CPAP machine and not woken up in the middle of the night having to go pee.
The Park Service Rangers strictly control when and where visitors hike and camp in the backcountry. For the rest of the trip Jim and I would be out of compliance. Jim said if we were approached by a ranger then his job was to explain the medical emergency and I was to throw up on cue.
Tuesday morning Jim and I broke camp and back-tracked to North Fork of the Granite Canyon Trail. Jim carried my pack while I carried his. We descended Granite Canyon to the intersection with the Teton Village Trail. There Jim fortunately got enough cell phone coverage to call Luci to inform her of our changed plans. We hiked on out to the Granite Canyon Trailhead at the Moose – Wilson Road. Luci arrived in the parking lot the minute before we walked up.
Monday afternoon John and Drew continued on the original route, with some adjustments. Monday evening they camped on Death Canyon Shelf. Tuesday they kept going, but they did not go to Snowdrift Lake. Wednesday, their third day on the trail, they encountered a bad storm with heavy rain, hail and lightening, which is dangerous at that altitude. They also talked to some other hikers who gave them a current weather report that the rain was predicted to continue the rest of the day. So, John and Drew decided to avoid the exposure of Paintbrush Divide and took the third bail out trail. They came out one day early on the Cascade Canyon Trail. A problem was that their shuttle vehicle was no longer waiting for them at String Lake, because they did not have the keys, and Jim had retrieved it a day earlier. By great astuteness, Jim guessed that they would be exiting a day early, so he and I drove to String Lake to meet them. Phenomenally fortunately, Drew got a cell phone message through to Jim that they were instead exiting at Jenny Lake. Jim and I drove to Jenny Lake, waited at the ferry landing, and within about half an hour, up walked John and Drew.
Either on the trail or at the Smoak’s cabin we saw or heard: mule deer (a herd of 4 or 5 walked through out Marion Lake campsite); wolves (a fellow camper at Marion Lake said he heard them at midnight in the canyon below us); coyote (one loped through the Smoak’s back yard); hawk; osprey; ravens; elk (Luci heard them bugling in their meadow); marmot; pikas; swallows; porcupine (beside the road to Signal Lake); nutcrackers; goldfinches and pronghorn antelope. We saw lots of cottonwood, aspen, lodge pole pine and other ever green trees.
The weather was classic Wyoming high country summer conditions. Each night was a chilly mid 30 degrees, with a daytime high of upper 70 degrees. Compared to back east, the lows did not feel nearly as cold; due to the low humidity it was refreshing. The air all over the county smelled redolently of prairie sage and creek willow.
Thursday we all rested at the cabin and ran errands. On Friday other three campers hiked Blacktail Butte rising above the sagebrush flats just east of Moose. Luci and I took a driving tour of the historical sites around Jackson Hole Valley.
On our way back to North Carolina both my flight and the Willardsons’ flight were cancelled and we had to re-book on other flights. Eventually everybody made it safely home.