During the week of August 1 - 8, 2009, Jim Smoak’s group of St. Paul Episcopal Church compatriots backpacked the Teton Crest Trail, south to north, on the west side of Grand Teton National Park. The campers were Jim, Chuck Forester, Bob Boettger, John Willardson, Dan Bumgarner and yours truly, Bob Laney. Kim Forester was there with Chuck a few days earlier for a visit to Yellowstone National Park. Then she returned home the day we hit the trail.
We all spent a couple days at Jim’s cabin at the southeast edge of the Park, on the east bank of the Snake River, both before and after the backpacking, getting geared up and winding down. Dan stayed all nights at Jim’s cabin as our support person while the rest of us were on the trail.
We were lucky on the weather – temperatures ranged from the daytime bright sunshine highs in the 80’s to the night time lows in the 40’s, with one morning of frost at the cabin. On the trail we had maybe a half dozen spurts of rain that never lasted more than a few minutes. Most of the time we averaged about 9,000 feet altitude, and gained or lost over 2,000 feet per day. If you are interested in recreating this trip, the only map or guide you will need is the National Geographic / Trails Illustrated map of GTNP. That, plus registering with the Park Rangers, will provide sufficient information.
We all managed to arrive in Jackson Hole on separate flights Saturday. Jim graciously picked us up serially at the airport. At the cabin, most afternoons we shared a drink, then went into Moose, Wilson or Jackson Hole for a nice supper.
Sunday, the day before the trail part of the trip started, Jim went to the Ranger station to get our permits and required bear proof food canisters. While there, we looked at the 3-D diorama map of the park and Jim showed us the outline of our trip. Later we all went to the main grocery store and got our trail menu. While backpacking we shared a cooked breakfast and supper, with lunches on our own. Bob B. probably had the healthiest food, with a lot of Kashi bars. Jim had the freshest – cut up oranges and bananas. John’s peanut butter bagels were a hit, even on the third day.
Jim supervised dividing the group gear. I got one of the two required bear spray canisters and a cook pot. We obsessed about shaving every possible ounce – debating with ourselves and among each other whether to take one more cup, or one less pair of socks. Finally we all weighed on Jim’s bathroom scales at between 35 and 40 pounds.
Monday morning we went to Dora’s in Wilson for a hearty breakfast, our last civilized meal. Chuck said goodbye to Kim in the parking lot, and Dan drove us to the trail head. We started west of Wilson on WY Hwy 22 at the Phillips Pass trail (Forest Service trail # 3001), at about 7,800 feet [1,600 feet higher than the top of Mt. Mitchell in NC]. With little fanfare, other than a group photo, we hoisted our packs and chugged up…and up…and up the trail. We began in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. By mid-morning, when we reached Phillips Pass at 8,932 feet altitude, we crossed out of Bridger-Teton and into Caribou-Targhee National Forest and Jedediah Smith Wilderness. This wilderness holds a special attraction for me – I named my computer password after it.
Phillips Pass is where the Teton Crest Trail proper starts. The trail does not literally cross the crests of the Teton Mountains, but parallels them just to the west, about halfway between the main spires and Idaho. We continued north on the trail, traversing the western slopes of Rendezvous Mountain. Looking further west and far downhill we saw Moose Meadows above Moose Creek and spotted…guess what, four bull moose! This was a bachelor group that would break up and start fighting in a couple months during mating season.
A lot of the trail in this area, at this time of year, is grown up around and almost blocked by thousands of acres of wild flowers. At first they were beautiful. After several days of slogging around and fighting through them, I did not want to see another wild flower!
In a few more miles, we the crossed the border out of Caribou-Targhee / Smith and into Grand Teton National Park at about 8,700 feet altitude. Soon afterwards, just below a tough trail downhill section and among some boulders making good seats, we had lunch. Somewhere soon afterward we encountered our first rain shower and all pulled on coats. Within a few minutes, the rain stopped, the hot sun came out and off came the coats. About the same time we crossed a small glacier melt water creek and Jim and I pumped the group’s first wilderness drinking water.
Eventually we crossed the Middle / South Fork Granite Canyon camping zone. Part way through, we passed the trail to the Jackson Hole Ski Resort and the Big Red Tram. Many backpackers ride the tram as a shortcut (and no-climb) alternative to access the Teton Crest Trail. We kept heading north, and just before Marion Lake, we reached the North Fork Granite Canyon camping zone.
By this point we had covered about 11 tough miles and our group had gotten strung out. Jim sent me ahead into the North Fork camping zone to find a camp site for us. We were assigned by the park rangers to stay in this zone, and there are no specific designated sites.
After a short ways down a steep hill, I figure out that the zone signs were gone. Soon the group caught up, Jim came down and finished scouting around for out site. We had moderately level ground, well protected by trees and a good size creek a few feet away for water.
We camped with Jim and Chuck as roomies, Bob B. and John as roomies, and me in a solo tent due to my infamous snoring. Plus, I am an independent cuss and just prefer to be alone. Fortunately, the roomies could split up their group gear by each guy carrying either a tent or a food canister. Unfortunately, I got to carry my own tent and canister, which made for a pretty heavy pack.
Jim and I pumped more water for the group. Then Jim fired up his stove and cook pot, while I left my stove and pot in my pack. We learned that we could have gotten by with just one stove, one big pot and one water filter for our 5 guys. But I am sure we all felt better having two of each vital item for backups. Supper was a delicious…well, at least nutritious…freeze dried dinner of beef stroganoff.
The rule is all food and anything else with a bear-attractive smell is supposed to be in the food canisters. But the canisters were not really big enough, so some of the guys rigged a hanging bear bag for toiletries. Then it was off to dream land.
Jim and I were trying a new model sleeping pad from Thermarest called Neo Air. Compared to the traditional self-inflating pad, it is about half as heavy, a third as bulky when packed and twice as thick when inflated. Jim did not seem convinced it was the greatest thing, but I loved it. I attribute one of my best night’s sleep in a tent in many years to this device. I was also trying a new MSR water filter called HyperFlow. It is finicky and fiddly, making Jim believe that he would not want one. But I found it to be easy to use, about 1/3 smaller and lighter than a typical filter, and it pumps water about 3 times faster. So, I am glad I got it.
The next day we woke to a doe mule deer in camp. She hung around until we left, obviously acclimated to campers and wanting a food handout - which we did not give her. Speaking of acclimated, our entire group seemed to adjust quickly and completely to the altitude, with no apparent related problems.
Besides the bull moose and mule deer, we also saw at various other times cow and calf moose, elk cows, marmots (lots of them), pikas, chipmunks, osprey and a golden eagle.
After a nutritious breakfast of oatmeal and a failed attempt at coffee - the Robby’s coffee pot filter was bent and would not percolate - we hit the trail again. We climbed up to beautiful and scenic Marion Lake. On the way we passed some young guy idiot backpackers who obviously had no required camping permits or bear food canisters, and were, amazingly, carrying in their arms a half full gallon jug of red wine!! Oh well…it takes all kinds. There were other campers still at the popular lake from the night before. As usual, we continued up…and up…and up across the boundary and back out of the Park. We re-entered the Caribou-Targhee / Smith Wilderness, going around the west side of Spearhead Peak.
After a mile or so we topped out at Fox Creek Pass and crossed back into the Park. There followed a several mile hot and exposed slog along the Teton Crest Trail on the Death Canyon Shelf. About two-thirds of the way along the Shelf we crossed some more snow melt creeks and pumped water for everybody’s canteens. Then we had lunch in the shade of huge pine trees on some nice blown down logs. As is my habit at lunch, I removed my socks and boots to air dry everything down there. After lunch I switched to dry socks and put my damp ones in a mesh bag to further air dry on the top of my pack.
In another mile or so we crossed Mount Meek Pass at 9,726 feet altitude and re-entered the Caribou-Targhee / Smith Wilderness. We encountered more steep downhill at the Sheep Steps in the Alaska Basin. After crossing Teton Creek we passed among the many small Basin Lakes. All around the Alaska Basin the ground consisted of hundreds of acres of mostly bed rock, interspersed with occasional creeks, trees and shrubs. Due to all the bare rock, many times the trail disappeared. We could barely follow it by looking ahead for cairns (low piles of rocks) or simply seeing where the dirt trail took up again in the distance and heading in that direction.
After a long, tough climb to an overlook above Sunset Lake, we could see our second night campsite far below us. Sunset has open camping, meaning no designated campsites, and there were already several groups there. Jim and Bob B. raced ahead, passing another group right before the lake, and grabbed a primo camp spot with a great view of the lake and near the creek. From the distance of the last pass, Chuck and I could spot Jim – and which way we should head around the lake - when he unfurled his chartreuse air mattress and let it blow in the wind.
We got into camp early enough that, after setting up our tents, Chuck took a nap and the rest of us lounged on some low rocks overlooking the lake. An older guy neighbor camper walked past us in his bathing suit and jumped into the lake for a cold bath. Jim eventually broke out his stove and fixed another satisfying meal of freeze dried something. I supplemented all my cooked meals with a half-canteen of Instant Breakfast and dried milk. Most of the other guys had some kind of additional snack. Even before dark, we were all tired enough to retreat to our tents and hit the sack. I had another sound, satisfying night’s sleep. That Neo Air mattress is the cat’s pajamas.
The next morning’s breakfast was another round of oatmeal and, this time, successful, cowboy coffee. I was happy that my water filter let me do a backwash, a finicky procedure required once every day or so to keep it cleared of sediment. We all packed up and, as usual, climbed up…and up…and up from Surprise Lake to the next pass. After an hour or so we reached Hurricane Pass at about 10,600 feet and re-entered the Park for the last time. Several guys were able to get cell phone coverage, probably from the Idaho plains, and call their significant others. Bob B. called Dan to make arrangements for our rendezvous and shuttle pickup that evening at the end of the trail. From the Pass we walked for a good ways down a narrow, rocky ridge to Schoolroom Glacier.
The views are picture window perfect from about anywhere on the trail. You can always see a mountain, or four, a valley or three, snow fields, creeks, waterfalls, forests, wildlife and wild flowers. But here between Hurricane Pass and Schoolroom Glacier the view is most stunning. Look to the northeast and you can see the massive spire of Grand Teton Mountain at 13,770 feet and its sister high altitude peaks. And they are not far away –just a mile or two.
The rest of the morning was spent descending steep, rocky trails, crossing numerous consolidated snow / ice fields and jumping snow melt creeks of the South Fork Cascade Canyon and the companion camping zone. At a major creek crossing and log bridge we ate another snack lunch. Several guys finished their fresh oranges and bagels. Jim and I pumped more group water for the afternoon’s hike. Another mile or two took us to the three way trail intersection with the North Fork Cascade Canyon to the left (north) and the main Cascade Canyon to the right (east). Here the Teton Crest Trail proper ended, from which there are two ways to exit the Park.
The original plan was for all of us to stay together and hike up the North Fork and camp a third night at the upper end of the North Fork Cascade Canyon camping zone, just south of Lake Solitude. The next day we would hike up…and up…and up to Paintbrush Divide at 10,500 feet, then past Holly Lake, hike the rest of the way out Paintbrush Canyon and exit at String Lake, for a total trip of 41 miles.
Before the trip started, Bob B. made plans to break off at Cascade Canyon and hike down the canyon to Jenny Lake, for a total trip of 35 miles. When we got to the fork, Chuck and I joined Bob B. I was tired from the trip so far and did not feel like pushing myself to do 2,700 feet more climbing in the next 18 hours. In retrospect, I wish I had gone with Jim and John. It would be better to get too tired for another day and have the pride of completing the longer trip. I have now committed myself to going back to GTNP and climbing Paintbrush Divide.
Cascade Canyon circumnavigates the western and northern sides of the main Grand Teton Peak, along with Middle Teton, Disappointment Peak and Mount Owen. It also passes many cascading glacial melt water creeks (hence the name…) and is probably the most scenic hike in the park. Bob B., Chuck and I had a pleasant hike out, seeing several moose right next to the trail near the bottom. We enjoyed Inspiration Point above Jenny Lake, and then rode the shuttle boat across to the parking lot. Right as scheduled, Dan was waiting for us at the dock and gave us a ride to the cabin.
Jim and John followed the original plan, and trail, to the North Fork Cascade Canyon camping zone. But they got there early in the afternoon.
Like Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid grabbing opposite ends of a gun belt and urging each other to jump off a cliff, Jim and John pushed each other to keep on hiking – the same afternoon – over Paintbrush Divide. Besides the long, hard climb, descending the other side entails some steep, slick, exposed snow slopes, interspersed with tough, steep, loose rock trail sections. Not the best kind of thing to be attempting late in the afternoon when already tired.
Then, after doing the Divide and approaching a logical camp site at Holly Lake, in another assault on sanity, John and Jim pushed each other to KEEP GOING!! They kept on hiking down Paintbrush Canyon, past dark, and pulled out headlamps, all the way to String Lake! Yes, that is about 18 miles of extremely tough hiking – carrying 35 pound packs – in one day! Leaning against a rail fence at the end, John snapped a photo of Jim. This is the only picture I have seen of Jim in my life in which he looks genuinely exhausted. John, of course, engendered his usual set of huge, deep, bloody blisters on each foot. How he can stand that much pain and keep hiking is beyond my ken.
Thankfully, Jim and John found Jim’s Suburban truck “the Beast” parked by Dan at String Lake, as planned, to shuttle them home. They got to the cabin about 10 p.m. For the next several days we all relaxed, enjoyed the view of the Tetons from Jim’s cabin, shared some adult beverages, hiked around the Snake River, ate out at some wonderful restaurants and recuperated from our trip. The trout at Nora’s Creekside Restaurant in Wilson was my favorite. Jim graciously ferried us all to the airport for our return flights. I think John took the longest time to heal – he was still hobbling somewhat almost a week later back in Wilkes.
A good time was had by everybody. We are looking forward to a celebratory margarita party at Bob and Jane’s house in the early fall.