This recounts the third of seven days in Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness. Day four will be covered tomorrow.
This was a day – winds beyond belief – unlike anything I’ve ever experienced while backpacking. I don’t want to see another one like it anytime soon. Then again, I don’t want to meet the business end of a grizzly either.
Day 3, Sunday, July 26
I am out of the tent early, before dawn. Most of my gear is already stowed and the rain fly struggles to dry while draped over paracord strung between two trees although the warming sun isn’t up just yet. It is a frosty, clear morning. Such cold reminds you that it is you against the weather, and the only protection you have is what you wear at the moment or have in reserve in a ditty bag. It occurs to me just how narrow the weather window is for visitors. You couldn’t get in here much before mid May and you’d want to beat the snows by mid October. It is no exaggeration that it can snow-sleet-hail even in summer months.
My fly rod was left rigged overnight. Since no one is up quite yet, I head to the East Fork but get no action. The rivulet where the big brookie lurks isn’t too far away so I walk that way. But Moby Trout remains out of sight and is disinterested in my fly. A behemoth like that is a long shot at best.
By now everyone is stirring and it’s time to fire up the stoves. Hot coffee is the other defense against cold and Reid and I gulp down our allotted two sleeves each of instant Starbucks. Katy and Rebekah opt for tea and I’m not sure what Vince and Tom do for a hot beverage. Two packets of oatmeal will have to suffice for my breakfast. We have a pretty stern hike ahead of us. No more shakedown cruise. This will be the real deal now. By 10 a.m. we shuffle toward the trail.
We must climb from 10,343 to the 11,200 ft. elevation of Hailey Pass. The trail will have us skirt the southern and eastern bases of Pyramid Peak. We’ll be above timberline in less than one hour.
Sections of the Hailey Pass Trail, which extends north a few miles to nearby Grave Lake, are now nearly solid rock.
Cairns prove useful as markers although as we cross the navigable stream that empties from Twin Lakes, the trail proves to be elusive. It’s open country above the trees, however, and there’s literally no way to get lost. We are in the valley between Pyramid and Dike Mountain that effectively funnels us up to Hailey. If we had to, we could bushwhack our way but we do find the path and off we go. Last year this was a snow field and the lakes were still ice-locked. The now small stream roared then with snow melt as it tunneled through the snow field. Tom and I walked and slid gingerly over hundreds of yards of corn snow, marked by a few incidents where we fell through to our waists.
Today, though, we encounter a very steep 40 yard downward section where hiking poles are of no use.
We use our hands to make contact with the stone walls on both sides and lower ourselves instead of walking down. The uppermost Twin Lake is immediately to our left.
Straight ahead and now only a few moderate switchbacks away is Hailey Pass. We’ll be there within a half hour or so. It’s a very pronounced saddle and the main route for hikers walking the longer of the clockwise circuits to the Cirque. It’s one of those places you want to get past while the day is relatively young since the threat of afternoon storms is always in the back of your mind.
But that’s not what greets us as we near the pass.
It is wind, and not of the gentle variety. It seemingly has come out of nowhere. We have no inkling of this until the last 50 feet of upward climb to the pass. The gale overtakes us in a seeming instant.
These are harsh, steady winds of at least 60-70 miles an hour, with incredibly high push-you-over gusts. Our estimate of the gusts is 80 miles per hour – and upward. None of us have experienced anything like it. I haven’t in all my years in the Rockies. (The forest service would later verify even higher gusts.)
I’ve never been in a hurricane but that is what it must feel like. One of the stronger gusts pushes under my pack. It has leverage and catches the Osprey like a sail. It forces me off balance and my weakened left knee slides awkwardly and buckles – the one movement and consequence I hoped to avoid – as I try mightily to steady myself. Several of us drop to the ground to avoid being blown over. If we can stand, we are pitched at a good angle into the wind as it props us up. So strong is the cloudless howling gale that yelling instructions from one person to the next more than a couple of feet away goes unheard. I’ve been on the shoulder of many Interstate highways as I stood next to my Harley, and have felt the blasts from semis passing at 70 MPH only a few feet away, but those could not match the ferocity, nor knock me over, like these winds.
Our impulse is to get over the pass and head downward as quickly as we can. Rebekah and Reid lead the way down what appear to be 500 yards of switchbacks on very steep descent. But the lee side of the pass offers no relief from the blast. It bears down on us, and shoves Tom and me into crouched positions more than once. Some while later, once down to a resting point, we equate the curvature of the pass and the strong wind’s force to how the leading edge of an airplane’s wing provides lift. Aerodynamically the wind rushed over the pass and pushed down with enormous strength.
This complicates our descent on the trail of loose debris and dust that already makes secure footing a challenge. Tom is forced to take a knee just a few feet ahead of me when a particularly vicious gust forces itself upon us. Rebekah and Reid scurry far ahead.
This trail wasn’t visible to Tom and me the year before when we reconnoitered the eastern edge of a valley-wide snow field. Even with the gale, this year’s downward hike of several hundred yards is somewhat more preferable.
We finally exit the switchbacks and the slope becomes a manageable trail once more. It’s been almost two hours since we’ve really had a rest and the lead walkers find us a grassy spot perhaps 200 yards east of the base of Mount Hooker (12,504 ft.).
We are somewhat, but not entirely, out of the wind. We look back at the steepness of Hailey’s north side and are relieved to have it in our rearview mirror. Hooker has an imposing eastern face with a very pronounced boulder field; we conjecture about the apartment building-sized granite blocks that must’ve made one helluva racket when they tumbled down, whenever that was.
In another half mile we look for a place to cross Baptiste Creek, more of a small river really, as it tumbles down from Hooker Glacier and on to the west end of Grave Lake, our next overnight spot. The creek is down from ’14 but remains broad and deep. We pause to look for a narrow, non-ford opportunity. The trail shoes of Tom and Katy can be submerged and will drain quickly. Reid and I move upstream about 150 yards where we can hop from rock to rock. The rest have already crossed and wait while the two of us manage the task without removing our boots. We stay dry. As we look to the north we see the spectacular Musembeah Peak at 12,355 ft. but it’s on Wind River Indian Reservation land, the boundary of which is only a few hundred yards from where we stand.
We are now on the eastbound stretch of trail with perhaps a shade more than 1.5 miles as the crow flies to campsites said to be toward the east end of Grave, a very large lake by mountain standards.
Directly ahead of us, however, looms a potential trouble spot for broken bones or worse. Large rocks have calved off Grave Lake Dome over the millennia to create a complete blockage of giant boulders that extends from the dome to the lake. We don’t see a potential walk-around beneath the shear face of the dome and there are no sign posts or cairns to indicate otherwise. We have no option other than to boulder hop for at least several hundred yards. There will be no walking around these granite monoliths which range in size from large trucks to small houses. We will need to tackle each boulder one at a time with full packs on our backs. That’s not inherently bad; that no one is carrying 50 – 60 lbs. in taller old style packs is good in that the modest weight and lower center of gravity of small packs adds to stability. Our walking sticks will be utterly useless on solid rock. We need to adopt other ways to stay safe.
Rebekah, Reid and Tom continue to lead the way and are soon out of sight even though the going is tedious and very slow. There is no need for speed and the resultant poor decisions too much haste can create.
Far from it. A single slip or misstep could be disastrous. I think back to a three week Outward Bound course in 1974 that included a mountaineering section in the Gore Range just east of Vail, Colorado. Our leader was Dick Pownall, who in 1963 led the advance camp team for an unsuccessful U.S. expedition to Mt. Everest. As we encountered rock fields – nothing remotely on the scale of the jumble below Grave Lake Dome – Pownall’s advice was to adopt “three points of contact.” That is, place some combination of hands and feet on adjacent, manageable portions of rocks. It could be both hands and one foot, or both feet and one hand. Pownall felt that the most serviceable part of your foot to use on open rock was the arch since it offered the best balance point and could pivot front and back. He had us avoid flat, and potentially slick, rock faces and instead place the arch on edges or visible fissures on each stone. I always thought it as sound advice since it worked.
Katy and I bring up the rear. We put the three points of contact strategy into use from the first stone. Vince and Tom call or point out the best routes among the rocks and their trail breaking advice is invaluable. Katy starts out hesitant but finds her legs as she moves along. Some of the steps between rocks involve a considerable leap of faith; if a step is missed, nothing good will happen in even a short fall. This sort of dangerous off trail, rock-to-rock process forces each of us to think 3 – 4 – 5 steps, and stones, ahead. There’s no real way to practice this. It’s learn as you go. I wonder if the park service is well acquainted with this particular rock pile. My guess is they are – no doubt rangers have rescued hikers injured in mishaps on the very stones we struggle to reconnoiter.
Her hopscotching done, Rebekah returns, pack-less, to her mother’s side to offer encouragement. I work in front of Katy and Rebekah takes the rear. Rebekah is like a mountain goat, sure footed as if she’s done this before; she stands astride each rock, calling out to Katy the more favorable hand holds and foot falls. Some rocks are climbed; on others we lift ourselves down, find a foothold on the next boulder then haul ourselves back up. We perform this act over and over and over for nearly 400 yards. We exchange mid rock-hop greetings with a young couple who employ the same three point technique but who are going the other way.
After more than an hour to wend our way through the scrum of stone, we finally emerge unscathed from the boulder field about 4:30 p.m. But we come out into the still heavy wind. It has not abated or lessened, even this late in the afternoon. It had been a long, trying day. We are ready to get our packs off. Bears Ears Trail, however, is not done with us just yet. We have the better part of a mile to go. Across the lake and upward is Chess Ridge, the tormentor to Tom and I for two full days last year. Sightseeing and story telling about our ill-timed and snow ridden trek almost exactly 365 days ago to the day can come later. We just want this stretch to be over.
That’s when the first bear print is seen. For all her track gazing, Katy, who is just a few yards in front of me, has somehow missed the salad dish sized paw with crescent shaped claws ringing the top as we weave our way alongside dense willows.
The paw is perfectly captured in drying mud. It was perhaps 2 – 3 days old. I stop to memorialize it in a photo but did not alert, nor alarm, Katy with this solid evidence that bears were indeed in the vicinity. Other than the occasional pile of scat, it was the first verified sign of the business end of a bear in several years.
As we approach within a few hundred yards of the lake’s eastern shore a large expanse of perfectly good, flat and tree protected camp sites appears to our left. Reid drops his pack, as do the rest of us, and ventures onward to see if better locations for our tents exist on the true eastern shore of Grave. We watch him the whole way until he enters a wooded area. After a few minutes he steps out of the woods into the fading sunlight and gives us a ‘stay put’ sign. It is merciful we will not need to carry our packs even a short distance more. We fan out and claim our spots and as with the first few nights, go about the business of creating a community of six small tents.
There is one minor glitch. A graphite stay snaps in the ultra-light tent Tom loaned to Rebekah. Repairs aren’t possible since the sleeve that contained the stay is very tight. But necessity becomes the mother of invention. Reid volunteers to give up his three person Mountain Hardware tent (in reality, a comfy space for two) to Katy and Rebekah to share; in turn, he will bunk in Katy’s tent while Rebekah’s damaged tent is relegated to mothballs for the remainder of the trek.
That we take shelter among trees helps to somewhat negate the still strong winds. There will be no fires or fishing in earnest tonight even though we cast a few flies in vain onto the wind-whipped whitecaps. No trout falls for such a hapless presentation.
Our dinners are the same as last last night and the night before, or at least mine is; instant rice and some insipid dried spice in a watered down slurry of nothingness. At least the others have the sensibility to cook a variety of foods. The highlight of my meal is the decaf coffee. I miss broiled trout cooked with heads and tails intact as the main course. I really do.
Tom and I gaze directly across the lake to the locale where we were foiled the year before
by a steep snow bank and busted hiking pole. It doesn’t make for very good storytelling. That was last year. This was this year. No one wants to hear any more of it.
We turn in under what will be a full moon sometime in the next day or so. The bright light drowns out the stars and galaxies and meteors which on a dark night would be a sight to behold. It will illuminate trips to the trees as we answer nature’s call in the darkness.
Tomorrow: A first ford, more trout, and lonesome cowboys.