|Gannett Peak (13,804 ft.). Highest point in Wyoming|
This was big. This was EPIC. This was unlike anything of which I had ever been a part. As I laid awake in my tent in the twilight, listening to the hum of a generator belonging to a nearby camper and the whinnying of the group of horses in the public corral at the trailhead, I tried in vain to suppress the myriad of thoughts racing through my mind. All I wanted was a few hours of sleep; I was not sure when I would next catch some shut eye. Three in the morning comes awfully early, especially on the edge of fifty miles of wilderness. And it was those fifty miles of wilderness that excited and frightened me until I finally drifted off to sleep.
|Our camp at the Glacier trail head. 8/16/11.|
A year earlier, I had been invited on a 45-mile crossing of the Wind River range in western Wyoming. Alec, the mastermind behind many a crazy adventure (see my post about the Twin Mountain Trudge), had spent some time planning a crossing involving Dinwoody Glacier, Bonney Pass, Titcomb Basin, and various other genres of gnarly terrain. After some half-hearted consideration, I declined to participate due to a conflicting schedule and a total lack of fitness. With that, I stayed home and Alec, Nate, and Josh, with support from Tina and Cassie, left for the Winds to give it a go. They would be denied, unfortunately, due to inclement weather conditions. A year went by, and the ember continued to smolder. Alec wanted it, and he eventually got to me.
Fast forward to this summer. After getting myself back into some semblance of shape, I felt like perhaps I was ready to give this journey a shot. We spent a few nights pouring over maps, compiling a list of necessary gear, and BS-ing over many beers. The planning sessions were coupled with a few long trail runs; a 24-mile run up the Rock Creek trail on the northern side of the Snowy Range and 22-mile double Trudge loop, both complete with packs stuffed with the gear we planned to bring on the crossing in an attempt to get used to the weight. This was crucial to me since I had zero experience running with a pack (my bag weighed in at 15lbs.).
|Alec put all that gear into his pack. Note his infamous "Block of Cheese" by the first aid kit. (Photo by Alec Muthig).|
The list of gear we composed was discussed at length in order to reach what we all agreed was an acceptable medium between lightweight and safety. We wanted to move as quickly as possible, thus requiring a lightweight approach. However, we didn’t want to sacrifice too much in the way of safety gear for the sake of saving weight. As the 2010 trio found out, weather can take a turn for the worse very quickly among the 13,000 foot peaks of the Wind Rivers. Get caught in a storm above tree line without the proper equipment and things can be potentially life-threatening. This, combined with our trepidation regarding the Dinwoody Glacier (ice axes, ropes, and crampons were nixed from our list because of weight), was our chief concern. Our final decision was to go lightweight and fast; if weather moved in on us while we were on the glacier or pass, our hope was to be able to move fast enough to avoid it. My bag (a military-issued CamelBak Motherlode) the morning we began contained the following:
|My pack. Customized, baby!|
70 oz. CamelBak bladder with Sawyer in-line filter
Emergency thermal bivy
Personal first aid
Fire starting material (a couple of lighters and my favorite tinder, dryer lint!)
Minimal spare clothing (Mizuno BreatheThermo shirt, Under Armor cold gear shirt, Asics pants, hat, gloves)
Deet insect spray (mosquitoes were murder!)
~5,000 calories of food (3 PB&J sandwiches, granola bars, beef jerky, power gels w/caffeine, electrolite pills, Snickers bars, craisins, gum, etc.)
Garmin rino130 GPS (complete with NWS and emergency radio)
Driver’s License (for body identification purposes)
I may be forgetting a thing or two, but this was the gist of it. We had what we felt was sufficient to survive a night out there if circumstances demanded. I think we all had our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t come it that.
I awoke in my tent at the Torry Creek/Glacier trailhead at 3am in order to get dressed, packed, fed, caffeinated (I don’t run a step without a cup of coffee in my system), and ready to go for our 4am start. We congregated outside a pungent outhouse, took a group picture, complete with smiling faces, and began our adventure.
|L to R: me, Patrick, Nate, Josh, Alec. 4am, 8/17/11. (Photo by Alec Muthig).|
The first obstacle of the trip was the nearly 3,500 foot climb, complete with 29 switchbacks, up Arrow Mountain. We reached the nearly 11,000 foot pass over Arrow Mountain around sun-up. We stopped for our first food break and watched the sun brighten the peaks around us. As we crested the top and started down toward Burro Flats, we surprised a herd of elk that circled around us before disappearing into a stand of trees. The trail continued down for a few miles toward Dinwoody Creek. Most of the trail was extremely rocky and the trekking poles were a welcome necessity. We passed several gorgeous lakes including Double Lake, Star Lake, and the hanging Honeymoon Lake.
|Alec and Nate consulting our useless map. At this point, it was still giving us reliable information.|
|Josh, Patrick, and Alec rest and enjoy the view.|
|Honeymoon Lake with a view of the Winds to the south.|
Once down along Dinwoody Creek, I was feeling a little anxious. My anxiety was fueled by several things. I was going through my “not feeling so hot” phase. The others warned me that we would all go though highs and lows, and that it would happen at different times for all of us. I felt a little off for a few miles in there. As we moved through the meadows, we could see clouds beginning to form over the tops of the high peaks, the very peaks we were climbing toward. Weather was my number one concern. This was compounded by the fact that things were taking us a lot longer than I, or any of us, had anticipated. The longer it took us to get to Bonney Pass, the greater the chance of weather causing a problem.
|Our first view of Gannett Peak.|
|Our moose friend who, I must say, has chosen a very nice place in which to kick it.|
We predicted we would reach Dinwoody glacier by 10am. We finally got there at 1:30 in the afternoon. At that point, the clouds had staved off and weather was no longer our chief concern. However, one reason we wanted to be on the glacier earlier was that by 1:30, the ice had melted into more of a slush, increasing the difficulty of passage and the potential for weak spots and crevasses. We took things tentatively at first, and then began moving quicker just to get off the damn thing. After well over an hour, we got off the ice and onto a steep, class IV/V boulder field that took us to the top of Bonney Pass, approximately 12,834 feet. We relaxed in a wind break constructed by mountain climbers and munched on food while enjoying a spectacular view of Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming. It was closing in on four in the afternoon, and after thirty miles of feeling less than great, I felt pretty good at that moment. That would all change as we began down the other side of Bonney Pass and into Titcomb Basin.
|Conquering Dinwoody Glacier.|
|Representing the Hungry Dog Track Club at 12,834 ft.|
|Enjoying a rest, some calories, and a breathtaking view.|
The southern side of Bonney Pass turned out to be our real “crux.” A steep 2,000 foot drop was made extremely difficult thanks to continued boulder fields interspersed throughout a snowfield. The boulders came to an end; the snow stretched on before us. We had had a brief discussion before hopping on the glacier about how to self-arrest with a trek pole. Little did I know, what we discussed would actually turn out to be very relevant.
|Titcomb Basin with Mt. Helen (13,620 ft.) on the left.|
|Patrick and Josh navigate a precarious boulder field. The snow that followed tried to kill us.|
Josh strode out onto the snow, sat down, and went. He slid down, using his trek pole as a rudder. It looked so easy…however, I wasn’t sure I could or wanted to do that. I sat down, threw on my microspikes, telescoped my poles, and took a step out on the snow, intending to continue down the snow on foot. I was on my ass and flying down the mountain before I even knew what was going on. I gathered my senses and dug my remaining pole (the other one was ripped from my hand when I fell) into the snow with everything I had. After a few moments, I got myself under control enough to stop from being plastered on the boulders below. As I pulled myself up and fought the adrenaline surge raging from my fall, I turned around just in time to see Nate go end-over-end on the snowfield.
|Nate may or may not be falling in picture. I snapped it right after my fall. It's blurry because the lens is fogged because I had the camera in my pocket when I fell. A little bit of snow got in there.|
Alec ran up, screaming at Nate. “Arrest that motherfucker!” he yelled several times in a row. I wondered what the plan was here; neither Alec nor I was going to physically stop Nate from falling. No offense to Nate, but he was the largest body on our trip, outweighing the rest of us by 30-40 pounds. We get in his way, he’s taking us with him. Nate, after a few tense seconds, finally brought himself under control. He sat for what seemed like twenty minutes, very obviously shaken-up. Eventually, he, and the rest of us, collected ourselves and continued on into Titcomb Basin. Our travails on Bonney Pass were just the beginning.
We entered the basin and began to encounter climbers, including our friend Ethan, camping out before making their attempts at Gannett the next day. At this point, we were staring at 15-16 more miles to go. And the sun was low on the horizon. Again, I had a wave of anxiety come over me. I realized that we would be running well into the night. That prospect worried me. At the same time, I started to feel lightheaded and nauseated. The sleep monster, as Josh described, was creeping over me. I ate a granola bar and perked right up. However, Patrick was starting to hit rock bottom.
|My last picture of the trip, near the southern end of Titcomb Basin. Ugh.|
Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Patrick had been feeling sick since about nine in the morning and had eaten nothing since then. Halfway through the basin, Patrick’s stomach finally rebelled. He stopped to try to calm his stomach down. In that time, we had a group pow-wow to discuss our options. Alec and I were feeling good at that point and were chomping at the bit to move a little faster. Josh and Patrick were considering staying put for a few hours in order to rest. We were all concerned about what our support crew of Sandra and Josh’s dad and uncle were going to do. We had predicted a 15-hour crossing; worst case scenario, Alec had instructed Sandra to alert Search & Rescue if we were still out after 28 hours. As we sat in the basin, we realized that our 28-hour deadline (8am) wasn’t too far off. We devised a plan to send two people out ahead at a fast pace in order to tell our support that everything was okay. The other three would build a fire and hunker down for a couple hours until they felt better, at which point they would continue. However, our ultimate decision was to not split up. This conclusion was reached when Patrick vomited what was basically nothing but water and immediately felt better. He hopped up and said, “Let’s get this over with.”
The remaining hours of the trip were grueling and frustrating. We were battling fatigue and creeping doubts. The trail wound around one lake after another, and in the dark, with the moon not yet up and illuminating the landscape, the lakes all seemed the same. We would wind our way around one, just to go up a rise, down a descent, and around another lake. By about 10pm, dissention was murmuring in the ranks.
We had given up on our map around Seneca Lake. After realizing the distance the map listed from the start to the base of Dinwoody Glacier was almost five miles short, we came to find that the map’s interpretation of the trail around the lakes we were circumnavigating was totally inaccurate. Where the map showed a straight line, we were finding a winding, twisting trail that was much longer than the map indicated. This fact began to mess with our heads. We questioned how far we had come, how far we had to go, and since the map seemed not match the physical landscape around us, we began to doubt even where the hell we were.
I started hiking faster. At that point, I was pissed off and ready to be done. I moved as fast as I could without losing contact with the others. I was growing increasingly frustrated with how much we were stopping, how long those stops were lasting, and how it seemed like we were getting no closer to our destination. I started to hear grumblings from those behind me; were we lost, have we been going in circles, is this the right trail? As the pacesetter at the time, I took those to be underhanded comments about my route finding. I almost came unglued, nearly turning around to tell everyone to shut the fuck up about it. But I stopped myself. What was the point of lashing out like that? What would it gain? After a quick consultation with Patrick’s GPS, we concluded that we were on the right track and were actually gaining ground. After that, I calmed down, collected myself, and focused my energy on finishing, not being angry.
We finally came to Photographer’s Point which provided us not with its usual breathtaking view (it was approaching midnight), but with reassurance that we were not only on the right path, but also getting very close to being done. The little adrenaline surge we all got from that prospect spurred us on. I made it another couple of miles before my legs finally gave me the middle finger and pretty much stopped working. My hip flexors seemed incapable of lifting my legs, my ankles protested with searing shots of pain if they were asked to articulate over any uneven ground (a constant discomfort since we were on a trail), and I was cramping in my calves and hamstrings due to having run out of water (I had last filled up in Titcomb Basin, and had no water the last five or six miles). I used my remaining trek pole as a cane and fell to the back of the group and willed my stupid body to just finish the last couple of miles. Patrick and Alec stuck back with me while Josh and Nate took off for the finish. At 1:30am, after 50 miles, over 10,000 feet of climbing, and a little over 21 hours on the move, I finally saw the taillights of our vehicles in the Elkhart Park trailhead parking lot.
We took a group photo at the beginning. I remember during the course of the trip I had thought about grabbing a group photo at the end, kind of a “before & after” thing. However, when we all got to the parking lot, little was said. We expressed gratitude to Sanda and the Fullers, and then all simply threw our packs in the two vehicles, climbed in, and went in to Pinedale. We got to the motel at around 2:30 in the morning, showers were taken, and then everyone passed out.
We all awoke after only about five hours of sleep; hunger driving us awake and in search of calories. We congregated in the motel lobby and laid waste to their continental breakfast. We sat and relived our experience over coffee for a couple of hours. After that, we packed up the vehicles and walked down the road to the Wind River Brewery, where, even though we had breakfast just a couple of hours before, we again laid waste to their lunch menu and a couple of pitchers of beer.
|L to R: Sandra, Patrick, Nate, Josh, Alec, me. Wind River Crossing 2011 crew. Kicking it at Wind River Brewery, Pinedale, WY. 8/19/11 (Photo by Alec Muthig).|