After I get back from Alaska I drive out to meet Danfriend (who is hiking the CDT) in Pinedale, Wyoming, a two-stoplight cowboy town that boasts a $1 laundromat, a greasy spoon, plenty of sunshine and a Mountain Man Museum (mountain men being the first white dudes to trap beavers in the area, before the bottom fell out of the top hat market and the railroad came). En route to Wyoming my van dies three times while headed uphill in the heat- it has a problem with vapor locking in the fuel line, or at least that’s what the tow-truck driver thinks (I have the foresight to call AAA and sign up for service just before the third time the van dies, and I make it two miles within the hundred-mile tow boundary for Pinedale). The fix, says the tow-truck driver as we rumble through the mountains in the low evening light, is to put a whole bunch of wooden clothespins up and down the fuel line. Well.
I hang out with Dan for a day in Pinedale, watch him eat every ten minutes, as thru-hikers are wont to do, think about space and time and longing and attachment and what even is anything and what is real and what is life and where should I go and what should I do oh my god. Dan’s beard has grown wilder, his massive quadriceps are very tan, and his one-inch inseam running shorts are in tatters- the hems hang off and the sides are splitting. I drop Dan back at the trailhead in the morning and then my friend Lia arrives, who is here to meet her girlfriend, Jess/Orbit (the same Jess I hiked the Lowest to Highest route with in 2014), who is also hiking the CDT, and is a few days behind Dan, and who is hiking with our friend Tick-Tock. When they arrive we go to said Mountain Man Museum, and next to the museum we find a cluster of decomposing trapper cabins in tall grass behind a gate that isn’t really locked, and in one of the cabins, whose side door is also not locked, there is an old piano amongst the sunbeams and mouse droppings and Jess, being a pianist, sits at the piano and plays a sad song.
Lia and I decide to hike the Wind River High Route in the Wind River Mountain Range. We’re just sort of bumming around for a time (Lia will join Jess on the Colorado portion of the CDT, but that’s not for a few weeks, and I, well, I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing, although maybe I’m moving to Bend? Except I can’t really conceptualize that. I guess technically right now I’m just homeless, and I live in a van that keeps breaking down.) The specific Wind River high route we’ll hike is the Wilson/Dixon one, as that is, as far as I can tell from those who know these things, the very best Wind River High Route. The route is 80 miles, about 60 of that being off-trail, with 20,000ish feet of elevation gain and nine passes around 11,000ft. The route stays high, in the land of twinkling lakes and clear thin air and piles of rock. We’re going to try and hike the route in five days, although I’m bringing enough food for six. (More information about the WRHR, including maps and such, can be found on Alan Dixon’s website here.)
I’ve been sleeping in my van in the “public parking” lot next to the creek in Pinedale- reading books in the low long light of evening with the shades down, peeing in my pee jar that’s made out of a gallon jug with the top chopped off, and waking before dawn to wrap myself in more blankets against that bitter cold that comes just as the stars start to fade away. I leave my van here and we drive Lia’s car to the Green River Lakes trailhead, where our high route commences. For the first bit and the last bit we’ll be following the CDT, at least the higher version of the CDT that most people hike through the winds. So I have already done Knapsack Col, last year, and I am not looking forward to doing it again, as it’s a six thousand foot climb or somesuch and I’m in the worst trail shape I’ve been in three years- I haven’t been running this summer, and have only been hiking a small bit. Well, this will be fun.
We get to the trailhead at four p.m. and hike three hours to a place called “Beaver Park” that is damp, low, cold, and in the forest. We’ve covered 9-ish miles. There are backpackers everywhere, their tents set up in large open dewy meadows and other condensation nightmares. We stop in the trees next to the refrigerator-style chill of the river and I set up my wee tarp and crawl into my sleeping bag, grateful for its two pounds of down (best gear decision I’ve ever made, never cold again). My hands are already dirty, my legs already ache and I’ve already forgotten what my face looks like in a mirror. I put on my sleeping hat without unbraiding my hair and cinch the hood of my sleeping bag, already damp with condensation, around my face. I can’t wait to eat all the stale gross shit in my food bag, salvaged from the boxes I made for the GDT earlier this summer. Ah, feels like coming home. Feels RIGHT!
In the morning we climb for forever and the air grows thin and the trees fall away and the glittering lakes and expanses of rock appear as we leave the mortal world and entire the High Alpine Wonderland which can only be reached through Great Effort and where the sunshine is brighter and more pure and the water more jewel-colored and the tiny purple flowers more heroic than any other known place. We break often- I woke up with a stomach ache and imagine I am acclimating to the elevation, but with any luck that will pass soon.
Then appears the huge mess of Knapsack Col with its optical-illusion jumbles of talus and scree that change shape and size as you grow nearer to them as though the physical reality of the earth has no fixed state and one is simply wandering upward through a fluid landscape of rock, i.e. “no two Knapsack Cols are the same”, which I would argue to be true. I repeat “mountain” words in my head like touchstones as I make my way up in the thin air, gasping for breath- col, tarn, cornice, moraine, cairn, cirque, scree, ramp… (“Col” is another word for a Notch, Gap, or Saddle. “Tarn” is a tiny alpine lake made from snowmelt. “Cornice” is a lip of snow that hangs over a ridge. “Moraine” is the pile of rocks and shit left behind by a glacier. “Cairn” is a stack of rocks that Andrew Skurka kicks over bc he hates fun. “Cirque” is a bowl ringed in peaks. “Scree” is gravel-sized rocks on a mountainside. A “ramp” is a slope of rock one can climb to get over a cliff or somesuch.)
We reach the top of Knapsack Col (Col, in this case, meaning a pass between peaks) and Lia has service so she texts Jess, who she misses already very much, and then we pick our way carefully down the loose boulders on the other side, recently un-glaciered and so fairly unstable, avoiding the dirty remnants of the glacier, which dribbles silty water over the rocks and is receding at an alarming rate. At the bottom we turn a corner and are suddenly in the Titcomb Basin- which feels like a magical land way up in Heaven, and we lounge in the fall-colored alpine tundra alongside its lakes and eat snacks in the wind. Seven dudes appear, marching in a row. They are all carrying HMG packs and they all look like LL Bean models, with dimples and pastel-colored shorts and tidy haircuts. When we tell them we’re doing the WRHR they look at us in amazement, as though they didn’t know women could hike cross-country. They’re doing the route as well, but in seven days instead of five. They sit on rocks next to the lake, take off their shirts, pass around some weed and a ziploc of homemade bacon jerky, which they share with us. They were all in the same fraternity, in college. Now they go on an adventure together each year. When I ask them what they do for work, they all get kind of sad. They have respectable office jobs, which they don’t really want to talk about. We decide to call the group The Boyfriends.
After Titcomb Basin we hang a left into Indian Lakes Basin, which is less trafficked and feels a little wilder than Titcomb Basin.
We find a perfect windbreak in the form of a huge boulder next to one of the still, glittering lakes and pitch our wee shelters beneath it. Seventeen miles today.
By and by the boyfriends show up and set up their tents a stone’s throw away and proceed to talk loudly well after dark, shouting to each other and swinging their headlamps around at the stars. I emerge from my safe cozy sleeping bag to tell them to STFU, which they do in good sport. The milky way is nice. I go to sleep.
Knifepoint glacier is on the other side of Indian Pass, which we climb up to out of Indian Lakes basin.
“I’ve never crossed a glacier before,” I shout to Lia, on top of Indian pass in the 50mph winds.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve been on a glacier together,” says Lia. She rolls the upper half of her body up and down in the wind, like she’s one of those inflatable balloon people you see at used car lots.
“Huh,” I say. “Well, never like a real real glacier.”
Knifepoint glacier is shining clear-blue rippled ice crusted with gravel bits and percolating small streams of snowmelt. The safest way to cross is at the 11,600ft contour line, where the glacier is the least steep. Neither of us have traction, just our trailrunners and trekking poles. Just before the glacier we meet three older dudes and a dog wearing a pack. One of the dudes has no trekking poles for the glacier crossing, so Lia lends him one of hers and we set off, tip-toeing our way across the ice, as though not to wake a sleeping dragon. The boyfriends are nowhere to be seen- probs they slept in.
The first ¾ of the glacier is fine. It’s flat enough that if we fell, we wouldn’t go sliding to our deaths. The last quarter, however, becomes steeper and steeper still, until I feel as though I’m in some weird nightmare. The surface is hard slick ice, mostly, since it’s still cool morning and nothing has had a chance to soften in the sun, and if we fell here we most definitely would slide off the edge of the glacier to our deaths, and so we are taking the most careful, slow, intentional steps, jamming our trekking pole tips into the crispy ice the best we can, while repeating “We should’ve brought one micro-spike each, just one micro-spike each” to each other.
And then it’s over, and we’re on some loose talus drinking snowmelt, our faces glowing warm from being burnt in the reflected sun on the glacier, watching two of the older dudes stray lackadaisically away from the 11,600ft contour line until they’re so spooked they sit down, and the third dude, where is the third dude?
We hear a dog whining up towards the next pass, Alpine pass. No, not the pass, but in the impassible cliff jumbles beside it- why is the dog up there? That is not the pass! The dog whimpers and whines some more, the sound echoing eerily off the rocks. Where is the dog? Is the dog trapped? And where is the man who was with the dog?
“Where is your friend?” we ask the other two dudes, when they make it down off the glacier and join us. They shrug their shoulders. “Do you have a PLB?” we ask them. “It sounds like the dog is trapped?”
They don’t have a PLB. Lia and I climb up to Alpine pass. The man and dog are not there. Lia does some class ¾ scrambling on the cliff bands to see if there is a way through up there, maybe the man went through up there? But there is not a way through. We descend back down the pass to a bench, where the other two men are. We can no longer hear the dog yelping. We have a little meeting with the men and decide that since I have a spot device, we should stick around until the man is found. Lia and I will wait up at the pass while the men search for their friend and the dog.
An hour later the boyfriend with the dimples crests the pass, his hair blowing just-so in the wind.
“My friends found the man and dog,” he says. “He crossed the glacier too high and got way off course.”
How can a person not know how to find a simple pass? I think. How can a person not think to read their route notes, and then navigate to stay on a specific contour line? How can a person leave their friends behind during a glacier crossing, especially when one of those friends doesn’t have trekking poles? Or, am I being too judgmental?
Free to go, we begin the long descent down large, unstable talus towards the shining blue lakes of Alpine Lakes Basin, which will be, according to the notes, the hardest and most beautiful part of the entire trip. I feel woozy from the sun. I focus carefully on my boulder friends. Some of them are more stable than others. Lia is faster than me on boulders- I still haven’t reached that magical space where I just step, where I trust my feet, legs, eyes, body, physics, everything. I use my hands/arms a lot, and this slows me down. Lia and I are both wearing Altra Lone Peaks, which I’m realizing don’t fit me very well. I don’t have wide feet, and they’re way too loose on me. “Why did I wear my floppy clown shoes to the talus party,” I say to Lia. I also think that Altras look like foam slippers that somebody painted to look like a sneaker. Like if you got a packaged holloween costume that included “sneakers”. Even the laces look painted on.
A man appears from below- he’s older than us, wearing wool pants and carrying a huge pack with an ice axe, crampons and what looks like an animal pelt rolled up and strapped to the bottom.
“How’s Alpine Lakes Basin?” I say, by way of making smalltalk. His mouth drops open, and he looks at us with shock and disgust. He waves his hand in the air.
“Wow,” he says. “Wow.”
“We have maps,” I say. “We have GPS. We have a route. I’m just asking, like, generally.” The man scoffs again.
“I’ve been hiking here forty years,” he says. “And I’ve never seen a single person. And then today, already, I’ve seen three!”
“There are ten people behind us,” I say.
“I guess this is a popular trail now,” the man says, with as much disgust as he can muster. He waves his hands in the air some more. Lia and I politely excuse ourselves.
“That man has been waiting forty years,” I say, “for somebody to scoff at.”
Towards the bottom of the descent we find a patch of shade behind a truck-sized boulder and hunker down to eat snacks, watching the tiny specks of the boyfriends move down the pass. The boyfriend with the dimples catches up to us first, a half-hour later when we are climbing up and down some “ramps” to get around cliffs on the edge of the first lake. The dimpled boyfriend, we figure, is the leader of the boyfriends. He exchanges witty banter with us and soon the other boyfriends catch up and the whole big group of us is bouldering together, around the lake. I don’t like having a bunch of dude-bros right on my heels like this when I’m bouldering, but whatever.
We name the last lake in Alpine Lakes Basin “The Windy Lake at the End of the World.” The lake is the color of sapphires and appears to hang off the edge of the earth. The wind will not stop battering us, and the water froths with whitecaps. To leave the basin one must climb a “class 4 exit crack” in a cliff on the far end of the lake. I used to be really scared of stuff like this, but on the Hayduke I learned to enjoy it. It still takes me a while to figure out where to put my hands/feet, though, as I’m not a rock climber, and so sometimes I just have no idea WTF to do.
We form a bucket brigade of sorts at the crack, handing up packs. The crack is right above a stand of small, gnarled white pines that I imagine are about a thousand years old. Once at the top of the crack we only have to navigate down, along the natural mess of the earth, towards the first unnamed lake in the basin below. The earth is hunks of sloped granite, alpine tundra, streams, bushes. Just before the unnamed lake we drop down a couple of smaller cracks, crushing bright wildflowers beneath our feet. The flowers release a strong smell into the cooling day.
At the unnamed lake the boyfriends hotbox a 3-man tarptent. Lia soaks her feet in the water. Today we covered nine miles in twelve hours. “That was so much fun,” says Lia. I have to agree. I set up to cowboy camp behind a large rock, hoping the rock will stop the 50mph gusts that still come sporadically, BOOM BOOM BOOM. One of these gusts lifts my neo-air like a kite, even though I had my pack on top of it, and Lia jumps up to chase it down, while I clutch my pot and stove, with which I’d been assembling dinner, lest they be blown away as well. The gust passes.
None of us sleep well, with the wind. In the morning I’m groggy and exhausted. The wind is our constant companion today- but then, hasn’t the wind always been here? And won’t it always be? We travel cross-country through the convoluted bowls of the earth, making our way over boulders and passes and around lakes, laughing deliriously as the wind beats us about the face. We follow bits of animal trails (aka “use” trail) that disappear as quickly as we find them, teaching us about non-attachment. I remember learning this hard lesson about non-attachment to tread, on the Hayduke. The point is to not to WANT there to be a trail. The point is to simply make one’s way. The ability to travel faster than 1.5mph is a privilege, not a right.
Have I mentioned that this high country through which we’re traveling is one of the most beautiful and sublime things I’ve ever seen. And my body, even though my calf muscles are completely withered away from non-use, feels incredible. And the altitude isn’t bothering me. And I’m so happy to be here.
We walk alongside the three golden lakes and the wind stills and the trees throw dappled shade and I feel the strong call of the perfect nap spot- now I wish I’d brought more days of food, so that there could be more naps. But then my pack would be heavier. Life is suffering, as they say. But what delicious suffering, to long for a nap. That all our suffering should be so uncomplicated!
Up and over Hay Pass on good trail in the blinding clear sunshine and clean freezinghot wind to a stick with an eaglefeather and a view of the bright pure world.
Leaving the good trail because Good Trail is not for us, Good Trail is for people with Nalgenes and Bearbells. We’re feral, we pee and snack and sleep and walk where we want. We are the weathered human animals that sleep behind boulders and never wash our hands.
A long cross-country traverse through dried-up bog and over boulders brings us to sprawling Hall Lake in its bowl beneath some peaks. I am losing my good humor about the wind; Lia magically finds us a spot that is blocked on three sides where we can sit and eat and camp in peace; we can hear the wind, but it cannot touch us.
I’m cooking dinner in my sleeping bag when we see a figure on the slope opposite. I think it’s one of the boyfriends so I wave my arms in the air. On closer inspection the man is a stranger but oh well, too late, now he’s our friend. His name is Chris and he’s carrying a small pack and is quite the Chatty Cathy. For the last several days he’s been on another Wind River High Route, a newer one which shall go unnamed here. I ask him how that route has been.
“It sucks,” says Chris. He’s hiked the Dixon/Wilson route before, and loved it, so now he plans to finish on it. While we talk he unpacks his sleeping pad, inflates it, and begins to patch a hole. He tells us about the sketchy glaciers he’s been crossing. He points to the way the tread is falling off his shoes. He works in insurance, he says. He hiked twenty miles today, while we only managed fifteen.
Just before sleep I have a dream that I’m falling- but instead of falling off a chair, per usual, I’m falling into a crack between boulders. My whole body jerks. Lia, curled in her quilt in her hexamid, is having a dream that she’s leaping off boulders at the edge of the earth- and each boulder turns to dust as she steps off of it.
Dawn is hot green tea and mint dark chocolate and the discovery that a mouse (aka “mini bear”) has chewed a hole in the corner of my food bag and eaten the edge of a cherry pie lara bar. I imagine the mouse growing uncomfortably full on that one tiny bit of lara bar, a food richer than any he has ever encountered, and stumbling back to his burrow to sleep it off. I eat the rest of the bar with breakfast. I aint mad.
More lakes, lumps, mounds, trees, talus, cairns today. Lia gets hives from the sun, as she is occasionally wont to do. “I’m so itchy I can’t stand it!” she says. We have lunch at a clear aquamarine lake in the Bonneville Basin, and Lia cools her legs in the icy water.
We then begin to climb up what seems, at first, to be a straightforward, unnamed pass between Raid Peak and Mount Bonneville- but which becomes so wondrous and fantastical that we name it The Coolest Pass Ever. The climb up is huge, lichen-spotted granite slabs, tilted every which way, making me feel so small and insect-like. Then the pass, wherein one can see our next, unnamed basin, where sheer peaks throw light and weather and drama. But to reach this basin we must descend the longest, largest talus field we’ve yet to experience, and then traverse around a class 3 slope/cliff.
I make my way from boulder to boulder, focusing. There is no room in my brain for any other thoughts. Talus as teachers, talus as meditation. Remember the time BOULDER but what about when BOULDER did I do the right thing BOULDER what if he BOULDER should I BOULDER is it ok to BOULDER did I fuck everything up BOULDER what is the meaning of BOULDER what will happen when BOULDER how do I BOULDER BOULDER BOULDER BOULDER BOULDER
Once down the talus and cliff (does it go? Does it go? We shouted to each other as we rounded each crumbled contortion of rock) we walk a long tundra bench beneath the drama mountains, looking back now and then to gaze at the cool thing we just traversed.
We reach Pyramid Lake. From here on out we’ll have Real Trail, or at least use trail so trampled that it’s just as fast as real trail. The weather continues to be freezinghot, and my calves are crisped from the sun. The trail turns dusty and our feet grow weary. We write “Skurka: The Musical,” in which Skurka sits atop a pile of talus and scree, gazing down at the glittering lakes below. He sings a song from The Little Mermaid. “I wanna be where the people are…” Can we hike twenty miles today? We can.
We stop at Texas Lake, just below Texas Pass. I camped here last year, on the CDT. We can see the backside of the Cirque of Towers, where everything is impossibly beautiful and climbers come from miles away to scrabble up cracks until their hands are swollen and bloody. We find a couple of little caves to sleep in beneath truck-sized boulders but then weather rolls in over the peaks and we set up our shelters instead. Just as dark falls it begins to rain. Lightning flashes. I am cozy and safe in my tarp. I carried this thing on the CDT, I know it does well in storms. I burrow into my sleeping bag and try to ignore the thunder. My legs ache. I am a tense, damp, smelly little animal. FLASH! Goes the lightning. Hail rattles the fabric of my tarp.
In the morning Lia gets a text from Jess. Jess and TickTock are taking a zero in Lander to go to a free show there- one of Jess’s favorite bands is playing. Jess says that it would be really nice to hold Lia’s hand at this show. Lia immediately eats an entire package of cliff shot blocks. Five minutes later she’s at the top of Texas Pass. I huff and puff behind her. I’m tired today- the long climbs and rough nights are catching up to me.
We drop down Texas Pass in a thick fog that turns the towers in the cirque into wizard’s castles and at the bottom we find lonesome lake. On the climb up Jackass Pass, Chris appears. We walk with him over some more boulders, past another couple of lakes and down the forested Big Sandy trail, until the anticipation of food/shower/friends grows too strong and Lia and I eventually pull ahead.
“You walk fast, for girls,” says Chris, as we speed away. I feel embarrassed for him. You know nothing, Jon Snow, I think to myself.
Lia reaches the Big Sandy trailhead before I do, and by the time I get there, just before noon, she’s already scored us a ride to Pinedale- from a friendly climber with cracked hands who rearranges everything in his tiny ford focus so that we can squeeze inside. On the long drive out we’re all smiling, happy about the dramatic mountains and the open plains and the cows and being and hungry for everything and just like life in general. It’s so easy to forget that there’s a big world out there, it’s so easy to forget that nature loves us. Lia nods off in the back seat while the climber, whose face is just as craggy as his hands, tells me about all the places he’d like to climb.