Happy Tramper

Endless sky, brilliant water – Highline/Fremont Trail, Wind River Range, Wyoming

A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.     — Finis Mitchell, “Wind River Trails”

Maybe it was that low-angle September light diffusing in its special way;  maybe it was smoke from the dry-lightning fires burning far to the east and north mixing with the multi-textured clouds and backlit by the setting sun;  the or maybe it was just our eyes adjusting to the visual hyperbole of tortured rock peaks, granite boulders, golden grass, deep green conifer and green-blue water.  From our camp on a bench above Island Lake, the landscape had an almost surreal glow as we lit our backpack stoves and stared north into the spires of Titcomb Basin.

Passing lower Titcomb Lake on the way into Titcomb Basin

Rainclouds had split overhead and passed us by north and south earlier that day as we wandered along the Titcomb lakes under mighty Fremont and Jackson peaks to the stark rocky jumble of the upper Basin.   The sentinel peaks of the Sphinx, Miriam and Dinwoody Peaks, Forked Tongue and Spearhead pinnacle, and dramatic Mount Helen, 13-ers all, loomed over us in a semicircle sketching the Continental Divide as we hopped boulders to the headwall and craned our necks to look up, up, up.

 

Headwall above Upper Titcomb Basin, Sphinx to the left, Mt Helen to the right

The tortured rock above was mirrored in the boulders and slabs underfoot which featured a full palette of pastel colors and textures – pink and green, bright shiny white, black, chocolate and amber, even red-purple;  sinuous, striped and speckled, coarse and smooth.  Clearly these mountains had been baked hot, stirred and poured, left to dry and coated on top with sediment frosting, then upended, eroded and glacier-carved in a sequence that had repeated itself over and over for eons.

Our group of 8 had started from the little town of Pinedale Wyoming three days earlier, a van from the Great Outdoor Shop[1] picking us up early from our overnight haven at the Rivera Bed and Breakfast[2] and depositing us with our packs at the Green River Lakes trailhead about two hours northeast of town by about 9 in the morning.  From the picturesque log cabin at the trailhead we could just see the outline of Squaretop to the south, one of the most photographed peaks in the range.  Our first day was an easy 9 miles with little elevation gain, up and down around the lovely blue meadow-wrapped lakes under Squaretop and Granite Peak, and through tree-sized rhododendron, lodgepole pine and spruce along the milky Green River, to the broad green meadows of Beaver Park.   Our trail led us steadily closer to the continental divide here, though the ridge to our east blocked our view of the major peaks within 3 miles of where we stood.  The meadows afforded a great selection of soft-grass tent spots within easy reach of the river.  Frost on the grass the next morning made the coffee taste only that much better.

Squaretop reflected in Green River Lake

The Wind River range is unique in that it stands on a high plateau, 10-11,000 feet elevation for a hundred miles or more, the product of a regional uplift 35-50 million years ago that pushed a huge section of the central Rocky Mountain region up 3500-5000 feet out of the vast inland sea[3].   Shortly after setting out from Beaver Park we began ascending the plateau, first above and then away from the Green River with Clark and Trail creeks tumbling down below us.   Breaking out above treeline and crossing Green River Pass, the terrain took on a countenance that would become very familiar over the next 9 days:   our trail winding, climbing and dropping around granite slabs and boulder piles, through sparse grass and scattered stubby Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii),  and past innumerable tarns and lakes, with vast spreading vistas and high peaks forming a backdrop.

Passing Summit Lake and winding east above Pass Lake, the trail climbed a steep wall and three more boulderpiles before dropping into the vast Elbow Lake basin, almost like a crater of the moon.   Smooth slabs formed ledges all along the tributary creek down to the lake, and hopping from one to another on the tortured multi-hued rocks was like walking on the surface of a gallery of abstract paintings laid out in the horizontal.  After pitching our tents in the sparse grassy patches around the head of the lake, we gathered exhausted along a sheltering rock wall to cook our dinners and watch the salmon-to-orange light show on Elbow Peak reflected in the waters of the lake as the sun went down.

Camp in Elbow Lake basin

By day 3 we hit our stride with a routine of breakfast at first light (frost on the bear cans!) and on the trail by 8, when the early sharp-angled light was piercingly clear and the air brisk.  The days warmed up quickly as the sun cleared the Divide to our east, and our troupe would quickly moult our layers of down, fleece, and Smartwool in favor of short sleeves and shorts.   The topology of the previous day continued through the striking basins of Upper and Lower Jean Lake and across a high bridge at Fremont Crossing, through endless small climbs and drops, the white boulders and slabs bright against the dark green of the conifers and the blue of the many tarns.   At about 6 miles from Elbow Lake we reached the junction of the Titcomb Basin trail and turned northwest for the short but steep climb to a saddle from which Island Lake stretched out sparking and blue across our field of view.    Fabulous sheltered but view-ful camps were to be found all along the south shore amid tarns and patches of meadow above the lake, and on a small peninsula jutting into the lake a bit farther on.    Fremont and Jackson Peaks and the peaks at the head of Titcomb Basin punctuated the skyline but a ridgeline hid the Titcomb lakes.  This early-September day only two other parties could be seen camping at the lake.  Our afternoon was spent happily climbing the knobs just west of our camp for further views north and west.

Island Lake

Day 4, a day of exploration of Titcomb Basin under boiling clouds and the threat of rain, provided a very satisfying respite from the burden of our full packs and a chance to wander without the pressure of a camp to reach.  This area is one of the principal destinations for visitors to the Wind Rivers, with easy access from the Elkhart Trailhead for weekend to multi-week explorations of the Basin, the adjoining Island Basin and the peaks beyond via the Pole Creek and Seneca Lake trails.    The trail sidled along the deep-blue lower and upper Titcomb Lakes in the ever-narrowing valley, rocks of a myriad of colors strewn in golden meadow grass, steep crags looming overhead.    The high peaks  surrounding the basin, including Fremont (13,745′),  Warren (13,722′), Helen (13,620′), Sacajawea (13,569′),  Dinwoody (13,540′) and Woodrow Wilson (13,502′), sing a siren song to scramblers and climbers of all stripes and afford overland access to the vast high country south, west and east for those ready to tackle the steep scree and hard late-season snow of the narrow cols between them.

Bald Mountain Basin, from the trail to Baldy Pass

The lake-strewn section of the main north-to-south trail that we passed through on the next 3 days is only infrequently travelled owing to its location in the stretch of the Winds between the two popular areas of Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers, each reachable independently from other, closer trailheads.   But our goal was a north to south traverse of the range, so traverse we did, with substantial rewards.  Much of this segment, over 10,000’ nearly all the way, was through high golden grassland interspersed with the prerequisite tarns and granite boulders, more stout Whitebark pine and Englemann spruce trees, and, increasingly, shrubby alpine willow (Salix brachycarpa) in shades of bright yellow to orange.   Lester Pass, Baldy Pass, Hat Pass were high gaps reached by long gradual traverses across high meadow country (and of course more lakes), with immense views of the high plateau, east to the peaks of the divide, and west well into the plains.  Bald Mountain Basin, Lake Victor, Europe Canyon, Middle Fork Canyon – words on signs nailed to isolated posts pointing the way to side trips up to the flanks of the Divide that would each be well worth a week on their own;  surely next time!

Enjoying a dip in Rambaud Lake,

At a significant crossing of Pole Creek, a pack train with horse and two mules brought us food for our final 6 days, the wrangler a nice young man from Minnesota finding his place in the world by running hunting camps in the chilly fall in the high mountains of Wyoming.  South of Pole Creek the lakes dotting our map in bright blue came closer together and larger:  Rambaud, North Fork, Pipestone, Howard, Sandpoint.    A rest stop, a refreshing drink and snack, a foot soak or full-body dunk in the warm sun, tent flies spread out to dry on the rocks and shrubs.     Through this section our way wandered up and down the prerequisite humps and valleys through stands of lodgepole pine, many dead from the bark beetle but seedlings springing profusely up in the new-found sun beneath the reduced  canopy.

North Fork Lake

Then later, an entire day was spent walking a mile-wide open meadow around a highlight reel of lakes:   Bobs Lake, Raid Lake, Dream Lake, Cross Lake.  More often than not the hikers we encountered had fly rods and that faraway look suggesting they were headed somewhere to use them.   {Not sure if all the anglers knew that Finis Mitchell, a Wyoming-bred mountain man and forester, had stocked most of the previously-fish-less Wind River lakes with as many as 2.5 million trout hatchlings during the depression, carried in barrels up the trails on his horse.}  Two of the best camps of the trip were found in this section, on the flats by two slowly meandering rivers, the marsh grass forming a tall green border to the water, and the setting sun glowing orange on the slow-moving, glassy surface.    Places for peace and reflection amidst the ordinary chores of gathering water and rinsing socks.

Tumultuous skies over East Fork River

We awoke on day 9 to a red sky and clouds skipping at high speed above our East Fork River campsite.  On this day we would cut away from the Highline/Fremont trail system we’d been following for more than a week to cross over the Continental Divide and see the ‘other side’.  Our plan from there was to traverse south over the very high Lizard Head bench and descend to the Popo Agie river, turning back west to explore the famed Cirque of the Towers.  But those plans depended on good weather, and certainly no lightning storms.  There was considerable uncertainty on that point as we had our breakfast at East Fork River.

Still, there was blue sky around and behind those ominous clouds blowing in from the west, and we packed up and headed east with the breeze at our backs.  The junction with the Pyramid Lakes-Washakie Pass trail was so poorly marked that a fellow hiker had left a note on a trailside boulder pointing the way north.  After much consultation with maps and compass, we agreed with the unknown hiker and set off downhill toward a crossing of Washakie Creek below us.  Finding the trail just before the creek, we made the rock-hop crossing easily and headed uphill.

Last stretch to Washakie Pass

Soon reaching the junction of the Pyramid Lakes and Washakie Pass trails, we struggled with our eagerness to explore the Pyramid Lakes basin against the sensible option to get ourselves across the high pass before any bad weather broke.  Sensibility prevailed, and as consolation, beautiful Skull Lake and the peaks of the Pyramid Basin were soon revealed in splendor from our trail:  a massive cirque of granite towers including Mt Geikie, Ambush Peak, Raid Peak, Mt Bonneville, Glissade and Tower Peaks and Mt Hooker.  Note to self:  return here for a week of scrambling!

Turning our eyes forward, we aimed for the saddle of Washakie Pass high up the ridge ahead, and followed the well-trodden, generally smooth trail up through the stark boulderfield, traversing the north slope of the basin before crossing over and back to reach the pass, about 5 miles from our morning’s starting point.

First glimpses east of the divide from Washakie Pass

Before us to the east now stretched brand new country – unbelievably, an even higher concentration of lakes under sheer cliffs with the thick forested valley of the Little Wind River far off beyond.    Our destination for the night was going to be up on a bench just beyond the river.   Finding shelter in the lee of some big boulders, we had our lunch at the pass in the warm sun.   However, it wasn’t long before premonition prickled (along with increasing winds and greying skies) and we hustled as quickly as good sense would allow to pack up and pick our way down the very steep boulder and talus field to the shelter of lower ground below.

Rounding Washakie Lake in a thunderstorm

As the trail wound first around Macon Lake and then Big and Little Washakie lakes under the sheer cliffs, the skies opened and pelted us with huge raindrops, then ice pellets, dropping with great force.  Lightning flashed and thunder boomed and bounced back and forth, amplified by the peaks surrounding us.  Heads down,  we descended around the lakes and then down, down to the banks of the North Fork of the Little Wind River at about 2.5 miles from the pass.  One tent on a hump overlooking the river flapped forlornly in the deluge.

 

 

 

Buffalo Head Peak

We crossed the river, again able to rock-hop without difficulty, and climbed back up the forested ridge a mile and a half to an unmarked side trail to good sheltered camps on the west side of Valentine Lake, our destination for the night.  As we reached the lake, the skies cleared and the sun re-emerged, so we soon had tents up and gear drying on every branch and flat surface.

 

Camp at Valentine Lake

South and west looking across the lake we could see the distinctive shape of Buffalo Head, Payson Peak and the ridge extending south beyond.  East loomed the five miles of high, very exposed bench we hoped to climb and then traverse the next day, with Cathedral Peak just showing its top beyond.    The progress of clouds across the sky indicated very high winds at the level of the bench and a continuing potential for lightning.  As we ate our dinners and prepared to settle for the night we soberly discussed our options, including reversing course and heading back toward Washakie Pass, where the distance of high exposure was less.  The opportunity would still exist, we reasoned, to circle around via the Big Sandy trail and over Jackass pass for at least a day visit to Cirque of the Towers.

As day 10 dawned, a call on our satellite phone to the Shoshone Ranger District office provided a promising report of sunny, clear weather and winds below 30 mph on the bench.  We set off from Valentine Lake and climbed around Buffalo Head peak on a blasted-out trail that clung to the rocky north slope above Little Valentine Lake and Valentine creek drainage.  Ahead at an unnamed divide (we christened it Lizard Head pass),  the Bears Ears trail turned to the northeast and our trail to the bench turned south.  A pack train passed us heading out to Dickenson Park via Bears Ears trail.

A pack train cresting Lizard Head pass heading east

Just beyond the divide was an deep chasm dropping 2000 feet or more to the source stream for several lakes to the east.  The wind blasted us here, a reminder of the fallibility of weather forecasting.  Still, undaunted, we turned our faces into the blast and ascended under Cathedral Peak onto the bench.

Pushing against 60 mph winds on Lizard Head Bench

We found ourselves in an unforgettable, almost unearthly landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers and inexorable wind – a quarter-mile-wide bench with little vegetation, piles of boulders, a high ridge some thousand feet above us to our east, and a steep thousand-foot drop to our west with the myriad peaks along a hundred miles of the divide stretched out beyond.  The wind, mostly in our faces but sometimes blissfully off the starboard bow, was like a living thing, blasting, swirling, sometimes even lifting us up so that we would stagger to keep our footing.  Midway along we were able to find a blocky tower of rock trailside that provided shelter in its lee so that we could hunker down, eat lunch and recover from the onslaught.

 

 

Crossing the immense windswept bench

Somewhat recovered,  we pushed on and finally, five miles from the unnamed divide, found ourselves looking down steeply to the Popo Agie river a thousand feet below.  Lizard Head peak wrapped like an iguana around two vivid blue lakes before and below us.  Like Dorothy and her companions rushing across the meadow toward the Emerald City, we left the ridge and made short work of the rocky traverse under Lizard Head peak to the bottom where it was blissfully warm and wind-less under the trees.

Upper and lower Bear Lakes under Lizard Head Peak

From the path down we caught our first glimpses of some of the fabled peaks of the Cirque:  Mitchell peak, Warbonnet, the Warriors.   We turned back west along the meandering Popo Agie, and soon found ourselves crossing Lizard Head Meadows with the full spectacle of the Cirque dead ahead,  presenting one of the most photogenic spots of our trip to that point.  In another mile we reached the meadows before Lonesome Lake (no camping within a quarter mile!) and set up our tents along the lazy river with the Cirque above us in all its splendor.  The sunset provided the best alpenglow of our trip, with gold turning to salmon turning to bright orange on Pingora Peak, Wolfs Head and the Warriors and reflecting on the calm waters of the Popo Agie.

Camp below Lonesome lake, Cirque of the Towers

Lizard head meadow, Popo Agie River (Steve LeBrun photo)

Sunset on the Cirque of the Towers and Popo Agie River (Steve Lebrun Photo)

That night and the following, down in our meadow, were the coldest of our trip yet, with solid ice in water bottles inadvertently left outside the tents.  However, in our open valley, the sun reached us quickly and warmed us so that we were able to start out in shorts for our daypack exploration of the Cirque on day 10.  Picking our way on the maze of trails and then up the boulders, we first traversed under Warbonnet and the Warriors, stopping in amazement to gaze at the thinness of the knife-edge ridge on the crest of Warbonnet.   Climbing around behind Pingora, we could see the tiny blue shimmer of Hidden Lake nestled under Warrior II.  Soon the way became a mix of trail and boulder-hop, but we easily found our way to Cirque Lake which reflected the dramatic spires rising above it – the Watchtowers, Symmetry and Block Tower, distinctive Sharks Nose, and Wolfs Head.  Two rock climbers from Pocatello nearly sprinted past us and, within a half hour, found their way free-climbing to the top of Wolfs Head as we watched their progress from a snack spot by the lake.

Day hiking to Cirque Lake

Leaving the climbers to their views, we backtracked and then circled around the front of Pingora, looking straight up to see ropes and orange gear bags from a climbing party well on their way to the top of this classic route.    Though there was no obvious trail, we were able to see our next objective which was Texas Pass, an alternative and shorter way into the Cirque from East Fork River via Shadow Lake.  Soon the way was marked with cairns (which we augmented along our way) and we pushed on up the rockfield and across a small residual snowfield to the sign marking the obvious saddle of Texas Pass.  The way up from the other side was very steep, but a viable way-trail appeared to make its way up through the boulders from the lake basin below.    Dropping back down from Texas Pass, we made a short detour to the top of Skunk Knob for more views before descending steeply back to the trees and meadows of Lonesome Lake and the Popo Agie.

 

 

Bull moose in meadow near our camp at Lonesome Lake

Last breakfast at camp below the Cirque of the Towers

Finally we awakened to the last day of our journey, day 11, another icy morning (this time we postponed breakfast to 7AM to allow the sun to reach the camp).   Breaking down camp for the last time, we headed upvalley under the Cirque to find our way out of the basin.  The trails wound in unmarked profusion past Lonesome Lake and up toward Jackass Pass, finally converging halfway up to wind fairly gently along the grassy slope to the Pass about a mile from our camp.

 

 

 

 

Climbing toward Jackass Pass (Steve LeBrun photo)

We took considerable time here taking pictures of Warbonnet, now just above us, and the peaks of the Cirque to the north, before heading down.  Soon it was clear why stock is discouraged from climbing Jackass Pass:  the way down was a very steep boulder hopping exercise down to rock-bound Arrowhead Lake (no camping spots obvious here) before climbing again on a trail blasted in the wall and winding up and down over boulders and loose rock before…FINALLY!…reaching level trail along North Creek, about 3 miles from the Pass and about a mile above Big Sandy Lake.  The lake was blissful, a chance to soak feet and refresh ourselves with views across to even more future scramble routes to the south along Deep Lake and among the Temple Spires.  Then, with a typical mix of relief and regret, we followed the gently descending forested trail along the final 5 miles to our oasis for the last night, the Big Sandy Lodge, with real beds, showers and home-cooked dinner and breakfast.  Our shuttle from the Great Outdoor Shop picked us up on time the next morning for the 2 hours back through barren ranch country to Pinedale, where we picked up our cars and stored gear from the Rivera Lodge and set off for the long drive home.

 

Our triumphant party at the summit of Jackass Pass, Warbonnet Peak behind


[1] The Great Outdoor Shop, located on the main drag in Pinedale Wyoming, 332 West Pine Street, sells outdoor equipment and sportswear, maps and guidebooks, freeze-dried foods and cooking equipment, as well as fishing and hunting licenses.  The store also runs guided fishing trips and shuttle transportation to trailheads in the region, and will even move your car from a trailhead back into town.  www.greatoutdoorshop.com (307) 367-2440

[2] The Rivera Lodge, located just behind the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, has several comfortable cabins at reasonable rates, and a proprietor who sets the standard for service and helpfulness, not to mention an outstanding hot breakfast.  www.riveralodge.com  (307) 367-2424.

[3] The high peaks of the Rockies formed in a separate geologic chain of events, an extended cataclysm of peak-lifting  and folding called the Laramide Orogeny, between 35 and 80 million years ago.  More on that later!

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