Two years ago, at a campsite near Lander, Wyoming, I spoke to a man from the Shoshone Indian Tribe. A middle-aged fellow, he grew up in the Wind River Indian Reservation. He wore a cowboy hat and dusty black jeans and his hair hung in a lank swath to his shoulder blades. We sat around a campfire. He was the campsite host. I asked him what he thought of the Wind River Range. His response was this:
“The Winds are wild, man. High rocky peaks, snowy winters, and remote. People get lost in there all the time. And we’ve got big animals up there, too, like grizzlies and wolves. Animals that can actually eat you.”
I still remember the firelight flickering on his face when he shook his head — lost in thought — and repeated himself.
“Yeah, man, the Winds are wild.”
Ever since that conversation, I’ve dreamed of walking the Winds — a range as hard-bitten as it is secluded. The place called to mind mountain men and rendezvous, Sheepeater Shoshones, Green River headwaters, big-wall climbers, glaciated granite spires, and deep circular valleys pocked with lakes and tarns. The Wind Rivers are a rare range in the sense that few Americans seem to know of their existence. They live in the dark-thrown shadows of Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Their southern tip abuts the shadeless Great Divide Basin, far from any airport, making them difficult to get to.
Such divergence from civilization imbued the Winds, in my mind, with a certain duende. Even the names of the mountains’ features became alluring: The Cirque of the Towers, Knapsack Col, Titcomb Basin, Dinwoody Glacier, Jackass Pass, Pingora, Wolf’s Head and Warbonnet peaks.
You can imagine, then, my excitement as we traveled out from the miserable desert at South Pass City, up a web of dusty roads, past fields of sage and tawny grass, fording the Sweetwater River — climbing toward forests, we pressed forward, now — around the Sweetwater Guard Station, scaring up herds of pronghorn, a cow moose and her calf, and pairs of great blue herons — climbing, climbing, and climbing, still — until we knocked on the doors of the castellated granite spires of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.
Our plan was to through-hike almost the entire range, south to north, from Atlantic City to Dubois: Seven days, a 170-mile carry on the heels of a 120-mile stretch through the Great Divide Basin. All those miles without bed or shower. We also wanted to tag on two alternates — The Cirque of the Towers and Knapsack Col — which were in addition to whatever CDT miles we hoped to accomplish.
We began in a group of seven friends, but most everyone hiked at different paces, so we split after the first few days.
The second night, amidst our push toward the Cirque, we camped at Temple Lake, where a dusty glacier sat plaqued low on the cliff wall above the lake’s southern shore. We could see Warbonnet Peak — which looks like a headdress — tearing up into a sky turning violet for the setting sun.
Here’s a pic of Chimi with the peak in the distant background, followed by a pic of me taking my Atlantic City breakfast coffee in a warbonnet, too.
Tatanka? A man who goes by the name Wild Bill gave us some fishing line and hooks before we left Atlantic City. Our hiking friend O.D. found a dead cricket in his tent. He gave the insect to Chimichanga, who ran a hook through it, attaching it to some line tied to his hiking pole, which he then set up on the lake shore, weighted down with a rock.
Strong winds swept down cliff faces in the night, wracking our tents. We woke late. Chimichanga checked his line. He caught a little trout. We were all low on food rations, anyways, so he gutted it, stored it in a baggie with snow for freshness, and boiled it with his stove for lunch.
We worked past lakes practically boiling with jumping trout and climbed the boulder fields near Warbonnet to enter the Cirque of the Towers — making our entry at Jackass Pass. The Cirque is a circular valley, bored out by glaciation, surrounded on all ends by either rocky walls or jagged towers of pure gray granite. Within the Cirque are the Warrior Towers; Pingora and Pylon Peaks; Lizard Head, Shark’s Nose, and Wolf’s Head, among many more peaks and buttes and mountains. I counted 18 major spires from Jackass Pass, to say nothing of the dozens of minor spires stacked side by side along the walls.
In the cirque, you can stand below these peaks, perhaps at Lonesome Lake — a green pool lodged deep down in the basin’s center — and marvel at geology’s handiwork. The glaciated hanging valleys, the aretes pointing up to above 12,000 feet. I’ve never seen a place quite like it. I could imagine myself spending an entire summer in the Cirque, fishing, gawking, learning to climb. It’s that big. It’s that varied. And it’s that amazing.
Chimichanga and I decided to push for Knapsack Col the next day. Early in the morning, however, I got to daydreaming and wound up on the wrong trail. I walked for half an hour in the wrong direction before noticing it. Angry and panicked, I tried to bushwhack my way back to the CDT. I picked a waypoint on my GPS and made for it hastily, without checking my cardinal directions. I wound through thick forests, soupy bogs and over hills of white rocks, walking at a rapid clip, exhausting myself. By the time I reached the trail, I realized I had chosen a southerly waypoint — meaning the entire bushwack was in the wrong direction. It would have been faster, in other words, to simply backtrack once I realized I was lost.
I said to myself, “You know what, Chilton, if you’re gonna do idiotic things, you’re not gonna get any rest breaks. That’s your punishment.”
Our first view of Island Lake was stunning: An oval-shaped body of dark-green water with a waterfall pouring into one side and a rocky island with trees in the middle.
“I can’t believe this is here,” Chimichanga said. “You don’t picture things like this when you imagine Wyoming. I imagine cows and cowboys and grassy prairies — but this is amazing. I could see myself coming back here some day.”
“It almost doesn’t look real,” I said. “It’s so perfect, it’s like someone designed it for a movie. Lord of the Rings or something.”
I woke to pee at 5 a.m. beneath a sky dark in clouds. It began to sprinkle. Chimi jumped up to put his rainfly on. Then it stopped raining, but the clouds remained.
As we broke camp at Island Lake, with a plan to push through Titcomb Basin for Knapsack Col — a saddle above 12,000 feet with dense boulder fields and a steep glacial sheet — I evaluated the heavens.
“I don’t know what to make of this sky,” I said. “There’s a lot of gray up there; but there’s also some blue.”
We were reluctant to go for so long on an exposed climb with a looming storm. But we packed up and went anyway. “This is what we set out to do,” Chimi said, “so let’s go do it.”
It turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made. The clouds dispersed, allowing the morning sunlight to illuminate the peaks above Titcomb Basin, chief of which is Woodrow Wilson (13,502), a pointy mountain clefted with couloirs. Settled in a throne just below the mountain’s tip, elongated like a colossal white-blue tongue, is Sphinx Glacier. I never truly understood humanity’s recent fixation with glaciers until I saw the Sphinx. I’ve realized all along that glaciers are important for measuring the speed and extent of global warming. After all, what could be more stark and visible than a gigantic block of ice quickly and suddenly melting away? An important image. An important tool for proof of what’s happening, sure. But upon seeing the Sphinx I understood glaciers also stand for something more — or, rather, glaciers stand for nothing more than themselves. And that, alone, is more than enough.
What I mean to say is I understood – while hiking toward the sunlit sphinx in its throne on the mount — that glaciers are a good purely because of their sheer grandiosity. Yes, I understood, finally, the grandiosity of glaciers, and how that splendor is set within fragility, and how we are witnessing the rapid destruction of something big and glorious and beautiful. I understood, to wit, that glaciers are good in and of themselves, you see — because of their beauty. I mean, when I saw the Sphinx, I stopped in my tracks, set my hiking poles down, and said “holy shit, wow, this is fantastic, I mean, holy moly, this thing is absolutely amazing…” and I stood there dumbstruck near a stream and a rock for quite a few minutes just gawking like a stupid cow or something, before I remembered I had a camera and took a bad picture, one which is itself an injustice, an insult, really, to something so purely gigantic and old and dying and magnificent.
It’s really very sad to me now — having seen the Sphinx and others — that glaciers are melting. The destruction is irrevocable. Something beautiful will have gone from this planet. So I’m glad I went up there and saw the Sphinx while I had the chance.
Chimichanga and I paused during our climb to the Knapsack beside a boulder the size of a city bus, which served to block the wind, and got to talking about how we were low on food, and got to pining for town – a shower, a bed, a meal, a day off our feet.
“I might quad-zero in Dubois,” he said.
“I might rent an apartment,” I said. “Find a girl. Get married. Settle down.”
“Raise me a couple kids,” Chimi continued. “Finish the trail in a few decades.”
From the Col – which is a saddle – we had fantastic vistas of yet more peaks, lakes, glaciers and fields of broken rock.
We dropped into the Green River valley, skirted Squaretop Mountain, and toured alongside the meandering river, teal-colored from glacial sediment. We encountered several southbound CDT hikers, stopping to chat with old friends whom we hadn’t seen since they flipped north from New Mexico.
“Rations have been reduced from meager to bare bones,” Chimi said.
“The children have scurvy,” I added.
“The children have scurvy and are cannibalizing each other.”
Cookie Monster caught us that night, having braved the Knapsack Col and Cirque of the Towers as well. We heard from southbounders of a “rogue grizzly” near the pass. It apparently circled a hiker’s tent, pawing and grunting all night.
In the morning, Chimichanga squeezed remnants of honey into his mouth.
“Hittin’ that honey bear for breakfast?” I asked.
“I’m hungry,” he grumbled.
“Whatever gets you through the day.”
“Some days, you eat the bear,” Cookie remarked. “Some days, the bear eats you.”
The last 30 miles to Togwotee Pass were fraught with confusing sections of trail. We all got split up. I spent an hour wandering off trail, got back on, and spent another half hour mistakenly hiking south. Very frustrating. I don’t want to talk about it.
Toward the end of the day I ran into a game warden on an ATV. He was out looking for a griz that had killed a calf.
“Where’s your bear spray?” he asked me.
“I don’t have any.”
“That’s really risky. I don’t hardly get out of my truck to pee without it.”
“I’ll think of getting some in Dubois,” I said. ( I didn’t)
I found a big bushwhacking shortcut on my map and got in front of Cookie Monster. He came up on me as I munched my last snack, which actually left me more ravenous than I already was. We walked together and kept finding shortcuts and wound up at the pass at 7 p.m., after hiking 34 exhausting trail miles. We hitched in to Dubois only to find that all the motels were booked. A hiker named Axel, from Austin, scored a stay at the Episcopal Church, and let us in at 10 p.m., after we ate a massive meal, as is tradition. Sans shower, I slept grumpily on the floor again.
Chimi hitched in the next day after getting so lost (his navigating application broke) he spent eight hours bushwhacking northeast through the forest.
Dubois is really something else. Several motels along the drag feature giant bear and elk statues. The town boasts “the largest jackalope exhibit in the world.” I saw a sign that said, “Wyoming Population: 64 men, 200 nervous sheep.” To enter the “Laundro Mat,” you walk through the gigantic skull of a steer. We showered there in a coin-operated shower. Each quarter buys you 30 seconds. I put one in and the water didn’t warm in the first 30 seconds before turning off, so I kept feeding the box quarters, realizing all the while that jamming all those coins in simultaneously cut into my paid-for shower time. I said, “Well, now, this is quite a racket.” And then I changed into a Utah Jazz t-shirt, off-brand Nike shorts and New York Yankee sandals – my new outfit, which I bought for a grand total of $2 at the local thrift store.
Today, we continue north into the clouds
Scenes From the Trail