Location- slab of rock, side of trail
Elevation- 10,725 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 17 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 1,013.2 miles
Weather/Temp- clear, cloudy, T-Storms
Pain level- zero
Spirits/Morale- in awe
Wildlife encounters- Marmots
Days without shower- 2
Days without laundry- 2
It was so cold in the valley last night, everyone got a bit of a late start. The fact that we were waiting to see the day’s first light strike the surface of Square Top may have had a small something to do with it too. Nevertheless, we were hiking a little before 9 am, and I finally crossed the “1,000 miles hiked” point on this trail.
The first 6 or so miles were a gravy train of nearly flat terrain keeping close to the Green River. After those initial miles, it was up, up into the Wind River Range.
On our way up we ran into Courtney who was on her way down (the woman who gave us a ride the day before yesterday. She’d gone up to camp around the Summit Lakes, just off the CDT. It brightened my day to see her kind soul out here again. We wouldn’t be going as far as the Summit Lakes on the CDT today, our alternate lay before that.
At around 12:30pm, after a quick lunch, we branched off onto the nearly 14 mile alternate “Knapsack Trail” with storm clouds brewing in the distance. If rumors held true, we were about to severely punish ourselves with some tough terrain; then, if rumors continued to hold true, it would all be worth it.
Had we stayed on the official CDT we would have continued up to just around 11k feet, then never gone any higher for the remainder of the Wind River Range (on the official CDT). With storms on the horizon, we were knowingly taking ourselves up to 11k feet anyways, then even further up to more than 12,200k feet. The things we risk in the name of beauty.
No sooner did we start the alternate, it began to lightly rain without lightning. We easily continued through it. Shortly thereafter, we ended up in an enormous granite bowl of mountains that pictures simply cannot do justice.
Working our way out of the bowl, we found ourselves in a steeply ascending rocky gully with intermittent snow fields; the bouldering began. Even after nearly a mile of dicey bouldering and slanted snow pack traverse, we were unphased by the difficulty. This was soon to end. The water coming off the snow melt was deliciously cold, and probably the best water I’ve had on this trail since Glacier National Park. I might as well soak it in while it lasts.
After ascending Cube Rock Pass, we were gifted with a breathtaking view of Knapsack Col, the next pass at over 12k feet. We were also gifted a view of more incoming storms. The original view of Knapsack, as well as the lakes, streams, and other granite peaks was already more than enough to make this side trail worth it.
As the storms approached, we quickly got to lower ground near the shores of a lake and took cover for about half an hour or so. I fell asleep clutching my umbrella for a little while. Higher elevation always makes me sleepy. Since I live at sea level, anything over 10k feet has a noticeable physical effect on me. I get pressure behind my eyes and on the top of my forehead. I begin to hear and feel my heartbeat in my ears, and legs become anvils. Anytime I can take a quick nap at high elevation, I wake up feeling like a new man. That’s all it can take sometimes for the adaptive process.
The very light, intermittent rain ceased, and we were able to make moves again. We traveled slowly up through the gully, passing more lakes and paralleling more streams for a couple of miles before yet another storm caught us. This one had plenty of lighting, rain, and thunder to offer. Being caught in the open in a sort of tree-less meadow, everyone quickly set up their shelters. Since I had a tarp, Puma let me hunker down with him in his shelter. Had I been by myself, I would have hidden up in the rocks for shelter, or simply just kept moving to stay warm.
The rain pummeled, the lightning flashed, and the thunder crashed for nearly half an hour as the granite peaks sounded as if they were tumbling. Then, as suddenly as the storm had appeared, everything was blue and clear as if it has always been that way. We began the immediate and severe ascent up Knapsack Col after that. We had nearly 2,000 feet to climb in less than a mile and a half. This is where things got real.
Around 70% of that nearly 2,000 ft vertical gain was nothing more than a “free for all” of climbing up, over, and around a ln almost sheer wall of granite boulders. Good grief was the going slow and tedious, but oh so fun, and oh so worth it. The higher we got, the more dramatic the view behind us became. We couldn’t wait to see what was on the other side of the climb.
When we finally reached the saddle of Knapsack Col, it was well after 6pm. The view we were leaving behind was nothing short of spectacular in the sinking sunlight; lakes and streams sparkling like diamonds. The view we were headed towards…nothing short of daunting.
We’d come up a wall of sheer granite boulders, now it was time to go down a wall of sheer granite boulders. What awaited after those boulders was a steep bowl of glacial snow/ice fields. Descents are always more technical, more dangerous, more painful, and slower going than ascents (the steeper the descent, the more this holds true, usually)
After a good bit of teeth clinching, sphincter tightening downward bouldering, Funny Bone and I decided to brave the snow bowl by glycading down instead of continuing around and down the wall of rocks. This way would save us hundreds of feet of bouldering descent. He went first and just barely had enough control to brake his speed.
I made the mistake of following his already slick path instead of making my own. I’ll chalk that up to me being from Florida. I shot down that glycade like a water slide; if water slides were below freezing and had rocks at the bottom of them. While trying to self arrest, I lost both my staff and the new trekking pole I had picked up in Yellowstone. The staff continued down, but the pole was lodged way above me; I wasn’t going back up to get it. I slid down further and recovered the staff, and finished the rest of the descent in yet another ugly, out of control glycade. I got ice burn on my left fingers, and cut the top of my right thumb; totally worth it. Stomper ended up recovering my trekking pole and returning it to me.
The next couple miles were a mixture of traipsing across glacial fields, and bouldering over less steep, but no less treacherous rocks as we made our way down the gully ava turned west.
With the harshness of the terrain, as well the weather, it took us nearly 8 hours to go about 7 miles of this alternate trail. It was utterly exhausting, but indescribably beautiful. The sights were completely worth the extra energy, pain, and suffering.
The skies are clear, and I’m cow boy camped on a smooth and level slab of granite rock. I have a view of a lake below me, as well as more dramatic, snow covered peaks in the distance.
All in all, the Wind River Range is more beautiful than anything I saw in the Sierra Nevada. They’re not really comparable, but for me personally, these views, lakes, and granite peaks outdue the Sierra Nevada any day of the year. Not to mention, they are much, much less accessible than what the Sierra Nevada has to offer. These are some of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen…and there’s almost nobody here. What an absolutely overlooked gem of a place.
As I lay here on this granite slab, the moon is again sinking below the jagged ridge line. It hasn’t been staying up the last few nights, which is fine by me (more stars). To outdue itself from several nights ago, the milky way is out in a show of force. I can’t even describe how amazing it is seeing it so clearly with the naked eye. Puma has a fancy camera that takes long exposure pictures; the shots he’s getting of the night sky are enough to have my brains on the back wall, because my mind is blown. If anything is certain, I want a nice camera and some lessons on how to use it. I’m missing out majorly with this cell phone camera.
Tomorrow we’ll finish up the rest of this side trail and rejoin the CDT. We still have close to 90 miles into the next town. Shortly after that town, I’ll attempt my 24 hour hike for the year. I have a gut feeling this one is going to set the bar at new heights. Now to finish my fruitless staring competition with the night’s sky; the stars always win.