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Archive for the ‘Fitzpatrick’ Category

  • Points Earned:  3
  • Trip Dates:  September 3 – 6, 2010
  • Wilderness Areas:  Bridger and Fitzpatrick
  • Wilderness Area Size:  Combined 626,612 acres
  • Location:  West Central Wyoming
  • Destination:  Loop route with no single destination point
  • Distance:  45 miles
  • Total Elevation Gain:  Approx. 7,000 feet
  • Duration:  4 days, 3 nights
  • Wildlife:  Elk, deer

Spectacular camp site at the huge Upper Cook Lake

When a hard-core alpinist describes a planned backpacking trip as a “liesurely loop walk,” take that with a grain of salt.  I learned that lesson on this epic Wind River trip.

I had wanted to do a backpack in the world-famous Wind River Mountains ever since I was a kid when I first looked at some old pictures of horse pack camps alongside some indescribably beautiful granite ringed lakes.  The captions of those pictures would read something like:  “One of many such lakes in the Wind River Range.”

I finally took the chance to go there hooking up with a couple of alpinists from Boulder who had a prior trip planned to the area.  “This will be my first non-technical trip of the summer,” he said. “It’s just a liesurely loop walk.”

After a seven hour drive we arrived at the Elkhart trailhead right outside of Pinedale at midnight and set up camp.  We woke with the sunrise to a perfectly calm and clear 30-degree morning, frost covering the dry grasses around the camp site.  By 8:00 am we were on the trail, three guys and two dogs, making our way into the huge Bridger Wilderness area.  The Bridger Wilderness, one of the West’s most beloved, was first established in 1964 with the first Federal Wilderness Act.

After 4.5 miles we reached Photographer’s Point for a half-hour rest and a chat with some backpackers coming out of the wilderness.  They said they had four inches of snow two days prior.  We wouldn’t have known it on this day as it was well into the 70’s and felt like mid-summer. 

Photographer’s Point is well-named because it provides the first of numerous impressive views of the bright granite spine of the Wind Rivers, very reminiscent of the Sierras in places.

The high Wind River Range from Photographer's Point. The tiny blue lake in the middle of the photo is named Suicide Lake

From Photographer’s Point we pressed on into the wilderness through some beautiful meadows and soon made a right turn at a trail junction.  For the next few miles we would pass several clear blue lakes, some of which are unnamed.  The idea of significant unnamed lakes in the lower 48 sounds strange until you look at a map of the Wind River Mountains.  The Wind River Range is chock full of hundreds of lakes. 

Nine miles in we replenished our water at this picture-perfect meandering stream with happily jumping brook trout:

Looking almost too "perfect" to have been created by natural forces was this gracefully meandering trout-filled stream. It is the picture-perfect image of what alpine wilderness looks like in my dreams.

Continuing on past the beautiful stream, we dropped into a basin and at about mile-10 and made our first major stream crossing at Pole Creek just above the confluence of that creek and yet another beautiful lake.

One of our party crossing Pole Creek

After the Pole Creek crossing we began to climb again, gradually, past unbelievable whirlpool-filled meadows until we reached the brilliant blue Lower Cook Lake.

Lower Cook Lake. Average size for the Winds this lake dwarfs most Colorado alpine lakes.

After a nice rest at Lower Cook Lake, we decided to push on another 1.5 miles to massive Upper Cook Lake which is twice the size of the lower lake.  As we approached the lake, we walked down a slope to a spectacular setting for our first campsite.

Heading down to our campsite at the shores of Upper Cook Lake

The clear waters of Upper Cook Lake

It was a perfectly calm spectacular evening as the sun went down at Upper Cook Lake

It has been said that most people who crave the wilderness can point to some transcendent wilderness experience during childhood.  I know exactly that moment when I was eleven, standing above Fourmile Lake in the Weminuche.

I knew immediately that this moment, arriving at the shore of Upper Cook Lake on a perfectly calm and clear afternoon, whith the brilliant blue water reflecting bright granite mountains, would be a memory that would not fade for the rest of my life.  It is a feeling that only others who have also experienced it can understand, and that only wilderness can create.

The next moring we woke to sunny skies and some whispy clouds as we packed up and left our paradise for day-two.  The first day was a good long 13 miles, but it was all on a nice trail with no serious climbs–a relatively easy 13 miles.

Day Two would be a different world.  Shortly after leaving camp, we also left the trail.  At first it was pleasant.  We soon reached the next lake in the chain, the most rugged and unique of the three, Wall Lake.

Looking out to an island on Wall Lake where we spotted a cairn and wondered how it got there

Along Wall Lake we walked on top of spectacular slabs of bright granite.  Above Wall Lake we began to climb into a higher valley alongside a stream with water that slid over the top of polished granite planks like waterslides.  Still not particularly difficult at this point, we continued up large blocks of granite into a curved valley until we reached an unnamed lake at just under 11,000 feet.

Dozer taking a breather next to the natural waterslides above Wall Lake

Climbing up the beautiful granite above Wall Lake on the way to the Divide

Looking down on the unnamed lake from part-way up the unnamed pass over the Continental Divide

By this time, the wind was beginning to pick up and some significant clouds were building to the west.

After a good rest at the high lake, we began our ascent of an unnamed, untrailed 12,000 foot pass over the Continental Divide.  It was not a difficult pass, mostly just a steep grass-covered 1,000-foot hill from the upper lake.  When we reached the top a whole new world opened up on the other side of the Divide and we stopped on a high rock to survey the landscape and pick our route.

Standing on the Continental Divide, figuring our remaining cross-country route to the next campsite

Unlike the pleasant grassy climb up to the Divide from the west, the descent on the east side was very difficult–some might say brutal.  We traversed a large slope picking our way over ledges and across large talus of teetering boulders.  Dozer demonstrated a high level of climbing skill as he nimbly bounced from rock to rock, at times getting his dog pack stuck.

We ended up dropping too far down and on the wrong side of an imposing ridge.  This forced us to climb a good 600 feet back up and over the ridge before decending again down a trecherously steep and rocky slope with a waterfall before finally arriving at another unnamed lake at just under 11,000 feet.

Crossing a snowfield at Thabo the husky takes a nice cool slide on his side

We descended this jumble of loose rock down to the meadow in the foreground where we set up campsite #2 next to another unnamed lake (behind the shot)

We decided to camp at the unnamed lake, Lake 10970 on the map (for the elevation).  Although Day Two was only about 8 miles compared to the 13 miles on Day One, it was far more exhausting.  It was all off-trail including the pass over the Divide.  Most strenuous was the descent from the Divide which was constant clawing and maneuvering over and around boulders and ledges.  Add the unexpected 600-foot climb and re-descent, and it made for a very tiresome day.

At this point I knew I was deeper in the wilderness than I had ever been by a fairly large measure.  We were at minimum 20 trail miles from any trailhead in any direction, and the “closest” trailheads were on the other side of the Divide, blocked by rugged passes.  At the Divide we had crossed from the Bridger Wilderness into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.  Bounding the Fitzpatrick to the east is the vast Wind River Indian Reservation which is mostly a vast wilderness itself with even fewer trails.

It was a beautiful, if a bit spooky, campsite, and the night was blustery.  I was constantly awakened by the flapping of my tent in the wind.

The austere campsite at "lake 10970" very deep in the wilderness

The next morning, Day Three, we awoke to bright sunshine but strong winds.  We packed up in the cold wind and set out cross-country around the south shore of Lake 10970.  This was the most technically difficult of our off-trail hiking as we had to traverse large rock falls on very steep slopes.  After about a mile we finally connected with the Hay Pass Trail and I was highly relieved to be walking on more stable ground again.  But, it wouldn’t last.

We dropped back down into the trees and passed by Camp Lake, a beautiful setting.

Walking along beautiful and remote Camp Lake

Once past Camp Lake we broke from the trail once again to ascend to a string of three large lakes called The Alpine Lakes.  To get there we had to climb a very steep slope aside a waterfall with an impressive and imposing rock tower in the background appropriately named The Fortress.

The steep cross-country route to the Lower Alpine Lake which sits just above the top of the slope. The Fortress looks ominously down on us from above.

By the time we departed peaceful Camp Lake the wind really began to pick up which saps energy.  The climb out of the Camp Lake basin towards the Alpine Lakes was steep, trailless and exhausting.  By the time we crested the ridge and arrived at a churning Lower Alpine Lake I was on the verge of being disgruntled with my hiking companions.  Far from a “liesurely” loop trip, this was an exhausting grind.  The high winds made it doubly tiring.

We stopped for “lunch” at the shore of Alpine Lake with winds I estimated to be sustained at no less than 35 mph with gusts easily exceeding 45 mph.  Alpine Lake looked like the Southern Ocean with three foot wind-produced breakers.  In higher gusts, the wind actually picked up water off the lake and turned it into an icy cold spray.  I had much difficulty getting my long nylon pants on.  As I grasped the waistband the wind-filled legs of the pants were held completely sideways, stiff and bloated, like a wind sock in a hurricane.

I went off by myself to think, crouched behind a rock in lee of the punishing cold wind, shivering and munching on some slices of cheddar cheese.  Lower Alpine Lake was at 11,000 feet which is above timberline in the Winds.  Our plan for the remainder of the day was to climb over, not one, but two 12,000 foot passes with a 700-foot drop between them, and then cross part of a glacier, before descending back down the west side of the Divide.  40-50 mph winds at 11,000 feet could easily be 70 mph plus at over 12,000 feet.  Crossing  snow and ice in those winds would  be unsafe and very cold. 

I made up my mind and walked over to the rest of my group.  I told them I was making a decision to turn around and hike east out of the range and I would call my wife when I got out and have her come pick me up.  I was serious.  The only problem was I hadn’t looked at the map before I made this decision.  I assumed, as is almost always the case in Colorado, that I could simply walk downhill and reach a trail, then a trailhead and a road.  Not so, here.  While bounded on our west by the Divide and tropical storm-force winds, we were bounded on the east by miles and miles of the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.  And, beyond that, were miles and miles of the Wind River Indian Reservation, itself a vast wilderness.  It would be at least a 30 mile trek to get out and much of it with no trails only to end up in the middle of an indian reservation.  No deal.

After much discussion, we decided that the best route would  be to backtrack and head south down to the Golden Lakes where the next day we could access a lower and gentler 11,000 foot pass over the Divide and make our way back to the Elkhart Trailhead.  This would add about 6 miles to our trip, but would be much safer and less exhausting.

Thankfully, my hiking companions understood and reluctantly agreed with my assessment.  There were no hard feelings as we backtracked back into the forest.  Passing Camp Lake again in the other direction, we, again, climbed by trail back above timberline and skirted by the lake we camped at the night before.  The wind continued to be brutal.

In the trees below Alpine Lake, evidence of a massive lightning strike

On our way to the Gold Lakes and passing back by the unnamed lake we camped at the night before. The severe wind is evident in the huge waves on the small lake visible from 100 feet above and by the puffed out jackets

Once we passed back by “lake 10970” on designated trail, we crested a small saddle where the wind was really wicked, then dropped down into the sheltered valley of the Golden Lakes.

Looking down on the beautiful and remote Gold Lakes chain

After about 8 miles, again much of it exhausting off-trail climbing made even more tiring by energy-sapping high winds, we found a sheltered campsite in the trees next to the third Golden Lake.  As we set up camp a brief snow squall blew in.

At this point we determined that, from this location, our final day (Day Four) would be between 18 and 19 miles with the first four miles off trail over an unnamed “low” pass over the Divide.  It was a very beautiful and remote place, but my satisfaction of being in the wilderness was tempered by the knowledge of a really long day ahead right after three full days of backpacking, the last two of which were highly exhausting.  It was going to be a test of my will, my endurance and my mental fortitute.  And, I wondered how much more Dozer could handle.  After a huge dinner, I climbed into the tent and fell asleep like a rock until morning.

We woke up the next morning to a ring of ice around the lake and a temperature of 26 degrees.  But, the wind had mostly subsided and the skies were clear!

After starting on the trail, we were soon cross country again.  Thabo the husky managed to root out and devour a vole in about three gulps before we commenced the climb toward our unnamed pass over the Divide.

Before the pass we skirted by the interesting Dennis Lake.

Dennis Lake on the way to the unnamed trailless pass over the Divide

After passing Dennis Lake we climbed another couple hundred feet up and onto a vast alpine plateau that made for a good mile of relatively flat walking.  It felt almost like winter as it was still below freezing at 10:00 am and the wind was still blowing pretty hard, although not anything like the day before.  With the winds I guessed that the wind chill was somewhere around 15 degrees.

Crossing the gentle unnamed and untrailed pass over the Divide in the cold wind

Whether it was because I slept well the  night before or because I had mentally prepared myself for 18 miles, my energy level on Day 4 was vastly improved.  As we crested the cold pass, I knew it was all down hill from there (well, mostly) even if we did still have 15 miles to go yet.

We dropped down the west side of the past with views of Timico Lake in the foreground and the plains of Western Wyoming in the background.  At Timico Lake we rested on a sandy beach for a while.  On the other end of the lake we regained a real trail and dropped back into the forest for good.

We kept our minds occupied for much of the remainder of the hike with some trivia games and discussion.  The miles ticked by, one-by-one.  We arrived at the vast Chain Lakes and replenished our water.  With 9 miles to go and 9 miles behind us for the day, we reached Pole Creek where we regained the same trail we had walked in the other direction on the first day.  Familiar sights now.  We ran into a horse packing hunter arriving for the first day of elk bow hunting season.  He was the first other person we had seen since Day One, and this was over Labor Day Weekend.  Home was getting near.

With 9 miles down and 9 to go on Day 4 I took the time to soak my sore feet in the refreshing cold water of Pole Creek

Like his owner, Dozer took some time to soak his sore paws in Pole Creek

After Pole Creek we climbed again, about 500 feet or so, before leveling out and passing the several small lakes that we passed on Day One.  One step in front of the other.  Sore shoulders.  Sore feet.  Weary head.  But, I wasn’t so tired that I couldn’t still enjoy the incredible scenery and the invigorating expanse of wilderness all around.

At about 7:30 or so we finally reached Photographer’s Point where we only had about 4.5 miles to go.  With about 3 miles to go, the sun set.  As darkness set in, I plodded ahead in a near trance, counting steps as my headlamp cast shadows behind the roots and rocks on the trail.  Dozer sensed that we were getting close and found the energy to run up ahead and scout. 

We finally arrived back at the trailhead at about 9:30 in full darkness.  I had gotten myself into such a focus over the last three miles that the arrival at the parking lot came as a surprise as I thought we still had a mile to go.

Back at Photographer's Point in the fading sunlight all Dozer wanted to do was curl up and sleep. But, we were almost there.

With about three miles left, I stopped to capture the light in the meadow at sunset

Back in the car in the back seat, I called my Wife to tell her not to to expect me home until about 5:00 am.  She asked how the trip was.  My response was two words:  Spectacular… Brutal.  And, months later those two words still most accurately describe this trip.

In Pinedale we stopped for some food.  All three of us walked around that store like old men.  A few hours later, arriving back home in Colorado, I opened the hatchback to let Dozer out.  He jumped out but his hind legs buckled and he fell over.  He was so sore that I had to carry him up and down the stairs for the next two days.

I will certainly return to the Winds, probably more than once.  It is a truly special place with its hundreds of sparkling lakes, bright sun-splashed granite, and sense of remoteness that is not found in many places in the lower 48. 

Next time, however, I will make sure that I have time to relax and enjoy this spectacular environment with a little less walking and a little more lounging.  Nevertheless, I am supremely glad I did this trek.  It was a trip of a lifetime and I will certainly remember it with a smile for the rest of my life.

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