The World Through a Bug NetDay 1- A four-hour thunderstorm is not ideal on the first night of an eight day backpack trip, but sometimes you have to make the best of what you’re given. A couple of hours listening to the sky crackle above and watching our tent walls illuminate menacingly with each blaring stratospheric flash was enough to force me to tie my shirt tightly around my eyes. It was thin comfort; a sort of ignorance is bliss consolation. The only good thing about the storm was that you could no longer hear the constant drone of mosquitoes that we knew waited hungrily and patiently for us to step outside. A glance at my watch confirmed my suspicions: it was very late, after 3 am. I had to figure out a way to sleep.
We were in the Wind River Range at last, a place I'd wanted to see for many years. In my earliest mountaineering years, I'd read a particularly compelling article about Gannet Peak, buried deep in a range I'd never heard of at the time called the Wind River Range. The notion of a mountain, flanked by some of the largest glaciers in the Lower 48, whose summit was 20+ miles from the nearest trailhead and took three days of backpacking just to see. That was a place I wanted to go.
Our final destination was Titcomb Basin, a rugged alpine cirque in the heart of the Wind River Range. My girlfriend and I laughed talking about it, trying to imagine just what exactly a tit comb would look like and how it would function. Now that we were here in the range, we found it like some sort of Shangri-La beckoning in the distance but coming no closer…. After surviving the thunderstorms of the first night it would take four additional days of hiking before were finally sitting between Titcomb’s two aquamarine lakes.
But let me back up.
Nobody enjoys a night of thunderstorms in the backcountry. Maybe some can appreciate the raw beauty and spectacle of a wilderness tempest, but to truly enjoy it? That would take a different kind of person.
When morning on day 2 had risen, neither one of us felt rested, but the inexorable pull of the wilderness was taking us deeper and deeper into the jaw-like mountains. We retrieved our food stored in bear canisters or strung high in the trees at least 12 paces farther than the required 100 yards (we had never camped in supposed Grizzly country), and fired down a granola and powdered milk breakfast.
The day’s hike was short, only about 4 miles, but entailed a great deal of up and down terrain. Our destination was Seneca Lake, another non-descript blue smudge on the topo map. When we arrived there that afternoon, we were amazed by the beauty of the place. The lake was huge by backcountry standards, and rimmed by glacier-softened stone faces and hills. Fremont Peak and the tallest Titcomb spires stood tall in the background, much closer now than before. It was an astonishing place, and it seemed we had it all to ourselves.
We had been warned of how “busy” our route would be, and in the end there was probably a few more people than I had expected, but standing on the ridge looking over Seneca Lake without a human in sight, it was hard to think of the Winds as crowded. Snowmass Lake, back home in our backyard Elk Range, is similarly far from its trailhead and requires almost as much effort to approach as Seneca Lake, would be swarmed with fishermen and mountain climbers on an early-August day so that the campsites along its shores would be stacked three deep with tents and kitchens. And Seneca Lake is easily double if not triple Snowmass Lake’s size!
That evening our sense of solitude deepened and we watched a beautiful sunset cast crepuscular shafts on the angular walls of Fremont Peak and nearby Mount Sacajewea. Though I worried before bed, no thunderstorms awoke us.
For the third day we decided to stay at Seneca, as we were in no hurry to move on. Instead, we spent a leisurely morning drinking tea and mustering the courage for a swim (and by swim I mean more of a jump in, gasp a few times, and get immediately back out due to the cold). The sky was peerless cerulean and breezy enough to knock the mosquitoes down enough to occasionally take off our bug nets (both the bane and savior of our trip to this point). We decided to spend the afternoon taking a side hike up to Lester Pass.
The out and back journey ended up being 7 miles and taking up most of the afternoon. We had a pleasant day skirting giant glacial boulders (on which I would plot numerous boulder problems) and weaving through innumerable lakes. Atop the 11,115’ pass we had outstanding views of the Titcomb peaks and could peer for the first time into a previously invisible section of the Winds on the opposing side of the pass.
We had to hustle back, as standard afternoon cumulus clouds had begun rapidly building around 2:00 pm. Back home (camp) we spent a few hours resting in the tent, playing games of speed, slapjack, and solitaire waiting for thunderstorms that never came. The break was well-deserved, however, and necessary anyhow.
That night large birds swooshed over our tent and made strange calls across the lake. We wondered if they were talking about us, or perhaps discussing recent hunts of pocket gophers, which we had seen scurrying among the scree with particular numbers around Seneca Lake. Later, when stepping out to do the necessary, stars filled the horizon and a waxing gibbous moon spilled its eerie pale color over the mountains of Titcomb to our north. Still they beckoned, louder than ever. Perhaps like the sirens to dash me on their granite roosts.
Back in the tent, I finished the night soundly.
The next portion of our trek brought us to Island Lake, a place possible even more like paradise than Seneca. Fremont and the mountains loomed even closer now. Intricacies of detail were visible now than previously imaged from other vantages: infinitesimal shapes and fissures in the towering granite faces, individual boulders and trees like mountaineers frozen on its slopes, jagged and unforgiving buttresses. The lake spread out before us in an amazing shape of speckled nooks and islands. Two large cascades poured in from Titcomb to the north, spilling in crystaled streaks on the granite. Elephant Head, a peak with new respect at this close range, towered above like thumb thrust toward the sky.
We enjoyed a heartier dinner that night: dehydrated spaghetti with meat sauce. While dehydrated spaghetti might not sound appetizing compared to your down-the-street Olive Garden or fill-in-the-blank local Italian cuisine, after four days of granola, peanut-butter burritos and couscous it tasted as good as any meal I could remember. We played our usual game(s) of Speed as a windstorm swept in that evening, pulling and yanking at our little tent. It was many hours that night before I would finally get to sleep.
It’s funny how even a thing as obnoxious as a bug mask, when worn near constant for five full days, can become a thing of normality, even to the ridiculous point of forgetting the damn thing is even on? I discovered this on a granite throne overlooking one of the most beautiful backcountry lakes I have ever seen, trying to stuff breakfast into my mouth through the No See Em netting of my bug mask.
Of all the nuisances if backpacking--and despite how much I love doing it I am willing to admit there are a great many--the worst on this trip hands down was the mosquitoes. I’d encountered plenty of bad bugs in the backcountry before. In my years kayaking and rafting we’d get eaten alive donating pint after pint of blood in the slack stretches of the Green River in Gates of Ladore, or get crawled-on to death paddling through a recent caddis-fly hatch. And I’d seen plenty of mosquitoes in the Colorado and Arizona backcountries too. Nothing, let me repeat, nothing, prepared me for the onslaught of mosquitoes that awaited us in the Winds. The curse of having so many beautiful lakes, I suppose, and a particularly bad year with the wet spring and late runoff. Whatever the cause, dealing with the vicious, hummingbird-sized demon bugs was a constant concern during this backpack trip. We’d wear our bug masks, pat 100% DEET on our bodies like perfume, find the windiest rock perches to eat and cook, and still they’d find and gnaw on any piece of unfortunately exposed skin. Bathroom private time was often a crazed battle of swatting a hundred, flying, bloodthirsty needles away from your sensitive and private parts. We lost track of counting the bites after hundred. Sometimes even the sound of them when be so maddening that we would flee to the sanctuary of our tent just for reprieve. While inside, the miserable six-leggers would attach themselves to the tent’s netting and start lustfully through at us. We started calling the omni-present mosquito audience “pervert’s row”.
In the backcountry you learn to deal with a lot of things, but all of the pain and discomfort has its rewards. Our final reward was Titcomb.
It was pictures of Titcomb in the Gannet article that started me planning a Wind River trip. Any mountain whose approach traversed such a basin had to be one of the greats. Our hike on Titcomb day was pleasant and calm. We had managed to squeeze out a few hours sleep once the wind died down. We weren't trying to climb Gannet, not this time. This backpack trip was, in a sense, more of a scouting mission for later trips. That and as any backpack trip is to some extent, an escape. Our arrival in the Titcomb Basin brings the story back, after considerable backtracking (I apologize), to us sitting in-between the aquamarine Titcomb Lakes.
It is North America’s Patagonia, I remember thinking. Wishful thinking, I suppose, that we could have something as dramatic as Patagonia within a few hours drive, but that seemed the best comparison. And while I will always consider myself a Colorado boy and take a great deal of pride in the mountains and wilderness we have there, I couldn’t quite find a place in my own home state that compares. Every range is unique, I suppose. All are a different. The Wind River Range is vast, and by its rolling nature it seems that even a high-up overview sheds no light on the many hidden basins and valleys, all of which are filled with beautiful and ambrosial lakes and streams.
When the time had come to hike out of the climatic basin we were already discussing bigger plans for the Winds in the future: 21 days from Big Sandy to Green River Lakes. Climbing Pingora in the Cirque of Towers, as well as Gannet and Fremont. We wanted to bring our family and friends to see this place that had already become special to us. Just as long, we added, as we came in September when frosts chase off, once and for all, the dreaded population of Wind River mosquitoes.
Post Script: Misanthropy in America's National ParksWhen we walked out of the Winds we both agreed that we had gained new perspective, not just of Wyoming or the wilderness but of ourselves. We had both thought of ways our own lives and relationships could be improved. Sometimes a simple life, and backpacking in many ways is as simple and raw as it gets, has a way of helping you remember what is truly important. On our last day, when we’d returned to the bustling example of civilization that is Pinedale, WY, our trip was only just over half complete.
We followed up our backpack trip in the Winds with a more leisurely camping excursion into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park. Our first reaction to pulling into Jackson with its curious myriad of multi-color license plates and cornucopia of accents and dialects was one of horror at the intrusion of humanity. The juxtaposition of being thrown from the quiet, relatively people-free Bridger Wilderness to the bustling, chaotic portal into the most famous and popular National Park in America was almost overwhelming. As we ventured into the Tetons and eventually into Yellowstone, however, I tried to view the overcrowding in a different light.
Although the National Parks have drawn considerable attention to these special places even to the point of overcrowding specific places, they have also led to the protection of some of America's most prized natural resources. And in almost every National Park that I have been to, if you take the time to step away from the beaten path you can find places of raw and vast wilderness.