The Wind Rivers in a Fifty Year Storm
We walked for eight miles along the head waters of the Green River. The trail was gradual and flat. After the second Green Lake the river turned a milky color with glacial minerals. We hiked until darkness covered us and we slept in moderate temperatures in perfect stillness. The next morning we woke before dawn and were hiking as the first light of morning appeared. The granite canyon walls now towered above us two thousand feet. We crossed the river on a sturdy bridge built back when the forest service had money to spend on such projects.
We then hiked out of the canyon on gradual switchbacks that took us up a thousand feet. Now above the valley we could appreciate the grandeur that it provided. In all directions we could see soaring granite. Numerous waterfalls cascaded down into the Three Forks Park at the head of the valley. We ate breakfast by a babbling brook shaded by the foliage of the forest.
Traveling through Vista Pass I began to realize that what I was so impressed with before was only becoming more incredibly beautiful the higher we got. We could now see not only the Green River Valley but the distant peaks that dominate the Wind River Range and the Continental Divide itself. We hiked through a narrow canyon filled with granite blocks the size of automobiles and then by a small lake that was filled with pure, clear water reflecting the walls that surrounded it. Past the lake we descended slightly to Peak Lake which stands in the shadow of Stroud Peak. Over the towers to the east we could see light clouds piling over the ridges as they flowed into the valley. Here we ate our lunch and marveled that such a place of beauty could also be a place of such solitude.
Shouldering our packs we began our ascent up the nameless trail towards Knapsack Col. We were then above eleven thousand feet and would reach well over twelve before we descended again. Glaciers now covered the sides of the peaks that surrounded us. They hung like ancient gardens created during the ice age. Crystal streams flowed from their base into the valley that we were ascending. The glaciers that once filled the valley created huge debris mounds that we ascended and navigated around.
Rising swiftly, our legs tired but our goal gradually grew closer and closer. By now clouds filled the view behind us, but they appeared high and non-threatening. Finally, we pulled over the ridge of Knapsack Col. We were immediately greeted by a continuous blast of wind, strong enough to push us backwards as we glimpsed the range beyond. Here the clouds were darker, heavier, and shrouded the high peaks of the range. Gannett Peak, only the next ridge over, was completely hidden. Looking down at the Twin Glaciers was not a sight that I was prepared for. Instead of the clear pristine flows of a healthy glacier I was greeted by a dying glacier, looking more like the remains of a massive eruption mixed with ice and flowing streams. With the turn of the weather our objective turned to that of quickly descending to lower elevations and a less exposed position. The last weather report that we had seen showed a 50% chance of scattered showers. This looked like more than that, but we were confident that if we could get to the lower Titcomb Basin that we could set up camp for the evening and let the storm pass.
We advanced quickly. Soon we were down below ten thousand feet, but the rain which had only been scattered before now turned to a constant downpour. The wind had picked up considerably as it became a constant force pushing us forward. From all sides, the valley began to flow with water. If the valley had not been a quarter mile wide it would have been a flash flood. We hiked quickly on, descending to the lakes that dominate Titcomb Basin. The clouds became darker. The rain fell harder. The wind blew powerfully down the canyon, approaching gale force levels. Now soaked from head to toe, we abandoned our goal of reaching the end of the valley as we realized that the weather would be at best marginally calmer there and if we did not get shelter soon we would risk hypothermia. We found a slightly raised spot of ground, free of rocks, that looked over Upper Titcomb Lake. Quickly setting up the tent, we crawled in and stripped off our wet clothes. It was early, around six o'clock. We assumed the rain would last for a few hours and then let up. It didn't. It got worse.
The moisture from our wet clothes, bodies, and the leaky tent made it a very long night. The gusting wind caused the tent poles to invert, raising the specter of a break that would tear through the fabric of the tent. That would have been life threatening. We were 18 miles from the nearest trail head. We were 30 miles from the nearest civilization. On through the night the gusts continued and the rain poured down. The sound of the river continued to increase in intensity as more and more water turned it into a torrent. There were a few moments where the rain would lighten to a sprinkle, only to quickly return to a gale. We covered our sleeping bags with a light tarp to try and prevent the moisture from destroying the protective warmth of the down. This partially worked, but little by little they were getting wet. Slowly the hours of the night passed. We had hope that the storm would die down so that we would be able to dry out.
With the light of morning we began to discuss our options. The storm did not appear to be losing strength. Looking out of our tent the dark clouds continued as far as we could see. With our sleeping bags on their way to failure we would be left with no defense against hypothermia. We had to get out. We had to get somewhere dry. The most direct path back to the car was 22 miles back over Knapsack Col. However, two thousand feet of elevation gain, over the glacier in pouring rain, in our exhausted state, seemed a dangerous path. We could continue on our planned loop course. This would require us to cover 30 miles. Neither of us had ever covered this much ground in a single day. Doing this over unfamiliar terrain, in pouring rain, also seemed likely to be headed for failure -- the ultimate failure. The third option was to go for the nearest trail head. I knew vaguely where it was and that it was around 18 miles from where we were. However I had not planned to go this route and so I did not have a map that covered it, and I couldn't even remember its name. This meant that we would be trusting to luck our choices at the trail junctions. Since we were at the far eastern side of the Wind, that meant that we would have to navigate many junctions successfully. Hoping that a fork that trended west was really a trail that would eventually take us west. Those were our options: A climb over a Col now covered with snow, a marathon march, or a roulette wheel. In the end we chose the fastest way out on the unknown trail. Tipping the scale was the thought that we would drop elevation faster, had less miles to cover, and had a greater chance of running into other people as we would pass through popular areas in the range. We only had to stay on the correct trail and move as quickly as we could.
We put on our wet clothes, tore down the tent and were on our way in a few minutes. Traveling down Titcomb Basin it felt like we were canyoneering. Even if it wasn't raining there was no way to stay dry. The trail was a river and the landscape was soaked so that the entire valley had a quarter inch of water on it. The best you could do was try and stay out of the deeper puddles so that the water in your shoes stayed somewhat warm. The three miles to Island Lake passed quickly. As we had hoped, the weather seemed less severe as we dropped elevation. However, Island Lake, one of the most popular destinations in the range, was totally devoid of people. Everyone else had seen the signs and gotten out before the storm hit. Our hearts sank. At this point there was little other choice but to keep moving in the most likely direction. We met our first fork: Lester pass or Seneca Lake. Lester pass trended southwest. Seneca Lake went directly west. Seneca Lake seemed the obvious choice but the consequences of a wrong choice -- the fatal consequences -- weighed in the back of our minds. I wrapped the tarp around me in a order to trap the heat of my body and to try and keep the rain from getting into my pack and further soaking my sleeping bag. Off we went. The trail was mostly level or downhill, but the occasional rise slowed our progress to a stumble. I realized how tired I was. This confirmed that the direct route was our best hope. I would not have had strength for either of the other two choices. Going those paths would have resulted in another overnight ordeal, this time with nothing to keep me warm.
We reached another junction. This one headed due north. The sign read Lost Lake. The name seemed to suggest a forgotten location, not likely to be on the main path. We continued on the other fork in a southwestern direction.
Then a glimmer of hope. We started to notice in the mud the occasional faint footprint. There had been too much rain for those prints to be from a previous day. It was likely that someone was ahead of us on the trail. We only had to catch up with them and then we could be sure we were on the right trail. As we hurried along the foot prints became more distinct. We were gaining on them. Dropping down into Seneca Lake we caught our first glimpse. A group of three that were plodding along in the rain. I am sure I looked strange wrapped up in my tarp yelling as I ran to meet them. My first words were, "we don't know where we are, we are looking for the fastest way out. Do you know where the closest trail head is?", the response, "Elkhart. We're headed there now. I have an extra map that you can have." All my dread vanished. I knew that it would not be convenient, but there was little chance of disaster.
For the first time since we passed over Knapsack Col I again began to enjoy the beauty that was around me. Seneca Lake was a paradise. The views from Photographer's Point are unsurpassed. As we continued to descend, the rain began to lessen and then quit entirely. Past Barbara Lake the sun broke through the clouds. We were sill wet, but the sun plus our rapid pace kept us warm. I was able to shed my plastic wrap. Looking behind us we could see the high mountains that a few hours earlier, we had huddled among. I stared in surprise to see that they were blanketed with snow. That had been no scattered shower. The Winds had been hit by a sixteen hour torrential rainstorm with freezing temperatures at the higher elevations.
A couple hours latter we were at the trail head. The sun disappeared and the rain began again. We hitched a ride into Pinedale from a friendly man named Dave from Missouri who was doing his 18th trip to the Winds. We then paid a shuttle for the hour and a half ride back to our car. As we drove home we could see the clouds building over the range. By the time we got on the highway the hurricane once again had begun. The entire range was engulfed in a black cloud that extended for fifty miles. We cranked up the heater and headed south.
Apparently the mountains weren't the only place hit by the storm. South of La Barge, flooding had shut down the highway and we were forced into an hour detour. We drove through conditions alternating off and on with heavy rain. Meanwhile, the flooding from the same storm in Colorado forced the evacuation of thousands and took the lives of at least four people.
It was an adventure in the end with little more consequence than getting very wet. It could have been very different. I came out more experienced, more respectful of the weather, but already planning to go back at the first chance I have.