Sweetwater Gap - Wind River PeakI planned this trip a couple years ago and finally found the right time to plug it in.
For some reason, I always seem to seek out the less visited pieces of wilderness. Maybe it's because they seem more like wilderness to me.
The destination for this trip was no exception to my rule as we were aiming for the southern end of the Wind River Range and the small, remote Sweetwater Trailhead. Three of us planned to travel over the Sweetwater Gap and into the upper reaches of the Tayo Creek drainage. From our base camp, we planned on doing a lot of fishing and to attempt a climb of Wind River Peak. Good friend and Wind River veteran, Marc Mayotte, would accompany my son Chris and myself. For Chris and I, this would be our third trip into the Winds.
Saturday, August 2nd, 2008
We left Fort Collins at 6:30 am. Rolled into Lander around 11:30 for our last fuel before the trailhead. Luckily for me, since I was driving, Marc had volunteered to pay for the gas. It was $4.03 a gallon, ouch! Backtracked to the Hwy 28 turnoff and began the climb to South Pass.
Once we were on the other side of the pass, we turned north onto the Lander Cutoff. From there, it was another 23 miles to the TH. The road wasn’t bad but it wasn’t built for speed. The last two miles were a little rough and I was glad that we’d taken the running boards off the 4Runner.
We finally reached the TH at 1:50. Evidence of the fires of 88’ was clearly visible. Before we hit the trail, I put the final touches on my plan to have cold beer waiting for us when we would come out a week later. Dry ice on the bottom of the cooler then block ice with a towel on top for insulation and finally,... six Coronas. I parked in the shade of the only standing tree and off we went, putting one foot in front of the other, at 2:45 pm.
The trail dropped quickly to a bridge over Larsen Creek then began climbing up through a thicket of immature lodgepoles that grew up from the ashes and deadfall left by the fires.
The trail weaved in and out of the burned forest for the next couple miles. Getting through the deadfall was an issue at times. We struggled into the late afternoon under the burden of our full packs and settled into a campsite about a mile shy of the Gap just after 6 pm. Set up camp, had a little dinner then kicked back with a bit of grog and a cigar.
I was out of the tent first, around 6:30. It was a cool 42F with clear skies. Took a bunch of photos including this one of the Upper Sweetwater River, looking north toward the Gap. Hit the trail at 9:45 after some coffee and a quick breakfast.
Made the Gap at 11:15 and took a 40 minute break to eat and reconnoiter. Found the "shortcut, use trail" behind the trail sign, right where Finis said it would be. It wasn't heavily used but easy enough to follow on it's up and down, northwesterly course to Poison Lake.
Followed the trail down the slope to just above the lake where we lost it in the willows.
From there we bushwhacked westward above the southern shore of the lake, aiming for the outlet of Mountain Sheep Lake. After six hours on the trail, we shed our packs and set up camp at Mtn Sheep Lk. Did a little fishing and were disappointed to find only brookies in the lake. The mosquitoes weren’t insane but they got your attention if you sat in one spot for very long. If you were trying to eat, they were merciless. Enjoyed a cigar, a nip and life was good.
Slept in a little later as part of our planned “do nothing/recovery” day. Temp was a balmy 53F when I got up and I figured the mosquitoes would be waiting for me. Thanks to a stiff breeze coming out of the south, there was none to be found. Spent the morning doing chores, fine tuning the camp set-up, sunning and fishing.
Early in the afternoon, Chris announced that he was tired of hanging around camp and that he was going to climb the peak that towered over the west side of the lake. I asked him to stay in touch via the two-way and off he went.
Just when I was starting to think we’d not see another soul in this remote corner of the Winds, a family of five popped out of the forest on the other side of the lake, with fishing rods in hand. Marc and I went below to try fishing the creek after waving to them.
Marc and I had a blast fishing the creek! The brookies were right where they were supposed to be and exceedingly glad to see our flies. Meanwhile, Chris reported that he’d reached his goal, point 12,122, just north of Mount Nystrom. I was thankful for the two-ways, without them I would have been worried the whole time Chris was gone.
I was up early again, taking pictures at first light. After breakfast we set off for a day of fishing at a distant lake.
Spectacular scenery and good fishing was our reward for the day!
Had a delicious dinner of trout with rice and got our gear ready for the next day’s planned climb of Wind River Peak. We turned in early and set our alarms for 5 am.
In the predawn darkness, the disgusting sound of the alarm violently jolted us awake. We stumbled around trying to get ready and were thankful that we’d done most of the preparation the night before. In spite of off and on showers in the wee hours of the morning the ground was still bone dry. First light revealed that the skies were totally overcast but the summit of the peak was visible. We hit the trail at 6:25. We lost it pretty quickly and ended up bushwhacking up a small drainage before we managed to rejoin it, just below Tayo Lake.
Reached the lake at 7:30 and took a short break to feed the mosquitoes. Followed Finis Mitchell’s route description up the south slope. The biggest difficulty other than the physical demands of the climb was to pick a route through the knobs and ridges that blocked our view of what lay ahead.
The views got more spectacular with every step we took. We traveled up the snowfield for awhile and found the going too slow. Spotted another group of climbers making their way up the ridge, north of us.
Left the snow and picked our way through the seemingly endless rockfield until the homestretch finally came into view. Chris radioed to say he was on the summit. Marc disappeared over the last ridge while I labored up, stopping to catch my breath every twenty or so steps. As I crested the last ridge, I found myself on a broad, relatively flat pile of rocks. Seeing no one, I made my way toward what seemed to be a slightly higher point. When I topped that last hump I could see Chris, Marc and the other climbers at the summit.
Ironically, the other climbers were the same group we’d encountered two day’s prior. They were the Gans Family of Lander and the father, John, was the big cheese at NOLS in Lander. Spent some time talking to them and also added a new summit register as jimmyjay had suggested. I wish I had brought something to put it in as the nalgene bottle that was there was a bit small for the task. I think a welder’s Rod Guard tube would have worked great. Next time.
The views from the summit were spectacular! Wind River Peak towers above all in the Southern Winds! After an hour, we headed down, taking a short break just below the top, where we found cell service.
We took a more easterly route down to avoid the tedium of the rocks. Along the way Marc and I spotted this shelter. Thankfully, we didn’t need to use it. Replenished our water from the snowfield and made our way back down in a light rain.
This time we didn’t lose the trail and upon reaching the junction, we figured out why we had lost it. On the way up it was impossible to see that the trail made a hard right, through some willows and crossed the creek. On the way down it was plain as day.
Got back to camp at 4:30 and crashed. Ten hours on the trail, ten miles of hiking plus 3,000 elevation gain and loss did me in. I must be gettin’ old. Lucky for me, Chris and Marc did the chores and Marc made dinner.
Another do nothing day after the rigors of Wind River Peak. Washed clothes, ourselves and had a hot lunch. I got ambitious and decided to hike to the south end of the lake to check it out and do a little fishing.
Caught quite a few and it was fun for awhile, but all were brooks, no sign of any goldens.
The inlet stream flowed under the giant rockfall coming from an unnamed lake above. I could hear it, but it flowed unseen, beneath the rocks. Reminded me of the creek that flows underneath the Boulderfield on Longs Peak.
Got back to camp just as Chris was putting the finishing touches on an afternoon snack of mashed potatoes. Timing is everything! Kicked back for the rest of the evening, putting off packing till morning since we weren’t planning on leaving early. Noticed that the barometer was dropping and wondered what weather might be in store for us. A little rain fell before dawn but it was another “dry rain”.
We got on the trail at 10 and crossed Tayo Creek without incident. My “recliner backpack” performed flawlessly. The four mile hike to Tayo Park was a piece of cake compared to what had gone before.
The crossing of the Popo Agie at Tayo Park caused us no trouble as the flow was quite low. Took a break on the other side then kicked it into gear at 12:45 on our way up the trail to Sweetwater Gap. About the time we reached the Gap, a light rain began to fall.
Took a break out of the rain and decided to camp just below the Gap as soon as we could find a suitable spot. Once we found one we quickly set up camp and had a late lunch. We’d all brought packets of tuna and I had a bunch of those fastfood mayonaise squeeze-tubes. We’re talking a lot of tuna! Once we picked the blue mold spots off the remaining pita bread it was an unbelievably delicious feast. Easily the most filling meal of the entire trip. We spent our last night in the wilderness trying to keep a fire going in an outrageous downpour, sipping the last of Chris’s whiskey and havin’ one hell of a good time. When the flasks were emptied, we crawled into our tents as the day’s last light faded.
Got up at 7:30, packed up and got on the trail by 10, beginning our six mile hike to the TH. Saw our only glimpse of wildlife, a spike mule deer, in the first couple miles. Ran into two horsemen who were on their way to the Gap and the lake that they thought was there. Also ran into a couple that told us they were through-hiking to Trail Lake, at the northern end of the Winds. We wished them well.
At 1:20 pm, we climbed the hill from Larsen Creek and reached the TH, seven days, almost to the minute from when we’d first arrived. The 4Runner was the only vehicle in sight.
It would be a gross understatement to say that we weren’t delighted to find that the cooler still held ice and......cold beer.
After 23 miles of dirt we hit Hwy 28, listening to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two Headed Boy” and cruised down the hill to Lander. Rolled into town around 3:30 and after securing a fresh supply of scotch and beer, checked into the Pronghorn Motel. Had a nice dinner on the patio at the Gannett Grill and spent the remainder of the evening next door at the Lander Bar. Interesting place, that Lander Bar. Drank a lot of beer and played a lot of pool before crossing that Popo Agie one more time.
I surely do love them Wind Rivers!