Horse Ridge/Dry Creek Basin ~ August 8th - August 15th, 2009After two grueling days we’d finally reached our destination in the upper Dry Creek Basin and for the next four days we’d call this grassy draw, not far from the eastern shore of Don Lake, our home.
Reuniting our team of the previous year, it was Marc, Chris and myself heading into the Wind Rivers for another week of high adventure, punctuated with occasional periods of misery. This year, we had one addition to the team-Chris’ dog, Chewy. For our destination, we chose an out of the way place known as the Dry Creek Basin. The main attraction other than it’s beauty and remoteness was the fact that the Basin was one ridge removed from the highest peaks and largest glaciers of the range, which we hoped to check out and photograph from the top of Horse Ridge. Chris and I had been to the area once before in 2004, and we felt like we had some unfinished business to take care of.
Saturday, August 8th
Our hike in was uneventful, except for the snow and seeing a black bear in about the same spot we’d one five years earlier. The snow, for the most part, fell on higher slopes than the ones we trod upon.
The bear must’ve been the same one we’d seen before. He looked in our direction for a bit, but given bears eyesight and the two hundred yards between us, he went back to his business. We got back to ours, forgoing the break we were going to take until we got farther up the hill. It turned out to be a very long day on the trail. When we finally stopped, those of us over the age of 50 were completely wiped out.
Sunday, August 9th
It had been a cold night, with temperatures falling into the upper 20s by morning. I had to put on about every piece of clothes I’d brought by the time I was out of the tent and walking upright. A good nights sleep on my new, super-light pad/mattress put me back on the right side of life, once I worked out the kinks. Marc seemed back on track also. Chewy was hard to read and as usual, didn’t say much, though he looked less than thrilled. For Chris, the professional trail worker, it was like another day at the office.
Eagerly anticipating a little easier day, we were back on the trail early. The weather was good, still on the cool side, which we were thankful for, but without the wind and rain/snow of the previous day.
Passed three tents along the trail, didn’t see anyone in the area though. All was going well but the day was starting to get long. The last couple miles of the hike took on that “it’s never going to end” feel, as the hike, the weight of the pack and the exhaustion from the previous days exertion marathon mounted. As we entered the final hour of the hike, I was starting to slip, but I refused to take another break as Chris and Marc suggested. I was driven, albeit slowly, all I wanted to do was to reach our destination and I pushed it hard with all I had. I had to sympathize with them though, as they’d been waiting for me to catch up all day. I guess that’s what you get when you hike with an older gentleman.
We ended up taking a break of sorts while trying to decide how to cross the creek that blocked our path to Don Lake. It wasn’t a raging torrent but it was substantial enough to warrant making a plan of action. Chris put on his water shoes and slogged across the up to knee-deep water with a reluctant Chewy on leash. Chris had his hands full with his fly rod in one hand and Chewy’s leash in the other. Chewy only wanted out of the water, first heading for the willows upstream then trying to climb atop every rock that protruded above the water.
Marc and I made it across without a problem and we pushed on until we reached a suitable campsite on the south side of the creek, just east of the lake. We got somewhat settled in and finished our dinner just before the sun disappeared behind “the Thumb.” Temperatures took a nosedive after that, hitting 36 at about the time we called it a night. Heard a coyote’s howl in the middle of the night which went unanswered. “This place must be really remote,” I thought, “there’s only one coyote.”
Monday, August 10th
As is our custom on these trips, Monday was the “do nothing” day. Fine tune the camp set-up, do a little fishing and just plain relax. It was a cold morning and a cup of coffee really started the day off nicely. Had a leisurely breakfast and generally moved slowly, recovering from the hike in and adjusting to the 10,500 ft rarified air. The weather couldn’t have been much better, with sunny skies and temps around 60, although in the afternoon sun, it felt much warmer than that. We did little more than explore the area around camp, sample the fishing and relax.
Cloudless skies greeted us again when we crawled out of our tents. With temperatures a little warmer than the day before the bugs were up and at em’ shortly after the coffee was ready. It wasn’t the mosquitoes that were the problem as much as the gnats. Never ran into them in the Winds before but have heard stories. There was plenty of them.
Our plan for the day was to head up higher into the basin, checking out the unnamed lake above us and the terrain beyond. Reached the lake in short order and were blown away by both the beauty of the lake and the day. A spectacular setting under bluebird skies. The fishing was not good so after a bit, we hiked farther up to the south end of the lake.
It was getting late in the afternoon so we turned around and headed back to camp. After dinner, I took my wooden flute down close to the lake, sat on a rock with a view and played till the sun went behind the Great Thumb.
We turned in around 10, planning on getting an early start on our scheduled Horse Ridge climb. We were rudely awoken at 11:30 by voices, lights and the stomping of horses hooves. After what seemed like a long time, whatever/whoever was out there came to a stop, right next to our tent. We could hear them talking, their lights shining on our tents. Chris, Chewy and I sat there in our tent, in shock, with a growing thought of WTF!!! We could only guess what Marc was thinking 20 yards away in his tent. I told Chris I’d had enough and I was going out.
A whole bunch of people and horses is what we found when we climbed out of the tent. A strange conversation ensued of which I recall little detail. I’ve since thought of a lot of things I wish I’d said, all of them loud and to the point, but there was a lot of uncertainty in my mind at that instant. Looking back, the Clint Eastwood in me wishes I’d been packing and that I’d fired three shots in the air after climbing out of the tent, just to get their attention. But reality being what it is, in the dark of the night, before moonrise, things were unclear. We were looking at many vague shapes on horseback, wearing headlamps, looking down on us. Turned out there was 16 riders and 8 pack animals. The riders, with the exception of the outfitters men, appeared to be males in their late teens. The outfitter had to be a complete idiot, leading this group in total darkness to a place he didn’t know very well. Apparently when they crossed the creek below, two riders had gotten thrown from their horses into the cold water.
Long story short, they were looking for a campsite and they thought ours was it. We pointed out the obvious, this spot was taken. I told them where the trail was, but then they started asking about the fishing, what flies to use and how we liked our tent, I started to boil. “Love to stand here in my longjohns, freezing me ass off and chat with you guys, but I’m gonna go back to sleep.” “Get the f outta here,” is what I was saying under my breath as I crawled back into tent. Thankfully, either they heard me or they figured it out on their own and plodded up the hill toward the trail and eventually faded into the blackness of the night. As I recall, it took awhile to get back to sleep.
Thanks in part to our middle of the night visitors, we didn’t get as early a start as we had planned. We set out from camp at 8:45. The weather looked good though the appearance of a “mackerel sky” signified a change coming in a couple days.
After crossing the creek, we continued north, picking our way up the slope and drifting eastward, aiming for the break in the trees on the ridge. It wasn’t difficult but the going was slow and tedious at times. Occasionally we had to take a different tack when we reached a dead end. The radios were very helpful, allowing one of us to scout ahead and report back on the best route.
Once over the ridge, we turned west, taking a break just above treeline at 10:15. Checked to see if we had cell service, no dice. After the break, we curved west, gaining altitude as we crossed meadows, rocks and a snowfield.
After passing point 11,165, we turned south, climbing steeply, finally gaining the top of the eastern finger of Horse Ridge. Once we attained the ridge top, we moved westward again, aiming for the main spine of Horse Ridge.
Clouds were starting to build to the west but we pushed on, hoping for the best. At about 11,800, we made a decision to “hunker down” as a bigger storm approached from the SW.
Storm turned out to be nothing, so we continued on after it passed. We felt good about our decision to press on, cresting the ridge, making our way across the broad, almost flat tundra as the skies cleared. The view was spectacular! I had been trailing Chris and Marc almost the entire way, but I had a burst of energy and burned across the tundra, stopping at a spot where there was a nice, flat topped rock that I thought would work perfectly for the tripod.
We stayed there for awhile, taking photos, eating and drinking. The snow of a few days earlier had “whitened” the glaciers to more of a “spring-like” finish, and it was an overpowering sight. We could see the snowfield above Noel/Knoll Lake, but the lake itself was tucked behind the next ridge. I walked down the slope to the west, hoping for a better view of the Dinwoody Creek Valley below, but the slope was too gradual for such views. I struggled with not being able to push on to the next ridge, to see the view from there, but I always do, and there wasn’t enough time. Checked for cell service again and found none.
It was obvious to all of us, especially Chris, that Chewy wasn’t feeling too well. Chris was understandably concerned. High altitude sickness was what we figured. We tried giving him some food and water, which he had very little interest in. Even tried a little of our fix all kool-aid elixir, with no success. Chris decided to start back down with Chewy. Marc and I headed for the eastern lip of the ridge to check it out.
We stayed in touch via the two-ways and caught up with Chris and Chewy at the saddle between the two higher rock piles and descended the rest of the way together. Conditions changed from cool with light rain on the north side of the ridge to sunny and hot once we reached the south-facing slope above the lake. As usual, we were trashed by the time we rolled into camp. Turned in a little earlier after a nice dinner and slept a good sleep, this time, with no interruptions.
Rolled out of the tent around 8 with no plans on the agenda. Originally, we had planned on doing a hike to another part of the drainage, but decided against it. Wednesday’s climb and thoughts of starting the hike out on Friday morning, had us thinking more of hanging than hiking. Caught up on some chores like washing some clothes and did a little fishing. Early in the afternoon, I got a little crazy and took a dip in the creek. I regretted that immediately when a cloud blocked the sun and the wind kicked up, just as I was getting out of the water. I was hypothermic for about for a minute and a half, but the sun came back out, the wind died and I laid out on the broad rock, feeling the sun’s warmth and life was good again.
Back at camp, the horse packers passed by on the trail above us on their way out, at 2 PM. Not ones to get an early start, we guessed. A series of rain showers started rolling over the ridge from the SW, hitting us about every 20 minutes it seemed. No big ones, but big enough to cause us to set up a tarp for some out of-tent shelter. Chewy enjoyed doing a lot of tent time to escape the gnats and mosquitoes that otherwise were his constant companion. He looked more than ready to head home.
Pasta Primavera and pita bread made for a magnificent meal! Sitting around the fire that last night, we worked on our dwindling liquor supplies. My two little flasks were drained so I had to help Chris with his whiskey, just a wee bit, to lighten his load.
Caught a little NOAA weather radio in the midst of it all, and it warned of deteriorating weather conditions on
Friday. We hoped for the best but feared we’d find less than that in the morning.
Surprise, surprise,..skies were as clear as they had been all week when we popped out of our tents in the morning. We felt fortunate, dodging a bullet, so far at least. Packed up our stuff and hit the trail in good spirits. Crossed the creek a little farther upstream then we had on the way in and found it a much easier crossing.
Everything was going great, weather was still on our side and the hiking seemed easy. Took a break in a meadow beside the creek. It was a glorious break! Chris sampled the fishing, Marc chilled by and in the creek and I took a dip in a deep hole a little ways upstream. The sun was shining brightly and it felt quite warm. I tried to wash off a small portion of the dirt and stink that had accumulated over the last 6 six days and I felt that in some small part I succeeded.
The skies darkened as we continued down the trail. We pushed to make the same spot we’d camped at on the way in and we made it. Got our tents up and almost had the tarp tied down when the first wave hit. Though the storms were stronger than those of the previous day, they were short-lived. Temperatures were definitely cooler and heading down as the squalls rolled in every 20 to 30 minutes. Marc, Chris and Chewy sought shelter in the tents while I hung outside, staying under the tarp as necessary, gathering firewood and water when conditions permitted.
The storms seemed to be letting up around mid-afternoon and I managed to coax Chris and Marc out of the comfort of their tents for a late lunch of peanut butter on pita bread. A little milk would have been nice but it was still mighty good. Spent some quality time in the fire pit, working on finishing our supply of liquor (which we did). Surprisingly, skies cleared as dusk settled in. We hoped that the forecasts for the mornings weather would prove wrong.
Some time after midnight the storms started. When we awoke, the temp in the tent was 39. A mixture of rain and snow slapped us in the face when we poked our heads out. Moving quickly, we packed up, had a little coffee, slammed some Nutra Grain bars and were on the trail by 9:30.
By the time we reached the tundra, the morning’s snow had melted for the most part. It was a different story on the higher ridges.
Once we crossed the last pass, it was smooth sailing all the way back. Chris let out a “whoop” when he first saw the car. We were glad to find “all in order” and even gladder to find ice cold beer in the cooler. A couple bags of junk (Kettle chips and Synders pretzels) food were a definite bonus!
After a couple brewskis, we were on the road. Not much traffic but plenty of hazards, most of which we avoided.
There were some tense moments when the fuel gauge dropped from 3/4 to less than 1/4, but somehow, perhaps by divine intervention, the needle crept back up toward 3/4 as we drove down. Finally, around 4 PM, we hit the pavement listening to Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” and cruised on into Lander.
Checked into the Pronghorn, got cleaned up and walked over to the Gannett Grill for real food and beer. Due to the cool temperatures practically no one was setting outside and inside the place was packed! We ended up sitting at the bar where we inhaled our burgers and fries. Played some pool. Chris was the man of the night on the table, taking on a bevy of locals; the cowboy, the older gent, cleavage and finally, the tasmanian devil himself. He managed to prevail over them all. A couple shots of Patron and a few Irish Car Bombs later, we were making our way across the Popo Agie, aiming for the Pronghorn. Thankfully, the hike was short.
I surely do love them Wind Rivers!
Some of the equipment we usedCamera - Canon A1100IS Bought it right before the trip. It did a pretty good job and saved me a pound!
Water Filter- Katadyne Hiker Performed perfectly, as always.
Stove- MSR WhisperLite Mark's stove was super reliable.
Sleeping pad- Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Mattress I replaced my old one with this super light model. Saved over a pound and slept a little better. Very expensive at $150.
Radios - Motorola, 1 - T6320 and 2 newer models with a much greater range (24mi). All 3 worked great, though we really didn't test the greater distance. The NOAA Weather radio feature of the older T6320 was a plus.