When one of the teams I work with asked if I could attend a meeting in Jackson, Wyoming I responded with and enthusiastic "Hell yes!" How could I pass up an opportunity for work to pay for my travel and most of my lodging to one of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the country? The meetings were to occur Tuesday through Thursday so I headed out of Fort Collins Sunday Morning. Unhindered by the speed limit I arrived in Jackson, Wyoming six and a half hours later just in time to grab a bite to eat. I found a little diner on the north end of town and had a burger before heading up to the Climbers Ranch where I snagged a bunk for $10.
After I'd gotten myself settled it was still early so I decided to head over to Taggart Lake to scope out the first part of the hike. The plan was to climb Mount Wister via its west ridge the next day and a guidebook snippet I'd read said that I could take a shortcut around the north side of Taggart Lake that involved a short bushwhack. I decided I would go check it out that evening so I would be sure to find it in the dark of the following morning.
I made my way up the trail past the Taggart Lake Junction and continued up the trail as if going to Bradley Lake. A little ways past the junction the trail climbed up a bit of a rise. From the top of the rise I could see down into Taggart Lake and the trail circling around it. It was perhaps a hundred yards and an easy bushwhack away. Confident I would be able to find it in the morning I headed back to the Climbers Ranch to get some sleep. The cabin I was staying in had filled up while I was gone and five of the six bunks were full. The bunks were nothing but a sheet of plywood and I wished I'd brought a little more padding than my three quarters length Therm-a-Rest but I finally dozed off.
When my alarm went off at 5:00 I packed up my sleeping bag and sleeping pad and quietly slipped out of the cabin. I jumped into the car and drove the short distance to Taggart Lake Trailhead and sorted my kit out. After I got everything all set and had a granola bar for breakfast I hit the trail at 5:45.
The skies were just beginning to lighten and I could find my way without my headlamp. I made my way up the trail and soon passed the Taggart Lake Junction. I found the shortcut and a quick and easy bushwhack got my down to the trail. Soon I was headed around the north end of Taggart Lake.
Not long after the shortcut I found the climbers trail up Avalanche Canyon. The trail was easy to follow, but fairly overgrown so that I continually brushed against the surrounding shrubs and grass as I hiked along. Luckily there was no dew so I didn't have to worry about my socks and boots getting drenched.
By 6:45 I was well into Avalanche Canyon. The trail climbed steadily, but not too steeply and progress was rapid. The canyon was very lush and filled with wild flowers and raspberry bushes which provided a pleasant snack. As I neared the fork in Avalanche Canyon I crossed paths with a moose. I think I startled him just as much as he startled me and he ran through the forest a hundred feet before turning around to see what I was. I snapped a few photos and then continued onward.
By 7:45 I reached the fork in the canyon and angled up toward Shoshoki Falls and the North Fork. The trail began to climb more steeply across broken patches of boulders and talus. As I made my way across one patch of boulders I spied another moose munching on some plants growing near the creek. This time I saw him and he saw me from a ways off and we didn't surprise each other. I made my way to about within fifty feet of him before snapping a photo or two and continuing upward.
The skies had been cloudy all morning and looked kind of threatening to the west. I hadn't really checked a forecast but things didn't look real good. The clouds even spat a few raindrops on me as a labored up the boulders past Shoshoki Falls. At this point I wasn't real committed so I figured I'd just continue upward. I had my full rain kit with me so I figured if it started pouring I'd just hunker down and try to wait it out. Worst case scenario: I'd just turn around, retrace my steps, and get a little wet.
It took me a while to work my way past Shoshoki Falls and I lost the trail towards the top. Eventually I angled my way back toward the falls and picked up faint trail that bypassed the top of the falls. At 8:45 I arrived at Lake Taminah.
From Lake Taminah I enjoyed an excellent view of Mount Wister. I looked west up the canyon and examined the next headwall I had to navigate. There was a steep cascade coming down the headwall but there looked like some easily navigable talus slopes north of the cascade so I headed for those. It appeared easiest to gain a hundred feet or so of elevation and traverse a boulder-strewn slope instead of scramble along the shore of Lake Taminah. I'm not certain this was the easiest way to proceed, but it worked. During this part of the hike I encountered many wildflowers including huge patches of yellow Columbines and flowers that looked a lot like snapdragons. After a while I achieved the talus slope I had observed from Lake Taminah and scrambled up it to the top of the second headwall. I crossed to the south side of the creek and scrambled up onto a shelf where I had a good view of Wister's Northwest Face, West Ridge, and Veiled Peak. It was 9:45 and I paused to grab a snack and contemplate my next move.
The weather remained cool, breezy, and cloudy but I hadn't heard even the faintest hint of thunder or lightning. I had felt a few raindrops throughout the scramble past Lake Taminah but at the moment it didn't appear like the skies would really open up. I decided to keep on keepin' on and hope the weather would remain the same. I studied the West Ridge and was concerned by a steep section about a halfway between the saddle and the summit. It looked near vertical and the scrambling did not look easy. In contrast it looked like there was an easily navigable ledge system on the Northwest Face that would achieve the ridge above this obstacle.
I opted for the ledge system on the Northwest Face as it would avoid the steep section of the ridge and was more direct anyway. I crossed a couple of snow fields and began making my way up the Northwest Face. The bottom two thirds was easy scrambling up talus and grassy slopes. I angled my way to climbers left where it looked like I could enter some ramps that would angle back to my right and gain the ridge. This was straightforward until I got to the ramps and tried to choose one. The ramps themselves were mostly third class but getting from one ramp to another involved some serious class four scrambling with maybe even a class five move thrown in. To make things more interesting the rocks often had moss and grass in the cracks and ledges where I would have hoped to find more solid hand and footholds. In trying to gain a ramp that looked like it would go all the way to the ridge I got myself into a pretty committed situation. The holds were dicey and I couldn't retreat. After clawing my way up into the ramp I decided to stick with it until forced to do otherwise.
I stuck with the ramp and at 10:45 I was almost onto the West Ridge. The ramp led me up to a near vertical section of the ridge and I tried to angle my way east toward the summit. After a quick series of low fifth class moves I determined that this wasn't going to work. I retreated west back down the ridge and after hairy under cling traverse gained the crest of the West Ridge. The south side of the ridge was gentler and I worked my way around that side for a couple hundred vertical feet until I encountered some steeper terrain.
This was definitely fifth class terrain but not terribly difficult and I bolstered my courage by telling myself that when I reached the summit I could take one of the fourth class ridges down into South Avalanche Canyon. I probed the ridge - making several false starts and retreating before finding a line that would go. The climbing was fairly committing but doable - at least climbing up (climbing down would have been another story). When the difficulty subsided I looked down to examine what I had come up... Gulp... What had I gotten myself into? I sure hoped I wouldn't have to climb down that!
I put thoughts of retreat aside for the moment and continued on. I found myself on the south side of the ridge again and traversed some easier (class four) sections until I found myself in a notch between a false summit and what I sincerely hoped was the true summit. The terrain beyond the notch was all class five and I probed it for a weakness that would allow me to reach the summit. I started out several times only to find the line too difficult, too steep, and too committing. I started up one, decided it was too hairy, tried another, and concluded the same. After ten minutes of searching I was forced to concede defeat. I looked around the south side of the ridge and all I could see was vertical cliff face. The north side was not as steep but looked to offer no good lines. It was getting late, I was getting tired, and my courage was starting to wane. My only consolation was to climb up to the slight false summit west of the notch. I arrived at 11:45.
I sat on the false summit and looked at what I assumed was the true summit. It couldn't have been more than two hundred feet away - so close, but yet so far. I had a snack to remove the bitter taste of defeat from my mouth and contemplated my descent options. I really didn't want to climb down the nasty section I had climbed up and there was gully that ran from the notch between where I sat and the true summit down into South Avalanche Canyon. I decided I would take this as it would save me from the hairy downclimb and allow me to see some new scenery.
With the decision made I set off. Although certainly better than downclimbing the steep, sustained, class five stuff I came up; the gully was not without its challenges. It was loose in places and in others there were some short, spicy, class five downclimbs. A couple of times I dislodged some basketball-size rocks that tumbled all the way down the gully. After they had come to a rest the air was filled with that burning smell that rocks crashing against each other make. After several of these downclimbs I transitioned out of this gully into a tamer one to the west. This was largely a talus slope and progress down this was a little more rapid. The talus was inconsistent in its stability - some times it would slide underfoot and some times it would stand firm. This made progress frustrating as I could not predict where I could slide with it and when I had to be quick to step down it.
On the way down I encountered one cliff band but after a quick exploration I was able to find a steep, bypassing gully. After downclimbing this it wasn't long before I made my way down to the head of South Avalanche Canyon at 12:45. The weather remained cool, breezy, and cloudy but it still looked like the probability of real rain was very low. Now that I was off the real climbing I didn't really care that much what it did. Thinking back on it, the cool weather was actually quite nice and great for hiking/climbing in.
Descending the gully had really tired out my legs and I hoped to find a meadow, or a climbers trail, or some kind of easier going. Instead I encountered a vast expanse of boulder field. I worked my way across the first boulder field to a ridge only to encounter another vast boulder field below. I negotiated this boulder field only to find another one below. After this seemingly endless boulder field I finally descended down to a marshy pond from where I knew the fork in the canyon wasn't far.
At 14:00 I sat and rested for a few minutes before traversing around the north side of the marshy pond to study the final descent down to the fork in the canyon. Since there had been no trail to speak of in South Avalanche Canyon I was concerned that the final descent to the fork might be a fierce bushwhack. Instead I found one final boulder field slope that lead down to the creek. I labored down this last boulder field and reached the stream that was flowing down from Shoshoki Falls. I found a decent place to cross the creek but the opposite side was thick with pine trees and willow bushes. I didn't really think I had much of a choice so I just bulled my way through the thick growth of pines and willows and across several small stream rivulets. Finally I crossed a short meadow section and reached the climbers trail at 15:00.
I stopped to catch my breath and examine the damage done to my body during the descent. Several times I had stumbled in the boulder fields of South Avalanche Canyon and I was bruised and scratched up from that. In addition the nasty bushwhack over the last hundred yards had really cut up my legs. I was sorry I hadn't put my pant legs back on for this but at the time I couldn't be bothered. Oh well - live and learn. After a quick snack I threw my pack on and headed down for the car.
The descent down the nice climbers trail went much quicker and I made steady progress. Another moose and I startled each other in the exact same spot I surprised the moose in the morning and I had to assume this was the same one. Otherwise the descent was uneventful and after what seemed like a long hike I closed in on Taggart Lake.
This time I decided to skip the shortcut and hike along the shore of Taggart Lake. This seemed like it probably took ten to fifteen minutes longer than the shortcut but it was worth it to see the lake and the views from its shores. This was also the first time I encountered any other people the entire day! I took one final break before the trail turned away from the lake and headed for the parking lot.
After another mile or so of hiking I arrived back at my car at the trailhead at 17:45. I packed up my kit and downed a celebratory beer. Unfortunately I hadn't reached the summit, but I had lived to climb another day and that was worth celebrating I concluded. Hopefully the next three days of work would give me time to recover before another hike on Friday
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