Thunder echoes off the cliffs above as I scan the trail for any fresh boot prints that might lead me to my brother Mike. Just minutes ago, we were together, resting at a key intersection along the Highline Trail above Green River Lakes, on our way into Wyoming's Wind River Mountains. Then Mike took off before me, and I haven't seen him since.
Suddenly the lightning crescendos and the sky pours forth rain, hail, and chilling cold. I halt the search, stash my lightning rod of a pack, and cower beneath illusory shelter, watching as hailstones tear boughs off of the pines. Ironically, this trip is supposed to be a reunion for my brother and me. We're twins, though far from identical, a fact that gives us both great relief. Brown-haired and 6 feet tall, Mike is a professor of mathematical physics at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. I'm a Utah redhead who has trouble balancing checkbooks and can claim 5 1/2 feet only in the right boots.
Despite our stylistic divergences, Mike and I grew up together getting lost in the wilderness, learning about survival in the outdoors through a string of epics while pursuing backcountry adventures equal to those we read in books. Somehow we survived all our contra-Darwinian efforts. Now, in the bloom of our adulthood, nostalgia pushes us to reunite on the trail every few years to revisit these formative adolescent themes. It seems we're succeeding already.
The more I search, the more I suspect it was me, not Mike, who wandered up the wrong path. When the lightning abates, I backtrack down to meet up with him and his inevitable recriminations. As my sibling now points out all too joyfully, he's the absent-minded math professor and I'm the big, bad outdoors expert. I hike off at a goodly tempo until he's puffing enough to shut up, and together we climb on through driving rain to a soggy camp near Peak Lakes.
The Wind River Range embodies the quintessential alpine mountains, but they're much more than geologic features. Mike and I first visited the Winds when we were barely 14. They captivated us so that we've returned, both together and separately, many times over our 30 years of travel. Among these peaks and valleys, I've felt the thrill of success, numbed exhaustion, and the queasy tension of fear. They've gazed down in supreme indifference as I made new friends and evacuated unlucky ones. Sublime or disastrous, every visit here has left a mark on me like no other place I've ever been.
So when Mike and I heard rumors that the Winds were being overcrowded, we felt it was our duty to check up on this old family friend, so to speak. We were concerned, but skeptical. For one, the Winds have always been popular, and crowding is a relative term in a place this big. Beyond the dozen major trailheads lie nearly 1,000 miles of trail, 1,300 lakes, 39 peaks above 13,000 feet, and 7 of the 10 largest glaciers in the Lower 48. With nearly a million acres split between six public lands and an Indian Reservation, the Wind River roadless areas form a reserve vast and wild enough that grizzlies roaming south from Greater Yellowstone have begun to homestead here, and wolves will probably follow soon. Still, we wanted to check it out firsthand by hiking from Green River Lakes in the north to Big Sandy trailhead in the south over 12 days.
So far we've spotted people frequently, but usually at a distance: a few tents in this cirque, a sudden silhouette atop a skyline pass, little colored dots moving across the landscape below. We cross paths with a few hikers and what strikes me most, aside from the craggy peaks and lavish wildflowers, is the friendly attitude and ambitious itinerary of everyone we meet. This is a mecca for core trekkers; a 10-day trip through this wilderness is considered a short jaunt. I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that these saw-toothed granite peaks and clear-water lakes have long attracted the hardiest travelers, from the Crow and Shoshone who sought game in these forests, to mountain men who trapped beaver from the infant Green River we hike beside, to early surveyors like John C. Fremont and Ferdinand Hayden.
This morning, we met two young guys who've been out for 6 days already, with another week to go. Atop the snow saddle at Knapsack Col, we meet a couple from Jackson Hole in tennis shoes and "day" packs. They speed-hiked 20 miles from Elkhart Park yesterday to get here, and plan to be out another week. Like them, we move on, glissading down the vast snow bowl of Twins Glacier toward Titcomb Lakes. Evening finds us strolling sore- footed along their shores, the tangerine fires of sunset mirrored in watery ripples. It's Saturday night, and three camps of climbers are pitching their tents beneath Dinwoody Pass, positioning for a weekend ascent of Gannett Peak (elevation: 13,804 feet), Wyoming's highest summit.
Seeing people in Titcomb Basin feels odd to me because I've been here only in winter, when there was no one else around. My most memorable Winds trip was right here. After 9 spectacular days among the high peaks, my partner and I got lost while struggling back out to the trailhead. A simple map-reading error and a sudden storm quickly combined and grew into a trial so horrific that toward the end, we seriously considered eating a long-dead elk we found. Somehow I kept pushing despite the fact my body and mind had resigned. Finally, after 2 foodless, fuel-less, waterless, 20-hour days of knee-deep trailbreaking, we emerged from midnight fog to see the lights of an isolated ranch far off in the distance.
Yet even clearer in my mind than all those tribulations and unnerving lessons is the icy magnificence of Fremont Peak, Mt. Helen, and Spearhead Pinnacle, trailing pink veils of spindrift in the frozen twilight. Just thinking about all the towering mountains I saw during that trip still enthralls me, and I understand why, in 1842, John C. Fremont and Kit Carson deviated from their congressional orders to play hooky and climb the vast wall of tortured igneous rock, now Fremont Peak, that towers overhead. They were sure their summit was the highest in the Rockies, but so was every other early explorer. Standing here, it's easy to empathize with such delusions of grandeur. Perhaps they arose not so much from ego or ambition as from sheer wonder, the understandable impression that mountains this huge and spectacular must surely be bigger than anyone else's molehill.
Legions of adventurers have come for the scenery ever since, but I wouldn't consider four camps in Titcomb Basin "crowded." Even so, Mike and I can't be hedged in by trails. It's just not in us to follow the beaten path, so we decide to employ a little creative route finding. Such escapes, Mike and I conclude in a rare display of brotherly agreement, are best accomplished by climbing upward, but not toward a notable summit. We climb over Indian Pass to the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, then steer south across Knifepoint Glacier into the untrailed cirques of the Alpine Lakes.
Of course, we know there's a trade-off involved. Now the cushy trails are gone and calories burn like logs in a bonfire. We slog up steep talus and plunge-step down endless snow bowls, scramble over knife-edged notches, and teeter through fields of tippy boulders, grinding out steady progress through an incongruous but magnificent late- summer landscape of snow and stone and frozen lakes. "In my work as a math professor, a difficult problem is referred to as --interesting,'" Mike says. "I knew this trip would be - -interesting' when I first hoisted my pack."
We sight two National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) groups camped far below in the headwaters of Bull Lake Creek. Soon they disappear, as does our route. Cliffs drop straight into lake water, forcing us to rope up and walk around the point on floating ice pack. I balk at hopping over the open leads, my mind hovering between intelligent fear of the chill blue waters and the Winds-taught knowledge that perseverance brings payoffs. "Quit bein' a wuss!" Mike scoffs from the luxury of his position as second. "Back in Wisconsin, they'd drive trucks across this to go ice fishing!"
Sweet revenge comes the next day. "Steve assures me this shortcut will save us hours," Mike writes later that evening in the safety of our tent. "So now I'm faced into this steep snow slope with the pick of my ice axe smacked into hard crystals about face high. A fall would leave me hundreds of feet below, minus several square yards of missing skin. This is my brother's usual standard for route finding?anything not obviously a cliff is obviously a route."
Finally, we strike solid track across Hay Pass, descending from glacial breezes to the heady, herbal scents of marshland for rapid southward mileage. It takes us a day to rejoin the flat thoroughfare of Highline Trail, but it's also horsepacking and sheep-grazing country, so the trail is hoof-pounded around streams and swamps. Near North Fork Lake, we watch the mother in a family of six backpackers sink to her hips in the muck of a heinous horse ford.
For miles, trail and cairns lead us beneath a striking panorama of distant peaks and mirror-smooth lakes. Slowly we climb to a high saddle, its southern skyline dominated by the lopsided pinnacles of Cirque of the Towers. That's our goal for tomorrow, but today we share the pass with a group of five from Vermont, Ohio, and California, friends who've rendezvoused for a 2-week trek. They're a chatty bunch, exuberant on their first trip into this "spectacular, awesome" range.
"There were a ton of people at the trailhead," the Ohio boy reports when I ask him about overcrowding. "But not in here. The places we've seen look pretty good."
"Actually it's been kinda fun hearing what other groups are up to, because so many people are doing interesting trips," says one girl, adding, "It's good to know that, for the most part, people are taking care of this place."
We camp that night along the Shadow Lake Trail beneath the twisting granite spires of Overhanging Tower and Shark's Nose. It's our 10th day out, and I find myself overwhelmed by a deep physical sense of remoteness, a shivery but satisfying impression heightened by the return of rain and fog. This feeling of isolation but connection to everything around me all at the same time has always been my most treasured reward of wilderness travel, and it's one I always seem to find in the Winds.
Another day of travel, and we reach the popular Cirque of the Towers. We're in one of 10 tents well hidden among the Cirque's stunted timberline groves. I stroll through the twilight gawking at the surrounding pinnacles, some of the first attractions to draw recreationists into these mountains. I remember climbing here in 1977, scrambling over the long and spectacular ridge of Wolf's Head, a narrow blade of rock now silhouetted in the evening sky above our tent. Even then, we were one of three groups on the climb that day, and thankfully were the first party down. We sat in these same meadows, watching lightning ricochet off the saw-toothed aretes overhead and wondering what it was like for the two slower parties still up there, crouched among the striking bolts.
The Cirque, though a well-known destination for half a century, seems to have changed little over the three decades I've traveled here. A handful of stone-walled bivouac sites, maintained by generations of climbers, squat beneath overhanging boulders, but they haven't grown any larger. The social trails between camps look no worse. Perhaps that's just because there's so much granite available to walk on, but I find it heartening on this, the last night of our trip, that our old friend is still pretty much the same as it was years ago. There has been impact, but it's far from the doomsday deterioration I'd been hearing about.
Dreams of showers and pizzas make for an early start the next morning. We'd expected to see throngs of climbers assaulting the heights, but only one party is visible. We depart regretfully, descending to Big Sandy Lake, where we cache our packs for a short, nostalgic detour to Clear Lake before heading out of the Winds.
From the rocky shoreline, Mike and I stare up at Haystack Mountain towering over the still water. We first witnessed this scene in 1968, on a summer outing of the Iowa Mountaineers, a university-based club from the Midwest. We were two 14-year-olds in a climber's basecamp of 65 people, a vast tent city from which smaller groups dispersed to hike valleys and bag peaks. Behind various leaders, we got dragged through some of our first brushes with real mountain travel, and we learned how magnificent yet committing such places can be.
The Iowa Mountaineers basecamp was also a huge logistical operation, and all the cook tents, latrines, pack trains, and boot soles had their inevitable impacts. I remember three guides fishing one afternoon and bringing back a trout for each person in camp. And I remember the meadows looking pretty trampled when we left.
Now, Clear Lake looks about the same as it does on those dusty old slides, and the others I've taken here in the years since.
Mike and I sit quietly, remembering childhood naivet?, climbs we made or failed, and friends we haven't seen in years, pondering back across the decades of mountain experience. "The Winds were lucky," my sibling eventually speaks up. "They were never cursed with big timber or precious metals. After the beavers were gone, all you could do was run sheep or cattle, and only a couple months a year at that."
And so the Wind River Mountains see visitors rather than development, and no shortage of them. But I'm leaving with a strong feeling that these mountains are big and brawny enough to hold their own. Weeklong trips just scratch the surface, creeks rage impassibly through June, and the snow doesn't clear from most passes until late July. Their future challenges may well come from more external and insidious effects, like air pollution. But I suspect that when Mike and I return here for more adventure in 10, 20, or even another 30 years, this will still be a range where challenge, beauty, and loneliness are commonplace. It'll still be a range big enough for the spirit, where the only requirements for adventure and solitude are a little imagination and a heap of effort, just as it's always been.
Expedition Planner: Wind Rivers,
Bridger-Teton National Forest, WY
Getting there: Pinedale, Dubois, and Lander, Wyoming, are the three major portal towns. Many Winds trips work best with a car shuttle. Great Outdoor Transportation Co. of Pinedale (307-367-2440; www.greatoutdoorshop.com, runs shuttles between Jackson, Rock Springs, Pinedale, and all major Wind River trailheads. Prices range from $25 to $200, depending on shuttle length.
Season: Anytime before late June, you'll probably cross lots of snow. Mosquitoes and wildflowers are thick from shortly after snowmelt until late July. By mid-September, ice starts forming on the lakes, and big snowfalls may remain until next spring. Elkhart Park and Glacier Trail/Trail Lake Ranch are the only trailheads readily accessible in winter.
Walk softly: Camp at least 200 feet from trails, streams, or lakes. Camp in previously impacted sites where possible, and always on resistant surfaces, either rock slabs or grassy meadows. Avoid camping on the fragile grouse whortleberry, which grows on forest-floor and forest-edge environments, and may be distinguished by its thready stems and tiny, blade-shaped leaves. Be quiet and considerate of nearby campers. Avoid the use of campfires, particularly in alpine regions. Some high- use areas have fire and site restrictions between July 1 and Labor Day.
Cautions: River crossings can be difficult during spring and early summer, when runoff is high. Snow-covered passes complicate alpine travel until mid-July. A light rope, a general purpose ice axe, and the ability to use both are all handy for Wind River travelers. Thunderstorms and hail occur on a near-daily basis from midsummer on, particularly around high mountains. Cross passes and summit peaks early in the day. Snow is normal during any month of the year. Hang unattended food, as black bears occasionally raid camps and grizzlies are expanding into the range.
Guides: Walking the Winds: A Hiking and Fishing Guide to Wyoming's Wind River Range, by Rebecca Woods (White Willow Publishing, 307-733-0674; $14.95). Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey (Chockstone Press, P.O. Box 3505, Evergreen, CO 80437; $25). Wind River Trails, by Finis Mitchell (Wasatch Publishers, 435-285-2210; $5). The best overall maps for Wind Rivers travel are the Earthwalk Press maps Hiking Map & Guide, Northern Wind River Range, WY, and Hiking Map & Guide, Southern Wind River Range, WY (800-282-6277; both $7.95, waterproof editions). All available from Adventurous Traveler (800-282-3963; www.adventuroustraveler.com).
Fees and permits: For smaller, private groups, camping is free and no permits are required. School groups, youth clubs, stock parties, and commercial trips are required to obtain special use permits, for which a fee may be charged. Maximum group size is 20. Maximum stay for any party is 16 days at a single location.
Contacts: The 428,169-acre Bridger Wilderness dominates the west side of the range, where most visitors enter. It is administered by the Pinedale Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, (307) 367-4326. The 198,838-acre Fitzpatrick Wilderness and the 101,191-acre Popo Agie Wilderness cover the northeast quadrant of the range and are administered by the Wind River Ranger District, (307) 455-2466, and Lander Ranger District, (307) 332-5460, respectively. Central approaches to the northeast side of the range are covered by the Shoshone/Arapahoe Wind River Reservation and administered by their fish and game office, (307) 332-7207. Permits and fees are required to park and camp on the reservation.