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!”