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.