“The middle of nowhere or center of everything?” queried the poster hanging eye-level next to a shelf of canned beans outside the restroom of a Boulder, Wyoming gas station in late August. The words on the Travel Wyoming advertisement were printed atop a laminated photo of a sheer rock buttress holding up a vast, purple night sky. It was a fair question for our group of nine to consider as we yawned down the flat stretches of dusty Highway 353 towards the Wind River Range in a 12-passenger van. Unlike the Sierras or the Rockies or even the Tetons, the Winds do not announce themselves before you get deep inside. In fact, one can barely see what lies beyond the 11-plus-mile, gritty dirt driveway to Big Sandy Lodge, a barebones hamlet of ten old cabins with no electricity and light-leaking cracks in the wood-plank walls.
That's where a bearded horse-packer named Jase Morris walked into the foyer with dusty jeans and spurs jangling on the heels of his cowboy boots, curiously surveying our spread of fancy ultralight backpacking gear. Jase and his caterpillar-lipped sidekick, Nate, who lives behind the tack barn in the old cook shack, had just returned from a 14-mile gear drop on horseback and their handshakes were as strong as their cravings for enchiladas. “There's a 50-percent chance of weather every day up in the Winds,” he said before a wall of stuffed buffalo, elk, and antelope heads. “That's about all you can count on.”
Jase explained that horses and mules are regularly used to cache heavy loads of gear at the infamous Cirque of the Towers for rock climbers, sometimes carrying barrels of fish to stock the plentiful alpine lakes. “I’m pretty used to getting requests from tired hikers looking for a ride,” he said. “Just about every day.”
Our group of experienced hikers – mostly journalists and gearheads, a couple with major thru-hikes under their belts – gathered around the unlit fireplace woofing down both “pie of the day” options — strawberry balsamic and paprika peach. Representatives from Therma-a-Rest ran through the ultralight sleep system we'd be testing, including the sub-8.8-ounce NeoAir Uberlite Mattress that packs down to the size of a beer can and the 15-ounce Vesper 32F quilt with 900-fill hydrophobic down and two bungee-like cords stretching underneath to keep the quilt in position with a sleeping pad. “Just a reminder that these are premium ultralight products and should be treated as such,” warned one of the reps while crinkling the wafer-thin air mattress in her fingers.
I'd never used a quilt before and shuddered at the thought of cold night winds blasting underneath or the popping of a flimsy prototype pad forcing me to spend a grim night shivering atop a lumpy rock garden. Every rock in the Winds is sharp and jagged as if plucked from a dinosaur's mouth.
“Out here, insomnia wouldn't be such a bad thing,” read the second part of the gas station poster. Perhaps we'd be testing that theory along with the gear.
The next morning was sunny and mild as we started out on the relatively flat Fremont Trail that meanders five miles through lodge pole and white bark pine forest, occasionally popping out into a bright clearing of golden grass and sagebrush. Speckled grey peaks erupted from the valley floors and we caught our first glimpses of Raid and Ambush next to Mt. Hooker, the biggest alpine wall in North America with 2,200 feet of sheer granite. The Winds are home to 20 of the state's 21 highest summits.
About two hours into our warmup stroll, we crossed paths with a group of seven or eight young women winding down their summer break from nearby Catholic College. Beneath matted snarls of braided hair, they were all smiles, glowing with the magic of their third week on the trail, but each one was stooped over beneath the weight of an enormous backpack towering way overhead. They must have been carrying at least 50 pounds each and looked like geriatric tortoises. It made us extra thankful for the featherweight minimalism of our MSR Thru-Hiker Mesh House and 70 Wing Shelters that took up little room inside our 48-liter Gregory Optic packs. We all felt a tinge of guilt and quickly skipped off without mentioning that what appeared to be our daypacks actually contained all we needed for several days.
A bald eagle, equally free and weightless, soared above us as we trounced through Grouse Whortleberry bushes.
The glory was short-lived, though, when we made camp next to Shadow Lake below the prominent 12,977-foot Temple Peak with the abrupt learning curve of assembling unfamiliar tarp tents in light wind. Using only a set of trekking poles and finely tensioned guy lines while clouds as dark as bruises encroached overhead, some tents went up too flat without any headroom while others were set up too tall, vulnerable to rain splashing in from the sides. After some tweaking, most of us got our shelters stable enough to stand before the light rain turned to pelting hail that smacked the tarps like war drums.
Just as the tarps and smiles started to sag and puddles formed all around them, the rain stopped and the sun cracked open the clouds with the gooey orange glow of an early morning sunrise at 4 pm.
That first night, I accidentally laid on the bite valve of my hydration pack, which leaked a large puddle onto the tent's floor, soaking my insulated footbox, but the hydrophobic down kept it lofty and warm. Sleeping four inches away from me was the Therm-a-Rest Director of Product, Greg, so I compiled a mental list of questions to ask him in the morning: What's the best way to secure the quilt to the pad? How do I stop letting so much cold air in on the sides?
My sleep was restless at best, but our guide, Sam, was not provided any kind of tent and had to spend the night wedged under a small cave, so I had little to complain about, especially with the next day's views. Each crystal clear lake was a mirrored reflection of the towering peaks stabbing at the fluffy clouds hanging from a big sky that was still a deep blue, despite ample haze from California's raging wildfires. Our first steep scramble sent us hopping over car-sized talus flakes, switchbacking up and over 11,500-foot Texas Pass.
Upon cresting the saddle, several members of our group let out shrieks at the mind-blowing view. From a patch of old snow, we peered into the Cirque of the Towers, a Land Before Time-esque basin sloping down to the foot of a jagged fin called Warbonnet Peak flanked by Warrior I and II and the classic big wall climb, Pingora, with two minuscule climbers dotting the summit. In 1940, a group of three ascended a 5.2 route up the Pingora with rudimentary climbing gear and found a note on top from someone else who'd been there in 1933. We stood staring at the smooth granite face wrinkling in the mid-day sun, trying to imagine what line they could have possibly taken.
After taking in the vastness for a good twenty minutes, we descended into the golden brown valley dotted with luscious red paintbrush and yellow monkey flowers. Right as we started to get cozy, basking on warm rocks and dipping our feet into Lonesome Lake, the wind picked up and the clouds thickened. The burnt orange vegetation surrounding us contrasted the now dark, ominous sky.
Wind whipped over Jackass Pass and directly into our faces as we trudged up the 9,725-foot notch, crossing the Continental Divide, and descended the east side into a light afternoon rain shower.
At the end of our 11.4-mile day, we arrived at Deep Lake and scouted out tent spots, this time up against some large boulder to protect us from the wind. Setup was much easier on the second go-around, taking most of us closer to five or ten minutes rather than the previous day's 30-plus. By this time, everyone had grown comfortable in the group of new strangers, divulging personal relationship stories and discussing bowel movement regularity on the trip. I was also much more comfortable in my quilt that night, opting to snap the draft collar around my neck and tucking the sides under my sleeping pad instead of under my body.
Even when the wind raged so hard I felt the tarp flap onto my face a few times and the rain assaulted us from every angle, I stayed warm and dry and melted into the 2.5-inch-thick Uber Lite as if I was in my bed at home. The shelter stayed upright all night without sagging and with almost no need for adjustment.
The next morning, Day 3, was cold and grey with a damp breeze. The group was in good spirits but a few of us had our thoughts drifting to the giant block of cheese we'd left in the van, as well as to the hotel's hot tub. But 12,605-foot East Temple Peak loomed large above us and the group was divided on whether to bag its summit. A few folks were groggy and not feeling particularly motivated while the others politely tried to downplay how much they'd been looking forward to capping the trip off with this peak. We took a vote. Four abstained, two voted to scrap it and three voted to tag it, so up we went into the smoky, vapor-filled sky on a calf-burning ascent past high alpine lakes trickling down from 11,000 feet. The third class scrambling up the southwest ridge was the steepest and most rugged terrain we'd crossed yet, with wobbly boulders beneath our feet next to dizzying drop-offs.
But the view – oh the view – from the top of the perch on a stone diving board jutting out into the sky was the kind of exposure that truly makes you contemplate the vastness of the universe. Glaring down at the blueish-greenish alpine lakes I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of feet below had everyone so charged with endorphins that we nearly forgot how scared we were of being blown off the cliff by a rouge gust of wind. Sam, our guide, had been to the Winds over 20 times on climbing trips, but this was his first time summiting East Temple and he was visibly awestruck, hopping further along the ridge to climb up Lost Temple Spire, a detached pinnacle at the very edge of the peak's drop-off.
Thankful that we rallied, the group marched back down to Deep Lake, packed up our gear, and collectively appreciated our unexpectedly holy experience. The morning winds picked up and white caps rippled across Clear Lake while we trudged across spongy tundra, following the Big Sandy River’s steady flow back to the trailhead.
The big block of cheese was waiting for us in a cooler in the van and we devoured it before even taking our boots off. A bedraggled, sunburnt hiker who'd just completed the 80-mile Wind River High Route (http://www.adventurealan.com/wind-river-high-route-guide/) was looking to hitch a ride back to his truck on the north side at the Green River Lakes Trailhead. After a week on the trail, the hitcher assured us that he had deodorant and made an effort to visibly apply it in front of everyone from a safe distance. We obliged to take him, but not without forcing him to drink a 25-ounce Straw-Ber-Rita malt beverage that no one else wanted. As we spilled out onto the plains and ferried the hitcher to his car, we peered back at what little we could see of the Wind River Range. The road felt long and roundabout, like we were on the outside, trying to look in, on the center of everything.
The Gear We Used for This Adventure:
Vesper 32 quilt: 15oz; $330
NeoAir UberLite Mattress: 8.8oz, $180
Thru-Hiker Mesh House 2 Trekking Pole Shelter: 14 oz. (not including poles), $200
Thru-Hiker 70 Wing Shelter: 12 oz. (not including poles), $180
Gregory Optic 48: 2.47 lbs.; $190
All images courtesy of Scott Yorko.
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