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03 Dec 2018

I had never been to the Wind Rivers and I had never done a solo backpacking trip for more than a single night, so going into a completely unknown area for an entire week was an obvious choice. I mean, my first solo night out was also my first time backpacking in the winter, so I'm clearly a glutton for punishment in some sense. More than that, though, I think I'm always eager to experience something new that's edging on daring within my own personal comfort zone.

Organizing a longer trip like this was foreign to me. It wasn't enough for me to worry about specific nutritional needs, like if I was bringing enough protein or fat for long term sustainability, but long enough where I wanted to make every ounce count. I'm also not the type to bring a bunch of "extras" or "comfort items", preferring to keep it as bare bones as possible, though I do enjoy the couple luxury items I bring, such as my camera (obviously). I carry very little in terms of clothing, choosing to wear the same things each day that can be strategically layered if necessary. The forecast showed impending winter doom and gloom for a few days, with nighttime temperatures plummeting into the single digits, so I had to drag my winter gear out of hibernation. The weight of my pack was more than I had hoped for because of this but it was a small price to pay for my safety and comfort.

I left early that first morning so I could drive the scenic way through Yellowstone and the Tetons, missing all the tourist traffic, and stopping in Jackson for lunch at my favorite bakery. It was like a fun, super mini road trip. I topped off the gas tank and drove the last stretch down to Pinedale and up into the mountains. The parking lot was quite full at the trail head, as I was warned it would be, but I had faith that the trails would clear up. Most people are fair weather campers and with a winter storm rolling in, I was almost guaranteed to have some solitude.

I hiked in 4.5 miles and made camp at Middle Sweeney Lake, foregoing the longer route to Photographer's Point. It was smoky anyways and the mountains were completely engulfed-- no views, whatsoever. I'd try my luck with that on my way out at the end of the week. I was alone on that section of the trail as well as on the lake that evening, just what I was hoping for: a chance to quietly sit, undisturbed by the voices and sounds of others. Most people I've encountered are afraid of being "bored" if/when they go out alone. There always needs to be some form of entertainment, be it by books, podcasts, music, or otherwise, but I honestly don't get it. One thing I love most about solo backpacking is just sitting on a rock by a lake and simply existing in that space. I like to listen to the abundance of life coexisting with me; all of the little bugs, the fish jumping, the birds flying overhead. The feel of the cool breeze rustling my messy braid across my face before lifting off into the canopy of the trees. Watching the clouds silently float by as the light changes ever so subtly with each passing moment. It's an indescribable feeling to be fully present and I wish more people were able to practice it.

The night passed quickly and with the morning came the tell-tale signs of the coming winter weather. The cold air gave life to my warm breath, the ground lightly dusted with frost and snow, and overcast skies as far as the eye could see. As I hiked deeper into the mountains, I passed several people on their way out. They all asked the same thing, "Where are you coming from and where are you headed?" Most gave me looks of surprise and enthusiastic nods of approval when I told them I was heading to Island Lake, the very place they came from. "Winter weather, not prepared for it" was the majority of their replies. My predictions were coming true.

I hiked small sections with a few fellow hikers heading in the same direction, playing leap frog on the trail as we each took breaks here and there apart from one another. I passed lake after lake, snapping a few photos as the inclement weather allowed. The further in and the higher up I got, the worse the weather became. More and more snow accumulated on the ground, the wind picked up, and I trudged along through the ever-growing inches of wintry white. There was a fair bit more snow on the final pass before descending down towards the Island Lake than there was at the actual lake, which was a welcome sight. With all the people who left, there was still an equal amount hunkered down for the day in their tents. This made finding a good, legal campsite a bit more difficult though not impossible. I trekked about a quarter to a half mile off the main trail and found a well-protected area away from other people where I could hastily set up camp to escape the weather.

wind rivers: part one

The storm passed a couple hours later but the bitter cold remained. Once I felt sufficiently warmed up, I crept back out into the open to catch what small glimpses of views there were. The clouds hung low in the distance on the mountaintops, hinting at the rocky structures that lay underneath. Just a teaser to whet my appetite. The moody skies broke just long enough at one point for sunlight to break through and foretell of the sunny skies that would be coming in the morning. The rest of the evening remained uneventful as I had dinner and curled up in bed to sleep.

It was dappled sunlight splashed across the side of my tent that roused me the next morning. Eager to finally see what I was hoping to, I scrambled to put on more layers and tie up my boots. Across the unnamed pond below my campsite were towering cliffs spotted with snow and clear blue skies overhead. Most people who venture into this basin are able to see what waits for them as they draw closer but all of this was hidden from me until that morning. I rather enjoyed it that way, though. In many instances when we can see what is coming, something as grand and picturesque as Titcomb Basin, we are hastened to get there that much faster. Our goal is in site with each hill we crest and the desire to be in that place once and for all just kind of takes over.

With all of the clouds and snow, however, I never felt that same sense of urgency. Yes, I needed to get there in a timely manner in order to find and make camp and all the rest that comes with it, but the weather allowed me to be fully present on the trail. I was able to enjoy each lake that I passed for what it was, not knowing what lay ahead and no longer being able to see what lay behind. It was an involuntary and much needed exercise in mindfulness. Then, to suddenly wake up to such grandeur ... well, that was an amazing moment in and of itself.

The sunshine warmed the air more than sight alone would betray and I happily enjoyed my humble breakfast atop a large boulder, perfectly made for someone like me to enjoy the views. With a day of adventure calling to me, it was nevertheless a slow morning. Restless sleep the night before and an achy body called me back to my sleeping bag for a while until I felt good and ready to hike some more. The snow stayed put as I ventured away from camp, slowly turning into a slushy mess as the day progressed.

A short ways into my journey, I met an excitable older gentleman, Keith, who was in his late 60s. He is exactly how I imagine myself and who I hope to still be when I am that age; continuing to adventure in the mountains, carelessly conversing with complete strangers-turned-friends because of a shared passion. The moment was fleeting as we parted ways at the trail junction and I continued deeper into the Basin. I only passed a couple people who were hiking their way out and the entire trail was then left to me, even on my way back out a few hours later.

With the first clear view looking straight down into the Basin, I felt a tear or two escape my eyes. Maybe that sounds silly to most people, and maybe I'm more emotional that I let on, but there were a lot of reasons for making this trip -- some of which I won't go into here -- and all of that felt like it had boiled down to this. I wanted to share this with certain people, some I could and some I never can, but I was also ecstatic to be here alone. I felt homesick, though not in the traditional sense; rather, the mountains always make me feel a longing for them, like I'll never be able to truly experience them the way they were intended to be. They make me want to travel the world, to see and explore other ranges. There were too many conflicting emotions to account for and it's hard to describe that feeling, so I won't even begin to try, but the enormity of it was overwhelming and magnificent. If you've felt it, then you'll know exactly what I mean and my reaction in that moment won't seem at all ridiculous.

BACK TO JOURNAL

After a full day of exploring the basin, I made my way back to camp. I ate another delicious meal of Pad Thai and did my camp chores so I could enjoy the sunset without any distraction. Not even my camera. I made a few images and then left it up in my tent so I could settle in on top of my breakfast boulder to watch one of the most spectacular displays of light I have ever seen. Most photographers would balk at the idea of leaving your camera behind for something so perfectly made for it as this, but I hold firm to my belief that not everything is meant to be seen through a lens, nor does everything need to be documented. That moment was for me to enjoy exactly as it was and I am so very happy I kept it that way.

Thus marked the official half-way point of my trip. Three days behind me and three full days ahead.