Hiking in the Winds
From a notch above Little Seneca Lake on the Highline trail I scanned across Island Lake to the glacial-polished, granite ridge on the other side. Beyond were numerous peaks reaching heights of over thirteen thousand feet creating the Continental Divide and a cirque that held Titcomb Basin—our goal for the day.
It was our third day in the Wind River Range. The Basin had drawn us to west central Wyoming and “The Winds,” as the locals call them.
Now, after weeks of planning and several days of acclimating to the altitude, we could only see an outline of the towers. Smoke from wild fires to the west screened the details and filtered the view of the sculpted cliffs.
There was some grousing among us about the haze. However, we also had heard of the storms that blow in the Winds, that can make a trek like ours above the tree line look as flat as Kansas. At least we could see mountains in the cloud and we were appreciative.
From this vantage point in the notch we still could not see into the carved bowl. It would be another four miles around Island Lake and the ridges to reach that famous destination. However, this overlook could have been an excellent destination in itself.
There had been other panoramas along the way and each time I was struck by our differing reactions to the same sights.
Each of us had seen dramatic landscapes. John has scaled the mountains of Switzerland, New Zealand and others around the world. Andrew has climbed in the Himalayas, Alaska and all over the U.S. and Canada. I have hiked above and below the glaciers of the Canadian Rockies and the ranges in the Northwest. The three of us each have history, yet when each of us arrives at a new vista we are first-timers.
I know part of our disappointment with the pollution from the fires was the desire to see the subtleties of the cliffs and gorges. The challenge of a good trek is always part of a journey like this, yet it is the sights that motivate the expedition.
The poor visibility did not keep us from following the rocky trail into the canyon, skirting the lake and climbing up around the ridges. Still, we hoped the winds this range is famous for would come and blow the smoke away. The trail is well defined but difficult due to rocks—it is impossible to set a rhythm. So with a cadence of trip, slip, sidestep, high step, ankle roll we made slow progress.
Around us was mostly scarred granite with barely enough soil for short vegetation. We marveled at the fact that anything could grow at all, but green was almost as prominent as sarsen on the landscape. On both sides of the trail glacial scratches marred the otherwise smooth roundness of the valley floors.
The track traversed a slope onto a moraine. There at 10,800 feet we got our first views into Titcomb Basin and its lakes. Titcomb Lakes are a series of small, shallow tarns. Some flow from one to the other over very gentle cascades, nearly as wide as the ponds they separate. The drop, only a couple feet, falls into a lower clear, azure-blue mere. Narrow streams flow into small ravines, through gracefully rounded base rocks that connect them to other pools in the chain.
Erratics, some as big as trucks, left from the melting glaciers, were scattered about like toys on the floor of a child’s play room waiting to be put away.
We became quiet as we tried to comprehend the magnitude of the cirque and all that it held.
John’s wonder of the harsh beauty reminded me of my granddaughter as she discovers each new flower or blade of grass in our woods. Dropping his pack, and with camera in hand, he shot from every perspective all the while savoring, marveling at it all. It looked to me like he wanted to keep it or, at least, reach out and touch it.
Andrew, more analytical, studied each crag, each hanging valley, each pass between the crests of the stark face soaring over three thousand feet above us. Map in hand he compared the topography to the paper in his lap, all while looking for possible routes to make an ascent.
I stood, hopefully unobtrusively, focusing in each direction, looking, raising and lowering my scrutiny, trying to turn something indescribable into words.
The cliffs climbed up from the floor, smooth at first where the glacier had burnished them. Their surfaces became courser as they ascended above the ice flow, the tops left as ragged, irregular pinnacles of stone piercing into bright blue sky. I felt I was in The Great Cathedral and didn’t want to foul it, by sight or sound, in any way.
Each of us in our own way was trying to absorb the entire scene lying before us. Three different approaches and three different experiences of the same place but all with a reverence the Spirit of the Mountains deserves—in fact commands—at a place like this.
Rugged, pristine beauty surrounded us as we gazed in awe. Then, we all noticed, at about the same time, the smoke had lifted. The early morning concerns about not being able to fully experience the scale and scope of the basin had been taken by the winds of The Winds. It felt as if a divine gift had been unnoticeably given to us while we had been marching, with attention to passage, into this glorious place.
That is when we reacted the same—with amazing thankfulness at this extraordinary and humbling reward.