Reflection in an unnamed Basin lake
Mike and I fired up the backpacking stoves in our little protected area between two Buick-sized rocks and were sleepily watching the water come to a boil when I heard or, rather, felt a vague rumbling. Suddenly a very large deer with a very, very large rack lept over the rock that Mike was leaning against, landing about ten yards away near Mike’s tent and gracefully moving out of sight. He was followed immediately by a second deer. I felt more rumbling and had just enough time to say, “Here comes another one,” when a third deer popped up over Mike’s rock. This one took a second leap, then paused and turned back to look at us before continuing on his morning romp with his buddies. As he disappeared, Mike and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. A truly priceless moment and a prime example of why I like to hike and backpack and camp with other people – we will always be able to say, “Do you remember the time…?”
We hit the trail again by 8:00 a.m. and continued our tour of the Alaska Basin. Doesn’t Jeff look raring to go on Day 3?
Here and there we could see small campsites, people in stages of waking and packing up. Battleship Mountain was still dominant on the horizon. Soon we started upward out of the canyon on long switchbacks called the Sheep Steps. The piles of bare rock we passed through are like marmot condos. We saw lots of them along this part of the route.
One more time,kids – when you walk up out of a canyon you are going over a pass. Pass Number 3 for our trip was Mount Meek Pass at 9,276 feet. This was not nearly as daunting as Paintbrush and Hurricane. The approach is rather gentle compared to those two. Mike had passed this way before and could point out precisely where the trail would take us. In this photo, Mount Meek is the magnificent beginning of a miles-long wall of rock. Fortunately, we did not have to go over it – the pass is at its base on the left. Mount Meek Pass is also the point where we left the Jedediah Smith Wilderness behind and re-entered the Grand Tetons National Park.
Thus we entered the Death Canyon Shelf, a flat bench on the east flank of a series of incredible mountains, including Mount Meek, Mount Jedidiah Smith, Mount Bannon and Fossil Mountain. Yes, I said flat! We had several miles of leisurely strolling along, losing only about 200 feet of elevation before Fox Creek Pass (our last pass of the trip). On our right the mountains rose straight out of the ground to unbelieveable heights, and to our left the earth fell away into Death Canyon. Then we would descend about 3,000 feet from Fox Creek Pass to the end of Death Canyon – which would make us scream in a different way than going up 3,000 feet.
Here on the Shelf we began to see samples of the flower show that lay ahead.
Columbines are so beautiful, even I can take a good photo.
Tiny Jeff on the trail again. Thank goodness for those red shorts!
I have already forgotten what type of rock is predominant here - but it looks like a patio, doesn't it?
Looking into Death Canyon from the Shelf
Looking down into Death Canyon from the Shelf plus flowers
While on the Shelf we met two more backcountry rangers. When asked what our route was, we told them that we were walking out today so they didn’t check our permits. They were identifying flowers as they walked along. We stopped for a lunch break near the end of the Shelf where we could look down to Fox Creek Pass, where we would begin our descent into Death Canyon. Tiny people were walking along the trail and patches of snow were below the pass – a little bit more slippery fun yet to come.
Mike loaned Jeff some emergency sunglasses to help him walking across the snow. Jeff loves these sunglasses.
The wildflower main event cranked up as we began our descent into the canyon. (I didn’t attempt too many photos because I knew Jeff was breaking a world record for flower photo- graphy. I’ll ask his permission to use some of his shots for a “flower show” here soon.) Anyway, the slope had no trees, just these never-ending beauties, and as we made our way down the dominant colors changed from pink and purple and blue to red, with white and yellow mixed in all the way. The flowers were often waist high and sometimes over my head, and the path was narrow. There were frequent switchbacks as well as water runoffs, and more than once my feet carried me straight a few steps when I should have turned before the dense vegetation stopped me. Again I was channeling Dorothy, only this time instead of wishing for home I felt as though I were approaching the Emerald City through the poppy field...well, maybe I didn't feel quite THAT good, but you know what I mean. In all this beautimousness we passed a good number of people were walking up the trail, including a group of a dozen Boy Scouts and Scout- masters with red faces.
Eventually we reached Death Canyon Trail and settled in for more flat walking. The flower show was a teensy bit past its prime here, but awesome nonetheless. This view looks back up at the Shelf we walked on.
Elephanthead (this flower is very small and very detailed – see the elephant ears and trunk?)
We saw tons of cowparsnip, probably the most pre- dominant flower of all, but I suspect a flower called yampah is also mixed in, which looks very similar.
The walk through Death Canyon was…loooonnnggg. We crossed water many times, usually by benefit of footbridges, and passed many side trails to campsites. This canyon was a busy place – we seemed to be the only people walking out, lots of fresh faces walking in. One young woman I passed asked me if I had seen her friends (“you know, three college age kids” – yeah, right, about 50 of them) because she wasn’t sure where they were supposed to camp. I sure hope she found her friends in that big place! We stopped at the intersection with Alaska Basin Trail, our original planned route down from Static Peak, and I’ll bet Jeff made a vow to return someday.
The three of us were growing weary and we separated, occasionally leapfrogging as we stopped to rest. We were passing beautiful waterfalls and glimpses of Phelps Lake but it was hard to fully appreciate them at the end of this very long trek. Feet and knees were beginning to complain and someone kept putting rocks in my pack every time I stopped. Jeff got a second wind and pulled ahead for the home stretch, while Mike and I fought the good fight up and over the last ridge to Phelps Lake Overlook and then the last mile downhill to the trailhead, arriving around 5:30 p.m. Not bad for a nearly 16-mile day! Taking off a loaded backpack for the last time is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures…
What to do next? The Gros Ventre Campground where we had been staying does not do reservations and we had to sleep somewhere tonight, so that was our first stop. There were a handful of sites left, only one of them large enough, so we hastily put up tents and then went in search of food. At Dornan’s (home of the chuckwagon and teepee dining, remember?) we walked into the Pizza & Pasta Company, placed our orders and sat down to salivate while we waited. And let me tell ya, that was the best pizza I have ever eaten in my long life. It was all I could do to keep from crying as I ate, I was so happy to be there.
That’s the happy ending to our Grand Tetons backpacking trip…it was epic..it was the best of times…it was the worst of times…it was grand memory-making…and I offer a prayer of thanks for the skills and the physical ability and the companionship and, above all, the mountains themselves.
AND…tomorrow is TOWN DAY!!!!
Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take. ~Author Unknown