Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hurricane Pass and Beyond

Grand Teton Adventure – Day Four – 7/28/09 – Lake Solitude Trail/Teton Crest Trail to Alaska Basin – 10.1 Miles

The gradual lightening of the tent walls woke me but I had no watch to help me determine the time. While I don’t consider myself a clock watcher (it’s time to do this, it’s time to do that), I do like to know what side of noon I’m on. Being watchless added to my discomfort on this expedition. One plus: the cold temperatures that I had expected at this elevation did not come about - it was mid-40’s, perfect for sleeping. I missed my luxury Thermarest, but my ProLite 3 was livable. (There was much debate about which one to bring for the week, because the ProLite is not adequate for 7 nights on my hip bones and the luxury Therm is too heavy for backpacking – so I brought both on the plane.)

Everyone began to stir and figure out breakfast chores – find stoves, get water, to boil or not to boil? For Jeff an apple was enough, but instant cheese grits sounded good to me, and Mike has never missed a full meal in the wilderness. The sky was clear, but we were still in shade waiting for the sun to pop up over the northern peaks that separated us from yesterday’s Paintbrush Canyon. Our tents were heavy with dew and not looking very packable. We slowly began to gather stuff and we were avoiding the subject of what I was going to do today. While I was putting my Camelback into its sleeve on my backpack, something shiny caught my eye.

My watch! It must have slipped off my wrist while I was removing the Camelback yesterday. I held it up and declared it a sign that I should continue on the backpack trip. How simple is that? Actually, before falling asleep last night I had made the decision that I would get up this morning and pretend it was the first day of an overnight trip. I could endure anything for one night, right? Ah, what fun to play mind games with myself…

At last the sun’s rays crested over the peaks and quickly reached down into our canyon. We spread out our tents and dillydallied with the rest of our gear as they dried; consequently, we did not get on the trail until nearly 9:30 a.m. But it was great to know we would pitch dry tents at the end of the day. We headed off down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon to see what awaited us. Here’s Mike and the Grand Teton posing with her morning clouds gathering. Looks like a smokestack,huh?

Wildlife was scheduled for this morning as marmots popped out among the rocks. Cascade Creek flowed noisily as we criss-crossed it. Halfway down the canyon, I was ahead of the guys when a brown stump caught my eye off to the right. The stump took a couple of steps, looked at me, and turned into a moose! She was alone and very content to be photographed and admired. We watched her for quite some time and when we left she was still breakfasting on leaves and grasses, a very tranquil scene.

While hiking in the Smokies I knew all the trail mileages and most of the elevation gains between trail points, but out here in the Tetons those details were much hazier. My NatGeo trail map does not include distances and only gives elevations for certain high points. Jeff said we were going to gain “a couple thousand feet” today, not as strenuous as yesterday (we gained 3,800). Every so often he would tell us what elevation we were at on his GPS and I tried hard not to ask. After all, “it is what it is”, right? Just remember that going over a pass means going UP again, and we were headed for Hurricane Pass.

At the end of the North Fork is a junction. Left takes you out Cascade Canyon Trail to Jenny Lake, the route that Mike had hiked in yesterday. Right takes you into the South Fork of Cascade Canyon via the Teton Crest Trail, passing the stars of the Grand Teton Range: Mount Owen, Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton. These babies are on your left as you walk up the canyon. However, to the right is an incredible wall of rock that to me resembles El Capitan in Yosemite, and yet it has no name. Imagine – an incredible formation like this being so insignificant compared to what’s around it that it doesn’t even have a name. Wow! Out here Charlie’s Bunion would be…a rock.
You do not get a handrail with your footlog on these trails. If that makes you nervous, you have no business being out here.

Look closely at the center of the ridgeline. What are those four rock formations? Let’s call them hoo-doos.

We walked around gawking at views like this all day long. That's Table Mountain on the right.

Mike requested an early lunch around 11:00, so we chose this nice little spot for our break. This river was a swift cascade, very noisy, and the snow seemed to flow down to meet it. It was sunny and magnificent and I wanted to stay here for a long time.

A new photo series:

My boots and the landscape

Marsh marigolds

A backcountry ranger overtook us as we were climbing the switchbacks and he checked out our permit. Jeff asked him for the latest scoop on conditions at Static Peak Divide (remember, the rangerette had basically said you are an idiot if you take that route.) Well, this ranger said that conditions change so quickly these days that the pass could be clear now. I saw the hope gleaming in Jeff’s eyes. For the rest of the morning we leapfrogged with the ranger as he stopped to talk with other backpackers along the trail. Again, these trails are not for the hiker seeking solitude. We probably saw two dozen people today. (I have even seen Lake Solitude referred to as Lake Multitude, although there was no one else there when we passed by yesterday.) Most of the South Fork is a camping zone and there are lots of great looking places to pitch a tent. If I were ever to pass this way again, I would like to camp in this area.

Eventually we began to approach the canyon’s end and tried guessing where the pass would be. Now that I’ve conquered one pass, I think I know something, right? This particularly beautiful waterfall was in view for a long time and we thought maybe we would pass just to the right of it. Well, we were wrong. The waterfall was on the left side and Hurricane Pass is on the right.

Here are tiny people on the trail nearing the end of the canyon. And are those clouds gathering again?

Another view of the trail – just one more mile to Hurricane Pass.

 At last the pass loomed in sight along with the snow fields we had to cross to get to it. I was not any happier with them today than yesterday. The real trail zig-zagged up the mountain but the steep slopes and melting snow encouraged shortcuts. I watched Jeff tentatively try first one path in the snow, then another, and then finally he scrambled up the loose rock on an even bigger shortcut, and I followed him. (Note to self: hiking poles are no help when you are scrambling up loose rock.) Jeff kept going, but I turned to watch Mike negotiate the snow. I felt someone should be a witness if he didn’t make it. Mike doesn’t normally use hiking poles but he had toted good old-fashioned ski poles on this trip for just such an occasion. He carefully stomped out footsteps in the snow like a responsible hiker rather than short- cutting.

Here’s tiny Mike again in the center of the photo. My camera and I are near the top of the pass.

Standing at Hurricane Pass (10,338 feet), the view of the girls, Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton, is ___ fill in the blank with any superlative you wish! The scene is just so vast, I am amazed that I got all three of them in one frame. There was a stiff cold breeze blowing (Hurricane, remember?) and I stopped to put on my jacket. There is nothing tall growing here. The flowers are abundant but low to the ground, alpine forget-me-nots among them.

As if all this scenery were not enough to blow your mind, a glance down to where we were just hiking reveals Schoolroom Glacier, with high sides of moraine built up and a seemingly tiny sliver where the water flows on down into the canyon. You can’t see the glacier until you are most of the way to the top of the pass.

At the top Jeff and I made a plan that he would continue on to Alaska Basin, our camping zone for the night, while I waited for Mike. Jeff would scout out a good campsite and either wait for us or leave a trail sign. He wanted to take a side hike up to check snow conditions at Buck Mountain Pass (the route to Static Peak). Even if he couldn’t make it through Static Peak Divide, perhaps he could complete one of his primary goals of our entire Tetons trip: summiting Static Peak. So Jeff took off and I waited all of five minutes before Mike appeared. The two of us walked together as the Teton Crest Trail crossed the national park boundary and into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. (We would cross back into the national park the next morning.) We waved to Idaho and then Mike chose to make a side foray to try to overlook the glacier from a different vantage point. I chose to stick to the trail and finish the few miles to Alaska Basin.

At this point we had been above any appreciable tree cover for a few hours and now I was walking on top of the world. Where were the bathroom facilities? I finally chose a two-foot-high rock for my pit stop. The wind blew my hat off while I was occupied. I got myself together, chased my hat, and about 90 seconds later a group of hikers came over the horizon. Gee whiz, what do you gotta do to get some privacy out here in the wilderness?

Among the dozens of impressive mountains to the west is a formation called Battleship Mountain. It comes into view from the front angle and then you walk for miles alongside it. It is impossible to get lost for about ten miles as this mountain dominates the horizon. What do you think? It is too massive to get the idea of scale unless you are standing there for real.

After a grateful mile or more of flat walking I began the long descent into Alaska Basin, a much larger open area than the canyons we had trekked through, many square miles and ringed by mountains. The few alpine trees are not very tall but the boulders are huge and plentiful. The photo is looking down at Sunset Lake in the Basin – but I still had a long way to go past Sunset Lake. As I walked down, down, down, I could sometimes pick out teeny tiny Jeff on the teeny tiny trail.

On one switchback I was surprised to encounter a family consisting of Dad, Mom and two small boys, perhaps ages 3 and 6. (Click on photo.) Mom was sprawled out in the middle of the trail with her boots off and her hat over her face. I tentatively approached and said hi to Dad and casually asked, “How’s everybody doing?” Dad said they were doing great. They were heading for the South Fork…which meant they were going to tote those children over Hurricane Pass and through the snow fields. Dad smiled and I just kept walking.

   I took a break at Sunset Lake to see if Mike would catch up (he didn’t – he was off exploring). I replenished my water and then pushed the rest of the way to meet Jeff waiting near the intersection of the Teton Crest/Teton Canyon/Alaska Basin trails. He showed me the camping spot in the Basin Lakes section that he recommended and then he embarked on his side trip that would be around 4 miles. It was already 5:00 p.m. and I was a little concerned that he would be out so late. But I knew how important it was to him to try to summit Static Peak so I crossed my fingers and went to leave trail arrows for Mike.

I loved my tent location – the big rock beside me was perfect for spreading out stuff and protected me from the wind on that side. And isn't this a great old tree? The down side: from the back side I could see one other group’s camp in the distance.

Although the elevation gain was less today, I was still exhausted and moving slowly as Mike arrived. He was tuckered out as well and we took a very long time to set up tents, get water and decide where to cook. The breeze was brisk enough that we set up between two large boulders to light stoves. We were trying to prepare food without too much extra effort, when I heard a noise…and Jeff popped up over the boulders at about 7:00 p.m. The bad news was that the snow at Buck Mountain Pass was impassable, so he turned back. The good news was that he was back safely and before dark. I was sorry that he couldn’t make his summit, but I was glad that he had seen and made the determination for himself.

More good news: the daily thunder- storm never appeared and the night was breezy, cool and clear. I had survived and actually enjoyed the day. Nobody said "I told you so." And more awesomeness awaits - tomorrow the three of us will be hiking on the Death Canyon Shelf.  

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. ~e.e. cummings


Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Simply awesome!

Now I have to get to Hurricane Pass and the AK Basin!

Anonymous said...

The third photo from the bottom is the most beautiful bouquet ever! Loved the photos - Glenda

smoky scout said...

The blue-purple flowers are lupines and the whites are mostly cowparsnip, although the denser ones I think may be yarrow.