Friday, August 14, 2009

Paintbrush Divide OR The Second Scariest Day of My Hiking Life

Grand Tetons Adventure – Day Three – 7/27/09 – Leigh Lake Trail/Paintbrush Divide Trail to North Fork Cascade Canyon Campsite – 10.5 Miles

Packing up a wet tent is a mental challenge early in the morning. You want to just wait until it dries, but you don’t have time. Maybe you’ll get a chance to dry it out during your lunch stop…maybe not. I knew from our first day that although the morning is all blue skies, in the afternoons the clouds build up and we would likely encounter rain, and I do hate being wet. I was blissfully unaware that a wet tent would not be my biggest challenge today. Jeff and I snarfed down our Bubba leftovers, Mike got breakfast to go at the Chuckwagon, and we drove to the String Lake picnic area where Mike would abandon...uh, drop us off.

 Jeff and I planned to hike 3,800 feet up Paintbrush Canyon, over Paintbrush Divide (topping out at 10,700 feet) and down into North Fork Cascade Canyon, ending at the Lake Solitude camping zone. There are some designated spots to camp in the camping zones, but you can pitch a tent anywhere in those areas. Mike’s plan was to take the boat shuttle across Jenny Lake and hike straight up Cascade Canyon to the North Fork and set up a campsite for us, marking the trail with an “S” to guide us from the trail.

Part of our chores the day before had included registering with the backcountry office, getting our required bear canister (Mike had his own) and getting updated on the latest trail conditions. The nice young rangerette told us that Paintbrush had about ten snow fields, all passable without an ice axe, but that she strongly recommended that we not attempt Static Divide (planned for Day 3) without ice axes – or really at all. She even wrote on the permit that she cautioned us against it. That sealed the deal for me. I was cheering for Plan B from that point, a much longer hike on the last day, but a much safer I-want-to-live-to-tell-about-this option.

Since we were starting out separately for our first day, the night before we had devised meticulous “what-if” plans: “What if we don’t find each other in the camping zone when we get there and we have to set up camp separately?” “Well, we’ll meet at this designated spot at 8:00 p.m.” “What if we don’t meet you at 8:00 p.m.?” “Well, we’ll meet at this other designated spot at 9:00 a.m. the following morning.” “What if we don’t meet up then either?” “Well, each will assume that something happened to the other and we will each just hike back out that morning by the shortest route.” Good worst case plans, so each was responsible for him/herself and did not have to searching blindly for the others. I don’t understand hikers who just “decide where to hike when they get there.”

SOOO…Mike ate his to-go breakfast while Jeff and I made last-minute checks, lamented at how heavy our packs were (Jeff had the bear canister, which is both bulky and heavy – and oh, yeah, MY food was still in it), shifted stuff around and looked at the sky, and all the while Mike chuckled at our “trailhead jitters.” And thus began the second scariest day of my hiking life.

 Jeff and I skirted the eastern side of String Lake, crossed the bridge between String Lake and Leigh Lake, and paused to look at Mt. Moran, which is actually one canyon over. A vocab lesson: A canyon is a deep valley between mountains, sometimes created by a river, but in the Tetons they are mostly U-shaped and formed by glaciers. A divide or pass is the spot in a mountain range that is lower than the surrounding peaks and the preferred way to get to the other side of the range. Paintbrush Canyon lies between Mt. Woodring and Mt. St. John and the only way to the top is…up.

The flowers were not as abundant as the previous day, but beautiful none- theless. (I think this photo is blue pen- stemon). We passed into the subalpine forest, crossing Paintbrush Creek and other creeks a few times. The amount of water was surprising – it was everywhere, large whitewater and small gushes. Looking up at the walls of the canyon, we saw waterfalls that were enormous even from a great distance. With every switchback the waterfalls grew larger until I realized I could delete the first 10 photos taken from a distance.

The trees became scarce and the trail continued to climb. As we took a break in the middle of the trail we watched a marmot scurry away. The day was plenty warm and I was trying to stick to Mike’s mantra: walk at a sustainable pace.

 This is columbine, my favorite Western flower.

 The Grand Tetons is not a lonely place. We passed several backpacking groups and I always stopped to chat, asking where they had spent the night, digging for clues about what coming over Paintbrush Divide was like. Most hikers were doing an out-and-back and had not come over the pass. One couple said they were surprised at the hailstorm yesterday evening – fortunately they had already pitched their tent so they huddled inside to watch it. Hmmmm….hail?

This is the view over my shoulder looking back down at Leigh Lake and (I think) Jackson Lake. The clouds seemed to be gathering earlier than usual today. Jeff and I kept looking up, watching the white, then light gray, then dark gray clouds crowding out the blue sky.

We didn’t stop to rest much and I slipped into the danger zone of trying to match Jeff’s pace. One father-daughter couple dressed skimpily even for dayhiking merrily passed us by, making me wonder if I was worrying too much. Within 30 minutes of hearing about the potential for hail, we felt raindrops and stopped to cover our packs. Five minutes later we were scooting under tree cover as pea-sized hail bounced around us – and five minutes later it stopped. The air was definitely cooler and it was all very interesting.

We took a right trail option to check out Holly Lake, a lovely alpine lake, but the pressure of thickening clouds became intense and we didn’t linger. Sure was pretty, though.

Above Holly Lake we could see what we guessed was Paintbrush Divide – a wall of rock with one low spot and lots of snow (see photo - yes, that is Jeff in the snow). For the love of Pete, how were we going to go up that?

By now the sky was even darker than the gray peaks and we were beginning to cross the snow fields, slushy from the warm sun. Jeff boldly crossed and I crept along like an old granny. Even with trekking poles, the added weight of a backpack made balancing a precarious affair. Are we having fun yet????

My biggest mistake to this point was not resting enough and not eating. Jeff and I were both pushing to get over the divide before the inevitable thunderstorm erupted, but I had to admit that I could not make it. Finally I told Jeff that I simply had to rest, and at the end of a long snow field we sat down under some scrubby trees. I could feel my natural stress reaction coming – tears – not very helpful in this situation. We knew that the place we chose to stop was not adequate for a storm and we eyeballed a better spot if necessary.

Okay, after a two-minute pause, the rumbling started and we hightailed it. The temperature dropped probably 30 degrees in a couple of minutes and the hail pelted us. We scrambled through the stunted trees and struggled to put on our rain gear. My jacket was accessible but my rain pants were not. Ya know, back in the Smokies you don’t use your rain pants in a summer storm! The ground was sloped and all I could do was huddle on my feet with my arms wrapped around my bare legs. I glanced back to see how Jeff was managing – he had his rain pants on and was eating his peanut butter bagel. What, me worry? Sigh…

The hail continued for a bit and then the rain spattered down. Thunder and lightning crashed as I shivered and shook. I tried channeling Dorothy (“there’s no place like home”) but no luck. Amazingly, a dayhiking couple approached, talking and laughing, saw us through the branches and asked what we were doing. Duh, we are sitting here so we don’t get killed by lightning! They seemed genuinely surprised and decided to take cover as well.

We spent nearly an hour under cover while I devised several exit plans: get to the campsite and forcibly take Mike’s car keys was the scenario I favored most. I had had enough of canyon hiking, was darn sure I didn’t like it, and as Arnold says, hasta la vista, baby! No way was I doing two more days of this.

Now the sky was still rumbling (more softly) and the clouds were breaking up and moving eastward past us. Time to try once more to get over the pass. My forced rest had helped a little for the last push, but I was still not dancing to the top. There were still several snow fields to cross, each one steeper than the last, but about a thousand years later we stood on the top of Paintbrush Divide.

Jim says he can read my body language in this photo. What do you think it means?

 The 2.3-mile descent into the North Fork of Cascade Canyon was long but stunning. Less talk, more pictures:

Jeff looking down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon

Rocky trail

Grand Teton looking southward down North Fork Cascade

Canyon Lake Solitude and creeks in the canyon

 Tiny Jeff on the slope

Sparkling Lake Solitude

Creek rushing from down the canyon from Lake Solitude


Mountain bluebells

Mike at Lake Solitude

Mike was waiting for us on the shores of Lake Solitude, grinning and exclaiming, “I want to hear all about it!” Of course he had been caught in the same storm we were, although I think by that time he was either near a campsite or had already set up camp. I could feel those tears cranking up again, but tried to joke and shrug it off – although I was sure I was going to hike out in the morning.

We walked down the canyon looking for the sign to our campsite. We had a small but level area big enough for three tents, water flowing nearby, and Mike had even set up a dining tarp. We quickly put up tents, grabbed our food and cooking stuff, and got under the tarp as the rain began to pour. Somewhere in the hustle my watch slipped unnoticed off of my wrist.

 As we cooked I told Mike about our experience and that I was done with this backpack trip – could I please have his keys? Jeff was silent but Mike began to poke at me, saying there was no way I could quit now, I wasn’t miserable enough yet – and I burst into tears. Suddenly it was very quiet out there in the wilderness, just the pitter-patter of the rain.

I struggled to pull myself together. Mike got serious and tried to pull out of me what was making me so unhappy. I’ve accomplished too many things to consider myself a quitter and really don’t care if anyone else thinks I am one. Peer pressure is not something that influences me much at this stage of my life. My biggest pressure usually comes from within myself. But I was cold, wet and scared of that hailstorm and I didn’t want to do it again. Any of you out there familiar with the phrase H.A.L.T.? It means don’t make any decisions when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I had several of those going on.

The rain eventually stopped, I got some food in me and calmed down, and the evening turned out to be lovely. The summit of Grand Teton was shrouded in her cloud cover. The sunset was peaceful.

I was beyond exhausted and crawled into my tent before the guys. As I lay there, I thought about another time when I was cold, wet and scared – good old Hazel Creek. And just like at the end of that day, here I was warm, dry, fed and safe. Jeff and I had done everything right in the situation. Now I knew what this crazy Western weather could do and those stupid rain pants should be at the top of my pack, not buried in the bottom. Although I did not think I would regret bailing out the next morning, maybe I could also not regret continuing on.

The trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it. ~Patrick Young


Smoky Mountain Hiker said...

Great story as usual. I just put Paintbrush Divide on my list!

smoky scout said...

Paintbrush Divide is awesome -- but the best is yet to come! Hurricane Pass, Alaska Basin, Meek Mountain Pass, Death Canyon Shelf...

Anonymous said...

Well, we've finished our last day in Rocky Mountain NP. I'm reading your blog after I finished mine.
Your trip was quite dramatic.
Nothing like that on ours but we were day hiking.
Check it out if you have time.

smoky scout said...

Hi Danny - I've been keeping up with your RMNP trip. It sounds like you've had a great time, really getting up in elevation. Looking forward to seeing the photos!

Old Dan said...

Great story and fantastic pictures, I look forward to the rest of it. That is some seriously rugged terrain you conquered.

Anonymous said...

Great photos, great story, great HONESTY! Thanks for all! Glenda

smoky scout said...

Dan: I have finally made a page on Facebook and have posted about 160 photos from the Tetons trip on there. Jeff's photos are ten times better than mine - I will put up a link to his share site soon.

Glenda: Have you ever heard the expression, "Some people's purpose in life is just to serve as a caution to others"? As a hiker yourself, you know that hiking and backpacking are very rewarding but seldom easy. I feel like I should let people know about my struggles as well as the highlights. Plus it's better to point out my shortcomings before someone else does!

Paul said...

Great story SmokyScout.

Send me a FB friend request -