A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.

— Finis Mitchell, “Wind River Trails”

Maybe it was smoke from the dry-lightning fires burning far to the east and north, mixing with the multi-textured clouds and backlit by the setting sun.   Or maybe it was just our eyes adjusting to the visual hyperbole of tortured rock peaks, white granite boulders, golden grass, deep green conifer and green-blue water.  Whatever it was,  the landscape had an almost surreal glow from our camp on a bench above Island Lake as we ate our evening meals and stared north into the spires of Titcomb Basin.

Island Lake
Camp at Island Lake

Rainclouds had split overhead and passed us by north and south earlier that day as we wandered along the Titcomb lakes under mighty Fremont and Jackson peaks to the stark rocky jumble of the upper Basin.

Mount Fremont from Island Lake

The sentinel peaks of the Sphinx, Miriam and Dinwoody Peaks, Forked Tongue and Spearhead pinnacle, and dramatic Mount Helen, 13-ers all, loomed over us in a semicircle sketching the Continental Divide as we hopped boulders to the headwall and craned our necks to look up, up, up. The tortured rock above was mirrored in the boulders and slabs underfoot which featured a full palette of pastel colors and textures – pink and green, bright shiny white, black, caramel and amber, even red-purple;  sinuous, banded and speckled, coarse and smooth. Clearly these mountains had been baked hot, stirred and poured, left to dry and coated on top with sediment frosting, then upended, eroded and glacier-carved in a sequence that had repeated itself over and over for eons.

Our group of eight had started from the little town of Pinedale Wyoming three days earlier, a van from the Great Outdoor Shop picking us up early from our overnight haven at the Rivera Bed and Breakfast and depositing us with our packs at the Green River Lakes trailhead about two hours northeast of town by about 9 a.m.. From the picturesque log cabin at the trailhead we could just see the outline of Squaretop to the south, one of the most photographed peaks in the range.

Squaretop in the distance

Our first day was an easy nine miles with little elevation gain, up and down around the lovely blue meadow-wrapped lakes under Squaretop and Granite Peak, and through tree-sized rhododendron, lodgepole pine and spruce along the milky Green River, to the broad green meadows of Beaver Park.

Our trail led us steadily closer to the continental divide here, though the ridge to our east blocked our view of the major peaks within 3 miles of where we stood. The meadows afforded a great selection of soft-grass tent spots within easy reach of the river. Frost on the grass the next morning made the coffee taste only that much better.

The Wind River Range is unique in that it stands on a high plateau, 10-11,000 feet elevation for a hundred miles or more, the product of a regional uplift 35-50 million years ago that pushed a huge section of the central Rocky Mountain region up 3500-5000 feet out of the vast inland sea. The high peaks of the Rockies formed in an extended cataclysm of peak-lifting and folding called the Laramide Orogeny, between 35 and 80 million years ago. For that reason, backpacking the length of the Winds features far less elevation gain and loss than similar traverses to the north or south in the Rockies or west in the High Sierra.

From Beaver Park we quickly began ascending the plateau, first above and then away from the Green River with Clark and Trail creeks tumbling down below us. Breaking out above treeline and crossing Green River Pass, the terrain around us took on a countenance that would become very familiar over the next nine days: our trail winding, climbing and dropping around granite slabs and boulder piles, through sparse grass and scattered stubby Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and past innumerable tarns and lakes, with vast spreading vistas and high peaks forming a backdrop. Passing Summit Lake and winding east above Pass Lake the trail climbed a steep wall and three more boulderpiles before dropping into the vast Elbow Lake basin, almost like a crater of the moon.

Elbow Lake Basin

Smooth slabs formed ledges all along the tributary creek down to the lake, and hopping from one to another was like walking on the surface of a gallery of abstract paintings laid out in the horizontal. After pitching our tents in the sparse grassy patches around the head of the lake, we gathered exhausted along a sheltering rock wall to cook our dinners and watch the salmon-to-orange light show on Elbow Peak reflected in the waters of the lake as the sun went down.

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Camp at Elbow Lake Basin

By day three we were in our stride with a routine of breakfast at first light and on the trail by 8 a.m., when the early sharp-angled light was piercingly clear and the air brisk. The days warmed up quickly as the sun cleared the tops of the peaks to our east, and our troupe would quickly moult our layers of down, fleece, and Smartwool in favor of short sleeves and shorts. The topology of the previous day continued through the striking basins of Upper and Lower Jean Lake and across a high bridge at Fremont Crossing, through endless small climbs and drops, and the contrast of the bright boulders and slabs against the dark green of the conifers and the blue of the many tarns. About 6 miles from Elbow Lake we reached the junction of the Titcomb Basin trail and turned northwest for the short but steep climb to a divide from which Island Lake stretched out sparking and blue across our field of view. Fabulous sheltered but view-ful camps were to be found all along the south shore amid tarns and patches of meadow above the lake, and on a small peninsula jutting into the lake a bit farther on. Fremont and Jackson Peaks and the peaks at the head of Titcomb Basin punctuated the skyline but a ridgeline hid the Titcomb lakes. Our afternoon was spent happily climbing the knobs just west of our camp for further views north and west.

Day four, our exploration of Titcomb Basin under boiling clouds and the threat of rain, provided a very satisfying respite from the burden of our full packs and a chance to wander without the pressure of a camp to reach. This area is one of the principal destinations for visitors to the Wind Rivers, with easy access for weekend to multi-week explorations of the Basin, the adjoining Island Basin and the peaks beyond from the Elkhart Trailhead via the Pole Creek and Seneca Lake trails. Surprisingly though, the Island Lake basin and the Titcomb Lakes area beyond were plenty large to deliver a generous amount of solitude even with their popularity.

Days five through seven took us along a lake-strewn section of the main north-to-south trail that is only infrequently traveled owing to its location in the stretch of the Winds between the two popular areas of Titcomb Basin and the Cirque of the Towers, each reachable independently from the other. But our goal was a north to south traverse of the range, so traverse we did, with substantial rewards. Much of this segment, over 10,000 feet nearly all the way, was through high golden grassland interspersed with the prerequisite tarns and granite boulders, more stout Whitebark pine and Englemann spruce trees, and, increasingly, shrubby alpine willow (Salix brachycarpa) in shades of bright yellow to orange. Lester Pass, Baldy Pass, Hat Pass were high gaps reached by long gradual traverses across high meadow country (and of course more lakes), with immense views of the high plateau, west to the peaks of the divide, and east well into the plains. Bald Mountain Basin, Lake Victor, Europe Canyon, Middle Fork Canyon – words on signs nailed to isolated posts pointing the way to side trips up to the flanks of the Divide that would be well worth a week on their own;  surely next time!

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Bald Mountain Basin

At a significant crossing of Pole Creek, a pack train with horse and two mules brought us food for our final six days, the wrangler a nice young man from Minnesota finding his place in the world by running hunting camps in the chilly fall in the high mountains of Wyoming.

South of Pole Creek the lakes dotting our map in bright blue came closer together and larger as we went on: North Fork, Pipestone, Howard, Sandpoint. A rest stop, a refreshing drink and snack, a foot soak or full-body dunk in the warm sun. Here our way wandered up and down the humps and valleys through stands of trees, mostly Lodgepole pine (P. contorta), many dead from the bark beetle but seedlings springing profusely up in the new-found sun beneath the reduced leaf canopy. Later, an entire day was spent walking a mile-wide open meadow around several large lakes: Bobs Lake, Raid Lake, Dream Lake, Cross Lake. A highlight reel of lakes, and more often than not the hikers we encountered had fly rods and that faraway look suggesting they were headed somewhere to use them. Not sure that all the anglers knew that Finis Mitchell, a Wyoming-bred mountain man and forester, had stocked most of the previously-fish-less Wind River lakes with as many as 2.5 million trout hatchlings during the depression, carried in barrels up the trails on his horse.

Two of the best camps of the trip were found in this section, on the flats by two slowly meandering rivers, the marsh grass forming a tall green border to the water, and the setting sun glowing orange on the slow-moving, glassy surface. Places for peace and reflection amidst the ordinary chores of gathering water and rinsing socks.

At East Fork River came a turning point, day nine, the place and time for our group of companions to turn east and upward to cross over the Continental Divide on a circuitous path eventually passing into the legendary Cirque of the Towers. That, gentle reader, is a story for another time. The Fremont trail we left to continue on its own solitary course, southward to its terminus at Big Sandy campground.

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Sunset from East Fork River

Editor’s Note: The author will be sharing more from her amazing Winds trek with Seattle Backpackers Magazine next week. Look for Wind River Range Part II

And as a bonus to this article, here is a short, sweet geology of Wind Rivers.

The Wind River mountains are a consequence of an extended period of mountain building called the Laramide Orogeny, 35-80 million years ago, when much of the earth’s crust across current-day Colorado, Wyoming and Montana rippled like the skin of a Bassett Hound to push up very high mountains. This was, in fact, such a powerful geologic phenomenon that the resulting peaks would have been 60,000 feet tall today were it not for the equally powerful forces of erosion that steadily wore down the new mountains as they were pushed up. Some of the earth’s most ancient rock, formed as pillows of magma extruded and cooled through weaknesses in the thinner crust in the first 3 billion years of the planet’s existence, was pushed up, lifting atop it a crust of 5000-foot-deep sediments from the inland sea and ash deposits from hundreds of thousands of years of regional volcanism. As these incredibly powerful forces deformed the land, the layers of ancient and less ancient rock and sediment rolled and folded upon themselves, diving back deep to face immense heat and pressure and morph into yet another unique swirled layer cake of rock. In some places, where cracks had formed in the hard rock, hot magma forced itself up and cooled, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, forming amazingly sharp-edged bands and pockets within very different parent rock. The quicker it cooled, the smaller the crystals and the smoother and glassier the surface of the resulting rock. Hence, in the chaos of all this lifting, extruding and folding, a mix of textures from smooth and glassy to blocky crumbles formed.

The Wind Rivers are notable, with just a few other areas of the world, as a location where massive pillows of granite have been formed and exposed as the dominant features of the landscape – huge foundational batholiths of 100 square miles or more, as well as “smaller” (but still incredibly massive) plutons – granitic extrusions – ultimately revealed at the surface as domes, slabs and spires. Like the Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows of California, granite in all its forms is a defining feature of the Wind Rivers, including amazing monoliths, sheer faces and spires rivaling Half Dome and El Capitan (though here, many more multi-colored, multi-textured layers and far more deformation). In fact, the Cirque of the Towers is so reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley that it seems certain it would have the same population problems if it was closer to civilization and developed as a National Park.

Then centuries of inexorable carving from extensive mountain glaciers in the relatively recent past (10-15,000 years ago) formed the distinctive U-shaped valleys, cirques and sharp-edged peaks of other glaciated regions. But here, because of all that tortured granite, when the glaciers receded they left small to huge, scoured and lovely boulders scattered about the high plateau and perched improbably along every high ridgeline.

 

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