Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places.
Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.
-Stewart Udall, fmr. Sec. of Interior 1961-1969
Standing on Paintbrush Divide, life was simple. The decision that led to this moment happened a few months earlier. In the summer of 2016 I was writing my PhD dissertation and planning a late summer getaway to celebrate the culmination of this effort. I was putting together logistics, along with my brother David and his fiancée Ashley, for a through-hike of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. We planned to stay high, hugging the continental divide as we followed the loose outline of a route described by backpacker and writer Alan Dixon. On paper our goal was simple; hike the 80+ miles from the Green River lakes in the north to the Big Sandy Campground in the south. In doing so, we would traverse what Dixon has called, “the finest non-technical Alpine route in North America.” In practice, this feat wouldn’t be so simple. The Wind Rivers are some of the most heavily glaciated mountains in the Rockies, and our route was to be largely off-trail. We’d be carrying 9 days worth of food for three people in bear-resistant containers and spending most of our time above tree line, out of natural shelter and exposed to the elements. This was exactly what we craved, a test of our mental and physical endurance.
On September 2nd, my 28th birthday, we set up camp in Forest Service land at the southern edge of the Winds, planning to catch an arranged shuttle to our northern start early the next morning. We had arrived well past dark and hurriedly set up our tents in a thunderstorm. As it turned out, this wouldn’t be our only night in the rain. We were repeatedly drenched as we ascended through the early portion of our route. Our first high pass, through a field strewn with car-sized boulders, was also marked by a violent storm. We were well above the trees and could see the clouds approaching. Soon our vision was limited to several feet and the three of us, alone in the mountains, also found ourselves isolated from one another as we each sought a way to maneuver over these rocks. The snow came first, then the hail. Next was thunder, like a wave rolling through. I couldn’t see my brother, but I could hear him yelling instructions. Remove your pack. He was right, the lightning was too close, we had to be proactive. I took off my backpack, slid it away, and sat curled up in a ball. Hail and snow filled the air, caught in the wind. Though I couldn’t see the sky, each strike of lightning was obvious as the small visible world around me was suddenly illuminated, like the flash bulb of a camera. The thunder was instant. We each sat alone, waiting. As the storm began to give way, we shouted to one another from our individual perches. This storm was past, but more would follow. The rest of our time in the Winds followed suit. After an overnight snowstorm, our route forward over a talus field was too dangerous. We were forced to make a decision – wait a day and hope for an improvement in the weather or turn around now and hike out. With limited food and a tight schedule, we ultimately chose the latter option.
Despite our disappointment at the early turnaround, the Winds were a strikingly beautiful range. We used our newfound extra days to spend time hiking and camping in Grand Teton and Yellowstone. This unexpected opportunity has become one of my most cherished memories. What I took home from this trip was bigger than the stories or the pictures. It was the recharge that only wilderness can supply. After hiking up Paintbrush Canyon in the Tetons, where we were forced to wait while a bull moose grazed along a narrow section of trail, I found myself standing atop a large rock on the exposed pass. We were halfway through a loop that would descend through Cascade Canyon and around Jenny Lake. The final push up the pass was, as is frequently the case, a grueling ascent over rocky trail. Snowfields dotted the landscape both above and below our vantage point. Standing on the pass was euphoric; it was only from within the Tetons that I could feel the true magnitude of these jagged peaks strewn with glaciers and warm green lakes. On my rock perch the wind relentlessly threatened to knock me over, filling me with a sense of smallness. Nothing is as grounding as nature, a grand display of geological feats that have formed over a time scale hardly imaginable to the human mind. There is a comfort to be found in the vastness of the wild, in the realization that nature is both beautiful and harsh. Millions of years have passed and countless lives have come and gone while these mountains have endured. Here I am nothing, and that means everything.