As a college student in 1979 I occasionally drifted into Portland State's
outdoor-program lounge. The most notable and popular event was the tour of the
Blitz-Weinhard brewery. I was filling in some credits in summer term when I
opened the school newspaper and read about the latest in campus life. My heart
nearly stopped when I saw the upcoming schedule of the outdoor program: a week
in the Wind River Range! Another week in the San Juans of Colorado!! Both
sounded interesting, but the Wind River images were irresistible; I signed on
for the early-September excursion and sat in on the discussions. Jerry was the
group leader, and he looked like a serious outdoor person - full beard, strong
build, good high-altitude tan. He sketched out a five-day tour that included
the Cirque of the Towers, a granite amphitheater surrounding Lonesome Lake high
in the southern Wind Rivers. I loaded up my pack and started taking it
everywhere, getting in shape for the trip.
At last the departure date arrived. The outdoor program was using a new school
van that had only a few hundred miles on it; that would change in no time. Our
group of six (Tony, Francin, Ken, Robin, Jerry and I) would take turns driving
from Portland to Wyoming during the night to get us more quickly to the
mountains. We started at 9pm; by early afternoon we were in Jackson, Wyoming,
where we picked up more maps and other last-minute items. We ended the long day
near Pinedale, at a campsite along Fremont Lake.
The next day found us dodging cattle on the back roads and admiring the distant
peaks that drew ever closer. By late morning we were putting on the packs for a
group photo and leaving the van behind us. I took a calculated risk at the end,
leaving my homemade mountain-tent in the car; it was cute and effective, but
Heavy. Day One was a short one, but I wasted no time in acquiring
a healthy blister on each foot; the foot-soak in the Big Sandy River felt
wonderful that day! We camped at Big Sandy (that name again!) Lake, and I ate
some of the food I bought back in '73 (edible, but nothing special). We had
just turned in when a quiet rustling in the bushes took form as a gang of mice,
storming our fort in search of food. One ran across my chest; when I sat up to
look, another ran across my pillow. We grabbed our food-bags
and hung them out of reach; after that, the mice cleared out and let us
|Day two of the hike found us following the Big Sandy River above the similarly-named lake, with a good view of Big Sandy Mountain on our right. The hikers settled into their normal paces, meaning Jerry disappeared in a cloud of dust, with Robin occasionally visible in the far distance. Ken and I generally stayed close, with Tony and Francin just behind. After a scenic drop to North Lake, the climbing began again with sharp peaks appearing to our north. Some maps indicated that we were heading for Big Sandy Pass (no surprise) while other maps showed Jackass Pass. We all met for lunch on Big Sandy Pass, and more group photos ensued. While photographing a pile of granite at close range, my shoulderstrap separated from the camera and sent it on a three-foot drop to oblivion. I frantically examined it while we resumed hiking, hoping to bring it back to life by fiddling with every moving part (the lens had not been damaged). We dropped down to Arrowhead Lake (well named!), then climbed again to ... Jackass Pass. Both maps were right, but no map had both passes marked. Lonesome Lake now showed up, as did a few grey cumulus clouds. While messing with the camera I flipped the shutter speed to 'bulb' - something went "thunk" - and all was well again!! Pleased with my good fortune and stunned by the scenery, I stood in place and took about ten shots, capturing the entire Cirque of the Towers from SSW to NE, and shot an entire roll of film in about ten minutes. (This was the trip where I decided that owning a wide-angle lens would be a good idea; all photos were with a standard 50mm lens, hence the multiple shots.)|
We reached a lovely campsite below Lonesome Lake, took off the packs and each relaxed in our own ways. I wanted to see Texas Pass on the north side of the Cirque, but no one else was interested. Tony and I decided to follow the lake's inlet stream to the very base of the Towers, and found a tiny lake surrounded by exfoliated granite slabs; it was an amazing place. A few raindrops fell on us as we passed the small waterfall above the lake, and we reached camp and discovered that Jerry was gone. He became tired of the camp scene, grabbed his camera and climbed up to - yes, to Texas Pass. His pictures of that view were so amazing that I bought a copy of the slide; looking south toward all the Big Sandy Stuff was incredible from his high perch! Our camp was unmolested by mice, but several interesting events took place that I missed. Robin slept on a large granite slab surrounded by a meadow, and was awakened early by a deer that grazed to within feet of her site. I awoke early and shot the full moon setting over Pingora spire, remembering later that a lunar eclipse took place some time that night... ouch!
Day three was an ambitious one, and would set a new personal
high-elevation mark. Now in the Popo Agie Primitive Area (a notch below
Wilderness!), we followed the North Fork Popo Agie downstream a mile or two,
then turned left on the Lizard Head trail. Jerry rested against a sign, which
he revealed to us when we all caught up with him. It was a rather large sign,
warning us to be alert to bears. Thankful for the reminder, we began ascending
a stepladder of a trail which carved itself into the rock wall, transporting us
rapidly from just under 10000' to around 11500', We stopped for snacks and
enjoyed the excellent view of the Cirque of the Towers and another impressive
formation due south of us which included Dogtooth Mountain and the Monolith.
The trail crested at 11880 feet and revealed the odd nature of the Wind Rivers.
The entire range was lifted high, then heavily eroded by ice and weather; viewed
from on top, the mountains all appeared flat with deep ravines carved out of
them. We walked for miles on tundra above 11500 feet, looking down into various
valleys where living things lived and played. It would have been a brutal spot
in bad weather (this would be demonstrated nineteen years
later!), but sunshine and wind kept things pleasantly cool. 'Primitive
has meaning here: the trail was extremely faint, and only by watching for rock
cairns could one actually keep to the route as it wound over Cathedral Pass and
down to the Bears' Ears trail. I found the song "Lonesome Loser"
helpful in crossing the pass, as its steady beat kept my feet moving when my
energy level faded. Finally dropping off the crest, Tony and I found that the
cairns had failed us (or we them); we had no clue how to get down to the valley.
We improvised our way down a few steep talus slopes and finally saw the
trail again. It was quite late when we collapsed at Valentine Lake, where Jerry
waited for us. Ken and Francin were still behind us, and Robin pressed on to a
more distant lake, so we were strung
out in more ways than one. Just to be sure no one stayed solo Tony pressed on
to catch Robin while Jerry and I waited for the others. Ken and Francin arrived
just short of dusk: they had also lost the trail, and had to retrace their route
after encountering a sheer drop. We continued on but darkness caught us at the
South Fork of the Little Wind River, where strong winds drove us under a thick
clump of trees for the night. From that angle it was clear why the peak to the
south was named Buffalo Head!
The fourth day found us still in two separate groups. Our foursome
struggled to cross the stream, finally jumping across in several spots. I
jumped back to help Francin get across, putting on her pack to simplify her
task. At that moment I experienced a revelation: backpacks CAN be comfortable!!
Her Alpenlite pack was such a joy to wear that I hated to give it up. It
probably weighed less than mine as well, but the way it conformed to my
movements was so pleasant that I resolved to seek one out as soon as I returned
to Portland. Passing the Washakie Lakes on our way to Washakie Pass, I took the
lead for the first time and challenged myself to reach the top first. As I
passed a few last tarns I saw the finish line - and heard the thin scream of
strong winds racing over the pass. I claimed a strategic victory there and sat
down, eating lunch and preparing for a strong wind in the face. The other three
joined me, Jerry wondering where Tony and Robin had gone. In fact they slept
late that morning; we had passed them at Washakie Lake and missed their subtle
marker. He stayed on the pass while Ken, Francin and I crossed into the gale,
looking west into the Pacific drainage and lowering stratus clouds.
That afternoon was an endurance march under the strong winds, but the view north
toward Raid and Ambush peaks left me wishing our trail had gone that way.
Stumbling down a narrow defile, we reached Marms Lake late in the day and
endured a spattering of rain while we prepared camp (easy to do with no tent).
The other three arrived later, and Ken went fishing for a while in the early
evening. A thunderstorm rolled by later, echoing down the granite canyons north
of us; more splatterings of rain made me aware that even heavy tents have their
value. I pulled my raincoat over my head for five minutes, then the rain would
stop for ten minutes, then return to complete the loop.
The last day was ridiculous in its simplicity. No more passes, peaks or
cirques to visit, just travel down a long meadow for several miles to the van.
I discovered some new hiking songs with faster pace (notably from Pink Floyd),
and I switched into tennis shoes for the soft and easy trail. I burst into the
lead and never gave it up. A large flock of sheep was moving through the
meadow, acting strangely at times; as I drew closer I saw that they were
climbing over the occasional granite slab in their way instead of walking around
them, so now and then a sheep would appear five feet tall, then sink into the
crowd again. A short time later I startled a few quail on the trail;
I took a picture and continued on. At last the van came into view, and (more
important at the time) a pit toilet. After availing myself of the high
technology, I found the others had arrived. Another group photo was taken,
followed by the Dipping of the Beer. I had left two 8oz. cans of Coors in the
van, and I dunked them into the chill waters of the (surprise) Big Sandy River
for about ten minutes. I have experienced many others since that day, but
that drink still stands out as my Best Beer Ever.
(later matched by the October 2002 brew)
After changing into spare clothing, we hit the homeward road. That night was spent at Jackson Lake in the Teton national park, making full use of the pay showers. The following day we cruised through Yellowstone Park, visiting the geyser basins and waterfalls before heading north to Interstate 90 and another tag-team drive home. Dawn found us between Ritzville and Pasco, and by mid-afternoon I was sitting at home, wondering what to do with myself. That was the most disorienting post-hike event I can remember - and I've had a lot of other disorienting times in my life, too! I'm not sure what most of the others did next, but I know Jerry cleaned up himself and the van -- and drove to the San Juan mountains for another week of adventure.
As I recall, most or all of us met for a big slide show by Jerry and me (did
others have cameras?). I don't think I saw any of them again except Robin; we
talked for a while in the outdoor program room one day just before she moved
away from PSU. Where are they now? Perhaps their stories are in cyberspace
too! If not - they should be.