Peaks and Isolation

Sep 4th, 2020 in Adventure

From the smoke-filled Canyonlands I proceeded to make my way north to Utah’s high point, King’s Peak. Looking this up on a lark  while thinking up the desert part of this trip and finding it way up at the top of the state was part of how this trip blossomed into a big adventure. A day’s drive from Moab.. then a day’s drive to Jackson Hole… Eureka! Since everything slotted in perfectly, now all that was needed was to execute on the grand idea.

The drive up had to be re-routed due to Colorado’s fires closing the Grand Junction area of I-70. I still saw plenty of scenic things going through the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, but it leaves me missing the bikepacking days when i think of the cool road photos I might have snapped that are just impossible with a car. I wasn’t too forlorn about not being on a bike when driving through a peaks-based storm though. The last hour of my trip was sneaking into Wyoming and back into Utah via dirt road in order to get to Henry’s Fork Campground, where the 30 miles to Kings Peak would continue on foot.

It was so refreshing to be among the alpine forests again, encamped next to a bubbling brook. I froze my ass off that first night. It’s quite a shock to adapt to a fifty degree change of night temperatures in your camping setup, and the dew and moist air contributed to the discomfort. Well, thankfully, I kind of prepared for this, with long johns, puffy jacket and balaclava a fixture in all my future backpacking configurations. One awful night was hopefully all there would be in future forest camping the next month.

I set out early, fortified with my car-camped oatmeal and coffee, the quickly-adored camp stove then left behind to save a smidge of weight, as I planned only a single night out for the journey. Many people do King’s Peak in two nights, staging at the scenic Dollar Lake area after a simple eight miles, with the climb up and down as a heavy day. I decided to just make it to Dollar, set up camp and then hustle up and down and get out early the next day. People generally complain about this hike having a lot of people, and indeed the lots were quite full, but it wasn’t close to unbearable for me. Campsites were plentiful, and the difficulty and remoteness of the hike precludes many undesirables that clog other trails.

The actual Kings Peak summit is quite a hike, leaving the pleasant meadows and brooks for what felt like endless rock scrambling. I opted for a couple of harder approaches and descents that had me stepping across rock fields with no trail, and then in the end, down a steep feature called “the Chute”, an adrenaline-pumping rock slide that spit me out in a sheep field. You’d need soles of iron not to have sore footpads by the end of the up and down of Kings certainly, but it was nice to make it to the top with a dry afternoon.

As a soloist, I started to feel the intense solitude of my trip on the return. Listening to the mirth-filled banter at the other campsites while I thumbed through my paperback can fill one with longing. It’s just an exercise of acceptance that, while I’m not sharing this trip with anyone except in these missives on HarrisonFM, I’m out here because I know it’s where I belong at this time, and I don’t need the validation of others for that. Not say I wouldn’t be glad to share it, but this time simply isn’t it and I can still enjoy it by myself.

My reading that hike was Interpreter of Maladies, a short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri that was 1999’s Pulitzer winner. Whenever I’m in a book shop or library and I find a Pulitzer winner or nominee I tend to grab them on a lark, since it’s such a prestigious award to leave on a story and I’m a sucker for a critic’s blessing. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest with this night’s read either, as it turned out to be a series of thought provoking and often heart wrenching stories about Indian-Americans that each earned a pause and reflect moment upon their individual conclusions.

The hike out and drive to to Jackson was simple enough, mostly cruising through an utterly empty, featureless land.. but I guess shout out to the original J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer and the Fontnelle Reservoir as curious sights before coming up on the forested peaks south of Jackson. Wyoming’s high point, Gannett Peak, over in the Wind Range was actually a possible detour in this stretch, but I’m not a technical mountaineer yet and on a lark, a trip like that (it’s far more remote and exposed) solo could easily kill me, so I settled for a simple walk of the Teton Range backcountry instead.

Upon arrival in Jackson, I resupplied at an Albertson’s and just took in the craziness of how busy it all was. Throngs of people meandered everywhere in the town, with every lodge and restaurant bursting at the seams. Thankfully, those in charge have a lick of sense, and a big ‘mask-up’ push looked fairly complied with. I still kept my distance and then some, before venturing out to my $30 campsite across from the park. This was a swindling and a half, and I learned some tips after this to prevent hemorrhaging money on useless larks. I didn’t do my homework that night, so I didn’t realize there was forest service land a scant few miles past where I set up the next night that cost a cool $0.

The next morning, I lined up for a backcountry permit onsite in the Tetons Visitor Center. I was there only an hour early, by accident, since that was when I thought it opened. Others had been there since before dawn for the choicest sites. Fortunately, I scored a plan that would work for me over three nights. The line had a bonhomie vibe, the energy of ambitious adventurers planning, plotting and swapping stories while biding their time. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with the folks near me and it gave me a pleasant buzz to start the day, though I ultimately spent the rest of it writing, tweaking gear and relaxing before the big hike.

What’s there to say about the Teton Crest Trail? It’s a pretty difficult 40-odd miles, with much up and down to reach a high point of 10.5k feet. The ascents were mellowed out to me by all the psychedelic wildflowers, jagged peaks and canyons, and cascading streams. The challenge and allure kept the hiking crowd most days to just enthusiasts, and campsites were extremely dispersed, so I hardly saw anyone. Alpine lakes were an opportunity to channel my inner Wim Hof and rinse the day’s filth in their crystalline waters. It’s hard to do the area justice with words, so do glance at my photos for that section.

I cleared an entire novel, Michael Gruber’s Valley of Bones in my time up top the Tetons. That’s part of a sort-of supernatural detective trilogy set in Miami that I vibe with. The lead book, Tropic of Night, that I found in a Seattle bookstore sort of floored me years ago. The version I picked up just had this ceremonial dagger on front with literally no text on the covers. It hypnotized me utterly and the book turned out to be great. I gambled and it turned out to be a grand surprise, and the sequel was fine enough. There’s one left to read when I’m back in Flag.

From the Tetons, I set off into Montana on my way to Glacier. Forest fires and a sense of fatigue with people left me skipping the neighboring Yellowstone backcountry this trip. I realized quite belatedly that there is actually quite a lot to do out there, so I’m excited to come out here yet again more focused there, or on the Winds. Maybe it’s all just the clarion call of the Continental Divide Trail beckoning me. Now that Pacific Crest may be turning away long distance hikes, perhaps that’s where you’ll find me in 2021.