7-night backpack trip (longest to date)
For my friend, John, and I, the choice was between Titcomb Lakes or Cirque of the Towers. We figured whichever one did not get completed in 2010, we’d plan to do the following year. Personally, I was going back and forth until about two weeks before we left. I had been leaning towards Cirque of the Towers, as it seems to have quite a bit more photo opportunities, but then I thought more about it and thought to myself that there are very few good pictures online taken in this place, so I thought I’d try my hand at adding some of my own to the mix. The decision was made since John didn't have a preference. Whichever destination was to be, we already knew that we’d do it at the tail end of August or at the very beginning of September to get out of the daily thunderstorm season.
We left the southern end of Denver on August 28th at 7:20 AM and arrived at the trailhead out of Pinedale exactly eight hours later. Driving up Highway 191 south of Pinedale, the northern half of the Winds were shrouded over with clouds. We had been hoping to see the mountains we were about to head into, but no such luck. When we got to the trailhead, we got our gear together and started up the trail at 3:00.
Our first destination would be Photographers Point, five miles in. This would make an easy first day, and it allowed me to be at a place where I could shoot sunset and rise. As expected going into this, based on a couple other trip reports, the trail up to Photographers Point is tree-lined and the views are obstructed, with about two or three exceptions. What we, or at least myself, weren't expecting is how incredibly easy the grade was to get there. I had read that it was uphill, but this is as light of a grade as you could get, so we made pretty good time to get there—one hour, fifty-five minutes, even at a non-hurried pace.
All was not fun and games, however. No way; it wasn’t quite that simple. At about the three-mile mark, we had seen the clouds grow dark to the southwest through the tree openings. We were obviously hoping it would go around and stay to the south, but they built up rather quickly. Then the lightning started in the distance. Perfect! Let’s see, what did we plan this trip this late in the season for again? The thunder intensified and was amazingly frequent and was now hot on our tail, following us up the trail in earnest, and it grew dark—very dark—dusk-like dark. It was beyond eerie and it was no joke. I wish I had taken some pictures at this point, but like other similar occasions, I have a tough time taking pictures when my well-being is on the line. I will look to improve in this area, as trip reports seem abbreviated missing visuals at key moments. Usually, lightning will be 10-20 seconds apart, but this was going at a rate of every couple of seconds immediately after the preceding thunder clap. I’ve never experienced lightning like this. What I didn’t realize going into this, is that basically this whole route is atop a big plateau—very comforting during thunderstorms! After walking through a short meadow, we stopped to put on our rain gear because we knew it was just a matter of time. I was still zipping up my jacket when it started, all the while the lightning still going. Then, the driving sleet came hard, though briefly, then the rain, then the really close lightning. I was very nervous, and I knew John wasn’t feeling any better about things. This super intense storm lasted right around fifteen minutes. Thankfully, very thankfully so. It was the shortest and most violent storm I’ve ever been in, lightning-wise. If that were to have lasted an hour and a half, I am not sure I/we would have!
After our hearts returned to their respective chest cavities, shortly afterwards we arrived at Photographers Point. Then, two other guys came up shortly behind who started up the trail about fifteen minutes before us, and who we passed while the storm was going crazy. Then, a couple of other guys arrived. The view from the trail is pretty good, but it is also pretty obstructed. We walked around trying to find a place to camp. I walked further up the trail, but John was smarter. He walked towards the actual point. When I got to the point, it hit me, “Whoa!” I knew the place was supposed to be nice, especially given its name, but this was rather unexpected. The view was an incredible ~270 degrees. Even the pictures I had come across from here didn’t seem to be that great, undoubtedly because they’re all pretty much taken from the trail. Not a person of the many who stopped along the trail both at this time and our stay on the way back ever came down. If you end up hiking here, be sure to walk a hundred feed north to get to the open view. This spot is a popular day hike as well. Now this was the absolutely perfect campsite, and very soothing after the storm onslaught. We were thinking about spending all of our nights here! There is a pond right on the other side of the trail where we filtered from.
We began to set up camp. I was in the process of attaching my tent to my poles bending over when out of nowhere and out of the corner of my eye somewhere out over the canyon—FLASH! Right in the middle as I was saying, “WHOA,” the extremely loud and the you-will-fear-me thunder hit! I knew the flash was fairly close, but not 1,000 feet close. It must have hit somewhere in the middle of the canyon, and all of a sudden I was feeling all too well exposed on the canyon rim. Thankfully, this was the final hurrah the storm had. We had thought it was long gone, especially at the pace it came and went. Now we could finally settle down and enjoy the calm weather and fine views. I spotted the tip of Gannett Peak poking up between a couple of other peaks. In no other place online I have come across mentions you can see it from here, but indeed you can. In fact, it’s visible along many of the open viewpoints along the entire route.
The second morning, I took some pictures of the uneventful sunrise. We weren’t in any real hurry to leave, as our destination would be Island Lake, about eight miles from here. The trail continued to be very easy and the uphill sections were short-lived; there were two or three steady steeper sections, but even they only amounted to about a hundred feet. One such climb is shortly before Island Lake to gain a saddle. After this saddle, it’s a short walk through a flat, then the grand view of this rather large lake opens up, and what a view it is. Other trip reports I’ve read made this lake sound worthy spending some time at, and I definitely agree. It is a spectacular setting, and Gannett’s tip is again visible from here. After walking around for a bit trying to find a good spot, we ended up camping in the last available portion before the trail descends to the lake’s shore on the southern end. The few great sites were already occupied. On a rock just outside of our tents, the lake was visible, and this spot made a fine perch where we’d spend some time on. For sunset, I walked back up to the first overlook you come to that overlooks the lake and shot a really nice sunset. When I got back, John made us each a SPAM sandwich, which was a real treat. More on that in the picture section.
On the third day, we planned to head the rest of the way to Titcomb Basin, which is only about four miles further, and looks like a hop, skip, and a jump from Island Lake over the far ridge. We didn’t need to be in any hurry because of the short distance, so we slept in. I did take a peek out at sunrise, but the skies were overcast. When we both got up around 10:00, we were greeted with cooler temperatures (upper 30s). With days to spare for the primary destination, we were in no hurry and couldn’t get motivated to pack down our tents. Throughout the day we had some wind, a little rain, and some sleet. Then the snow came, and came down good a couple of times. We spent most of the day in the tents. John got out of the tent probably a little over an hour before sunset, and we’re glad he did because right about then, the snow stopped, and the sun was working on coming through the narrow opening to the west, then eventually did. What a serene scene this was! Absolutely beautiful with the fresh dusting of snow and late afternoon light. I walked back up to the same spot as I did the night before for sunset just in case the light would be really good this evening, but it wasn’t to be. That’s okay, I got some pictures prior to sunset that are pretty good.
The next morning, we again woke to similar conditions as the previous—fairly cold and gray. We weren’t going to spend another night here using up more of our time, so we packed up and started up the trail. Though Titcomb looks (at least it did to me) deceivingly close from Island Lake, the approach took a little bit of time. After you gain the small high point on the opposite side of the lake, it seems as though you should almost be there, but instead the trail has a number of more turns in store. We arrived at the first and smallest of the lakes, then the second, which is really large—a little over a half-mile in length as is the upper one. There were only about 5-7 day hikers out. Every bit of the way I was taking snapshots to refer to later for potential good picture locations. I knew the further we would get in the basin, the more you lose the vertical rise of some of the peaks, and they won't look as dramatic. The only way to compensate is to gain elevation, and I had two spots in mind that I scouted out previously from home. But I wanted to record some scenes to refer back to if we ended up going to far to get what I was after. We found a campsite right between the two upper lakes just above the outlet of the upper lake as it flows into the middle one. The campsite, as many of them are from here to the head of the basin, have a short rock windbreak that people have built. The ones at our site were but about a foot and a half high and hardly enough to deflect the persistent winds we had to any degree.
The day continued to be chilly and gray, so we spent the most of it in out tents. I got out of the comfort of my sleeping bag a couple of hours before the official sunset time (not actual time for this location) so I could ascend the 200 feet necessary to get on the shelf directly above our camp to check out Mistake Lake and to get some sunset shots. I left about five minutes too late as it turns out because right as I got up to the shelf, the sun was just about to go behind the high ridge on the west side of the basin, though I did manage to fire off one shot with some light on the foreground. The light and clouds continued to be very cooperative for the camera and I continued firing off shots left and right while having my tasty Mountain House rice and chicken meal. The wind wasn’t much of a factor with my position up here, thankfully. This vantage point is better than where our camp was along the trail in that with the added elevation, you gain some of the relief back of some of the mountains, and a portion of a Fremont Glacier that is below Mt. Helen comes back into view off to the right, which was a requirement for me to have included in the scene. After getting a number of good shots and after the sun had set, I headed back down the hill and we both turned in to the strong sound of the tents flapping in the wind.
I finally got to sleep around 4 AM. Some of this was due to the wind, but most of all my back was hurting from lying in a bag for this amount of time going back to our arrival, so I was constantly turning in my bag trying find a spot that would be less agonizing. Left side, back side, right side. Repeat. I woke up for sunrise at 6:30, and though it was overcast where we were, there were some subtle pink pastels over the peaks giving me some hope that something further could develop, so I headed down to the upper lake’s outlet where I had filtered water in the dark the previous night and saw that this would be as good of a place as any to try for a sunrise shot. Indeed, some clouds off to the east somewhere broke up just enough to turn some of the clouds overhead pink, which casted a warm light on the peaks and the basin. It didn’t last long, though, and it was back to a muted gray. I had been awake for an hour at this point. It was 7:30 and I returned to the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag. The winds continued to be very sustained flapping our tents and making them sway. I would guess the winds were at least 30 MPH, and I suspect they were higher, but I’m not sure. It would be nice to have a small wind meter for times like these.
I wanted to have three days here in the basin to allow for that many photo attempts at sunrise and sunset. As it was with the winds, John got to the point were he couldn’t take them, and being felt forced to be confined to his tent after only the 20th hour, he ended up packing up in the driving sleet and headed back to Island Lake at 11:00. I told him I would plan to meet him there in two days, or possibly the next depending on how bad conditions were. I did not get out of my bag to see him off. It would have been that uncomfortable! I had to withstand the weather no matter the conditions because good pictures were at stake and that is the reason I came. The next time I got out of the tent was at 2 PM, but just long enough to relieve myself. Back in the tent I go. 6:30 PM—same thing. Back to bed. During this day, I didn’t eat anything and only had seven swallows of water. Yep, it was bad enough that eating was going to be an inconvenience. The sleet continued to come and go pelting the tent like bullets. My back, which otherwise never gives me any problems continued to hurt and be a nuisance. Another bad night of sleep coming up. For whatever stupid reason, it never even occurred to me about taking some Ibuprofen, even though it was readily accessible!
I set my alarm for sunrise again, and I awoke in shock—it was clear skies, though still very windy. It wasn’t worth taking any pictures for, so I stayed in the bag until the sun finally rose over Fremont Peak directly overhead. Once it did, the winds finally ceased, and this time, for good. Oh man, it was so warm! Heat at last! It felt unbelievably good to get out of the tent and stretch out. I won’t lie, that was pretty rough 45-hour stretch to endure since we had arrived.
So now what to do? Now it’s the other extreme with zero clouds and I don’t think I’d find anything worth photographing anyway. Maybe instead of being bored to death in the tent, maybe I’ll just be bored outside this time! Not really, I knew that during my stay I wanted to at least go to the head of the basin. Mainly because there is nowhere else to go or much else to do! I was going to do it the previous day, but the peaks were shrouded over most of the time. I don’t know if I would’ve went anyway with the complete gray and ever-present wind. Anyway, I fixed my Mountain House macaroni and cheese meal for breakfast which I missed eating the night before. It would be a very good thing I did eat those 950 calories. Read on.
So, ideally, I wanted to ascend Bonney Pass because Gannett Peak has long had a heavy pull for me to see. Not to summit, as that is well out of my league with glacier travel, but simply just to see it—not just its tip—but to really see it. It is somewhat of a recluse, especially being the state’s high point. Anyway, Bonney Pass provides one of the best views of the peak and it was right there in my view. And who knows if I’d ever make it back. Still, I wasn’t even sure the pass was going to be in the realm of possibilities for me to do. For much of the summer, it has a snowfield of its own that would almost necessitate the use of crampons or ice axe, the latter to be used for self-arrest. I’m not trained for that, and when it is snow-free, I’ve read that it’s a rough scree ascent. I at least wanted to make it to the start of the ascent just to see what it looked like realizing that I probably would not make it. Knowing that there was a possibility that I might try it anyway, I waited around camp another hour before I departed to allow the sun to melt the sleet/snow that accumulated on the wall up to Bonney. And it is a wall! I knew it would be dicey enough without snow. I got my camera stuff, a few food bars, and my water, and off I went at 12:23. As I mentioned previously, the upper two Titcomb Lakes are long. It takes awhile to go the six to seven tenths of a mile around them, though thankfully, there is no real relief to navigate. I made it past the lake, which is where the official trail ends, but because this route is the main one for those who summit Gannett, it is still cairned pretty well. The cairns are tough to see in a number of areas of nothing but rock, but I did well staying on course as I picked them up again before too long. Well, it seemed I was going nowhere fast. From the lake to the head of the basin is quite a distance, and one that looks deceptively close. I eventually make it around the bend at the base of Mt. Helen and head to the right (east). I reach the first snowfield which sits in big rocky scree. I wasn’t sure if it is safe at all to traverse, so I played it safe and went around it to its northern end. Now I was really playing in big rocks, which made route-going slow. I kept hearing rock-fall on the opposite side and I was at the base of a loose, unstable-looking wall myself, and that’s all I needed. Being the only one around, I really had to play it safe. Not that there is much you can do if you did have someone around if you had an incident. So, not only is rock-fall a concern, but right foot placement and the hope that the rocks you are stepping on do not move, or the ones they’re attached to do not cause the bigger ones on the uphill side to break free. It was intimidating to a degree, but the pull of Gannett drew stronger.
I finally got out of the sea of very large boulders and was now in the smaller ones. I was finally at the base of the pass looking up—almost 1,800 feet straight up. The grade would look quite rough even if it were paved, not to mention battling loose scree. Well, on upward I went knowing that I might have to turn around at any time if things got too dicey. But I had come this far, so I really had the urge to just go for it now. The going continued to be unbelievably slow. I was scrambling for much of the ascent; not so much because it’s that technical, rather I would slide downhill after each step less if I had my weight more distributed. For the most part, I couldn’t grab on rocks uphill to help pull up because they were loose. The times when the rocks were larger and more firmly planted was really nice, so I tried to keep to these areas as much as possible. I was taking sips of water with great frequency. My heavy 100-ounce bladder was ¾ full when I left, but I knew the supply wasn’t going to last for my return trip at this rate. The last thing I wanted or expected would be to have to turn around because of lack of water! I could hear water flowing under a number of rocks, but could never see it. At one point about a third of the way up, I heard another flow and tried to trace it to an open area. I did, and the exposed water was just deep enough to put my filter hose in to extract. I was so thankful. I filled up the bladder to the max and gulped down a great deal at this watering hole. I now had much more energy, both because of the water I now had in me and now knowing that I would have plenty of water for the duration. I’d drag the writing out further to aid in illustrating just how unpleasant and grueling the rest of the ascent was, but if you’ve made it this far, you’ve endured enough!
I was nearing the top and aiming to the far left of the saddle. Two older guys were on their way back down. I had unknowingly passed their tent near the first snowfield I crossed and had only seen it after I started up the pass. They continued down, and myself up. I got to a bit of a false summit, but at least at this point the uphill grade was easy. Then, at last, at 4:18, there it was! Gannett Peak in full glory. YES! I made it! Unbelievable! It was such a relief making it here. And the glaciers! Incredible stuff all around. I was actually expecting Gannett to have a bigger, more in-your-face profile from here as its summit is only one mile away, but was still so impressive to finally lay the eyes on. The only problem now was that because of the late start that I had waiting for the snow to melt and for the length of time it took me going up the wall, I knew I did not want to be tackling that scree in the dark and needed to be back down to the first snowfield by then, so I felt that I needed to leave here by 5:00 to safely be at that point by dark not knowing how long it would take to get down, especially because it’s even a little more treacherous going downhill with your momentum, as well as the rest of the mountainside that comes along with you on a number of steps! That left me with about a half-hour to enjoy the view. Going into this, I wanted to be able to stay up here three hours soaking up the view, but I had a big sense of peace about it just knowing I made it and that I got to see the big one. You can be sure I studied and took in everything I could in these 30 minutes to help cement the scene into memory. This was the cap to the already tremendous trip. The temperature was perfect and there was no wind.
5:00 came and I knew I had better be going. I started the long, arduous descent. Unexpectedly, I only slipped once near the top. I would’ve expected to have fallen much more. It was an easy fall on my backside. Thankfully, I, and of even greater importance, my camera was safe! However, I now know that carbon fiber poles can bend without breaking! One of mine did as I went backward and it wanted to stay straight being implanted between rocks, but the bend is slight. I really did not want to do the long hike back out to the trailhead with only one pole. I was able to follow the frequent cairns all the way down to the base. Easy to do when you can look down on the trail; I did not see about half of them going up because the trail wasn't distinguishable, though I managed to stay fairly close to the route. I made it to the two snowfields at the start and found that even they are carined at the entry and exit points, so I figured they were safe to cross. It was sure much, much easier than the big rocks I navigated on the way up. I briefly talked to the guys I passed heading up the pass and they indicated they were scoping out their route to Gannett for the following day as part of their journey in going to all 50 states' high points. I thought they were nuts for doing the pass twice in two days!
I made it back to camp just as it was about to get dark. I planned that part perfectly. Of course, as I came right up to camp, four other clowns decided to put there camp next to mine while I was gone! The basin is five miles long, and the place they decide on is right next to the only other one that is occupied? You couldn’t see them directly from my site as a few large rocks obscured them, but I was not in a good mood. Thankfully, they weren’t loud and went to bed at an early hour, otherwise I would have had a real issue. There are a lot of rocks which to hide bodies under! I heated up another macaroni meal and went to sleep—pain-free this time.
Morning came, and it was another clear-sky day. While I would’ve wanted another go at sunset, or even sunrise from the Mistake Lake shelf, I got what I was after and then some. The trip was already complete, photographically speaking. I waited for the sun to reach the tent so I could pack up in the warmth. After I was packed, I headed back for Island Lake to meet up with John. I already knew that because he had been there for two nights he would be ready to move on. I met an onslaught of hikers going into Titcomb; the trail was busy. I arrived at John’s camp. He had watched me come around the lake happy to see I wasn’t injured or anything of that sort. I told him I saw Gannett from Bonney Pass and he told me he knew I was going to be up there. He even tried spotting me the previous day through his binoculars, but to no avail. I told him if I didn’t even think I was going to be up there, he shouldn’t have thought any different! He said he was ready to move on if I felt up to it. I was already mentally prepared to do so, so he packed up and we would aim for Photographers Point for one final night. I felt good after the first leg from Titcomb to Island Lake, but by the time we reached Seneca Lake, I was feeling tired. I’d have to suck it up for a number of miles. The final miles were long for me, and my legs were really tired, but we made it. Thankfully, no one was camped where we wanted to be, and once again, it was paradise, and a perfect place to spend one final night. The weather was very calm and peaceful as well. He saved his final two SPAM sandwiches for this night, and just like the first time, they were oh so tasty. We enjoyed the quiet evening on the rocky overlook and went to sleep after the sky had gone black and the stars in their full glory.
The final morning came and we packed up our stuff and made our way down the trail. We made it back to the unbelievably busy trailhead at 9:35. Being that the skies were clear on our way out, I was looking back to Gannett Peak and the rest of the Winds all the way to around Farson somewhere when they give way to foreground hills. I previously was under the impression that you couldn’t see Gannett from any roadways to speak of even though I had been along this stretch under clear skies before. It turns out that it is visible at a distance of 65 miles from the town of Eden, south of Farson, where it first becomes visible and its summit snowfield really sticks out under a blue sky. Indeed, the Wind River Range is one of the great ranges in the United States. The total length measures 120 miles from Togowtee Pass on the north to South Pass on the south; its alpine region measures a grand 90 miles.
Oh, what an amazing trip!
Sweeney Creek trail intersection
Snapping a picture of the peaks at every opening
Little Seneca Lake. The trail circles the lake to the left and goes along the far shore into right-center, then ascends up into the saddle in left-center behind. From there, there it is one more short down-and-up before overlooking Island Lake.
Little Seneca Lake
Island Lake sits behind the next ridge
Island Lake coming into view
Day 3: The sun came out between 10:30 and 11:30. During this time, I was snapping off pictures. Then the skies closed until 7:15, during which we lied in our tents.
Thanks, John! I couldn't have shot this better myself.
Island Lake doesn't look big here, but it is a large body of water
Navigating Island Lake's inlet
Now on the opposite side of Island Lake. We had camped in the set of trees immediately left of center.