By Michael Lanza
We pause along the trail above Seneca Lake, looking out over water bluer than the cobalt sky, glistening in bright sunshine. A bit farther, reaching a “low” pass at just over 10,600 feet in the Wind River Range, we see the jagged crest of the Continental Divide, pushing several summits to nearly 14,000 feet. The sense of anticipation leaps a notch higher. Then we crest another rise to see Island Lake backdropped by the long procession of razor peaks framing Titcomb Basin.
At this point, just a few hours into our backpacking trip, we are already smitten with the Winds.
My good friends and backpacking partners Todd Arndt, Mark Fenton, and I have come to the Winds in mid-September to hike a three-day, roughly 41-mile loop from Elkhart Park. Tonight, we will camp in one of the most scenically awe-inspiring spots anywhere in the West: Titcomb Basin. Just one trail accesses Titcomb, entering from its mouth at the south end of that stunning valley. We’ll go in that way, but we won’t leave that way.
After spending a night in Titcomb, we plan to explore a potentially spicy, but established off-trail route over 12,240-foot Knapsack Col at the upper, northern end of Titcomb Basin. It’ll be the first of three 12,000-foot passes we’ll cross that day. Our three-day tour of the west side of the northern Winds, mostly above 10,000 feet, will also bring us to several dozen lakes and the rim and floor of Pine Creek Canyon.
As we eat up the miles to Titcomb, the peaks grow closer and the views keep getting better. We pass several other parties, many carrying fishing rods, most heading back out to civilization as we head into the wilderness on this Tuesday. We stroll by the junction with the Indian Pass Trail, which leads to another lake-filled basin at the foot of the Continental Divide. Twenty years ago, five friends and I camped up there, climbing a few peaks and intending to climb more—but spending much of six days under a tarp because of daily, intense thunderstorms and hailstorms. Somehow, we recall laughing quite a bit through those cold, wet days; no doubt the alcohol we packed in helped. Some trips become memorable for not going quite as planned.
After hiking some 14 miles that feel farther than that—probably because of the constantly up-and-down trails, and the fact that we’ve spent most of the day above 10,000 feet—the three of us rock-hop the creek and drop our packs in a grassy meadow between the two largest Titcomb Lakes.
While Todd and Mark are both seeing the Winds for the first time, I’ve cultivated a long-running, occasionally stormy, but largely rewarding love affair with them.
As the three of us watch the alpenglow paint the 13,000-footers above us golden, I’m thinking about how this moment, this entire day feels, to borrow a beloved quote from Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again.
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An alpine valley at over 10,500 feet deep in the Wind River Range, Titcomb Basin lies below peaks on the Continental Divide that soar 3,000 feet above the Titcomb Lakes, the highest of which is 13,745-foot Fremont Peak. High peaks flank the valley on three sides. The environs force you to perpetually look around at the mountains towering above it—because many people coming here have quite possibly never seen a place like it before. (That’s why I put it on my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.)
Strange as it sounds, this Winds hike is something of a consolation prize for us. I had a backcountry permit reservation, made back in March, for six-day backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. Mark, Todd, and I had been eagerly looking forward to it for months. Then, in what has become a regular summer occurrence throughout the West in this age of accelerating climate change, a wildfire broke out in the park, weeks before our September 2017 trip dates. In the days leading up to our trip, smoke covered the park in a thick, noxious cloud that obscured views and threatened human health. Park management stopped issuing backpacking permits. We had to cancel.
I scrambled to find a backup destination. A very helpful website, airnow.gov, showed that the smoke blanketing much of the Western mountains had somehow not reached the Wind River Range. Mark grabbed a flight to meet up with Todd and me and we made the drive to Wyoming—to find blue skies.
During the night in Titcomb, I step outside the tent for a moment and end up standing in the chilly air for several minutes, staring up at the Milky Way, a glowing cloud against the ink-black dome of a sky riddled with stars. In the morning, Mark, who lives outside Boston, says to me, “You got up last night and saw that sky, right? Wasn’t that amazing? You just don’t see a sky like that back East.”
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We leave our camp in Titcomb shortly after 7 a.m. on our second morning, under gray skies threatening rain. Walking up the valley with a strong, cool wind at our backs, we pass a couple other parties still in camp; we had also seen tents and lights of two other parties down valley from us last night.
Where the maintained trail ends at the far end of the uppermost Titcomb Lake, we follow a cairned use path into the upper basin, staying to the right of the creek, walking over granite slabs and sometimes marshy ground. The cliffs and pinnacles of Mounts Sacagawea and Helen, Spearhead Pinnacle, Dinwoody Peak, Bobs Towers and others soar high above us; we crane our necks to look up at them.
We turn west up a side valley toward Knapsack Col, scrambling carefully over and through some truck-size talus blocks that seem a little sketchy. (See my tips about the route in the Take This Trip section at the bottom of this story.) While traversing the talus, we meet a woman descending from the pass. She tells us she works at McMurdo station on Antarctica from October through February. Now she’s backpacking the Wyoming section of the Continental Divide Trail solo, taking a month. She’s looking forward to meeting up with her boyfriend at Big Sandy and hiking in to the Cirque of the Towers together.
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The scree headwall leading to Knapsack Col proves not as steep as it looks from a distance. We pick our way up it, choosing the lowest-angle route (starting up to the right, then angling up left to the pass) without much trouble, reaching the 12,240-foot pass three hours after leaving our camp. It’s breezy but not terribly windy or cold, and the rain has held off, although we can now see dark clouds approaching from the west.
We follow another use path down the fairly steep scree on the Peak Lake side of Knapsack Col—the headwaters of the Green River—soon descending easier terrain in a valley hemmed in by yet more spires and jagged teeth of peaks topping 12,000 and 13,000 feet. The intermittent path fades out in spots, but it’s not hard navigating straight down the valley. We stop for lunch at a small tarn, emerald green with glacial silt. No one else is out here; in fact, although we passed several parties on the hike in to Titcomb yesterday, we will see just a handful of backpackers for the rest of our trip.
Good Eats We had excellent pizzas and ice cream at Boondocks Pizza on West Pine Street in Pinedale.
Contact This hike lies almost entirely within the Bridger Wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, fs.usda.gov/btnf.
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