“The power of the wild can always be found in the moment.” - Bear Grylls
The Wind Rivers and the Cirque in Wyoming was, and always will be, the adventure of a lifetime—one of those crazy adventures you always say you want to do, but never actually end up doing. When my dad first broached the idea, it sounded daunting and well out of my comfort zone. Hiking had always been something I did in upstate New York in the Adirondacks; the West opened an entirely new can of worms. I wasn’t sure I liked worms, but I wanted to prove that I could handle them.
The west expanded my view of the hiking world. Each of the high peaks in the Adirondacks challenged me, but hiking for five days straight was a new dedication. I only camped when absolutely necessary and now I had just agreed to camp for five nights. I doubted my abilities. I coveted hiking stories like the ones my dad told me and the ones I read about in books. I wanted tales that few would fathom, stories I would look back on fondly and recount to my children and my grandchildren. I desired an adventure that taught me the best journeys are unexpected and if you appreciate the unknown, you will learn something about yourself.
My dad and Uncle Doug hiked in the Wind Rivers years before, and I felt confident that together both of them could handle any situation with complete ease. My brother and I were in good hands. They knew how to read maps, look for trail markers, identify signs of animals, and pack the most important and useful tools to survive in the wilderness. Both always seemed invincible to me, and even in my mid-twenties, I believed that they could do anything.
Saturday, July 18th, 2015
No alarm ever needed to be set for the four of us to get up early, but this morning I felt lazy and unable to pull myself out of my sleeping bag. The weather just looked ‘eh,’ so we decided to take our time packing up camp. It was overcast and windy, which convinced me that it would rain. Maybe the weather would change for the better…or for the worse. What if it rained all day? I didn’t know if I had it in me to deal with such dismal weather conditions. Once both tents were packed, we heard thunder in the distance. Dad said that unless we wanted to get wet early in the day, at 11,500 feet on top of Texas Pass, we should set the tent back up to provide ourselves shelter from the storm on the brink of barreling through. Quickly, we re-pitched the tent and threw our packs in with us. We played several games of UNO and after an hour Uncle Doug decided we should just go for it. The idea of hiking in treacherous weather at such high elevations and on slippery rocks made me anxious.
The torrential rain, barrelled down on us as we looked for cairns, series of stacked rocks that marked the trail. We were unsure if we were hiking in the right direction and by the time we reached the bottom of Texas Pass, I doubted if it was even climbable. It looked similar to the rock slides I had climbed in the Adirondacks, but so much taller. None of us could see where we were walking; the trail blended into the rocks, and boulders cluttered the side of the pass. Today was going to be a challenge and I doubted myself.
As we eased into our hike I started enjoying myself. The stormy weather subsided and I sighed with relief, maybe the weather would hold out after all. When we reached the top the wind whipped fiercely. At the summit, we paused to take a picture with the “Texas Pass” sign to document this momentous occasion and I wondered if I would ever be in this exact place again. With the strong winds, we struggled to stand in one place, and I didn’t think I could stay upright if I remained stationary. The steep, ascending trail was difficult to navigate and there was little space to place my feet. However, the upward trail was a luxury compared to the nonexistent trail on the other side of the pass. The endless view down into the Cirque reminded me of a fantasy book, so striking that it seemed to be from a fictional world. I could see grass and snow, high mountains and low streams, all in this extremely remote and geographically minute location. Continuing deeper into the Cirque of the Towers, the snow patches became more frequent. And with Dad’s and Uncle Doug’s best efforts, we tried to navigate in the “right” direction.
Ahead of us loomed the largest mound of rock that people climbed without rope or a climbing harness: Skunk Knob. Dad suggested we drop our packs and run up to the top. And so we did. Less less than twenty minutes later, we stood at the top, only to be rewarded by hail. Hail hurts at 11,099 feet! For the next three hours we wandered around searching for the camp spot that Dad and Uncle Doug had remembered from their previous trip. The rain continued to pour down and the temperature dropped steadily with every minute. Our packs and everything else were soaked inside and outside. I was so miserable, cold, and wet—the kind of cold and wet that seeps to the core of your bones. It occurred to me that only crazy people would be out climbing in this weather. Sane people would be wrapped in a blanket, sitting on a couch with a fire crackling in front of them, and a warm mug of tea or cocoa in hand.
My uncle finally looked at my brother and realized that we needed to get warm and dry...and fast. The relentless rain created the possibility of hypothermia in the middle of July, and this thought sat at the back of my mind as we raced against the weather to get warm and dry. The four of us pitched the tent and my uncle yelled for my brother to take his wet clothes off and get in his sleeping bag. With trembling fingers, I did my best to help set up the tent, but my fingers quickly grew stiff from the cold. A few minutes later I couldn’t move them at all. I climbed into the tent as well and like my brother, stripped off my wet clothes before I nestled into my sleeping bag for warmth.
My uncle and dad could only get so much of the tent up before they too started freeze. Both climbed in and I helped them remove their shoes; their fingers had stopped working in the cold. We sat there in our tent, bundled in our sleeping bags for the next couple of hours with our wet packs and piles of clothes pushed as far away from us as possible, up against the walls of the tent. Because of the hasty assembly and the unfavorable weather conditions, we couldn’t attach the rainfly properly; the tent leaked in various places. Together, we all huddled in the middle of the tent, balled up, sitting on top of one another, trying to get and stay warm.
Once I warmed up enough, I offered to fix the fly. In dry shorts, bare feet, and my slightly damp shirt, I ran out and pushed the stakes into the ground. From the inside of the tent, my dad directed me; I heard the breaks in his voice as he shivered. Outside I noticed the snow accumulating on the ground. When I couldn’t bear anymore of the cold, Uncle Doug took a turn. Fixing the fly made little difference; the water continued to drip inside the tent, onto us, and our only dry and warm gear. It was too late, everything was already too wet.
When I woke the next morning, the sunshine peeked over the Cirque towers, it made me feel like a warrior. I knew today was going to be a good day (it turned out to be my favorite of the trip). The hike over Jackass Pass more than compensated for everything the day before. The real difference though, was the confidence I felt in myself and my ability to overcome something so unexpected and challenging, like navigating through snow accumulation in the middle of July.
Months before, I had agreed to a five-day hiking adventure, unaware of how it might affect me. Now, when reflect on this escapade, I remember the terror and crippling fear I felt amidst the savage whistling winds and the high passes. Somehow, nature forced me to face my fears, to conquer them directly. Wild Wyoming taught me how to embrace nature’s unpredictability, and that a predictable hike is an uninteresting hike.
Emily Knapp is a kindergarten teacher in Windsor, VT. She loves hiking adventures and hopes to become an Adirondack 46er this year.