I hadn’t prepared for snow.
Two days into my solo trek into Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I unzip my tent in the morning to find the world covered in fresh powder, with a mean-looking storm hanging low above it all. Island Lake glistens nearby, backdropped by a cathedral of ragged cliffs and a pair of waterfalls whose thunderous static echo disquiets an otherwise silent wilderness.
I stumble outside barefoot and groggy, and it occurs to me that perhaps I should have taken a cue from the several backpackers I’d seen on my way in, all of them returning to the trailhead as I trudged alone in the other direction. I think of that quote from the movie Independence Day: “Everybody's trying to get out of Washington, and we're the only schmucks trying to get in.”
I need to filter water. I’m above 10,000 feet and hungover from altitude. I kick through the knee-high powder on the short walk to the lake wearing only my puffy jacket, thermal underwear, and flip-flops, looking less like Grizzly Adams than a baby giraffe taking its first steps.
I’m not panicking but I am talking to myself outloud, which for me is often a precursor to panic. “Is this an emergency?” I ask myself the question as I filter water. Often, I’ve found, acknowledging an emergency can be calming because it clicks me into a focused state. But right now, I can’t figure out if Mother Nature is gas-lighting me. Am I about to freeze to death, or am I just a skinny hypochondriac who thinks he’s contracting frostbite every time a chill wind firms his nipples?
I decide that if I hunker down and it continues to snow at this rate, I might not be able to find the trail out. I scarf down some energy bars, load my wet tent and wet clothes into my wet backpack, and begin to hike out.
The backpack I'm using was given to me by a friend. "It was my father’s," he gushed when handing it over. What he failed to mention, however, is that the backpack appears to have been handed down from a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition when they first explored the Winds in 1812. The hip strap is missing the clip, so the entirety of weight bears down directly on my shoulders. The rain cover is also long gone, and after yesterday's storm, it now weighs at least 80-pounds. To make matters worse, I've been car camping for the last month and adopted the pernicious attitude of, "Just throw it in!" Perhaps I didn't need my entire fly-fishing kit and seven days worth of food for a four-day hike?
If I looked like a baby giraffe before I adorned a pack that weighs at least 120-pounds, now I look like a baby giraffe with polio. Within 10 minutes of hiking, I have fallen through the snow into a meandering stream and lost the trail. With each step, my man growls are becoming more high-pitched and whiny.
I make it over the first pass and find the trail again. Two miles in, the trail disappears into a lake and you need to scale four stories up a cliff to make it to the next section. There are a series of five-foot steps that offer little room for error. I made it over the cliff on the way in, but it was a precarious venture, and now the cliff is covered in fresh snow. Making perhaps my first intelligent move of the trip, I hoist my pack that weights at least 230 pounds up each step, then climb up after it, rather than try to climb each section with the pack on my back. As I place the pack on a section near the highest point, my bear spray tumbles out and is caught about 10 feet down by protruding vegetation. Did I mention the Wind River Range is famous for grizzlies? Wyoming residents holster bear spray and pistols the way my dad holstered a beeper in the nineties.
As I sit on the cliff, surveying a possible path to my bear canister, a flurry of potential stories play through my mind: 1.) I successfully retrieve the canister, and it saves my life as I face a grizz later that day. Awesome. 2.) I leave the canister and get eaten by a grizz later that day. Not optimal, but still pretty awesome. 3.) I fall off the cliff and die remembered as the dumb hiker who fell off the cliff and died. Not awesome.
I choose option number one.
As I scale down the cliff, my leg begins to shake uncontrollably. This has happened to me only twice in my life that I can remember. First, when I was 19 and stepped on stage to give a speech in front of 500 people. Second, while on a boat at the famed big-wave Mavericks, watching waves that looked like they were out of the movie, The Perfect Storm. In recent years I've relied heavily on meditation to moor my sanity. As I watch my leg shake, I begin to take slow, controlled breaths through my nose. As my breathing slows, so does the shaking. Finally, I begin to move again. With one hand holding a rock that feels stable, I reach down and grab the canister with the other. Out of nowhere a grizz charges me! I spray it directly in the face, it roars in pain, staggers, and falls off the cliff into the abyss. No, that didn't happen, but I did successfully make it over the cliff and back onto the trail, celebrating with a fist pump and effeminate hop.
As I venture on like the Great American Hero I imagine myself to be, I picture Anderson Cooper and CNN waiting for me at the trailhead. The viral hashtag #StayStongKyle is trending, and the Dalai Lama has organized a mass prayer on my behalf. Between tears, my terrified ex-girlfriend manages to whimper, "He's the bravest man I ever kn…"
WTF … are those hikers? Just off the trail, four alacritous backpackers cluster around a lambent fire, laughing. "Hey man, you're welcome to take a seat and warm up." I'm crushed. I decline their kind offer and trudge through an increasingly verdant and mild landscape, stomping puddles as I go, hoping perhaps to splatter mud across my face, in case Anderson is waiting up ahead.
By Kyle Thiermann