Wyoming — check!

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We have come to our last few days in Wyoming and will soon begin packing up the tent and loading up the car, exactly two months to the day from when we arrived here. Our very last weekend was spent hiking to Static Peak at 11,300 feet (which I convinced Matt to complete in one day by conveniently failing to mention that it was almost 20 miles). We were chased from the top by a dark cloud– because no one wants to be on top of a mountain in a storm, but you especially don’t want to be on the appropriately-named Static Peak.

Our summer has been filled with spontaneous adventure, constant laughter, and relentless beauty. I knew this would be the summer of a lifetime, but never did I expect that it would be so all-around perfect. As a matter of fact, there are a multitude of things that happened this summer that I never thought I would experience.

For one, I never expected to live in Wyoming—but then, who really does expect to live in the least populated state in the country? I believe Wyoming is a state of many misconceptions. You picture farmland, cows, maybe some grassy plains, and probably more farmland. While a large portion of Wyoming does fit the stereotype, this is positively one of the most unexpectedly striking places I have ever been. The landscapes are incredibly diverse—and while the mountains, valleys, plains, and boiling hot springs are certainly beautiful in themselves, the contrast therein is what creates such ethereal magnificence.

On a similar note, I didn’t expect to have a cultural experience in Wyoming—again, who would? The ethnic and cultural diversity here is astounding and traveling here from overseas is extremely common. On any given outing it is normal to hear at least five different languages being spoken and to see clothing and customs from all over the world—all coming together, ironically, at a chuckwagon dinner.

I never thought I would live in a tent for an extended period of time. It’s certainly not the most ideal living situation, but this tent has been a fortress, never yielding to the rain, wind, or even snow. In this tent we’ve shared candlelit dinners on a Tupperware box table, watched countless late-night episodes of Friends, planned and packed for our quests into the wilderness (and recovered from them afterward), and, by my calculations, blown up our air mattress 54 times. While I am so looking forward there not being a parking lot between the bathroom and myself, I will miss the amusing simplicity of life in a tent.

I never expected to have to slam on my brakes for a bison standing stubbornly in the middle of the highway. I think I’m going to miss them almost as much as I’ll miss the mountains—I’ll also miss our ongoing debate about whether bison are the smartest or dumbest creatures on earth (it really could go either way). Many a car ride has been filled trying to figure out what the bison are thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing—which usually isn’t much more than eating and walking, but every now and then you’ll get a jumper, or a ground roller, or even a rain dancer (the “Buffalo Shuffle,” according to Matt—it happened, I swear). I’m not sure why I feel so attached to these big furry cow cousins, but I know it just won’t be the same without the fear of totaling my car on a bison (who would probably think a fly had landed on him) every time I go somewhere.

I never ever expected to have use for an ice axe. When Matt packed them I remember thinking, “Oh, cool, just a precaution. Never going to have to actually touch that thing.” Wrong. I always supposed tools like that were reserved for hardcore climbers, summiting Everest or K2—not for lowly little me playing Let’s Climb a Mountain. But sure enough, those axes were absolutely vital to our ascent of Grand Teton—though I never want to need one again. (For that matter, I suppose I never expected to climb a mountain, but those mean looking ice axes stand out in my mind as a testament to the risk involved.)

More than all of these things, though, I never expected, at 20 years old, to have a life so overflowing with possibility and adventure. We have had the most amazing two months here, 2,000 miles from home, and are making plans to travel further and wider all the time.

Sunday night we’ll leave the campground and the Tetons and the bison behind (probably a little tearfully), and arrive alongside the sunrise at Glacier National Park in northern Montana. From there we’ll stop in the Badlands to tack one more park onto our trip, and then resume the almost 40-hour drive back to home sweet Tennessee.

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Lava, Leeches, and Lots o’ Bugs

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With the summer quickly winding down, Matt and I have started planning our trip back to Tennessee—but more importantly, we’re planning how to cram as many things as possible into these last two weeks. For this reason, we woke up Monday morning, immediately changed our plans, and drove over to Idaho. Now, this may seem counterproductive since Idaho is basically the Great Plains without the title, but we had a plan.

We wandered Idaho Falls, which, with a population of 56,000, was the biggest city either of us has been to since leaving home. Our real purpose in going there, though, was to visit an ancient lava field. Nearly 300,000 years ago, a crack opened in the earth on that site and spilled lava into what’s now Idaho. The lava flowed over an area of about 140 square miles and eventually cooled and hardened, creating the area now known as Hell’s Half Acre. We spent an afternoon meandering through this wasteland, hopping over deep crevices in the blackened ground and marveling at the resilient plants that are able to grow there.

As strange as the lava field was, perhaps the most exotic part of our weekend was our visit to the local Walmart in search of seasons three and four of “Friends” (we have seasons one and two and have watched and re-watched every episode to the point of total memorization). While we’re not isolated, live-off-the-land, Survivor-type “mountain people” by any means, Walmart was kind of a shock. We got “Friends” and got out.

We were planning a hike in Yellowstone’s remote Bechler Region for the next day (which is only accessible via a twenty mile dirt road from Idaho into Wyomng), so we set up camp near the trailhead to begin early the following morning. I thought I had experienced bad mosquitoes before, but I had never been to the marshy, southwestern corner of Yellowstone. There were too many mosquitoes in the car to sleep in it like we normally do (seriously, we’re going to be cleaning the carcasses out of there for weeks), so we set up our little tent and watched as they swarmed and clung to the fabric in a layer of biting, itchy terror.

Our destination was Dunanda Falls, a supposedly breathtaking waterfall with a hot spring right at the base, perfect for a relaxing dip after the hike. We set out for our 16-mile trek early Tuesday morning, optimistically thinking the mosquitoes would have abated since the previous evening. We could not have been more wrong. Long sleeves, long pants, and multiple coatings of bug spray weren’t enough to protect us from the determination of the bugs.

For four long miles we tramped through waist-high, soaking wet grass, dodging muddy puddles and even crossing a wide, leech-infested creek, all while fighting a losing battle against the dense clouds of mosquitoes. It took me accidentally swallowing one of these pesky, winged monsters to make us finally decide that no waterfall could be worth what we were doing (that trail seemed more like Hell’s Half Acre than the old lava field). We were drenched both from the plants and the creek, with squishy pools of water in our hiking boots, and each having suffered countless mosquito bites—we pretty much sprinted for the car. (Most of the return walk was spent in jokes such as, “Dunanda Falls is a great hike if you tend to hike in a Hazmat suit… or if you’re TRYING to catch West Nile Virus…”) It was absolutely the most miserable hiking experience we have ever had and neither of us has any regrets about not seeing that waterfall- and now we know why there is no paved road leading to Bechler.

We returned to the Tetons and spent the rest of our day by the river enjoying the manageable quantity of flying insects and the lack of freshwater leeches. Next weekend will be our last here in Wyoming, and while we aren’t yet sure what it will consist of, we know it will be the best and most action-packed weekend yet.

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The Reece Girls Take Wyoming

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I’ve recently wondered if living in a place as beautiful as western Wyoming could eventually cause one to become immune to the magnificent landscape—whether looking at the rivers, valleys, and mountains day after day would after some time become so commonplace that one would cease to realize the majesty of the scenery.

I’ve only been here for a month and a half, but at this rate I don’t think I could ever stop noticing that I live in one of the most incredible places in the country (if anything I find it more beautiful as it grows increasingly familiar and home-like). However, it is true that I no longer feel my mouth literally hanging open when I see a herd of elk dancing through a field, or fall into a stunned silence when I look out at the mountains in the morning, and I even get a little annoyed when a roadside moose is slowing traffic on my way to the grocery store. I guess you could say that while I’m not ignorant of the beauty and grandeur that surrounds me here, I have certainly grown accustomed to it.

So, this past weekend when my family arrived (my mom, her two sisters, my little sister, and my cousin), not only was I ecstatic to see them, but I was given a second first-look at the splendor of the Tetons and Yellowstone. When they finally got here (after delayed flights, missed connections, and being stranded in Minnesota), Matt and I took on the role of tour guides and made it our mission to show them every inch of the two parks in a mere two and a half days.

Aside from showing my family all of the most famous attractions (Old Faithful, Oxbow Bend, Mammoth Hot Springs, etc.) and our favorite secret spots, Matt and I were thrilled to get to do the touristy things that we skipped when we came to Wyoming– like exploring a dozen t-shirt shops in Jackson, taking the tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and going horseback riding in Teton Village. We even accomplished the extremely impressive task of exploring all the major points in Yellowstone in a single day and seeing at least one of each animal that lives there. We spent our evenings trying to figure out how to fit all six of us into two beds, arguing about whether to listen to the Soothing Sounds of the Rainforest or the Ocean on the noise machine, and trying to convince my cousin Carleigh that no one was going to come out of the woods to axe murder us while we slept. Obviously we had a blast– and Matt was a great sport about being dragged around by a bunch of girls for the whole weekend.

My family’s visit gave me the opportunity to renew my sense of awe at the shocking grandness of the Tetons and the ethereal nature of Yellowstone (and it also made me realize how much I miss seeing them on a regular basis). I know I could never grow tired of looking out my window (or rather my tent flap) at this fantastic place, but it certainly was refreshing to see it through new eyes with different perspectives, and this reintroduction to the absolute splendidness that resides here will remind me over these last two weeks of how unquestionably lucky we are to be here.

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Up is (Not) Always the Right Way

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Matt and I rose with the sun Monday morning to begin our last-minute preparations for climbing Grand Teton—breakfast, groceries, gear rentals, and buying a backcountry permit. At the ranger station, we were (rather unsympathetically) informed that our desired campsite at the lower saddle was full, which, at 11,640 feet, is the most popular camping spot for GT climbers. Instead, we got a pass to camp at the moraine—sort of the “next step down” from the lower saddle. (This meant a shorter distance to go on the first day, but a longer climb on our second day.)

It may seem obvious, but one of the main concerns of camping trips like this one is that everything you need for your trip has to literally be carried on your back- sleeping bag, clothes, tent, food, gear- and the pounds add up infuriatingly quickly (for this trip I actually spent time contemplating whether it would be worth the added weight to bring an extra t-shirt—I didn’t pack one). The necessity of carrying gear for navigating snow on this climb made our packs especially heavy—Matt actually broke a buckle on his pack the first time he picked it up at the trailhead.

So, with our ice axes and helmets and lots of extra socks, we embarked from the Lupine Meadows trailhead on Monday morning with the goal of standing on the summit of the state’s second tallest peak a mere 24 hours later. The first three-ish miles of trail were pretty steep but well-marked and easy to navigate. After a few sets of switchbacks (zig-zagged, upward sloping trails that are Hiker’s Enemy Number 1), we were up high enough that the lakes and ponds below looked like nothing more than large blue puddles, and the trees surrounding them seemed to be one constant mass of green rather than individual features. And then the trail disappeared.

Lupine Meadows, which is supposed to be a refreshing field of green grass and wildflowers with a cool sparkling creek flowing alongside, we found, remains under several feet of snow. We were prepared to deal with patches of snow here and there, but we were rudely awakened to the fact that it is still winter in the Teton Mountain Range. Here in this out-of-season meadow at the entrance to Garnet Canyon (the canyon between Grand and Middle Tetons), we caught a glimpse of our first headwall leading up to the moraine. A headwall is defined as “a steep slope forming the head of a valley,” but I think a more accurate definition is, “the tallest and most horrifyingly steep stretch of land one has ever laid eyes on; known to cause excessive weeping and hysterics upon sight.”

But seriously, this headwall was about a thousand feet tall, and while patches of rocks were exposed here and there, most of it was covered in about ten feet of snow—plus, it was as vertical as something can be without needing a rope to climb it. (This snow is due to a particularly long, harsh winter in the mountains, and has usually melted off by this time of year.) So, with our crampons strapped to our boots and our ice axes tightly in hand, we began the long ascent up this headwall, scrambling over rocks where we could, and shuffling and stomping cautiously through snow where the rock ended. (The frightening thing about snow is not knowing what’s underneath it– we crossed several snow-covered creeks and boulder fields trusting that the packed snow would support us as it had those before us.) We finally topped this wall and approached our bivy campsite—a gravel patch encircled by a low hedge of rocks to block the wind. After 8 hours of strenuous hiking, this felt to me like the safest, warmest, and driest fortress that ever existed.

Camping at the moraine meant that we still had to climb the headwall up to the lower saddle in the morning. We rose at 3 a.m. and started our trek up this second, even taller snow-covered wall. In the dark. Perhaps one of the most excruciating parts of these headwalls is that they are so steep that even with snow tools you can’t walk straight up them. You are forced to weave diagonally back and forth across, doubling or even tripling the distance and time it takes to reach the top. Crossing these headwalls using crampons and ice axes is an exhausting task; you trudge along, slowly and deliberately matching the footsteps of those who have gone before you (this is called a “boot pack”), and stabbing your ice axe forcefully into the snow every two steps to ensure that you always have a firm grasp on the treacherously slick ground.

This stomp, stomp, stab; stomp, stomp, stab rhythm of hiking in the snow is unbelievably wearing, mentally and physically. Kicking and crunching across the headwall, you know that if your feet fail or the snow gives out you will slide hundreds of feet down the unforgiving wall. If you’re lucky you will be able to plant your axe into the snow on your way down to slow or maybe even stop your swift plunge, but if the ice is too hard or the snow too loose this will do you no good, and you will simply plummet to the bottom of the wall, probably right into a cluster of rocks or perhaps even a frigid creek. With these consequences in mind you continue your stomp, stomp, stab motions ever more cautiously, and try not to look anywhere but at the boot prints in front of you.

In this painstaking way, we reached the lower saddle and saw the headlamps of teams already climbing the expanse of rocks leading to the upper saddle, and we hurriedly followed. When I asked Matt how he knew we were going the right way he confidently replied, “Up is always the right way.” The sun rose to see us scrambling over boulders and rocks on the side of the mountain at about 12,500 feet, and with a couple of other teams nearby heading toward the same route. It was around this time that I was standing in the crook of two large rocks as Matt stood atop them, and I was trying to decide the best way to proceed when we heard the team above us shouting “Rock! Rock!” and then the crashing and banging of a rock fall tumbling down the slope toward us. Matt shouted my name from above and I knew that the rocks were coming directly toward me. The only thing I could do was cram myself into the nearby corner and hope I was small enough and concealed enough that the falling rocks would miss me– which they did, but just barely. I had successfully suppressed my fears and anxieties about all of the dangers we had faced on our ascent up until then, but this was just too much. Our “we’re okay” bubble had burst with this close call and neither of us felt safe enough to continue on- the conditions alone were reason to climb down. The very first rule of climbing is this: If you’re not feeling it, don’t climb it. It may sound superstitious or illogical, but ask any climber and he or she will agree. With something as high-risk as scaling a mountain, if you feel that something is amiss, it probably is. And so, following the rock fall, we decided it would be best to turn back– less than a thousand feet from the summit.

I honestly think the descent was even more grueling than our trip up, and after 12 hours of the most arduous and taxing hike I’ve ever experienced, we were stumbling into the car, never having been so happy to be on flat ground.

I was worried that falling short of the summit would leave me feeling defeated and ashamed, but our trip up Grand Teton was the most physically and mentally demanding task I have ever undertaken, and accomplishment far outweighs our premature departure. The decision to retreat was a difficult one, especially considering how far we had come and all that we had endured to get to that point. But Matt and I were confident in our judgment that it was simply not our day to climb Grand Teton, and have resolved to return another time to complete our mission– though preferably when the snow melts, because I never want to see another pair of crampons in my life.

 

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The Grand Plan

 

IMG_0552Standing at 13,770 feet, the summit of Grand Teton soars over the valley of Jackson Hole and has enticed climbers, skiers, and mountaineers to pursue its famous summit for more than a century. Matt and I have given into this temptation.

We have officially begun our preparations to ascend Grand Teton, the second highest peak in Wyoming (Matt actually climbed it last summer but this will be my first time). Our free time has recently been spent researching routes, sorting ropes and gear, and most importantly, deciding where we’re going to have our celebratory we-made-it-up-AND-back-down dinner.

There is still some snow on our intended course, so ice axes and crampons (devices that strap onto shoes for walking safely on snow) will be necessary for our climb. The plan is to hike all the way onto the lower saddle (the “dip” between Grand and Middle Tetons) on Monday, and then to leave camp well before sunrise (around 4 a.m.) to make the final climb to the summit on Tuesday morning.

We’ve been training since April and feel fairly equipped for the physical challenges of the ascent. (My mental preparation consists mostly of practicing reminding myself, “Don’t look down, whatever you do just don’t look down.”) This will be our biggest adventure yet, and Matt and I could not be more eager to be standing on the summit of Grand Teton in just a few short days.

“But Google said there was a shortcut.”

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Hundreds of thousands of years ago the earth was deep in the midst of an ice age that shaped the face of the planet. Glaciers carved out lakes and sculpted peaks and valleys– and thus the Wind River Range was created.

Matt and I always have a difficult time deciding what to do on our two day weekends. This isn’t because there aren’t many options—it’s because there is so much to see that we simply can’t decide. So, after much deliberation, we decided that it would be worth it to make the three and a half hour drive to see the Wind River Range, a 90-mile stretch of mountains in western Wyoming. We planned to hike about 9 miles in to camp at the famous Cirque of the Towers, and hike back out the following day. It seemed simple enough. The trip to the trailhead required a drive through Farmland, USA (where we were delayed twice- TWICE!- by cows being herded down the road), and a rumbling, bumpy ride down a thirty-something mile dirt road which deposited us in Bridger National Forest, more commonly known as The Middle of Nowhere.

After slathering ourselves in sunscreen and bug spray (Wyoming’s state bird is the mosquito), we began what we thought would be a fairly easy-to-navigate hike. We promptly got lost. Having thought the route would be obvious (Go that way, follow the yellow brick road, take a left at the third lake and ba-da-bing, you’re there!), we failed to bring a map. This is what happens when your only information comes from Google—lesson learned. Eventually we found our way and continued easily for the next six-ish miles to Big Sandy Lake, where we encountered our first spectacular view of the Winds. Then arose Jack Ass Pass. I had naively thought (hoped) that the name originated from it being a trail once used by donkeys– Because that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? I think trudged is the only word that can describe what we did on the nearly 2,000 foot ascent up the very appropriately named pass, made up of switchback turns steep enough to make you want to call it quits and head back to the cool and comfy car. After finally completing this rather discouraging stretch of the trip and crossing a creek, the landscape became rocky and we quickly lost the trail– Only this time, we didn’t find it again.

We trekked north, toward the dispiritingly distant mountains, across unmarked and truly rugged terrain for what seemed like days- though it was probably only a mile or so. We hopped, clambered, and sometimes even crawled across an enormous moraine left from an old rockslide, which encircled the still partially frozen North Lake. Large portions of the moraine were covered in deep snow which, having no idea what kind of land lay beneath it, presented new and mysterious dangers to our already uncertain expedition. As we came to the end of this exhausting scramble, we saw the trail emerging from the edge of the lake several yards beneath us (I honestly wasn’t sure whether to feel elated or annoyed at this), and leading into the single most glorious piece of flat grassland I have ever laid eyes on. This is where we decided we absolutely could not take another step and set up camp– without having made it to our destination at Cirque of the Towers.

In the morning we debated whether to continue on or turn back– we were already a six hour hike and a three hour drive from home, and had to work the next day. We decided to hike for an hour more and if we hadn’t reached the Cirque by then we would abandon our quest and be satisfied with the immense splendor we had already experienced in the Winds. Another snow-covered ridge, frozen lake, and seemingly endless moraine later, I was ready to give up. The last stretch into the Cirque was about a hundred foot climb up a pile of boulders and I really didn’t think I had it in me that morning. Thankfully, Matt’s morale was a little higher than mine, and he convinced me that it would be worth it—and goodness, was he right. Our ascent placed us in the center of a ring of peaks so jagged and impressive and unquestionably ancient that I no longer felt the aching in my legs and feet, and Jack Ass Pass and the snow and moraines and our off-course mishaps didn’t exist at all. The towers- Shark’s Nose, the Watchtowers, Pingora, Wolf’s Head- are the most remote place either of us has ever been– in Matt’s words, “You just expect a pterodactyl to take flight or something.” (He was totally serious.) People come from all over the world to hike, climb, and bask in the splendor of these razor-sharp peaks, and I still can’t believe we almost turned back without seeing them.

On the way back we actually located the trail and our return was far less challenging. Twenty-one miles, countless mosquito bites, and one pretty severe sunburn later, we were back in Jackson planning our next voyage—Grand Teton.

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