Recently, I took a long day hike in the mountains with 2.5 friends. I used to think of hiking as boring, but this one had so much jam-packed into it, I still keep thinking about it. I was visiting friends who own a summer house in Jackson Hole, WY. While I was there, I took a winter mountaineering class with Exum Mountain Guides to get a good basis in self-arrest skills. Sliding about a snowfield for a day was fun, but now I was rearing to test my skills in “real” life. My friend Steve had suggested a hike from String Lake to Holly Lake, then traversing over Paintbrush Pass down to Lake Solitude, and from there down Cascade Canyon to Jenny Lake. All in all about 20 miles from 6,700 feet to 10,700 feet on and off trail.
After setting up the car shuttle, we started hiking at 7:30 am. Crossing Cotton Creek, I spotted dinner: a nice, big trout. With Kendra leading the way, we quickly ascended up Paintbrush Canyon. We did not stop much, because neither of us cared to be gobbled up by mosquitoes. The first two miles, my lower legs were killing me. I definitely felt the snow-hiking from the day before, and besides it takes more than a mile to warm me up for just about any sport (hiking, running, swimming, rowing, NOT rock-climbing ;-)). Kendra led most of the way. I lead a short stretch, but for some reason I don’t really like being the lead hiker. I always feel I should hike faster to not slow others down. When Kendra later remarked she powered herself out on the ascent and should have taken it a bit slower I thought it may not be a bad idea for the lead hiker to be the one with “guide speed” (for explanation, read “Teewinot“).
At the fork in the trail, we took a right to Holly Lake, a very long 0.5 miles uphill. There is another lake halfway on the way to Holly which we gave the nickname “Impostor Lake”. Just before Holly, a rock outcropping allowed us to step out of the dense forest, discovering a view down the narrow canyon onto Leigh and Jackson Lake. I had not noticed on the map how perfectly bell-shaped Leigh Lake is.
At Holly Lake, we were free of mosquitoes, and found a nice rook for eating our PB&Js. Trout passed by in the clear water below us. From this point on, we would be traveling across the upper canyon on snowfields. Kendra, despite being an excellent hiker and athletic woman, does not enjoy off-trail hiking and turned around. I am just the opposite. My greatest joy is to take off to a mountain, map stored away, to go explore where my fancy takes me. Or, in our case, get the general direction of where the pass is and go over there. I noticed, though, how much Steve was attached to the idea of “finding the trail”. Hiking off-trail, or rather “above trail”, he automatically assumed we are lost. Well, we are in the upper reaches of Paintbrush Canyon, Paintbrush Divide is somewhere ahead and left, so in my world the bearings are very clear. Writing this paragraph, I am tempted to wander astray from the story to musings of being lost, found, being dependent on trails others have established for us. I’ll leave it for another blog.
We eventually traverse up a knoll and over, spotting a sign peeking out of the snow warning of bears getting into food, and designating the end of the designated camping area. Human tracks appear in the snow, leading here and there as people have criss-crossed the Divide on their way to and from the various canyons. On the left, we can identify two steep snowfields leading up to the pass. Which one shall we take? I ask Steve which way he and Bob came down last time they hiked it: he cannot remember. I am slightly surprised, since Steve has hiked these mountains for well over a decade now. Maybe the snow cover, and coming from the other direction, makes the landscape look too different. According to the map, both snowfields should be fine. Tracking over the approach, Steve and Larry go below and around a knoll I hike over. To the left of me is the remainder of a broken-off cornice from a few hundred feet above. Not a spot to stand around, although theoretically cornices loose weight in hot, sunny days and should be less prone to collapsing. Still, no place to linger. Lo and behold, I end up right on the trail about 20 feet before the tracks go up the snowfield. Once again, I am astonished by my knack to finding my way in unknown territory.
Steve decides he rather take the second snowfield up, mostly because we can see some part of the trail on the other side. The travel is very nice: good, compacted summer snow. We do not need to kick steps, although as it gets steeper I kick in the slightly softened steps a bit more. A nice rhythm develops. Plant axe, step, step, plant axe, step, step. Steve is ahead and reaches two rocks peaking out of the snow. Suddenly, I hear Steve cry out and see him slip off the rock. The picture is almost comical, like the guy depicted slipping on the yellow cones in the grocery store. His hat flies off and gently sails down a few hundred feet. I yell at him to turn and self-arrest, but the snow pile at the bottom of the 4-foot rock is soft enough to catch him. He’s got a few scratches to show. I just think how lucky he was not to have hit his hat – and how lucky I was for not having explain a hole in Steve’s head to Kendra …
Now I make a mistake. Steve tells me there is ice on the rock, hidden under a few inches of snow. He had noticed his ice axe did not go in more than two inches, but did not stop to think why. I should have send him around the rock (he was at the bottom anyway) and back up on the trail. Instead Steve backtracks to me, which means we have to cross the rock again, because I am too dense to realize we should pass below the rocks. I send Steve a bit higher than the first rock. The snow layer is thin, but enough. I choose to use my pick to hack off the two inches of soft ice to create a foothold and climb over the lower rock. Both less than ideal solutions, but they work. Now I turn around to see where Larry is. And get MAD!!!! He got spooked by Steve’s fall, apparently, and decided to go back down, cross the snowfield at a low angle, and hike up the trail on the other side. Without communicating with us. He is now several hundred feet below. I am worried, because he is the least experienced hiker, and we are far away in case he gets stuck or falls. Nevertheless, Steve and I continue and top out on Paintbrush Divide 15 minutes later. The view into Cascade Canyon is gorgeous. The Cathedral group with the Grand Teton is visible to our left. The wall across the canyon is topped for a mile with cornices. Lakes and meltwater in the snow create bright blue patches in the side canyons. Paintbrush Pass itself is covered with alpine flowers in white, yellow, pink and blue.
I walk over to the spot where the trail tops out to see if I can find a way for Larry to climb around the top of the snowfield, which is very steep on that side. A dark grey pika watches me curiously. I do find a way, it just involves 15 feet of a class 4 climb. A brother and sister backpacking team join me. The sister is on her first mountain trip, neither have ice axes, and of course she is apprehensive about going on the steep snow. I show the brother the way around, he climbs down and I lower both packs to him. Now the two of us talk the sister through down-climbing this section. She has never climbed before, is a trouper but nervous, and trying to figure out this whole climbing thing on the fly. In her, I see myself two years ago – counting my blessings on how far my skills have developed with the help of my mountaineering friends and climbing teachers. Finally, an hour after Steve and I arrived on top, we get Larry up there too. I have managed to cool down my anger (I think) to where I can have a stern, but hopefully kind conversation about the danger of leaving the group and going off solo.
The hike down to Solitude Lake is easy now. We could have saved another 45 minutes by glissading down one snowfield, but Steve has not practiced glissading. So we hike. At Solitude, we refill the water and have another snack. I take my gators off, 30 minutes too early as I find out. There are some snow patches to cross, where I posthole a few times and get my still dry socks thoroughly wet. O well, no big deal since it is a day hike.
Now we are on the trail, enjoying the beautiful view of the Cathedral group from the west side. I identify the “Idaho Express” (a snowfield named for a potentially way too quick 1000 foot ride down the Grand towards Idaho …). We spot a marmot mum and her pup (?) on a rock right next to the trail. When we approach, marmot Mom sends the little one down between the rocks, but stays up on the rock to watch us. I find myself eye-to-eye at 2 feet distance from a non-plussed marmot. She eyes my camera warily, visibly annoyed by my presence (on a well-travelled trail? Come on, Mrs Marmot. This is to be expected!) Further down Cascade Canyon we pass Amelia Rock, named for Steve’s daughter. There are always moose near Amelia Rock, and we do not get disappointed this time either. I hiked this canyon with Kendra last year, entertaining myself now with memories of that trip on the somewhat monotonous 6 miles down to Inspiration Point. Around mile 17, my feet start hurting. Hiking on established trails does that to me.
At Inspiration Point, we meet a scout group. We call Kendra to let her know where we are, and to ask if they could leave us some of the lasagna for dinner. Of course we have missed the last boat across Jenny Lake by two hours, which means an additional 2 mile roundtrip along the lake to our car. By this time, we are all getting a bit tired, quietly trudging along. I enjoy the flowers, the setting sun, views of the Gros Ventre slide. My feet start feeling better, but I do not feel compelled to check the Moose Ponds for Moose. It is hard to judge progress, because everything looks the same, just the viewing angle on the Sleeping Indian changes ever so slightly. A sigh of relief when we get to the boat ramp. Half a mile, and there is the car. Restrooms. Shoes off (steamy socks, 3 pairs). I fold myself into the back seat of the truck, 14 hours after starting out. This was my kind of day 🙂