7/12/23 – A couple of day ago I headed out into the Wind River Range, filled with excitement about the first mountain adventure of the season.
Here in the Winds, July is always a bit early in the season for climbing and after a harsh winter, it’s even more-so.
I just about ruled off that I was going to do any climbing in the Winds since I’d be leaving before August. But when my climbing partner and a good friend suggested an attempt at the North Arete of Ellingwood Peak, I was easily convinced.
We departed from Elkhart Park at 10:30 with 40lb and 65lb packs respectively, loaded up with camping supplies, food, tons of clothes to stay warm, and a whole bunch of heavy cams and gear.
My inner explorer was at peace and it made the weight of my pack feel not so bad for the first 8 miles. The trail was relatively flat after all. By mile 8, it was like we entered another dimension of near constant stunning alpine lakes and picturesque, jagged mountainscapes.
We arrived at Island Lake at 5pm, made camp, and collapsed in exhaustion while being swarmed with mosquitoes. And still, the day wasn’t over.
With vague approach beta & possibly precarious snow conditions, we left camp to go scout the approach & route. Our intention was to search for the best approach and get a better idea of the conditions of Ellingwood’s north side which was hidden from view during our southern approach.
The 1st approach option we attempted was via the established trail taking us close to the official Titcomb Basin before we cut right, navigating a convoluted hillside ridden with various small cliff outs and snowfields. Using the river, which towered beneath us, as a guide, we traversed the hillside to an apex where the valley walls condensed into the river.
Here, a more obvious path to Lake 10,800 lies ahead and we are able to gain a better vantage point of Ellingwood. We couldn’t see the North Arete specifically from our point of view but the north side of the monolith now appears to be clear of snow.
“Looking good,” I say, affirming the small ounce of hope inside me that I needed after spending all day getting 15 miles out into Winds and wondering if seemingly passable conditions were just that: seemingly.
“Looks okay,” Ryan responds in a manner of worry, then stares off to the ridge. “My only concern is that snow on the crest right there.” He points to a small dip in the Southwest ridgeline where snow peeks through. The southwest slope marked the standard walk-off descent. Even under the circumstance of pristine conditions along the southwest slope, the alternate descent variation we were planning to take, cutting direct to Island Lake from the col between Ellingwood and the Elephant Head, was completely hidden from view.
The snow patch could’ve perhaps suggested, at best, a single small patch of snow to cross. At worst, it was a clue to an entire snow-covered ridge that could completely screw us due to a lack of gear or knowledge on snow travel.
At this point, I’m partly reproachful but the logical assessment of the situation gives no signal to not at least push forward to the next step.
At this meeting of the river, we’re greeted with a necessary river crossing with deep water high flow. To avoid ice cold feet and wet socks at 6am in the morning, my partner goes through a great effort to build a rock hop across which, in conclusion, looks precarious at best.
With sunset looming, we decided to head back to camp via the 2nd approach variation which is more direct through an unmarked boulder field. It turns out to be far easier and faster than our earlier ascent route: Our first win of the day!
After 5 miles additional miles to our 13 miles of prior weight-bearing hiking, we arrive back at camp at dusk where the perfect mountainscapes over Island Lake called forth such a divinity of spirit, I didn’t even care for the mosquitoes engulfing me. Meanwhile, my partner, who thought otherwise of the perfection of the moment, left for his tent in a frenzy of panic due to the bugs.
The next morning – At 6am, we were en route to Ellingwood. We made quick work up the direct boulder field gully that we walked the night before and reached the river crossing. I quickly noticed the water level was lower than yesterday thanks to cold night diminishing the rate of snowmelt, making our sketchy stone crossing an easy hop, skip, and a jump.
We took to new unscouted terrain as we skirted the edge of Lake 10,800. I’m somewhat shocked to discover how big the lake is.
Between the circumference milage, delays in water filtration, and trying to figure out the North Aret beta, it takes us 3 hours to navigate 3 miles from basecamp that is quite fortunately graced with a pristine alpine lake and mountain view comparable to the Alps, yet simultaneously, like something entirely different.
Relief from the extended approach is lingering, knowing we’re so close to finally reaching the actual start of our climb.
It isn’t until we are a mere 10 minutes away from the route base, halfway up the heinous scree slope, that we suddenly see the heartbreaker: small patches of snow lingering on the roofs of the last official pitch and water drizzling down the alternate face to the right. Beyond the last pitch, a summit pinnacle gives way to a notch before rising back to the true summit. Here, another snow patch glistens with no telling of what sort of depth or mass the snow covers.
For a moment, I was in shock, not because I didn’t expect the possibility, but because of the reality of how far we had to come to see the thing that would seal the deal on the climb’s safety.
At the next glassy plateau, we stop our packs, take a seat, and stare up at the rock to assess.
I didn’t say anything. Ryan didn’t say anything. We just stared. Stared at a 10-pitch climb that is shining in the sunlight, in great condition, and one tiny little section of rock at the very top that would prevent all else below from being climbed. It appeared there was no way around the water or snow. Had it been a pitch lower on the climb, it could’ve been worth a gung-ho attempt but if found to be impassable that high on the route, it would leave us in a much more dangerous and difficult emergency escape situation where we’d be leaving no less than 10, if not 20, pieces of expensive trad gear behind to form anchors for rappel.
We sat there “deciding” for at least 15 minutes despite the reality that Ryan and I had both formed our answers the second we set out packs down. The only thing that would’ve swayed either of us would’ve been immense confidence from the other, which would’ve been sheer idiocracy given that our skillset was purely incompetent compared to what was needed to attempt confidently.
Mumbles of, “What do you think?” brought forward a sad acceptance that we shouldn’t go for it.
“I promised my Mom I’d be careful,” I said with a moment of appreciation for knowing the people I had to live for. “It’s not worth it. There’s a small chance we’d go for it and it would be totally fine. But if it’s not, it’s too risky. The escape would be long. We’d lose so much gear. And even if we make it to the southwest slope, if our alternate descent direct to Island Lake is impassable, the standard descent down the northern couloir would be extremely dangerous due to steep snowfields.”
Knowing we were about to reverse a grueling hike we simply sat in grief over the time and energy lost and the goal unmet, which I had to remind myself, was much better than the loss of our health or life. There was almost a bliss to the feeling of loss, one part due to the first moment of solace from vicious swarms of mosquitoes, but in another part, in the full engagement with the experience of life— to willingly endure so much in the face of the possibility of getting nothing from it. To sit surrounded beneath towering granite mountains in all directions, surrounded by alpine meadows, and blue lakes; savoring every ounce of prana moving through my chest after the pain of immense high-elevation exertion; with the echoes of my higher self asking me to release my expectations, extrinsic desires, and reminding me that it’s just a climb after all; was nothing short of being encompassed by God— the inherit All of reality all at once. Met by a relief, love of reality, and loss all at once, I just appreciated the richness of the moment.
Ryan, who seems equally as dreadful of the return trip as I felt, looked sad but not nearly as sad as I must’ve looked because, he hugged me and said, “I’m sorry, Gabi, I know how much you wanted it.” I chuckled for a second in my own humility of seeing my own programming, my achievement addiction brought to the surface in the simple statement realizing that Ryan didn’t even care about the achievement as much as I did.
“It’s okay,” I looked out to the views and said, “It’s unreal up here.” Truly.
Finally, we began facing more decisions and hard truths. Despite the escape from mosquitoes, if we left soon, we could cross all the snowfields before they melted into deep, difficult post-holing.
We began the trek back to camp and Ryan asked the hard question looming in my head, “So do you want to hike out today?”
Sheer dread fills me. I did and didn’t. The mere idea sounded absolutely miserable, like a pain at the very edge of what I’d be able to endure, but I already knew that’s what I’d choose because the alternative was to endure the discomfort of sitting at camp for 8 hours that was immensely gorgeous, but swarmed with the most horrendous mosquitoes I could ever imagine.
“Well we discovered some valuable beta, Gabi,” Ryan says while traversing the lake edge.
“The Winds are the real deal.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re not real mountain climbers.”
“Next time, we’ll be ready. It was just bad timing.
Though it was true, for a moment, I scorned my modernized climbing mentality, in other words, read as “a soft generation,” the epitome of the dying dirtbag culture, unwilling to truly step out into the unknown.
Though it was a descent back to camp, the feeling of sufferfest was quick to encroach. One of my calf muscles begins to hurt after a jarring boulder hop and thanks to a chronic longtime knee issue. It’s never a good sign to have leg pain, let alone for it to occur in the first of 8 hours of hiking to come. I grit my teeth and prayed that rest back at basecamp before hiking would be the salvation I need to get back on my feet for 13 more miles.
We arrive back at camp and collapse exhausted into a scorching hot tent as the only reprieve from the biting bugs.
“Holy shit,” I say in a deadpan serious exasperation. “6 miles down, 13 to go.”
We rested, ate up a ton of food that in a prior case, had to be rationed another day, then hit the trail for a long drawling 13-mile return trip with 40lb pack that I now felt certain had increased in weight.
The trail that once felt forgiving on the way in thanks to its up-and-down hills now felt like a cruel joke, forcing uphill bogs both ways.
It wasn’t very long before the pounding of my foot against the ground with each step sent a grueling pain of my against the bone at the soles of my feet, an ache in my arches, and a burning contraction in my toes.
Perhaps the most notable distinction of the difficulty was the side-swiped comment from Ryan, “Scratch the porter business idea. Crumble that paper up. Put it in the filing cabinet called Garbage.” Ryan once had a business idea to start a portering company for mountain missions as a way to make money while being in the mountains. He was very excited about the idea. It wasn’t until this moment precisely, weighed down by his 65lb pack, that he left behind that goal with Miss Ellingwood.
To make matters worse, the mosquitoes that swarmed us during the whole hike into Titcomb seemed to have doubled in 24 hours. No amount of Deet or layers fended them off, leaving me covered in swollen welts as if a was attacked by chickenpox, and Ryan on the verge of a panic attack due to literal swarms hovering around him.
On our walk out, my prior feeling of possible momentary spiritual enlightenment was replaced with mortal resentment for what I gave to this attempt.
“Ya know Ryan, it’s kinda ridiculous.”
“It’s almost impossible to be a dirtbag in this day and age. I envy the originals to some degree. That’s not to say any of their climbs came easier but I’ve been thinking about scarcity a lot on this hike out. It’s not the pain that makes this hike out hard, it’s the feeling of putting in so many resources like time, money, and energy into something and getting nothing from it. I get that’s it’s a learning experience and we knew better but still, I can’t get over the fact that it not just about how tough you are, it’s about how much time you have. You really need a lot of time out here. You need time to sit through the weather, time to rest, time to try more than just 1 route for how much work it is to haul a small home, dozens of pounds of trad gear, and food out here. You need time. While a great many still pull it off, the dirtbag is dead because the amount of money you need to just get by is so much more. Both you and I would struggle to take off an entire week of work to be out here. I don’t know if I truly envy the original dirtbags, but it’s no wonder no one wants to be a mountain climber today.”
“It’s okay, Gabi, we’re not dirtbags anyway. We’re boug[ie]-bags. BOUG-BAGS and proud! Fuck tent camping. I want a good IPA and delicious food!”
That old running joke gave me a laugh that fueled up the next and worst mini mountain pass.
By mile 6 from basecamp— or rather, mile 12 of the day, our pace began to slow. The weight on our backs made each step feel like a waddle more than a stride, especially on the short, but steep ascents over the hills.
I kept wanting to check my phone to see how long it’s been, but I didn’t want to know. I wouldn’t like what I see. Little did I know there were still 5 hours left at that point.
We kept trying to stop and rest, but it was never more than a minute before the mosquito swarms would find us in our stagnance. We kept moving.
“Is it just me, or do your traps hurt like hell?”
Ryan says he feels fine, only to arrive at the same sensation and conclusion an hour later: like an ache mixed with a feeling of needles piercing your muscles.
“Look, to be honest, Ryan, the only thing motivating me to get out of here at this point is the Wind River Brewing peach sour.”
Ryan laughs, “I just can’t wait to drink a Dank Dust that I left in my van fridge.”
Just past hour 4, we finally find a rock outcropping far enough from grass and still water to finally take a decent rest without being attacked by bloodsuckers. We practically fall onto our butts, lean back onto our packs, and it’s almost painful to feel the weight off our feet. We’re practically comatose in exhaustion but somehow the only thing I can think about is how crazy it is that we’ve only passed 2 groups of hikers all day.
Ryan finds the will to check his Strava GPS and AllTrails to find out how many miles left we have…6 miles to go. 6. Miles. That meant at least 3 more hours in our immensely reduced speed. I looked out at the river valley and listen to the sound of a stunning waterfall near me. There was nothing to think about, I couldn’t. To be with my thoughts would be to begin to acknowledge all the anger, pain, and frustration both physically and mentally. Instead, I could only be. Be there in the pain. Surrender to it. Be there in the beauty of perhaps on the most perhaps natural places on Earth. Surrender to it.
I never naively wished something could be over as much as I did over the miles that followed.
Photographers Point, our distinct indicator of 2 hours remaining was our intended rest point but unlike on the way in, this time the Point was an enclave of bloodsuckers. I felt like I couldn’t even fight them anymore. I let them bite me and only lethargically moved to shoo them. Meanwhile, Ryan seemed on the verge of a legitimate panic attack.
At the very least, we knew we were in the home stretch. This was the flattest, easiest section of the trail…but it didn’t feel that way when we started walking again. It was nearly 7 o’clock. We didn’t doubt that we’d finish in daylight but were now concerned about not making it to Pinedale in time to get dinner before the kitchen closed at 7 at Wind River Brewing.
Could we have found food somewhere else if we were late? Yeah, sure. But the idea of NOT getting a delicious brewery burger after an atrocious 34-hour adventure sounded like the equivalent of being stuck at the mosquito asylum of our basecamp. We were hurting, but knowing that, I began to push the pace. Ryan, whose heavier pack had him possibly hurting even more than me, heaved and grained in the struggle to quicken our pace. I didn’t want to hike faster, but knew I needed to.
“Is this too fast or slow?”
“Too fast! I’m hurting here!” He responded half angry but half thankful for the push. “But it’s good, I know we gotta move.”
Only half an hour into this new quickened pace, the pain in my feet began shifting. Not in a good way. It’s one thing to walk through pain in your feet and your muscles, it’s simply about enduring each step and focusing on just one more, over and over again.
Injury pain is different. I managed to evade my usual knee pain caused by a heavy pack and earlier calf pain had cleared away with stretching. As per usual at this point of fatigue, my left hip begins to lock up, as simple as an overuse causing my body to attempt to stop me from going forward.
I tried to work through the pain but inevitably found myself limping, slowing my pace significantly. At the same time, Ryan seemed to have been hit by a cheery wave of crazy. At least that’s how it appeared because after struggling to keep up with my pace, he began running— maybe trotting was a better word as his heavy pack seemed to threaten to knock him over.
One part of me thinks, WTF Ryan have you been bullshitting me about how tired you are this whole time?! But when he began chanting made-up words of encouragement, I realized this was nothing short of delirium.
His chants echoed
“Come on Gabi! You can do this! We’ve got it! Keep on moving! Peach beer! Keep on moving! Dank Dust! Almost there! Peach beer! Dank Dust!”
Laughing through the pain, his chants continued until my pace once again, slowed. For the first time all day, I thought to myself: I can’t do this.
In backpacking and mountain adventures over 8 years across 26 countries, only once had I ever wanted to quit so bad. Only once had I hurt so much. Only once had I ever struggled to just keep stepping forward. It was on day 7 of fast packing trip around Tour Du Mont Blanc.
With the support of Ryan’s 2 trekking poles that he handed off to me, I kept walking, each step making my left hip feel like cracking through frozen ice sheathing hip.
Ryan’s trotting pace pulled me forward like a string tied between us. I could only tell myself that we were so close to the trailhead. That’s when Ryan stopped ahead of. He looked down at his GPS and as I reached him, a look of intensity bordering on anger graced his face as he told, “It’s 2 more miles.”
My jaw drops. He must be joking. “2 miles?!?!” I say flabbergasted, thinking I misheard.
“Yeah, 2 miles let’s go!”
A whole other hour of this.
Ryan pushes the trotting pace without relenting and I’m forced to walk in a full fast stride, when all I wanted to do is limp and waddle.
The point of misery surpassed any ability to distract me. Ryan’s voice faded away, I couldn’t get myself to think of anything else, and I’m left to be with the pain of each step. All I could do was cry. It was frankly relieving to release any extra energy trapped in my body, weighing me down in those final moments.
At 8:30pm we arrive at the trailhead. We cross the parking lot, I drop my pack, and fall into the front seat, not even feeling relieved, just feeling a small shock throughout my body.
I can see an excited relief wash over Ryan instantly as he sits down, pounds half a Dank Dust, and starts driving to Pinedale. For once, he wants to share excitement before me but all I can do is just close my eyes ad ignore him for a bit.
5 minutes later, the shock passes enough for me to break my silence and all I can say is, “Fuck.”
Ryan laughs, hands me a Dank Dust, and finally, I smile. We did it. I couldn’t believe we actually did it.
Well, simply, got out. We didn’t send, summit, or climb anything successfully. We just survived. Maybe it was naive to attempt a route with the possibility such conditions. Or, it was a daring step into the unknown with a willingness to endure whatever the mountains wanted to throw at us. Regardless, it was a walk amongst the mortality of the human condition, the delicate line between daring and too dangerous, leading me to face my ego, surrender my expectations, and emerge form the depths that I literally walked myself into.