Backpacking & ice climbing in the Wind River Range – GEAR:30

This trip was not going to be considered “light and fast,” but the climb was. With forty-five pound packs loaded onto our backs, Jenna Damon and I departed the Elkhart-Pole Creek trailhead just outside of sleepy Pinedale, Wyoming in the afternoon. We were on our way into one of the more truly wild landscapes of the lower forty-eight. The Wind River mountains are home to moose, grizzly bear, wolves, glaciers, and the highest peak in Wyoming.

The route we were after is named due to its proximity to Mt. Helen’s connected feature, which is called Tower One. Host to some of the most superb granite alpine climbing, the west face of Tower One rises 1,500 ft from the valley floor. On the other side is a 1,000 ft gully choked full of snow and ice… or so we hoped.

Jenna soaking in the sun after hoofing our loads to camp one

Drought is no doubt affecting the snowpack across the United States, and the Wind River mountains were no exception. This gully, however, faces true north—making for what is sometimes referred to as the Wind Rivers premier ice route, “Tower 1 Gully.” After a few hours, six miles of extremely well-maintained trail, and a glimpse of wildlife in the form of trailside moose, we reached camp one: a spectacular, naturally protected, bivouac site that looked like home.

Just before arriving at camp, we came across a human asking if we had seen any bears (or a sleeping pad). Unfortunately, we were coming from the wrong direction to help in locating the lost sleeping pad, but did share the lack of bear sighting. One person in that party of two was going to be awfully cold overnight.

From the trailhead to camp one, we estimated less than fifty percent of folks had bear spray or bear spray that was easily accessible, a piece of protection (and peace of mind) I would not pass up on in the Winds. The trailhead sits at 9,400 feet, and the fall equinox we experienced truly brought fall-like weather, which made for great temperatures but perhaps contributed to less wildlife activity.

We took standard precautions and both used an Opsak (odor-proof bag) which lines the inside of our Ursak (bear-proof bag) for our food storage needs. We ate Peak Refuel Homestyle Chicken and Rice topped with a serving of instant mashed potatoes for dinner. The combination of the two made for a very substantial meal in just one bag—booyah! 

“An obsession with guaranteed success can all to easily imprison our minds. Alpinisim is the art of freedom, I think.
Including the freedom to fail.”
Hayden Kennedy 

We had a casual start to day two with a Peak Refuel breakfast scramble and a cup of coffee freshly roasted Caffe Ibis out of Logan, UT from the AeroPress Go. We rolled out just after 9:00 a.m. and hiked northeast on the Seneca Lake Trail, which crossed streams, creeks, meadows, and more. Finally, we reached the trails namesake: Seneca Lake—a huge, blue, beautiful body of water providing a great point to stop, eat lunch, rest, or just soak in a view.

While stopped, we filtered the cold, clear water with our Platypus QuickDraw, ate some trail mix, and soaked our feet for a moment of relief. The water was revitalizing and provided just what we needed to finish the day. We hiked up over the High Line Trail/CDT, passed Island Lake, and hiked up onto a bluff where we found a sweet spot for camp two. After dinner, we sat back in our camp chairs overlooking yet another one of the countless beautiful lakes, the sunset, and our objective. 

Jenna in camp two, bundled up for the cold temps arriving shortly after the sun went down

To save weight and space on this trip, we upgraded our pot from the MSR Trail Lite 2L Pot to the MSR Titan Kettle, which weighs in at just 118 grams and holds a little less than 1L of water. It fit our needs perfectly. Jenna also upgraded her sleeping pad to the warm and ultralight ThermaRest NeoAir Xlite, shaving off nearly a pound of weight and gaining more than one full point of r-value over her previous pad. The little things in life count and can really start to weigh you down, making each day that much harder.

We started day three with the delicious Peak Refuel Mixed Mountain Berry Granola with rice milk and hit the trail toward our objective at the head of Titcomb Basin. Poor weather set in after just a few miles. We were just short of our intended destination, and rather than get soaked, we decided to quickly set up the tent and hunker down until it passed. After an hour, the skies opened up and we left the tent to go scope our objective with just day packs and the ten essentials. We were unable to clearly see the route to “Tower 1 Gully,” but the adjacent slopes would suggest that it too had snow and ice.

We hiked back down to camp three and enjoyed another hour of sunshine before it set behind the ridge line, making for a cold shadow valley. Rain and wind pounded our tent overnight, with lightning so bright and thunder so loud it felt as if the ground rumbled beneath us…and perhaps it did. The forecast for similar weather the following day had us considering retreat.

Weather moving in on our way up to the head of Titcomb Basin

Day four, the alarm went off at 3:00 a.m. and we pulled a premium forecast from the Garmin InReach Mini, which allowed us to see the chances of precipitation having been reduced to zero for the time we anticipated climbing. We brewed up and set off by headlamp at 4:30 a.m. We made our way to the toe of the snowfield, donned crampons, and roped up in just under an hour. Snow, scree, and scrambling followed until we finally we hit some ice requiring a front point. We moved at a steady pace simul-climbing and eventually hit an established anchor where I brought Jenna up. With just the technical climbing before us and the peaks across the basin lighting up, it was perfect timing.

We continued moving together up the thousand feet of snow and ice with only two stops to drink, eat, and swap gear. After a final mixed move, I could see the other side, which means we made it…halfway. Now we just had to get down.

We opted to rappel the route and utilized a few existing anchors, adding three nuts, a new cord, and removing old tat as we went. We were also able to use a handful of naked v-threads, which allowed us to leave zero materials behind. We hiked back to camp in great weather, knowing more poor weather was on its way. We spent a relatively short amount of time resting and packing up camp three, then started making our way out of the basin and back to camp two for the night. 

Jenna descending the last bit of snowfield before hiking back to camp

We arrived at camp with weather on the horizon, hurriedly set up, and backtracked to the nearest source for water so we could hydrate and cook. Just as we finished filtering, the hail hit. At least we weren’t getting wet! We got in the tent and started boiling water for what turned out to be our favorite dinner and dessert on the trip, Peak Refuel Sweet Pork and Rice followed by Bushka’s Kitchen Sweet Potato Mash…mmm! Once again, the skies unleashed overnight. Luckily, we rose to a calm, crisp morning and small pockets of hail leftover from the night before.

Day five, we hit the trail after breakfast and coffee. It wasn’t long before hail, snow, thunder, and lighting accompanied us on-and-off for what turned out to be a magnificent hike back toward civilization. For just thirty minutes, we stopped for a coffee break mid-day. The sun came out long enough for us to enjoy the AeroPress Go once more. A feeling of relief came over us as we reached camp one to find no one in it. We set up, ate, and got in our bags.

Day six, we enjoyed our last morning in the Winds slowly, soaking up the sun and packing our bags. We were headed uphill right out of camp, which provided a great warm-up for the day. We hiked out the six miles in a little over two hours and stopped just a couple of times to chat with individuals about our time here. It’s magic, and so is the food and beverage at Wind River Brewing! We loaded up on calories and walked off the full feeling while visiting the Great Outdoor Shop, Nested West, and Bison’s Bounty. Jenna found some handmade earrings at Nested West by a company called Apres Ski Jewelry, which would make a great gift for loved ones waiting for you back home.

In the rearview mirror was another adventure, a story to tell, and an experience that helps continue to shape the life I want to live. Until next time, cheers!

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