Friday, January 6, 2012

Popo Agie Wilderness, Day 5

Day 5: A Blessedly Snow-Free Spot Below Lower Deep Creek Lake to Pinto Park and a Commanding View (3 miles)

The wind howled throughout the night. Squalls came through periodically, dropping buckets of rain and then moving on. I worried for awhile about Kevin and his collapsible tent, but as the conditions really got nasty after midnight, I stopped worrying about Kevin and started worrying about me. I have used the same ultra-light tent for many years, in some really ugly conditions, but this was the first time I worried about the tent collapsing. When the big gusts would blow through, the entire structure would be staggered by the blast, the roof pressing down on top of me. But I made it, and so did all of the other guys. Kevin said that it got so bad at one point that the wind was even shaking his pillow. Oh, the horror!

The squalls passed through sometime in the night, but the wind persisted into the morning. None of us had slept well, and we were all a bit grumpy and anxious to leave. The site had proven accommodating, but it wasn’t spectacular. Despite the deep snow and the high water and the complete hatchet job that the snow and the water had done to all of our excellent planning, we held out hope that spectacular still might be on the agenda.

We breakfasted on oatmeal and coffee and hot chocolate, all the while packing and preparing to hike. We had agreed that our only choice was to make for Pinto Park and hope for the best. The North Fork valley might have been appealing if we had one more day, but none of us were anxious to set ourselves up for a really long day of hiking followed by eight hours of driving on the last day. Besides, Oliver already was rehearsing what he might order when we got back to the brewpub in Lander. I found his long recitations about the merits of the bacon burger, and the mushroom burger, and the California burger (California burgers? in Wyoming?!) to be mildly annoying, sort of like being poked in the eye with a sharp stick, but I have to admit that a hot, juicy burger with grilled onions and a bit of fresh avocado did sound mighty good.

Although we were all anxious to get on the trail, the wind made packing a challenge. Nothing lightweight, like a tent or a tarp or a jacket, could be set down even for a moment without a rock or something heavy on top. I momentarily lost sight of the stuff sack for my tent, and ended up having to chase it almost all the way to bear-scat rock, which was only about ten yards from the creek. Another gust, and it would have been gone for good.

The skies had been clear when we got up, but clouds began to drift in about 9:00, just as we were hoisting packs and getting ready to hike. They did not look terribly threatening, but anytime the clouds show up that early it is cause for concern. Nonetheless, we were all happy to be back on the trail, and excited about the prospect of a noteworthy adventure.

Most of the snow in the area where we were camped had melted over the last two days, and the trail conditions were very good. Only a few small snowdrifts remained, so we were hopeful that the trail to Pinto Park would have cleared up some as well. We should have known better.

The wind subsided as we rounded Pinto Knob to the east side, but we immediately found ourselves wading through deep drifts. If anything, the hiking was more difficult than it had been on the hike in. Although a lot of snow had melted, the snow that remained was soft wherever it was exposed to the sun, yet deep drifts were piled high in the shade under the trees. Ten steps on solid ground would be followed by a steep climb to the top of a drift, every second or third step would result in a deep posthole, and after struggling to clamber back to our feet on top of the snow, there would be a steep climb or quick slide down to solid ground. The worst of it only lasted for half a mile, though, and forty minutes after leaving our campsite, we were back at the junction with the Pinto Park trail. A lot of the snow had melted here, despite the thick forest canopy, and the trail was mostly clear of snow. The ground was very wet, and water was dribbling and oozing and trickling and flowing everywhere, but after struggling through the snow, wading through the muck was a pleasure.

Crossing snowdrifts.

From the junction with the Cutoff Trail, the Pinto Park trail ascends for about half a mile to Pinto Park, which straddles the low pass between the Middle and North Forks of the Popo Agie. Within a quarter of a mile, we were once again hiking through snowdrifts. A faint set of tracks appeared here and there to help us with finding the trail, but the tracks had melted away with the snow at more or less regular intervals. The intervals were not regular with respect to time or distance, however, but rather with the condition of the trail markings. Where the trail was distinct or easily identified, the tracks in the snow were plainly evident. Where the trail makers neglected markings such as cairns or blazes altogether, the snowfield would be pristine, uninterrupted by the telltale signs of travelers.

The going was very hard here. The snow was soft and in many places the drifts were deep. Stunted trees were widely spaced, no path possible that did not require crossing sun-warmed snow. We struggled for half an hour to cover a quarter of a mile, with no sign of the trail anywhere.
Eventually, we agreed that Kevin and Oliver should drop their packs, put on their snowshoes, and go on a scouting mission in search of the trail. Within five minutes they were back.

“Did you find the trail?” Rick asked.

“No,” said Oliver. “But we found a dry meadow on the south side of the saddle that we think must be Pinto Park. There’s more snow going up to the right, which is where we think the trail is.”

Dry ground suited us better than slogging through pine-scented Slurpee, so we hoisted packs and struggled up the last bit of hill to the south side of the saddle. I cannot tell you how disappointed we were to finally reach this bit of “dry” ground. The meadow was free of snow, but its entire surface was covered in at least two inches of water, more in some places. We tried crossing the meadow to get up on some rocks on the far side, but there was water sloshing around even on the hillsides. The grassy tundra looked dry enough from a distance, but the saturated ground was thick and spongy, so even on the slopes the water was two inches deep. By the time we had gone a hundred yards, we all concluded that as bad as it was hiking on snow, snow was far preferable to wading through the meadow.

The dry meadow. Worse than hiking in snow.

Our epiphany coincided with the end of the meadow in any case.  The meadow straddled the southern side of the saddle, nestled up against the northern flank of Pinto Knob. Aside from this small meadow, the saddle was heavily forested, and snow lay deep amongst the trees.

The deep snow was both a blessing and a curse, depending on who you were. If you were Oliver or Kevin, carrying snowshoes, the snow coverage was an improvement. If you were Rick or me, it meant there was no relief from the postholing and groin pulling and rolling around trying to right oneself in snow that was wet enough to swim in. We tried for a bit to have Oliver and Kevin take the lead and stamp down the snow, but Rick and I continued to sink, and their efforts were sometimes counterproductive, causing them to sink after breaking through the hard snow at the top. 

Tough sledding.

Our choices at this point were unsavory: we could turn back, we could hike due north and try to find the trail, or we could hike to the northwest and hope that we could pick up the trail a bit further along. In addition, clouds were building in the western sky, adding a sense of urgency to our deliberations. Whatever we chose to do, we needed to do it soon. None of us were inclined to turn back, and hiking uphill into the trees to find the trail we couldn’t follow when we knew more or less where it was didn’t make much sense, either, so we chose to hike downhill to the northwest.

Rick and I struggled to follow Oliver and Kevin, especially Rick. Between his small feet and his overloaded pack, it seemed as though he was sinking on every step. Every time I turned around to check on him, one of Rick’s limbs was sticking straight up out of the snow while the rest of him was buried. How he kept up I don’t know; I think he may have fashioned a snorkel out of a reed and swum most of the way. But even the snowshoes were not foolproof. Oliver and Kevin were having an easier time of it, yet they too would occasionally sink in a particularly soft spot, and then the snowshoe became an anchor as they struggled to haul themselves out of the hole. 

The forest thinned out as we worked our way downhill, slowly opening up into a broad meadow. The snow was only two to three feet deep here, but it was very soft and there was a layer of running water on the ground under the snow. These are dangerous conditions, and it was only a matter of time before one of us fell through into a stream or deep hole.

Rick and I finally caught up with Oliver and Kevin at the top of a small rise. The snow-covered meadow stretched out before us, a prelude to a wide-open view of the North Fork valley. We had finally found spectacular. Perched above the North Fork, across the valley, was the monumental Lizard Head Peak, draped in diagonal bands of snow. Behind Lizard Head was “The Cirque,” a dramatic ring of high mountains along the Continental Divide. Wind River Peak towered over the valley to the southwest, the north face clothed in ice and snow. But for a few small problems, all that spectacular was ours to enjoy. 


First among these problems was finding the trail, closely followed by finding a dry patch of ground upon which to camp. Kevin was inclined to head straight down the meadow across the snow. I was inclined to take a perpendicular path to get up into the trees and onto the small patches of dry ground that bordered the meadow.

“If we cross the meadow that way,” argued Kevin, pointing to the southwest, “it looks like there are some dry patches that might be large enough to set up camp.”

“But that involves hiking across this unstable snow, and we already know that there is water flowing under the snow everywhere. I really don’t want to sink into a deep hole and end up soaked,” I argued right back. “I’d like to find the trail, too, in case we need to hike out in bad weather.”

“What good is that going to do?” Kevin snapped. “We couldn’t follow the trail in the bright sun. How will knowing where it is at this one spot help us follow it in bad weather? And why hike that way,” asked Kevin, pointing to the north, “if we’re going to end up on the dry ground over there?” He pointed over to the bare patches off to the southwest.

“We hike that way,” I said, pointing north, “so that we don’t sink through the snow into a big puddle of water. And the last time you found a “dry patch,” it was a soggy, waterlogged bog that was worse than hiking on snow. You go where you want, you snot-faced snowshoe snob, but I am going to head up into the trees.” I wanted to stomp off for effect, but that would have been a bad idea, so I gingerly tiptoed my way across a small depression, hoping there was no stream underneath.

“Fine! Slink off into the trees, you wuss. Lot of good that chair is doing you now!” Kevin called after me.

Rick and Oliver had remained silent throughout the exchange, more amused than anything. “Looks like the kids are getting restless,” said Oliver, “must be lunchtime.”

As it turned out, Oliver was right. It was getting toward lunchtime. Oliver quickly passed me by as I struggled to reach dry ground, not surprising since he was wearing snowshoes while I was sinking to my knees every third step.

“Hey!” exclaimed Oliver. “Here’s the trail.” He had reached the edge of the snowfield, and there, running just inside the trees on the edge of the meadow, was the trail.

This was good news. I was vindicated. And I lost no time in letting Kevin know that. Sadly, my victory was short-lived. The trail skirted the edge of the meadow for perhaps a quarter of a mile, and then veered off in exactly the direction that Kevin had indicated we should go. He was vindicated. And Kevin wasted no time in letting me know that.

Tired of listening to us quarrel, Oliver suggested we stop for lunch. We had found the trail, at least for the time being the clouds were holding off, and a break would afford us the opportunity to consider our options. Directly across the meadow was a snow-free patch of ground that looked like it might be dry enough to camp. If that didn’t work out, the trail continued down the meadow, across the stream, and into the trees, and we figured we might be able to find a good camping spot as we got down into the North Fork valley. Both options were highly speculative, but they were the best we had. The only things we knew with certainty were that the entire meadow, at least where it was free of snow, was under four inches of water, and the spot we stopped for lunch was not an option. Small snowdrifts lingered under the trees, but even where the ground was free of snow it was wet and too sloped to be comfortable.

With the sun shining down, a warm spot to sit, a belly full of food, and a spectacular view to contemplate, I started to feel a bit bad about my little spat with Kevin. “Hey, Kevin!” He looked over. “Sorry about most of those things I said. You’re not as big an asshole as I implied.”

“Thanks, John. That means a lot,” Kevin answered, “especially since your not really the biggest jerk I have ever known.”

So with things all patched up, we agreed to send out scouting parties to get the lay of the land. Oliver and Kevin offered to explore the dry patch across the meadow, and I agreed to scout down the trail a ways.

My scouting trip proved a disaster. The snow-free parts of the meadow were more swamp than anything, and getting across the stream to the trail on the other side required a long hike around the bottom of the meadow, crossing the stream in three places, and all for the opportunity to discover that the trail completely disappeared under deep snow once back into the trees. Fortunately, Oliver and Kevin had better success. Crossing the meadow was treacherous and wet, but the spot we had seen from our lunch spot was dry enough to camp, and the view was top tier. Despite all the hardships and struggles we had endured to get there, being there made it all worthwhile.

However, worthwhile does not mean trouble free. The rain had held off long enough to us set up camp, and for Oliver to create a nine-hole disc golf course, but a whole day free of precipitation was out of the question. Rick and Oliver and I were just starting the first round when the rain came. It rolled in slowly, a light sprinkle, a bit of breeze, a band of thick clouds forming over The Cirque. We played in rain gear, though the conditions never really got bad. Actually, Rick and I played in rain gear, which was stylish but not conducive to disc golf excellence. But as bad as the rain gear was, it was lot better than the poncho that Oliver was wearing. Oliver figured that the poncho would be lighter than rain gear and a pack cover, and would do pretty much the same thing. To a certain extent he was right. The poncho was lighter than rain gear and a pack cover, and it did cover both Oliver and his backpack, after a fashion. The problem with poncho technology is that there is no chance it will keep you dry in the rain if there is any wind or you move around at all. And it does absolutely no good for your golf game. So Oliver was fortunate that we did not get much rain or wind, and Rick and I were fortunate that Oliver had handicapped his game by wearing what is essentially a tent with a hood.

Stylish rain gear versus a tent with a hood.

By the end of the first round, the weather had blown off to the east and the warm June sun had returned. This was all the encouragement we needed to play a second round, although not before taking time out for refreshments and a brief rest. Conveniently, the first tee was very near our kitchen area, and the last hole even closer. Oliver has been building mountain disc golf courses for many years, and he has learned the importance of building in amenities to encourage less dedicated golfers to keep playing. That group includes pretty much everybody else, and a long hike from the ninth hole to the snack shack would almost certainly mean the end of the game. 

A comfy spot on the veranda. (Photo KR)

The second round was much more pleasant than the first, and much more competitive as well. Rick and I had shed our rain gear, and Oliver his hooded tent. Kevin even emerged from seclusion to join us, and to share in the magic of the moment. And magical it was. The sun was warm, the sky was blue, the snow was white, the trees were green, the ground was brown, the flowers were yellow, and the breeze was light and scented with pine and rain and the musty damp earth. Clouds danced around The Cirque and Lizard Head Peak to the west, and a view of a thousand miles stretched out past the mountains to the north. Well, maybe I exaggerate—the clouds weren’t really dancing. After three days of battling wind and rain and snow and high water and muddy ground and the proximity of bears and shitty fishing, we had found our bliss, and it came in the form of disc golf on our dry little knoll on the northwestern shoulder of Pinto Knob.

The moment was short lived. The dancing clouds, taking exception to the sight of four old MountainGuys doing their own little disc golf dance to celebrate the moment, quickly formed a dark phalanx that charged across the valley on a rising wind. We could see the rain coming as the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the temperature dropped. Then, Boom! The lightning and thunder and rain chased us under the tarp. Of course, we had been prepared for the weather—our stoves and chairs and snacks were all set up and ready to go—but the ferocity of the downpour caught us a bit off guard. The skies opened up and dumped, just as it had the day before.

The downpour lasted only 20 minutes, long enough to plant seeds of doubt about camping on an exposed knoll, open to all the weather blowing in from the west, but not so long that any of us became too anxiety-ridden to drink a cup of coffee. It was bad, but not that bad.

The squall passed just as quickly as it started, moving off the east. The bright June sun returned, quickly warming the air and sending up plumes of steam from the rocks and tree stumps and ground. We were even treated to a double rainbow stretched across the low pass between the Middle- and North-Fork valleys. A hot cup of coffee, bright sun, steaming ground, a double rainbow, and three good friends to enjoy it with—I’d take that hand any day of the week.

Double rainbow.

Dinner that night included chili and pan-fried spoon biscuits. Soups do not typically offer enough heft to sate the hunger after a long day of hiking, but the chili and biscuits did a pretty good job. Oliver had produced another culinary masterpiece, artfully blending the spicy chili and the warm, heavy biscuits with a wide-open venue that was perfect for dissipating the gasses that were sure to form after such a meal. You know he was awarded the Fry Baby badge for his efforts.

Sunset from the veranda.

The rest of the evening was devoted to lounging and snacking and waiting for the spectacular sunset that was sure to happen. In the interim, we were treated to a lightshow of clouds and peaks and rays of sun. The sun dipped behind Lizard Head, and we could all feel the anticipation welling up—either that, or we were all shivering because it was starting to get cold out there at 10,299 feet with a mostly clear sky and lots of moisture in the air. But we were not disappointed. The moment was brief, and in that moment the clouds turned bright red, the diffuse light highlighting the bands of snow draped around Lizard Head. We oohed and aahed, gave a couple of low whistles of appreciation, Kevin and I snapped pictures, and then it was done. At that point, it is hard to say what was moving faster: the light draining out of the sky or the four of us as we dashed off for the warmth of our tents and sleeping bags.

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