Finding the Winds

When this year’s American Alpine Journal arrived a couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled to see the first twenty-three-page piece was one by Joe Kelsey. A prolific climber, wanderer and guidebook author, Kelsey opened my eyes to the Western U.S. wilds a decade ago; whatever success I found in my first, solo road trip out west was due to timely timely arrival of his book, and preparations for the following two vacations consisted of studying a map and Kelsey.

Instead of going home or elsewhere in 2001, I had stayed for the summer in the Chicago suburbs, moved into the off-campus house where I would live for the next few years and worked the job I had throughout the preceding semester. It was a new life, and a fun time with friends who had also stuck around, but the job was getting bad, and I missed the mountains. After spending the summer of ’99 in Nepal, I satisfied my lust for topography in 2000 by hiking and bike riding around the eastern “mountains” of Tennessee while working (for the fun of it — certainly wasn’t for the money) as a camp counselor. A year later, stuck in flatland Illinois and newly promoted to a supervisory position that came with the expectation that I would treat my employees poorly, I was ready to bolt.

I started applying for computer-programming jobs in California, sincerely but not very diligently. I thought about transferring to schools elsewhere. Eventually, in the last few days of July, with senior year starting in a few weeks and desperately in need of money to pay for said year of school, I went in and quit my job.

Or, I tried to quit my job. They had just put a lot of money into training me for the promotion and attempting to indoctrinate me with corporate bullshit, and I was good at it. My quitting at the time was neither good for them nor for my wallet, and they asked me to stay. I had already made plans to go up to Wisconsin to meet my family for a week and then to drive out west, so instead I got a two-week paid vacation and a reassignment on my return. Worth a shot, it seemed, so I headed out west with at least the promise of a continued paycheck when I got back.

A few days before, when I had made up my mind to quit and to spend the rest of the time before school started on the road, I pulled out all of the road maps I had gathered from various states and started looking for mountains, then Googling them (more accurately, back then I was Yahoo!ing them). I wanted real mountains (not eastern U.S. mountains), and I wanted the closest ones to Chicago. A day or two of driving should get me there, and I can spend the rest of the week in my tent, leaving in time to get back to work the following Monday afternoon.

Colorado was the logical destination, but I hate the idea of crowds and permits, and the popular, beautiful areas of RMNP are too popular and therefore permitted. I also hate snakes and insects, and I hate the idea of having to protect myself and my food from bears and lions. Colorado just didn’t seem ideal, though I know it is lovely.

The next bit of topography to catch my eye was in the western part of Wyoming. While the Tetons and Yellowstone seemed too pedestrian and would require some permits or planning, right between them, running mostly north to south, was another range of substantial size. It contained the state’s highest peak, and pictures showed glaciers and snowfields and real mountains. Even better, it was in a wilderness area, not a national park (too popular) and not a national forest (potentially disturbed by hunters, ATV-riders, loggers, etc.). I could just go wander, figure out this whole backcountry camping thing, maybe walk or scramble up an easy mountain if one presented itself. Importantly, the mountains would resemble those that so thrilled me in Nepal, with some snow, at least, and it would scratch my distracting itch and let me return to happiness in the flatlands for the next year.

I had, in this fashion, chosen the Wind River Mountains as my destination for my next several backpacking trips. With a few days to go before I was leaving for the trip, I looked for some guidance about how to get into the Wind Rivers and where to go when I got there. On the relatively newly popular Amazon, I found a couple of books. One of them looked pretty substantial and was in its second edition, and I ordered it.

The book was Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains by Joe Kelsey, and I had to go pick it up at the post office in our small town in Minnesota because it showed up there a couple of hours before I left with the family for the week in Wisconsin. I spent that trip studying the book, picked out a route and headed out there. Two days later, in Pinedale, Wyoming, I bought the set of maps that covered the Winds, and that night at my front-country campsite I matched up the book trail descriptions to the maps. Signed the register early the next morning and hit the trail.

I didn’t do well on that trip. Choosing to start on a trail described as arduous sounded good from a distance, and I picked the part of the range that was lower and less snowy, which didn’t quite satisfy. I get bored in campsites by myself, and you can only walk so many hours uphill before you need just to stop and relax for the evening. But that trip was followed by a better one, and then a better one. The last one was to Indian Basin, and there I found a beautiful home for a base camp, a peaceful place with plenty of space and hiking, surrounded by scrambling and climbing routes on beautiful peaks arranged in a semi-circle around the basin, with its opening looking down to beautiful Island Lake. It’s that area and the semi-contiguous Titcomb Basin on which Kelsey focuses in the AAJ piece.

Later I moved a little north into Montana and had a couple of great trips there. This year, it’s Alaska and next year back to Nepal. But eventually I will find my way back to the Winds, maybe for some climbing this time or maybe just some more peaceful enjoyment of a place that is a short drive away, a place seemingly visible to the day hiker at Photographer’s Point but hidden by the intervening ridges, with its hard day’s hike that scares off almost everyone, quiet as all beautiful hell.

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