In the spirit of making the most of long weekends, we drew a thick red line through a route along Grand Teton National Park and packed our bags. In true wandering fashion, we had little in the way of a plan, save for a used—and outdated–Lonely Planet guide to the park.
Early Saturday morning, stormed through the visitor center in Moose, WY and were second in line for those hard-to-get backcountry permits. In Grand Teton National Park, backpackers must procure a backpacking permit that specifically lists the campsite where they will stay each night. This level of organization irked me, mostly because the campgrounds I wanted were already full, and we couldn’t postpone our trek another day. we hesitantly chose an alternative route and promised we’d stick to it.
Our route was this: Teton Crest Trail, beginning at the Granite Canyon Trailhead, looping through Death Canyon Shelf and around Alaska Basin, then back out and down through Death Canyon.
Day 1: Oh shit, BEAR!
One hour into our park stroll (before even repacking our packs) we ran into a momma black bear and her cubs. Luckily we were a safe distance, but it made the bear threat more real than ever. We made a quick pit stop in Teton Village and cheered on the marathon runners finishing up an impressive race. She unpacked, repacked, stuffed and Tetris-ed the oversized plastic (park-required) bear canisters into our bags. All food, toiletries and other smell items were to live in the canister. Again, this irked me because I believe food should roam free in my pack, pockets, hands and other areas attached to my person. I also believe in not being eaten by a grizzly bear, so into the plastic bullet my snacks went. Around 1 p.m. we were off on the trail, late start into the wilderness.
It wasn’t easy. We made it to the end of the Upper Granite Canyon Camping Zone, where we threw down our packs and began tossing up Clementine, our trusty orange tent. We ate freeze-dried lasagna and retreated into the tent when the temperatures dipped below comfort level. There are no fires allowed in the park, so warmth is a tricky game.
Day 2: Death Canyon Views and Uphill Climbs
We packed up camp early the next morning, excited to have avoided the forecasted rain. Throwing our bags onto our backs, we began the trek to Death Canyon. The beautiful route took use by Marion Lake and across Fox Creek Pass, where heavy gusts of wind worked in our favor, pushing dark and pulsing thunderheads past us. Along Death Canyon Shelf, the views of the jagged, toothy Teton mainstay mountains are simply incredible. Every step is a new vista, you have to fight the urge to stop moving and constantly shoot photos.
We took a break to enjoy the scenery and some snacks. The more you move without reprieve, the more you find that food is fuel. A few bites of almonds or a protein bar and you can literally feel your body’s systems regenerate and energy flush through you. Newly energized, we continued on the trek into Alaska Basin. After an hour or two, we continued into a basin, yet kept climbing up the trail, as it ascended up, up, up. Not having seen a sign for Alaska Basin camping, we weren’t sure where to put up Clementine. But as thick plumes of fog rose from behind the far-off horizon, across the basin and onto our faces, we decided lodging was more important than perhaps camping in the wrong area.
Fog drenched our clothing and misted our faces. We retreated into the tent for more JetbBoil-created hot meals. Drops of rain ticked the rain flap and slid down the side. Eventually the rain stopped and gave us a decent sunset across the basin. We put away our bear canisters and called it a day, exhausted after an 11-mile jaunt.
I woke in the night, startled by the sound of thunder and a flash of lightning. Intermittent raindrops multiplied into a substantial stream of water cascading down our tent.
“Lightning,” I whispered.
“How many seconds between?” he asked.
“About 4,” I said.
“We’re still okay.”
I huddled in the fetal position in my sleeping bag and hugged my knees. More lightning. 1-2-3…
We grabbed hands and counted, whispering cheesy jokes to keep our minds off the fact that any minute now we might be microwaved popcorn. I’d prepared so heavily for bear interaction, I hadn’t even dived into the possibility thunder, lightning, and me in a tent. The rain eventually stopped, as did the lightning and roars of thunder. I found it difficult to fall back asleep, so I attended to the sound of pine needles tumbling down the tent. Tick, tick, tick.
Day 3: Frozen
The next morning, the sun wasn’t out to play. The stake holding my rain flap had been ripped out by wind and beneath its crumples I saw a thick layer of pure, white snow.
“Ah fuck,” I whispered.
With plans to hike out at 8 am and snow still falling, the best option seemed to be sleep. We slept for a few more hours and the snow seemed to subside. I ventured outside the tent, only to grab our bear canisters and get some hot coffee going. Thank goodness for the JetBoil and strong coffee.
I canvassed the area and it was all the same. We’d planned to hike back down into Alaska Basin, take Death Canyon to Static Peak and head over to the trailhead where we could easily get back to our car. That route no longer seemed like the best solution, with more visible snowpack in that direction. Not to mention we’d failed to prepared for this much now. With my partner skate shoes and me with $1.50 mittens from Wal-Mart, we were a raggedy version of backpackers at best, and surely not equipped an ice-capped climb up 3,000 ft.
I surveyed the route up Hurricane Pass and the trail looked relatively sparse. We would add a few more miles onto our trek and be heading the opposite direction of our car, close to 10 miles from our parking spot. We shook the ice off our tent, taking turns blowing into our frigid hands. We tossed on our packs and gazed back at our spot. I’ve gotten into the habit of waving goodbye to places I loved, in case I don’t make it back and to let the earth know our love.
Hurricane Pass was breathtaking. Our frosty spirits soared and allowed us to momentarily forget that our phalanges felt like ice pops. Event with the snow, the ascent wasn’t terrible. Atop the pass, winds ripped across our jackets and slapped our cheeks pink. Covered in wisps of white, glacial Lake Como, nestled at the base of the pass gleamed an opaque turquoise among the fog. We paused near the lake, gathering our thoughts and smiling into the infinitely blue waters.
We’d prepared for the worst and the best was upon us. The trek through Cascade Canyon to Jenny lake was all downhill. As we departed into this portion of the journey, the sun seeped through the clouds and struck our faces with much-needed warmth. As we descended further into the canyon, the snow disappeared and the sun’s rays took over.
Hours later, sore, tired and ready for a bed, we reached the ferry dock to take us across the lake. It was strange, the gaggle of tourists scurrying about, after seeing only a handful of people in three days. At the station, we were overjoyed to have made it out, when the odds of being snowed in our tent seemed very real at moments. Then came the realization that we were still 10 miles from our car. We walked to the road and attempted to hitchhike, our faces caked in dirt and sweat. Our clothes were worn and our shoes muddy. Nearly a hundred cards sped by, averting their gaze to avoid the guilt of leaving us there. But, not being an actual homeless couple, we could afford the luxury of a $100 cab from town to take us to our car.
And as our lovely drive regaled her experiences with hiking and grizzlies, we stared at the jagged peaks of Grand Teton National Park, beaming through their façade and into the belly of the beast, the magic of the struggle and one unforgettable experience.