Emily dropped me off at the airport at 5:30. Received a call from Dan that they were stuck in traffic and would be a few minutes late; we would still have plenty of time to make the 7:40 flight. At the ticket counter we needed to re-arrange items in our luggage to get below the 50# weight limit. Our food for the 2 weeks plus gear! Some of the food needed to be moved into our carry-on bags. At security, my carry-on was flagged for additional screening. It had 10 pounds of food almost all repackaged into ziploc bags. The security agent was friendly, and we joked a bit as he went through it all swabbing bricks of cheese and bags of dehydrated meals. During the conversation he asked us if we knew what the spectrometer was screening for. We replied we didn't and he told us traces of explosives. The joking continued as he just swabbed the bag of chili.
The flight from Roch-Charlotte-Denver was uneventful. The shuttle to our hotel took a long time to show up. It was past midnight before we checked in; 2am Rochester time.
Day 2; Already Behind Schedule
The next morning I checked on our flight to Riverton and the struggle began. The 10am flight had been cancelled and we would now be on the 6pm flight. We looked into all different options including renting a car and driving but all were cost prohibitive. Money vs time. We re-arranged our shuttle pickup for our new arrival time in Riverton. In the meantime, Dan did some "phone shopping" for flies from an outfitter in Lander, WY. Our shuttle driver would pick up the supplies for us to save some time. We eventually arrived in Riverton and were met by Christian of Custom Crusie Control who then drove us first to drop off our traveling luggage and then to Worthen Meadows. We arrived close to 11 pm. Set up tents in the dark and made plans to get up early and try to make up some time. We had hoped to do 4 miles already with our heavy packs leaving only 8 for the next day, but now we would be carrying our full load 12 miles, starting at 8000ft.
Day 3; Legs of Jelly
Up at dawn and all packed up. Boy the pack is heavy with that much food; more than double what I usually carry and we are at elevation. We were on the trail before 8am. 12 miles to go with a net gain of 2000ft, no time to acclimate we jumped into the deep end. This was going to be tough a harbinger of what was to come. signed in at the register 2 people, 12 nights, no stock animals. The trail began uphill, of course. The pack was heavy but not so bad. A lot of people backpack with packs close to 50#, just not me. The trail was called Sheep Meadow and we were heading to the Popo Agie River 3 miles in for our first stop; breakfast. Dan mentioned he liked the idea of starting early to and stopping for breakfast, though this was the only time we would use the technique for the rest of the trip except for the last day. Cream of Wheat and coffee, quick and easy. We set aside of lunch fixins', we chose to use of one heavier lunch options originally scheduled for Day 5 to get it out of our packs and it was a no-cook option. The trail, the elevation gain, the heavy pack, and the altitude was beginning to take its toll. I was still moving, just much slower struggling to keep up the pace. Each step seemed to sap more energy than usual. We took many breaks, but it wasn't enough. Made lunch at 1 pm, and rested for 30 minutes. Each step felt like a burden and we still had 5 miles to go and a significant climb of 600ft right at the end to reach our final elevation of 10,200 ft. Dan slowed down his pace, and I still trailed behind. I stopped numerous times on the uphills, leaning on my poles. Dan kept encouraging me and stayed just enough ahead to pull me along. I pushed myself to take each step deliberately. We eventually made it to Deep Creek Lakes. I do not know how, I could not feel my legs for the last 2 miles.
Snow was visible on the upper slopes and a smaller shelf on the northern shore of the lake. we set up camp. Dan fished, I filtered water and got the fire going. Boiled some water for dinner, but since Dan returned with 2 large cutthroats trout it would be fish for dinner. We adjusted our menu plan for second time and tonight we would have trout tacos. The water would be used for bathing.
Day 4; On the Edge
We adjusted our itinerary to make today a base camp/day hike. Basically we swapped our Day 4 with Day 9 when we would be passing through the Deep Creek Lakes to pick up our food cache. An easy breakfast and pre-made lunch to have it waiting for us when we returned from our morning adventure. The plan was explore the Deep Creek Lakes in the AM and then the Ice Lakes in the afternoon. We started up the trail along the lower deep creek lakes towards its inlet. About halfway to the inlet Dan spotted trout rising. The trail was a good 20-30 ft above the shore of the lake and the steepness provided a good view into the water. He snuck down to the waters edge while I spotted from above. The cut-throat trout (we thought they were golden at the time) were somewhat picky. Often approaching a fly and then turning away at the last second. Dan brought in a few good ones which we stashed in a rock cooler at the shoreline for our return. We put up a small cairn to mark the spot on the trail so we could find it later.
Continuing on to the inlet and the northern slopes. At the inlet a large snow shelf was being undercut by the water. Dan fished the inlet, we could see the trout swimming through the shallows and stacking up in the deep pools. While Dan fished I continued up to the next lake and scouted a location for us to cross the inlet. At the next lake I sat on a rock lining the shore admiring the view and exploring the mountain backdrop with my eyes. As I was finishing my snack, Dan made it to thee lake. We backtracked a bit to the crossing and made our way to the inlet of the middle lake to the south. This inlet was a decent cascade transporting the water from the next lake a few hundred feet up. There was discernible trail at this point, so we picked our way through the boulders, wild-flowered grassy knolls and eventually tothe eastern shore of the largest of the deep creek lakes. A fantastic view greeted us. Using the map, dan would point out the different peaks such as Little El Capitan and Wind River Peak and other geologic formations we could see across the lake and surrounding the lower lakes. The un-named peaks were just as impressive as the named ones. We were now at 10,800 ft. To the SE, up and over the ridge was the Ice-Lakes. After a brief respite we worked our way back a little to the outlet to find a way to cross the cascade. There was knoll on the other side which we were going to use a means to access the uppermost of the lakes. The best spot to cross was jumping a gap at the limits of my stride. I was more concerned with the return, but I would deal with that later. The knoll ahead of us is just shy of 11k ft. we climbed up a ways and made our way clockwise along some of the ledges and dropoffs. These heights would typically cause me concern, but I was glad I was able to enjoy them without anxiety. I did maintain a healthy distance from the steepest cliff at 120' above the waters edge.
Continuing in our clockwise and up direction at one point we had to climb up a crevice to get to the next ledge. Soon the smallest and uppermost of the deep creek lakes came into view. The rock dam holding it back reminded both of us of the shortest portage in the Quetico last year which began the "portaging the rock". Satisfied with just seeing the lake we also decided it would be best to find a different way back/down. We continued in the same direction to either climb down the northern section, or go up and over the top. The next few minutes found us walking north up a grassy meadow towards the other deep creek lakes. "The hills are alive..." rand through my head. Dan climbed up on a rock to visually scout us a route down. It would necessitate us walking along the top of one of the snow fields. As it was August, the snow field has been pulling away from the rock face leaving a narrow but deep crevice between. At first we would lean towards the rock with an out stretched arm and our hand along the rock face, but eventually the gap became to large and we would have to drop into the crevice for a short while. It was a challenge to keep far enough from the crack to not have it collapse, and not so far we would slide down the snow field. At the other side we were able to drop down to the next ledge which we should be able to follow around to the the other side. We rested a bit here and looked out over the lakes with the mountains in the distance. It turned out that this way was not our route out. We came to a drop which was too much. So we backtracked back up to the snow field, and retraced our steps. It was easier the second time as our previous footprints provided more stability. We then headed up and over the top of the knoll. I lost Dan in the trees so I climbed up to the very top to see if I could make out his hat. He soon realized I was not immediately behind him, and called out. By then I had figured out which direction he had gone and was almost caught up. Now on the eastern slopes we swichbacked down the ledges back to the water's edge about 200ft down. The route we had taken both on the ascent and descent had pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. I would later thank Dan for pushing me past my limits. He replied to not thank hom or he just might do it again... little did I know at the time.
We scrambled down the boulder field the way we came to the middle lake. Dan tossed a fly into a hole which had a number of fish stacking up. It didn't take him too long to hook a beauty. From my vantage point I took a number of photos of the fight and landing. Since we had some nice ones already "on ice" this one was spared the frying pan and released. Dan continued to fish and I slowly made my way down and back to the trails. As I closed in on our campsite I passed another with a family setting up. They had packed in with 2 llamas. After chatting a bit and a couple llama photos I returned to camp and began filtering water. I had barely started when Dan returned. It was now 3pm, our morning adventure had taken the good part of the entire day. Our late lunch would be an early dinner and a late supper. Dan is fishing again while I write and relax. After the 12 miler yesterday and todays adventure I could use it.
Day 5. Old McDonalds Farm
So far the both of us have been awakw before sunrise proper around 6am. Today was no different and I being up slightly ahead of Dan restarted the fire from the buried embers in the ash. Dan made coffee and I buckwheat pancakes w/pecans & blueberries. Dan stashed the bear canisters with our food for day 10-15 as we would be coming back through this area on the last leg of our journey. We were on trail by 9am which was our goal. A little uphill before the long descent of 800ft to Echo and Baer Lakes. We would be climbing this stretch on the morning of day 10. At the first Echo Lake, the brook trout were rising so we stopped for 15 minutes as Dan landed a few which were spared the frying pan. While scouting campsites for our return through this valley we were leap-frogged by 2 other backpackers. We caught up them at the next trail junction. They were in the site next to us the previous night and on the last few days of their trip, with today being the Cirque of Towers (our goal for day 8). We headed in the direction of Dickinson Park and had to cross the Popo Agie River. The ford at the crossing is likely more often used by horses with higher clearance than ourselves. With our pants and shoes around our necks Dan went first. At the deepest section with the fastest current the water was mid thigh. For me, it was wetting the bottom portion of my shorts. Dan entertained himself by taking pictures of me crossing the river. I have not seen them yet. Oh, the water was frigid! Later we would cross another stream but this time on a log. A decent step off for Dan, but for me a bit longer than a full stride so my trailing foot just barely hit the water as Dan grabbed me from falling in completely. Thanks buddy.
Heading up the high meadow connector trail which would be about 650 ft elevation gain on winding switchbacks with plenty of equine evidence. These horse trails are long; this one showed relatively recent trail work with shored up side hills and water bars. As we neared the top a great view over the valley was found so we rested a bit. We opted not to have lunch here since both of us were low on water. Soon enough we would find a waterfall and make lunch nearer the next junction with the high meadow trail. After lunch and at the junction we turned left toward Cliff Lake following fresher horse tracks and poop. Wishing out loud, I commented they might be on a day ride. With just under two miles to Cliff Lake, Dan had a little giddy-up in his step, hoping to get to camp before the horses I imagined (and later confirmed). As it became apparent we were not going to catch them, we stopped at a boggy meadow to fill water and look around. I was swarmed by black flies, but they were a minor inconvenience unlike our Adirondack blood suckers. While looking around Dan found some horseshoes in a sandy area of the meadow. It looked like some folks had set up a horseshoe pit at some point in the past. Pressing on we arrived at Cliff Lake with the horses tied up in the campsite. The group was on a guided tour led by two younger guys (20s-30s) all dressed up in the cowboy/dud ranch attire. They certainly looked the part. The one napping at the lakeside confirmed they were on just a day ride and would be heading out soon. Dan gave a show to the kids hooking a large trout on his first cast right from the shore. We explored the other side of the outlet looking for a better campsite nearer the sandy beach. Returning to the other campsite, the group had departed and the campsite was now covered in horse manure. It smelled like a barnyard. We found some tent sites away from the main area with all the manure; ironically closer to the area where the stock are usually tethered away from the human camping area. Using a pince branch we swept walkways through the barnyard for access to/from the firepit, and the trail to the water. Dan fished some more while I readied camp, collected wood, filtered water, heated bathing water and other camp chores.
Cliff Lake is aptly named. Its backdrop is mountains like most here, but the mountain is much closer and more vertical and the cliff face terminates at the waters' edge. A descent cascade also pummels down the cliff, carving into the rock as it descends into the lake. Later we would feast on trout and cream of potato soup. We made it to bed before dark with the scent of manure wafting through the mosquito netting. EIEIO
Video of still photos taken on trip. Please excuse the date error on title page.