“We ought to just go and see what happens. You know, put ourselves in the way of luck…” Prana had said.
I had sighed. That mountaineer’s adage always got us a bit close to riding the edge of misery for my taste.
So there we went. Hiking in from the Elkhart Park, stashing the keys at 9pm, making a game of going without headlamps for as long as possible. I squeezed out one last text to our friend and designated check-in guy before losing service. The rocks glowed on the ground just enough to keep from tripping; the moon was a lantern, flashing between the branches.
“Should we stop now, get a good sleep tonight and an early start tomorrow?” Prana asked.
We’d only hiked an hour- I had no idea how far we’d come. But waking in the tent was always more conducive to an early start, so we were ahead either way.
“Sure.” I followed Prana into a meadow, kicking around the edges until we found a flat enough camp.
The alarm went off at 5, and not 2 minutes later the first raindrop bounced off the tent. 80-90% chance of storms predicted all of today. 40-50% tomorrow. 20% Thursday. We had 43 miles to cover- 12 of those off trail. 3 passes around 12,000 feet. All of it the first time following this particular guidebook author- always a gamble. What does he consider hard? What does he call not technical? How fast does this dude hike compared to us?
“We’ll just take it a little bit at a time, and if we can’t make it over the pass, we’ll find a different lower route to poke around on,” said Prana, as if reading my thoughts.
We drank our hot coffee and crunched our granola, the individual raindrops becoming rain.
We emerged into the twilight-disguised morning. Mist and cloud swirled and coalesced, offering only the immediate forest and the occasional meadow as part of our world. We started hiking, shivering, and even after working hard uphill for several miles, the shivering built to irrepressible.
“I n-n-n-need t-to p-p-put on m-more layers,” I chattered.
“Me too,” Prana agreed. He found a dry circle under tightly entwined firs. I forced myself to take off my rain jacket, loathing the harsh spike of cold, and layered on every piece of clothing except my big puffy, pulling my soaked and questionably effective rain jacket back over the top.
“Better?” asked Prana.
“N-not yet-t-t.” I swung on my pack and marched briskly on.
A hundred steps in brought the first calming of shivers, and the clouds swirled open, revealing an actual mountainside for the first time. 50 more steps and sunbeams poked weakly into the icy air.
“Lookin’ promising!” Prana called.
A promise it was. Within half an hour the clouds broke into tatters, fortress walls of the Continental Divide rising in the near distance, sunbeams concentrating and gathering strength and conviction. I slowed, for the first time able to look around.
“Oh, my god,” I breathed, “ the flowers!”
Flowers stretched like a patchwork quilt, colors outlayering the greens.
We passed tiny lake after tiny lake, each perfectly encircled by tiny granite walls to match. The rain hoods came down, then zippers opened, then fleece was shed. We reached a gorgeous creek, a gushing white torrent spreading into a quiet brown expanse where we met it. We rolled up our pant legs into ridiculous high waders and forded across.
Crossing the creek triggered a mental shift of some kind, a signifier of embracing, endeavoring. The coincidental reward was pulsing sunshine, thick swirls of wildflowers, an easing of the mind. I was now warm, optmistic, and as the world unfolded before us and rearranged and refolded behind us, I couldn’t have cared less how far we made it on our intended loop- this place was incredible. I could walk, I could stand, I could sit and look and not pass one more square inch than we already had, and already this weekend would be worth it.
Passing several more lakes at intervals, getting peeks of the mountains through the trees, we eventually left the forest for the more open meadows of Bald Mountain Basin, where the spine of the Divide reared up, now unobscured. Angel Peak held no visible Angel, like I’d thought it might, but the line sweeping down its south side had a certain smooth perfection, perhaps like the curve where an elegant neck meets a bared shoulder, perhaps as revealed by an evening gown. A pair of lakes was our invisibly inked signpost for leaving the trail and embarking cross country.
“Ok, ‘against the grain.’” Prana read. “I wonder what that means?”
It meant that there were many, many little ridges. And we intersected all of them.
We passed above and along the shores of many unnamed lakes, finally winding along the legs of Spider Lake, the breathtaking highest of the basin’s ascending chain. The profusion of wildflowers defied any description. We crossed Spider’s boggy inlet, filled from a creek cascading down the crease at its head, the same crease we would scramble up to gain Angel Pass. Willows choked the corner where the meadow met the wall, and after pushing squeezing and whacking our way through we tucked beneath an overhanging boulder for lunch. We considered the slabs and ramps above us as we ate.
“What do you think of following the grassy ramps to the nose on the left, and then from there we can take one of the levels above the more vertical bands over to the pass itself?”
“Sounds like a good plan.”
Things got steep after lunch. We climbed, huge steps up clotted ground, lush grass clumps sectioned by erosion cracks, blooming thick with bouquets of wildflowers.
The sky began re-curdling.
The rib we followed only allowed a few steps at a time, then required a stop to catch our breaths and look for the next mini trajectory. When we left the grass for the talus, we conferred on which ramp, which sidewalk to take. On huge blocks of talus, jumping, clambering one to the next, we gained the upper band of cliffs.
“Hey Prana,” I called. “I don’t like the looks of that.” I pointed to a small sub peak off the main divide, standing between us and the town of Pinedale, behind which was building a dark purple bruise, as though someone had spilled a bottle of indigo ink in the sky.
“We’re so close!” Prana called back.
“Yeah, but not close enough!”
“I just want to get get onto this walkway right here, see if we can make it.”
“Yeah, but if it’s all slabs down the other side, the rain is going to make it too slick.”
“Look quick if you can be safe.”
Prana scrambled up one more ledge system. “Damn.” The first huge drops splatted. Opaque trailers of rain swept around the sub peak like curtains drawing closed. “Alright, let’s go down.”
We made it half way, to where a giant boulder tilted against the mountain side, creating a shallow cave. Thunder boomed and echoed as we crawled in; rain smashed down behind us, morphing to tiny peas of ice.
“Well.” Prana grinned at me, “I guess this was the right choice.”
We dug out our puffies and arranged ourselves comfortable, watching the mist close in until we couldn’t see 20 feet out.
“Should we go down? Or wait and see? Just because we came down a bit doesn’t have to mean we can’t go back up.”
“Let’s wait a few more minutes and see.”
The wind shifted, pushing rain into our meager shelter. Claustrophobia congealed in the back of my throat as rain beaded along the ceiling, cold and wet and slickness all conspiring. Minutes passed, and the mist retained its thickness.
“Well,” Prana asked, “should we go down? I don’t think it’s going to get any better.”
“I guess,” I said, both relieved and disappointed. Something about crossing the continental divide- The Divide- seemed committing to the point of ominous. Too many books, I suppose. Too much imagination. What a curious duality adventure-seeking is.
When the mist hinted at thinning, we worked our way, oh so carefully, back down. The rocks were as slick as I feared, but more flat foot holds appeared than I’d had to find on the way up. We reached the grass again in what seemed like an instant. And in that instant the mist cracked open and blue sky flooded in, clear as far as we could see.
“Should we go back up?” It was still early afternoon. There was no reason not to.
We reascended, boulder to boulder, a now familiar path. We re-reached our highpoint and the sky still glowed blue. Onto our series of slab ramps, following one to the next back and forth like a marble works in reverse, and then, we were at the top.
The two peaks flanking the pass each rose like giant swords- curving into the sky, surprisingly slender from the axis of the crest- as we stepped from the catchment of the Pacific behind us to peer into the catchment of the Atlantic. The bowl below was shaped as if a cosmic ice cream scoop had formed it, tumbled with boulders and talus. The “Less friendly” designation in our guide apparently just meant lots of giant talus to hop around, an indefensible personal favorite.
I texted our contact person. “Looks good, crossing over Angel. Hopefully can text from Indian Pass.”
Even now part of me tugged to turn back, to not risk getting trapped on the other side. What is trapped? What if the weather did keep us from crossing back over? Or, kept us from climbing the high passes heading north to reach where we’d cross back over The Divide? Well, we’d have to find a different way out. Which would mean much more milage and a hitchhike of unknown magnitude…unless we were trapped between north south passes on the east side, which we wouldn’t be able to bail from. Well, we would eventually; the weather was supposed to clear by Friday at the latest. In which case the worst scenario was Prana being 2 days late for work. And I guess SAR would be called unnecessarily. And we would be damn hungry.
I watched all these videos play simultaneously in my mind. Would any of it matter? Probably not. What I was really worried about, if I admitted it to myself, was if I had the energy and optimism and gumption to be scared/stressed hard for the next 48 hours, without a break, and handle it a way I’d be proud of; with grace, resilience, humor. I’d been so out of those qualities for the past year, it felt like. Where did they go?
We hopped the talus down.
I was gobsmacked. The range didn’t extend to an eternal horizon, the way the Sierras did- or seemed to- but everything ahead of us was empty. So, though the glaciers had done their work and ground down the ridges and peaks, there were still worthy rifts and valleys stretched ahead, no signs of town or lights or roads…just space. This is what my soul had been missing.
At the bottom of the talus-filled ice cream bowl, squishy tundra unrolled, thickly buttered with wildflowers. It was easy walking, and we followed lakes and crossed inlet/outlets (‘lets? What is their collective name? One is always both if you zoom out far enough.)
Fuchsia flowers bloomed, and golden-orange rocks offered mandalaed mazes across rust colored water. Behind us dark clouds fermented and erupted over the pass, as if the storm had just been distracted while we snuck through, and now it was irked. We hopped and strode on, dropping gently from one lake basin to the next, until faced with the big drop down to Dennis Lake.
“The notes say there’s a use trail we pick up,” Prana read, but there was not even a hint of it.
We picked our way along, onto what I thought was a strip of snow, until I’d been on it for a good bit; and suddenly realized it had become steep. Very steep. Like, the horizon curved into the lake, but was obviously very high above it. I doubled down my focus on each step, planting each trekking pole, kicking each shoe in at an angle until my toes ached from the stubbing.
And still, I slipped.
It was only about 24 inches before the slush piled and my soft rubber soles caught and my sheer will apparently nailed me in place to the slope. Not that far, but far enough to put me painfully on edge.
The border of the snow looked a long way away.
Kick, step, stab. Kick, step, stab. Kick, step, stab.
When the snow finally faded into boulders, I relaxed the death-grip on my tunnel vision. Prana was waiting, pointing out a bald eagle winging over the dark lake under the dark sky, its head and tail glowing as if luminescent.
We picked down down down, boulders and willows shunting us against the lake shore, where we clambered across small bluffs and cliffs until we were confronted with the obvious last one.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get past this one. Should we climb up?”
An unexpected shallow shore ledge shimmered below the water, maybe knee-deep. “I’m just wading through,” I said, “my shoes are soaked anyway.”
From the other side of the last bluff, the ‘trail’ shifted into view, snaking back up high behind us to be lost in brush much higher up the slope.
“I don’t know how we would have found that,” Prana said.
Skirting the lake, we reached its outlet, which plunged out of sight into our theoretical target basin.
“Countour around or go up and over the ridge to another trail that may or may not exist?”
“Up and over,” I voted.
This trail existed. We followed it down, to where Golden Lakes basin unfurled below us, indescribable. “We could have made it only to here and the whole trip would be worth it,” I said.
It sure looked like the basin was ringed with impenetrable walls, so I assumed we must hook left and climb out of a pass concealed by the western cliffs. Down down down, through patchwork quilts of wildflowers. How are there even enough pollinators for all of these?
At the foot of lower Golden Lake, we looked behind us – the contour route would have been heinous. A cascade churned from the edge, flanked on its east side (our side) by rotting, crumbling cliff bands. We chose well.
Despite best intentions to travel farther after dinner, with the uncertainty of available campsites in this new-to-us environment and the effort of the day, Prana pitched camp while I cooked. “And we’ll be able to hear the waterfall while we fall asleep,” he said.