Our alarm beeped in the predawn, and we rolled up our cowboy camp, chewing bars and barely dissolved coffee while color licked at the bottom of the sky like flames at kindling. In minutes we stood at the base of Europe Peak’s wall, watching the rock ledges sprout depth in the new light.
Once we commenced, we scampered right up, Prana erring so far to the left that we followed the long shallow line of the ridge back to the right, landing us unequivocally below the corner which was a very straight forward and secure class 3. Aha! Now that I knew where it was, I could see how all paths would more or less converge at it, unless one contrived- with effort- something other than the line of least resistance. We probably could have done even this part by headlamp. We stepped and pulled up ledges and cracks as friendly as a ladder, onto the Knife Edge – Yeehaw! which was delightful, but an awfully blunt knife. The sun touched off a burnished glow, enveloping us in bronzed warmth as we topped the summit plateau and turned to its highest edge.
From Europe’s true summit we had fabulous views: west, into the top of Europe Canyon; east, down the Milky Lakes valley; and north, into Golden Lakes Basin, where I was fairly confident I could pick out Douglas Peak, Alpine Pass, Gannett Peak, and wondered if I could in fact see Blaurock Pass. (Later I would confirm I’d been looking at the correct ridgeline, but the low point of the pass itself had been out of sight.)
“It’s sure beautiful,” Prana said, as we surveyed all that still lay ahead of us.
“Oh look! Isn’t that Angel Pass? Over there to the left?” I pointed. The steep sweep of Angel’s south face stood proudly out of the fray. I was thrilled to recognize it, thrilled to recognize Golden and Douglas and Alpine, as if spotting long lost acquaintances in a crowd of strangers. There was an easing in facing something we’d already muddled through once before.
With a spot of service– likely the last– I texted our check in guy and screen-shotted all the mountain-weather forecasts. Things were looking good, clear and calm, at least until Monday evening.
We wandered down the broad peak and along the gentle, rolling Divide. It was bizarre to me the Continental Divide was so wide and obscure here; in my imagination it was a distinct and obvious spine for its entire length, even where it wasn’t tall. The walking was pleasant, not too mind-consuming, and there was no wind. Huge patches of elephant head flowers were in different stages of bloom and wilt. The tarn marking our exit funnel to Golden Lakes was a lovely little thing, ice blue, with pockets where a tent could snug in. We scrambled up the hill behind it which was cleft by a fault line.
Now, the Winds are likely full of faults (aren’t we all) but this one actually felt like a crack in the earth that had been filled in and barely grown over. Plates and blocks of heaved rock bracketed our vague hallway, and our trajectory in it lined up perfectly with the straight-cut valley of the Golden Lakes. Down down down we followed the fault, into the first water-filled green-grassed valley, where we stopped to snack and apparently be ambushed by horseflies. Stringing together elk trails on the upper right bank, we worked downstream until the valley narrowed, cupping a tarn, whose outlet we crossed. A westerly contour dropped us directly onto the antique tread of the Hay Pass Trail, just below where we’d intersected it 2 weeks ago.
What is it that’s gratifying about returning to an area that’s known? Is it confidence? Is it familiarity? Is it the consolidating and deepening of memories?
We cruised along the series of lakes adorning the Golden basin, the ground much drier than it had been only 2 weeks ago, less marshy but also much less flowered. No mud, no lotus, and all that. We stopped below a waterfall which had delighted us last trip for a lunch of cooked oatmeal, a laundry rinse, and to filter and drink lots of water. Oh to camp here, to somehow makes this trip last 4 times the length it was currently slated for!
We crushed our way up to where we’d left the trail for Douglas Peak Pass, and even felt strong starting out. The ramps were familiar, and I easily identified the level we’d traverse to the slender, improbable, grassy ramp. For some reason I felt the compulsion to time myself; we’d kept splits of our progress on the 3 day loop to have a factual comparison against the author’s suggested times, to more accurately pin our expectations for this longer trip with its much narrower margins. That was the only reason I even had a benchmark to race against. I’m stronger this trip, I told myself, I’m feeling faster. But the more I slowed, the further it pulled me from the moment I was in; and the more I concentrated on a capricious time, the more it highlighted the amount I slowed. Frustration welled and I sputtered out of juice 4/5s of the way to the top. As I sat on the precarious slope to cram in some snacks, looking back over the deep cerulean lake, snowmelt still streaming down the sides of the bowl in cataracts, it dawned on me: what the fuck did it matter? Look at this place! Speed in this arena holds distinction for some, and– while I couldn’t squander time as if it were unending– meeting or missing an hour so I felt improved, so I felt an arbitrary sense of superiority over my past self…was blinkering me to the reasons I was here.
I reached the top of Douglas Peak Pass, where Alpine Lakes basin opened before us, no less incredible the second time. A book I’d read in the interim claimed this basin was the last accurately mapped area in the Winds, and therefore the contiguous US; it was the late 1970s before the cliff bands were drawn and waterways connected correctly. Below, the lakes sparkled their slightly varied shades of turquoise. Much of the snow had disappeared: much more boulder hopping and much less snow crossing than last time, for both better and worse.
Skating/skidding down the north side of the pass went much more quickly. We gained the little tarn, crossed, paused for more snacks in what was last time a snowbank and this time grassy tundra. We hopped around the southern lake and chose to try the slightly alternate route to the middle lake, just to mix it up from last trip. Partway through, Prana stopped. “Wait, doesn’t this seem familiar? Did we come this way last time?” I stopped, balanced on a car-sized chunk of talus. “Hmm. I’m not sure anymore. It’s so hard to tell.” We kept at it, leaping, balancing, stepping. Gobs of spiderwebs stretched between the boulders; while it was easy enough to justify tearing them, it became an aspect of our pathfinding game to break as few as possible. They were, after all, the enemy of our enemies.
The respite of the middle lake’s shore came into view, a high grassy knoll formed between the lake and the glacial kettle behind it. “Yeah, I’m sure now this is the way we came last time. We intersected this lake the same way,” Prana said. I had to agree, as a few particular jump-downs felt precisely repeated.
The view from the kettles was one of my favorites from last trip, the eastern arm of the middle lake seeming more of a bridge, a slender gateway to another world, flanked by ramparts of towers. “Want to stay?” asked Prana. Not a breath of wind stirred, as if the portal were open, the tumblers in the lock momentarily aligned. “Definitely.”
We scouted the kettles, and though we located a cradled cowboy camp, we ultimately set up the tent, as it was the first night where mosquitoes were a bother. We cooked dinner watching the parapets fade to silhouettes, the lake don its nightgown of liquid silver. Last visit I’d felt a sense of confinement, of intense isolation while crossing this basin. Whether from the mellowing conditions, the acquaintance of returning, or the deepening of immersion and therefore tranquility of the longer trip, this time I only felt welcome and solace.