The Sentinels stood guard against the retreating night as we packed camp and descended through the prismatically glowing world to Dinwoody Creek.
We passed only a few tents, far fewer than I’d expected, and no one else was even stirring yet. Dinwoody Creek was a wide glacial gush, still bundled in shadows and likely the lowest it would get in the daily runoff cycle; we were miraculously able to leap, boulder to boulder, and keep our feet dry. It was a bit more agility and finesse than my half-asleep and sluggish brain was ready for, and one leap almost dumped me in a deep tongue of the rushing current, unnerving me badly. But then we were across, and facing what some have called The Miserable Mile, the terminal jumble remains of the Dinwoody Glacier, long retreated upslope.
It really was no more miserable than many other miles, full or partial. Cairns popped up everywhere, to varying degrees of unhelpfulness. We worked methodically, one boulder, one jump, one step at a time, dancing around trickling water and subtly gaining elevation. The colors of these tailings, the patterns and textures of all the rocks making up this muddle were gorgeous, pure wabi-sabi mastery, as if the Dinwoody Glacier were a mad artist and we were jungle-gyming our way through its storage shed of abandoned works.
The cobweb of use paths all converged at a shelf of walled bivvy sites, camouflaged in plain site against the random patterns of the talus, at the base of Sentinal Pass, a severe but visible path snaking up the rubble, worn in by the pilgrims enroute to the summit of Gannett Peak. We grinded slowly up.
Halfway broke us into the sun’s rays, and the temperature rocketed. We peeled off layers and noticed someone higher on the pass, heading away with a purposeful stride. Peak bagger? High router? I doubt we’d catch him to find out.
While Sentinal was surely steep, something about its small finiteness lent a sense of ease, at least compared to Blaurock and its bending of space-time-distance. We paused to chat with a pair heading south, radiating joy, “just out for a week, touring all the glaciers,” they said. Well, that sounded magical. I added it to my mental list. We topped out into a tunnel of shadows and crossed a wide, frozen saddle. One final, narrow, sloping catwalk of ice turned the last prominence.
The Gannett Glacier spread for miles below. The ghostly solo hiker was most of the way across, a black speck compressed even further by the giants towering around him. The sweep of bare ice began up and out of sight, emerged from between several peaks, and converged on the flat table before us, swooping off the edge down to our right and to who knows where. Enormous boulders, having floated like boats on the tide of the melting top-layer, littered the flat. Across our contour, a rubbly, snowy ramp opened between two lesser rock peaks, which used to be nunataks— an Inuit word, originally ended in q, that signified a hill or mountain completely encircled by glacier— before the Gannet shrank. Any peak that was rocky and jagged would have been one of these glacial islands at some time, the ice surrounding it smoothing all the land below, leaving only the spires and crowns of the ridges uneroded and raw.
Stepping onto the Gannet Glacier was jaw dropping. Icebound patterns, honeycombs of refrozen melt, locked bubbles, and suspended grit overlapped and overlaid in abstract kaleidoscopes. Crevasses gaped downslope, where the ice plunged over the plateau’s corner, and everywhere ran interlaced streams of meltwater, carving their trenches ever deeper, so much water practically flooding off the surface, tumbling over itself in a primitive musicality. I dipped my bottle into one of the streams and drank, feeling something uncomforatably close to the sense of taking communion. Prana, far ahead, detoured to inspect a collection of narrow cracks. I joined him, watching water thunder and disappear into smooth, slippery, corkscrewed abysses.
After plenty of peering into the depths, oohing and ahhing over the uniqueness of this whole position, we toiled up the gut of gravel bordering the nunatak—though it was still early, the sun-facing snow was already too soft. A narrow, crumbling edge separated the Gannet Glacier from the delicately new landscape on the other side and featured a painstakingly excavated tent platform (what desperate story had it been witness to, I wondered). We slid and skated down to a snowfield which wrapped most of the western flank of the unnamed pocket, and which offered a way to cut our elevation plunge and regain in half. The snow in shadow remained ice-hard, and crossing the threshold into the sun simply zapped it into the consistency of a fast-melting slushee. The precarious footing, severe angle, and long, long drop to the rocky bottom only pressured the nerves that had never settled from the morning’s almost-soaking. Halfway across, the ever-gallant Prana dug a small platform for a break, and I gathered my fraying mental stamina. Despite the snow collapsing under our kicked steps, we finally made the far side without incident.
The far side was a landscape in its absolute infancy, birthed — or rebirthed— within the year from the receding ice. This newly unveiled and not-yet-reposed moraine crumbled around us, walls of stones and sediment collapsing, gravel showering into the icy puddles, the occasional giant boulder released from its unconsolidated matrix, echoing with a sharp report. We tiptoed through the instability and wonder, giant chunks of talus rocking and shifting as we stepped from one to the next, broiling in the sun.
At last we reached the northern snowfield, put on our spikes, and ascended, out of the moraine and onto an orange rocky plateau; in the distance glinted the hulking blue mass of the Grasshopper Glacier. We angled toward it across the high tundra, stopping in a sliver of shade to gulp water and calories and caffeinated electrolytes, watching the spectral dot of the morning’s lone hiker as he moved up the dazzling slope, onto the Divide and into the sky.
More moraine, more talus, more hopping, and we reached the foot of Grasshopper, its eastern face calving turquoise ice into a terminal pool. The fully exhausted part of my brain proposed: camp here? But the determined part reminded: no, the weather deteriorates tonight– make it as far as you can.
Spikes donned, we stepped onto the tilted glacier, melting even more prolifically than Gannett; due to the angle, the aspect, the lateness of the afternoon, or all 3, I wasn’t sure. I drank more water dipped straight from the surface streams, and tried to focus on my route, rather than how the slope canted steeper below me with each contour gained. At one point we diverged onto an upper tongue, ascending away from the Grasshopper’s main body filling a sheer sided box-valley below: an intriguing route for another trip I already couldn’t wait for.
As we neared the wide expanse of a rolling section of the Divide, the ground softened from hard ice to rotten snow. The large-grained frozen crystals, strangely suspended in meltwater, rearranged themselves with the agitation of quicksand as each step sank into a crater of mush. “The map does show a pond of some kind up here,” Prana said, pausing in place to practice some in depth navigation with the maps.
The solar radiation hummed in the intense silence. Something about the act of stopping magnified all the surrounding motion – all of which was melting water.
Later, once home, I would research and learn about firn and néve and other glacial details and realities; but in the moment, without knowledge, I was unarmed. Apprhension gripped my throat, consolidating under its own weight until it bordered on panic. The surface we were standing on, the immense distance we had yet to cross, was coming apart. I was haunted by my first-ever experience on mountain snow in Colorado, 15 years ago, and the mocking cavalierness of the leader when, last in line, I’d broken through the deceptively uniform ground in a seemingly solid and gentle snowslope, was caught at my hips, struggled out, then rolled over to peer into the brand new skylight of a snow cavern that dropped six feet into a rushing stream siphoning into a dark tunnel. Walking on the bullet-hard ice was one thing, but here on slush exposed to temperature differentials it perhaps never had been before, it was all I could do to not imagine plunging through, realistic or not.
“I’m just going to go on,” I said to Prana, still triangulating with the maps. “I know we head that direction until we’re on bare rock again.”
I sloshed away, pleased for not deferring the decision, more or less following the ghost hiker’s footprints as he’d traveled the direction we were headed. Moving ratcheted down the discomfort; I’d almost caught hold of my racing thoughts. And then I saw the dark footprint.
It took a second to register why that single footprint was dark; but when it did, any hopes I had of keeping my brain cool vaporized. The lone hiker’s foot had broken through into some kind of void.
I didn’t stay to inspect if maybe not far down was a mush-filled pocket, perhaps only darkened by bedrock being close beneath. Full, blinding panic seized my chest, and I marched, stabbing each existing footprint with a trekking pole prior to placing my foot in the exact, now-twice-tested spot, my only focus getting out of this sudden nightmare. Tears welled and then rolled down my face. Prana caught up and tried to talk, demanding I stop, but when I stopped I could only sob. Some weird, detached part of my mind watched this whole performance, tsk-tsking at the weakness, shaking its head at the statistical odds of my fears, sighing at the drama of it all. But that part was far away, and most definitely not in charge.
When Prana tired of trying to verbally reason with me, we both trudged on, me hiccuping and gasping ineffective little inhales. Eventually we closed in on the crest of the ridge, where the cold wind had kept the snow firmer and icy, rows of deep sun-cups parading into the sky. I calmed a bit, and even attempted to crack a joke to Prana, which backfired horribly; still overwrought, I screeched the punchline, jarring us both and sending me into a fresh bout of miserable tears. What the hell was wrong with me?
On the crest, the edge of the snow– and liberation– came into sight. I finally got a grip, cultivated some distance from the urgency, and articulated to Prana my terror. His face softened, and he enfolded me in a giant hug. We flopped down onto the bare rock when we reached it, as if crawling onto an island from a heaving ocean, drinking water, eating, finally with a moment to appreciate the wildness of where we were.
“Did you see the bighorn sheep behind you?” he asked, pointing. I turned to a herd of perhaps a dozen, perfectly blended into the talus behind them, several small, maybe babies from this year. They leapt and trotted around the base of Klondike Peak on the backbone of the continent, and I snapped photo after photo, pure awe flooding in and supplanting the ebbing panic, of which I was already mortally embarrassed.
I hauled myself up and talus hopped over to the edge of the slash separating Klondike Peak from the Divide; it was choked with the top of the Sourdough Glacier. It struck me as bizarre that Klondike was so significantly taller and more distinct than the Divide proper, but as I traced where imaginary drops of water would fall and flow, it illustrated the strange sorcery of the hydrography perhaps better than any spot yet.
We hefted our packs and turned to the north, the sprawling Divide inobvious enough we lost quite a bit of time tracking and then backtracking around several unremarkable swells of topography. A spectacular lake appeared, a sapphire suspended high above the wild country surrounding it. In the far distance, the outline of the Tetons was just visible through an accumulating haze. Thoroughly turned around, I finally pulled out the compass and matched to the map that the liquid gem was Baker Lake, our goal for the night and the last time we’d be below 12,000 feet until we left the crest. We descended, pausing to pick out lines and landmarks for our 5 mile stint on the Divide tomorrow while we had such a clear and lofty vantage.
Cliff bands faced us at the end of the upper ridge. “We should be looking for some steep slabs to our right,” Prana said, reading the notes from the map and comparing it to the land. “I guess it’s those on the other side of that snowslope?” I was inclined to agree; except…the map showed no snowfields between us and the slabs. Not that the discrepancy actually mattered, because unless we were standing above something that wasn’t what it appeared, across the snow was our only way down. We climbed back up, stringing together ledges to get us most of the way around. One last icy tongue blocked us from the series of ramps, which looked quite steeper from the perspective of directly above. Prana kicked at the hard snow, found little purchase, and rode a barely controlled slide to land on a rocky shelf that accessed the ramps. I closed my eyes in supplication to the Wind Rivers; today was the largest percentage of time I’d spent so firmly out of my comfort zone in a long, long while. And while it was exhilarating, it was also, quite frankly, exhausting. I rode my own barely controlled slide down.
The ramps were manageable, comparable to the Class 3 sections on Raid Peak Pass and Alpine Lakes, although multiple times longer; that is to say, not difficult, only slow, and mostly disorienting since there’d been no hint of them in the map annotations. Or maybe it was because my resilience was wrung out for the day. Either way, I was happy to finally touch down on the tundra of Iceberg Lake Pass.
We headed into the larger boulders to search for a sheltered, flat camp. Iceberg Lake came fully into view, and the Sourdough Glacier faced us squarely, hulking in it’s protected, north-facing slot and heaving blocks of ice into the lake. Even as we watched, a gunshot-crack resounded as another iceberg calved from its terminal face.
Magically, a wind-proctected and flat-enough nook presented itself. Prana went to gather water, and I set up the tent and stove. As if to remind us how unnaturally lucky we’d been with the weather so far, a thunderhead trailing virga like jellyfish tentacles sailed into the western sky. One more day, I silently petitioned the universe, as I stirred the bubbling pot of pasta and watched the atmosphere bend and twirl the light. Let the weather hold one more day.