Total Miles: 1563.0
1 archaic : CIRCUS
2 : CIRCLE, CIRCLET
3 : a deep steep-walled basin on a mountain usually forming the blunt end of a valley
How could it end like this? A day of jaw-dropping scenery reduced to a twilight scramble over a nearly impassable jungle gym of blowdown. But in the interest of not burying the lead let’s rewind and get to the good part first.
Not five steps from where we’d slept, we returned to the trail and were greeted with a warm yellow glow illuminating rocky spines of sky-piercing granite. So sharply triangular were some of them that they looked like the dorsal fin of a giant shark set against a watery blue backdrop of sky.
The jewel of this particular alternate is a basin of jagged peaks ringing a lake below known as the Cirque of the Towers. To access it, we would first have to navigate our way up and over Texas Pass and then follow a route over two additional passes before eventually rejoining the official CDT. So long as the weather remained as calm and genteel as it was to start the day, we’d be in for a uniquely spectacular stretch.
With decent tread all the way up to the first pass, it was already an improvement over what we’d experienced on our day climbing over Knapsack Col. Patches of snow lingered on the steeper upper reaches of the climb, but were just soft enough to kick steps into.
The closer we came to cresting over the pass itself, the harder it became to decide where to look. Behind us, emerald lakes sat beneath walls of rock now bathed in the first rays of sunlight. Before us, the Cirque of the Towers proper dominated the view. Small patches of aging glaciers clung to various aspects of the sheer walls, mirroring the scattershot clouds that now swept across the sky. In the center of the Cirque, Pingora Peak rose like a lava dome at the center of a caldera.
The blow of having to wave goodbye to the Cirque of the Towers was softened only by the knowledge that this was far from the end of today’s scenic show. For another 15 miles before rejoining the CDT, there would be plenty more of nature’s artwork to appreciate.
Up and over Jackass Pass (you have to wonder about the story behind the name, right?)—the second pass of the day—the trail descended into an increasing narrow granite-walled valley with small skinny lakes sandwiched between soaring peaks. We also began to pass weekend backpackers traveling in the opposite direction toward Cirque of the Towers, surprising for a Tuesday morning in late September, and I began to imagine how popular a destination this must be in the peak of summer. It made me feel particularly lucky to be experiencing it now in such comparative solitude.
The climb to the third and final pass of the day—Temple Pass—would, of course, have to be the longest and would also mark the last time on this hike that we’d rise above 11,000 feet. The further we hiked away from the Cirque, the fainter the footpath gradually became, disappearing altogether for stretches on both the climb and the descent of Temple Pass.
Pausing to look back at Ace as we neared the pass, nearly our entire day unfolded in the background with the Cirque of the Towers rising in the distance and a multitude of picturesque lakes completing the picture of a range that looks like a chunk of the High Sierra became unmoored and drifted away only to land here.
Sporadic bits of simple x-country walking followed after the bulk of the descent from Temple Pass until a well worn path formed once again. Gently sloping downhill along the banks of the Little Sandy Creek, we came around a small bend bookended by firs and were startled by what we saw. Not 100 yards away, a lone bull elk lazily grazing away in an open meadow, shockingly unaware of our presence. In stark contrast to the consistently skittish elk we’ve seen, this one continued to munch away before finally raising his head and its giant rack of antlers to stare at us in bewilderment. A short bit of bugling followed before he turned and strolled out of view.
I wish that had been the final cherry on top of such a spectacular day, but I already managed to ruin that suspense. The Cirque, the elk sighting, our favorite dinner on the shore of a small lake, all of it seemed to be drifting away far too quickly when the blowdown we’d almost forgotten about with our day above treeline came roaring back.
What should have been a leisurely final two miles to rejoin the CDT after dinner, quickly went from a 40 minute stroll to a nearly two hour struggle ultimately ending under headlamp. Taking the prize as the worst we’ve yet seen is no small feat, but it was well earned. Small, pinched valleys that the trail passed through had seemingly acted as wind funnels, accentuating the effect of the recent storm and yielding nothing but piles of live trees spanning from one granite wall to the other.
Hardly the finish to the day we’d hoped for, leaving the bitter taste of fatigue and frustration where the satisfaction of an incredible day should have been.