Total Miles: 1497.1
“Getting up is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
Of all the mountains I’ve spent time in, two have held a particularly special place: the High Sierra are in my heart, but the Adirondacks of my home are in my blood. What we’d see today had me wondering how much room I would need to make on that list for the Wind River Range.
The day itself was never going to be like the average day on this trail. Rather than plodding our way ever southward, we’d instead take a detour onto an alternate a humble 13 miles in length, but one that would take us over perhaps one of the most spectacular places along the entire Continental Divide. At over 12,000 feet, there are even higher places along the trail but few are filled with quite as much drama.
Expecting the alternate to be significantly slower than a normal day on the CDT, we started early and watched the early morning sun set the sky ablaze in hues of pink and orange, amplified by the smoke that still permeated the air. Rising over one low pass, a crown of summits rose above the foreground ridges giving just a preview of coming attractions.
As we turned a corner into a narrow valley, nearly every trace of vegetation soon vanished in favor of a jumbled funnel of rock. Boulders the size of small cars seemed to have tumbled down each wall of the valley into a traffic jam of stone stretching into the distance.
The reward of navigating all that rock was not only a view into all of the rock that still lie ahead but our first view of our ultimate destination: Knapsack Col. The going was more pleasant, at least for awhile, as the packed dirt track hewed closely to the banks of the Green River on the way up to its headwaters.
But rarely do pleasant flat walks get you anywhere worth going and as the path gradually grew more faint and fully disappeared we were freed from its laws. For the rest of the ascent and descent, we could invent our own solution to the puzzle of rock that separated us from both the Col and what lie on the other side.
Trailless-ness, if I can invent a word, is a beautiful thing. Leaving behind the well worn path may seem daunting at first, until you find that all the decisions are now yours and that each step may place your feet on a surface that has never before seen the sole of another shoe. The route becomes a wonderfully fun puzzle that can be solved in any number of perfectly acceptable ways, but a puzzle that comes with heightened responsibility to weigh the hazards and to put safety above all else.
Ed Viesturs—inarguably the most accomplished American mountaineer in history, being the first to summit all 14 of the world’s 8000-meter peaks—is not your average mountain climber. In addition to incredible skill, fitness, and experience, what’s kept him alive in a sport that does not look kindly upon mistakes is a conservative, humble demeanor and a single mantra: “Getting up is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
I’ve thought of the wisdom of those words ever since I’d first read them and have carried them with me on every climb and every hike since. A simple reminder of what’s really important: getting home to whomever may be waiting. Even on such comparatively less risky hikes such as today’s—at least relative to the likes of what Ed Viesturs is up against—it’s still good advice: don’t be stupid. No one else is here to pick up the pieces.
Having safely picked our way up the headwall of wobbling boulders, Knapsack did not disappoint. Jagged, craggy peaks rose all around us with shards of glaciers tucked into high places, mere shells of their former greatness.
The blanket of smoke that hung in the air combined with the stark canvas of granite that spread forth from the Col made for an uncanny resemblance to the High Sierra and our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in 2015. Nearby forest fires that year had lent a similarly eerie quality to the atmosphere, not to mention stealing the usually azure blue sky from our photos.
It was from that hike that I gave this blog its name, an homage of sorts to the mountain range where nearly everything is stripped away until all that’s left is the stone and sky. Returning in 2016 during a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, days like this one sure made the name feel apropos.
With so many similarities to the Sierra, and yet so little actual sky to appreciate through the haze, the Winds today felt more like stone and smoke. But with the entirety of the route up and over Knapsack Col without a soul around to share it with, you weren’t going to find us complaining.
The ascent behind us, it came time for the all-important second part of that Ed Viesturs wisdom. Arguably the harder half of the journey, particularly on boulders that tend to shift, descending was a slow process with each step probing the intended landing pad before committing to it fully. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, the painstaking steps a stark contrast to our usual daily rhythm of striding along the trail.
The last of those steps landed us off of the boulder-choked descent and onto the gravelly banks of a shallow stream that was rushing with the collective snowmelt of the basins above. Thankful to be back on flat ground for the first time in hours, it was time to remind our legs what it felt like to take more than a single step at a time. All that remained was to stroll beside the crystal clear jade waters of the lakes below towards the slowly sinking sun, finding some way to tolerate the views that we were plagued by..