Up and Over the Tetons

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I’ll be honest; one-way hiking missions are a bit of a pain in the butt.  Their logistics are generally complicated and time consuming, and they almost always require the burning of fossil fuel.  But, these adventures are also really satisfying—especially when they involve walking up and over a colossal mountain range.

I recently spent a chunk of time in Jackson Hole, WY, just over Teton Pass from Victor, ID, where I used to live.  In that neck of the woods, hiking up and over the Tetons is THE thing to do, and it had been years since I last made the effort to do so.

Last week, however, all the pieces came together.  The early fall weather was sunny, stable, and warm.  I had an eager companion with a second vehicle.  We were staying on the Wyoming—or eastern—side of the Tetons, but we’d been invited to dinner over on the Idaho (western) side.  When that invitation came with the option to crash in our friends’ loft, we figured the setup was ideal for a west-to-east crossing of the range.

The day before we planned to hike, we set the shuttle. To boaters, hikers, skiers, and any other outdoor adventurers who do one-way excursions, “setting a shuttle” means placing a car, bike, or other form of transportation (skateboard? roller skates?) at the conclusion of the route.  To do this, a second person has to follow in a second car, picking up the driver of the shuttle vehicle to bring them back around to the beginning of the intended route.

Our shuttle was complicated by the fact that we needed to leave a car in Grand Teton National Park.  Parks charge entrance fees, and only one of us had the kind of pass that gets you into the park for free.  Being the cheapskates that we are, we were determined not to pay for a second car to cross the park boundary. So, we set a second shuttle—a shuttle within a shuttle, if you will. We left my car in the huge free lot at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the ski area adjacent to the park.  Then, I hopped in Josh’s Subaru and flashed my National Parks pass at the kiosk. We parked the Subaru at the popular Death Canyon trailhead and proceeded to run the 7.5 miles from there back to the ski resort where my Prius was waiting.

I had it in my mind that the run would take an hour and change, having ignorantly assumed that there wouldn’t be much elevation gain or loss along the way.  About twenty minutes in, when we were walk-jogging up a steep section of trail above Phelps Lake, we realized we were in for something more like a two and half hour run, and, later that night, we questioned the sagacity of running for that long just before heading out on a 20-something mile hike.  Nevertheless, shuttled adventures are committing; when your vehicle is already set somewhere, the compulsion to get to it is strong.

After the run, we drove the Prius to town for showers, then took it up and over the pass for dinner and a night in Victor, ID.  The next morning, after massaging our tender calves, we drove to the Teton Canyon trailhead on the west side of the range to begin hiking. Our walk took us first through spruce forest, then through fields of wet wildflowers (it had frosted overnight), then up a series of gentle switchbacks to the expansive and spectacular alpine meadow referred to as Alaska Basin.

Approaching the Tetons from the west is a pleasure, given the gradual nature of the climb.  There were only a couple of sections where I was conscious of how much we were ascending; most of the time, I felt like we were walking a very long ramp up towards the Tetons.  That is, in fact, what we were doing—gaining 3800 feet over the 8.5 miles from the Teton Canyon trailhead to Static Peak Divide on the crest of the Tetons.

September snow in the high peaks there is common, although, in the course of our unseasonably warm day, a lot of what had fallen the night before had melted. Still, we had a few inches of slushy white stuff greeting us at the top, offsetting the taupe and gray granite that dominates the landscape on the pass.  Several hardy species of wildflowers were holding on—elephant heads and asters among them, poking their heads up through the snow in an effort to get a little more sunlight. Despite the sun, we had to tuck around the corner to take a break; the wind was blowing fiercely through the notch and had the bitter edge that results from air moving over snowfields.

From the pass, the trail contoured along the sides of Buck Mountain, Static Peak, and Albright Peak before plummeting down into Death Canyon—via too many switchbacks to count.  While this is the part of the hike that can always the toughest on aging, long-abused knees, it also happened to be the part filled with autumn berries.  We ran much of this section of trail, but stopped abruptly when one of us spotted a patch of thimbleberries (bright red raspberry-like fruits that resemble their namesakes), huckleberries (Teton area favorites that are basically tiny wild blueberries), or wild raspberries.

When humans are eating berries, non-human creatures are too, and some giant piles of bear scat reminded us to keep making noise as we ran downhill raiding our ursine companions’ food stores.

At the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail hit the creek, which was steep and boulder-strewn at first, then settled into a more typical mountain stream gradient. It eventually empties into Phelps Lake, after crossing the trail we had run the day before to set our shuttle.  By the time we got to that point, we weren’t talking much, and while the sun wasn’t yet setting, we knew we needed to keep moving to avoid hiking in the dark.

Doing so was made easier by the knowledge that we had placed several key items in the Subaru: flip flops, crackers, hummus, and cold adult beverages.  Years of shuttled adventures teaches you a thing or two about what to leave in the take-out car.

At the Subaru, we pulled off our shoes, sat on the hood airing out our feet, chomped on snacks, and listened to music, all the while talking about the magic of the shuttled “up and over” hike.  In the course of one very long day, we saw multiple micro-ecosystems.  Yes, we stayed in the Greater Yellowstone biome all day, but the vegetation and geology we walked through changed dramatically multiple times over the course of our ten-hour walk.  We walked from one state to another, and from a National Forest to a National Park.  We didn’t retrace our footsteps, and we saw new vistas around every bend.

We also earned a big fat dinner—one that included macaroni and cheese.

 

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