Backpacking the Teton Crest Trail
"Traveling - it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." ~ Ibn BattutaWe spent a few minutes at the top of the pass, letting the spectacular sights sear into our memories before heading down for a closer look at the little glacial lake. Schoolhouse Glacier was certainly a sight to see as the turquoise water is such a stark contrast to the bare mountains around it. We broke for a bit here, enjoyed a snack, and for me, another exhilarating plunge into the frigid water. It was getting later in the afternoon and we were hoping to tackle another 4-5 miles or so before setting up camp. Fortunately, it would be all downhill from here through the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. The best views of the Tetons are probably from the first few campsites in the zone, but we wanted to get near the end of it to make the next day's journey more manageable. At about 5 o'clock we came to what looked to be a pretty good campsite, but we were only about halfway into the zone. We were all tired and looked at each other, hoping that someone would suggest staying here, but Sarah said she was good to keep going if we were, so the gauntlet was tossed down and we pushed on. It was right after this that the pain started to set in for all of us. The downhill hiking was beating up our feet and ankles, and the adrenaline rush we experienced from the top of Hurricane Pass had long since worn off. In about another 45 minutes, when we thought we couldn't go much farther, we came to the designated group site, and to our disappointment it was occupied. So we pushed on. And we were so glad that we did! We soon found another amazing site at the top of a rocky knoll which overlooked the confluence of the 3 parts of Cascade Canyon. There was a stream not far below us for easy water access and there was a beautiful cascading waterfall coming down the mountain across from us. It was a prefect spot, a bit windy and cold, but something that we had come to expect up in the mountains. We found a great spot a little ways down the hill that was sheltered from the wind where we were able to cook dinner and relax for a bit. It had been a long, but rewarding day on the trail, and while we were ready to call it a night, we were sad that we were too tired to enjoy it more before heading off to sleep. We awoke on Day 3 with what we thought would be an easier day ahead of us. We only had about 7.5 miles to cover, and were all hoping that we would be able to finish up early and enjoy an afternoon relaxing around Holly Lake. What we failed to comprehend, even though we were aware of it, was that after we excited the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, the next 5+ miles would be all uphill with about 3,000' of elevation gain before reaching the top of Paintbrush Divide. And to make things worse, both of the girls were dealing with ankle injuries and lack of proper sleep. It would be a long day, but the beginning of the hike started well as we made our way through the beautiful pine-forested canyon. As we began to climb up the North Fork of Cascade Canyon and exited the forest canopy we were a bit underwhelmed by the scenery. We heard that there was some moose spotted up ahead but that they had moved on, yet we still held out some hope to see them. We hadn't seen much in the way of wildlife yet, other than some marmots and a pair of deer. This canyon looked like the perfect place to find some, but we didn't have any luck. Our spirits were down, we were tired and sore, and the morning just dragged on. We were all looking forward to reaching Lake Solitude where we could break for lunch, rest up for the difficult climb up Paintbrush Divide, and hopefully take a dip and refresh our bodies and spirits in the cool mountain lake. We were so happy to finally reach Lake Solitude! Lauren didn't hesitate before getting into the cold water and washing away the dirt and grime from the past few days. I couldn't believe how long she was able to withstand the cold! I followed, but for a much briefer dip, as the wind began to pick up. Poor Sarah took too long to get ready, and by the time she finally was, there was a steady cold wind blowing across the lake, which prevented her from going in. As we dried off, and tried to warm back up, more and more people began to gather around the lake. In all, there had to be over 40 people around the lake during the hour or so that we were there, more than we had seen combined since we began the trip. Guess this lake wasn't very appropriately named. We ate lunch and rested as much as we could in anticipation of the afternoon's difficult climb up to Paintbrush Divide. The hike from here up to Paintbrush Divide would take us up another 1,700' over 2.4 miles. It would prove to be the most difficult portion of the Teton Crest Trail for us by far. We were cold starting off as the wind never died down at Lake Solitude, forcing us to start off the afternoon all bundled up. As we climbed higher, the high mountain walls begin to shield us from the wind and we were able to shed some layers. But as we climbed higher the trail became more difficult. The combination of the elevation, steepness of the trail, and loose rock under foot made for a slow ascent. But the difficulty we were having gave us plenty of opportunity to pause and take in the stunning views of the canyon below. The girls were hurting. The loose rock was taking it's toll on their already sore and swollen ankles and the elevation was depriving their tired bodies and minds of much needed oxygen. Yet through it all, they never complained, and always had a smile on their faces. I couldn't have been any prouder of them. Anytime I was feeling sore or tired all it took was one look at these two amazing women to make me realize just how fortunate I was to be here and to be sharing this experience with them. The views of the Tetons to the East and of Lake Solitude far below us were breathtaking. There was even a tiny, but absolutely gorgeous, turquoise glacial lake far up the canyon wall above Lake Solitude. The morning doldrums had been replaced by sheer exhilaration and it only grew the higher and higher we climbed. The views were that amazing, and arguably some of the best we had seen all trip. We passed a couple near what we thought was the top. They advised us to put our warmer clothes back on as it was really cold and windy at the top. We kind of laughed it off a few minutes later when we reached what we thought was the top of Paintbrush Divide. There was another group of guys stopped on top of the ridge and we stopped to take a break there as well. It had amazing views of the valley and lake to the north as well as a small glacier on the northern slope. We all felt relieved to have made it up and, after a short break, were eager to head down towards Holly Lake to try and enjoy a relaxing afternoon. What we didn't know yet, was that this wasn't Paintbrush Divide. We still had a ways to climb, and we hadn't hit the hardest of it yet. We were soon disappointed to find out that we hadn't quite reached the top yet. We still had a really steep and rocky climb to contend with. And once we got up near the top the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. When we finally reached the top of the pass it was so windy that we all struggled to remain upright. I paused to try and snap a few quick pics while Sarah yelled out above the wind for me to, "stop taking pictures and move!" The poor girls felt as if they would be swept right off of the mountain and tried to brace themselves with their poles dug in sideways as they scrambled across the ridge as fast as they could. We quickly made it across the ridgeline only to encounter another obstacle on the way down. The loose rock that we had experienced on the trail on the way up became one giant pile of scree that we had to try and navigate our way across without sliding off the side of the trail and down into the valley far below. It made for a few tense, but exciting moments fore sure. Towards the end of the scree pile was a small band of leftover mountain snow that we had to cross. It was super slick but so much fun to cross! From here on we decided to push hard as we wanted to reach the campsites at Holly Lake before the group of guys that were close behind us. We had talked to some people on the way up to Lake Solitude and they had advised us to try and get site 2 at Holly Lake as site 1 was windy and site 3 was really small, so we didn't want to take any chances of someone beating us to the better spots. When we got there, site 2, the best of the 3 sites by far, was already occupied. Sites 1 and 3 were open. Site 1 was super windy so we chose to set up camp in the smaller site 3. We were only there for a few minutes when the group of guys came in looking for a site. The extra effort that we put in left us feeling exhausted, but would prove to be a wise choice as the wind was relentless all night and we were fortunate to be somewhat sheltered from it for a change. As Lauren and I set up our tents, Sarah, who had barely slept the night before, declared that she was broken, took off her boots and socks, and proceeded to fall asleep for a bit where she sat. I couldn't help but smile at her as I took a quick pic and went back to work. She had certainly earned the rest. After setting up camp Sarah and I went back up to Holly Lake. The wind was blowing hard still, but Sarah was determined to wash away the sleep, and the filth from the past 3 days, in the cold mountain lake. I was too cold to even contemplate it at first, but managed to get in for a quick rinse when she was done. The wind made it very difficult to warm back up, even with the late afternoon sun beating down upon us. We had been hoping to get here early and to enjoy an afternoon relaxing by the lake, but the days journey got the best of us and we were all spent. Holly Lake was certainly beautiful, but we weren't able to enjoy it as much as we would have liked. It would be another evening of heating up some dehydrated meals and then climbing into our sleeping bags before the sun had fully set. The temperature dropped quickly once the sun dipped below the mountains and we were just too tired to try and brave the cold any longer. We were hoping to catch the stars that night, and vowed to wake up for a bit to enjoy them some if any of us had to pee during the night. It was the first night that none of us had to go, and while I was disappointed in not being able to see the stars, I was thankful for a somewhat decent night's sleep. I awoke early and headed up to the lake to get some water before waking the girls. The sun rising over the mountains was gorgeous and made me pause for a bit to soak it in. I never cease to be amazed at how beautiful the world around us can be.
"How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains." ~ John MuirIt was a bittersweet morning for us. We were anxious to get moving and to finish the last 6.6 miles of our adventure, as we had a long drive back to Salt Lake City ahead of us, but we were certainly sad to be leaving the Tetons behind. I think Sarah perfectly captured how all of us were feeling when she took some time to close her eyes, bask in the warmth of the sun, and just be present in the mountains for a few moments longer. The views of Jackson and Leigh Lakes coming down out of Paintbrush Canyon were spectacular! There was a light fog lingering over the lakes and the sun was just peeking out over the mountain walls. We practically ran down the canyon and were making incredible time, only pausing briefly to take a picture or to catch our breath. We saw a lot more people on the trail this morning, as this section of the Teton Crest Trail is a popular destination for day hikes. I think we were all eager to get back to civilization. Real food. Toilets. Hot showers. A comfortable bed to sleep in. Before we knew it we were down out of the canyon with only a half a mile or so left to go before reaching the parking lot. We slowed it down a bit here, trying to savor what was left of our adventure just a little bit more, even taking one final pause to look out over String Lake at the majestic Teton Range.
Here's some more pictures from my adventure on the Teton Crest Trail