A Wind River Odyssey: Part 1
All of the pictures in this article where taken on my 2008 backpack into the Wind Rivers
Ragged black clouds race across the sky. Huge granite walls rise two thousand feet to the west, and behind us the East Fork Valley falls a thousand feet into a lush green meadow cut by the deep green river looping through it. We move higher and higher through jumbles of boulders that were left by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. In between the boulder fields are grassy slopes filled with stretches of wildflowers: brilliant red Indian Paintbrush, bright yellow Old Man of the Mountains and lush purple Perry Primrose. I feel the first hard raindrops pock my red, knee length parka. And then the wind hits us. The grasses and flowers bend double in the staggering bursts of wind and we are bombarded with sheets of rain. It looks like a serious storm is coming over the mountains to the west.
The pass still lies two miles ahead of us and I can make out the snow and scree fields that guard the approach between curtains of sleet and rain. The pack straps cut into my shoulders, my legs are already beginning to feel a little rubbery and I wonder if I have enough left in me to get through the scree and over the pass before the storm develops into something that will be very hard to deal with at this altitude. We are five days into a sixty mile trip, deep into the heart of one of the wildest areas of the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
The trip began last winter when my oldest son Mike gave me a call from Albuquerque. "Hey Dad" he said, "Are you up for a trip into the Winds this summer. Just you and me." Of course I was interested. I had made a dozen or so trips into the Wind Rivers in the last forty years, most of them when I was much younger or at least young enough not worry much about carrying sixty pounds or so on a multi-day trip into some of the lonesomest country in the continental US.
Things were a little different now. I was older and not sure that I could do a long, hard trip in rugged country. Also, previously I hadn't been sure I could find anyone to go with me. My wife Joan had let me know in several subtle but polite ways that long backpacking trips were no longer at the very top of her agenda. And none of the various friends I have backpacked with on previous trips seemed to be very interested in standing around for hours in cold, windy spots while I waited for the light to be just right to transform this or that scene into a great landscape photograph. And I hadn't wanted to do a trip like this alone. In the first place, backpacking is just not much fun alone and secondly, I didn't much like the thought of lying in some 12,000 foot scree field with a broken leg or severe cardiac pains and no one around to help.
So, Mike's offer sounded great. It would be a great chance to spend some quality time with one of my sons and also get some much needed support for a photographic trip deep into one of the most scenic parts of the American Rockies--country that not many people ever have a chance to see, much less photograph. (Mike is the guy in the photograph directly below. His dog Daisy, who accompanied us on the trip is on the left, busily looking for ground squirrels.)
So we began planning. One of the first questions was how heavy or light we should go. There are two schools of thought in backpacking--the old school idea is to take everything you might possibly need on a long trip into the wilderness. The new school of thought has been dubbed Ultra Light Backpacking. As you might imagine, this school advocates taking absolutely nothing except what will definitely be needed and not much of that and then only the lightest possibly gear. Old school backpacks typically weigh anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds for a multiple day trip like the one we were planing while ultralight backpacks weigh from 20 to 30 pounds for a similar trip. Mike, being young (forty) and strong, is pretty much an old school backpacker. And I, being old (sixty-seven) and no where near as strong, am, from necessity, an advocate of the ultralight style school of backpacking.
So, how does one get from an 80 pound pack to a 20 pound one? The quick answer is "Probably never and maybe only then with huge sacrifices." The longer answer is that if you totally immerse yourself into the concept of ultralight, many, many, many pounds can be discarded and as a result a long trip can be infinitely more comfortable, and in my case the impossible can become possible.
Really fanatic ultralight backpackers insist that the real secret of cutting weight is mental. They say your head has to be seriously into lightweight mode before you will cut many pounds. Every item and ounce that you carry on your back has to be carefully scrutinized and lightened to the absolute degree. Real fanatics talk about cutting off unneeded lengths from all those multitudinous straps that adorn most backpacks: "You can easily save 3 ounces that way you know." Real aficionados will look at their toothbrush, cut the handle in half, drill holes in the remaining half and then throw out the tooth paste and even reject tooth powder to save weight; seriously, they really do this. The very thought of carrying a book to read during a rainy day in the tent throws them into paroxysms of disbelief that anyone could be so stupid as to even consider such a thing.
My cousin Bob who is a highly skilled canyoneer with many first descents into the Grand Canyon is a diehard ultralight backpacker who has managed to reduce his base load to 14 pounds (everything he needs for a ten day backpack trip minus food and water). In a Rocky Mountain environment where it is not necessary to carry water since abundant water can be found every few miles, Bob needs to only add 1.5 pounds or so of dried food for each day of the trip. So Bob's real-world pack only weighs somewhere in the mid twenty to thirty pound range. In my opinion this is an absolutely phenomenal achievement.
I'm not quite this serious an ultralight backpacker, but I did succeed in getting my weight down from the 65 pounds I carried on my last Wind River trip six years ago to 40 pounds this time. And I could have gotten it down to 30 pounds had I not made a few mistakes by taking some stuff I didn't need and if I had not been tempted by the evil influence of Mike into carrying about six or seven pounds of yummy pita bread, sausage and cheese.
Some of the things that need to be lightened are not at first obvious. Boots, for example.
Boots are carried on the feet, not on the back, but their weight is still very important. An old saying is that one pound on the feet is like ten pounds on the back. This, I think is correct. There is no need to wear the stiff, heavy, full leather mountaineering boots that wilderness walkers once wore. These old-fashioned clod hoppers could weigh six or seven or eight pounds or even more.
Now-a-days light Gortex hiking shoes in the one or two pounds a pair range can be found in every hiking store. These don't have to be high boots that completely cover the ankle. They can be the low-cut shoe type. Support from hiking boots doesn't really come from the high sides; it comes from a well built sole. This sounds like heresy I know, but after quite a bit of experimentation, I think it is true. An extra four inches of floppy sides really don't give you much more support if any. This becomes even more true when your backpack load drops from 65 pounds to 25 pounds and super-stiff side support is no longed needed; stiff, heavy boots are really not a necessity.
Look for light walking shoes that have a good solid sole and that has some degree of stiffness. You should not be able to pick up a good walking shoe and bend it toe to heal like you can a tenis shoe. Good walking shoe soles are much stiffer than tennis shoe soles. You might also consider inserts like "Super Feet" that are designed to give any shoe good arch support and extra overall support. All hiking shoes and boots have an easily removable inner sole that can be replaced with a Super Feet inner sole.
It as absolutely amazing how light and free you feel when the 8 pound clod hoppers are replaced with light, modern hiking shoes.
This article will be continued in my next newsletter. The next article is about, among other things, exactly how I reduced my backpack weight from 65 pounds to 40 pounds and how I could easily have cut it to 30 pounds if I had been a little smarter. Thirty pounds or so of lost weight does't sound like much when you are sitting at home in a comfy chair, but in the middle of the Wind Rivers, for me, it meant the difference between doing the trip and not doing it--the difference between getting some really good pictures of some terrific wilderness locations and getting nothing at all.