Sept. 14th, 2021
Miles hiked: 16
Vertical: +3,537 ft
Campsite Elevation: 9,559 ft
Features: Marion Lakes, Fox Creek Pass, Death Canyon Shelf, Alaska Basin, Hurricane Pass, Schoolroom Glacier
Campsite: South Fork Cascade Creek
Morning. I walk over through cold, wet grass to retrieve my bear can and coffee mug, both which are blanketed in frost. From the vestibule of my tent, I set up my stove to boil water, keeping my body tucked into my sleeping bag. As soon as my coffee is ready the sun pops up through the trees blasting right into my campsite with streaking beams of light that warm my face like opening an oven. This is so very welcomed, such a wonderful way to start the day. Greeting the sun in this way stirs my inner fire bringing a deep, uncompromising smile to my heart and it sure makes up for the long search for my campsite last night!
As I sit facing the sun, sipping my coffee, I notice the subtle kiss of moving air as it stirs leaves to quiver, causes pine boughs to bounce. Sunlight illuminates spider webs that were cast by mysterious arachnids during the night. A little chipmunk comes close and squawks loudly at me from up in it’s tree. I feel like it is telling me I am in it’s home. I talk back to it, holding my ground “This will be my spot for another hour” I declare, then it leaves.
Unfolding my topo map, I survey the route for today. I will start out climbing back up Granite Canyon to Marion Lakes, then another climb up to Fox Creek Pass, which will pop me up to Death Canyon Shelf before entering the Alaska Basin, then on to Hurricaine Pass. My assigned campsite is in the South Fork of Cascade Creek, ~16-17 miles away, so I ponder taking a side trip through the Alaska Basin if I feel I have the time…we shall see.
When I reach the trail junction for the TCT and Marion Lakes, my GPS reads one mile from my campsite. I’ve been steeply climbing the whole way and I’m already sweating! Yet, the cool air which settled overnight is now quite refreshing. There are several hikers collecting water at Marion Lakes, enjoying soft morning chatter and laughter. I press through the group casting a brief smile as the trail wraps around the lake.
Heading toward Fox Creek Pass, I walk on a level trail nearly above treeline. With views to the NW of deep escarpments, I’m reminded of the High Uintas in Utah and ponder the geology. Up ahead of me, I begin to see the tips of the Tetons themselves. These granite giants at their core date back 2.7 billion years, but it was only in the recent 10 million years that movement on the Teton fault caused the tectonic plates to shift, pushing the mountains up and the valleys down, the craggy, raw texture later created by weathering from wind and water. I feel butterflies of excitement welling up inside my chest as I approach closer to the Teton core.
From Fox Creek Pass, which is really just a trail junction, the path flattens out even more, traversing the stretch above Death Canyon known as Death Canyon shelf for a few miles. The sun strikes down on this exposed tundra landscape. I fall into a trance as the stillness of the rock formations dominates the region and in almost predictable intervals, a pika chirps, it’s high pitched eeeeeep, eeeeeep… echoing through the miniature caves between the boulders. The cool breeze softens the unforgiving sun and I loose track of time in that blissful-sort-of-way that only the trail can do to you. Is this real? Am I dreaming? Where am I?
This cocktail of elements makes me sleepy. I feel like I could just lay down in the sun and take a nap, but I can’t. Instead, my drug of choice is to eat Jelly Bellys which I procured from the gumball machine at the laundromat in Pinedale. My favorite is when you get buttered popcorn followed by rootbeer, it’s like goin to the movies, how do they do it?
12:15pm. I’ve hiked 7.4 miles so far. I’m almost at the end of Death Canyon shelf, approaching Mount Meek Pass. Even after the Jelly Bellys, Im still sleepy, my pack is actually quite heavy, I should drink more water and I realize all of these feelings I’m having, its because of the sun. This entire day has been quite exposed. I’d like to find some shade, but the air temp on the breeze is still quite cool, too cool to sit in what shade exists. I find a place to take off my pack, then layer down, switching to my wind jacket, pop on my sun visor and sit down for a minute to eat a real high quality snack. As I review the upcoming terrain on my map, I’m hoping all of this will help wake me up.
But I’m quickly chilled again, so I hoist my pack and get moving. In about a quarter mile, Im over the pass. Now the trail drops downhill, and becomes even more exposed and even windier than before, and colder too. Several adjustments need to be made to my layering system…again. I take off my pack…again. Now layered up even more than before, I face the wind which is cutting harshly against me. I traverse this ridgey tundra in this manner of pushing head-on against the wind, still not snapped out of this trance.
Shortly, I see other hikers coming off the trail junction from Teton Canyon, another way one could hike up to the TCT. I have now seen around 13 humans this morning, so that solitude of yesterday was apparently an anomaly. We all leap frog for a bit as we enter the Alaska Basin.
As a side note, if one wished to hike up here without an NPS permit, the Alaska Basin is fair game, since it is outside the park boundary, and it is a stunning place to camp. Both Teton Canyon and Death Canyon would be great points of entry, but Teton Canyon on the West side is also outside of the park. I saw a few parties that came up to the TCT this way.
When I reach the first stream crossing in the basin, I flashback to the Sierras, as there are great sweeping views into a giant bowl which is the basin, granite slabs galore and clear-flowing beautiful water. Why not stop here?
I check my GPS and I have only covered 9.4 miles so far, so I decide to keep on keeping on to Sunset Lake which is just a little further. This means I am choosing to bypass the extra four mile loop around Alaska Basin, as I recall I promised myself I would not hike till dark today and I am coming up on 2pm.
I meander through the edge of the basin until I see a sign that reads Sunset Lake, 0.6 miles. Sweet, I am excited to reach my lunch spot soon. Of course, it is all uphill, and super steep and it turns out to be more than a mile to get there, not 0.6 miles at all… grrrrr. I should know better than to trust old trail signs though. I’m hungry…
When I arrive I am so hot and sweaty and my stomach is just roaring to be fed. But the color of Sunset Lake draws me right to it’s edge like I am hypnotized. Suddenly, all my discomforts melt away and the beauty of the water lures me to her. It’s a sort of turquoise lime green color, very soft and inviting and as I approach closer to the shore, I can see the water is absolutely clear as a crystal vase. What a wonderful reward this is!
I plunk down under a striking lodgepole pine that offers me just a smattering of shade and views of the lake. I yard sale my gear, spreading it all around me, and begin to prepare my lunch. This week I brought Naan bread and pepper jack cheese slices to make little sandwiches. I add mustard/mayo and slices of fresh apple along with honey-dijon Kettle chips. I make a lovely spot of Earl Gray tea to round out the meal. I think, I just found heaven, as I notice the trance fading away.
After lunch, I lay on the ground staring up at this amazing tree, re-positioning myself several times as the sun feels scortching to my skin and face yet in the shade, the wind still has a chilly bite. There is no perfect spot, but it’s wonderful laying in the dirt and relaxing for a bit. I feel no rush as it’s less than two miles now to Hurricane Pass. After that I am just a couple miles from South Fork Cascade Canyon where I will camp tonight. Looks like I am actually going to make it to camp super early, what ever will I do with that extra time?
I totally chillax until 3:30 and then decide it’s time to get going. That break and the tea really helped and as I start up the trail I feel alert and energized. Whoo hooo!! Along the climb to Hurricane pass I see a trail runner sitting down and stop to chat with him. He is doing an insane run up from Teton Canyon. He shared that he summitted each of the three Tetons already and came down along a steep slide to a saddle, then scurried along a scree field, then crossed back to here at Hurricane. He was only at 12 miles so far but knocked off about 10,000 ft of vert already. Hats off to you brother!
Chatting with the runner energizes me even more, which helps me make the final push up to the Pass, at around the 10,600 ft zone. At this point I am chomping at the bit to fully take in these views, as I am now up close to the Teton core.
When I arrive, the energy coming off the rocks is intoxicating. I have that moment of pure adrenaline from the excitement of knowing this is what I came here for. This is what I worked hard to get to, and it is more beautiful than I expected, the stoke level is high right now!
The next hour is a blissful dance. I am soaking up these views, snapping a ton of photos and running around. I want to hang out on this ridge longer except the wind picks up once again and gets quite chilly. In my haste and excitement of taking so many photos my sunglasses are afflicted with a casualty. I had layed them on the ground next to my pack, then forgot I did that and stepped on them later. They are totally smashed.
I shove the broken glasses away, as it’s finally time to move on. The trail soon reaches the crest of the pass and then takes a hard right, diving down on a switchback. This reveals a beautiful turquoise lake tucked neatly into a circular escarpment that resembles a caldera. The lake sits just beneath the Schoolroom Glacier and is formed by it’s runoff. This is super rad! Not only that, as the trail drops, I see a side trail that leads right up to the edge of the glacier, so naturally I must go and check it out.
Returning to the trail, it continutes to cut down on steep switchbacks into the South Fork of Cascade Creek. Dropping quickly in elevation, I admire the ever changing and ever expanding views down the length of the canyon. The Teton formation themselves shape shift with each of my moves down the trail. These rocks are just stunning, they have me mesmerized and I am just walking along in awe, floating in the bliss.
I am soon pleased to learn that I have entered my camping zone too, which means any campsites I come across for the next few miles are up for grabs. I pass two right away but I feel it’s too soon to stop for the night, and I want to keep checking this place out. No matter what, I know the views are going to be amazing, I am stoked that I get to camp here tonight with what are probably the best views on the TCT, such an improvement from last night!
There is a giant waterfall coming off from Iceflow Lake, which is out of sight from this vantage point. It’s flow creates the backdrop of music as I continue to drop down the canyon. Here, the sun has dipped beneath the Western ridge and I soon enter shadow. The Tetons however, are still lit up and it looks like they will continue to be through sunset. I continue just a little further until I realize the trail drops even deeper into the shadows of the canyon, deeper into the cold, so I pivot around and retreat back to the campsites where there is still a little sun and better views.
I land in my chosen campsite just before 6pm, a full hour ahead of my goal for the day. It still feels odd to me to be done hiking so early and I have only walked 16 miles today. The thru hiker in me just has a hard time wrapping my head around this!
Nevertheless I have no problem finding ways to enjoy this extra time. I set up my tent in a wonderful, protected spot that has amazing views all around. I locate my cooking area for the evening meal and move my food and cook set over there. I walk down to the creek to gather water, then filter for dinner. I walk around taking more photos and finally get my water boiling for my evening meal, which I am pleased to report I will not be eating in the dark!
Tonight I am making my favorite home made vegetarian chili. It is the perfect meal on a chilly night, no pun intended, ha! And it’s amazing, the layers of chili spice along with cinnamon, chocolate and red wine all blend together in a warming concoction, topp it off with a packet of Cholula hot sauce and voila!
By the time I finish all my dinner, clean up and make tea, it is still light out and the rocks are showing off their alpineglow. Alpinglow, yes, I haven’t seen this in a really long time!
When the final embers of light fade from the rocks, my thermometer reads 45 F but with the wind, it feels quite a lot cooler and I am chilled. I dive into my tent, tuck into my sleeping bag and plac my hot mug of tea between my legs. I spend the next 20 minutes looking over my photos from the past two days then turn to reading my book as darkness settles in. When my tea is gone, it’s 9:00pm and it’s time to sleep.