Sept. 15th, 2021
Miles Hiked: 19.5
Vertical: +2,885 ft
Features: S & N Cascade Canyons, Painbrush Divide, Paintbrush Canyon, Leigh Lake
Campsite Elevation: 6,947 ft
Camp Location: Leigh Lake
Morning. I am awake at 7:07 simply because it’s light out. I know the sun won’t hit this canyon for a while, but I need to start my day. It’s 40 F when I get out of my tent to go fetch my cookset. That chilly breeze persists and it cuts through my warm clothes. I duck back into my tent, snuggle back into my sleeping bag and practice perfecting the art of boiling water from my vestibule.
Over a nice hot cup of coffee, I pour over my map for today’s route. In so doing, I discover something embarassingly obvious. There is an outlined box that says “backcountry detailed map on reverse”. Of course!
All this time I’ve been guessing what the topography was going to be like because I was reading the 1:80,000 scale side, so the contour lines were so crunched. I was okay with it though, having some fun with allowing the elevation to just be a surprise, but now Im really glad I found a better tool in which to predict the terrain. Yay!!
So today is not all downhill as I’d initially predicted, although I will be finishing much lower in elevation than I am starting, but I will also be doing a bit of climbing today. According to said detail map, I will begin on a lovely downhill through South Cascade Canyon to the trail junction with the main Cascade Canyon trail (this trail comes up from Jenny Lake). From there, I will climb ~1,200 ft up to Lake Solitude and then climb another ~1,500 ft to the Paintbrush Divide in what looks like a steep two miles. The TCT tops out there at ~10,630 ft on the crest of the divide before making the long descent through Paintbrush Canyon and on to String and then Leigh Lakes, dropping 3,760 ft total.
I did not sleep well last night, so even after coffee and breakfast my mind feels a little numb and my body heavy. I’m glad I read over the detail map because now I can get my headspace adjusted for potentially a tougher day. Everything out here, afterall, is about how you choose to look at it, right?
9:10am. I am finally ready to walk. I’m about to hoist my pack onto my body when at this exact moment, the sun crests the ridge, offering me some much desired warmth. I decide to stay in that sun and do some stretching and meditation for a few minutes.
This helps a lot and I set off to the trail with a fresh buzz of energy, passing two deer by the little creek on my way back to the TCT. I move quickly right out the gates, trying to get warm, but that chilly wind, ooof!!
I have no choice, it’s back down into the canyon of shadows I must go. My swift pace causes the wind to feel even colder, yet I notice today, it bothers me less. It seems the longer I have been living outside, day and night, the more my body adapts. I think I’m adapting!
Hiking in shorts, my legs have goose bumps, my nose is dripping like a faucet and my fingers are completely numb, but I’m totally okay. This discomfort is okay. I know it’s just temporary. I think about how discomfort is temporary. Suffering is temporary. Beauty is temporary too. I feel really happy, even in my temporary discomfort and my temporary happiness, I look around me and think gosh it is sure beautiful out here!
I am flying down the trail through this amazing forest, down this canyon of evergreens, touching dirt, guided by a line of rock walls towering all around me, and the sound of the incessant waterfalls puts me in that meditative state of bliss. I look up and see three waterfalls that converge and coalesce into one, long, flowing creek that becomes the flow of this stunning canyon I get to dance through this morning. I am in awe of this place and the day has only just begun.
In about four miles, the canyon drops down to a footbridge which crosses the lovely creek. Its after 11:00 now and I’m hungry again! I stop here to gather water which is refreshingly ice cold. The creek flow soothes my soul like nothing else can and I just want to sit there for a while, absorbing it’s little ionic particles into my brain. So I do, I sit and take it all in.
Several minutes go by and I start to think about the nearly 3,000 ft of climbing I’m about to do, so I decide an alpine iced coffee is definitely in order and along with it, I eat sun butter with a honey stinger waffle, then gorge on gorp, a little surprised at my appetite. Coffee. Salt. Sugar. Fat. And….now it’s time to climb!
As I depart from the trail junction, I re-enter the sun, noticing how it’s turned out to be a gorgeous day. Up and up, this very climb reminds me of a section of the PCT/JMT I know well. This has a similar feel to climbing up LeConte Canyon to Pete Meadows, it’s very Sequoia-King’s Canyon- like. I reminisce as I’m walking through a tree lined valley along the creek, surrounded by giant talus boulders and even larger towers of granite that preside over the landscape. Water flows through the canyon, there are several downed trees from recent storms, sunlight bathes the canyon from an angle that elevates the colors of newly turning autumn foliage.
When I reach Solitude Lake there are so many people there! It’s ironically not solitude at all, but it sure is pretty and I can see why people come here. From the Jenny Lake Trailhead, if one took the shuttle boat across, it’s 6.8 miles one way to Solitude Lake. Additionally, several backpackers will hike part way up Cascade Canyon and make this their day hike destination. It’s a popular place.
I snap a few photos but I am in the zone with my climbing and haven’t spoken to another human since yesterday afternoon. I want to keep this peaceful headspace I’m in, so I continue up the trail, still feeling good after 1,200 ft of steady climbing. I’m not yet half way done, but I’m in a good groove and I have the coffee, salt, sugar & fat to thank.
It is now mid day and quite bright out and the wind begins to pick up the higher I climb. I sure could use a pair of sunlasses, I think. Since I destroyed my sunglasses yesterday I decide I need to put energy into manifesting a new pair. As it often goes on the trail, sunglasses are not that hard to come by. But if my manifestation efforts fail, I can always detour to the Jenny Lake store tomorrow and pay too much money for some new ones. I squint my eyes and push on.
From Solitude Lake the trail takes a long wide sweep at a steady angle up the side of the mountain where the views of the Tetons along Cascade Canyon tower in the distance. I am flowing uphill, breathing rhythmically, feeling like I can do this forever.
Eventually, the trail turns to talus and becomes quite rocky in sections, changing my cadence. I am forced to slow down, and now the rocks are clanking under my feet, echoing like I’m underwater as the backdrop wind muffles all other sounds. I am now walking in a climbing, rock clanking, trance, like I am ascending to Heaven.
There is a false summit and the wind intensifies, so I layer up. A little pool of water has formed off a melting snow field, the water is so sweet and lovely I stop to dip my bottle. The dwarfed pine trees are tossled by the relenting wind, bending deeply with each gust. I can see by their growth pattern, this ridge gets a lot of wind. I slide through this tunnel of krummholz like pines, with an exposed ridge on one side where the views are opening up, I am almost above treeline now. Just a little further, I will be at the high point, I will be on the divide.
From afar I can see the ridge on which I will traverse, as there are two other hikers on it now. They look like ants against the backdrop of the craggy peaks, giving it an otherworldly feel. Wow, I’m going there!
When I reach that ridge traverse, the wind become so severe I have to stop several times or be knocked down. The drop off from the leeward side of the ridge is quite precipitous, so I stay downslope from there, in the wild wind. There are times when I am afraid. I can’t risk getting blown off the edge into the abyss. At least down here, If I do get blown down, it will just be like I’m falling uphill.
I push hard against the wind, the wind pushes harder against me. I am amazed at it’s power over me. Once I’m through the saddle, as the trail drops steeply, the wind momentarily abates and I breathe a huge sigh of relief. I am sort of in disbelief how severe that wind just was. I can’t remember having ever been in such intense wind before, and especially on such an exposed ridge at the same time. I get my bearings and take a look around. Look at these views!
Now that I’m out of the terrifying wind, I can drop my guard and begin to relax into the beauty of the scenery. Yes, this is what makes it all worth it! This is absolutely stunning toporaphy. I scan the landscape taking in the detail of cragy rock formations and grand sweeping slopes that go deep into the earth like a giant clay sculpture.
Looking down, I see the trail, it drops way, way down, reminding me of Dead Horse Pass on the Uinta Highline Trail. It is quite steep for a bit, and I take my time, picking my way around for good footing. In one place there seems to have been a wash out and I have to down climb over a pile of rocks. I toss my trekking poles, favoring the use of both my hands, which are still a little shaky from all the adrenaline.
It’s after 3pm now and I am feeling ravenously hungry. I need to drop more in elevation before finding a place to stop. I need a spot out of the wind, which I can tell will be a challenge. By 3:45 I can’t wait any longer, and I pull off the trail near a small cluster of trees, this will have to do. I eat the fastest lunch ever, and there is still the relentless wind. This is not a cozy-make-tea kind of lunch today. I can’t even take any layers off.
When I am walking again, it’s 4pm and I still have a long afternoon ahead of me. It’s at least 8 miles to my campsite at Leigh Lake and it’s now that I realize it may be another dinner in the dark. Hey, you can’t win ’em all.
The walk down through Paintbrush Canyon is nothing short of stunning. It is just utterly beautiful and seems to go on and on. The beauty is unfolding in front of me around every corner and my stoke level keeps getting higher and higher. The trail through this canyon meanders among so many different micro landscapes, and overall drops a whopping 3,700 ft by the time I get to the flats of the lakes.
As I move fluidly along, I notice how every angle is new, there are cascades of water coming from several directions, there are deep, thick forests with towering conifers, there are open meadows with yellowing grasses that sway in the wind and glow in the afternoon light. Suddenly, the trail passes through an exposed talus section where there must have been a major rockslide.
The Fall color is starting to shine its glorious warmth throughout the landscape as the afternoon light-glow magically ignites the orange, red and gold foliage. The entire afternoon turns into a trail of enchantment and even though I have to push my pace, I am really enjoying every step, really taking it all in. I am in the flow and walking in beauty as my heart opens bigger and bigger around each bend.
Down in the flats, I cruise through a thick forest where sunbeams stream through pine boughs riding on particles of campfire smoke. I must be getting close. The wind high in the canopy sets dry pine needles free, making a tinkling sound as they fall. A tree is slowly creaking, eerily echoing in waves throughout the forest as my feet crunch the touseled needles that have fallen to the earth crunch crunch crunch.
It is 6:40 when I reach the trail junction to Leigh Lake. Finally, I am on the home stretch! The air temperature in the forest feels so soft, as pockets of warm air brush my skin. The scent of campfire smoke infiltrates subtly as I pass a group of horseback riders heading for the stables. I still don’t know how far it is to my camp, maybe two miles? But I feel I am getting close, I believe I can get there by 7:30, just before nightfall, if I keep my groove.
As I round the bend for the Leigh Lake trail, stellar views of the peaks begin to open up, framing the serene body of water. This is the icing on the cake, this is so beautiful! The evening light is pouring through the jagged mountains as moisture and smoke in the air creates a mysterious ambiance. The water is lightly lapping on the shoreline from the pushing wind, and I am flying through the forest trying to maintain my good pace, trying to stay ahead of the inevitabe night.
When I reach my site there is a giant group of people there, all set up with stuff strewn about. They are gathering wood from the forest nearby, dragging dead tree bodies down the trail. As I scout around for a place to pitch my tent, they take notice of me, and ask me where I am headed tonight. “Here, site 12C” I declare with an edge of irritability.
They tell me someone else yesterday had the same issue. They claim this is their site, not mine. But they kindly let me know I am welcome to stay. I hesitate, scanning the area, then I tell them I am just looking for a quiet place to camp as I’ve had a long day. They boisterously chuckle saying “well, that’s not gonna be here, we have lots of vodka!” holding up their cups.
Wow, okay, as if I haven’t had a long enough day, and now this. I am over it.
I decide I will just go back to the group site about a half mile back, I had made a mental note that nobody was there when I passed it before. As I walk back I’m thinking since they are a group, shouldn’t they be in the group site? Then I decide I can’t waste any more energy on them, I turn my attention to my immediate needs as night time is encroaching rapidly. It’s 7:26pm.
When I reach the group site, I am pleased I have the place all to myself, thank goodness! I just want a peaceful night’s sleep. I can recall so many times, when I’ve had such a full day, arriving at a campsite feeling so done, and something will force me to keep going. It’s just part of life on the trail. You learn to keep going all the time, even when you think you can’t. Even sometimes in the dark.
I quickly pitch my tent in the wind, noticing all the sounds in this new place. The tree canopy sways and creaks, I can hear the water lapping at the shore with more intensity now, and occasionally the wind gusts so fiercely, it causes my tent to flail. Dinner is prepared in the dark, as I huddle in a small cove proteceted by a stand of trees. It’s difficult to keep my flame from the wind, but eventually I have a hot meal in hand. Grabbing my sit pad, I walk over to the beach, sinking my feet into the sand. Ya know, this ain’t so bad. How many people tonight are eating their dinner barefoot in the sand on the shores of a majestic lake? The towering mountains frame the backdrop to the shoreline and water is lapping at my toes like I’m at the ocean. I feel quite special as the stars emerge and darkness wraps me in her blanket.