“Whoa, look. People. With shovels!” I exclaim as the band of brothers that is a Wind River Mountaineering course and I wander along an absurdly snowy creek ten miles into the northern Wind River Range. “Sweet” I think out loud. “If he made it in, our re-ration will get in for sure.” We make our way over to them and exchange pleasantries and disbelief at the amount of snow.
“I’ve never seen this much snow in thirty years” outfitter, guide, and head of the shoveling crew Clayton Voss laments. “And you say there is still more snow on the Honeymoon switchbacks and in the valley? Hell, I’ve been in there in May and haven’t seen snow in camp.” I joke with him about a flame thrower. “Yeah, just get a burro with two propane tanks strapped to its sides, that should do the trick.”
We move on, probably disheartening him and his crew with tales of deep, heavy drifts clear past Star Lake. Our re-ration comes in right on time but it comes in to Burro Flat, which is ten miles further toward the trail head than our original re-ration destination of Klondike Creek. On our way back we say hi and walk through the sometimes chest deep path that they shoveled through the drifts.
June 25th and still too much snow. A cold driving rain and 0600 lightening storm had driven us out of the Dinwoody Cirque two days prior, aborting our attempt on Gannett Peak. Thirteen days earlier we had crossed Burro Flat and Arrow Pass in a whiteout, traveling due north on a compass bearing in order to acquire our groceries. Even then we hiked to almost within four miles of the parking lot and picked up our supplies in a fourteen mile round trip. There was so much snow we had a hard time finding an open creek in order to practice the all to chilly but oh so important mountain skill of river crossings. Snowshoes, camping on snow, cooking in snow kitchens, solar stills, avalanche hazard. Stuff that was once the realm of Alaska and Pacific Northwest mountaineering courses had found its way to the Winds.
I worked my first WMT (NOLS Wind River Mountaineering course) in June of 2005. We went in Trail Lake and came out near New Fork Lake. We had an afternoon thunderstorm as we searched for camping at 12000′. Two successive years of WMTs, ’06 and ’07, brought nothing more, just blue bird days, melting glaciers, low rivers,and gaping bergschrunds. The snow level dramatically increased in ’08 and we had to re-route to get a re-ration and again the following two years big drifts and heavy snow blocked horse travel at or before Moon Lake, but Shari always got us our Oreos and good conversation was had with Clayton Voss’ crew deep in the heart of the northern Winds. But the times they are a changing. Independence Day 2011 and there is a 10′ hard packed snow drift at the outlet of Double Lake, deep drifted snow across the still somewhat frozen shores of Star Lake and NOLS courses picking up re-rations at Burro Flat instead of Klondike Creek or Voss Camp.
Which is better? I’m not sure. Maybe the drought cycle in the intermountain west is coming to an end. Maybe the winters are getting cold enough to kill the beetle. I do work mountaineering courses and those need snow. We climb less, walk more, cower more and dig in more. We adapt, improvise, overcome, and learn to suffer. We become better navigators, tucking experience of tough cold travel days under our hipbelts in the name of developing judgement and getting from A to B. We tolerated adversity and uncertainty, begin to understand spheres of influence, learn to take better care of ourselves and each other. We learn to camp well and in good style, in all conditions, which is the foundation of any good mountaineer. And we climb when we can.
I think I’ll take the newer, wetter, Winds. After all, good weather makes for sloppy campers.