Featured Photo: Middle Fork Lake with Pronghorn Peak and Mt Bonneville in the far background, Wind River Range, Wyoming
“The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Chief Seattle, Duwamish Tribe
The surrounding landscape is devoid of human life—the solitude is overpowering. The alpine tundra is bereft of tracks. Nothing breaks the blue rippled surface of Baker Lake. Draped above the lake is the massive Klondike glacier, brilliant white with fresh snow. Rising above the glacier are the dark granite ramparts of Klondike Peak. I breathe the clean high altitude air. Windless silence so complete it is eerie. It’s August 2021 and I am four days into a six day solo off-trail hike in the northern Wind River Range, Wyoming. Since leaving Green River Lakes, I have yet to see a person. Last night I heard the howl of a lonely wolf. Today I cross his fresh track in the snow. The northern Winds are true wilderness.
Photo: Wolf Tracks on Lost Eagle Peak, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2021.
I used to think mountains transformed over geologic ages, but after fifty years of hiking and climbing in the Teton and Wind River ranges, I believe differently. I have seen and experienced change in my lifetime. Development encroaches on Grand Teton Park and the Bridger Wilderness. What used to be frontier towns are choked with auto and truck traffic. More cars parked at trailheads and people on the trails. Social media has popularized remote areas to the point of overuse and crowding. The effect of climate change is obvious: permanent snowfields gone, glaciers in recession, and alpine lakes shrinking. We are a strand of the web and what we have done to the earth we are doing to ourselves.
Photo: Cirque of the Towers from Texas Pass, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2017
I first visited the Wind Rivers fifty years ago in 1971. A seventeen year old kid from Minnesota. I made friends with a group of climbers, all older, at the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch and we climbed the Exum route on the Grand Teton. They invited me to join them in climbing Pingora, one of the signature peaks of the Wind River Range in the Cirque of the Towers. I had never heard of the Winds, but of course I said yes. Arriving in late July, we found six cars parked at the Big Sandy trailhead. The last time I was there in 2019 there were over a hundred.
Photo: The author hiking into the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming 1971. Credit: John Faraci.
With backs bent and groaning under sixty pounds of gear, we trudged up the climbers trail to Jackass Pass.Our pain was forgotten as we crested the 11,000 pass to be greeted by the stunning vista of thousand foot vertical granite spires. The Cirque was devoid of climbers. The only other person we saw in three days was a cowboy hiker named Cliff. Cliff was cool. He carried a big revolver in a holster.
I did one backpacking/climbing trip into the Wind River Range every year from 1971 to 1978. Some areas had USGS topographical maps, others none. We had Orin Bonney’s Field Book of the Wind River Range and hand drawn climbing route maps. On our seven to eight day trips we rarely saw another party.
Photo: Descent from Temple Peak, Wyoming 1975. From left to right: Steve Markusen, John Faraci, Bill Taylor. Credit: Bill Dennis
Life took me in a different direction after 1980: graduate school, job, raising five kids. I spent my free time climbing in Yosemite, the Tetons, Colorado and the Utah desert. In 2009, after a 40 year hiatus, I returned to the Cirque with my long-term climbing partner, Paul Gardner and climbed the classic Northeast Face of Pingora and the East Ridge of Wolfs Head. It was an emotional return. I realized on that trip my alpine climbing days were numbered. I was changing… and aging.
Photo: The Wolf’s Head Traverse, 2009, Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming. Photo credit: Paul Gardner
In 2017, I discovered ultralight thru hiking. I set off from Green River Lakes to solo the Wind River High Route: eighty five miles of high altitude, off-trail hiking down the spine of the range. I passed through Titcomb Basin two days before the August 21 total eclipse of the sun. The path of the eclipse traveled directly over the northern Wind Rivers. There were people everywhere. I learned later that cars lined the road for two miles leading to the Elkhart Lake parking lot. I left the crowds behind at Indian Pass. Two days later, I was treated to the total eclipse alone in a high alpine meadow surrounded by boulders and wildflowers. I watched in awe as the moon swallowed the sun; bright light of midday darken to twilight. Overcome by emotion, tears trickled down my face.
Photo: Ready for the Total Eclipse, Upper Golden Lakes Basin August 2017, Wind River Range, Wyoming
In 1975 I backpacked the Winds with my dad, Dave Markusen. Forty four years later, in 2019, I hiked into the Cirque of the Towers with my twenty year old son Charlie. We climbed Pingora’s South Buttress, Charlie leading the famous K-Cracks. The circle is unbroken.
Photo: Charlie Markusen leading the K-Cracks, South Buttress of Pingora, Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming 2019
Off-trail hiking in the Winds is a physical and mental challenge and solo hiking requires a heightened attention to risk. Route finding is a major challenge. I use a Garmin GPS unit with a distress signal. The unit is Bluetooth connected to my iPhone which has a topo map app. I carry paper topo maps and compass (and know how to use them) as backup. You can spend hours each day traversing scree and boulders fields, which vary from fist size rocks to boulders the size of cars. Your route may require steep ascents or descents of snowfields and icy glaciers with deep crevasses. In the cold air of morning, the snow can be rock hard. Navigating around alpine lakes can be particularly challenging. The lakes are often surrounded by steep cliffs and boulder fields exposed to deep, ice cold water. Sometimes you can find a ledge to traverse the cliff, occasionally rocks like stepping stones in the water permit passage below the cliff. If you hit a dead-end you just have to suck it up and climb high above the cliffs
Photo: Alpine Lakes and The Fortress, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2020
On the fourth day of my 2021 loop hike I finally run into another hiker. Setting camp for the night, I spy him circumnavigating Kevin Lake. He stops, we talk. He camps nearby. His name is Don and he is from Durango, Colorado. Tall, slim and well dressed, Don is my age. He is hiking my route (though I will exit differently) in the opposite direction. He is delightful company and a welcome change from talking to rocks and animals. We discover a common background of climbing, hiking and skiing. Up early next morning, I break camp and leave before Don is up. I like being on my own schedule. I only worry about me.
Photo: Perfect cross country hiking above Bear Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2021
Off-trail hiking is not always hard. After skirting Kevin Lake and exiting a steep drainage, I enter a broad, brilliantly lit valley surrounded by dark peaks. I stroll down a gentle decline of white granite slabs slick with glacial polish alternating with patches of alpine tundra. The tundra is morphing from summer green to autumn shades of burnt sienna, red and gold. The air has the chill and smell of fall. Last week’s new snow lingers on the high peaks. Sometimes, around every corner is a good path; each cliff has a ledge traverse or an easy descent. The way is open. And then sometimes it’s not…
The sky turns brown as a cruel west wind, heavy with the smoke of western wildfires, breaks against the range. Below me the canyon’s steep rocky walls narrow. The gap is filled with boulders the size of freight cars. Taking a deep breath, I tell myself be careful, stay safe, and keep moving. Picking a route that skirts the giant boulders on the right wall of the canyon, I gingerly make my way down. An hour later, I emerge on grassy tundra with a clear shot to an inviting meadow campsite on a bench below Faler Lake.
Photo: Faler Lake Bench camp, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2021
In 1964, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act which protected 9.1 million acres of federal land. Even though the status of this land is under constant attack, it has expanded to 109.5 million acres. The act defines wilderness:
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness Act of 1964
Photo: Faler Lake from Roaring Fork Pass, 2021
I reach the 11,000 foot Roaring Fork Pass at 7:30 the next morning. Laid out before me is Bear Basin lit by morning alpenglow. Snow covered high peaks secure the backdrop. My last day. Turning to the east, I greet the rising sun and say goodbye to this range I have known and loved for fifty years. I feel the hand of time: both the Winds and I have changed. Some changes are good, some bad, but that is life. Up and over Osbourne Mountain; a tiny speck of humanity wandering on a vast two billion year old granite peneplain thrust 6000 feet above the Wyoming plain. Four hours later, I reach timberline. In the distance, 3000 feet below, is the end of the wilderness and the beginning of the road.
Over the course of five days I frequently thought how lucky I am to experience the solitude of this untrammeled land. We have a responsibility to future generations to pass on what was so hard won from the powers of development and profit. Do your part to minimize your impact on the planet and global warming. Walk softly, leave no trace. Like my friend the wolf… I leave only tracks in the snow.
“Wilderness begins where the road ends; and if the roads never end, there never will be any wilderness.” Senator Frank Church
Photo: 50 years in the Winds, Roaring Fork Pass, Wind River Range, Wyoming 2021