High Among the Reasons I Don't Backpack Alone
By Alison Bowman
In nineteen ninety something, my partner Hank and I arrived in mountainous Wyoming shortly after an Independence Day blizzard that snowed in our Wind River Range route, the trail to Titcomb Basin. For days, we put the final touches on our packs in our car camp and exchanged discouraging reports with the campers and rangers who wandered by at intervals to say things like: “You won't get past Lake X” or “You'll need snowshoes beyond Point Y.” That's when I first came to know the term “post-holing.” It means to take a step on snow and sink in up to your knee or deeper. There is a potential to break one's leg this way, generally considered a bad idea in the backcountry.
Eventually, we faced our fear of the big bad snow and headed up that long forest trail one sunny afternoon. We hadn't gone a mile when we met a charismatic fellow jogging down-trail in a micro pack, technical snowshoes strapped on the back. This tow-headed über mountaineer stopped to talk, looking for all his week without a shower like a vision from Outside Magazine.
Said he'd moved in right after the storm, covered a huge amount of territory, all just a warm-up for a trip to Denali later in the month. Despite the trailhead's doomsday reports, our gentleman adventurist said that the route to Titcomb Basin was open and snow-free. We said goodbye and he ran off, eager to get back to some lucrative job that no doubt buoyed his peak-bagging career ever higher.
Hank and I watched him retreat until the green had drained from our complexions, then turned to face the 15 more miles of the worst part of any trip. On that first day, we made it just a third of the way to Titcomb Basin. But if we hadn't gotten as far as we wanted, we had found a gorgeous spot that eased our achievement-hounded souls. Our site was on a panoramic hillock overlooking a lake that in the dying light looked as brown and serene as a pool of chocolate. A light snow settled quietly through the forest like powdered sugar as we set up camp. Two hawks circled and later the stars came out, reflected in the lake waters below our cheap-but-sufficient army-surplus tent.
The next day, we got another third of the way to Titcomb. We crossed a raging creek, then ascended 1000 feet of switchbacks to the sizable Lake Seneca. In the morning, we looked down from our campsite and saw our new friends arriving – an outgoing young ranger named Carrie, and a like-minded fisherman named Adam, whom we spent a magical day hiking with that ended in a shared meal of our best freeze-dried foods and Nicaraguan Rum.
After saying goodbye to our instant compadres, Hank and I finally relocated to Titcomb on day four. Now the mountain escarpments we had seen days earlier from far away were standing right in front of us. In a flash, I imagined where their place name came from. Imagine a giant comb where the teeth are made of long, drooping breasts pointing toward the sky and that's Titcomb. It made sense that mountains be named for mammaries here–it's just down the rock block from the Grand Tetons, which everyone knows is French for “zee Big Teets.” Wyoming's womanly outcroppings are granite gray, snow capped, and massively unrestrained. All wonder, no bra.
The basin formed by Titcomb's triple-X D-cups was wide open and full of lakes, and creeks, and snow. Yes, finally, we had found the dreaded snowfields, breaker of legs, destroyer of trips. But even here it was on the run, melting into pools of turquoise waters with white sand bottoms. We were not alone in paradise, but shared this palatial place with several other campers and dozens of marmots, the high country harbingers that live among the lonely rock piles.
Hank wanted to climb Fremont Peak, but I was not with him on that. Still early in my mountaineering career, the memory of terror and exhaustion of past ascents tainted my view as I stared up the route, thousands of feet of “gentle cliff.” Instead, we would explore the basin after stowing our food away from the local marmots, who were a little friendlier than we were accustomed to.
After crunching our way around some snow-encased lakes, we had lunch not far from the trail, and Hank said he wanted to climb up to a ledge above us where the map showed a lake. I decided to stay put and so he left, leaving his daypack and our lunch sprawled out among the rocks. It was at this point that I decided to partake in a small amount of herbal refreshment, which I find can so invigorate the senses and open the mind's windows to these high, wide places. Innocent to the horrors about to unfold, I loaded my pipe.
I had been smoking for a minute and had perhaps drifted off in reverie when I looked up and noticed, for the first time, a marmot not six feet away, staring at me intently. A marmot is not a large animal, but it is a wild one. One look at the food and junk spread around and my lightening-fast brain grasped: “Not good.” I threw a warning pebble to let the beast know I meant business. As it whizzed by his ear, he didn't flinch.
In my admittedly over-sensitive but not overly-sensible state, I grew anxious. I managed to throw everything into the bags under the unwavering stare of my picnic guest. The super-sized rodent watched my activity placidly, but the yellow teeth protruding downward seemed to silently threaten a bacteria-infected bite that would mean curtains for our trip. I imagined being taken down by the little guy in a spastic skirmish, my blood staining the virgin snow. Possibly, a little paranoia on my part.
I started out across a snowfield with difficulty, feeling weighed down with the two daypacks. Through my rising hysteria, I looked down and comprehended that for the first time, the extra weight and the warmth of afternoon were causing me to post-hole!
Almost falling over, I looked back to see if the marmot was still there. He had been watching my slow progress, but now started out toward me, covering half the space in a few effortless strides. My desperation peaked. I threw my head around, searching for help, and my eyes came down on a group of backpackers who had stopped for lunch a few hundred feet off. Salvation! I didn't know it, but I was about to meet the Kansas City Climbing Club.
Panting, I approached the group of about ten people who, I would soon learn, had left the trailhead that morning, effectively doing in a few hours what had taken us half a week. Unfortunately, I blurted out my predicament before completely assessing the group's not-exactly-sympathetic nature.
“That marmot is chasing me.” Sure enough, the little guy was bounding across the smooth granite toward us with the ease of a seasoned marathoner. The men smirked. The women smirked more. After that, they didn't want to know me. What did I care? At least in the group I was safe from the marmot.
I sat next to a quiet fellow who I sensed had had enough of the icy personalities in his glacial club. He didn't say much, but he made a friendly gesture, reaching into a pocket and offering me an Advil exactly as if it were a Tic Tac.
Could an analgesic somehow resolve the abject shame of being pursued by a dog-sized hamster? Humiliated as I was, I sat my ground, convinced that a determined marmot could kick my ass. And this particular marmot was very determined and, as it turned out, not at all deterred by the group. I had a growing suspicion of what he wanted as he trotted up, scanning the faces – was he looking for mine? A few folks threw him some Wonder Bread, but he showed no interest, confirming my fear. I knew what he wanted: my stash. Carrie, the friendly Forest Ranger with an uncommonly broad scope of wildlife knowledge, had mentioned that the marmot poop in Wyoming smelled uncannily like good green bud. Obviously, my sack of California's finest had awakened some territorial instinct in the animal, and he wasn't about to let it – or me – get away.
Momentarily, the Kansas City demi-gods announced their imminent departure to camp on a high glacier and climb the tallest mountain in the state, leaving me alone to face the marmot. Of course, they didn't know the marmot was after my baggie, but still, the treachery, the abandonment!
I had seen this kind of oh-so-serious “peak-bagger” before. They all get up at 5:00 a.m. fully rested, eat a three-course gourmet meal somehow prepared in one pot with coffee, pack their bags, and start hiking by 4:00 a.m. They spring onto the trail like Athena, born fully-formed and outfitted in gear that was manufactured by astronauts in space five minutes ago.
I get the feeling that I may have entered their club's lore that day, a good example of someone who should have her wilderness permit permanently revoked. I, too, have had my fun with the story, and the Kansas City Climbing Club has become a sort of archetype of businesslike backcountry hardcore. Since that day, I've climbed numerous peaks and logged many wild miles. I've stared down coyotes, chased after bears, and taken everything that the chipmunks could to throw at me, but I've never seen a group of hard-asses like that. There is something to be said for the science-minded discipline of the career mountaineer, but clearly, I'm not the one to say it.
After the tough men and the tougher women of the Kansas City Climbing Club abandoned me to my marmot persecutor, I wasn't about to sit still and let this oversized gerbil pick my bones and smoke all my dope without a fight. I spotted what looked like defendable ground, a high point smack dab in the center of the valley and made my way to it, attracting more marmots. They were everywhere now. I could see them throughout the highland, loping about in the meadows, chirping from the tops of rocks, peaking out from boulder piles. If these creatures knew pack behavior, I was a goner.
I reached the rock and climbed it, thinking of Custer. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea; there was marmot shit everywhere, even at the top spot. I sat to take in the spectral scene in the afternoon light, pushing images of my own private marmot Alamo out of my mind. Between the snow and its melt-off, Titcomb Basin glittered like cut crystal under the July sun.
It was a warm winter wonderland, half summer, half glacier. The creek wound its way peacefully out of the basin bottom, a pale blue snake set in gold brown stone. High granite cliffs and unmelted snowfields framed the whole immense scene. At the bottom of it all, fifty feet below my perch, the marmot was waiting for me to come down.
Then, just as the sun threatened to set on me, Hank returned, and this stoner and her stash was saved from Wyoming's most dope-craven nonhuman. At moments like that, a friend is the best thing of all to have along in the backcountry, where the critters can be formidable, to say nothing of the other mountaineers.