"There's something about being on the tip of danger..."
I t was around seven in the morning; bright and early. Bright in the literal sense as the sun was beaming through the blue vinyl of our tent. I hear a clunking noise in the distance so I unzip the screen cover to peer out. A medium-sized moose pokes its way around the dumpster some 100 or so yards away. Good morning Idaho!
We car camped the night before at a fairly secluded campground near the border of Wyoming. We arrived late in the evening and we were the only ones to pitch a tent. Just a few miles to go until I can check off a bucket list item—Grand Teton National Park.
The drive up to the park unbelievable. The jagged snow capped mountains looked to be peeled directly out of the Swiss Alps. They get larger and larger as the miles tick away as we approach the park.
It was still early in the season and we knew conditions were widely variable. We arrive at the visitors' center eager to learn our fate and to get out on the trails.
To say that the rangers were not so encouraging would be an understatement. It was clear that they didn't want anything to do with the fact that we were about to backpack up into high country in May. "Several feet of snow," "no clear trail to be found," and that blasted "A" word, avalanche were just a few of the stern warnings the friendly guy in the campaign hat directed at us.
But we were there, along with our pride, and we were determined to get out there. We originally wanted to attempt the Paintbrush to Cascade Canyon Loop Trail but compromised on just the hike up to Upper Paintbrush Canyon.
We would go some six miles to upper Paintbrush Canyon and promised to not attempt to cross any divides without ice axes.
The even better part was that since the snow was so packed, we could camp anywhere that we deemed safe.
This hike would still take us deep into the Teton Mountain Range through a major canyon and challenge both our endurance and pathfinding skills.
We loaded our packs with the necessities and adequate layers of clothing attaching snowshoes and trekking poles outside. There was barely any snow at the lower elevation at which we started but from experience we knew not be fooled.
The hike began at the String Lake Trailhead. The trail was muddy and we ran into a few other groups of hikers on this stretch. They looked at us and our packs with inquisitive facial expressions. "You must be going up," one older gentlemen belted at us before wishing us good luck. It wasn't until this point that I begin to wonder what we were about to get ourselves in to.
We would take Leigh Lake Trail up into Paintbrush Canyon towards Holly Lake. We were awarded with our first view of the beautiful blue water of Leigh Lake backdropped by the Teton Range very early in the hike. How could it get any better?
The trail splits and we hang a right splitting off from our fellow hikers. The trail traversed upward and we continued along still eager in excitement. As we kept climbing we began to see more and more snow and ice. It wasn't until we hit what could be confused as a wall of snow that we decided it was time to stop and don the snow shoes and trekking poles; and I was sure glad that we brought them.
You could tell that the trail itself was steep but the snow packed on top of it effectively turned it until a ski slope. There were no longer any signs of trail markers of any sort. They were buried in the several feet of snow below us.
We were complete novices with snowshoes. We got the hang of it fast and we continued the hike guessing which way the trail was going. Even with the snowshoes and trekking poles, we spent a lot of time on our backends sliding down slick ice avoiding trees.
As we got higher, so did the snow packed on the ground. We were Lewis and Clark carving our own path to Upper Paintbrush Canyon. The actual trail was several feet below us under the thick snow.
A very slushy rain began to fall with the sun still beaming down. It's amazing how fast conditions can change at elevation. We make it near Upper Paintbrush Canyon to an enormous avalanche debris field. You can look toward the peak of the mountain and trace the mass destruction that the rolling snow caused knocking down trees of various diameter in the process.
We stopped to check our map to estimate our location. I hear a rustle from above in the direction that we were headed and look up to quite surprise. We completely froze. It took a while to interpret what the herd of huge swirled-horned creatures were that was staring us down. By the time that I processed that it was a herd of bighorn sheep a few yards in front of us, they quickly frolicked away in the opposite direction. We would later find out how rare of an encounter we had just experienced. If only we could've captured that moment in a photo.
The rain stopped but trail conditions grew worse and we felt that it would be best to concede and look for a place to set up camp before sunset. Though we were nearly there, we wouldn't attempt to continue to Holly Lake.
We laid out a tarp and pitched our tent nuzzled behind a big healthy tree on a rock solid piece of ice. The wind whipped over the canyon and temperatures fell as quick as the sun. We got in our sleeping bags and shared body warmth in the subfreezing temperature before drifting off to sleep. If we survived the night unaffected by grizzlies, avalanche, or hypothermia, I would wake up on my birthday morning in my new favorite national park.
As we made our way down I took time to reflect on the experience we just had. The excitement, the challenge, and the literal ups and downs. I had checked off all of the reasons that I love hiking and the outdoors so much. There's something about being on the tip of danger without actually being in trouble that drives me to push the limit.
I oddly crave a juicy burger and a cup of coffee, but for now I enjoy the last moments of being in my element.