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Garnet Canyon (WY) Skiing – June 2008

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Back in the spring of 2008, I was living in Jackson Hole and still reliving in my head the record winter that saw 600 inches of snow fall in the Tetons before the lifts closed on April 6.  After spending a few weeks back in South Carolina, I returned to Jackson later that spring and, admittedly, still wanted to ski.  Although I had never skied the backcountry before, I took the first important step and purchased an avalanche beacon and shovel.

Then, Michael Adams, a good friend of mine who was also my manager at the time, and has served as a mountaineering and backcountry mentor, suggested we attempt a ski descent of the Middle Teton, which at 12,804 feet, is the fourth highest summit in the Teton Range.  This would be a huge undertaking, but of course I couldn’t turn down this offer.  Fortunately, Michael had an older set of Blizzard skis, 186 cm in length, with a set of Fritschi Diamir Freeride bindings for me to borrow.

Day One (June 6, 2008)

We left Jackson in the predawn hours of June 6 to make our attempt, hoping to summit before a strong spring storm moved in.  This was the first backcountry skiing experience I would ever take part in, and with several miles of dry-ground hiking before reaching the snow, the weight of both skis and boots on my back was quite a shock!

Lupine Meadows Trailhead with a heavy-ass backpack
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Michael ready to roll
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As we made our way up the steep Garnet Canyon Trail, it appeared that clouds preceding the incoming storm had already moved in, but nevertheless, first light over the Jackson Hole valley floor was still a beautiful sight.

Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Range to the east
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After about four miles of steep hiking, we started to get some of our first views of the high Teton peaks.

Nez Perce Peak
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As we began to ascend into the canyon, we started to hit intermittent snowfields.  Soon thereafter, we were finally able to throw our skins on, just as the daunting face of the Middle Teton came into view.

Michael carefully making his way across a snowfield
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The Middle Teton greets us as we throw our skins on
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“So this is how backcountry skiing works” (I was still fairly new to the whole concept back in 2008)photo courtesy of Michael
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As we began skinning up the canyon towards our goal, weather quickly began to move in.  Snow, wind, and low visibility made for some nasty conditions as we gained elevation, but at the same time it was pretty awesome just to be up there.  There were several other skiers in front of us, so we were able to follow their tracks, helping us deal with the lower visibility at least.

Another group of skiers making their way to the Middle-South Teton saddle in worsening conditions
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Alan skinning up toward the saddle (photos courtesy of Michael)
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Once we made it to the 11,450 foot saddle we had a decision to make.  I wanted the summit so bad (i.e. summit fever was occurring, which showed my relative inexperience at the time), but the weather was downright nasty and would only get worse the higher up we went on that exposed peak, so luckily Michael was smart and experienced enough to make what should have been a no-brainer decision to turn around.  I was bummed at first, but after a few minutes admitted that he was right.  The route from the saddle to the summit would be steeper and more exposed, and ascending in near-whiteout conditions would have been dangerous.

So therefore, it was time to make some turns.  We still had a good 2,000 feet of vertical to ski after all!

Michael chillin’ at our turn-around spot just below the saddle
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Ready to ski down Garnet Canyon
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For the first few turns, my new and unfamiliar ski setup took some getting used to, since the skis were 10 cm longer than what I’m used to, and the conditions at the start were rather icy.  After a few turns, I got into a groove, though, and we had a fun descent as the visibility improved a little bit.  It was nothing like I had ever experienced before, as skiing variable spring conditions in the Teton backcountry was nothing like skiing powder in Casper Bowl.  Still, it was an awesome descent, and we did hit some powder thanks to the fresh snow that was falling.

Alan on the descent (photo credit: Michael)
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Looking back up at our tracks
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Heavy snow shower on the hike down
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The hike out was brutal, since we had to walk four miles down the steep slope with all of our heavy gear on our backs.  Thoroughly exhausted, we hit up one of my favorite spots, the Snake River Brewery, after we got back and vowed to make a second attempt at the Middle Teton the following weekend.

Day 2 (June 13, 2010)

On the afternoon of June 12, heavy, wet snow fell in the town of Jackson while at work.  It had been a long spring of nasty, wet and cold weather, and I was getting sick of it to be perfectly honest.  The good news was that this would be the last day of lousy weather before large-scale high pressure would move in and pretty much mark the beginning of summer weather in Jackson Hole.  The other bit of good news was that Michael and I would be making a second attempt to ski the Middle Teton the following day, and the weather was looking much nicer with sunny conditions and a couple of feet of fresh snow higher up!

We started the familiar routine of waking up predawn and heading to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead to begin hiking in the dark with heavy backpacks full of backcountry skiing gear.  However, as we made our way up the trail, we encountered significant fresh snowfall as low as 8,000 feet (in areas that were dry a week before), and our first views of the high peaks were stunning with blue skies and fresh snowfall.

Nez Perce Peak
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The Middle Teton
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We were able to throw our skins on earlier in the day thanks to the new snow.  We had nice and sunny weather on the way up, but the winds became fierce the higher up we went.

Michael enjoying the sunny weather
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Skinning up Garnet Canyon in a couple of feet of June pow
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Michael
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The wind continued to pick up as we gained elevation, letting us know that the incoming high pressure was still fighting to push the latest big storm system out of the area.  Even so, the scenery was still incredible and the fresh snow inviting.

Spindrift
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Looking back down the valley
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Looking at the South Teton near the saddle
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Closer look at the South Teton
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When we reached the Middle-South Teton saddle, we decided to turn around again.  The new snow was starting to become noticeably wind-loaded, and avalanches were starting to become a concern, and would definitely pose a danger on the steeper slopes above the saddle.  We huddled down against the high winds and took a break for a while, then began our descent with some awesome June powder awaiting us.

Hunkering down behind a boulder to shelter ourselves from the high winds at the saddle
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Michael ready to make some turns
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Alan ready to make some turns (photo credit Michael)
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The descent can only be described as awesome!  A little wind scoured near the saddle, but pretty soon we were making sweet powder turns on what ended up being an impressive amount of vertical for mid June.  Not surprisingly, the snow became heavy farther down as the new snow had begun to heat up, but we were able to make it much farther down than the week before.  We met up with an Exum Mountain Guides group farther down, which consisted of a bunch of teenagers on a multi-day backcountry skiing trip, so we were all passing each other back and forth.

Farther down, we were skiing through slush, mud, and rocks, pretty much as far as we could reasonably descend.  At first, I was concerned about damaging the bases of our skis, especially since I was on Michael’s skis, but he was more concerned about skiing as far down as possible, and one of the Exum guides even said, “core shots are a part of ski mountaineering… nothing a little P-tex can’t fix”, so I was like, “ok, sounds good to me” and kept skiing through the slushy, muddy mess.  It was an experience for sure.

Looking back at our tracks
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Skiing through slush and mud (I know you’re jealous of the sweet ski bib I used to wear back in the day!) – photo credit Michael
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The hike out with all of our heavy gear on our back sucked, as to be expected, but at least we didn’t have to hike quite as far down this time thanks to the new snow.  Afterwards, we stopped at Dornans (one of the best views you could possibly get from a restaurant and bar) for an epic meal of beer and pesto pasta to cap off a memorable day in the mountains.  Some day, Michael and I will return and ski from the summit of the Middle Teton, but a powder day in the Tetons in mid June was certainly good enough for the time being.

The next day, Michael and I took his raft out and brought a six pack of beer to float a section of the Snake River and enjoy the nice weather.  I didn’t want to end this trip report without throwing on a picture of the bald eagle we saw on the river.

Bald eagle
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As I have been getting into backcountry skiing more, I will always look back on these two days as the trips that began it all.  I also hope to return to the Tetons in the coming years for more ski descents.

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Written by Alan

August 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm

First Fourteeners and Other Adventures in July of 2007

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Exactly one year before moving to Colorado, my brother, Ellison, and I embarked on an epic road trip to Colorado and Wyoming, where we camped and hiked for two and a half weeks.  The summer before, I had lived and worked in Jackson Hole, WY, and wanted to return out west the following summer as a result, even though I would be spending it in Greenville, SC (my hometown).  I had one semester of college left and a summer job working for a newspaper with flexible hours, so I decided this would be one last hurrah before college graduation.

Little did I know that I would move to Colorado just one year later.  I already had plans to move to Jackson Hole after graduation to work at a ski shop for the winter.  I knew I wanted to live out west and had a strong desire to move out of the South, having spent my whole life up until that point there.  I wasn’t sure how long I would live in Jackson, but I knew it was a great opportunity to land me in the Rocky Mountains.  As it turned out, I fell in love with the West once again, which wasn’t a surprise, but what was a surprise instead was that I ended up in Denver.  After applying for and getting accepted to a writing and publishing course at the University of Denver, I moved to the big city in July, and upon completion of the course, decided I liked Colorado so much that I would stay… plus the job opportunities would be better (or so I thought).

As it turned out, our country collapsed into a recession, the publishing industry collapsed, and finding steady employment became difficult.  Fortunately, having just celebrated my two-year anniversary of living in Colorado, I’ve found myself in a job I enjoy, even if it is not the most well-paying, career-oriented job.  Regardless, I’m happy to be back in the outdoor retail industry with a wonderful company, and have become redetermined to get my writing career on track (while also searching for other career options and possible graduate programs).

Anyways, enough of my life story.  The long trip that Ellison and I took to this great state introduced me to my first Fourteeners and a taste of where I would be living (both in Colorado, and for the short term, Wyoming).  We left Greenville in the early morning hours of July 13 and made the two-day long drive out to Denver.  We stayed in Boulder the first night, and hiked Green Mountain the next morning as an acclimation hike.  This is still one of my favorite metro area foothill hikes, and proved to be a great start to the trip for us.  (Unfortunately, no pictures from this hike since the ones that are already posted online are in a condensed version)

That afternoon, we drove up to Estes Park and set up camp in the shadow of many 12,000 foot plus peaks.  The next day, we drove up to Bear Lake to do the tourist hikes, which to be fair, are still beautiful even if crowded.  We hiked to Dream and Emerald Lakes, then made our way over Lake Haiyaha and Glacier Gorge.  We wanted to check out a few other lakes, but it started thundering early in the day so we decided to skip the Loch Vale, which is more exposed.

The “tourist shot” of Dream Lake and Hallet Peak
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Lake Haiyaha
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In keeping tradition with our “tourist day” in Rocky Mountain National Park, we drove out from Bear Lake in a lightning storm, and then made the drive up Trail Ridge Road to check out the scenery.  We then walked up a short trail above the Alpine Visitor Center to check out some awesome views.  The tundra scenery contrasting against the dark rain clouds was spectacular.

Rain on the tundra
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We cooked dinner at a picnic area in Moraine Park that night and were able to get some cool sunset photos.

Longs Peak sunset
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The next morning, we continued our altitude acclimation process, and hiked to the summit of Flattop Mountain.  While also popular, this was still a spectacular hike.  The open expanses of flat alpine meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park amidst towering, glacially carved peaks is just totally unique and awesome.

Alpine meadows
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Hallet Peak
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We had originally hoped to summit Hallet Peak, about a mile away from Flattop Mountain’s summit, but storm clouds quickly began to form to the west, so we decided not to risk it.  Our decision to head back down turned out to be a good one, as we heard plenty of thunder on the way out.

After arriving back at Bear Lake, we drove to the western side of the park where we would camp for one more night before heading to central Colorado.  We enjoyed meeting and hanging out with other people camping at the Timber Creek Campground, and even met another family from South Carolina.

One of the coolest parts about our three days in Rocky Mountain National Park was the variety of wildlife we saw.  Included in our wildlife sightings:  deer at our campground outside of Estes Park, bull elk in the alpine meadows on Flattop Mountain, bighorn sheep at Poudre Lake, and a moose at our campground at Timber Creek.

Buck outside of Estes Park
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Bull elk on the flanks of Flattop Mountain
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Bighorn ram near Poudre Lake
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Moose in the Timber Creek Campground (photo quality is poor on this one, unfortunately)
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The next day, we took our time and made our way down to Summit County.  We decided to split a cheap hotel room in Frisco that night before attempting both of our first Fourteeners the next morning – Grays and Torreys Peaks.  Although they rank among the easier Fourteeners out there, it still proved to be a big task having never been that high before.

We woke up at 5 a.m. and drove east on I-70 to the trailhead, getting on the trail shortly before 7 a.m.  Having been to this area a few times now, I must say that, in spite of the crowds, this hike is beautiful no matter what the season is.  We were treated to a beautiful display of wildflowers on the hike up through Steven’s Gulch.

Indian Paintbrush flowers with Grays Peak in the background
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Ellison with Torreys Peak in the background
Ellison in front of Torreys

As we began to switchback up the slopes of Grays Peak, we ran into more wildlife – this time, a mountain goat.  The shaggy fella didn’t seem too afraid of us, which allowed for some great photo ops at first, but then when he kept following us we had to make a wide circle around him, wondering why he was so interested in us.  Sure, he looked friendly, but we didn’t want to take any chances with an animal that has both sharp hooves and sharp horns!

The mountain goat
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mountain goat 2

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On the way up, shortly after the goat encounter, we cut across the slope over boulders and talus to the saddle between Grays and Torreys.  I decided early on in the hike that I wanted us to summit Torreys first because “it looked more badass”.  Upon reaching the saddle, we made the short but steep scramble to the summit.

Ellison approaching the saddle
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Approaching the summit… apparently we stashed our packs at the saddle, which looking back on it, was kind of dumb
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The feeling I got when reaching the top of that first fourteener was unreal. Something about being that high up and earning it for the first time was truly special. Little did I know, at the time, that shortly after moving to Colorado a year later I would make climbing all 58 Fourteener’s before turning 30 one of my biggest goals.

Summit Views
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After living in the moment for a little while on the top of Torreys Peak, we headed back down to the saddle so we could quickly ascend Grays Peak before the inevitable thunderheads popped up.  The traverse between the two peaks isn’t all that long, but we were definitely feeling the altitude by the time we reached our second 14,000 foot peak of the day.  The clouds were starting to look nasty once we reached the top, so we didn’t stay for very long, but we still had to get some summit shots.

Dark clouds moving in
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Smith brothers on top of Grays Peak
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Woohoo!!  An epic victory cheer by the bro
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On the way down, it began thundering and hailing on us, but fortunately the lightning seemed to be hitting on the opposite side of the divide from us.  We celebrated our first Fourteeners with a meal of champions at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco… big juicy hamburgers and delicious Colorado microbrewed beers.  Then it was off to the western side of Independence Pass, where we would be camping for the next three nights.

Even though it was just off to the side of the road, our campsite was awesome and beautiful.  Unfortunately, it also poured down rain on us all three nights we were there, making for a very wet camping experience.  The first morning, we woke up to overcast skies and a soaking wet campsite, but regardless, headed down to Aspen and went for a hike to Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  Skies remained fairly overcast for our hike, but it was beautiful nonetheless.  The wildflowers on the steep ascent up to the pass were amazing.

The tourist shot of the Maroon Bells at Maroon Lake
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Ellison hiking just below the top of Buckskin Pass
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Pyramid Peak
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Snowmass Mountain
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After a relaxing afternoon back at the Lost Man Campground below Independence Pass, we endured another night of heavy rain and thunder.  The forecast called for nasty weather the next day, so we took a break from hiking and spent the day bumming around Aspen instead.  The next night, we turned in early and prepared for our last hike in Colorado, which would be another Fourteener – Mt. Elbert, the highest point in Colorado, yet one of the state’s less technical Fourteeners (the only “technical” part is the four-wheel drive road to the trailhead!).  You would never guess it was the highest point in the state just by looking at it, but it is.

Fortunately, we woke up to a beautiful morning and were on the trail, after packing up our soggy camp, around 7 a.m.

The unimpressive, yet highest, summit of Mt. Elbert on a bluebird morning
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View of La Plata Peak on the hike up to Elbert
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The toughest part of the hike was at the very beginning, a brutally steep trail up to about treeline.  From there, it was a long slog the rest of the way up, but never as steep.  The weather held up nicely for us all morning, and soon enough, we made it to the highest point in Colorado.

Summit shots – ADizzle and E-Money!
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We celebrated a Fourteener summit at the Backcountry Brewery in Frisco yet again.  Afterward, we continued our trip north, as we would be leaving Colorado and spending a few days up in Jackson Hole.  We drove to Steamboat Springs and found cheap lodging at the Bunkhouse Lodge, for a much needed good-night’s sleep in a bed after three consecutive wet nights of camping.  After an enjoyable and relaxing evening in the Yampa River Valley, we got a big breakfast the night morning and made the 6-7 hour trip north to Jackson Hole.  After spending the summer of 2006 there the year before, it almost felt as if I was returning home, and I got goosebumps as we rolled back into town.

We camped in the southern part of Grand Teton National Park that night, near the Gros Ventre River.  I remember that day and night were really hot… by far the hottest weather I had ever seen in Jackson, including two summers I have spent there.  It was in the 90’s the day we arrived (that is HOT for Jackson), and amazingly, it did not cool off much that night.

The next morning, we headed up to the park for a hike I had done before and wanted to show Ellison – Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes.  Less than a mile into the hike, we came across our first black bear of the trip!  Few things are as exciting as seeing a bear while hiking (assuming (1) it’s not an angry grizzly and, (2) it’s not raiding your campsite).  This particular bear minded his own business as we watched him mosy through the forest.

Black bear on the Garnet Canyon Trail
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After 4.5 miles of mostly steep hiking, we reached the lakes and chilled out for a little while.  These two alpine lakes are spectacular situated amidst the towering Tetons.  Disappointment Peak rises right above Amphitheater Lake, but the mighty Grand Teton looms just beyond, though it’s out of sight at the lake itself.

Amphitheater Lake
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Disappointment Peak
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SURPRISE! (lake)
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We were able to get a camping spot at Jenny Lake for the next few nights as well.  Even though it was a crowded national park service campground, it was still a pretty scenic location, with views of Mt. Teewinot from our site.

Mt. Teewinot
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The monsoonal flow seemed to follow us from Colorado up to Jackson.  Our hike the next day got rained out just a couple of miles into it.  We had planned to hike up to Bradley Lake and then up to a couple of remote lakes up Avalanche Gulch, but the bottom dropped out on us, so we turned around and hiked out soaking wet.  Some of the storm clouds in the valley looked pretty cool once it cleared up later that afternoon, though.

Storm clouds
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Since the day was rained out, we headed into town and I was able to take care of some business.  I met up with Michael Adams, one of the managers at Jack Dennis Sports whom I had met the previous summer, and talked to him about a winter job in the company’s ski shop.  He basically offered me a job, and I knew immediately that I was going to take it.  Moving out to Jackson Hole for a winter?  What kind of powder lover could turn that down!?

The next morning, we went to the southern end of the park to hike in one of my favorite areas – Death Canyon.  Our plan was for a very long hike (almost 8 miles one way) to the summit of 11,000 foot high Static Peak.  As we hiked by the scenic Phelps Lake we saw another black bear.  We had to wait a while, though, because this bear was sitting right in the middle of the trail eating huckleberries and did not have any interest in moving out of the way for us to pass.  Still, it was a cool to watch.

Black bear near Phelps Lake
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Shortly thereafter, we nearly ran right into a moose, who was busy munching away on grass and didn’t even seem to notice.

Moose
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About halfway through the hike, we picked up the Static Peak Divide Trail and were treated to beautiful views of the green hillsides of the Teton Range.

Looking west towards Fox Creek Pass
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After another mile and a half past the trail junction, Ellison began complaining of foot pain from slicing the bottom of his foot on a rock while dipping it in a creek earlier in the hike.  He decided he was done hiking uphill for the day, and decided to hike down and wait for me at the patrol cabin.  I continued hiking up the steep trail solo, while enjoying dramatic views once reaching the ridgeline.  I reached Static Peak Divide just as some nasty looking clouds were starting to move in.  Even though Static Peak’s summit was only a half mile further, I decided to turn back here rather than find out if Static Peak was true to its name.

Wildflower-lined creek
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Views near Static Peak Divide
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Static Peak
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This was the our last big hike of a completely awesome and epic trip.  The next day, we went for a short hike near Colter Bay, then slowly made our way back to South Carolina.  From there, we decided to be tourists for the day and checked out a few geyser basins in Yellowstone.  Even amidst the crows and the fact that I had been to the same area before, the geysers and hot springs were still a cool and totally unique sight.

We spent the night in Cody, then headed east, stopping at Mt. Rushmore, before continuing back to South Carolina in one very long push.  It was a trip to remember, and a preview for life out west.  I feel fortunate to have been able to live in both of these beautiful areas, and hope to be in Colorado for a long time as I am very, very happy here.

– Alan

Written by Alan

July 15, 2010 at 10:10 pm