It’d been a long day. But by mid-afternoon, our group of teenagers was finally up on the spine of Wyoming’s Wind River Range and walking along the Continental Divide. The “Divide” is a mythical line along the crest of the continent, which in the case of North America, separates the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds. When a drop of rain or snow falls anywhere along it, the water inevitably ends up in one or the other of the oceans. To that end, many times, I straddled the line while it was raining and would watch the drops roll down my raingear and onto the ground. And then I would visualize the long journey they’d take from there to the ocean.
But on that day, there was no rain or even the thought of it. The whole area was barren and windswept, surrounded by seldom climbed peaks interrupted by expansive stretches of alpine meadow. It was big country. We were well above tree line, and the immediate area around us was sand-covered and drab, punctuated by rocks of various sizes and a few small plants.
At first, the scene seemed to be composed almost entirely of browns and grays contrasted against the blues of the afternoon sky and the dark purple of the distant peaks. But as my gaze wandered from the starkness surrounding me to the alpine meadows off in the distance, I began to register the vibrant colors of the wildflowers. Reds, yellows, and blues were everywhere. Even from afar, I could identify some of them- Moss Campion, Alpine Sunflower, Old Man’s Beard, Rocky Mountain Phlox, Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Indian Paintbrush, and Mountain Gentian.
Earlier that afternoon, we climbed an obscure and anonymous peak and named it B1. After descending its eastern slopes, we ended up on a massive alpine meadow that I’d spotted on a previous trip. The plan was to camp there and then continue on the following day, down to a well-traveled lake system. And once there, we anticipated finding actual campsites, developed trails, and other backpackers.
The two biggest unknowns of traveling with a group out in the backcountry are the physical abilities of the group members and the weather. First off, the group of mostly teenagers had taken the tough day of hiking in stride. If nothing else, they’d proven themselves to be hearty outdoor adventurers.
And as far as the weather goes, between the various forecasts and weather indicators that I’d observed during the previous few days, it seemed that we had a pleasant and calm stretch of weather ahead of us. All we needed was a window of 36 hours of good weather to complete our summiting of B1, a night spent out under a magnificent star-filled sky, and a bushwhack over to the main trail the next day. And since it seemed we had the needed window of good weather, that’s what we were trying to do. With the hard physical part of the day behind us, there was only the weather left for us to be concerned about. And since we’d made it that far into the day without any signs of a storm brewing, I was confident of the plan.
In the late afternoon, we picked our way down from the Divide toward the alpine meadow. Once out in the middle of the expanse, we found a spot nearly devoid of tundra to drop our packs and began setting up a bivouac camp. Free of the need to set up tents, people claimed their spots by merely throwing down their pads and sleeping bags (the definition of a bivouac). By not using tents, we would have both a wide-open night sky to ponder as we drifted off to sleep and an expedited start for our descent the following day.
I was confident in the plan, but the fact that we were setting up camp at “storm-brewing-time” and were in an exposed position, had me on my toes. Other than the sounds of people sorting through their gear, the meadow was oddly quiet. Not so much silent as missing some of the mysterious sounds of the remote wildness that surrounded us. The lack of noise only added to the unsettled feeling I was experiencing.
To reassure myself that all was well, I enlisted a couple of my trail mates to hike with me up onto a nearby ridge to look out at the distant skies. The ridge we went up rose several hundred feet above our camp and provided a better view of the skies in each direction. We walked up a short distance, and from the elevated vantage point, looked out on miles of the “Winds,” stretching out in every direction. The very backbone of the mountain range extended to our north and south, but foothills, valleys, and lesser peaks reached dramatically down to the Popo Agie River drainage to the east. Three massive mountains, including the newly named B1, blocked the view to the west. Above them, in the direction from which a rogue thunderstorm was most likely to come, clear skies and the yellow/blue/orange of the setting sun reassured me that all was well. I reasoned that our most significant concerns in the coming hours would not be a storm. But instead, they would be supper plans and how cold it might be as we bedded down in the exposed meadow.
We had an unobstructed view to the east, and one of my companions verbally noted that a storm was developing out in that direction.
“Probably way past the mountains and down in the flatlands,” I responded. “We don’t have to worry about anything coming in from that direction, because weather moves from west to east around here.”
That’s right, I thought to myself. I was sure of it. Still, I couldn’t quite take my eye off of the distant storm. After watching it for a while, I began wondering if it was perhaps actually moving toward us. But, all the while, I maintained my confidence that they just didn’t behave like that. It must be an illusion, I kept reassuring myself.
We stood there for a few minutes before certainty replaced my doubts. I ultimately concluded that the humongous cloud was, in fact, coming our way. I looked down at the group below and could see that none of them were paying attention either to us or the approaching storm. We immediately started down, but the terrain limited our speed. I kept hoping someone below would glance up and see us hurrying toward them and would realize that something was going on. After a few minutes of panic on our part, one of the group members below finally did look up. And then, within moments, all of them turned, looked out to the east, and pointed at the thunderhead.
Though I had to focus on the rough terrain as we made our way down, I caught glimpses of the flurry of activity taking place in the camp. People were stuffing sleeping bags and partially packed stuff sacks into their packs and moving out. Unsurprisingly to me, they were heading in the direction of the storm. And that, I’d already concluded with the other guides, would be the fastest and most direct way to get to the relative safety of the nearest trees.
By the time the three of us got down to our backpacks and the bivy remnants, we could see rain starting to fall on various nearby peaks. We also saw lightning and could hear the rumble of thunder only a few hundred yards off to the southeast. It was an awe-inspiring mix of sight and sound and would’ve been an exciting thing to witness, except for the fact that it was coming our way.
We gobbled down what the others had left for us in the way of supper, while simultaneously stuffing gear into our packs. Within minutes, we’d eaten, packed, and were moving as fast as we dared toward the rest of the group. By this time, thunder was reverberating from within several of the numerous glacial cirques in the area, and lightning continued getting closer.
Finally, we caught up with the others just as two thick groves of small trees came into sight. We picked the one that seemed to be on less of an angle and headed for it. We arrived at its upper edge, just as the first raindrops began to fall. Almost immediately, we were welcomed to the perceived safety of the trees by a tremendous bolt of lightning. It lit up a sky that had almost magically changed from alpine dusk to pitch black. The flash was followed almost instantaneously by an explosion of thunder. The noise sent us moving deeper into the guts of the grove of trees, where we looked for any sort of comfortable spots. It was a struggle to find decent places. And I was taken by the degree to which our standards for “comfortable spots” eroded as we picked our way deeper into the slanted grove.
The trees around us were mostly around 8′ tall. Not ideal. But since we were only looking for a place that effectively made us smaller than the surroundings, it sufficed. Even though we were somewhat protected, we kept looking around in the growing darkness with the help of our headlamps for evermore desirable “waiting out” places. And there simply weren’t any, at least none that I could see. We were on a large ledge that appeared to end in significant drop-offs on two and perhaps three sides. The entire area had a pronounced slope to it. And even worse, the trees were so tightly packed together that there was hardly room for a single person to sit down, much less a group of two or three. In retrospect, I realize that this had forced us to follow a basic safety protocol for such a situation. Which is that in a lightning storm, you’re supposed to disperse your group, so that a single bolt can’t take out everyone at once.
As lightning strikes lit up the landscape around us (which they did with increasing frequency), I could see that the “tree” option on the other side of the valley appeared to be much steeper and more ominous. And I was relieved to note that we’d at least made the right choice in that regard. At that point, I was sitting on an uneven rock under the protection of two little gnarled pines. And so, without much else to do besides get wet, chilled, and fret about our situation, I began counting the time that elapsed between nearby lightning strikes and the thunder which inevitably followed. It’s a useful fact that a person can estimate how far away lightning is by the length of time it takes between the flash and thunder. Each 5-count is equal to one mile. And so, I counted. At that point, the flashes were almost immediately followed by horrific thunder. And since I couldn’t even count to 1, I knew that it was very close, if not right on top of us.
Tucked into raingear and with hoods cinched-up tight, the members of the group crouched alone or in small bunches of 3 or 4. Everyone sat on small rocks, limbs, or whatever they could find to keep themselves up off of the ground. At first, there was talking and chatter, as people got themselves situated. And for a short time, when I was sure that I was getting a 2-count between lightning and thunder, we were all starting to believe that the storm would shortly run its course.
Just then, however, a bolt hammered the other side of the valley and was immediately followed by a deafening crack. An outlier, I said to myself. But before the words had formed entirely in my head, another bolt struck in almost the same spot. Another nearly simultaneous explosion of sound then followed it, and I was suddenly back to one-counts. And despite the chill and the rain, I found myself sweating profusely. The group mood sunk, as we all realized the ordeal was far from over.
By that point, except for the occasional expletive following the brilliant pops and tooth-rattling thunder, verbal conversation had ceased. The few minutes that we’d expected to spend hunkered down turned into more than an hour, and we just sat there and took it, because there wasn’t any other choice. We were entirely at the mercy of the storm, and although I kept pouring over our options, they all led back to something completely out of my control. It was a strange feeling for me as a leader who was supposed to have a handle on things. But then I thought about how “control” is just a story we tell ourselves. It became clear to me how people all around the world experience things beyond their control every day. Then, as my pondering deepened, yet another lightning strike flashed nearby, and its subsequent thunder shook me back to the situation at hand.
Eventually, the lightning began to move away. Finally, there was a five-second gap between lightning bolt and thunder. I began to feel real relief that we hadn’t been electrocuted in the middle of the Wyoming backcountry. However, although the lightning had diminished, the rain had not. If anything, it just continued to increase. It was, in a word, persistent.
After sitting out the storm for well over an hour, the wet and cold began taking its toll, and we started getting even colder. And on top of that, it was becoming late. And so, we were all cold, tired, and increasingly ready for sleep. With the imminent threat of lightning finally past, it became time to make a move, and that’s what we did.
“Let’s set up the tents, right around here,” I shouted. “Find a spot. It won’t be ideal, but at least we can get in our bags and be out of the rain.”
Even given the fact that everyone was scattered, the terrain convoluted, and the storm still rumbling, we somehow managed to pull a camp together quickly and efficiently. It was an especially impressive process, given all of the recent chaos. Everyone went to work. There were no flat, open, mineral soil areas for pitching the tents—only uneven, angled, and strangely shaped openings scattered here and there. And the rain continued. Still, four tents came out of their partially dry stuff sacks and somehow popped up among the scraggly evergreens.
Soon, I could hear people in their tents, working in unison to find some sort of nook or cranny to settle into. Among the hustle, bustle, grunts, and groans, I heard genuine concern voiced about how each person’s various actions might be affecting others. Expectations of stretching out in a warm sleeping bag, under the stars, and in a personal space had suddenly changed to a sort of thankfulness for just having a cramped, uneven, and a somewhat dry tent to share with two or more others.
Sometime during the night, the rain did stop and the skies cleared. Somehow, we’d all slept- perched and sprawled out in awkward disarray. I awoke the next morning as the sun began to warm and dry out the tent. Before getting up, I thought for a moment about all that had happened the night before. While I wasn’t happy about the storm, I was pleased with how it had all worked out. After a few minutes of staring up at the tent roof, I finally sat up, maneuvered my way outside, and stood up into the new day.
I looked up at the sky, and it was clear, at least right above. Then, I looked to the west. There wasn’t even a remnant of the storm that had clobbered us the night before. I turned and felt calm as I looked out at the whole Wind River Range–first to the north and then back to the east, where only the sun got in the way of the blue skies. I turned full circle. While all was good to the south, a thunderhead towered above the distant peaks to the southwest. I flinched, instinctively, and then took a deep breath, confident that we were ready if it came our way.