It’d been a long day, but by midafternoon, we were finally up on the top of the Wind River Range. The Continental Divide never failed to intrigue me, as I invariably ended up trying to envision how when it rained, the water would run down from the highest point, ultimately going to either the Pacific or the Atlantic. I would sometimes stand up on a high point and let the rain drip from my body and visualize how it was already on its way and would sooner or later end up in an ocean. This time, not surprisingly, my thoughts were the same.
The place was barren and windswept with big, seldom climbed peaks interfering with relatively flat and expansive sections. It was big country. We were well above tree-line, so at first glance, the area looked like just a big, open, drab area covered by sand, a few small plants and strewn with rocks of all sizes. But, I was struck by a sense of obvious color in every direction, even though initially, I couldn’t pinpoint why it was there or even where or what it was. Logic told me that I was in a world of browns and grays, but I realized that those muted colors were being overshadowed by the blues, greens and whites of the sky and the purple layers of the distant mountains. Was that it, I wondered? But those weren’t the colors I was feeling or sensing. I was confused.
Then, I looked down at the alpine surrounding us. Reds, purples, yellows, greens, whites, blues, and pinks were everywhere. I could identify many of the individual plants causing the colors. There was Moss Campion, Alpine Sunflower, Old Man’s Beard, Rocky Mountain Phlox, Alpine Forget-Me-Nots, Indian Paintbrush, and Mountain Gentian. Which particular ones I could see and pick out depended on where I focused my gaze. But when I looked out into the bigger picture, it was more like just an impression of color, as my brain took in the individual information, summed it all up and came up with one single answer and the solution to what I was seeing.
Earlier in the afternoon, we’d climbed a lonely, unnamed peak that we’d given the name B1. Our plan was to descend its eastern slopes down onto a massive alpine meadow, which I’d seen on a previous trip and which stretched for over a half mile along the Divide. Once there, we’d set up a bivouac camp at some likely spot and spend the night. On the following day, we’d continue on to the east and finally drop down into a well-known lake system, where we’d find actual campsites, trails and, more than likely, other backpackers.
The biggest factor in the entire plan, other that our physical abilities to actually do it, was the weather. The last thing you want when exposed above tree line is lightning, and of course the associated cold and wet that often accompanies it. To that end, I’d watched the weather and the daily build-up of mountain summer storms for several days leading up to and then once out on the trail and confidently decided that on the day in question, we had a window of at least 36 hours of clear weather to do our “side adventure”. There was plenty of time to get up onto the Divide, spend the night out under a magnificently star filled sky, and then drop down into the relative safety of the forest, the following morning, before any sort of bad weather would have a chance of developing. Doing the bivouac, or “bivy” as it’s often called, I reasoned, would allow us to get an early start the following day, since there’d be no tents to deal with. We would move light and fast, to minimize our risk of exposure. The end result would be an interesting, fun and not often done route that would be different, if nothing else.
As we reached the meadow in the late afternoon, I was intrigued by an awareness that while there was no silence, there was a very real profound lack of noise. We were careful to find a spot for the night’s camp that minimized the impact we were certainly bringing to the area, in spite of our best efforts. We’d walked in a dispersed non-formation, had done our best to walk on rocks and gravel when we had the option and finally found a spot to bivy for the night that was nearly completely devoid of alpine tundra.
Once we arrived and set our packs down, I walked up onto a nearby ridge with a couple of guys while everyone else sorted through and reorganized gear and began preparing supper. On the evening hike, we stopped at a likely spot, several hundred feet above the camp and meadow and turned to look out, down and around. The Wind River Mountains were everywhere. The spine of the range extended to our north and south, but foothills, valleys and lesser peaks reached dramatically down the Popo Agie drainage to the east, while our view to the west was blocked by three massive peaks, which included B1. My feeling of satisfaction with how things had worked out to get us up to the spot was affirmed as I looked toward the western sky and saw nothing, but clear yellow/blue/orange and a setting sun. Since it was late in the day, and nothing in the way of a storm was building to the west, I was content that all we had to worry about for the moment were supper plans and how clear and cold it would be that night.
We did have an unobstructed view to the east and one of my hiking mates verbally noted a storm that was developing, way out on the plains, beyond the mountains.
“Probably way past the mountains, down in the flatlands. Anyway, we don’t have to worry about anything coming in from the east, because weather almost always moves from west to east around here”, I responded.
That situation was settled for the moment. I was sure of it. For whatever reason, I couldn’t help keeping an eye on it, though. I noted that it mysteriously did seem to be coming our way. But, I knew that storms just didn’t behave like that and figured it was some sort of illusion. Then, after only a few minutes, there was no doubt. It was coming for us. We could see our group down below, but none of them seemed to be paying any attention to either us or the approaching storm. We instantly began moving down, but the terrain limited our speed. I saw one of the group members down below finally look up our way. He could obviously see us moving down quickly and within moments most of the group was pointing at the storm. Even as I tried to focus on the ground around me, I could see a flurry of activity happening down in the camp as everyone stuffed sleeping bags and partially packed stuff sacks into their packs and began moving out, walk/running down the valley and to the east. By the time the three of us finally got down to our backpacks and what was left of the bivvy, we could see rain starting to fall on various, and not so distant, area peaks. And with the rain, lightning and the rumble of thunder was happening as well. It was an awe-inspiring sight, except that it was coming our way.
They had done the best thing, by heading toward the storm. The thought was to go east, and toward the storm, and get into the relative protection of some trees, which we theorized and hoped would actually be down there, somewhere below. Backtracking up and over B1 and then back into the valley we had come up from earlier that day was simply out of the question, and so they’d made (in my mind at least) the only reasonable decision about what to do and just did it.
Once we arrived at the camp, we gobbled down our supper, while simultaneously stuffing gear into our packs. Not surprisingly, we were the last ones out of camp and moved as fast as we dared toward the rest of the group as thunder began reverberating within and out of the various nearby glacial cirques and lightning kept coming always closer. We finally caught up with them 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 and almost immediately a tremendous bolt of lightning lit up the sky, which had almost magically changed from alpine dusk to pitch black. The lightning was followed, after a slight hesitation, by an explosion of thunder, and within an instant, the whole group was moving into the grove of trees and trying to find any sort of spot to park ourselves and wait it all out.
The trees were mostly around 8’ tall. Not ideal, so we all looked around in the growing darkness, with the help our headlamps, for “waiting out” options. There simply weren’t any good ones. We were on a large ledge that appeared to end in big drop-offs of two and maybe three sides. The whole thing had a pronounced slope to it, but that part of it looked to at least be manageable. The trees essentially clogged the whole area and there were few spots to sit alone, much less with even two or three others. That fact ended up being one of the few positives about our situation, although we weren’t thinking about that sort of thing at the moment. It was a sort of forced separation, and group dispersion is a good thing when it comes to lightning.
When the lightning struck and lit up our immediate area (which it did numerous times), I could see that the other “tree” option, right across the valley from us, appeared to be way steeper, so I was relieved that we’d at least made the right choice in that regard. I kept counting between the lightning strikes and the thunder that always followed. It’s a simple fact that you can tell approximately 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. The flashes were almost immediately followed by horrific thunder, which, since I couldn’t even count to 1, I knew indicated that it was all very close, if not right on top of us.
We were all huddled in separate space and terrain dependent groups, tucked into our raingear, with hoods pulled tight and sitting on whatever we could find to keep us up off of the ground. There was talking, at least at first, as people got themselves organized. I kept trying to monitor how close it all was, but noted that during those first few minutes there didn’t seem to be much change. I was confident that it would soon run its course and soon relished the time when we’d be looking around for a relatively dry spot to lay out our bags, staring up at a star-filled sky, and wondering what the descent down into the valley would be like.
After a few minutes, I was suddenly sure that I got a 2 count. Thank goodness, the storm was moving off, I projected. It would all be over soon, and we could get on with the real business at hand. Just as I was beginning to relax, a bolt hammered the other side of the valley and was followed almost immediately by a near deafening crack. An outlier, I guessed. And then another hit almost in the same spot as the previous one and it, too, was followed by an almost simultaneous explosion of sound. What is going on, I thought. I was doing good to count to 1 again. The thing was moving on up toward B1 and away from us, wasn’t it? I was confused and began feeling sick at my stomach.
And so, we sat there. A few minutes, turned into more than an hour. The talking stopped, although there were unintelligible exclamations of various sorts as bolt after bolt kept hitting all around, bringing momentary flashes of brilliant and frightening light, inevitably followed by teeth rattling thunder. We just kept sitting there and taking it, because there didn’t seem to be any choice. We were completely dependent on what the storm was or wasn’t doing. It was a strange feeling for me, as I poured through the various options in my mind, and they all kept leading back to something completely out of my control. It was an intriguing realization, re-emphasized over and over and over again, as I would begin pondering how that sort of thing happened repeatedly to people all over the place and then another lightning strike would happen nearby, shaking me out of my deeper thoughts, and I would return to the situation at hand.
Eventually, the lightning did move away. There was a 5 or 6 second gap between lightning bolt and thunder. I breathed a sigh of relief with the realization that the storm was undoubtedly moving on west. While the lightning around us had diminished, the rain we’d been experiencing for a while, had not. Any minute, I kept thinking, it would follow the lightning. But, if anything, it only increased over time. In a word, it was persistent.
Everyone had been sitting out in the storm for well over and hour, just getting colder and colder and since by now, it was becoming late night, tired and ready for sleep. Since there was at least no imminent threat of lightning, it simply became time to make a move. And so, we did.
“Let’s set up the tents, right around here. Find a spot. It won’t be ideal, but at least we can get in our bags and be out of the rain”, I almost shouted in an effort to make myself heard.
And everyone went to work. There were no flat, open, mineral soil areas for pitching the tents—only uneven, angled, strangely shaped openings scattered here and there. And the rain continued as 4 tents came out of their partially dry stuff sacks and people went to work setting them up as the rain kept pounding and the winds gusting.
I don’t really know how it happened, but it did. I don’t even know how the word got out effectively, given the relentless nature of the storm and the fact that everyone had hoods and hats pulled over their ears. Within minutes, camp- such as it was, was set up and I could hear people in their tents, working in unison to find some sort of nook or cranny to get themselves settled into. While everyone was trying to find their own spots, there was very real concern about how their actions might affect their tent mates. There was a marked lack of the “every man for himself” action I’d witnessed time and again when things like trail desserts were being served. 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 having a cramped, awkward, and only somewhat dry tent to share with two or more others.
Sometime during the night, the rain did stop. But we all somehow slept, perched and sprawled out in awkward disarray. I awoke as the sun began to warm and dry out the tent and thought for a moment about all that had happened the night before. I was not happy about the storm, but pleased with how it had all worked out. I sat up, unzipped the door, 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. I then looked to the west where I didn’t even see a remnant of what had clobbered us the night before. I was relaxed by what I was seeing, as I turned and looked out at the Wind River Range, first to the north, then back to the east, where only the Sun got in the way of the blue skies. I kept continuing on around. All was good to the south, but unexpectedly, a magnificent thunderhead rose up, towering above the distant peaks off to the southwest. I flinched, instinctively, but didn’t move a muscle or say a word after that. I just stood there, studying its chaos and power, knowing that we were ready for it, if it came our way.