It’d been a long day, but by mid-afternoon our group 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 to the ground anywhere along it, the water from it inevitably ends up in one or the other of the oceans. To that end, many times I straddled the line while it was raining, watched the drops roll down my raingear and onto the ground, and then visualized the long journey that they’d take from there on to the ocean.
But there was no rain, or even the thought of it, up on the Divide on that day. 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 treeline and the immediate area around us was sand covered and drab, punctuated by rocks of various sizes and just a few small plants.
At first, the scene from this high point seemed to be composed almost entirely of browns and grays contrasted against the blues of the afternoon sky and the dark purple of distant peaks. Only as I let my gaze wander from the starkness immediately surrounding me to the alpine meadows off in the distance did I begin 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-Nots, Indian Paintbrush, and Mountain Gentian.
Earlier that afternoon, the group of teenagers that I was leading had climbed a lonely unnamed peak and given it the name B1. After descending its eastern slopes, we eventually ended up on a massive alpine meadow that I’d spotted on a previous trip. It stretched for over a mile and offered the promise of a good spot for a bivouac camp in which to spend that night. On the following day, our plan was to continue on to the east and ultimately drop down into a well-traveled lake system, where we were sure to find actual campsites, developed trails and, more than likely, 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. Our party of mostly teenagers had taken the tough day of hiking in stride and had proven themselves to be solid outdoor adventurers. And between the forecasts and the various weather indicators that I’d observed while out on the trail during the previous few days, it seemed to me that we had a pleasant and calm stretch of weather ahead of us. And all we needed in regards to that was a window of at least 36 hours of good weather to complete our summiting of B1, camp out under a magnificent star-filled sky, and then cross on over to the main trail. And so, that’s what we were trying to do. The last thing that any of us wanted on an excursion like we were in the midst of was to be caught out in a bone-chilling rain above treeline while simultaneously being exposed to the bolts of lightning that almost always accompany mountain storms. And so, with the hard physical part of the day behind us, only the weather was 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’d become mostly 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 begin setting up a bivouac camp. Free of the need to set up tents, people claimed their spots by simply throwing down their pads and sleeping bags (the definition of a bivouac). No tents would mean both a wide open night sky to ponder as we drifted off to sleep and an expedited start for our descent the following day.
Despite my sense that the weather was holding and everything going according to plan, the fact that we’d reached our camp at the very time of day when storms sometimes come out of nowhere kept me on my toes. Other than the sounds of people sorting through their gear as they searched for cooking and eating utensils, dinner pouches, and the other various items that they’d be needing for the coming night, the meadow was oddly quiet—not so much silent as missing some of the mysterious sounds of the remote wildness that surrounded us.
To reassure myself that all was well, I enlisted a couple of my trail mates to hike with me up onto a nearby ridge that rose several hundred feet up above our camp so that I could get a more complete view of the skies in each direction. From that vantage point, we could see 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. Our view to the west was blocked by three massive peaks, which included the newly named B1. Above those peaks, in the direction from which a rogue thunderstorm was most likely to come, the clear yellow/blue/orange of the setting sun reassured me that our biggest concerns in the coming hours would not be a storm, but instead our supper plans and how cold it might be on that clear, starry night as we lay out in the exposed meadow.
We had an unobstructed view to the east and one of my companions noted that a storm was developing off in that direction, out on the plains and beyond the mountains.
“Probably way past the mountains and down in the flatlands,” I responded. “We don’t have to worry about anything coming in from the east, because weather almost always 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 maybe it was actually moving toward us. But I was certain that storms in that area just didn’t behave like that. It must be an illusion, I kept reassuring myself.
We stood there for a few minutes before my doubts were replaced with certainty. I ultimately concluded that the monstrous cloud was simply 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 was limiting our speed. I kept hoping someone down below would glance up and see us hurrying toward them and 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 our way. Within moments, they’d all turned, looked out to the east, and were pointing 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 down in the camp. People were stuffing sleeping bags and partially packed stuff sacks into their packs and moving out. Not unsurprisingly to me, they were actually heading in the direction of the storm, which I’d already concluded with the other guides was also likely the fastest and most direct way down to the relative safety of the nearest trees.
By the time the three of us finally got back down to our backpacks and what was left of the bivy, 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 various glacial cirques in the area and the lightning continued getting closer.
We finally 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, which lit up a sky that had almost magically changed from alpine dusk to pitch black. The flash was followed, after a slight hesitation, by an explosion of thunder, and within an instant, we were all moving deeper into the guts of the grove of trees and trying to find any sort of comfortable spot in which to park ourselves and wait it all out. As we struggled to find likely places, 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, since the reasoning behind going into a grove of trees in a mountain storm is to surround yourself with objects that are substantially taller and more likely to draw a strike, than you are. So, we looked around in the growing darkness with the help of our headlamps for evermore desirable “waiting out” places. There simply weren’t any good ones, at least none that we could see. We were on a large ledge that appeared to end in big drop-offs on two and perhaps three sides. The entire area had a pronounced slope to it And even worse, the trees were so closely packed 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- 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 I was relieved to note that we’d at least made the right choice in that regard. As I sat on an uneven rock under the protection of two little gnarled pines and with nothing 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 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. 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 meant that it was all 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, depending on the amount of space and specifics of the terrain on which they’d come to a rest. 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 and that we’d soon be laying out our bags and resuming our bivouac underneath clear skies.
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 completely formed in my head, another bolt struck in almost the same spot, and was followed by another almost simultaneous explosion of sound. Soon, I was back to one-counts, and despite the chill and the rain, found myself sweating profusely.
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 had turned into more than 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, a leader who was supposed to have a handle on things. But then I thought about how “control” was really just a story we tell ourselves. People all over the world experienced things beyond their control every day. And as my pondering deepened, yet another lightning strike flashed nearby and its subsequent thunder shook me back to our situation at hand.
Eventually, the lightning began to move away. Finally, there was a 5 or 6 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 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 began getting colder and colder. And on top of that, it was beginning to get late. And so, we were all cold, tired, and increasingly ready for sleep. With the imminent threat of lightning finally past, it was time to make a move and so 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 among the trees, the terrain a bit convoluted, and that the storm still rumbling through the cirques and valleys around us, we somehow managed to pull a camp together quickly and efficiently, 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, 4 tents came out of their partially dry stuff sacks and amazingly 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. While everyone was trying to get situated, I could hear in their voices very real concern about how their actions might affect the comfort of their tent mates. There was a marked lack of the “every man for himself” attitude that I’d witnessed time and again when the last spoonful of trail desert was being served or an unguarded bag of trail mix was emptied while its owner had his or her back turned. 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 only 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 and before getting up, I thought for a moment about all that had happened the night before. I wasn’t happy about the storm, but 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 us. Then, I looked to the west. There wasn’t even a remnant of the storm that had clobbered us the night before. I was calmed as I turned and 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. All was good to the south, but a magnificent thunderhead rose up, towering above the distant peaks off to the southwest. I flinched, instinctively, and then took a breath, knowing that we were ready for it, if it came our way.