It’d been a long day, but by mid-afternoon, we were finally up on the spine 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 one of those high points 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 all around us that almost seemed to just interfere with massive flat and expansive sections of alpine meadow. 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 being surrounded by or being enveloped in a world of more vibrant color, but initially, I couldn’t pinpoint where or what it was exactly. Logic told me that I was in a world of browns and grays, but after a good bit of pondering, I decided that those somewhat muted colors were perhaps being overshadowed by the blues, greens and whites of the sky and the purple layers of the distant mountains. Was that the reason, I wondered? But those weren’t the colors I was feeling or sensing. I was confused.
Then, I looked down at the alpine world surrounding us. Reds, purples, yellows, greens, whites, blues, and pinks were everywhere. I could identify many of the individual wildflower 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 overall impression of color, as my brain took in the individual information it was receiving, summed it all up and came up with one single answer that was 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 had been to get up to its summit and then 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-traveled lake system, where we were sure to find actual campsites, developed trails and, more than likely, other backpackers.
The biggest factor in the entire plan, other than that of 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 summer mountain storms for several days leading up to our trip and then once actually out on the trail and had 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”. I felt confident that there would be plenty of time for us to get up onto the Divide, spend the night out under a magnificently star filled sky up on the alpine meadow, 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. I reasoned that doing a bivouac, or “bivy” as it’s often called, for our night of camping, would allow us to get an early start the following day, since there’d be no tents to deal with (note- a bivouac is essentially sleeping out under the stars). The theory was that we’d 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 at least be unique, if nothing else.
We climbed the peak and then reached the meadow in the late afternoon. Down on the meadow, 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 stick to the rocks and gravel when we had the option and ultimately found and put to use a bivy spot 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 from the group while everyone else sorted through and reorganized gear and began preparing supper. On our 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 River drainage to the east, while our view off 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 off in that direction, 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. But for whatever reason, I still couldn’t help keeping an eye on it. I noted that the cloud mysteriously did seem to be coming our way. But, in my mind at least, 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 coming down quickly and within moments most of the group was pointing up and out 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 below as everyone stuffed sleeping bags and partially packed stuff sacks into their packs and began moving out, walk/running down the valley and, thankfully, to the east. By the time the three of us finally got down to our backpacks and what was left of the bivy, 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 mix of sight and sound, except that it was coming our way.
They’d done the best thing, by heading toward the storm. One of the other leaders had made the decision to go east, meaning in the direction of the storm, where we could all get into the relative protection of some trees, which we’d theorized about earlier and speculated would actually be down there, somewhere below. Backtracking up and over B1 and then back into the valley that we’d ascended 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 then, just did it.
Once the three of us arrived back down at what reamined the camp, we gobbled down the supper the others had left for us, while simultaneously stuffing gear into our packs. Not surprisingly, we were the last ones there. Within only minutes, we’d eaten our supper, packed up and were moving as fast as we dared toward the rest of the group when thunder began reverberating from within various nearby glacial cirques and lightning kept moving 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 and almost immediately were welcomed to the perceived safety 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 and trying to find any sort of reasonable spot 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 “safe spots” kept eroding all the while.
The trees around us were mostly around 8’ tall. Not ideal, so we looked around in the growing darkness, with the help our headlamps, for other “waiting out” options. 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 whole thing had a pronounced slope to it, but that part of it seemed to at least be manageable. The trees essentially permeated 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 “tree” option on the other side of the valley appeared to be way steeper, and so was relieved 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, with nothing much else to do besides get wet, chilled, watch the storm and fret about our situation, I began counting the time that elapsed between the lightning strikes and the thunder that inevitably followed- a thing to do which was actually pertinent. 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. At that point, the flashes were almost immediately followed by horrific thunder, and since I couldn’t even count to 1, I knew indicated that it was 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 the storm was to us, 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 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 from our new bivy 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 reasoned. 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’s going on, I thought? Suddenly, 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 despite the chill and rain began sweating profusely.
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 tooth 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 again, and I began pondering how that sort of “out of control thing” probably happened repeatedly to people all over the place. And then, my deeper thoughts were stymied as another lightning strike hit nearby, shaking me away from that more esoteric concept, and back to the situation at hand.
Eventually, the lightning did move away. Finally, 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 an hour, just getting colder and colder and since by this point, it was becoming late night, we were all tired and ready for sleep. Since there was at least no imminent threat of lightning, it simply became time to make some sort of 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.
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.
I don’t really know how it happened, but it did. I don’t even know how the word got out around the group effectively, given the relentless and loud 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, I could hear in their voices their very real concerns 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 just 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 us. I then looked to the west where I didn’t even see a remnant of what had clobbered us the night before. I was soothed by what I was seeing 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. From that point, I kept continuing my gaze 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.