Grand Teton Adventure Part 2: The Snowfield

Hey there, everyone!  June passed by in a blur of swimming and hot afternoons.  July is upon us!  Here is the next installment of my hike up Paintbrush Canyon in the Grand Tetons.  

 

 

After seeing the moose, I started back up the canyon.  In and out of forest, through sagebrush and rock, out into open vistas then back under the pines, walking over hushed, pine needle-carpeted ground.  On and on, I walked.  

This was one thing I loved about hiking.  The pace of it.  The steady step of it.  I settled into my step and wondered at each new view.  I slowly fell into that mindful, yet mindless state that comes when you are hiking miles alone.  I was mindful of all the new beauty I was seeing, letting it sink into my soul to retrieve later on some dark day when I would need the memory.  

Yet, specific thoughts were driven away from my mind.  My conscious mind became absorbed in simple things, the motion of walking, the feel of my pack on my back, the deep quiet of a world left untouched, innocent of human habitation.  I felt small, menial, silly in such a large world.  I was content to merely follow the path, one step at a time.  

After about four miles, I came finally to Holly Lake.  It was located just below the pass, a beautiful alpine lake surrounded by green and grey cliffs marked with patches of snow.  I thought that most of the snow would be melted up here since it was August, but there were definitely still patches remaining.  Looking up the trail towards the pass, I could see more snow ahead.  I frowned.  

I sat down on a rock next to the lake and pulled out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, staring into the cold depths of the mountain lake.  The lake was still and reflected the sky and cliffs creating an optical illusion of endless sky and endless cliffs.  I picked up a small rock and threw it into the lake, watching the illusion melt into concentric rings rippling across the surface of the lake.  

When I threw the rock, I stood up and put my sandwich down beside me.  Just as I was sitting back down, I heard a strange twittering noise directly behind me.  I turned to see an odd, rodent-like creature creeping up towards my sandwich.  

“Ah!  Get!”  I said, grabbing my sandwich possessively.  “Marmots!”  I mumbled under my breath.  Marmots are a large, squirrel-like creature.  They look a lot like woodchucks or groundhogs, but they live high up in the mountains.  They are known to beg for and occasionally scamper off with lunches.  This little guy was pretty brave.  He ran away when I got after him, but then came back towards the rock, sitting back on his hind legs, his big, fat belly sticking out.  He looked at me with curiosity.  I laughed at him and then threw him the last bit of my sandwich.  

 

“I shouldn’t encourage you, but I guess you’ve already figured out this is a pretty good place to catch a quick meal.”  The marmot grabbed the last of my sandwich between his hands and started nibbling happily.  I watched him finish it off and then pulled my pack onto my back.  

“See ya, buddy!  I’ve got snow to navigate.”  I started back on the trail.  I was nervous about the snow.  I hadn’t brought any sort of crampons or snow axe.  It looked like the snow was fairly thin, though, and that the path went pretty straight over the pass.  I shrugged and kept moving.  

I was soon walking through the pass and feeling pretty pleased with myself.  Peaks stretched above me on either side, but I was managing the snow, careful to dig my feet in with each step.  I would soon be heading down and the snow would thin out.  I was totally confident that everything would be just fine.  

I came out of the pass and started down.  For a while, the snow seemed to be clearing.  Then, almost out of nowhere, a huge, slanted snowfield appeared.  I winced.  The path wasn’t very clear, but cut through the snow at an angle.  The snow itself was a bit more like ice than snow because it had been melted in the summer sun and then frozen again during the high altitude nights.  This process of melting and freezing made for a treacherous-looking trail ahead.  

I looked down at my hiking boots.  They were good boots with strong tread.  I looked up at the snowfield ahead.  Maybe not that good of tread.  I frowned again.  All of this snow is supposed to be melted in August.  I kept returning to this idea even though obviously the mountains didn’t always follow the rules of what was “supposed” to happen.  

I had already walked close to 10 miles.  I only had about 6 left.  It just didn’t make sense to turn around now.  If I did, there was a chance I wouldn’t even make it back to the trail head by nightfall and I definitely didn’t want to be hiking around out here after dark by myself.  

Finally, after minutes of indecision, I grunted, shook my head and started out along the slippery trail.  I went slowly, carefully placing one foot in front of the other.  If I had brought a snow axe, I could have just used it to steady myself and dig into the snow as I walked.  If I had brought crampons (little metal spikes that you attach to your boots), I could have dug in easily and firmly into the snow with my feet.  But, I had neither, so I went slow.

I made it about halfway through the snowfield.  Then, I slipped.  It wasn’t some great horrendous fall, just a slip, a small misstep on the ice and slush and snow.  Down I went.  I tried to stop myself, but the snow was so slick and the mountain side steep.  I began to gather speed.  Panic raced through my mind as the bright white snowfield surrounded me.  I was slipping away faster and faster down the mountain.  

Suddenly, I remembered the alpine hiking course I had taken early on in the summer.  If you do fall in the snow, you should turn and face the mountain and dig in with your hands and feet, like a cat.  I quickly turned myself towards the snow which felt honestly like a terrible idea and arched my back, grabbing the mountainside with my hands and kicking it with my feet.  I slid a few more feet and then, miraculously, stopped sliding!  

“Ha!  Ha, ha!”  I cried out.  It had worked!  I was no longer slipping down into oblivion!  Then, as the icy snow began to burn my fingers, I looked around.  I was still in the middle of the snowfield with no way of getting to dry ground.  I looked above me.  I could see the marks of where my body had slid along the snow.  That way was no good.  The snow was too slippery for me to try climbing back up to the trail.  The alpine hiking course had prepared me for stopping my slide down the snow.  It had not told me what I was supposed to do next.

I looked up to the bright blue sky and asked aloud,

“NOW WHAT?”  

 

Okay, that’s it for the July installment.  Hang in for the third and final part of my Teton adventure!  Feel free to tell me about some of your adventures here on the website.

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