We awoke on day 9 of our Wind Rivers traverse to a red sky and clouds skipping at high speed above our East Fork River campsite. This was our biggest day, the day we would cut away from the Highline/Fremont trail system we’d been following for more than a week to cross over the Continental Divide and see the ‘other side’. Our plan from there was to traverse south over the very high Lizard Head bench and descend to the Popo Agie river, turning back west to explore the stunning Cirque of the Towers. But those plans depended on good weather, and certainly no lightning storms. There was considerable uncertainty on that point as we had our breakfast at East Fork River.
Still, there was blue sky around and behind those ominous clouds blowing in from the west, and we packed up and headed east with the breeze at our backs. The junction with the Pyramid Lakes-Washakie Pass trail was so poorly marked that a fellow hiker had left a note on a trailside boulder pointing the way north. After much consultation with maps and compass, we agreed with the unknown hiker and set off downhill toward a crossing of Washakie Creek below and the gathering peaks beyond. Finding the trail just before the creek, we made the rock-hop crossing easily and headed uphill. Soon reaching the junction of the Pyramid Lakes and Washakie Pass trails, we struggled with our eagerness to explore the Pyramid Lakes basin against the sensible option to get ourselves across the high pass before any bad weather broke. Sensibility prevailed, and as consolation, beautiful Skull Lake and the peaks of the Pyramid Basin were soon revealed in splendor from our trail: a massive cirque of granite towers including Mt Geikie, Ambush Peak, Raid Peak, Mt Bonneville, Glissade and Tower Peaks and Mt Hooker. Marked in our mental notes: return here for a week of scrambling!
Turning our eyes forward, we aimed our eyes to the saddle of Washakie Pass high up the ridge ahead, and followed the well-trodden, generally smooth trail up through the stark boulderfield, traversing the north slope of the basin before crossing over and back to reach the pass, about 5 miles from our morning’s starting point. Before us stretched brand new country – unbelievably, an even higher concentration of lakes under sheer cliffs with the thick forested valley of the Little Wind River winding north-south just beyond. Our destination for the night was up on a bench just beyond the river. Finding shelter in the lee of some big boulders, we had our lunch in the warm sun.
However, it wasn’t long before premonition prickled (along with increasing winds and greying skies) and we hustled as quickly as good sense would allow to pack up and pick our way down the very steep boulder and talus field to the shelter of lower ground below. As the trail wound first around Macon Lake and then Big and Little Washakie lakes under the sheer cliffs, the skies opened and pelted us with huge raindrops, then ice pellets, dropping with great force.
Lightning flashed and thunder boomed and bounced back and forth, amplified by the peaks surrounding us. Heads down, we descended around the lakes and then down, down to the banks of the North Fork of the Little Wind River at about 2.5 miles from the pass. One tent on a hump overlooking the river flapped forlornly in the deluge.
We crossed the river, again able to rock-hop without difficulty, and climbed back up the forested ridge a mile and a half to an unmarked side trail to good sheltered camps on the west side of Valentine Lake, our destination for the night.
As we reached the lake, the skies cleared and the sun re-emerged, so we soon had tents up and gear drying on every branch and flat surface. South and west looking across the lake we could see the distinctive shape of Buffalo Head, Payson Peak and the ridge extending south beyond. East loomed the five miles of high, very exposed bench we hoped to climb and then traverse the next day, with Cathedral Peak just showing its top beyond. The progress of clouds across the sky indicated very high winds at the level of the bench and a continuing potential for lightning. As we ate our dinners and prepared to settle for the night we soberly discussed our options, including reversing course and heading back toward Washakie Pass, where the distance of high exposure was less. The opportunity would still exist, we reasoned, to circle around via the Big Sandy trail and over Jackass pass for at least a day visit to Cirque of the Towers.
As day 10 dawned, a call on our satellite phone to the Shoshone Ranger District office provided a promising report of sunny, clear weather and winds below 30 mph on the bench, so we set off from Valentine Lake and climbed around Buffalo Head peak on a blasted-out trail clinging to the rocky north slope above Little Valentine Lake and Valentine creek drainage to reach an unnamed divide (we christened it Lizard Head pass). Here the Bears Ears trail turned to the north and our trail to the bench turned south. A pack train passed us heading out to Dickenson Park via Bears Ears trail.
Just ahead at the divide was an incredible chasm dropping 2000 feet or more to the source stream for several lakes to the east. The wind blasted us here, a reminder of the fallibility of weather forecasting. Still, undaunted, we turned our faces into the blast and ascended under Cathedral Peak onto the bench.
We found ourselves in an incredible, almost unearthly landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers and inexorable wind – a quarter-mile-wide bench with little vegetation, piles of boulders, a high ridge some thousand feet above us to our east, and a steep thousand-foot drop to our west with the myriad peaks along a hundred miles of the divide stretched out beyond. The wind, mostly in our faces but sometimes blissfully off the starboard bow, was like a living thing, blasting, swirling, sometimes even lifting us up so that we would stagger to keep our footing. Midway along we were able to find a blocky tower of rock trailside that provided shelter in its lee so that we could hunker down, eat lunch and recover from the onslaught. Somewhat recovered, we pushed on to the point where we finally, five miles from the divide, found ourselves looking down steeply to the Popo Agie river a thousand feet below. Like Dorothy and her companions rushing across the meadow toward the Emerald City, we left the ridge and made short work of the rocky traverse under Lizard Head peak to the bottom where it was blissfully warm and wind-less under the trees.
Along the way down were our first glimpses of some of the fabled peaks of the Cirque: Mitchell peak, Warbonnet, the Warriors. We turned back east along the Popo Agie, and soon found ourselves crossing Lizard Head Meadows with the full spectacle of the Cirque dead ahead, one of the most photogenic spots of our trip to that point.
In another mile we reached the meadows before Lonesome Lake (no camping within a quarter mile!) and set up our tents along the lazy river with the Cirque above us in all its splendor. The sunset provided the best alpenglow of our trip, with gold turning to salmon turning to bright orange on Pingora Peak, Wolfs Head and the Warriors and reflecting on the calm waters of the Popo Agie.
That night and the following, down in our meadow, were the coldest of our trip yet, with solid ice in water bottles inadvertently left outside the tents. However, in our open valley, the sun reached us quickly and warmed us so that we were able to start out in shorts for our daypack exploration of the Cirque on day 10. Picking our way on the maze of trails and then up the boulders, we first traversed under Warbonnet and the Warriors, stopping in amazement to gaze at the thinness of the knife-edge ridge on the crest of Warbonnet. Climbing around behind Pingora, we could see the tiny blue shimmer of Hidden Lake nestled under Warrior II. Soon the way became a mix of trail and boulder-hop, but we easily found our way to Cirque Lake which reflected the dramatic spires rising above it – the Watchtowers, Symmetry and Block Tower, distinctive Sharks Nose, and Wolfs Head. Two rock climbers from Pocatello nearly sprinted past us and, within a half hour, found their way free-climbing to the top of Wolfs Head as we watched their progress from a snack spot by the lake.
Leaving the climbers to their views, we backtracked and then circled around the front of Pingora, looking straight up to see ropes and orange gear bags from a climbing party well on their way to the top of this classic route. Though there was no obvious trail, we were able to see our next objective which was Texas Pass, an alternative and shorter way into the Cirque from East Fork River via Shadow Lake. Soon the way was marked with cairns (which we augmented along our way) and we pushed on up the rockfield and across a small residual snowfield to the sign marking the obvious saddle of Texas Pass. The way up from the other side was very steep, but a viable way-trail appeared to make its way up through the boulders from the lake basin below. Dropping back down from Texas Pass, we made a short detour to the top of Skunk Knob for more views before descending steeply back to the trees and meadows of Lonesome Lake and the Popo Agie.
So finally we awakened to the last day of our journey, day 11, another icy morning (this time we postponed breakfast to 7AM to allow the sun to reach the camp).
The trails wound in unmarked profusion past Lonesome Lake and up toward Jackass Pass, finally converging halfway up to wind fairly gently along the grassy slope to the Pass about a mile from our camp.
We took considerable time here taking pictures of Warbonnet, now just above us, and the peaks of the Cirque to the north, before heading down. Soon it was clear why stock is discouraged from climbing Jackass Pass: the way down was a very steep boulder hopping exercise down to rock-bound Arrowhead Lake (no camping spots obvious here) before climbing again on a trail blasted in the wall and winding up and down over boulders and loose rock before…FINALLY!…reaching level trail along North Creek, about 3 miles from the Pass and about a mile above Big Sandy Lake. The lake was blissful, a chance to soak feet and refresh ourselves with views across to even more future scramble routes to the south along Deep Lake and among the Temple Spires. Then, with a typical mix of relief and regret, we followed the gently descending forested trail along the final 5 miles to our oasis for the last night, the Big Sandy Lodge, with real beds, showers and home-cooked dinner and breakfast. Our shuttle from the Great Outdoor Shop picked us up on time the next morning for the 2 hours back through barren ranch country to Pinedale, where we picked up our cars and stored gear from the Rivera Lodge and set off for the long drive home.