Words and Photos by Nathan Bauman
The Winds are indeed a magical place filled with wondrous views, enormous peaks, and absolutely gorgeous valleys. Along with Knapsack Col, the Cirque of the Towers alternate is one of the more anticipated and difficult routes along the entire trail. Rated as one of the top 10 hikes in the ENTIRE country, one could say that I, as well as the rest of my group, were extremely excited to hike the Cirque.
Before I delve too deep into the experience I had on Cirque of the Towers, I have to fill you in a bit. Leaving Pinedale for the second time almost a week ago, I felt a bit ill waking up as we prepared to leave. Nothing serious, just some stomach cramps and a sad lack of an appetite. Not normal for someone who has been walking almost 30 miles a day, I was a bit concerned, but not terribly worried. Really I didn’t think anything of it, other than that I could possibly have food poisoning or some adverse reaction to some of the dairy I had consumed, but it didn’t seem to warrant any concern. I was vegan for about 10 months prior to returning to trail life where my muscles beg for calories outside of the carbs that are potatoes and more potatoes so I thought that my current diet could play a role. These small mountain towns don’t offer much catering towards vegetarians or vegans unfortunately so it’s been difficult keeping a strict diet on the trail.
Anyways, we packed up and left to begin our run at finishing the Winds and enjoying what could possibly have been the best alternative on the CDT. The first day out of Pinedale included an 11-mile walk back to the CDT from Elkhart Trailhead where we continued another 7 or so miles before camping at around 9,000′ beneath an almost full moon.
As I crawled into my quilt, I was positive that the nausea and queasy feeling in my stomach would subside by morning. When I woke up, the sun was beginning to make its appearance with a nice alpine glow on the mountain tops, and as I suspected, I was feeling a bit better. I got a jump on the morning and began the descent into the valley before I reached the base of Hat Pass. I tend to enjoy climbing and scrambling up passes more than most so I quickly sped away from the group jamming to some Turnover to get me up the mountain. A few minutes later and almost 800′ of vert, I reached the pass and at that moment I felt incredibly strong and aware, quite contrary to how I felt leaving town. It was a gorgeous morning with soft light at my back and a nice breeze to cool me down from the front. I continued down the descent to the valley, but as my footsteps became sloppy and misplaced by the second, the fatigue began to set in my quads and I began to notice that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t figure it out. I felt fine for the most part. I wasn’t hungry by any standards, but I didn’t feel sick at all. For some reason, after that push, I just felt a little off compared to moments earlier. With a 27 mile day ahead of me, I decided to try and kick it up a notch and see if I could sweat out the odd feeling I was having. I was terribly wrong. I found myself unable to hike for more than an hour and a half without being perpetually exhausted throughout the day. My muscles begged for a break every 3-4 miles although I knew I could keep pushing. This wasn’t normal. This was as unusual as it was perplexing to me. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t eating. I could barely catch my breath. At that point, I knew something more serious was occurring in my body.
The idea that day was to get a few miles into the Cirque route and camp at Shadow Lake. By 3:00 P.M I had only 8 miles remaining, but a two hour nap was beckoning and I answered. I woke up at a junction where I had laid down wondering what the hell was going on with me. I waited for over two hours for my friends to catch up, but with restless legs, I decided to pack up and continue on.
Hiking long distance trails gets one in tune with their own body, and out here there’s only so many things that can go wrong so I had a feeling of what it might be. My initial thought was food poisoning since these stomach feelings started in Pinedale, but as the day wore on, I knew that it wasn’t food poisoning. I had a hunch that it was Giardia, and now sitting in Lander, I know my hunch was correct.
The day continued on, and every hour or so I stopped and waited to see if my friends would catch up, but as it turns out, Mayor was busy catching fish and the rest of the group weren’t pushing that day. They had planned for a late arrival into camp, so I spent the day alone. Something that I value quite a lot out here. I managed to choke down about 800 calories during a 27-mile day, leaving me extremely calorically deprived which doesn’t bode well for hiking. I went to bed without a speck of dinner and camped near 30 other day hikers, climbers, backpackers, and tourists who were enjoying the long weekend in the Winds.
As I broke camp in the morning and got an okay start on the day, I couldn’t help but wonder how the hell I was planning on getting over 4 passes in one day without eating. Not only that but with no company. I wasn’t sure where my friends were, and for all I know they could have been miles ahead or behind, but as I trekked past Billy’s Lake, I saw Stomper off in the distance, then Funny Bone appeared, Red Bass following, and so on. I was elated. I couldn’t contain my excitement of seeing my best friends in a time of despair and agony. Familiar faces always seem to put a smile on my face. For a few moments, I thought that I might be able to push through and break this rut I was in.
On the Cirque of the Towers route, Texas Pass is the first monster that needs to be tackled. Almost 1,000′ of vertical ascent in less than a mile awaits hikers as you stare at an incline full of rocks. Unlike Knapsack, there’s not much rock hopping involved. It’s more scree sliding and gravel than anything, so I wasn’t too keen on it compared to my friends. I struggled immensely with each labored and misplaced step. It ended up almost draining every ounce of energy I had, but when I finally reached the top, I gained a little of it back as I found myself at a loss for words. Epic, sweeping views of the Cirque were finally right in front of me and it motivated me to continue on in a positive manner despite feeling like death was around the corner.
The only problem was that I could barely function and stand without collapsing. Not only that but with a fire not too far from the trail, the sky was filled with haze and smoke and slightly shrouded the views. Nonetheless; I was ecstatic to finally be witnessing these massive monoliths and the way they protrude from the ground.
After a short rest at the pass, we started the tricky descent down to Lonesome Lake which sits right beneath one of the Towers. As we were descending, we could see climbers on the approach to their preferred route for the day on the tower itself.
Once we arrived at the bottom and saw Lonesome Lake, Mayor immediately grabbed his fly rod and began casting hoping for a bite. Although he didn’t catch anything there, it’s always a pleasure watching him perfect his craft, especially in a location as beautiful as this. As we sat for a few minutes watching Mayor cast and enjoying the spectacular views before us, I couldn’t help but think how much I’ll enjoy returning to this location when time is not of the essence and when the smoke is less prevalent.
As Jackass Pass awaited us in the distance, we jammed out another few miles and clipped the summit, unleashing another gorgeous view right before our eyes.
Comparatively to Texas Pass, Jackass Pass was much easier but still blew us away. Out here on the CDT and especially in the Winds, beauty is around every corner and sometimes you don’t even have to look for it. Alpine lakes sit below every peak while boulders fill the trail and surrounding areas making for such a contrasting landscape that it’s hard to not lose focus on the terrain below your feet.
Being Labor Day weekend, we didn’t have the solitude along the route that we wanted. The backpackers and climbers flooded the trails, making progress slow especially with Giardia knocking at the door.
All of us stared in awe at the towering peaks as we continued our trek through the Cirque. A snowfield or two later, we finally reached Big Sandy Lake where I made the decision to take a side trail down to the parking lot at Big Sandy Trailhead to hitch a ride into Lander to clear up this overwhelming feeling of sickness.
I got a ride from an extremely welcoming and curious couple who pegged question after question about thru-hiking. I was happy to answer every single one and help them along their journey to becoming experienced backpackers. Just as is on the AT, the generosity of strangers extends far beyond the reach of many out here on the CDT. I arrived in Lander an hour or so later physically and mentally exhausted. From the time I started hiking that day to the time I arrived, my state had deteriorated quickly and I was absolutely famished and deprived of nutrients.
I had plans of meeting up with my good friend Peter Pan whom I had hiked around 900 miles with on the AT last year in South Pass City, however; when I told him that I arrived in Lander a day early, he immediately called me and told me he was in Lander as well. Peter Pan is a NOLS alumni, and they have their HQ here and he was staying at the Noble Hotel, essentially the housing for the students and staff. It was such a good time having the opportunity to catch up with a lifelong friend at this point, especially in a trail town that is also important to him.
Although the Cirque of the Towers alternate didn’t go as planned for me, it was still an experience I’ll never forget. The beauty of the Wind River Range is unrivaled. The friends I’ve experienced this section with are unbelievably supportive, generous, and tough both mentally and physically. This section will forever leave me feeling the most accomplished and true. Pushing my body to the limits when I was at my lowest physical point on this trail has been a tipping point for realizing what I’m capable of.
I’m heading into the Great Basin tomorrow morning after a few zero days to recover from Giardia with the help of some much needed antibiotics. Feeling strong again, the miles are calling, and who knows, a 24hr challenge might be in order. Colorado is just around the corner, and at this point, not only are the San Juans yelling at us, but the fires are doing quite the contrary near Steamboat Springs.
The Wind River Range is pure bliss, and if I haven’t said it already, it just keeps getting better.
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