Dangerous Playground

Soloing the Bighorn Crags in October

The trailhead into the Bighorn Crags was three hours from Salmon, and that little town in Idaho was almost three hours from the nearest large airport… which meant anyone visiting the Crags from outside the state would have to travel six hours once their plane landed just to arrive at the trailhead. That was too remote for most hikers and climbers, hence the lack of visitation.

Trailhead to the Bighorn Crags
Trailhead Map

The Bighorn Crags were famous for the alpine lakes. There were 25 lakes above 8,000 feet and three passes that crossed 9,200 feet to enter or exit the areas. It was a high country playground for fishermen and hikers, and I planned to spend three weeks exploring it. But it was late in the season; no entries in the Visitor’s Registry since September.

Wilson Lake was a small lake at about 9,000 feet that formed in a cirque of granite towers. It was a day’s hike from the trailhead. I pitched camp there, drank a protein drink, and strolled around taking pictures. It started raining at 6pm. At about 11pm, the rain turned to snow.

My Own Walden’s Pond

It snowed all night off-and-on with variations in volume and intensity. The tic-tic of the frozen snow against the skin of my tent was calming, almost like a heartbeat heard inside a womb. A light breeze rustled the fly and I could smell the cold. I rolled over to look outside and saw snow moving sideways across Wilson Lake, like shadows of ghosts skating across the water.

Texas Yeti at Wilson Lake in October
Wilson Lake in October

Wilson Lake was my Walden’s Pond. More remote and far more hostile, but small, spiritual; a place of primal beauty. I would have liked to share it with others, but long ago had given up hope of finding someone to join me. Consequently, I developed the habit of going alone… taking my inspiration from Thoreau. Trekking alone through the Crags in October carried inherent risks, but the spiritual experience outweighed any concerns.

What About the Weather?

Late that night, I was awakened by an angry wind. Big weather always struck something deep and primal in me; it was like listening to the Great Bigness of God. I crawled out of the tent and looked at the sky. The wind was pushing the clouds away; it was clearing and the stars were everywhere, which meant the snow would stop and the temperature would drop. As I crawled back into the tent,  I wondered about the impact of the freezing temperatures and wind on the trail. My camp as Wilson Lake was a stop-over; I planned to leave as soon as the storm passed to explore the rest of the Bighorn Crags.

Camp at Wilson Lake in October
Late Season Camp at Wilson Lake

I looked at the barometer on my wrist. The trend indicator rose, which was very good news. From October until May, snow was perhaps the greatest danger in the Crags. That was why tourists only visited them from June through late August/early September. It was a place where one could become snowbound and, as a result, die a slow, cold, lonely death. But the last few years had seen Indian summers; one good snow storm and then a warm and bright October. I hoped the storm that passed would lead to a long warm spell.

Trekking; Not Camping

In the morning, I packed my gear and headed for the pass. When clearing a ridge, there was always a sense of wonder at what I might see on the other side. Looking off the pass by Wilson Lake, I thought twice about proceeding. There was a thin ledge on a near vertical face covered in snow and ice from the storm, and windblown crumbled rock dotted it like sprinkles on cupcake frosting. It was several hundred feet to the bottom with nothing to stop me if I fell.

Trail Across the Face from the Pass

The trail was an icy line cut across the north face of the unnamed massif, as if Orcs had hacked out a trail on the dark side of Mordor. I had climbed on vertical rock before, but always with a partner and a rope. I had no ice tools, no crampons; only my boots and trekking poles. It would be nice to say I smiled and moved on, but I did not smile. I did not grin. I stepped over the pass and on to the trail that led to Ship Island Lake and, yes, I did look down. Traversing the mountain face on that snow-covered trail was a challenge as well as a rush for me; it had been a while since I walked out onto something that sketchy, but overcoming fear is an important thing to remember how to do.

Ship Island Lake

I headed toward Ship Island Lake. It was out of the way and a long walk downhill. I am not inclined to give up hard-earned elevation; it would be a 1,400 feet climb when I left Ship Island and returned to Wilson Lake. Nevertheless, the lake was one of the more popular destinations in the Crags and my trip would not be complete without a visit to the landmark.

At a mile-and-a-half long, it was easily the largest lake in the Bighorn Crags. Much to my surprise, it had a shoreline. A beach. It was not a big beach, only 8”-10” of sand spread out along the water’s edge. A smile spread across my face as I lay back against a fallen tree, stretched my long legs toward the water, and crossed my feet in repose.

Texas Yeti at Ship Island Lake
Laidback & Looking Over Ship Island Lake

From my seat on the beach, the Crags at the far end of the lake were unexpectedly dramatic. Ship Island sat in a bowl formed by the mountains surrounding the lake. Except for the far end; both sides seemed to drop down, forming a slot in the mountains. The copper- and lichen-colored towers stepping down from Aggipah Mountain on the left were collectively referred to as Wolf Fang Ridge, and a lesser ridge dropped down from the right. Looking between the two ridges descending on either side was like looking through a gun sight. And in the slot, several miles distant, were shields of granite that stood in glorious defiance to those who might go further.

From the Top of the Bighorn Crags

When I finally bid Ship Island Lake a fond farewell, I headed to Terrace Lakes, the area furthest west in the Crags. It was a surprisingly long hike up a crude and difficult trail, and I kept looking down to Heart Lake to get my bearings. I climbed to a saddle between two ridgelines at 9,022 feet before I saw the glittering Terrace Lakes.

Terrace Lakes in the Bighorn Crags
Terrace Lakes from the Pass

The view of Terrace Lakes from the pass was a favorite of backpackers and stockmen that traveled the trail to the Middle Fork eleven miles below. A rugged mountain towered over me on the left where the ridge ran up from the pass into the sky. I stood in between boulders that one had to snake through to see the other side.

Down the center off the other side of the pass spilled three lakes that were beautiful in a way different from the others in the Crags, each one slightly below the one above it. Stepping stones made of water. The three terraced lakes were framed by the huge crag on the left and the long gradually descending trail on the slope to the right. A distant mountain range on the far side of the Middle Fork served as a backdrop on the horizon.

Over the years, I returned to the Crags and some friends made the trip to accompany me one summer. But nothing will match the experience of that solo trek in October.

(excerpts from “River Hippies & Mountain Men”)

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  1. I and my sons are proud to be among the company you call friends. I am even more proud to have had the rare chance for you to share with us the treks and the stopping points that are known as your favorites in the Big Horn Crags. Our camp at Wilson Lake and the hike to the pass with the view of Terrace Lakes is but one of the highlights and memories of our time with you in the Crags. So fortunate to have your friendship. Always enjoy your company.
    Sincerely, Gary Gilby

    • How can I forget? Only you accepted my invitation to track in the Idaho backcountry. And it was a wonderful experience for me, as well. We’ve been friends since high school and will be friends to the grave. God bless you and yours, Gary.

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