Cirque of the Towers. The destination had been in my mind for ten years, ever since the original expedition to the backcountry basin in 1996 had to be aborted. That summer, the mosquitoes tormented my companion and I to the brink of insanity. Nowhere on earth, including Alaska, have I encountered a fiercer horde of winged assailants. But now I was back, in a later season, and even if I shivered in my sleeping bag at night, I was willing to put up with the discomfort if it meant that any remaining mosquitoes were too frostbitten to disturb my passage.
The Cirque lay deep within the Wind River Range of Wyoming, which this week was so obscured by smoke from Montana wildfires that its jagged mountains seemed to materialize out of nowhere as I drove out of the desert to reach the trailhead. These mountains have an uncomfortable, raw appearance, as if someone took a giant razor and roughly scraped them bare of trees. I labored with my backpack for ten miles on the steadily ascending trail until I crested Jackass Pass and could look down across the rock and tundra to my long-awaited goal: Lonesome Lake, resting at the bottom of the Cirque of Towers.
It was a stark vision: a ring of jagged granite fingers thrust two thousand feet up into the stormy sky, with Lonesome Lake lying still and vulnerable in its palm. Many of the towers had a taloned appearance, or a resemblance to the hooked beaks of eagles and vultures. I felt noticeably intimidated as I descended into the bowl, for I’d hoped to climb to a lookout on the morrow, and the vertical, almost featureless sides of these pinnacles made my ambitions seem quite laughable.
I pitched my tent in a soft meadow above the lake and continued a quarter-mile down into the basin to retrieve some water for my evening meal. Because of the smoke and thickening clouds, everything was tinted a gloomy shade of bluish-gray, as if seen through dark sunglasses. I washed up in the stream, then realized with dismay that I had accidentally brought my stove instead of the water filter! In a heavily-used area such as the Cirque of Towers, bacteria can be a problem unless water is boiled or otherwise treated. But there was no time to fetch the filter; I barely made it back to my tent before the wrath of an afternoon thunderstorm descended upon the basin.
Examining my liquid resources, I discerned that I had just enough water for one pot of soup, and my stomach was arguing for a timely dinner. I assembled my stove just outside the shelter of the tent’s rainfly. but in my haste, my cold fingers fumbled with the pot... and spilled the water. I was dismayed. But by propping the empty pot beneath a corner of the rainfly and waiting an extra half-hour, I soon collected enough rainwater for two servings of soup. And before the rain ceased at last, I gleaned enough water for brushing my teeth and for tomorrow morning’s cereal. There’s nothing like putting nature to work for you.
Blocks of granite came crumbling down from the towers in the early evening, weakened by the rains, and I dreamt that night of fleeing my tent just before a giant slab dropped down and crushed it completely. Even in my dream, I was thinking, “This is awful… but it’ll sure make great literary material!” Obviously, I’m losing my healthy sense of journalistic detachment… if I ever had any to begin with.
A “whuffing” sound woke me up in the middle of the night, and instantly my mind envisioned a bear lurking menacingly out in the meadow, for I’d read rumors of marauding black bears in the hike description. Yet when I ventured out to look, nothing awaited me but the surreal spectacle of the Cirque of Towers illuminated by full moonlight. I walked in a slow circle, my footsteps crunching as I broke through the ice-coated grasses. Snow dusted the mountaintops, and a cold, bitter wind swirled about the basin. Still, I stayed out as long as I could, awestruck by the timeless, undeniable power of this natural fortress.
The views were even better the following morning, for the rains had washed most of the smoke out of the air. I used the short window of good weather to explore the basin, and I carefully scrambled up the shoulder of Bollinger Peak, one of the 12,000-foot hooked pinnacles overlooking Lonesome Lake. My pride at this accomplishment was tempered by nervousness about the approaching afternoon storms, for wet, slick granite could prove deadly during my descent.
Luckily, I made it back to the tent just as the dark clouds unleashed a barrage of hailstones. The sounds of the storm were rather dramatic; nothing can echo back thunder quite like a circular mountainous amphitheater. The basin had perfect acoustics. Meanwhile, hailstones pinged with metallic intensity into my aluminum cookpot, placed outside once again for the collection of rainwater. I wrapped a sleeping bag around my body and passed the time by listening to a mini-radio that received signals from NPR and from a odd station that was inexplicably broadcasting 24-hour Christmas carols. The time is not yet right for such tinseled, holiday images, but I fear that here in the Rocky Mountain high country, the temperatures soon will be.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, Calif. You may reach him mid-journey at firstname.lastname@example.org.