Week 15: Pinedale to Jackson Hole

Gone. I couldn’t believe it. It was all gone. My tent, stove, sleeping bag, down comforter, extra blankets, insulation pad, pillow

even the stakes had been stolen. Nothing remained but a light dusting of snow on the ground where my tent had stood for two days. With the sun setting, temperatures were rapidly plunging below zero. I stared through the windshield from behind the steering wheel and tried to accept the hard truth: I was homeless, and it was going to be a cold, cold night.

That morning I had left my tent set up in an obscure campsite along a winding dirt road in the National Forest outside of Pinedale, Wyoming, for I needed to spend the day at the town library writing my weekly article. Normally, I would have removed the more valuable items from the tent, such as my down sleeping bag and Thermarest, but my brain and blood were a bit frozen from making breakfast in 30° temperatures and icy, high winds. Also, I figured that other travelers would be too cold themselves to get up to much mischief today.

Unfortunately, I had failed to learn that it was Homecoming Weekend in Pinedale, and gangs of hungover teenagers were undoubtedly roaming the forests in their pick-ups after a long Friday night of debauchery. My gear proved to be too tempting for some conscienceless soul. I wish I could comfort myself by saying, “Someone must have needed the stuff more than I did,” but that’s not the case here, I warrant. The theft of the means to keep warm at night was an evil act, considering how harsh and cold the weather had become in the last two days.

I had no other alternative but to return to town, file a police report for $700 worth of stolen gear, and search the area for a cheap motel. But few places had a room available for under $100, even for a man in my situation. Pinedale is undergoing an extreme housing shortage due to runaway growth in Wyoming’s natural gas industry, and motel owners are able to charge exorbitant room prices. I finally was able to talk a sympathetic motel manager down to $55, and she was kind enough to offer me a secondhand blanket, bedsheet and pillow before I left for Jackson in the morning. I didn’t expect to get my camping equipment back, and Jackson was the closest town where I could replace the stolen items.

At last, my luck turned when I picked up a young hitchhiker on the outskirts of town. He worked for the gas industry as a geologist and was returning to his rustic home in Jackson just for the day. Since the house was going to be empty for the next three nights, I was invited to relax and make myself at home. I was downright jubilant. Even a simple kitchen feels like a decadent luxury when you’ve been without the use of one for three months. And most importantly, I could postpone the financial pain of purchasing a new tent until another day.

Now I had a comfortable base camp at the southern end of the Teton Mountain Range and could set my sights on the summit I’d been itching to climb ever since I scribbled down the directions from a book fourteen months ago: 11,938-foot Buck Mountain. The whole range is as toothy as a coyote’s grin, and Buck is a kindly name for what is actually a rather jagged peak. On a sunny morning, I scrambled up an obscure trail to Timberline Lake, 5,000 feet above the valley floor, then eyeballed the remaining distance. Without climbing gear I only had two real choices: to take the East Face up to the summit, or the East Ridge. The face of Buck Mountain appeared snowbound in places, thanks to storms over the last week, so I opted to try the windswept ridge instead.

It was a knife-edge. And thin patches of snow were everywhere. I did my best to keep my hiking sneakers dry, for I seemed to be slipping on the tilted rock slabs more than usual. A mistake here would mean a long, long fall into Avalanche Canyon, without hope of survival.

Finally, I sat down, looked at the sole of my sneakers and received a brutal shock: the tread on my shoes had almost completely worn off after only seven weeks of wear. I was bouldering on bald sneakers, trying to act like a rock-climbing rock star without the benefit of traction! My plan required some major reassessment.

Nonetheless, I continued to climb the ridge, shuffling across rock slabs on all fours, like a spider, until I was faced with a vertical rise that pushed my fear to the breaking point. In dry weather I believe I could have negotiated it, but the dusting of snow made the route too slippery and perilous to contemplate. I saw too many bad things happening up there, and if I broke a bone, there was no other human within miles of this mountain that I could turn to for help.

So, I carefully retraced my steps and slogged through the snow up the East Face. My socks grew damp, but eventually I was triumphant. From the top of Buck Mountain, I beheld the southern slope of the Grand Teton and a view that extended eighty miles east to the Wind River Mountains and Fremont Peak - the summit upon which I had stood six days prior. Despite the major setbacks this week, I had still achieved my goal. I’d lost nothing that could not eventually be replaced. And although I had a fondness for the black vinyl patches on my old tent, the sentimental value of the stolen items was slight. The following day, I jumped into the driver’s seat of a slightly less encumbered Jeep Cherokee, and set my sights for California and home.

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 foolsby@hotmail.com.

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