On the trail: One man’s failed climb is another’s successful hike

 

By IKE FREDREGILL

Wyoming is a landscape brimming with potential for outdoor adventures, but with wintery conditions likely eight months out of the year, preparation and adaptability are key.
Snug between the Snowy Range and Laramie Range, the Gem City of the Plains has access to boundless hiking, climbing and biking across some of the nation’s highest peaks.
However, Wyoming weather is unpredictable at best, and the Laramie Valley is well-known as one of the most challenging climates in the southeastern corner of the state.
A recent spate of unseasonably warm weather convinced me I could squeeze in one more hiking trip this season, so I set a date.
Two days later, a weeklong snow storm assailed the valley.
October snow is common enough for the region, and I expected the smattering of fresh powder to melt off long before I attempted ascension of Medicine Bow Peak, the highest in the Snowy Range at 12,018 feet above sea level.
Preparations began the night before with a visit to Basecamp, where owner and avid outdoorswoman Rebecca Walsh set up my photographer, Shannon Broderick, and I with snowshoes, traction cleats and hiking poles.
“I haven’t heard from anyone attempting the peak since the storm,” Walsh said, shooting me a look that seemed to question my sanity. “But last I knew, there was about 6 inches of snow at the base.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure we would need Walsh’s gear, but Broderick insisted. I like to fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to adventuring and planned on winging the trip with the staple hiking gear I typically toted around.
Fortunately, Broderick didn’t share my enthusiasm for trudging blindly into unfavorable conditions on unfamiliar terrain.
So, we loaded up the Basecamp equipment and asked Walsh for some pointers.
“If you’re going to be hiking Wyoming in the fall or winter, always check the weather — not just where you plan to leave from, but where you’re going, too,” Walsh advised. “Also, you might take along a thermos with coffee or soup, so you can warm up after making the climb.”
We discussed hydration, food and the best clothing options for the hike, and Walsh reminded us to avoid cotton, because the fabric absorbs moisture, such as sweat, rather than wicking it away.
“Once cotton gets wet, it’s useless as an insulator,” she said. “Lastly, be sure to change out of any wet clothing and socks afterward.”
Heeding Walsh’s wisdom, I layered my clothing Friday morning, packed a dry change of clothes and sipped my coffee. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was forgetting something.
I ran through my list again.
First aid kit: check
Trail mix: check
Water: check
Gloves, winter cap, balaclava: check
Basecamp equipment: check
Camera, card, battery: check
Everything was there, neatly stowed and ready to go. Then, I checked it all again, the forgetful sensation nagging at the back of my mind. Every item on my list was accounted for.
Heading out, my intuition about the weather was almost spot on. When my photographer and I headed west for the Snowies, the Laramie Valley was dry as a bone.
When we reached the summit, however, we were met by a knot of gray swirling clouds, which concealed the peak and gave us a fair amount of pause.
This wasn’t our first rodeo, though, and the other vehicles parked near the Libby Lake trailhead encouraged us to at least make a day hike of it.
I hadn’t fully donned my winter get up when I realized what I forgot — toilet paper.
Broderick was familiar with the area, having hiked the summit during the summer, and assured me there was restroom about a half-mile in.
“That’ll have to do,” I told her, pulling on my pack and turning away from the bitter gusts of wind.
The snow was too deep for the traction cleats, but without the snowshoes Broderick insisted on, we would have been relegated to staying on the access road.
For my part, I thanked her for not letting me wing it, and though her smile told me I would not live down the mistake for months to come, she did not say, “I told you so.”
Food and warmth are survival essentials no matter what time of year you venture into the Wyoming wilderness, but after hiking for what seemed like hours (it was about 10 minutes), I can’t stress the importance of packing toiletries enough.
We did find a bathroom, eventually, but the building was locked for the winter season.
“It’s OK — I can manage,” I said, hoping my tone was more reassuring than my gurgling gut.
As we strapped the snowshoes to our feet and hiked around the alpine lakes, I kept an eye on the peaks.
Hiking into a storm is a good way for even an experienced climber to get lost or injured, and I’d never scaled the Snowy Range.
Melancholy welled in my throat when I realized I would not be climbing the mountain that day.
“Now that the wind has died down, it’s a beautiful day,” Broderick quipped.
Indeed, it was.
Despite the mess of angry clouds buzzing around the peaks, the sky was brilliant blue, and the shining sun — albeit, not entirely warm — melted away my blues.
Broderick and I hiked for a few hours before calling it a day and heading to Centennial for fresh coffee and a healthy dose of indoor plumbing.
With the Snowy Range tucked into my rear-view mirror, I came away from the trip with two important lessons: plan for adaptability and take toilet paper.