… A three day hike into Titcomb Basin in the Wind River Wilderness in Wyoming
BOOM! The sky split open and, for an instant, night became day. The flash of light revealed Titcomb basin covered in white, the residue of a hailstorm that pounded us from the southeast and then pounded us from the northwest, and then – just because it could – pounded again from the southeast.
Although I was theoretically in a tent, I could see the white inch-deep layer of hail on the ground because the tent was no longer covering me. It was flapping in the gale-force wind, anchored only on one side after the latest gust blasted out the tent stakes on the other side. The next morning we found one stake 50 feet away – it must have been hurled ninja-style, a temporary lethal weapon in the middle of the night. I sat up, still halfway in my sleeping bag, as hail and rain now pelted down unencumbered by the little piece of nylon that had kept us dry so far.
I was in this predicament with my daughter, Alex, and it was her tarp tent. “I’m sorry, Dad!” Alex shouted above the roar of thunder and wind as we each held onto the billowing tarp. “This tent has never failed before!”
That was saying something. Alex made this tent five years ago. Since then it has seen thousands of miles and countless nights. It traveled the full length of the PCT and Canada’s Great Divide Trail, as well as such shorter outings as the JMT, Yosemite's High Route, Washington’s Boundary Trail, the Wonderland Trail, and a circumnavigation of Jack Mountain.
But those miles and nights were not this night, not this storm. A postmortem on our plight reveals a sequence of decisions that led us into the teeth of this big storm like lambs to a wolf. There were six of us – Hank, Mike, Alex, Tesha, Kit, and me – aiming for Titcomb Basin and maybe a scramble of Fremont Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness. Hank had proposed this trip and graciously welcomed us all along (and let me steal some of his photos for this TR). We met up in Salt Lake City on Monday, drove to Pinedale, WY, and gorged on Tex-Mex food after an evening hike around Half Moon Lake. It was a nice start to a leisurely trip.
The next morning we hit the trailhead and ambled toward Titcomb Basin. My kids displayed a certain lifelong tendency to stop walking and lie down whenever possible. It's probably genetic:
The Weather Service predicted a 20% chance of thunderstorms for Tuesday afternoon, with clearing on Wednesday. Sure enough, an afternoon storm rolled through on Tuesday as we approached Island Lake. It cleared, and we persuaded ourselves to forgo the sheltered camp spots around Island Lake and push on into the higher basin. As we entered the Titcomb Basin, Alex pointed out a couple of sheltered spots that would work well for her tarp tent, but which did not have room for all six of us. Convinced that our storm was behind us, and wanting to hang together, we continued into the exposed center of Titcomb basin, where we set up camp.
That is when The Storm began. At first, the tarp tent was an asset, not a liability, as four of us crowded in, puppy pile style, to make dinner and drink hot chocolate. When The Storm let up for several minutes, however, we realized that all of us had pitched tents in low spots that promised a long, wet night. We moved our tents. Alex and I, still thinking the worst was behind us, sought dry ground without considering the tent’s exposure to nature’s forces. We paid for that.
The real storm began soon after night fell. We anchored the tent and watched as lightning etched jagged lines through the tent nylon and into our retinas. Thunder boomed, first from a distance, then soon, close by. Rain turned to hail, which was caught by the wind and blasted us in horizontal assaults through the open ends of the tarp tent. Hail built up quickly on the tent’s windward side as it pushed onto Alex or me, depending on who was on the windward side at the moment. The lee side of the tent billowed outward, temporarily knocking off the accumulated hail on that side.
Nearby, Kit, Tesha, Hank, and Mike huddled in their more beefy tents. Hank worried about hail pelting right through his tent fabric, or a tent pole failing. Tesha and Kit’s tiny but sturdy tent increasingly looked like the smart move. I considered knocking on Mike's or Hank's tents to see if we could jump in, but that would be giving in too easily. “If none of us get zapped by lightning,” I could not help but think, “This is going to make a decent story.” Until the storm quieted down around 3:30 am, we were treated to a light show that included pulsing strobe effects, Zeus-like thunderbolts, and flickering like a 1978 disco dance ball (John Travolta and the Bee Gees, where were you?).
Later, a local Wyoming National Weather Service office told us that there was a prolonged “upper level low pressure” front that moved through that area, stronger and longer than first predicted. Alex’s and my bags got a bit wet when the tarp first blew up, and also from the horizontal hail. But we anchored the tarp with larger rocks and, thankfully, it held up. (It must be Alex’s high-quality homemade construction.) In fact, all of our tents held up, although the next day we met a retired Forest Service backcountry ranger who had a tent pole break during the storm, even though he was camped lower down the valley. “I’ve been outdoors for 35 years, and I’ve never seen a storm like that!” he told us. I haven’t either.
The hail eventually turned to rain, and we emerged from our tents the next morning to find only remnants of the thick white layer of ice that covered the ground early in the storm. Clouds lifted, and by late afternoon we saw patches of blue sky and our first full views of Fremont Peak. In keeping with my theme of 2013 (not much peakbagging), we shelved the idea of climbing Fremont Peak and instead spent the day roaming Titcomb and Indian Basins.
Our third day dawned to blue skies and a beautiful walk around countless lakes:
I should note that this pattern of early rain and later sunshine is becoming a habit in my outings with Alex and Tesha, as in our Canada trip last year. Perversely, I like the diversity of weather experience. I once had a friend propose a winter hike along the Olympic Coast by writing, “Rain, sleet, and wind – what more could we want?”
John Muir, of course, was the King of Rhapsody when it came to pure enjoyment of nature’s fury. In his story “Stickeen,” Muir wrote about waking up to a storm in Southeast Alaska:
“… I awoke early, called not only by the glacier, which had been on my mind all night, but by a grand flood-storm. The wind was blowing a gale from the north and the rain was flying with the clouds in a wide passionate horizontal flood, as if it were all passing over the country instead of falling on it…”
Most of us probably would have stayed in bed. But Muir continues: “…I had intended making a cup of coffee and getting something like a breakfast before starting, but when I heard the storm and looked out I made haste to join it; for many of Nature's finest lessons are to be found in her storms…”
I am not as transcendentalist – some might say crazy – as Muir. But The Storm of Titcomb Basin the night of September 17, 2013 was pretty cool.
We just got back from our trip to the Winds and I'd like to add to this report.
Roald it was my wife, dog and I camped in Titcomb basin just down the lakes from you on that fateful night. Before you showed up we had hiked to the top of the lakes and saw no other campers. After eating dinner and sitting through the first thunder storm we sighed with relief and went to bed.
It started again with a rapid flashing of lights like some one was switching on and off a light switch. Then the Thunder started to come in and roll around the basin. Around and around the thunder rolled with the lighting flashing constantly. Then the hail. It sounded like the Angry Hiker and a dozen of his friends were beating on the tent with their hiking poles. Then the rain would come down in sheets. Micro blasts of wind would try to tear the tent into shreds. This went on for almost an hour. The dog is completely freaked out and my wife and I are looking at each other with, it's been nice to know you, looks.
I've been in the mountains for fifty years and I have never experienced a storm so intense. We would have gladly taken two feet of snow instead of the thunder storm.
In the morning,( oh yeah that wasn't the end of the storm but it did back off to one or two seconds between lighting and thunder) I saw that you had a tarp as protection. Hardcore!
In Lander the next week we saw that SIXTEEN THOUSAND lighting strikes were reported that night.
Type three fun.
We heard that your dog did not enjoy that storm. I hope s/he is ok.
Thank you for your description of that storm - it seems spot on. We spent the rest of our trip trying to find the right words for it. I did not want to over-dramatize it, but it was genuinely intense. 16,000 lightning strikes might be the best summary of all. Although there also was the horizontal hail coming into the tarp, and the grumbling thunder that beckoned the next wave of precip, and the "it's been nice to know you" look...
We heard about your dog's misery from the two women who hiked into Titcomb Basin that next day. They invited us to drop by their camp later on, and I did to talk with one of the women's husband (the former USFS backcountry ranger). He and I traded stories about the Cascades and Olympics as dusk settled over Island Lake.
"Hey, get in here!" the woman hollered to her husband from inside their tent. (This was the tent that had broken a pole the night before, in The Storm.)
Her husband shared with me another cool place to explore in the Olympics.
"GET IN HERE!" she hollered again. "I'm cold."
The guy had one more thing to share with me before jumping into their tent. "You like to ski?" he said. "Here's a hot tip that no one seems to know about..."
"I'LL GIVE YOU A HOT TIP!" shouted his wife from inside the tent. "NOW GET IN HERE!!!"
The guy then shared what I believe is a really hot tip. I hope to take advantage of it one day.
"I'LL GIVE YOU A HOT TIP!" shouted his wife from inside the tent. "NOW GET IN HERE!!!"
Such an awesome place, although sounds like it might have been a little too awesome! I also had a frightening storm experience this year as well so your story hits home, although my experience was not as prolonged as yours was, but I was in a much more remote area. It is interesting to read about these things or watch storms from a safe distance, but to experience them in the backcountry is something quite different! This is something you won't be forgetting!
"If none of us get zapped by lightning,” I could not help but think, “This is going to make a decent story.”
Roald we gave the dog a vet prescribed dose of Zanax that helped some. My wife and I were wondering why we didn't take any.
After hiking out the next day we went into the Cirque of Towers. Enjoyed the next couple sunny days and got up some ridges and basins. The afternoon we started to hike out we got another snow and rain storm. Two miles from the trail head and I could taste the beer. That is until the dog ran off to discover the pain of porcupines . The dog was frantic and we could only pull out a dozen quills ourselves. An emergency vet visit ($350) found another two dozen quills, some inside her mouth and one through her tongue.
She is a sweet dog but now is uncertain of our vacation choices.
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