The Wind River Range, Wyoming

The Outdoors Type

Mark Yoshiyama audits homeless shelters for the city and finds he needs to get completely away from time to time in order to stay sane. Yoshiyama got hooked on the outdoors as a child, during family vacations to national parks. He’s since explored Costa Rica’s Corcovado rain forest, Chile’s Torres del Paine glaciers, and 5,000-foot peaks in Patagonia. His toughest hike to date: Denali National Park in Alaska. “We bushwhacked with a map and a compass, following bear-paw tracks with 50 pounds of provisions on our backs.” Next, he says, he’s up for something hard-core again—“something unusual, where I can totally get away from people.”

The Trip

A boulder field near Gannett Peak, in the Wind River Range.Photograph by Carl Oksanen/Alpen Glow Images

I have these idiot backpacking friends, and we stood looking up at one of the largest glaciers in the Lower 48 states as it poured down the flanks of Gannett Peak—at 13,804 feet, the highest mountain in Wyoming and no little hump by any standard. In fact, there were glaciers all about, 63 of them in the vicinity, more active glaciers than anywhere else in the continental United States. Between us and the ice was a boulder field—rocks the glaciers had pushed ahead of themselves as they ground down the mountain—and it looked to me like a sloping mile or more of nasty rock-hopping until we even hit ice. My idiot friends wanted to climb up to the ice.

These stones—some smaller than a Volkswagen, some larger than a Georgica Pond mansion—were not all of a size, and there were great interstices between them, so that as we climbed, mostly on all fours, I could look down 50 feet and more to a frigid river pouring off the melting glacier and roaring below.

At one point, high in the boulder field, two of my companions found the crumpled remains of the door of a light plane. It looked fairly new, as if some poor souls flying out of a dense cloud had looked up and the last thing they’d seen in life was this immense boulder field rushing toward their faces at well over 100 miles an hour.

A cold wind swept down off the ice, driving clouds and small pellets of stinging snow into our faces. Fall here and the icy water would sweep you down the mountain under tons of rock. There would be no escape, death just as certain as if you’d plowed into the rock in a small plane. Wordsworth was a cloud-and-flower guy, but I felt, in the howl of that wind, an intimation of mortality.

Gannett Peak is located in the Wind River Mountains, in western Wyoming; if there is a place less like New York in the Lower 48, a place more cosmically distant from office towers and bosses and BlackBerrys, then I am not aware of it. The Winds are more than 110 miles long and, in their unrelenting height, contain seven of the ten largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, as well as more than 2.25 million acres of public land. They are in the southeast section of the area that is calledthe Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the largest environmentally intact temperate-zone ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere. Some grizzly bears from Yellowstone have wandered down into the Winds, and the expanding population of wolves, which were introduced back into Yellowstone in 1995, has followed.

With 26 named peaks over 13,000 feet, the Winds are a mecca for hard-core climbers, but my friends and I were simply backpacking. Other visitors hire horse-packing outfitters or guides to see the backcountry. Some take day hikes to one of the 1,300 alpine lakes, some explore the wonders of any number of side canyons, and some relish the immense meadows that, in places, rise like steps, one above the other, all of them alive in riots of wildflowers as dizzying as the patterns on the most ornate Persian rugs.

You’re on your own in the Winds: The area is remote, and help is very far away. Hikers could conceivably be devoured by bears or simply suffer from debilitating altitude sickness. Mosquitoes sting and horseflies bite. Summer days will be 75 degrees at noon but drop below freezing at night. People who don’t pay attention get lost, suffer hypothermia, break bones. Meanwhile, lightning bolts of biblical proportions shatter the rocks of the high peaks, and avalanches thunder down vertical cliff faces. It can snow on you any day of the year. Don’t even try to use your cell phone.

These are rational grounds to avoid the Wind River Mountains—but these are also the very reasons people use words like mystical and transcendent to describe them. The wilderness has a way of sharpening the mind so that colors take on a deeper hue, shapes seem more pointedly outlined, and mortality hovers ever present so that one is forced, willy-nilly, to think fine, great thoughts or even commit full-blown philosophy.

There are rewards in such travel that one earns and therefore owns. We had, for instance, taken the Glacier Trail to Gannett Peak, 24 miles from the trail head by some estimates, 26 miles to the boulder field by my calculations. If you were a “high pointer,” one who wanted to stand on the highest spot in every state in the union, this would be your longest approach in all of the 50 states, longer even than the trek to McKinley in Alaska, America’s highest peak in the country’s most remote and wild state.

We hiked through flower-strewn meadows, camped, endured a misery of switchbacks, and emerged into an area of alpine tundra. The trail dropped to a series of lakes, one after the other, then fell away to Dinwoody Creek, which is not a creek at all but a big damn river. The water flows out of Dinwoody Glacier and is a strange milky-turquoise color, tinted so by finely powdered rock produced by the glacier as it grinds down the mountain. This is a natural process, but it produces a river so strangely colored the word extraterrestrial comes to mind.

We saw moose and marmot on the creek bank, and some signs of bear on the trail, which rose again, then dropped us out into an immense area of sand dunes surrounded on all sides by jagged mountains: cirques and spires and towers and various looming peaks with high glaciers glittering in the sun. A glacial river, of alien color, meandered through the sand. Sand dunes? We surmised that they had been created when some glacial lake above had given way and flooded the valley. While pondering the matter, we managed to lose the trail entirely and had to go squelching through a marsh full of ankle-deep water and ground that quivered like jelly under the boot until we found our way again. Serrated peaks rose on all sides and the glaciers seemed to glow, as though with a light from within.

We might have camped there, to savor the view and the sensation. On the other hand, the dunes were surrounded by marsh, which meant the mosquitoes would be less than bearable when the sun set.

Instead, we moved higher and camped somewhere close to 10,000 feet, in a place cold enough that, in late July, the mosquitoes had been frozen out. The next day, we walked up to the glacier, did our bit of rock-hopping, found the crumpled airplane door, then started back down through the seashore from outer space, past the celestial lakes, back through the flowers of the lower meadows, and down to the trailhead, where we collected in our vehicles and drove down to the nearby town of Dubois for what was considered by all to be a well-deserved beer. We discussed the plane door with a bartender, who said there’d been a crash earlier in the year. The bodies had not yet been found. A sheriff’s deputy was called, and he graciously took down our information right there in the bar, so we didn’t have to interrupt our drinking. He said, “You boys did good.”

Good? I thought to myself. Hell, we were transcendent up there.

The closest airport to the Winds is in Riverton, Wyoming, and is served by Great Lakes Airlines, Frontier Airlines, and United Express. Pick up the Glacier Trail in Dubois, where rooms at the rustic Sawmill Lodge (307-455-2171) start at $75. Six-day guided hikes of Gannett Peak with Exum Guides (307-733-2297 or start at $2,250. For hiking reports, call 307-739-5400.

The Wind River Range, Wyoming