Teton Crest Trail: Day 2
Location: Upper Granite – Alaska Basin
Last night. I was doubting whether I should be here; today reaffirmed my love of the back country. I fell asleep in my tent worried about potential cold and frustrated by the stupid things I’d overlooked. The night was warm, though, and the rush of the stream next to our campsite quickly lulled me to sleep. I awoke several times, once to the hoot of an owl, but was never scared or uncomfortable. When the sun woke me around 6:15 I was cozy and well-rested.
The temptation to linger, snuggling in my bag and basking in the early sunlight, was very strong. I knew, however, that my poor preparation had left me with some ground to make up, and I wanted to get a head start on my sucking up. So, I reached behind my head, popped the release on my sleeping pad, and shimmied out of my bag to begin the day.
When I stuck my head out of the tent flap, I saw Tess across the path, sitting on our rock “kitchen” sipping tea. The soft, filtered dawn light cast a warm glow on the mountains and wildflowers that surrounded us, and the peaceful quiet of the morning filled me with a feeling of contentment and certainty that I was actually exactly where I belonged.
I fell into my morning ritual pretty quickly. It never fails, no matter how long it has been between trips, as soon as I’m back out on the trail, the comfortable, familiar routines that structure my days come back almost immediately. I layered up against the crisp air and headed out to retrieve the bear bins. I grabbed mine and Shea’s (Tess had already grabbed hers and I didn’t know the location of Jon’s Ursack) and headed to the rocks to cook.
When I’m backpacking I like to eat my meals from heaviest to lightest, with the exception of the hardy meals I’ll save for the toughest day on the trail. That meant that this morning was pancake morning! I’ve made pancakes camping before, and they’re a weekend brunch staple at our house, but I’ve never made them on the Pocket Rocket. In the interest of simplicity, I stuck to Krusteaz Buttermilk Complete Pancake Mix. But, just to keep things interesting, I dehydrated some balsamic marinated strawberries and basil to add to the mix. It took a minute to find the right amount of heat to get a nice golden sheen, but the strawberries rehydrated very nicely, and the flavor was really close to our Sunday pancake brunch, minus the bear-bating maple syrup of course. To curry good favor with my fellow travelers, I disbursed pancakes among the group, washed my dishes, and then got to work breaking camp.
At 8.3 miles, today would be one of our longer days, so we tried to pack up quickly and get on the road. Inevitably, though, first day hiccups resulted in a 9:45 departure time. The weather was beautiful, though, and we were all in good spirits. On our way out of camp, we stopped and filtered water at the stream, and then headed back up to the trail on our way to Alaska Basin.
It took us .5 miles to return to the TCT from the Granite Canyon we had taken to our camping zone, and another .5 miles to get to Marion Lake. A popular camping spot for which it is nearly impossible to get a permit, Marion Lake is an incredibly serene pool nestled beneath the granite cliffs from which the tributary trail and canyon derive their name. Since it was still early, and we had a lot of miles in front of us, we took a short photo break to admire the lake and wildflowers, and then returned to the trail.
If yesterday’s wildflowers were amazing, today’s were on another level (a consistent theme on this trip, as it turns out). On the climb to Death Canyon, small streams meandered through the carpet of blooms, cutting babbling ribbons through the colorful meadow. Eventually, we emerged out of the valley, cresting Fox Creek Pass and crossing into an alpine prairie.
Our terrain leveled out and our strides lengthened as we crossed the pass toward Death Canyon shelf. Around 10:50, after crossing rocky gulches, circumventing snow patches, and speculating about the origins of house-sized boulders scattered around the otherwise desolate landscape, we reached the base of the climb onto the shelf. In view of Grand Teton for the first time since leaving the tram, we sat down to have some snacks.
Our break was quite brief. After pounding some cheese coins and fruit leather, we resumed our climb, and soon stepped out onto the wide shelf between Death Canyon wall and the floor, many stories below.
Death Canyon was incredibly full of life. Wildflowers grew lush along the shelf floor and stands of trees dotted our path We shoes a spot for lunch that overlooked the canyon floor in the shadow of Grand Teton. With over half our mileage for the day complete, we took our time, basking in the shade and enjoying the view. I had an exuberant moment sitting on the canyon wall, gazing at the mountains, where it felt like this was really what this kind of trip is all about.
Finally, our food gone and legs rested, we shouldered our packs and continued on toward the Basin. A brief climb brought us to the cusp of Sheep’s Steps, a steep and winding descent that spit us out into the splendor of Alaska Basin.
Our destination was Basin Lakes for both it’s water access and reported view. After our climb down the pass, however, we were starting to feel quite weary. We pushed onward through fields of wildflowers cut by babbling streams and flowing falls, almost too tired to marvel at the beauty. We stopped briefly on a grassy outlet to have a snack and discuss camping options before continuing toward the lakes. The path we were following had gone from rocky canyon wall to a thin single track cut so precisely from the grass around it, it appeared to have been landscaped with an edger.
After about 2.5 miles, we came to the shore of the first lake. Feeling guilty for rushing through all the beautiful scenery before it, I dropped my pack at the lake and walked unburdened to the water’s edge to take it in. Tess and Shea, eager to be finished, dropped their packs as well, but Jon, determined to camp at a larger lake about .5 miles up the trail, opted to continue on and scout a site. We watched him disappear down the pristine path as we sat in the sun next to our little lake. Finally, reluctantly, we shouldered our packs and hit the trail. We barely made it 500 feet before Tess stopped abruptly and pointed to a grassy outcropping on a ledge overlooking the basin floor.
“ I don’t usually like undisturbed sites,” she remarked, “but that one is pretty perfect.” She was right. The site she’d found was large enough for all our tents, and it was carpeted in soft, dense grass. It was hard to believe I wasn’t looking at a hole on a golf course. The site was surrounded by stands of trees perfect for bathroom cover and a pile of rocks that rose about a story off the grass, making for a perfect kitchen. We quickly agreed that this was the site. But Jon was about half a mile ahead, scoping the other lake. Since the group was pretty beat, I volunteered to go after Jon and bring him badk. Just as I hit the trail, I saw his white hat round the corner. Apparently the other lake had not been conducive to camping and he had returned with the hope that we’d found an alternative. He was thrilled! For about half an hour, we lay on the grass, soaking up the comfort of soft, clean ground.
Finally, when my stomach started to grumble, I rose and set up my tent. Some more laying around, this time inside the tent without the fly, and then dinner. I climbed to our rocky kitchen with my cookset and bear bin and started boiling some water for my pad thai. Presently, the others joined me and we sat together atop our rock rehydrating food and watching dusk fall.
After our meal was done and cleanup complete, we stood on a rock ledge and brushed our teeth while watching the sun set over the basin. It was hard to imagine a world going about it’s business outside our little oasis.