Saturday, January 30, 2010

Excursion Article: Breaking trail to Taggart Lake by snowshoe in Grand Teton National Park

Caption: Finding new vistas is easy when you make your own trail. AmberLynn Wilcox comes up on a unique view of the Tetons on her way to Taggart Lake.

Breaking trail to Taggart breaks the familiarity
By Mark Wilcox

Excursion: Snowshoeing to Taggart Lake
Length: Two to three hours roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy
Route: Wherever the heck you want to go

Speeding and sliding down the steep hill with my bright orange snowshoes leading the charge, I laughed as I noticed how much snow I was flicking onto and over my back with the hind end of my snowshoes. A chunky shower of snow sprayed on and around me until I made it to flat ground.

With a grin, I turned around and watched my wife’s progress down the slippery slope. Instead of the hazardous full-speed sprint I had opted for, she took a slightly more cautious route: sliding down on her backside to act as a snowplow for a small portion of the hill.

Though it is one of the last legs on the trip to Taggart Lake, hauling down the last hillside before reaching the parking lot flats is always my favorite part. Its kind of a hybrid between skiing, the 100 meter dash and, of course, snowshoeing. You almost float down on each step on a fluffy cushion of snow. Leaning back on your heels gives the ski-like experience of bouncing through the powder, never finding the real base.

Which is why I opt to run that portion.

However, running the whole trip in your snowshoes would step up the excursion’s difficulty from “Easy” to “Are you insane?” The hills around Taggart, especially the one closest to the parking lot, are not ones any sane person would decide to run up, at least not in enormous snowshoes and four feet of snow. That’s not to say it can’t be done.

The beauty of snowshoeing is that trails don’t matter. I repeat: trails do not matter. Yep, you can chart a trail literally anywhere you dang well please. This makes a simple trip to Taggart Lake a lot more interesting. Even having done this trip numerous times, I always come out on a portion of the lake I’m not quite expecting. And picking your way up hills, through trees and over logs is infinitely more interesting than the tired trail to Taggart. It’s amazing how different everything feels just a hundred yards from the main trail.

And the snow blanketing everything gives newness to the place as well. There’s nothing quite like traipsing through an undisturbed forest boasting a fresh layer of icing. The peace, quiet and sheer solitude of it makes the steady scrunching of snowshoes compressing powder that much more noticeable. And anyone that has gone snowshoeing can attest: that’s not a bad thing.
The young forest around Taggart is particularly fun to navigate. The juvenile trees sprang from the fertile ashes of the 1984 Cottonwood Creek Blaze. The thick new forest reclaimed the terrain more thickly than the original forest, creating a dense maze of saplings to wander through. Small corridors open up through the trees, which can then be followed until the next corridor branches off. Occasionally, you might even find yourself doubling back to find a route that doesn’t require you to knock so much snow off overhead branches to move through the pine boughs. Snow falling down your neck is never pleasant.

Going straight over the hills toward Taggart is liberating and beautiful, affording views and sights unseen by most. From time to time you cross the tracks of other snowshoers, whether they are human or hare. But it’s always more fun to make your own path.

The lake itself is beautiful all layered in snow and ice. A vast field of white capped with my mountains: the Tetons. The bridge across the outlet is always a destination while visiting the lake in winter. The shallow water underneath the snow-stacked bridge opens up almost year-round to the warm, yet freezing colors of algae on the rocks and logs beneath the surface. The intricate shapes created by the interaction between, ice, rock and water almost make you forget the Tetons are right over there.

In short, the easiest way to get a unique hike to Taggart is to make your own trail. However, if you’ve never been to Taggart Lake or have a nasty sense of direction, you’d better stick to the well-worn trail to avoid calling out Search and Rescue.

Excursion article: Sleeping on Snow King in Jackson Hole

Caption: Nate Dunn chucks himself off of a cliff on top of Snow King mountain during a Boy Scout campout.

By Mark Wilcox
Excursion: Chilling out on Snow King
Where: Snow King, duh
How long: Overnight or less
Why: Because you can
Difficulty: Depends on if you ride the lift up or not

Secret of a happy life number 14: “If you’re outside, there’s fun to be found.”

It’s not the first or the last secret in the book I haven’t written yet, but it’s certainly an important one in this valley. It seems no matter what you choose to do, as long as you make the effort to leave the house, happiness follows.

It could be something as simple as a snowball fight in the yard or something as complex as scaling the Grand with your eyes closed in the dead of winter (not recommended). It doesn’t much matter. Sun, snow, fresh air, trees, everything outdoors induces a good mood.

This brings me to secret number 138 for a happy life: “Falling is greater than or equal to fun, unless done unintentionally.”

Maybe it’s the rush of fresh mountain air into your lungs. Maybe it’s because you’re daring fate to do something nasty to you. Maybe it’s just because you’re showing off for friends. Whatever it is, it’s enjoyable.

The trick is finding places where you can fall safely. I recently took my Boy Scouts to the top of Snow King for a campout. Our troop had obtained permission to sleep in the panorama house. I’m not sure how free they are in lending it out to other parties, but they were plenty generous with us. If you’d rather not call Snow King to ask, you can always hike up the mountain with gear to build a snow cave (see my February 4 article) on the forest service land just over the ridge.

We got our gear up on one of the last lifts up to the top and set it up in the panorama house. With plenty of daylight left, we went outside. Mission number one: sledding, also known as assisted freefall when you’re sledding on steep terrain.

We took my sled over to Bearcat and made a few runs down before we decided the sled offered less control than freefall. So Aidan, Jason, Joe, Nathan and I sought out somewhere to freefall instead.

We found it right where we knew it would be: just before taking off on the main Cat track down the mountain. The rocks throughout this area are what one of my exaggeration-prone snowboarding buddies once called, “60-foot cliffs, dude.” With feet planted on the ground, reality is easily grasped. We walked up to the “60-foot cliffs” fearlessly. The tallest one measures maybe 15 feet onto flat ground. This is the only one Snow King labels with “CLIFF” markers. The rest are 6-foot rocks with a steeply sloping hill beneath them. If you jump out enough, you can actually drop farther than 15 feet more safely than the actual cliff because of the slope of the hill.

After checking snowpack and how steep the hill was for safety, each of us took turns leaping out from the rocks in various directions. On landing, we would sink into the snow in a rush, never hitting the ground on the steep hillside. I figured my biggest jump landed me about 18 feet down from the top of the boulder in a shoulder-deep trough I created on impact. Extricating myself from the hole was often the hardest part.

As the sun set, we were treated to a gorgeous aerial view of Jackson by night. Surprisingly, we saw almost a dozen people in ones or twos who had hiked or skied up after dark for a single run down by the light of town. Amazing where you’ll find the nightlife in Jackson sometimes. That is what Jackson Hole is all about. People here seem to have an unfailing dedication to the outdoors.

Waking up to the incredible vista from the panorama house only served to remind me what a wonderful place I live in. Plus I could see my house from there.

Which brings me to secret number 85 of a happy life: “The more land you can see, the more content you are to own none of it.” Just knowing it’s there seems to be enough.