Wednesday, August 12, 2015

This one time at Fat Camp

A few weeks ago, while I was nursing weak lungs and a festering disappointment about my failed Tour Divide, I received a text from my friend Danni in Montana, who I've missed and haven't seen in at least two years. She asked if I wanted to join a group of friends for a backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, playfully dubbed "Fat Camp." I was unsure about my health and the logistics of wedging another trip into this already-packed year, but at the last minute decided I couldn't bear to miss it. 

"I SO want to join you," I replied. "Otherwise this will be the worst summer ever, seriously." 

"I'm really pathetically fat and out of shape, so don't worry even if you still have pneumonia," Danni wrote. 

I couldn't ask for better backpacking companions — self-contained and capable women from a variety of backgrounds. There's Amber, a fish biologist and fast mountain biker/skier from Kalispell, Montana; Lora, another biologist/skier/climber in Corvalis, Oregon; Danni, a lawyer/mother who is not fat and out of shape, but is understandably too busy to spend much time on recreation; me, with slightly asthmatic and decidedly clumsy tendencies who arguably doesn't bring a lot to the table on a trip like this; and Meghan, a fiercely fit trail runner who floats effortlessly up steep boulder fields, lives in Moab, Utah, and co-manages the popular ultrarunning news site, iRunFar.

 It's a natural and yet unique dynamic — five thirty-something women in the woods. With no husbands or boyfriends in sight, we were an anomaly, and nearly everyone we spoke with made some sort of comment along the lines of "wow, all girls." Calling the tradition "Fat Camp" is something of a play on this, I think. Fat Camp refers to the perpetual hunger one often experiences in the backcountry, but also alludes to the stereotype that the only reason women engage in physical activity is to lose weight.

I hate going hungry, more than I hate struggling under big backpacks, so I packed an enormous amount of food. I thought my supply was reasonable for five days, but I was still thinking more in terms of the Tour Divide, when I was mowing through 5,000-plus calories a day. Out here, even with difficult terrain that pushed our 11-mile days into the 5- to 9-hour range, 3,000 calories were about all I could stomach. I ended up with nearly three days' worth of extra food, but it's nice to know I can carry what I need for a week or more in the backcountry.

At the airport, my pack weighed 28 pounds before I added water, bear spray, electronics, and fuel. It was an unwieldy thing, and I have been spoiled by bikepacking, which lets the bike do the carrying and only requires extra leg work from me. Having all that weight on my upper body threw me off kilter. I stumbled and fell a number of times during the first two miles, which descended 2,000 feet into the Long Lake valley. Near the bottom I fell hard on my left arm, spraining my wrist. This minor injury would bother me a lot for the next two days, but healed just in time to negotiate the most difficult scrambles of the route.

Volatile thunderstorms greeted us on the climb up Pine Creek Canyon, and then it proceeded to rain for the next ten hours. We constructed a small tarp shelter and cooked soggy dinners before setting up our tents. My Big Agnes Seedhouse 2 is now six years old and leaks in a few places, but the two-person tent allowed enough room to keep my sleeping bag centered in the dry spot as it rained and rained through the night. It would have been more of a hazard if I'd shared the tent with someone else. Unfortunately I left my backpack in the collapsed vestibule, and most of my other gear got wet.

 Day two took us from our camp on Trapper Lake to the Highline Trail, and deeper into high country. The Wind Rivers are a spectacular mountain range, rising abruptly from the high desert of central Wyoming. During the Tour Divide, I rode along the foothills of these mountains en route to the flat expanse of the Great Divide Basin. That section of the GDMBR isn't particularly exciting, and from a distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Winds are merely pretty. I didn't really know what to expect going into this trip, but I now understand why this range is a backpacking paradise. Just one day of travel from any trailhead will put you deep into craggy alpine terrain, almost entirely undeveloped and mostly above tree line, with the soaring skylines of 13,000'ers all around you.

 We thought our plan to average 11 miles per day would give us lots of time for lounging, and it did. But travel wasn't easy — there was lots of climbing and the terrain was rocky, even when we had a trail to follow. We did manage enough extra time in the evening for a scramble above the Green River, where Danni and I laughed about being ill-prepared with Hokas. They're great shoes for running and all-day walking, but less ideal for shorter bouts of ankle-rolling, crack-wedging, boulder-hopping hiking.

 Day three took us to the end of the Green River Valley, over Shannon Pass, and then up the steep face of Knapsack Col. I once rafted a long section of the Green River across Utah, and it was fun to visit its topmost headwaters, where the wide, muddy river I know and love is just a clearwater trickle beside bursts of wildflowers.

 Scaling a steep boulder field toward Shannon Pass.

 Looking back down the Green River Valley. Those cliffs even remind me of the Book Cliffs north of Green River, Utah.

 Skirting the edge of Peak Lake.

 Starting the 2,000-foot climb up Knapsack Col. Here we met our first northbound CDT thru-hikers. They warned us of a tricky descent off the backside, and we could see weather forming on the pass. This especially made Meghan nervous, as she harbors a particularly sharp phobia of lightning. I'm also scared of electrical storms, but my greatest sources of terror in mountains are tricky descents in slippery, wet conditions.

 We worked to pick up the pace as best as we could, acknowledging that our not-quite-alpine start of 9:30 a.m. didn't serve us well. Above 11,000 feet I started to feel my airways tighten. I took a hit from my inhaler, which helped, but it was obvious that slow and steady is the only pace I have right now. We climbed increasingly steeper scree slopes as the sky darkened.

 The forbidding crest of Knapsack Col, elevation 12,280.

 Happily, rain and lightning held off, but the descent was indeed tricky — a 42-percent grade boulder field where the footing was anything but secure. Lora and Amber opted to walk/boot ski down the loose talus to the side of the boulder field, but I didn't feel confident enough in my balance to attempt this (a fall there had the potential to rip my pants, as one of the better outcomes.) Instead, I ended up in a minefield of extremely loose boulders, so I veered over to a snowfield to butt-slide. This proved to be a poor decision. From above, the snowfield appeared to end in scree, but in actuality the lower slope was glare ice covered in a thin layer of dirt. It was too steep and slippery to walk, and more sliding amid the ice-covered rocks would certainly rip up my pants — and likely the flesh on my butt and legs. With trekking poles still stashed in my pack, I had to balance my clown shoes on tiny protrusions of rocks, tip-toeing sideways toward the open scree slope, knowing any fall would result in torn-up legs — and I had already taken a lot of falls during this trip, on much easier terrain. It was nerve-wracking! Backpacking is stressful! But I made it without incident.

 Descending the talus amid the once-proud remnants of the Twins Glacier. The map I'd looked at before the trip made it look like the glacier filled the entire basin, enough so that I routed my GPS track around it, over a small pass and down a much steeper gully. (Meghan and Amber designed the loop, and I took their descriptions and created a GPS track that proved to be fairly accurate. This was a source of pride for me, as I'd drawn the track by looking at topo lines on an electronic map devoid of trails and names, and guessing the most logical route. Of course, I was the only one who cared, as I was the only one carrying a GPS.)

 Descending into the Titcomb Basin. The cold wind and rain finally picked up, and we shared a frigid lunch behind a boulder, shivering but starving. This was proving to be a tough 11 miles! Our day stretched out for nearly nine hours, and there wasn't even as much stopping as other days.

 Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit there was lots of leisure. Even when things were a little cold and scary, we never failed to have lighthearted fun, giggling over the biceps of sleeveless climber boys and discussing all the ways Danni can condition her 17-month-old daughter to want to join her for a thru-hike of the CDT someday.

 Looking back at an imposing skyline — Mount Woodrow Wilson, The Sphinx, and Bonney Pass. This is just a few miles south of Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming.

 We found a beautiful, secluded spot just below the lower Titcomb lake to set up camp for the next two nights.

 We kept it cozy.

It was a great breakfast spot. Every morning I ate oatmeal, a dollop of peanut butter, and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was salami and cheese on a tortilla, and dinner was Mountain House — a variety of the less-desired meals from the remnants of Beat's Iditarod stash. I also had lots of hot chocolate and tea — because what purpose is there to camping without hot drinks? What I brought far too much of was snacks. I couldn't even convince my friends to eat my granola bars, cookies and candy, even though Danni was only packing about 1,200 calories per day (she takes this Fat Camp thing seriously.)

On day four, we hoisted light packs for a day hike up Indian Basin.

 More boulder hopping. My quads and glutes were quite sore by day four, and I wished I had easier access to mountains like this. The Sierras are still reasonably far away from my home, but I'm pretty sure I'd at least lessen my clumsiness if I had more opportunities to develop mountain-specific fitness.

As you can see, it's hard not to spend the whole time looking up, which translates to tripping over things.

We climbed along the sad remnants of Harrower Glacier as we boulder-hopped our way to Indian Pass, at 12,200 feet on the Continental Divide.

On the pass, Danni found a cozy nook out of the cold.

 Lora and Amber found a high perch amid the blasting wind.

 Another group shot from Indian Pass.

The eastern Wind Rivers are almost entirely undeveloped wilderness, stranded between the Continental Divide and the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, most peaks and lakes are unnamed, there are very few trails, and tricky terrain and route-finding would keep one necessarily focused on the immediate present at all times — no cruiser daydreamy hiking here. Someday I would love to return to the Winds with ten days of food, a good map and compass, several self-made GPS tracks, real hiking boots, and the exuberance one can only feel while moving slowly and steadily through a truly wild place.

 Looking west again, a small tarn provides a splash of color beneath Knife Point Mountain. Still a wild place here, even on the popular side of the Divide.
Fremont Peak and flowers. So many flowers!

 In the evening, I went out for a stroll to take photos of the mountain paradise surrounding our camp.

 This place is just unreal.

On day five, all we had left to do was connect the loop.

 The previous day had been the only consistently sunny one, and rain returned for the last day. Overall, though, we lucked out with the weather — the only drenching rain came as we slept, and cold and lightning were minimal. As we hiked out, we heard reports of a massive storm approaching the area, set to bring heavy rain and snow to the higher elevations. Sure enough, as we drove away from Pinedale on Saturday, apocalyptic-looking clouds were approaching at breathtaking speeds.

"It looks like a Japanese painting," Danni said of the scenery as we raced raindrops out of the high country. We moved quickly to ensure enough time for hot-tubbing and copious amounts of fried food in Pinedale. It was a wonderful trip and a rare opportunity to get to know a fantastic region and a great group of women a little better. I'm a lucky girl to have had the chance to attend 2015 Fat Camp, even if I didn't lose any weight.

Thanks again, ladies! 


  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful place with me. I was not familiar with it and now have to add it to the list!


  2. 1200 calories per day! I'd rip someone's face off. Not sure I could hike on that little.

  3. I agree with Mary, you have to eat if you're going to perform! The Wind Rivers look incredible.

  4. Key word in this whole trip being leisure. Leisure works!

  5. Another awesome hike through your words and photographs.

  6. Wonderful experience with an amazing group. And the photos are breathtaking. We only ventured 12 miles into Wind River canyon a couple years ago, but caught a glimpse of beauty and possibilities. As far as food, for my 1 week/172 miles Tahoe Rim Trail next week I am packing 15 lbs of food, but not sure of caloric content. Hope I make it, I hate being hungry!

  7. I was teasing Danni with that 1,200-calories-a-day comment. I don't know the actual energy content of her food. It seemed like a small amount to me. But I don't think she went hungry. :)

    But it's interesting how fixated we become on food. I'm guilty of this, but had an interesting chat with Meghan about it. She can get through the MDS, running 25-50 miles per day, on 2,000 calories per day. It's not the end of the world. I'd love to figure out how to plan a 10- or even 15-day backcountry or winter trip on limited rations. But I also worry about being super grumpy the whole time.

  8. Great trip report and pictures. I can see why you could not stand to miss a trip with that capable and fun crew. Having lived in the Tetons for several years I danced all around the Wind River range but never had a chance to foray into the interior. But your assessment of it being the perfect hiking destination sure rings true. Thanks for the post, take good care of your 30 something self. :-)

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  10. What a spectacular place! I have to go to the Winds sometime. I remember doing a 17 day backpack with only one resupply and being hungry for most of the time and taking any leftovers from other hikers I would pass. I now always bring way too much food, too. It's become something of a family joke. Glad you had the chance to go to such a great place!

  11. I probably did only bring 1200 calories/day of food but as I ate everyone else's food I didn't subsist on that little :-)

    Great write-up and such a wonderful time. I'm so so so glad you came!!!


  12. Sounds like it was a terrific trip with a great group of women! Stunning images--makes me miss the mountains. From the photos and what you're all wearing, it looks like it was on the cool side.

  13. Wow great story and pics. Inspiring, I need a mama escape.

  14. Thanks for sharing! Must go there.

  15. What a picture of pulchritude and fitness.

  16. What kind of GPS do you use for route planning/navigating? You are quite the off trail explorer, so I'd be interested to know what you recommend. Great post! I've been following your blog for many many years and I still love the beautiful outdoors pictures and being inspired by your adventures!

    1. Thanks. I use a Garmin eTrex 30. It's easy to use and in my 4+ years of use, have found it to be very accurate.

    2. So beautiful. I would have been scared to death on that slippery steep descent! That's the thing that scares me most, too. Sounds like such an awesome trip. I'm starting to despair of ever convincing my husband to backpack with me, so a girlfriends pack trip may be the answer. It's been a few years and I'm afraid I'll get out of practice. :(


Feedback is always appreciated!