Crossing to Safety

From beginning to middle to end and back again, one adventure leads to another. So hold tight—it's a long ride


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

We think we're at the end. We think we've done it. The adventure's over, nothing left but crossing one last little creek. Easy as crossing the finish line. We come thrashing down through the forest. Our skis, once wings for our feet, protrude from our packs and snag on every branch. Our feet—once dry and wholesome, now taped and torn and bloody—punch insensibly through the last snowdrifts. We can smell the barn. We're sliding around an icy outcrop, catching ourselves with ski poles, when we first hear it. We stop. Listen.

“It's raging,” Ken says calmly.

As we draw near, dropping from pines into aspen, the roar floods up through the trees. We squeeze into the willows and poke our heads out.

The river is brown, sinewy, convulsing like electrically stimulated muscle. It has boiled out of its banks. Chest-deep along the edges, deeper out in the middle, churning with noise. I toss a stick into the prodigal creek and it's sucked out of sight.

We were warned. A week ago we telephoned a rancher up here and he'd said, “Jakeys fork is runnin' higher'n a horse. Ain't no gettin' over it.” We took this under advisement, and then went anyway. We figured we'd cross that bridge when we got to it, bridge or no bridge.

“Think we can wade it?” I say loudly. “Packs on our heads?”

Ken grimaces and rubs a thick black beard. In a former life he must have been a sea captain, perhaps one of those salty 18th-century sailors who chose water over land. In this life he fled the flat dry lake of northeast Texas for the rough, snowdrifted seas of the Rockies. He spent 15 seasons as a river guide. Wildwater runs in his veins.

“Won't happen!” he shouts. “You'll be tumbled head over heels. If you aren't lucky enough to be drowned, you'll be smashed on the rocks.” He twists his tall, wiry frame and points downstream to where the roiling current is slamming into a stone wall.

“Think we could maybe swim it? Tied to the rope?”

Ken strokes his beard. He has a mind as eclectic as the library on an arctic sailing vessel, a memory for ingenious outdoor lore, and a knack for the quintessential quote.

“Excellent way to avoid the rocks,” Ken yells, “and ensure a mercifully swift drowning.”

We drop our packs in the willows and begin bushwhacking up and down the river, searching for a safe place to ford. An hour later we're hunting for a ford of any kind. Upstream the river catapults out of a steep-walled gorge; downstream it vanishes into snaking narrows. After we've traversed a hundred miles of glaciers and granite peaks buried in snow, it's Mother Nature's great practical joke to rimrock us with a river swollen by snowmelt.

Ken and I squat on our packs and share a bar of Swiss chocolate. Across the bounding waves, on the opposite shore, we can see the trail rising out of the water.

“An hour down that trail is the car,” Ken says.

“An hour in the car to the Lander Bar,” I reply.

As is apropos, we started this journey in the Lander Bar, a classic Wyoming saloon where bloody-knuckled cowboys and climbers, Arapahoe Indians in beads and braids, granola girls in beads and braids, outcasts, posers, foreigners, and cross-country skiers all drink and dance together.

I can taste the beer and hear the band. Ken catches my eyes tracing the arc of a big cottonwood hanging out over the water. Opposite the cottonwood, on the far bank, is a 40-foot undercut cliff that resembles the prow of a ship. A span of only ten feet separates the uppermost limbs of the tree from the edge of the cliff.

“Oh, no,” Ken says. “I know that grin.”

“We carried that pretty rope the whole way and never got to use it.”

He shakes his head and stands up. “I'll do one last recon farther downriver before we commit ourselves.”

Everything depends on your perspective. Obstacles look different from different angles. Maybe it's not 30 yards of raging brown water we have to get across, but just ten feet of dreamy blue sky.

This trip didn't quite start in the Lander Bar, although that's the last place we were seen alive. And it didn't really start when Ken and I clipped into our bindings, shouldered our packs, and set out to ski the northern half of the Wind River Range. The obvious beginning is never the beginning; it's usually the middle. You recognize the beginning later on, once you've gained some elevation. Once you stop, take off your skis, climb a big rock, and look back. In this case, the beginning was almost 20 years ago, before Ken and I even met.

I was living in a log cabin at 11,000 feet in the Medicine Bow Mountains; Ken was struggling to make a go of a small outdoor shop down on the plains. It was a winter of deep snow. My mornings were spent struggling at a typewriter; in the afternoons I skied for miles. Ken skied in the morning and spent his afternoons renting cross-country skis and selling outdoor gear. We were in poverty, supposedly, neither of us making enough money to pay any taxes, but who cares when you're outside 300 days a year?

I don't remember how we met—ski touring somewhere—but by spring we'd hatched a plan to become cross-country ski instructors. We drove down to Steamboat and pitched our tent in the snow. A week later, two rubes from Wyoming had somehow managed to become certified nordic instructors. Ken was the better skier—his diagonal stride more graceful, his skating technique cleaner, his telemark turn stronger. However, before the test I'd been
certain my navigational skills were superior. I was the mountaineer, I was the one living in the mountains—and I was the one who flunked this test.

Perhaps, at the time, in our hearts, we do have an inkling that we're only just beginning, but we don't want to admit it. We can't. To admit that would be to admit you don't know what you're doing, which would be to admit that you have a long way to go, which would make the journey appear so daunting as to stymie even starting out. Better to believe you know what you're doing and keep doing it until you do.

That was the beginning. For the next few winters Ken and I taught nordic classes and led backcountry tours together. I kept at my writing and he kept at his outdoor store on the outskirts of town. This was our shakedown period. We each kept notes, made adjustments, developed systems, started recognizing what mattered and what didn't. He collected bad checks; I collected rejection letters. It took years for our passions to pay the rent. Every summer, like migrating birds, I fled to foreign continents to write stories and live cheap, and Ken decamped for Idaho to be a river guide and live on the water. After a decade he moved his shop into a big space downtown and I bought a computer and we both quit drinking Schlitz. We'd long since stopped teaching skiing. We kept saying we should do a trip together.

During the next decade we each broke a leg three-pin skiing. I performed a splendid pirouette and nearly twisted my foot right off my leg; Ken sailed dashingly off a cornice and snapped his femur at the hip. I was high on morphine with a plate and six screws in my leg when he smuggled a six-pack of real beer into my Salt Lake City hospital room. Three years later, Ken's lanky leg in agonizing traction, I waltzed in with a six-pack and a smile. Rehab is hell, but you learn who your friends are.

Through the years Ken became a consummate outdoor athlete. A kayaker, climber, skier. The unassuming outdoorsman, quiet and clear about his knowledge and ability. They are all over the world now. Glenwood Springs, Zermatt, Cuzco. It's a subculture. Men and women who consciously choose the outdoor life. Not for the fame, almost never for the money, but for the life. For the full-moon ski tours and the friends and the dawns when the color of the river is some breath-catching shade of blue. They are masters of their craft, but you'd never know it. They aren't in any videos or magazine stories or manufacturer's ads.

But Ken and I never did a trip together. After all those years the idea of skiing the Winds came out of nowhere—spontaneous combustion—the way all the best trips are conceived. One minute we were talking about how to earn enough money to have the life we had when we didn't make a dime, the next minute we were poring over topos.

The goal was to go as light as possible without turning the trip into a sufferfest (no tent, no stove, no fun). Light and fast. Lightning fast: the one-size-fits-all mantra for mountain travel you either figure out, or you better go back to bowling. We thought the trip would take eight days, including (since we'd be in the neighborhood) a speed-ascent of 13,804-foot Gannett, the highest peak in Wyoming. We wanted our packs to be under 40 pounds, which meant no storm rations, no radio, no food drop, no pulp fiction, no extra fuel, no extra clothes, no extra nada. Word of our plan naturally brought out the naysayers.

A veteran instructor from the nearby National Outdoor Leadership School told us it would be so cold we'd need 40-below sleeping bags, expedition parkas, and crates of fuel—so much gear we'd be forced to haul sleds. (But having spent our share of 16-hour nights trapped in January snow caves, we chose to do our winter trip in late spring—mid-June, to be exact. T-shirt weather. Twice the daylight, three times the Fahrenheit, half the pain. No mosquitoes.)

A fellow backcountry skier said we'd be killed by avalanches. The snowpack was 200 percent of normal. Weaving through the high peaks would be running a deadly gauntlet. (But Ken booked us a ride in a souped-up Cessna 172 and we flew the length of our route, spotting and carefully noting only the occasional point-release slide.)

A glaciologist said the crevasses could be wide open, waiting to swallow the unwary. We'd have to carry a mountain of mountaineering gear to be safe. (From our flyover, most of the crevasses appeared to be filled in, so we forsook climbing ropes for a one-pound, 100-foot section of five-millimeter Kevlar cord; swapped harnesses, pickets, ice screws, deadmen, and all other winter ironmongery for three slings, three biners, and two finger-size ascenders apiece; and traded in our heavy steel ice axes and crampons for their lighter aluminum cousins.)

A gearhead said we'd need big fat telemark skis, big fat plastic boots, and big fat cable bindings to negotiate the steep terrain, all of which would demolish our ridiculously optimistic predictions for daily mileage. (We took lean, short, featherweight racing skis and wore nordic boots.)

Ken and I did a quick shakedown trip, testing and tweaking, and then took off for our ski traverse of the Winds, stopping in the Lander Bar en route for a send-off toast.

Day one: Got lost immediately leaving Elkhart Park. Took bearings, found ourselves. Snow was sugar with a hard crust. Skis plunged to the ground. Camped on snow, cooked on rock. Strange to think all these deep blue drifts end up in Scottsdale swimming pools.

Day two: Exited timber at 10,200 feet and the world exploded. Blazing white slopes, towers of gleaming granite, a sea of bright sky. Three hundred sixty-degree views. Reason we came. Camped just over Indian Pass on Knife Point Glacier. Already pack buckles have broken, zippers jammed, boots blistered and bruised our feet. A pox on all gear designers who've never field-tested their abysmal creations.

Day three: Hit our stride. Crossing passes, banging one glacier after another—Bull Lake, Upper Fremont, Sacagawea, Helen. Big storm climbing Elsie Col. Cloud-cracking lightning, thunder, rain, sleet, hail, graupel, fog, couldn't see each other but kept climbing. Half of bad weather is psychological. Camped now on Dinwoody Glacier, Gannett above but invisible in storm.

Day four: Moving at 4:30 a.m. Half of successful mountain climbing is an alpine start. Ignored whiteout, wind, kicked steps straight up Gooseneck Couloir sans rope, summited in two hours. From the summit of Gannett we could clearly see how far we had come and where we were going. You need elevation for perspicuity. If anybody ever asks, this is the reason human beings climb mountains.

Pushed north that afternoon. Cold hard rain for hours. Crossed Gannett Glacier, Dinwoody Glacier, so hypothermic forced to stop. Stove fired up inside tent turned it into a steam room. Stripped to underwear, slept wet, but we're two days ahead of schedule!

Day five: Perfect synchronization now. Triangulate exact position, take bearings to the degree, plot course, circle summits, and slide into passes without gaining or losing altitude. Such joy in navigating when you know what you're doing. Stayed at 13,000 feet, smack on Continental Divide, knocked out 25 miles.

Day six: A thousand telemark turns off Shale Mountain and we did it! Dropped into dense forest. Map and compass useless. Postholed for hours. Forded unnamed streams, Wasson Creek, then came Jakeys Fork. Whoajesus.

While Ken's downriver I climb clear to the top of the cottonwood thinking it might be possible to Tarzan from the uppermost branches over to the cliff. It's not. The limbs stop in midair. I shimmy back down.

I get out the five-millimeter cord, slings, and biners for the first time. I hitch one end of the rope to a 12-foot-long log and reclimb the tree with the other end. Using one sling and two biners, I rig a crude winch in the tree, clip the cord in, and drop the end. Then I wait for Ken, swaying stories above the crashing rapids. He returns in half an hour and spots me up in the tree. He knew that's where I'd be. He didn't find a ford. I was hoping he wouldn't.

“All we need to do is lift the log up into the top of the tree,” I yell, “drop one end into the highest fork,” I point to a limb way above me, “and swing the other end over onto the cliff.”

“That's all?”

For the next two hours we're like kids building a tree house. Using carabiners and knots, me crotch-to-crotch up in the tree and Ken down on the ground, we slowly winch the log up into the cottonwood. We have to reset our rigging several times, once almost losing the log, but eventually we yard our bridge into the sky. With the cottonwood rocking in the wind, the log swinging dangerously in midair, Ken muscling the cord from below and me precariously balanced in the arms of the tree, we gently guide the log into position. Closer, closer…

“Drop it!” I bellow.

Voilà. Only six inches of the log rest on the distant lip of the cliff, and the log shifts with each gust, but we've done it.

It was my idea, so I go first. Ken gives me a belay from the ground; I loop the cord over a limb and step out onto the log. I gingerly walk the plank. The roar of the river fills the empty air. I can feel the dark water rushing far below. Step. Step. Forget where you are, focus on where you're going.

When I reach the cliff, relief forces a wail of delight from my lungs. Down below, on the opposite bank, Ken is giving me the thumbs-up and silently yelling.

After we send the packs and skis over, Ken ties into the cord. He methodically climbs the tree and, with no hesitation, like a trapeze artist without an audience, tiptoes across our suspension bridge. When he reaches my side he practically knocks me over in a bear hug.

While I coil the rope Ken builds a cairn and writes a note to put beneath the top stone: “Cowboys beware, this is not a horse crossing.”

We heave on our packs and head down the trail. In one hour we hit the car; in two, the Lander Bar, where, naturally, we meet three Kenyan mountain guides working for NOLS. They're listening to the band, watching cowboys trying to two-step to the blues. We pull up stools and one of the Kenyans, in an elegant East African accent, asks why our faces are so sunburned.

Ken buys pints all around and settles in to tell the story. I push back, relax, close my eyes, and listen to his voice meld with the music. Suddenly I see him. It was just yesterday but it already seems like months ago. He's out in front of me, silhouetted on the horizon, a tiny black figure gliding into an enormous white landscape. I watch him stop, take a bearing, and then, in total silence, continue to glide onward—self-contained, self-confident, unknown and unseen by all but me, a friend.

It occurs to me that the trips you hear too little about are the ones that work. The journeys where no one dies, no one gets hurt. Friends get together, make a plan, execute the plan, have a grand time, come home. The competence and acumen of the participants match the aggression of the elements and the challenge of the landscape. Uncelebrated adventurers are making such journeys every day, all over the world.

When Ken finishes his tale the Kenyans share one of their own about the rescue of some fools on Kilimanjaro and another about the death of a novice who fell into a moulin, a hole in a glacier, and was never found. We swap stories until last call. The Lander Bar is closing, our trip is over, the end.

Ah, but the end is never the end, it's the middle too. There is no finish line in the outdoors. Adventure is not a race, it's a life. Cross one stream and there's another one just ahead. As we're walking out one of the Kenyans grabs my arm.

“I know another place difficult to get into,” he tells me. “It too is high and remote, but it's in the middle of Africa. Would you care to go to the Mountains of the Moon?”