Teton Crest Trail: Death Canyon to Alaska Basin

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Once upon a time, eight best friends went for a walk in the mountains. This is their story.

Which I know to be true because I kept a hiking journal. And I backtraced it.

 

Scene: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Characters: Greg, Jamie, Ryan, Jamie (another Jamie), Sky, Jordan, Merik, and Blake

Blake.
Sky.
Jordan.

 

Merik.

Prologue: This started out as a couples’ backpacking trip, but once the boys caught wind we quickly became a party of eight. Or as Greg would say, an “eight burger”, whatever that means. “How much did you give that guy?” “A twenty burger”. Okay then. Blake is the oldest nephew on my side of the family, and Sky and Merik are Jamie’s boys, and Jordan’s is Sky’s roommate. It was Jordan’s and Blake’s first time backpacking, and Ryan’s first multi-night trip. Jamie and her boys are old pros, as are Gregory and I. Without further ado:

 

Day 1: Death Canyon trailhead to Death Canyon group site, 6.8 miles, cloudy and cool then rainy and cold.

We had lofty goals of starting the hike at 9:00a so the adults set their alarms for 6:00a and got coffee and breakfast started for everyone. What a mess trying to pack for six boys; the food is insane. Jamie (I’ll just call her Hambone from now on) suffered a constant barrage of “Mama” and “Mom” and “Babe” and “Where’s my this” and “Where’s my that” and “Did you pack my such and such” and “Mom Mom Mom Mama Mama Mama” until I thought her teeth would crack from grinding them and her nostrils would snap from flaring. Here’s an idea: Pack your own crap, fellas. Our 9:00a dreams quickly faded into more like 1:30p dreams.

The boys went to the visitor center while the girls dropped the adult boys and all our packs off at the starting trailhead, then Hambone and I drove both vehicles to the end trailhead and left the van, went back to the v.c. to snag the boys, and back to the first trailhead to get started. We were lucky to get out of there by 4:00p.

Because of the condition of the road we had to park a mile from the actual trailhead and walk the rest of the way in. I thought it would be flat and easy. It wasn’t. Greg and Ryan had taken it upon themselves to weigh everyone’s packs while we were gone and guesstimate how much everyone was carrying. I’ll give you two guesses who had the heaviest packs and they weren’t men. First we have to birth babies and now this?! We practically ran to Phelps Lake where I started to get a bit langry (Lethargic. Angry. Hungry.) so we stopped to enjoy a lovely lunch on a big rock. Three things I crave constantly on the trail- cheese, nuts, jerky. It’s a good life.

Marching into Death. Canyon.

The Death Canyon Trail starts to go up up up quickly after leaving Phelps and just after lunch it started to rain. The mountains are like Hawaii- there’s a  70% chance of afternoon showers every single day. Unfortunately rain in the mountains is usually accompanied by thunder and lightning. That’s why it’s important to get up early and start hiking to beat those almost-certain afternoon storms, so you’re not hiking in wet boots and/or getting struck by lightning after lunch. Lesson learned. We stopped to refill our waters and everyone put jackets or ponchos on and raincovers over their packs. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have waterproof gear on the trail. Cold rain on a hike is depressing enough, but getting your clothes or shoes wet in a cold rain will make you damn near suicidal. No? Just me? We recommend Gore-Tex everything- jacket, pants, boots, pack cover, and socks and undies if possible.

After uphill in the rain for a couple of miles we were all a bit testy when a backcountry ranger hiked up on us from the other direction. “Well if it isn’t the afternoon hiking club!” Jerk. He proceeded to tell us what a tough go we still had ahead of us- probably 2.5-3 hrs more the way we were hiking. Double jerk. I could’ve kicked him. His sweet wife tried to encourage us but I wasn’t falling for it. He probably wasn’t even a ranger; he probably just keeps that outfit in his closet for days he’s feeling feisty and wants to go harass backpackers. I decided that was probably a good enough life. Greg promised us the whole way up that the trail “really flattened out” once we hit the ranger cabin at the top of the canyon. Let it be known that Gregory cannot be trusted on the trail. What he remembers as “flat and easy” are “death marches” for the common hiker (i.e. me). Have I told you about the time he took me and the Australians for “an easy six mile hike” that ended up being “ten miles up and over a mountain without any food or water”? I was lungrid that day- lethargic, hungry, livid (a stretch, I know). Anyway, don’t trust him. Whatever timeframe he gives, add six hours. If he says an easy two miles, plan on fifteen. (Greg will tell you none of this is true. Ask our friends if you don’t believe me.) Needless to say it didn’t really flatten out after the cabin. I mean, it did a little bit but it was still exhausting, especially for me and my fellow workhorse, Hambone. The big boys and Greg hiked on ahead to find the group site and I stayed back with the Wardens and Merik who was so kind and encouraging and tried to take the Jamies’ minds off their packs. I was shellshocked by the time we got out of the trees and I don’t think I could’ve gone another hundred yards when I saw Gregory coming back for my pack. Don’t let anything I make fun of Gregory for fool you- he is a hiking gal’s best friend. He doesn’t always come back, but when he does I cry tears of happiness.

Hambone sasses Ryan. I approve. p.s. this is what a camp kitchen looks like for eight people.
High fashion.

All the group sites in GTNP have locking metal bear boxes so you can store all your smelly things in them overnight. First stop at any camp is the bear box. When I say smelly things I mean food, gum, trash, deodorant, lip gloss; anything that has a scent other than your human body; it all goes into the bear box. It’s said a bear’s sense of smell is 7x stronger than a bloodhound’s so you never want to leave anything in your tent (and especially your pockets) that one might want to get a better sniff of. We had three tents between eight people- two 3-person tents and one 4-person tent. All the subadults went into the 4-man and each couple got their own 3-man (they’re more like 2.5-man, but super luxurious for two). The boys started a great system of the two olders setting up and the two youngers taking down, and the men helped each other with their tents? I guess? I don’t know, I was always stuck at the bear box watching the food like a good woman should.

We shared everything, some more disgustingly than others.
Glad no one tried to share our bear box.

As soon as the tent was up Jordan went to bed and we didn’t see him again until the next morning. Sky’s boots were so soaked he had to wring his socks out. Blake informed me his waterproof shoes were also soaked and that he hated the rain and he hated the cold and he hated the bugs. Ohhh boy, welcome to backpacking. Thankfully it stopped raining about the time we got to camp so at least we didn’t have to set up in the rain. It could’ve been so much worse, BLAKE. The Wardens made coffee for everyone and I made my first backcountry burritos- pre-cooked chicken, Mexican rice, and dehydrated beans on flour tortillas, and Blake enjoyed some shells & cheese. The burritos were delicious but messy, and we had enough for leftovers in the morning. No one lasted long once it started to get dark and I had to run something back to the bear box which was maybe 50 yds from the tent. On the way back my headlamp illuminated every hiker’s fear- a pair of reflective eyes across camp. Naturally my first thought was a bear but one movement of its head told me it was a deer, looking for a handout. It’s always comforting going to bed with a deer outside the tent because where there are deer there are no bears, but she still got my heart pounding and reminded me I shouldn’t go anywhere without a bear spray.

 

Day 2: Death Canyon group site to Alaska Basin, 9.5 miles, hot and sunny with an afternoon shower.

Our first morning in camp was a slow, sluggish one. The boys learned an important lesson about pitching a tent under trees as they were dripped on all night and didn’t have the sides staked out properly so they were all a little wetter than they were hoping for. Blake went to Greg and informed him we weren’t going to be able to hike that day because all the subadults’ shoes were wet. Ohhh boy, welcome to backpacking. Blake is a very, very smart lad but can be stubborn to a fault. He came to tell me about his shoes. I asked where they were. Under the tent. Bring them out into the open so the sun and the wind can start to dry them. He told me they weren’t going to dry anyway. I told him again to bring them out. He still wasn’t convinced but he did it and by the time we had breakfast and packed they were nearly dry. Whadayaknow. We always recommend camp shoes (shoes to wear once you get to your campsite), so you’re not stuck with just one footwear option. There was little hope for Sky’s boots and all the boys would start hiking that day in sandals with their boots tied to the outsides of their packs. Although the adults were up at 6:45a, we didn’t start hiking until 11:00a which really got Greg just kind of t-o’ed. We had leftover burritos (even better the next day!) and Blake had oatmeal and peanut butter. The Wardens made us all fancy coffee again. Did I mention they have a backcountry French press? The grounds are a hassle but the real coffee was great. The Warckens didn’t pack any creamer in and I couldn’t be prouder of Blake- by the end of the trip he was drinking it black.

Blake masters the art of brushing his teeth.

From the group site the trail really is nice and flat. It’s full of wildflowers and offers incredible views of the Death Canyon shelf and back down Death Canyon itself. I just knew there were a couple of grizzlies up on the slopes but we never saw one. We all practically ran to the Shelf, then I threw it into 0.25 gear for the walk up. That was the hardest time for me- getting up onto the Shelf. I thought I was in reasonably good shape- we’d been hiking a ton already and had climbed a few mountains in the east, and I was feeling great going into this trip. Halfway up the Shelf I was in tears because I could hardly lift my legs; I felt like I was walking in knee-deep mud. Later I would realize it was because I had about 50 lbs sitting right on my butt and of course my glutes and legs weren’t used to lifting that kind of poundage. Whew! Thought it was just me. For some reason we got into the habit that day of having lunch up on a pass, Fox Creek Pass in this case. A ‘pass’ is like, the easiest spot to get from one side of a mountain to the other- the path of least resistance if you will. But I think of a ‘pass’ as a place where all the wind ‘passes’ through the mountains. They’re always insanely windy and freezing cold. When I finally met up with the group (dead last, alllllllright!), Blake was sitting on a rock with his shirt off and his pants around his ankles. Which was fine, you know, do what you gotta do and all that but then he told me he was freezing. He really is a very smart boy but I had to gently remind him of his father’s words: “Don’t do dumb things.” If you’re freezing, how about you start by putting your pants back on? One thing I am a huge fan of taking off at breaks, though, are my boots and socks. I set them out to dry in the wind while I eat lunch and it’s like putting new socks on every time. Moisture causes blisters. Wear wool socks and dry them out every chance you get. You know what Gregory says: “Dry feet are happy feet”.

I shoved my lunch down and got a head start on the group but only made it about half a mile before I was overtaken by the scenery. To the far north the Tetons appeared in all their glory. We were in the Tetons of course, but these were the Tetons– Grand, Middle, and South- and they were as mesmerizing as always. When I worked in Yellowstone I had a personal motto: “Will hike for views of the Tetons.” They are my favorite mountains on Earth, and every hike seems easier somehow when you’ve got them to look forward to. Once we were on the Shelf it was an easy, but long, windy walk to Alaska Basin. I had trouble sleeping the night before because I was convinced I had c.diff and was questioning whether or not I should quarantine myself, hike out, and seek treatment. I would later remember orange liquid poo is sometimes just an unfortunate side effect of dehydrated food. I let the group hike on ahead of me and I found a stand of trees in which to do my business. There is never so vulnerable a time in the backcountry as when one must answer nature’s second call. As I was in the middle of mine a hummingbird flew by my face and I was just sure the buzzing of its wings was the growl of a charging grizzly. If I hadn’t been in the middle of it already, I would’ve crapped myself. And there I was, without bear spray again.

There’s me and old Greggy. We sure love the trail.

The group started earning their trail names on the second day. I’m Lady Campfire and the other Jamie is Hambone. Greg = Mountain Man.  Sky = Selfie. Jordan = iPhone. Blake = Redirection. Ryan = Motts (SOMEone went to bed with Motts fruit roll ups in his tent). Merik = Waterboy.

Greg and Ryan hiked ahead this time and found us a campsite in Alaska Basin. The Basin is outside the GTNP boundary so you can camp anywhere you like, but there are no bear boxes so you have to hang your smelly stuff from trees. The men found a picturesque clearing next to Teton Creek and Greg came back for Hambone’s pack this time. We set up tents in time for the afternoon showers and after they were over the subadults all bathed in the creek together and enjoyed a group poop. Boys are so weird.

Sky’s feet covered in blisters and Hambone’s practically exploded between her toes and the balls of her feet. Isn’t backpacking great? Everyone was in bed before 10:00p.

Check out our other TCT posts:

Backpacking in National Parks

Teton Creek to North Fork Cascade

North Fork Cascade out Paintbrush Canyon

 

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