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A Year in the Wind River Range
By C. L. Rawlins, Hannah Hinchman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1993 C. L. Rawlins
All rights reserved.
The landscape was there, and more than ever he felt he could not reach it. The rocks and the sky were everywhere, ready to absolve him, but as always he carried the obstacle within him.
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Wind tears through sage. Frozen to each shaggy twig are chunks of snow that bob with every gust. Higher up, under a long cloud that hides the peaks, there is new snow gleaming, blank white against the mountain blue. Above us the whole sky moves. Clouds, light, great streams of air all rush over our heads in silence.
The air takes voice from what it touches: our bodies, the sage, the bare aspen fringing the hills. It roars, groans, threatens. John slams the door of the pickup and yells a question, but the wind rattles the hood of my parka and I have to yell back "What?"
In December, snowstorms give way to wind, a hard, blue wind that scours the new snow from the Wyoming desert and blasts it for miles. It looks like a white flood, faster than any river. At first, the flakes bounce along the surface, dislodging others. As the wind grows stronger they fly again, miles from where they first came to rest. At last they drift into the lee of a bank or a boulder or a sage. Shorn of their complex, fragile dendrites, they sinter into a hard crust.
Damned wind, it slaps the door out of my grip, bang against the hinge. John yells his question again, and I shake my head and point at the sky. As I hump my big, red pack from the truckbed to the sledge, grains of snow hiss around my boots, parting like stream current.
"Batteries," John yells next to my ear, red nose poking from the burrow of his hood, "did we change the ones in the boombox?"
"Yeah. I did." I'm worried about the clouds still roaring around the peaks, about the condition of the snow up there. John is worried about theme music for the adventure. We have a battered cassette player to cheer up the nights in basecamp, though I would just as soon read. He replies, turning back to the truck. The wind snatches his words. I nod agreement. It's too cold to argue.
The clouds seem lower and thicker, but that may be my imagination. The wind is definitely stronger on this bare ridge, a boulder-strewn moraine that marks the end of a glacial advance. It gusts and shoves us sideways as we circle from truck to sledge, forcing its hands up under our coats, stroking cold fingers along our wrists between glove and sleeve.
Some kinds of cold can be measured: the gust of an arctic front, the change from sunlight to shadow, the fluid ache that slips up the bones of your hands when you touch metal. Gloved, hatted, and layered as we load the sledge, we're prepared for those. Yet as I look up at the long, streaming cap of cloud that hides the summits of the Continental Divide, I feel a private chill. Right now it scares me to look up at these mountains.
I've been loyal, going into them year after year. Without pretending to own them, I've made them the pivot on which my life turns. Today they look sullen and beautiful, cloaked in storm. As the clouds run, the sky's light shifts in huge, soft planes, stealing the depth from snow-covered faces. It's impossible to judge distance and slope. The snow burns blue and white, dimensionless, a vertical curtain hung in the air. This is a light and a weather that raise my fears, though never enough to make me turn and go.
I love the winter mountains, but dread them too, as any sane person should. In a city it's easy to think of the earth as fragile. Out here it feels otherwise. This place doesn't seem weak. This earth won't shatter at our touch.
What seems fragile is how we think of ourselves. Out here I feel the immensity that lies beyond thought. In our minds, we make a small, safe place in which to live. But the world is a presence beyond our acts and dreams. There are blue mountains and white storms. We can prepare, but not predict.
There's a point on each trip when the rules change. In that moment — a white-out crossing a pass or the boom as a weak layer of snow releases — I realize that everything matters except good intentions. The mountains are big and thoughtless, awake without eyes, asleep without dreams.
We finish loading the sledge, cover the gear with a white canvas tarp, and dog it down. The two black snowmobiles squat on the frozen dirt of the road, snow drifting around them into the season's last tiretracks. Their blunt noses point at the peaks. Ugly beasts, but they'll get us to where the skiing begins, twenty miles on. We hitch the sledge to John's machine. I'll break the trail. In the west, the sky has opened, but the Divide is still hidden by wind-driven cloud. I tie my skis and poles to the rear rack while John paws through his daypack.
John locks the truck and we pull the starter cords. A dome of noise slams down around us. We'll head up the snow-covered road to Big Sandy Opening where it ends at about nine thousand feet. Using a tiny cabin as base, we'll continue on skis to Black Joe Lake where a snow collector waits. Starting up the windswept road, we dodge rocks and scoured patches of earth above the fenceline of Big Sandy Ranch, log buildings huddled above a frozen creek, deserted in winter. The road loops around the haymeadows and fences, and we bear left near Grass Creek to follow the air's way up from wind-stunted sage through outcrops of reddish granite. The wind has exposed rocks and gravel, so we swerve to follow tongues of snow, hearing an occasional scrape or screech from the runners. The road climbs in wild curves around the rocky reefs, through leafless aspen into the shelter of lodgepole pine, where we gain deeper snow.
This is perhaps my fortieth ski trip into the Wind River Range. John and I are going up to collect snow samples near the Continental Divide. Our purpose is to monitor air pollution. Even in this range, far from large cities, there is concern about acid rain and snow. To the southwest, upwind, is the Overthrust Belt, perhaps the largest remaining deposit of oil and natural gas in the lower forty-eight states. In 1981, oil companies formed a consortium to drill a deposit of sour gas — so-called because of its high sulfur content — and process over a billion cubic feet per day, releasing unsalable gases and by-products into the air. When sulfur goes into the air, it forms sulfuric acid.
The Forest Service asked for an environmental impact statement, and the state of Wyoming placed terms in the permit that required field studies in the wilderness areas — Bridger, Fitzpatrick, and Popo Agie — downwind. Cooperative agreements were signed to start the process. Money would come from the companies, the state, and the Forest Service. Monitoring for airborne acids would begin on the rain and snow as well as on sensitive alpine lakes, with the Forest Service doing most of the actual work.
One force behind the effort was Al Galbraith, a genial hydrologist from Jackson, who saw a chance to start a pilot study of air pollution in the high mountains of the West. Though computer models had issued from universities and consulting companies, there was little field data. Galbraith and his helper, Bo Stuart, located designs for rain and snow collectors, wrote a ream of guidelines, and then hired some of the rougher elements to set things up in the mountains.
One problem was that the Forest Service had to play by the rules of the Wilderness Act. It forbade the use of motorized transport and permanent installations, even to protect wilderness values. This was bad news for bureaucrats: no scenic helicopter flights or well-heated research stations overlooking alpine lakes. The monitoring effort would have to depend on the means the act allowed — horses, hiking boots, and skis — which is how we barbarians got into the game.
I look back at John, and he waves his gloved hand forward and down. We creep under the skirts of the storm, pellets of snow pecking at us, then into a patch of clear air. The pines look black. It will be dark in an hour. We reach a height where we can see out to the west, over the dark spine of Muddy Ridge, mostly rock with a fringe of battered pine. Beyond that, the high desert rolls like a sea. There are ranches hidden, a few roads, but nothing marks them for the eye. There is a river, the Seeds-ke-dee Agie, the Prairie Hen River, the one we call the Green, but it tucks into the folded land. From here, the most apparent features are the scale of the country and the sweep of the oncoming clouds.
Like a huge arrowhead, the valley of the upper Green points north, hemmed by mountains. To the west are the Wyoming and Salt River ranges, and to the north is the Gros Ventre Range, which stretches up to form the east rampart of Jackson Hole, all layered of sedimentary rock, limestone, sandstone, and shale. On the other flank, running southeast to northwest, is the highest and most geologically massive range, the Wind Rivers.
Crossing cold desert at about seven thousand feet, the prevailing southwesterlies must clear the wall of summits that marks the Continental Divide. For a hundred miles, peaks rise above thirteen thousand feet, less a barrier to the prevailing wind than they have long been to human travel. Between Union Pass, at the north end, where the granite-hearted Wind Rivers join a sedimentary plateau that links them to the Absarokas, and South Pass, where they descend to the topographic puzzle of the Sweetwater River and the Great Divide Basin, no paved road crosses the crest. There are trails, but most traverse high passes and are not easy routes even on foot.
It's cold country, with the yearly average temperature around three degrees F above freezing in the basin and ten degrees lower in the mountains above. The Shoshoni walked it as a summering ground, hunting and gathering in the valleys, and climbed into the mountains for bighorn hunts, ceremonials, or simply for the beauty. They have a tradition that the souls of the dead go up into these mountains to spend eternity. In fall the bands moved south to the desert or east to the relative warmth of the Wind River Valley. As temperatures edged toward the precipice of winter, sometimes eighty degrees F below freezing, the great herds, buffalo, elk, and antelope, moved out, too, leaving the upper basin to wind and snow.
The country is defined as much by weather as by rock. Summer storms gather over the desert to the southwest, then break on the granite reefs of the range in howling, brief rains punctuated by lightning or, high up, pellet snow. Rising air is cooled as its pressure decreases, shedding about 3.5 degrees F for every thousand feet. The colder this air becomes, the less water it can hold, and the excess moisture condenses. Above freezing, this condensation becomes droplets of fog or rainwater; below freezing, it emerges as ice, of which snow is a fine and airy form.
In winter the storm track shifts to the northwest, bringing down arctic air. Then, the difference between clarity and snowstorm may be just a few degrees, or a thousand feet. On days like this, the Wind Rivers wear a muffler of icy cloud, a stationary snow flurry that starts below ten thousand feet and ends on the lee side of the range, where the air has lost water and gained heat in its descent.
The snowcloud looms over our heads, dusting us. We stop and shut off the engines to stretch and warm our hands. The road winds through glacial features, threading meadows of sandy outwash, climbing the rubble of moraines. After twenty roundabout miles, we reach Big Sandy Opening, a glacial meadow that undulates along the base of high peaks like the dragon at St. George's feet. The cabin is hidden in the pines on the dragon's right shoulder. There are no fresh machine or ski tracks in the meadow. The wind has been at work. In this year of drought, the December snow is thin — about two feet on the level — and the heavy machines sink within a few inches of the dirt but grind on nevertheless, each carrying a bushel of snow on its hood.
The Opening is a two-mile gouge in bedrock filled with water-sorted sand, the outwash of a receding glacier. Big Sandy Creek meanders through it, joined by tributaries. There are low, curving hillocks and kettle ponds in the expanse between ranks of dark pine, all covered in snow. We are close to the cloud's belly. The winds buffet us as we head out into the open. I try to follow blownin tracks, aiming for the culvert bridge over Temple Creek. Marty, my previous partner, once put his machine nose down in the black water. He was driving into a snowstorm and made up for not being able to see by going fast. The snow was deep that year, overhanging the banks of the stream. He survived, but it took hours to wrestle the snowmobile out. His recounting of it made me shudder every time.
The tail of my machine sideslips off a frozen track, and I spin out in loose snow, getting stuck. John stops his engine and wallows up to help me heave the machine back onto the track. Underway, I kneel on the seat, stretching up to see over the spindrift, trying to sense the contours and the hidden traps — stumps, boulders, and ponds not quite frozen hard.
So far, this is not bad. On other trips, we've been flipped, stuck, whited-out, and thoroughly pummeled by the rigors of mechanical transport. Before I got this job I had never driven a snowmobile. By necessity, I've learned how, but my greatest satisfaction is to get where I'm going and to shut it off. Our time on snowmobiles is filled with trouble. Marty, my partner for three winters of acid-rangering, got furious at their mechanical orneriness. I'd round a curve in the pines to see him kicking and cursing his balky mount as it wallowed, half rolled over in loose snow. Bad luck seems to hover around snowmobiles. So, to cut the racketing engines and clip into skis came as a relief.
We cross Temple Creek, the water showing black. The Opening is about a half-mile wide, rippled like a sea under the wind. In some spots, willows or the heads of wild grass rise from the white surface. They help me to recall the course of the road, to avoid sudden drops and boulder patches hidden by drift. We head to the turnoff for the cabin, a mile farther along, nicely hidden by the forest's edge. John waits while I pack a turnaround loop and take down the wire gate. Digging out a rolled machine in the dark is something I've done more than once. I circle to build my nerve. Then comes a full-throttle run to break trail up the hill. The black machine raises a plume of snow, trying to roll off the hill's shoulder into a thicket of willows. I heave my weight hard left. I steer in half-controlled swoops up through the pines toward the little shack, the jointed track spinning out in sugary snow, and pull the hill with the last gasp of momentum.
I circle the cabin, glad to see the board walls under their dark red paint. This was my home for several of the finer summers of my life. I smile at the white screen door and drop down the hill to pack a wider track for John and the sledge. At the turnaround I stop and wave him on. He idles up to the straightaway before the gate, then screws the throttle down, almost losing it where I did. I hear his boot whack the side of the machine as he throws his weight. He goes out of sight. Then the engine noise falls to an idle and stops. I follow him up to unload.
The inside of the cabin is white, with a saddle rack, a wooden table, and two bunks on the west wall. On the north, next to the bunks is a small propane stove, which can be turned on from the bed for morning coffee. Beside the stove is a propane refrigerator, old, with rounded corners, superfluous at the moment. This cabin is as much home to me as any place. The east wall holds an ingenious cupboard, covered by a tabletop that hinges out like a studio bed to be supported by a single leg. Next to it is a sink with a tap for cold water from the spring, which I never hooked up, preferring instead to carry a bucket. In the east corner by the door is a boxy coal stove, white enameled with a black iron top. The floor, of tongue-and-groove fir, is painted the same chocolate red as the exterior. The door is paned with glass and looks as if it should issue on flowerbeds rather than on ragged lodgepole and a garden of shadows.
Excerpted from Sky's Witness by C. L. Rawlins, Hannah Hinchman. Copyright © 1993 C. L. Rawlins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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