That’s Not Mud – A Short Story

A storm passes over Sunset Lake in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness of the Targhee National Forest in Wyoming.

It was my friend, Dale’s, first backpacking excursion, and rather than easing him into the rigors and rituals that come with such an experience, he instead insisted on the popular, but overly strenuous, 40-mile Teton Crest Trail in northwestern Wyoming. We were to spend nearly all of our time higher than 8,000 feet above sea level, and topping out just shy of 11,000 feet. I had only backpacked a handful of times, but I knew enough to turn him down when he offered to pay for a 6-pack of beer if I helped to carry some.

It was the longest hike I had ever done at the time, and my first multi-night backpacking trip that didn’t involve a base camp, nor someone in more of a leader position to ask questions to when my inexperience fell short of potential life threatening instances.

Our first day out was grueling and challenging, exhausting us over twelve miles that constantly changed elevation, bringing us from Teton Pass to Grand Teton National Park’s, Marion Lake, a glistening turquoise pool with light waves splashing against the rocky shores, resting below granite cliffs at the top of Granite Canyon. 

Our next day was an easy six miles up and over Fox Creek Pass and onto the Death Canyon Shelf. We setup our camp engulfed in mountain wildflowers, perched above the steeply descending cliffs of Death Canyon. On the other side was a three mile long wall of granite rising hundreds of feet. A few afternoon thunderstorms passed to our north, while I nervously watched, begging them to not come too close.

One of my biggest fears in nature is being outside with no shelter during a thunderstorm. A bigger fear is being at a high elevation in the mountains with no shelter during a thunderstorm. Dale asked, “What should we do if a storm comes our way?” I had no idea. Duck? Pray? Both? I could have made something up, but I professionally deflected it instead. “I’ll let you know when we need to worry about it.” Fortunately that night, we didn’t need to worry about it. The next night was a different story.

Our goal the next day was to make it to the South Fork of Cascade Canyon, beyond the other side of the Alaska Basin, a mountain paradise that somehow escaped being included in Grand Teton National Park, but manages to put Jedediah Smith Wilderness on the map due to its deserved popularity. Both the Alaska Basin and the Death Canyon Shelf are part of the reason the Teton Crest Trail receives so much of this deserved attention. Grand peaks and granite mountains aside, the wildflower displays in both locations during late summer are one the most alluring spectacles in the Teton Mountains, and arguably the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Along “the shelf,” a carpet of bright emerald stretches out across the mesa anywhere from 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, accenting the deeper forests far below. On top of it all, stretching for miles is a splattering of color, as if an enormous rainbow stretched over the shelf, and then shattered, leaving all its pieces glowing on the green ground. For three miles, hikers wander through the ankle high forest of rainbow remnants, until they reach Mount Meek Pass, also decorated with inspiring displays, but incomparable to what hikers had just passed through, or what they would be about to pass through. 

The Alaska Basin swoops down from Mount Meek Pass, bordered to the north by the massive alpine table of Hurricane Pass. In between lay a rocky but lush mountain haven, large enough to accommodate its frequent visitors, but tucked away enough to feel as though it completely lives up to its namesake. Endless creeks trickle and explore their route into Teton Canyon throughout the summer, fed by the previous winter’s snow, nourishing the abundant meadows working tirelessly over eons to overtake the exposed rocks and granite slabs. Every meadow exudes life and brilliance in the form of bright grasses, and of course, wildflowers so vivid that photographers find themselves turning down the saturation in their photos to make them look more realistic. The only sounds were produced from tiny waterfalls, as the tiny streams poured over a small rocky ledge, continuing their respective journeys toward Teton Creek. This was where we should have set up camp.

Our destination that night was the South Fork of Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park, still miles away and over an exhausting climb up and then down Hurricane Pass, topping out just under 11,000 feet above sea level. We had already secured our permits for the South Fork, so we felt obligated to be there. The Alaska Basin, however, sits in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness, therefore, no permits are needed, and anyone is welcome to stay in the heart of the Tetons should they wish.

The trail out of the Alaska Basin up to Hurricane Pass is, at its simplest, challenging. It switchbacks up a steep cliff, quickly wearing out rookie backpackers such as ourselves. Upon reaching that sublime mountain zone where trees begin to give way to alpine tundra, the Teton Crest Trail slides past the serene Sunset Lake, sparkling a spectacular shade of sky blended with turquoise. It was here we noticed imminent danger.

Looking to our west, we noticed that the sky had gone from its usual deep ocean blue to a dark charcoal gray. In only minutes, storms had begun to build fortresses in the sky, threatening to unleash a furious offensive strike on us. 

We knew we didn’t want to be on top of Hurricane Pass when the storms attacked, and we knew we had no chance of making it up and over a nearly 2,000 foot vertical climb in time. Climbing any higher from where we were would only expose us to more danger, and we were already in a very vulnerable and dangerous location for a thunderstorm. Treeline in the Teton Mountains is generally around 9,500 feet. We were located a few hundred feet higher. The few trees that were around looked more like lightning rods than safety, small clusters of only a few tall pines spread apart from each other in distances that could be measured in hundreds of yards. Rumbles from the clouds in the west informed us that it was time to make a decision.

“Should we hide under the trees?” Dale asked, looking to my perceived expertise for advice. I didn’t know. I had always simply hoped I wouldn’t be in this situation.

“I don’t feel safe in those. They look like they’d attract the lightning,” I responded. “We could hike back down to the Alaska Basin,” I offered, which was definitely what we should have done.

“I don’t wanna make that climb again,” he moaned back. I didn’t either, but it was definitely what we should have done. And unfortunately, it didn’t occur to either of us to camp down there either. We both falsely assumed that we’d have to get to the South Fork that night regardless of the circumstances.

“So how do we stay safe from lightning?” he finally asked.

“I don’t know,” I at last confessed as the thunder not only increased in decibels, but also in frequency. This was beginning to look like a severe thunderstorm, a near worst case scenario in my mind. My biggest fears were beginning to unleash a confrontation that was becoming unavoidable. “Maybe we can find some kind of hill or overhang to wait it out under?”

We began to veer off the trail, looking for some form of natural shelter, the thunder giving us our last warnings as deep and violent bombings crashed through the sky. A light sprinkle began to fall, and we knew we had to find something immediately. A torrential downpour was following, and we could see it approaching.

“What about this?” he cried out nearby. I ran over to him and saw he had discovered a small granite overhang just big enough for the two of us to squeeze under. We quickly storm-proofed our packs and I ran them under a nearby cluster of trees. When I returned he was bunched up safely staying dry in the increasing shower. I ducked beneath the rock and wedged myself in, my feet nearby his and my head at a slight downward slope from my feet, something I try to avoid when sleeping, but figured it’d be ok for a few minutes while a storm blew through.

Storms in the Teton Mountains are typically violent, but quick, contributing to the phrase, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” That thought comforted me as I rested, awkwardly bent into my shelter beneath a roughly one-foot thick rock slab above me, Dale invisible beyond my feet. And then it hit.

Hail came crashing downward. Nickel sized chunks of ice came pelting the ground, creating a deafening noise during their onslaught. Lightning brightened the darkness of the storm in beautifully angry flashes, followed by earth-rattling thunder, echoing off the surrounding peaks and cliffs. I waited nervously, constantly on edge listening for the next strike, often taking only seconds to find its next target. I wondered if we had made a mistake by not going back down. I wondered if we had chosen a safe enough place. I began second guessing my decision to not go under trees. Should we have? I had no idea. Every strike produced another instance of doubt in my worried mind. I then realized that nearly fifteen minutes had now gone by and this storm wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. This only added to my anxiety about the situation, desperately waiting for some form of ease from the weather system. But not yet.

I soon felt a coldness on my shoulder. I twisted around to examine it and noticed that my shoulder was getting wet, my rain jacket having virtually no effect. I put my head down in nervous frustration, and felt a slight splatter on my face. Runoff from the rain and melting hail had found a small channel just above my head to initially trickle through. Naturally, the trickle soon intensified into a more steady pour, splashing nearby mud onto my face. I rubbed it, trying to remove it from my cheeks, but my wet hands only smeared it more.

Minutes later I was drenched. I was also feeling cramped, trying to wiggle my muscles into some kind of comfort. There wasn’t much to be found though as the mud continued to splash on my face. After about thirty minutes though, the thunder began to soften over the eastern sides of the mountains. The rain began to pull back its intensity. The storm began to subside, though it remained heavy for another fifteen minutes. Eventually, it finally let up. 

Once the rain had relaxed to a sprinkle, I emerged from my so-called shelter and stretched out my cramped muscles. I looked back at Dale to see his reaction. He was sound asleep. Then I looked back to where I was lying. The mud that had been splashing me had an odd look to it, so I leaned in closer for a better look. It wasn’t in random patterns and spread out like you’d expect mud to be. Instead, it was laid out in small groupings, composed of small cylindrical shapes. I realized, it wasn’t mud at all, but was actually marmot scat. Dale and I had apparently invaded a marmot den for a makeshift shelter, and as an indirect and unexpected revenge for them, my face was now covered in their shit.

Noticing a sharp drop in the noise level, Dale woke up, and asked what I had been doing during the storm to get so soaked and muddy. As we got our gear and headed up toward Hurricane Pass, he had a good laugh at my expense. I’m sure the marmots did too.

We started our hike up to Hurricane Pass, safely ascending once the storm had passed, thankfully oblivious to the fact that one of the most dangerous places to wait out a thunderstorm is under a granite overhang. An overhang, such as what we had rested under, would have simply acted as a conductor.

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