GAP Expedition 1- the Wind River Range, Yellowstone, City of Rocks

by Andrea Wackerle

Our first expedition began in the Wind River Range. While we were only a couple dozen miles from base, as the crow flies, we spent our first three hours together driving around to the western side of the enormous mountain range. Our drive was an adventure in itself as we counted horses, lamas, sheep, and even drove through a “stampede” of cows driven by real live Wyoming cowboys and cowgirls.

 The first few steps of our backpacking portion brought us to Twin Forks Lake and its swirling clouds. Right before setting up camp, we encountered our first moose munching away in a pond. The glacier-carved canyon set the scene for our inaugural backcountry campsite. At the same time, we learned about camp orientation, animal protocols, kitchen and food procedures, “bear hang,” and group tent construction, all while racing the rain. We rolled out of camp and up the mountain early. We encountered our first river crossing of many before lunch. The combination of leapfrogging, changing into water shoes, and trudging through the water made the experience different for everyone. We made camp under a glacier-cut 2,000 ft granite slab in a meadow with babbling brook background sounds.  We spent the evening exploring the stream and boulders. 

The following morning we cruised a couple of miles on what we thought was the uphill of the day, and after lunch, we got rocked by a 1,000 ft elevation gain. The group pulled together and encouraged each other through the challenging hike. Our first reward was playing on some boulders at the top, while the real reward was the beautiful campsite overlooking Lake Palmer. The team ate a marvelous dinner on a rocky outcrop right over the middle of the lake with the sunset. We took off in the morning for Rainbow Lake. The group showed real strength and flexibility when weather conditions changed drastically on top of the mountain. With some seemingly magical cell phone service, we learned that snow was on our way overnight and for the following morning. So with a pretty tired team having cruised through 5 miles of hiking already, we decided we needed to change course for safety and bust out five more miles to get off of the mountain before we were stuck up there in the snow. Our green team came together and helped one another step up to the challenge. 

We all were relieved when we returned to the van at the trailhead, and we set up in Twin Forks Lake Campground. Waking up to the smells of English muffins and bacon, the team broke down camp and hit the road early. The whole SOAR team waved bye to the snow cloud covering the Wind River Range and headed toward Yellowstone. We stopped for lunch and viewed the partially hidden peaks at the Snake River vista in Teton National Park. As we pulled into Lewis Lake Campground in Yellowstone, the snow returned, then turned to rain and back to snow again. We set up tents and a super circus tent for group gear with freezing fingers. But the night turned back around with a successful chili cookoff. We all managed to emerge from frozen tents and took off quickly to warm up in the park’s geothermal basins. 

The West Thumb delivered our first geysers, hot springs, paint pots, and a view of one of the largest lakes in the country. Our drive up to the mud volcano brought us face-to-face with our first “blacktop bison.” On the trail around the volcano area, we saw Earth’s amazing features (like a smoke breathing dragon cave!) and encountered some nonchalant bison grazing around steam vents.  Some of the team went for a swim in the Firehole River with partial geyser-warmed water, while others did yoga on the shore. We topped our first day in the massive park with an outing to the Grand Prismatic Spring to check out the world’s largest hot spring and its vast thermophilic bacteria mats.  Yellowstone turned from natural features to wildlife on our second day. Our morning started with a brisk hike to view Old Faithful and the geyser basin from atop the nearby mountain. The GAP team dropped into the basin to get a closer look at a variety of geysers before being blasted by Old Faithful. Afterward, we journeyed all the way up to Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of the park to really see it all! From the safety of the van and with a few strategic stops, we packed our day with Buffalo, soooo many Buffalo, Elk, Moose, Grizzly bears, Black bears, and pooooossibly some wolves. 

The next morning we left Yellowstone in the foggy rear-view mirror and headed to the desert of southern Idaho. City of Rocks National Monument and Castle of Rocks State Park campgrounds were full, so we spent our first night nearly alone in the high desert. With a full moon rising through a “Tatooine” sky (star wars reference), we delighted in trailblazer pizzas and exploratory conversations. In the morning, we were able to secure the last campsite, and we headed off to start climbing. Our first day of rock climbing was at an aptly named location called  “Practice Rock.” All participants rock climbed to rousing encouragement from their peers as we also worked on our belaying skills. Tuna fish sandwiches paired nicely with some rock scrambling for lunch. The group pushed themselves and each other for our most successful day of climbing to date. 

When we returned to camp, we set up all our tents in a pretty tight space, even connecting two of them to make a tunnel/fort. Our campground hosts were right next door, and our group did a great job of keeping it to a dull roar. The next day we headed to a huge set of rocks known as The Castle! The climb up to vertical rocks was tough enough, so we began our day out by attending our goals. Gappers turned their thoughts into systematic SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely). We hit the wall hard and climbed until 5 pm, reaching some of the highest climbs our ropes could allow. A dinner of fresh tacos powered us up for the next day.  The last day of climbing did not disappoint either. We headed out to the mysteriously named “Site 18″. All students climbed and reached higher than they ever had before. The team really pushed each other, with reminders that this would be our last chance for climbing for a while. Some of us were also able to climb the hardest route we faced, a difficult 5.9. All of us, however, thoroughly enjoyed scrambling on some of the region’s unique geological formations, known locally as ” hey! come check out all these really weird rocks!” It was a little sad when we took down our shade tarp and headed to the car, leaving the rock climbing all too far behind. 

The team set a new record for breaking down camp in the morning, and we left the juniper and sagebrush quickly in our dust. Returning to Wyoming and our home Wind River Range, our last stop was at the lakes in Whiskey Basin. The group was split on the success of Thai peanut butter noodles for dinner. We spent some time after evening-meeting to soak in the Milky Way and learn about celestial navigation. The lakes greeted us in the morning with crisp frosty tents, so we paused on packing them up. Our small break included silly games like “where’s my chicken?!” and a special treat of backpacking donuts. 

We crushed mountain hikes, shimmied up rock walls, learned camp craft, cooked delicious backpacking meals, and, most importantly, began really forming our group. There was a ton of encouragement along every step of the way to help with the bumps and bruises of new adventures. We definitely all stepped out of our comfort zones and found our growth edges. The team is happy to be back on base simply based on how loud they get playing board games. We look forward to the new challenges of base phase, such as life skills, internships, and college. In addition, we are getting puuummmmped about planning our next expedition!

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