After finally leaving our campsite around 8:30 A.M at the base of Squaretop, we set out to begin our hike towards Knapsack Col, one of the most anticipated alternate routes on the entire CDT. We glided along the trail for the first 8 miles leading to the junction of the alternate and embraced the perfect trail beneath our feet. The length of those first 8 miles was spent gazing at the opposing side of the mountain and the peaks in the distance.
For those of you who aren't familiar, which most of you won't be, Knapsack Col is a pass in the Wind River Range located at the North end of the Titcomb Basin, one of the more populated areas in the Winds. It's almost entirely a class 3 scramble while ascending, and possibly even a class 4 on the descent. With the pass sitting at right around 12,200ft, it's entirely alpine, above tree line, with absolutely zero remorse for anyone passing through. The trail disappears about a mile and a half before the pass turning into nothing more than a boulder field leaving you to decide your fate with the route choice. Granite slabs the size of cars make up the foundation while smaller, less stable pieces lay atop in a precarious manner. Each step is a risk for an ankle, while boulder hopping is the only efficient way to make your way through the field.
Luckily, before you reach the last 1,000ft ascent to the pass, the trail eases you in a bit. The alternate begins with a beautiful trail that switchbacks up to around 10,700' at Cube Rock Pass. With beautiful alpine lakes hidden in the bowl, it was hard for me to believe that Knapsack could actually top that. Massive boulders sit scattered throughout the open Plateau while the jagged, eerie peaks stare at you from the tops of the skies.
As we pushed to the bottom of the gulley, roughly 3 miles before the top of Knapsack, two storm cycles started rolling into the valley. Surprisingly enough, we were in the perfect spot to miss both cycles the first time around. We waited for Stomper to clear the pass and get down when we decided to make a run for it.
It looked clear behind the mountains, but hell, we couldn't see a damn thing. We started towards the last ascent when we turned around and noticed the cycle sweeping back around, making a run right for us. We started scoping out spots to bail, but there wasn't anything. We quickly made the decision to set up our shelters as quick as possible, and as I was putting the last two stakes in, the rain commenced. Within minutes the rain was sideways, and as I crawled into my tent, I looked over and Funny Bone was crouched with his tent draped over him. He got a bit rushed and decided to wait until it let up to a reasonable down pour rather than a torrential. Mayor and I crammed into my tent and as the minutes turned to an hour, we realized that this cycle wasn't moving too soon. A few moments later, a flash of electricity hit the adjacent peak, and the thunder boomed within 3 seconds. That trend repeated itself a few more times before the storm finally settled and we were greeted with blue skies and a blazing yellow sun once again.
While ascending, the boulders begin to grow as the labored steps become labored grasps for hand holds. Everyone chooses their own route while no one escapes without using their hands. When climbing up, all I could think about was how similar the terrain was to the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the AT. Steep, unforgiving, and undeniably brutal, the climbs are always worth it. Knapsack Col was no different.
My good friend Funny Bone always says, "You can hike the AT if you're blind, people have done it, but you absolutely need hands, there's no way around it."
The funny thing about these massive passes and peaks is that going up is the easy part. Just as the vertical ascent was steep, brutal and just pure rock hopping, so is the descent. Only on the descent is where the real risk comes into play, especially when there is a half assed trail that is strictly scree. It's tricky navigating a descent that is as dangerous as one false move and you may very well fall to your death or at least severe injury. Between using all four limbs as support, scrambling down on your ass, and even jumping over mini crevasses, the descent of Knapsack was one of the more technical routes I've taken. Constant mental focus is a must while remaining steady at all points, even when you're staring down a 1,800' drop to a glacier field.
When descending Knapsack however, it was more difficult not staring at the massive Glacier field in front of you than it was not tripping or making a mistake. A massive layer of permafrost sits beneath the peak and instead of taking the scramble down, some hikers choose to glissade down the snow as if it were a toboggan course. I chose to rock hop.
When we finally reached the base of the glacier and began our route back to the CDT along the Titcomb Basin, the sun was setting and the temperature was beginning to drop. We hiked a few more miles before finding a flat spot that would provide us with a view of the ridge line that I won't soon forget. Seeing the sun set and the moon rise in such an expansive space will never get old.
We woke up the next morning with only about 5 miles or so left on the alternate route, all of which was traversing the Titcomb Basin, one of the most gorgeous settings yet. Just as the first part of the alternate entailed, the basin was teeming with giant boulders while massive peaks sat atop the sky. This time however, the crowds were out in full effect. We enjoyed the rising sun over the many alpine lakes, but as the day hikers and backpackers became ever present, we turned on the jets and headed back to the CDT.