Conquering Death Canyon.

Typically, I celebrate my Fourth of July weekend eating watermelon, spending an exorbitant amount of money on fireworks, and then frantically running for cover like a bat out of hell after lighting them off at night. However, this Fourth was different. There were no plans for fireworks, BBQs, or pool parties. This year, my friend Shawn and I, decided to travel to Grand Teton National Park over the holiday. Our itinerary included an 18-mile round trip back country hike, a 12-mile day hike, and living in a tiny tent for three nights. That meant no electricity, no wifi, no cooking nice hot meals, and relying 100% on one another and the few items that we brought with us. Sounds fun, right?

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Teton Mountain Range. 7.1.17.

I must say, in the weeks leading up to this vacation, I was super pumped. I kept comparing this trip to a diluted version of Naked and Afraid. You know, that T.V. show where expert survivalists are thrown into a very harsh environment…naked and well, afraid, and then have to survive and live off the land for a week? Now of course, Shawn and I’s trip was nothing near that intense. However, walking straight into the wilderness with a 15-pound backpack strapped to you that supposedly contains everything you need to live for 2 days was never something that I had envisioned myself doing. So, as a side note, I have Shawn to thank for persuading me to go on this adventure with him!

Now, the week before our trip, I became nervous. Have we done enough research? Do we know what to expect? Do we have everything we need to survive? How are we going to fend off the bears?!!! Shawn, reassured me though that everything would be okay and that we were as prepared as we’d ever be. The only reason I believed him was because he had prior experience. A few years ago, he went on a 7-day backcountry hiking trip with a friend and made it out alive, so to him a 2-day trip probably seemed easy as pie.

Luckily, the trip was a success! No one died. No one got eaten by a bear. No one was even hurt in the tiniest bit. …We just left Wyoming very, very sore. But it was completely worth it!

Here’s how it all went down:

Preparation
Since Shawn had done a backcountry hiking trip before and just loves to camp in general, he had nearly all the supplies we needed for this trip. His closet probably looked like a gold mine to many frequent campers. I can only speculate on this because I am definitely NOT a, “Let’s go camping, woohoo!” type of gal. Our packing list included the following:

2 humongous, gigantic backpacks
1 two-person tent
2 heavy-duty sleeping bags
Yoga mat
Cot
$40 worth of granola bars, dried fruit, and nuts
Bug spray and sun screen
3 days-worth of hiking clothing
Hiking shoes
Rain coat
Water filter
Flashlight
Shovel
Toilet paper
Plastic bags
Map (we should have brought a compass as well -_-)
2 camel baks
Toothbrush and toothpaste

We also planned out our trip’s schedule. Now Shawn is a casual, Let’s-Play-It-By-Ear type of dude, while I am a We-Need-To-Plan-Every-Little-Detail-Or-Life-Will-Fall-Apart type of gal. So, I took the lead on the organizing part. Which made me feel like I was contributing to this trip at least somewhat, since I clearly had no idea what the heck I was doing when it came to the actual camping part. We did some research on the hiking trails we wanted to take and if we could manage a 13-hour drive to and from the national park. Our conclusion: we can’t, ha! After all was said and done I had made a very detailed itinerary of our trip, which we adhered to for the most part!

Thursday, June 29th
We had a “packing party” the night before we left and loaded everything into Shawn’s car. This was the first time I packed everything into my backpack and tested out how heavy the darn thing would be. At first, I thought it wasn’t too bad. But I didn’t really take into consideration that I was standing on a rug in an apartment, well rested and fed and not walking up a freaking mountain.

Friday, June 30th
Shawn picked me up at 11AM and we drove to Hertz to get our rental car. Then we drove back to his apartment, dropped off his car, loaded our backpacks of life into the trunk and we were off! Thank god for cruise control, because countless hours on I-80 W surrounded by flat land, cows, and more flat land can be super boring. I don’t know how, but there was an unspoken agreement that I would be the first to drive. We sang to Taylor Swift and discussed really random topics like sweat shops in India, The Thirteen Colonies, and the Silk Road. Every 2 or 3 hours we would switch drivers, and we made sure to buy all the junk food the gas stations had to offer at each stop. Before we knew it 10 hours had passed and we were at our AirBnb in Rock Springs, WY.

Saturday, July 1st
We left our AirBnb around 7AM and then drove to Grand Teton National Park! Our plan was to reserve a campsite at Colter Bay for that night, and then also buy a backcountry hiking permit to hike into Paintbrush Canyon from July 2nd-3rd. We were slightly concerned that our plans would be foiled due to the first-come-first serve rule at the park and that it was July 4th weekend, however, we were able to get both the reservation and the permit so things were looking great! After setting up our tent at Colter Bay, we decided to take a 12-mile hike into Cascade Canyon that afternoon. I was worried that we might have bit off more than we could chew considering that we planned to do a backcountry hike the next day, but we managed!

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Our campsite at Colter Bay. 7.1.17.
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The view of Jenny Lake on the Cascade Canyon Trail. 7.1.17.
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We spotted a moose! 7.1.17.
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A view of Cascade Canyon. 7.1.17.

According to my fancy fit-bit, our 5-hour Cascade Canyon hike was nearly 29,000 steps and burned over 3,500 calories. That’s my kind of hike!!! But I must say, that my leg muscles and feet were definitely feeling the burn afterward. On our drive back to Colter Bay, we noticed a sign that said “Restaurant, Gas, Store, Lodge”. A what? A lodge?! A store?! You see, Shawn and I were unaware that staying in a fancy lodge at a national park was an option. So, we were very surprised to see that sign! After feeling exhausted and tired, we decided, hey let’s just go check out this lodge place for fun. Once we walked into the massive building, we were very much like two kids in a candy store, all wide-eyed in amazement. The lodge was definitely a site to see. And more importantly, it had wifi. HAHA! We scratched the granola bar and nuts for dinner idea, and ate at the restaurant. …I’m sorry, we were weak.

Shawn ordered chicken wings and I ordered this Thai wrap thing that I thought was going to be really good, but ended up tasting horrible. (So, unfortunately, I ended up eating that granola bar for dinner anyways.) During dinner, we told each other that once we become rich and retired that we would come back to Grand Teton and instead of sleeping in our luxurious tent and sleeping bags, we would stay at this much more luxurious lodge.

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After taking photos of the beautiful view behind the lodge and visiting the gift shop, it was time to drive back to our lovely tent! All I can say about sleeping in the tent that night, was that it was freezing!! Temperatures reached around 45 degrees Fahrenheit! And despite wearing several layers of clothing and sleeping in a heavy duty sleeping bag, I was shivering the whole time and had a difficulty getting to sleep and then staying asleep. I’m pretty certain I only got 3 or 4 hours of rest that night.

Also, that hike into Cascade Canyon had done some damage to my knees, and the freezing cold weather just emphasized how sore my knee joints were. It felt like hammers were pounding on my knee bones the whole night. And then miraculously, around 6 in the morning, the pain subsided and I was able to sleep peacefully. I still am not sure why the pain suddenly ceased. Perhaps it was because the temperature in the air was rising, but at that point, I didn’t really care because I was just really glad that I could move my legs without wincing.

Sunday, July 2nd
Today’s the day! The day of our backcountry hiking extravaganza into Death Canyon. For those that don’t know, backcountry hiking essentially is when you carry everything you need to survive out in the wilderness on you back and you go off hiking for however many days and enjoy nature and try not to die. Shawn and I’s backcountry hiking trip involved 2 days and 1 night. …Of all the trails in the park, why we got stuck with the one named Death Canyon, I will never know. You see originally, we planned to do our backcountry hike into Paintbrush Canyon (a much more friendly, appealing name for a trail, right?), however that one was full, so our options were this really short and simple trail, or the DEATH one.

Death Canyon is described as a strenuous trail, passing through String Lake, with “spectacular views” throughout. The hike into the canyon was difficult no doubt, however after all was said and done, I think the day hike into Cascade Canyon was more challenging, despite not having to carry 15 pounds on my back. I think a big factor that made the backcountry hike ‘easier’ was that it was a cloudy day, so the sun wasn’t beating down on my back, sucking up all my energy. I also believe that I had some more adrenaline running through me that day, compared to the day before, simply because I knew we were walking away from civilization for good 24 hours, which is frightening! Now, I put ‘easier’ in quotes because, by no means was this backcountry hike easy. The most difficult part for me was the endless zigzags on the side of the mountain. They were steep, rocky, and seemed to drag on forever. I remember humming to myself lyrics of camp songs I sang at the nature camps my parents enrolled me in over the summer when I was in elementary school. “There was a great big moose! Who liked to drink a lot of juice!” I was tempted to actually burst out singing and see if Shawn would follow suit, but I decided to keep those fun songs to myself.

We also took many stops, that involved us ripping off our backpacks and practically swinging them against a rock, and then toppling over. Our breaks included gorging on granola bars and nuts, and taking many photographs.

Below are photos from our journey into Death Canyon.

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I am small. 7.2.17.
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Sometimes, hiking off the trail is worth it! 7.2.17.

Death Canyon’s designated camping zones were located 9 miles into the trail. This is where backcountry hikers can set up their camp for the night. Each zone is spaced a good 10 to 15-minute walk apart from one another, and is marked by a little tent sign. They are basically just flat areas big enough for a tent. Some were located on huge boulders overlooking streams, others were in heavily wooded areas. Where you stayed just depended on what type of environment you wanted to camp at. Because we were exhausted by the time we made it up into the canyon, Shawn and I choose the first empty camp zone we saw!! Our hike into Death Canyon was a 9 mile, 25,000 step journey, that took a little over four hours!

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After setting up our tent and resting for a bit, we walked further down the trail. The deeper into the canyon we went, the more beautiful it became. There were waterfalls surrounding us on both sides and a wide river that intertwined itself with the trail. As we continued into the canyon, clumps of snow began to appear on the trail. That’s when we knew it would be fridged cold at night. Lots to look forward too! About an hour into our hike, it began raining. The rain was heavy and cold, and for a few moments it even hailed. It was a pretty wild experience to realize that we were miles away from anything that resembled civilization, and were stomping through the unapologetic wilderness, alone. It made me feel fearless!!

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We arrived back at our campsite around 6:30PM and quickly fell asleep. That night’s rest was predictably very cold and still uncomfortable, but arguably better than last night’s. No doubt, I woke up frequently from the chilly air and the soreness in my muscles, but the aches were nowhere near what I felt the night before. I remember when I would wake up in the middle of the night, I’d be looking at the tip of inside of the tent. I’d then realize it was still pitch black out, and check my FitBit watch…2AM. 4 more hours to go, 3 more hours to go…2 more…I’d also like to add that Shawn slept through each night like a baby. How? I WISH I KNEW!

Monday, July 3rd
The next morning, we woke up around 6:45AM. My thoughts about the climb down the mountain flip-flopped between being glad that the destination involved me sitting on a cushioned seat in a car, and dreading the impact the hike would have on my knees and feet. Surprisingly, we hiked back down an hour quicker than it took to hike up. Probably because going downhill is a lot simpler than climbing up since you have gravity on your side. The sun was out and shining, unlike the day before where clouds filled the sky, therefore we were able to get some more good photos in.

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I remember by the time we were off the mountain and into a more level area of the trail, we were practically running. We clearly had our fun and were ready to do something else! In hindsight of it all, I am so happy that we had our backcountry hike in Death Canyon. The scenery throughout the whole entire journey was definitely spectacular as promised. Some of the views looked so beautiful, they almost looked fake. Most importantly though, we didn’t get injured and we drove away from the Death Canyon trailhead with smiles on our faces!

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Next stop: Yellowstone National Park.

Originally, we didn’t even think to visit Yellowstone, we just planned to wander through Grand Teton for three days. After telling this to our AirBnb host, she was clearly dissatisfied with the itinerary. She explained how Yellowstone was literally less than an hour away from Grand Teton, and that it simply made no sense not to visit when we were on this side of the country. True story. So, thanks to her, we added visiting Yellowstone to our schedule. We weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do there, besides visit Old Faithful, the geyser everyone talks about. I am not sure what makes Old Faithful so cool, but I just know that it erupts every hour or so. Conveniently, when we arrived at the site, one man told us that it would erupt within 9 minutes.

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“All these people reminds me of China!” -Shawn 7.1.17.

The crowd that circled Old Faithful was massive. People from all over the country, and some from even across the ocean I bet, were gathered to watch Old Faithful do it’s thing. 10 minutes passed. No sign of an eruption. 20 minutes passed, the geyser still hadn’t spouted. Children were getting antsy, and tourists were impatient. Some even left. In an attempt to encourage Old Faithful to not be so shy, one end of the massive spectator circle started the wave, and to my amazement, everyone joined in! Finally, Old Faithful erupted and the crowd cheered and clapped loudly in excitement, proving that the long wait for the 30-second show was worth it!

After watching Old Faithful, we took the boardwalk down to view the other geysers.

Once we had seen enough hot water and steam from the Earth, it was time to hit the road. On our drive out of the park, we stopped several times to take many more obligatory Hey-Look-At-This-Cool Thing-Behind-Me photos.

The drive back to Lincoln was long, boring, and uneventful. But what drive back from a great vacation isn’t? We stopped at Rawlins, WY for dinner and ate at this very nice Mexican restaurant. I must say, I don’t think I have ever consumed that much food in such a short amount of time in my life. We went through 4 cups of salsa, 2 bowls of chips, and $32 worth of fajitas in less than an hour. The waitress even offered to bring over a pitcher of water… but hey, we had been living off of rabbit food for nearly 3 days! 

This Fourth of July holiday, I conquered something that I never imagined I would ever do. I don’t consider myself a very strong individual. I mean, sure, I can bring all the grocery bags in at one time to save myself the extra trips, but carrying 15 pounds on my back up and down a mountain for 18 miles?! In the most modest way possible, all I can say is, wow. I would like to think that I have always believed I can do whatever I set my mind to. However, thinking and doing are two different things. This year seems to be the year where I have proven to myself that I am really capable of doing anything! My trip to Grand Teton is another example of this and I am so proud of myself!

So when’s the next backcountry hike? Well, maybe I’ll have the answer to that after I’ve had  a few more good nights of sleep in my bed!!

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Until next time,
Heather Mei

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