After visiting the Ross Lake area of the Northern Winds River Range last year, I knew I would return. For those willing to gut out the dry approach, the variety of touring and skiing possibilities is endless. I thought this second trip would quench my need to return, but to tell you the truth, it only makes me want to go back even more.
I recruited Jackson skier Mike Calla to join me on this week’s adventure. Mike did a guest post here last season about skiing the North Face of Gannett Peak and I knew he would enjoy the trip. We left Jackson on Wednesday morning and drove by 3-7′ snow banks on Togwotee Pass, arriving to a freshly grated road to the Trail Lake Ranch Trailhead. My guess it’s for the upcoming fishing season and not the spring ski mountaineering season.
Though one of the closest access points into the heart of the Winds, and open year round, the northeastern end of the range is relatively dry compared to the rest of the mountains. Sufficed to say, we Teton-styled it for about the first 3 miles, beneath red cliffs that made me feel far from home. The amount of snow slowly increased and finally we put the skis on our feet and milked the shaded gullies and treed areas up to the high slopes of Whiskey Mountain.
The snow filled gullies pulled us higher and higher, to a point where we had gotten a bit off route and had to descend and hunt for the trail down in a burn area. We spotted some bighorn sheep in the distance that were very keen to our presence and bolted across the horizon. We encountered some more later on, but they stayed put, trying to blend into the surroundings. Soon we were back on track and moving forward, waiting for the right time to drop down all the way to the frozen Ross Lake.
Our objective on this first day was to get at least to Upper Ross Lake, but first we would have to skin the 2.5 miles on lower, Ross Lake, which sits at 9,675′. The alpine scenery in the high cirques made the time fly and the surface was firm, so we make good time. A small rise brought us to Upper Ross Lake, less than a hundred feet higher. Steep cliffs started to rise on the left, getting me more and more excited for the days to come.
It was about 6 o’clock when we reached the southern most end of Upper Ross Lake and Spider Peak was the focus of our attention the whole way. Wanting to stage a little closer to the goods, we decided to continue hiking for another hour. After about 30 minutes, we ran into a nice meadow with outstanding views of the terrain up a side canyon towards Mile Long Lake. We put on the breaks and hunted out a nice spot next to the trees, out of the way enough to cut the wind a little, but not enough to completely block the views.
It was close to a full moon stage and we cooked dinner easily under its glow as we discussed plans for the following day. With so much terrain at our disposal, the decision was tough, but it was hard to pass up heading into the Mile Long Lake area. The temperatures quickly dropped into the single digits and we zipped into our cocoons wearing everything we had brought. Both of us had tried to cut weight by bringing our summer weight sleeping bags. Day two tomorrow!!!