GET OUT: Hunger Games in Snowshoe Canyon

By on August 17, 2016

When a quest for survival ensues in the Tetons, two players forge ahead.

Lewis Smirl surveys the scene from the top of Eagles Rest Peak. (Photo: Ryan Burke)

Lewis Smirl surveys the scene from the top of Eagles Rest Peak. (Photo: Ryan Burke)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Somewhere deep inside of us, we perhaps all  have the desire to know how we might fare in a bare-knuckle battle where our life and limb were on the line. Unwittingly, Lewis Smirl and I were able to live out that fantasy in the first annual, and never again, “Snowshoe Canyon Hunger Games.”

Before volunteering for this quarter quell, I had heard stories of the elusive Snowshoe Canyon in the Northern reaches of District 12, otherwise known as Grand Teton National Park. In this area, rumors abound of man-eating bushes, bird-sized mosquitoes and grizzly bear mutations. But nothing could prepare us for the reality of this remote section of wilderness.

To reach the arena, you must travel via canoe from Spalding Bay or convince a friend with a sailboat to brave a crossing from Colter Bay to the base of Bivouac Peak.

On arrival, we received a gift basket of shin-bang and bristle bush cuts, as we maneuvered through the dense foliage of downed trees and tall willow bushes. As we ascended the east face of Bivouac Peak, the odds seemed in our favor. Views of Mt. Moran revealed themselves and the steepness of the ridge leveled off from a near vertical grassy ice rink to moderately tolerable talus. Summiting the first obstacle of the weekend, our confidence was growing as we had only gained a few bumps and bruises on our way to the victor’s circle.

Now feeling cocky about our chances, we moved north towards Traverse Peak. Faced with a labyrinth of scree fields and indiscriminate cliff faces, our spirits softened. But this was just the beginning of our adversity. We found ourselves traveling through multiple dead-end couloirs that ultimately forced us to descend into the heart of Snowshoe Canyon, towards monsters beyond our comprehension.

The drama started to mount as we made our way towards the seemingly idyllic Dudley Lake, only to encounter bushes so dense that the Alaskan backcountry would feel casual in comparison. After covering only a quarter of a mile in 50 minutes we contemplated seeking refuge for the night.

Pushing forward, however, we persevered through a few thigh-deep river crossings and then entered the final stretch of forest that would lead us out of the dangers of Snowshoe Canyon and return us to the safety of our campsite. But the mountains had one last trick up their sleeve. The best way to describe what happened next, dear reader, is to picture an upside down tornado of air shooting from the sky into the earth, destroying everything in its path. Meteorologists would have labeled it as a microburst of wind, but Lewis and I more accurately refer to it as a treepocalypse of bark and falling trees crashing directly onto our path. For around five seconds our world was filled with sheer terror, as the forest seemed to uproot and come down upon us. To imagine our fear, multiply a sense of impending doom fourfold and then add in trees six feet in circumference racing towards you at breakneck speeds. Luckily we chose the right direction to sprint.

The smart decision at this point may have been to fold, but one does not simply leave the Hunger Games by his own free will. So on day two we set our eyes on the Southeast Couloir of Eagles Rest Peak. As we left Moran Bay, the first hurdle we had to overcome was a maze of downed trees and grizzly bear willows, which kept us on edge. These obstacles were followed quickly by marble sized hail that forced us to cling to each other for survival in a closet sized cave. Persistent players that we are, however, we found our way to the summit of Eagles Rest via its east ridge and were rewarded with expansive views of Jackson Lake and the surrounding Teton Range.

In hindsight, that we had the chance to explore Snowshoe Canyon could be perceived as either a blessing or a curse. Near death experiences are not something anyone should go looking for, but they do tend to make the world a little more vivid…  if you come out unscathed. To paraphrase a dictator acquaintance of The Hunger Games’ President Snow: It’s always better to live one day as a mountaineer than to live 100 years in fear. PJH

About Ryan Burke

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