Experiencing Totality In The Windrivers By Tom Gagnon

Experiencing Totality In The Windrivers By Tom Gagnon

WYOMING’S WIND RIVER RANGE — The following is a first-person account of the transcontinental eclipse of 2017 as experienced and photographed by Tom Gagnon.

The full text follows:

Unzipping the tent screen, I emerged into the dawn of the day of the great eclipse, the twenty-first of August, 2017. I was camped at Mistake Lake, at an elevation of 10,800 feet, in the Titcomb Basin, located in the center of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

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Below, on the prominent moraine between two big lakes, were fourteen tents. I was to pass another thirty to forty tents on the upper reaches of the basin.  

Perhaps never before had the basin been so crowded.

For that matter, neither had the state, now with five or six times its usual population, owing to people coming here to experience the eclipse. I was on my way to Knapsack Col, at 12,240 feet.  

Several other people were shuffling along in the same direction. We were on a sort of pilgrimage. For all of our distractive technology, politics, and economics, the sun and the moon can still move our society.

The day before I had scouted the route, to within half a mile, and six hundred feet or so below the col.  There, high in a snowfield, I met a mother and daughter team from Bozeman. They had just come over the col. They pointed with their ice axes to exactly where the col was, which was reassuring to me, because its location is not obvious.  There are neither signs nor a trail.

Ascending here on the twenty-first, I caught up to a huddle of six people. They had three GPS devices but didn’t know which way to go. They had sent one of their party way off to the left, to scout out a pass to see if that was the right way. I could see the man, against the snow, a quarter mile away.  I said that he was approaching the pass leading to Summer Ice Lake, not Knapsack Col.  They said my route was the wrong one, leading to the top of the Mammoth Glacier.  I told them about the two women from the day before, and to where they had pointed.  I wished them luck, and proceeded on my way.

The final three hundred feet is a steep headwall.  I used my ice axe, for the first time in a decade, really, to keep from sliding down and getting banged up.  As though you had knives on the sides of your boots, kick the inside left foot into snow, kick the outside right foot into snow above, swing axe above and sink the pick into the snow, repeat and don’t slip.  An instruction manual said something along these lines.

I arrived at the top of the col with plenty of time before the eclipse, so I looked around. To the westward are lots of jagged peaks. They stretch all the way to the Tetons. Right below is a deep canyon and Peak Lake. This is also the harder route of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) options, which goes over this col, and it’s a major highlight on the CDT.  On this trip, which for me was only one week, I met at least six CDT through hikers. I can always spot them, as their packs are smaller and lighter than anyone else.

Laying back against a boulder, with the one other hiker at the col, we donned our special glasses for viewing the sun. With a startle, I could see the crescent sun. The great show had begun. It grew cold, and the light developed a strange, defused and alpenglow quality. The light dimmed inexorably. Soon totality occurred, and the sun was completely blocked by the moon. It was like night, though it was never completely dark. The silhouettes of all the jagged peaks stood out against an orange or hazel glow.

It was a thrilling minute, and the light returned and the sun’s warmth slowly began to be felt.

Soon the GPS gang, and several other hikers, came up. Half a dozen people descended to the col from the mountain flanking its southern side. A small, impromptu and cheerful meeting began. This is not uncommon in the mountains. The intangible achievements of hiking in the wilderness always makes people excited and happy, and this day’s celestial event added to the elation. People were meeting each other, or happily seeing each other again after meeting earlier in their hiking. They were high-fiving, shaking hands, and slapping each other on the back.

The sun and the moon can greatly move us.