GET OUT: Icy Heat

By on June 21, 2016

Sun, snow, and (seldom) solitude in the park.

Left: Nikita Lopez hurries to escape the cold water of Lake Solitude. Top: A tiny human forges up Paintbrush Divide. Bottom: Soaking in sun and snow from the top of the divide. (Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

Left: Nikita Lopez hurries to escape the cold water of Lake Solitude. Top: A tiny human forges up Paintbrush Divide. Bottom: Soaking in sun and snow from the top of the divide. (Photo: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – During this brief time in the solar year, the sun actually feels warm here in Jackson. One of my favorite ways to enjoy the heat entails hiking up Paintbrush and out Cascade. This seemingly benign hike by “Jackson standards” is actually 18 miles and climbs to a 10,720-foot divide. I invited a wonderful friend who is a great walker but has little experience traveling on snow. This gal grew up outside of Yosemite. I imagined her communing with rock faces as a small child, being one with those large slices of granite, so I didn’t think she would have a problem on the hike. After discussing the need for an ice ax and crampons during planning stages, she responsibly informed me of her uncertainty traveling in snow covered terrain.

I considered this, since Paintbrush Divide is steep and one can get seriously hurt if not properly prepared. After a little contemplation, I told her we could do some snow training on the way up and if she didn’t feel comfortable, we would simply go to Holly Lake. With the 18-mile loop now posed as a possibility instead of a necessary goal, she relaxed a little and mulled over joining me for an adventure. I assured her that I would actually teach and practice with her to let her decide how far she wanted to venture. After she realized I wasn’t going to abandon her on a steep snowfield mid-hike, she felt even more solid in her decision to partake in said walk.

We began at String Lake parking lot and hiked the trail up Paintbrush Canyon. The sun began to scorch us and my friend stopped to change into her shorts. The trail rushed with running water. Finally, I got a chance to see all of these drains in action. After passing by a couple hundred drains, the snow began just before Holly Lake. The signs were buried, and as we ventured onto the snow, we ran into a group of people that had turned around. “There’s blood everywhere, we couldn’t make it,” one person said. I asked them more details about this blood and the group just kept repeating, “It was everywhere we looked.”

Having perfect strangers inform me of such a disturbing observation made me a bit tentative about taking my dear and novice friend to the divide. We ventured onto the snow and spent some time practicing different types of walking with crampons, self-arresting techniques, and general snow safety protocol. After a while, she felt more comfortable and learned to walk and self-arrest on steep terrain. She decided she felt good about making the loop.

We were still looking for the blood when it struck me. The strangers must have thought that the red streaks of watermelon snow, or chlamydomonas nivalis were blood. In fact, this species of green algae loves freezing water and thrives in spring snow environments. Comforted that there weren’t real streaks of blood, we carefully made our way over the divide.

The way down to Lake Solitude was beautiful, but equally engaging. Some of the switchbacks had completely melted out, while other parts were steep, post-holy snowfields. The careful navigation combined with the blazing hot sun made me feel like I was in the Sahara desert. Even with my giant sun hat, scarves and a buff covering my body, I could feel my skin searing in the high altitude.

We hurried our way down to the lake. For about three minutes, we did not see any people. I found a little spot of partially melted ice water where it was possible to go for a short swim. While refreshing, swimming in a mostly snow covered lake and drying off barefoot on the snow definitely took the heat crazed feeling out of my soul. My friend jumped in just before about 30 people showed up and began hooting and hollering. Although Lake Solitude lacked actual solitude, it was still beautiful and pleasant. We experienced our little moment of swimming in a snow-lined lake and that brief period of time was as glorious as I could ever ask for.

Upon heading out, we passed about 40 people going up to the lake. Sometimes, passing people can be awkward, it can even ruin the flow of walking, but since there was snow the first couple of miles down from the lake, we slid right on by, glissading here and there without a care in the world. The sun felt like a high noon sun when we got back to the car. In actuality, it was already 6 p.m., but the warmth of the sun on our resting legs felt glorious. It was then that I saw the remnants of a missed sunscreen application on the back of my friend’s legs. The area of skin behind her knees appeared to be coated in beet juice, or sunburn—the gift that keeps on giving.

Yes, the sun is strong here for a short period of time, so we must surrender to it by both enjoying it and protecting ourselves from it. PJH

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