GET OUT: Icefloe Isolation

By on October 11, 2016

The highest and least talked about lake in the Tetons is a delightful wasteland.

(Photo: Connor Kunz)

(Photo: Connor Kunz)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Looking at what the internet has to say about Icefloe Lake, apparently no one has actually made it there in decades.

At least that was my impression as I sat at my computer, poring over trail blogs and scanty photographic records of the lake I had stumbled upon surfing Google Earth. Several sites managed to give clear instructions on how to get to the lake, though none provided a first-person account of reaching what I learned was the highest lake in the Tetons. The information I found asserted no existing trail or even cairn path will get you the whole way there.

An absence of trail, very little information available and the guarantee of an expedition? It was, as they say, enough to make me “Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” (Here’s to you, John Muir.)

Icefloe Lake sits at approximately 10,600 feet, nestled just below and to the west of the saddle between the Middle and South Tetons. There are three ways to access it. One begins by hiking the length of Cascade Canyon to the trail’s end at Avalanche Divide. Another requires you to bushwhack Avalanche Canyon through the surprisingly (dare I say jaw-droppingly) beautiful Taminah and Snowdrift Lakes. The final approach brings you in from Alaska Basin, over Hurricane Pass and up toward Avalanche Divide. All three routes converge at Avalanche Divide; from this point there’s no trail, but the basin visible below the Middle Teton makes the route clear if you know where to look. Where the cairns end, the adventure begins.

There’s an interesting dynamic with the upper lakes of the Tetons. Many of the best ones are lightly but consistently trafficked by a core group of backcountry rangers, diehard hikers and adventurers—an outdoor cult following, if you will. There’s no doubt that Icefloe is hiked from time to time—a backcountry ranger I met on the trail seemed familiar with Icefloe Lake, and the story is told of Jackson’s Avery Resor, who in the summer of 1999 swam every one of the Tetons’ 44 named lakes.

My experience required two attempts. The Avalanche Canyon route became a StairMaster from hell quickly, but once we reached Taminah Lake the uphill drudgery gave way to photographic nirvana. I’ve spent three years digging into the nooks and crannies of the Teton backcountry and I’ve rarely come across anything as scenic or remote. This attempt, unfortunately, was cut short by the arrival of a signature Teton thunderstorm. Rather than risk traversing an exposed ridge in a storm, we cut over the divide and down Cascade Canyon with the resolve to return another day. Our second and successful attempt arrived in the form of a day trip while backpacking the Teton Crest Trail.

If Icefloe Lake sat at the bottom of the Tetons, it probably wouldn’t be a popular destination. The wildflowers, greenery and wildlife that draw tourists stretch across the canyon floor below; everything about this lake’s immediate surroundings is stark. There are few trees, only rocks. The only color—or life, for that matter,—is in the lichens clinging to scattered boulders. But within the lake’s starkness is a beauty rarely found in more picturesque locales.

For me, outdoor adventures adhere to a kind of Golden Ratio: the beauty of a moment is inversely proportionate to the number of people present. The best moments in the outdoors are those shared with a few. Icefloe Lake will never be a popular destination; it’s too high, too remote and too hard to reach. But those aren’t deterrents—they’re selling points. Give me an Icefloe Lake over a Jenny Lake any day. PJH

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