Betsy and I are up at 5. Some of the others are stirring but we rouse those who are not. It's a bit cloudy but not threatening, and it looks like last night's rain wasn't much after all.
As a group we are slow to get going. We gather around the fire that Jim S has so thoughtfully started (this nearly makes up for his teasing last night). We make breakfast, mostly easy stuff like oatmeal and granola. We pump more water to make sure everybody has enough.
Betsy offers me one of her hiking poles and I gladly accept it. She also insists I take one of their larger water bottles. Big Mark has made a tough decision. His blister is bad and he is going to forego the hike. Oh man. This puts a bit of a gloom on things although we all respect Mark's decision. He tells us he'll be fine and not to worry. He has bear spray and plenty of food and stuff to read. I ask Matthew if he feels OK about his ankle. Yes, he says, without hesitation.
We have decided to start off in two groups. Tim will take last year's route along Broad Creek then up the Coffee Pot drainage. Jake and Jim S will cross the Creek and go up the ridge, hoping to stay high and perhaps find an easier route. We will meet at Coffee Pot Hot Springs and hike the rest of the way together.
I go with Betsy and Tim, as do Big Jim and Bobby. Jake and Jim S have Leslie, Mark W and Eric, Matthew and Mary. We set off around 7:30AM. We first climb the steep hill we came down yesterday and in no time we are traversing a strange bare hillside of white sinter. Below runs Broad Creek and the marshy spit I saw yesterday. Oh look! I can see an elk skull with a huge rack still attached. There are pictures from last year's trip of Jake holding up this very thing.
Beyond this hill we see Joseph's Coat Hot Springs, aptly named for its many colors. The bare hills are tinged burgundy and salmon and russet and puce along with shades of grey and black. It is absolutely transporting to wander in this area. We are walking in a place that looks the way much of the earth looked a billion years ago. We pass a huge vent surrounded by bright yellow rock. It may be yellow bacteria but my nose tells me it's sulfur. We must be careful, as there are vents and little smokers everywhere. Small runoff channels trickle down the hillsides, with colorful edges tipping us off to their extreme temperature. I am glad in a way that I don't understand thermals very well. I think I would have been too scared to cross this area if I had. My solution is to stay close to Tim and Betsy (I step where you step) ala Indiana Jones.
We pass a hot spring feature that looks like someone has spilled three buckets of paint which then ran down the hillside; magenta, kelly green and cobalt blue. I can feel the heat of this one as we hike by. The runoff channels empty into Broad Creek and there are treacherous spots where a misstep could result in a nasty burn. But we are lucky or careful or both. Tim leads us along the creek edge through a lovely grassy section that I like, except for the bugs! Then further progress along the bank becomes impossible so we go higher.
It's a tougher climb up here. We do a lot of side-hilling which is hard on the knees. The country is rugged and rough and there are simply no flat sections to be found. We are sweating and I drink a lot of water. Big Jim is my partner in the caboose today and he proves just as gracious as Eric. I am grateful to take the hand he often lends. I gave up my pride in "doing it myself" several miles ago.
We make an attempt to get back to the river and stumble on a game trail. We follow it a while until it peters out as they so often do. There are a few hairy sections where we have to squeeze past a rock or climb up and over a mass of fallen trees. The skeeters continue their relentless pursuit. I am not as far behind in this section mostly due to the fact that Tim and Betsy stop more often, waiting for me.
Finally we get to the place where Tim says we need to cross the creek. He and Bobby find a handy logjam that will serve as a bridge. The creek is shallow and we could slog across but we don't all have river shoes to change into. And no one wants a water-logged boot this early in the hike. The logs are slippery and we don't want twisted ankles either. Our crossing is still precarious and we are just as careful as we would be over a thousand-foot drop.
There is nowhere to go but up from here so that's what we do. We find some bear scat in the grass that looks only a half-day old. I take a moment to reflect that the bear that left this was prowling around here last evening as we were making dinner, barely a mile from us. It makes me smile. The next section is the longest and steepest of all and I fall way behind again. But we finally make it to Coffee Pot and find Jake's group has beaten us here by about a half-hour. Jake likes the route they took but the others' assessment is that overall it's really no easier than the original route.
I am too beat to fully appreciate the wonders of Coffee Pot Hot Springs. I remember a high white hill, a percolating pool beneath it (whence its name) and overall colors of grey and white. I remember having to cross several hot trickles of run-off and seeing lots of thermal moss. I lie back and rest and nibble food and drink. I listen to Matthew and Mary's comments. They know so much about thermals. It is fascinating just to hear them discuss what they see. Jim S is raring to go again and some of us have to prevail on him to let us finish our rest. The leaders discuss routes and consult the topo map again.
There is apparently only one way down into Fairyland from its canyon rim (until Jake finds a better one, which I predict he will). I hear the guys talk of "the promontory" which I gather is a point on the edge of a cliff from which Fairyland can be glimpsed below. On last year's trip they lucked out and found this entry point. Once in the Basin they found no alternate route out. Our task is to find this entry point again.
We set off from Coffee Pot a little before 10AM, a united group again. I am told we have roughly two miles to go. After the rest my spirits are high and I feel strong. What's two more miles after what I did yesterday? We travel across a hard white sinter crown that reminds me of the top of Mammoth Terraces, past stunted pines and mercifully less deadfall than usual. Then we plunge down into forest and my knees get another workout. There is a meadowy section with wildflowers and we come upon another thermal feature that none of the original Basin Boyz remember seeing last year, several small vents in an otherwise grassy hillside.
We go up-the-hill and down-the-hill and I fall behind. Big Jim stays with me, though, and I make Betsy's hiking pole work hard, too. I am half-way down a hill and about to step over a series of large logs when I lose my balance and take a tumble. I land in a pile of dry branches and save myself serious damage by leading butt first. Plenty of padding there. It's a struggle to extricate myself but I do. Some scratches and perhaps some bruises, nothing worse. We trudge on.
We come out on a hilltop and I see Jake with the topo map out. I get the vague impression that we are off course. I say nothing as I have no help to give nor breath to say it with. I watch the leaders look out across the tops of the trees and confer. I can see we are on a high ridge top and that there is a matching forested ridge across the way and what I assume is a steep ravine in between. That might logically mean a river at the bottom of the ravine but which river? How they can tell anything about where we are is an utter mystery to me. It all looks like impenetrable firest to me.
We haven't caught a glimpse of a single animal bigger than a mosquito all day, yet we are finding ample evidence of their use of the area. Lots of elk and deer scat and also young pines rubbed raw from bulls scratching off their velvet. We even find strips of old velvet hanging on some of these branches. We also see some old bear trees - scraped-off bark from grizzlies (or blackies) marking their territory.
After a longish pause in which I completely regain my breath (for once) we start hiking again. But a few minutes later I hear someone asking where Mark has gone. What I overhear leads me to believe he is off exploring an alternate route. Tim is rightly concerned that the group not split up and we call out for Mark to come back. There is a slightly tense moment before he responds. One could get lost so terribly easy in this tangle of woods. But Mark is an experienced backcountry hiker and he's not lost, he's just following his instincts to help find a route to our goal. We hear him yell and I am pretty astonished at how far he got in so short a time. He hikes back up to us and arrives smiling. He tells us we flushed six deer down the hill right at him! Six deer that the rest of us neither heard nor saw! I love it.
On we go. At one point I hear we have .6 miles to go. A little later someone says .8 miles! Ahhh! Whether we just backtracked or the first estimate was wrong I don't know but my body reacts poorly to the news. The way gets harder. Some logs are so large that I just sit down, place my pole on the other side and swing my legs over. I call this the Wendy butt roll. More and more frequently I must use my arms to help my legs over. I begin to think about how hard it will be to get back. I feel like a dead weight, that I am dragging the group down, ruining everyone's chances. "Keep the goal in mind" I tell myself "you're going to Fairyland today". We reach the only section that you could call flat yet it's still a struggle because of the omnipresent deadfall.
Tim seems to think we are getting close. We start to go steadily downhill. Some of it is outrageously steep. My knees are screaming. My feet scream even louder but I ignore them. My concentration is on not falling, not wrenching my knee or twisting my ankle. I can't count on my balance or my reflexes for help anymore. Once when we stop I talk to Tim and tell him I may not be able to make it the whole way. This sentence is out of my mouth before I even know it. I think I said it as an attempt to calm the worry building inside me.
I say I might stop at the promontory if that's OK with him. He says whatever I want to do but let's keep going for now. We plunge down some more. This section is full of little rocks that we knock loose and send avalanching down on the folk below. Now I see the benefit of going down on the diagonal so that the rocks you loosen will miss the heads of the folks below you. I can't stop thinking about how I'll ever get back up this slope. It is very steep and very long. We stop again to consult the map. I can tell we are nearing the edge of something. I have no idea whether it is the right edge or the right something. I can feel everyone's excitement and I realize that I don't share it. My thoughts are on getting back up, getting back out.
In hindsight, I wonder if I could have prevented this. My body told my brain that my legs, my lungs, my ankles were running out of strength. It seemed a terribly bad idea to continue forward. My brain said quite plainly that I need to stop now so that I can return on my two legs and not on a stretcher. But I wonder if I had tried harder to keep the goal in front, whether I could have prevailed.
We stop to re-group at the top of another steep section. I ask whether they will come back up this hill and would be able to find me if I stopped here. Tim says the promontory is just a little further down. When we get there if I wanna stop, fine, but come on a little further. I think about it and figure as long as I've come this far, a little further won't make that much difference.
We start down. I slide most of the way, and brace my feet against the few tiny saplings attempting to grow here as I have learned not to trust the rocks. I find another stick and use them both constantly. I go one step at a time and I switch often from right to left rather than overtire my downhill leg. I fall and cut my leg. I reach the group and see why they are stopped. The next section is a rock scramble. I am actually better at this because of my low center of gravity. I hug the rock and crawl. My goal has become the promontory. At the end of this rock scramble there is another forested hillside and then suddenly, the world drops off into a deep chasm. I see brown rock cliffs across an abyss and more of them to the left; oddly rounded rock, worn smooth from countless drops of water. I see two high, forested ridges and a gap between them, which I assume means a river somewhere below. I see everybody stopped, lined up at the edge, looking over. I inch forward and then I see it.
The Fairyland Basin.
Omigod. There is is. I want to see more of it but I am too wobbly to trust myself closer to the edge. I hold onto a tree trunk and lean forward. I see sparkling blue water and odd bright-white banks, steep green hills and thick pine forest.
It's a looooooooong way down.
Then I learn that this is not the promontory. That it is still a ways below. This has a crushing effect on me. Tim points in its general direction and I can kind of see where he means. My body is in a state of rebellion against my will. It will not go any further. Not one step.
My impression of this moment is that half the group is totally psyched and itching to get going down the last stretch, the other half is tired but willing and they are revving themselves up for the final effort. I tell Tim I'm going to stop here. Tim doesn't want to hear this. Betsy doesn't either. Tim reminds me that he has rope. I'm too wobbly I say. I don't want to make a big thing but my body has made the decision and will not let my mind override it. I am too tired and I can't focus well. I have climbed down into a few canyons in my day and I know what is ahead. A descent needs balance and determination and I have neither.
It's about 12:45 and time's a wastin'. What's the turn around time? I ask. Tim says probably 2PM. I say OK. I'll be alright. Betsy says do you want us to leave you a radio? I nod. Tim shows me how to use it. Betsy says do you have water, food, bear spray? Yes. OK. The group starts to leave. Tim and Betsy turn to follow. "Just don't forget to come back for me!" I call, only half-joking.
Jake comes bounding over. He says what do you mean you're stopping? He doesn't understand. How can someone come so far and then not go the rest of the way? I tell him I'm too wobbly. That I might be able to get down but I'd never get back up. Jake says "I'll carry you up!" I almost believe he would. I tell him I'll be able to watch from up here. I urge him to get going. He gives me nearly all the water he has left. He says turn on the radio at 1:30 and check in. I nod.
Jake turns and trots down the slope. The last thing I see through the trees as he goes is that plastic-covered mailing tube across his shoulders.
As soon as he's gone I burst into tears. Oh boy, what a cry I have. I guess I'm more tired than I thought! I sob and sob from all the aches and disappointment. And you know what? When I finally stop I feel a lot better. Whew. I realize I am still standing up. Sit down, you idiot, and rest. I sit on a log, wipe my wet face and drink a lot of water. I eat some cashews and raisins. I take off my boots and my socks and survey the damage. Well, no wonder my feet are screaming. I have two new blisters. Thank goodness I brought a lot of moleskin.
I take out my notebook and start to write. It just flows out. I look at the view and little by little it sinks in where I am. I'm all by myself in big wilderness. I've completely forgotten what a glorious feeling this is. I sit on a log in the sun on the edge of a wooded cliff overlooking the #*$&^#*! Fairyland Basin! Amazing. I wonder if anyone from any earlier expedition called it quits here. I can see the deep blue of Broad Creek and its many patches of white-water splashing over rocks. The river looks like it's outlined in black, just the way the Yellowstone River looks in its Grand Canyon. I write all this down and ever so slowly my good spirits begin to creep back.
Above the river are patches of erosion, bright-white or a little yellow. And I can see cones! This is just incredibly cool to see. I see what I think is a whole series of them lining the bank of Broad Creek. How I wish I had binoculars! The sides of the valley are really steep, in fact, "ravine" is a much better word to use than "valley". Most of it is covered in thick lodgepole forest from the top of the cliffs all the way down to the water. There are two large clearings; one on each side of the river, light yellow-green in color, as if thin grass grew there. Directly ahead is a massive cliff wall, similar to the one that hosts Mark's Falls, brownish-grey and full of nooks and crannies. I see what looks like caves up pretty high and I figure Jake and Leslie will explore them some day. From the lay of the land it looks to me that beyond the next curve the river must drop in a substantial waterfall.
I realize I don't know what direction Golden Fleece Falls is from here or whether I can see it from up here. I put my notebook away and stand up. In my bare feet I take a little excursion from my comfy spot. I go uphill first and discover that I can see more of where I am but less of Fairyland. I try going down. It's a little scary as I don't want to get too close to the edge but I find a spot where the view of the Basin is much better. I can see the actual confluence of the two rivers. There is a bright white triangular "shield" of thermal crust between the two rivers and I can see pillars and cones lining both banks. It's hard to tell how high they are from this far up but they look pretty tall. Shallow Creek looks milky blue (or maybe it's just all white water and sinter banks) and Broad Creek is dark blue with patches of white-water rills.
Then I see movement! Omigod it's them! I see Loons walking in Fairyland! There's Tim! There's Jake and I think that's Betsy! They made it! Hooray for them! A great big smile breaks out on my face and I get another jolt of better spirits. For a minute I want to grab my boots and get down there. But then I say no, not by yourself. I inch forward and stand behind a tree, hugging it for security and I watch my hiking buddies explore the Basin. I recognize Leslie from her shirt and there's Jim S!
I look at my watch and see it's nearly 1:30 so I turn on the radio and say "Hello, hello". A voice answers. It's Mark. "Hi you guys" I say. Mark says hi back. I let him know how great it looks to see they've made it. Mark says they are having fun and confirms that turn-around is 2PM. I say all is well, take your time. Having the radio allows me to remain part of the group, which has a huge psychological benefit to me. I watch a while longer as the tiny figures move here and there. Wow we are a puny species, aren't we? How utterly dwarfed by this magnificent basin and the whole glorious country around it. Our country is so beautiful and so much of it has never even been seen! I am feeling mighty puny myself, alone on this cliff, with the sky and the wind and the sun for company.
I go back to my spot and write some more. I re-dress my wounded feet. I notice an awfully dark cloud coming this way, and start thinking about what might happen if it starts to rain. It could make things mighty hairy for them getting back up. I watch the sky and the wind picks up. I have carried my raincoat all this way so I might as well use it. I write some more and when I look up again the cloud has blown over. Again I toy with the idea of heading down there, at least to the actual promontory. I go several yards further than I did before, just to scope it out but I get chicken again and tell myself it's foolish to try it alone. But I do feel a lot less wobbly at least.
I am happy to report that I am not scared of bears. Maybe it's because I have bear spray with me. Maybe it's because we have seen so few animals along the way. Maybe it's because this cliff edge seems a very unlikely spot for a bear to be wandering in the middle of the day. It is only later when I am back in New York telling my tale to a friend that I realize that I was sitting alone in prime cougar habitat. Well, if any did live nearby I thank them for being asleep.
Here's some of what I wrote that day: "I have seen Fairyland. I did not explore it. It's OK. I am dreadfully disappointed but I do not think I could have climbed out. I've had the time of my life. I am not sorry for a single step I've taken but I think it is not wrong for one to know one's limits and this is just beyond me."
The sun is strong so I take off my raincoat and walk down to the "overlook" to watch my friends again. This time I see nothing moving. It's about 2:30 so I guess they are heading up. I go back to my spot and rest with my head against the log. I close my eyes and listen to the wind and the birds and the hum of bees. My, oh my, when was the last time things were quiet enough that I could hear the hum of bees?
In a little while I hear a human voice. I sit up and see a hat and a shoulder between the tree branches. I call out hey! Jim S and Betsy are the first up. Man they hiked fast. They are amazing to watch as they forge their way up to me.
Betsy looks happy. I congratulate them. Jim says it was every bit as good as last time. I tell Betsy she now holds the record of being the "most mature" woman ever to hike Fairyland. Betsy downs some water and looks back at how far she came. She says she feels great. That she is psyched and hiking strong. She and Jim say the group had a little trouble on the ascent. That Mary got wedged in a spot and got a little vertigo. She couldn't go up and she couldn't go down. But they were finally able to coax her up with the help of Tim's rope and some encouraging words from Matthew. Other than that they had no trouble at all.
One by one the others begin to arrive, tired and happy and I am glad to see them all. Some seem more tired than others but all are in good spirits. Everybody takes a break and snaps photos. I am given a new full bottle of Fairyland Basin water. Jake and Leslie are still down there. They are going to stay so Jake can finish the poster. They will leave by 4 no matter what, and meet us back at camp.
It's time to head back. Up the hillside we trudge. I get up the rock scramble pretty fast, then up the next steep stretch. I use the mountaineering step all the way. It's not quite as slippery going up but I trample more saplings in the process. I cannot say I have "left no trace" on these steep sections. Big Jim is again my companion at the end of the line. He is the only person besides me who seems to need time going uphill. In a way it's a comfort!
At one of our stops Jim S treats us to a look at his GPS device. He has been plotting our progress and shows us how we got slightly off course on our way in. We did a little jog, which probably cost us about a half-hour. I am amazed that in forest like this that we weren't far more lost for far longer than that! I say three cheers for our leaders.
In spite of my two-hour rest I am huffing and puffing again in no time. But I keep trudging along. We take a slightly different route back. Jim S and Mark seem to be leading and they consult with Tim fairly often. Bobby and Big Jim hang back with me for a while and they tell me what they thought of the Basin. Matthew and Mary start to lag a bit and I enjoy having their company as well. Betsy has found a second wind and is really booking. Loons, this woman is a true inspiration.
I find myself plowing through close-growing young pines if it will save me a step over a log. The leaders are setting a tough pace and it starts to wear me down again. Tim hangs back with me a while and so do Matthew and Mary. They talk about how hard it was to climb both down and back out of Fairyland and hearing this confirms for me that I did the right thing. We spook a rabbit at one point and it goes tearing off. It's quite a big rabbit.
We finally get to the hard white sinter area so I know we are close to Coffee Pot. I arrive a little after 5. The others are already lying down, or eating and drinking. We start joking and making bets that Jake and Leslie will be cooking dinner at camp by the time we get there. A minute later who comes walking up? Ohmigod. How could they get here so fast? Leslie's cheeks are pink, the first and only time I've seen her show any sign of strain. She smiles and says they left at 4 and just made a beeline to Coffee Pot. There were lots of hills she says. I am speechless.
Jake unfurls his now-complete poster and we all take time to admire it. He has created an absolutely beautiful and wholly unique piece of art. He says he thinks he's going to have it framed and then will give it to John Uhler. We all agree it's a great idea.
We take a needed rest and talk and laugh. I am able to admire Coffee Pot a little more this time. I learn that there is a whole other section called Upper Coffee Pot that we can't see from here. The steam from that is what is visible from the Antelope Creek pullouts on the Dunraven Pass road. Matthew admits his feet are killing him but he's not paying attention to the pain anymore. Mary has gotten some poison ivy or maybe stinging nettle. I give her some calydryl ointment and she says it helps.
All too soon we are on our feet again heading back. We make better time on this stretch as it's mostly downhill and our moods become lighter and more casual as we go. When we reach Broad Creek it feels like home. Since we all know how to get back now, the faster guys pull ahead. Jake and Leslie decide to slog back through the creek itself. It looks fun but for the time being I stick to dry land.
Betsy and I cross the logjam together again. She is nice enough to ask if I'll be ok if she takes off while her energy is good. l say sure. I admit I enjoy the idea that all I have to do is follow the river home. And I still have Tim and Matt and Mary for company.
We climb above the bank (not quite as high) and sidehill our way along. We get to an extra steep section where the ground is composed of chalky sand. I start across and lose my footing. I arrest my slide with my pole but now I'm stuck. Tim steadies me and Matthew comes back to help but I have no reserves left and I lose it. They both keep saying swing your left leg but I am too shot to believe them. Finally I do what they tell me and I'm able to scramble to safety.
After the third spot like this we get to an even steeper one, in which the ground is so loose it might as well be liquid. I ask Tim what he thinks about going the rest of the way in the river? He says why not. It's not so easy to switch from hiking boots to Tevas on a steeply slanted hillside but we manage it. I tie my boots together and sling them over my neck, then slide on my butt down the hill into the water. It's cold but feels really, really good.
Hiking in a river is not as easy as you might think. The rocks are quite slippery and there are deep pockets to slip into. It takes a while to get the hang of it but I eventually do. And I like it. I learn how to find the shallow spots by watching the rills. The rocks are quite colorful, too, orange, red, purple and yellow. In no time at all I get overconfident and slip on some black moss. I plunge forward into the water, landing hard on my knee. So now I'm soaked. Ha! As if I care! My pants are nylon so they will dry quickly and luckily my boots did not go under.
The six of us continue in the river a while. It is slow but pleasant going. We finally exit the river when we reach the grassy area just before Joseph's Coat. We walk the rest of the way on the hard-packed sand, ignoring the accumulation of tiny pebbles in our sandals that ordinarily would have driven us crazy. As we tour Joseph's Coat I find I have lucked out to be in such company. Matt and Mary and Leslie and Jake have a lot of knowledge in their young heads and they are happy to share.
The sun is westering as we climb the last hill before camp. It's 8:15. I'm so tired I'm not even hungry. I head for the log in the river where I sat yesterday and clean the sand and pebbles from my feet. I soak my head again and that feels good. I take my turn pumping water and talk with Big Mark about his day. He says he did some exploring and read and napped. He said no bears visited but he did see a weasel. He says his blister is much better.
As night falls we gather again and everyone is laughing. After we eat Jim S says he wants a roaring fire. We have plenty of wood and soon it is really blazing. We burn everything burnable, including (accidentally) Matthew's and Jake's socks. We get very raucous tonight, due to equal parts exhaustion, exhilaration, and relief. Everyone comes in for his or her share of teasing again.
We toy with setting a departure time for tomorrow but we all know everyone will sleep in. The moon comes up and smiles on us. What a day we've had. We have confirmed the route to Fairyland blazed by the original Basin Boyz. We have gotten 11 people in and out without a single injury. It's a lot to be proud of. Sleep will come easily for us all tonight.
Today I saw: birds, 1 chipmunk, 1 rabbit, ravens, 1 red squirrel, 1 million mosquitoes, 6 phantom deer, 12 Loons…and The Fairyland Basin.