Crossroads with a Grizzly
Nick Uthe, Sam Axness, and Matt hang out at Delta Lake
Seeing a grizzly bear in grizzly country shouldn't surprise you, but the face to face encounter will override all superficial information and trigger an evolutionary fear-based response. Regardless of how majestic the experience, when reflecting on my time spent in the back-country every single encounter with them is etched in my brain. I often tell people, it always makes for a great wildlife story afterwards but during the moment, if I’m being honest with myself, It’s really not all that fun. This story is no different, and is probably one of my scariest moments co-existing with the animal.
In part of the Explore the North excursion, It was our second day trekking through Wyoming's wilderness and around day 40 of 50 of living in a van. The weather was perfect for hiking. The sun was high in the sky and I remember there was a light cool breeze flowing through my hair as I began to break a sweat. There was no place I'd rather be! The day's target destination – Delta Lake situated high in the Grand Tetons. On our way up the 2,200 elevation gain and 8.8 mile hike, we'd only ran into a couple groups of people while making the climb and eventually bouldering to the top. We had the place to ourselves. As we made our final approach, the surrounding scenery made it feel as though we’d left earth and found heaven. The alluring soul harnessing pool shined as thousands of little sunspots danced across it's beautiful turquoise surface. Delta Lake is extraordinary standing alone but combined with the light pie-eyed exhaustion, these types of nature moments contribute to a world-class hiker high. We were spent, so It was time to deploy our snacks and find a spot to bask in the awe-inspiring scenery. Notice how I mentioned deploying the snacks first! Although there were picturesque granite slabs for diving, hanging out in the hammocks was the mood of choice for the day.
We all hung out for an hour or two enjoying each other's company while partaking in different diversions like reading, snacking, or working our camera's magic up and down the cliff side. This combination of atmosphere and enthusiasm induced a flow-state and excitement that rejuvenated our energy.
Typically, after this level of rejuvenation, I want to get moving on the trail. In this case, I was driven to shoot better photography and push my body further. While looking around, I saw a cliff high up under the Grand Teton summit, and with little thought, the adrenaline rushing through my body made the decision for me, we were on our way. The desire for even greater views and perspectives took over. With this renewed inspiration, I recruited Matt, a fellow Explore the North comrade to join me on the bonus hike. I asked Sam Axness if he wanted to tag along too but unfortunately on the way up he had sprained his ankle pretty bad.
After a little exploring, there appeared to be two logical routes to the top. Route number one was a very steep open canyon almost entirely covered in long grass. Route number two was a slightly steeper heavily wooded enclosed ravine, with a scattered rocky base to climb on. After a short-lived debate, I went with the latter because I'd rather scramble up on rocks at a steeper incline than try an uneven brush path with chunks of rocks and dirt that have a much higher probability of slipping out under my feet. Matt wasn’t a seasoned hiker so as time went on the separation between us grew. Rock by rock, boulder by boulder, by the time I had reached the cliff that originally caught my eye, Matt had completely fallen out of sight behind me. As my excitement grew from the magnificent view I realized I would be competing against the dying sun during my descent. All alone, heart pounding from exhaustion, I stood atop my designated cliff, with a sky high view of the sun's fire ravaging across the fragmented Teton peaks, imagining my past life as a 15th century explorer. With little time to spare, I had to make the unfortunate decision to head back earlier than I would have liked. I also needed to find Matt. As I jogged down a scree field, my mountain high ecstasy came to an end.
It was Matt's voice whispering through the strong winds where I stood,"Nick, I fell... I'm heading back." When I heard this, an eerie feeling set in over me because although there wasn't urgency in his voice it was solemn in nature. Moments later, he urgently called out again,"A bear is heading your way, be careful!" To make matters worse, now I wasn’t only worried about Matt’s condition but was terrified of running into a Grizzly by myself, with no bear spray, no head lamp, and a setting sun. For obvious reasons the idea of a bear stalking you in the dark would be this situation's worst-case scenario. Why didn’t I bring my bear spray! Moving at an increased speed now, I continued scampering down the mountain keeping my eyes peeled for routes one and two to get back to the lake. As I climbed, jumped, and hobbled down, the mood followed in parallel. As I took a moment to catch my breath and my sweaty fog had cleared, it was obvious I had gotten too distracted looking for the key trail markers to realize I had walked right into the mouth of a bear den. The surrounding grass was matted and flatted, the logs and stumps were ripped apart like chew toys. The cove was situated within an all too familiar homely structure of overarching cave-like boulders. I remember feeling so small in that moment. I felt like bait. I was bait! As I jolted out of there, my adrenaline spiked up another notch. Hopefully the fork towards route number one and route number two was near. What route did Matt take? What route was the bear on? When I reached the fork, I had a decision to make. I was at a literal crossroads with a grizzly. Do I head down the way I hiked up (route two) which was now looking like a darkened funneled forest death trap or do I take route number one, the path I was unfamiliar shadowed behind the towering peak I’d just come from.
With the sun setting, time was against me, so I chose quickly. After some serious evaluation, my gut told me to avoid the wooded area. I went for route number one. I was now descending as fast I could down the steep grassy cliffside. All of my senses were functioning on overdrive, scanning high and low for the Grizz. In that moment, I felt as if my body had mixed up the perfect cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins to transform my eyesight into that of an eagle. I was more aware than I'd ever been and felt like I could see further and with better precision. At least if I were to see the beast, I’d identify her early. The scariest grizzly is a mama bear protecting her cubs, I wasn’t interested in figuring out what gender the bear was. As I reached the halfway point, fortunately, there still was no sign of the Grizzly Bear but I had finally found Matt. He was disheveled and slightly disoriented. After making sure there were no serious wounds or broken bones, he explained what happened. He told me that on the way up he got tired and didn’t want to go any further so he climbed the palisade separating the two different routes. Upon reaching the crest he noticed the Grizzly lurking in route number two. At that point Matt explained he climbed down the unfamiliar backside of the cliff to distance himself from the bear and while doing so he lost footing and fell 10 or so feet. Matt luckily only sustained minor cuts and bruising.
I was truly grateful my friend was ok. As providence decreed, we had both won a coin toss with potentially gruesome outcomes. Like I said before, these experiences are fun to talk about, but not so fun to live through. Simultaneously, they seem to be unavoidable learning experiences necessary if you’re to pursue a life full of adventure. This day truly mentally and physically took me far and wide on a journey in more ways than one. Through a convergence of emotions, I found peace in the presence of true beauty, I shook hands with joy while pursuing my passion for photography, I actualized deep rooted fears of death by predator, I experienced anxiety for Matt’s well being, I enjoyed comradery by exploring with my best friends, and I challenged exhaustion in pursuit of the extraordinary. I had floor seats to this thing we call the human experience high up in Wyoming’s backcountry. My 5 senses lived as both the fan and the player, just the way I like it! Ironically, on our way back to the trailhead we saw one more Grizzly cub hanging out in the tall grass by one of the switchbacks. When traveling in grizzly bear country don’t be surprised if you see a grizzly bear.