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The Worst Idea: A Sufferfest in the Wyoming Wilderness

Luke Nelson  /  September 20, 2016  /  3 Min Read  /  Trail Running

When it’s -20°F outside, it’s all right to milk the map consult for as long as possible. Ty Draney and Luke Nelson slowly plan their route. Salt River Range, Wyoming. Photo: Fredrik Marmsater

“You don’t have to be crazy,” Ty likes to say, “but it helps.” I’ve stopped counting how many times over the years these words have described our harebrained outings. Right then, I was trying to focus on surviving the current one.

Anything that actually resembled running had stopped hours ago. The sun was shining, but it was cold. Minus 25°F cold. The groomed path to the warming hut where we were headed had ended miles back. A pair of snowmobiles had been through earlier in the day, but their tracks weren’t helping. They’d support our full weight, then without warning one leg would plunge crotch deep into the snow, the other still on the snow’s surface. The effort to then extract the buried leg without having the unburied leg also plunge through was exhausting.

Eight hours earlier when we left the warmth of Ty’s house, the back of the truck looked packed for an arctic exploration but we weren’t going to the arctic. We were going running. In Wyoming. In December. The idea to traverse the entire Greys River Range on foot had hatched on a smoldering day in August—the day Ty and I had attempted a long run in the same range but had to hitchhike out after falling apart. Maybe the heat had cooked our brains, but we decided it would be fun to run the whole range. In winter.

How could I still be cold? We had been running uphill for over an hour, dragging our homemade pulks—contraptions made up of small snow sleds, some PVC pipe and some rope attached to our waistbelts by a couple of carabiners. The pulks weren’t too heavy, maybe 15 pounds, and in them we carried a duffel bag full of most of our gear for the trip. I had so many layers on, including an insulated jacket and huge mittens, but cold still burned in my nostrils and throat. My beard was a thick icicle. At the top of Commissary Ridge, the sun peeked out and I defrosted enough to unzip my jacket, but just a little.

Photo: Fredrik Marmsater

Luke Nelson’s frosty mantra: Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea … Photo: Fredrik Marmsater

Here, deep in the Wyoming wilderness in the dead of winter, the grimaces we’d formed while creeping uphill, trying not to freeze, soon melted into hoots, hollers and giggles. Our pulks turned out to be just the ticket for the 3,000-foot descent off the ridge. Standing at the top, Ty and I straddled our respective duffels, and with a little scoot to gain momentum, we raced down. A GPS reading later proved that it is possible to break 30 mph straddling a duffel bag strapped to a cheap plastic sled. Several sections were so fun, we had to hike back up to scream down them again and again.

Day one was 20 miles in 10 hours. Sure, we made a few stops to take photos, and we did lap the ridge-sledding bit a half dozen times. But it was the 8 miles of post-holing that ate the better part of the day. In fact, by the time our three-day trip was over, we’d covered nearly 70 miles, 20 miles of it crotch-deep post-holing. Given the high temperature of the trip was 1°F, we count it an unqualified success that we didn’t lose any appendages. Insane? I wouldn’t disagree, but the best trips often come from the worst ideas. When the forecast the week before had called for subzero temperatures, we could have bailed. Instead, we packed extra handwarmers.

At one point, when I broke through the fragile crust for the nine-thousandth time and looked back, I could see Ty standing in the same awkward position; one leg bent, knee near his armpit, the other leg buried to the hilt. “Good times!” he shouted between panted breaths.

“Totally,” I shouted back.

This story first appeared in the Fall 2016 Patagonia catalog.

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