Hiking the Tetons

by The Hairpin

Molly Langmuir went camping last September.

Edith Zimmerman: Molly, you hiked the Tetons alone last fall. How did that come about?

Molly Langmuir: In 2006 I got a summer internship at the local paper in Jackson, Wyoming, where I was reporting hard-hitting stories about things like pig wrestling and dude ranch barbecues, so I had a fair amount of free time on my hands. I also had no friends — I met lots of nice people, but they were all these uber-technical athletes who spent their weekends doing sports I’d never even heard of, while I had applied to the job because I had always liked hiking, which is really just extreme walking, when you think about it — so I did lots of solo day hikes in the surrounding mountain ranges. The Tetons intimidated me, but finally at the end of the summer I took a few hikes there and they completely blew my mind. They are these peaks that abruptly rise 7,000 feet into the air from a valley, which means you can hike for two hours and feel like you’re on a different planet. I moved away a few weeks later and as soon as I did I found myself yearning for the Tetons in this way that makes me sound way more outdoorsy than I am.

During the next few years I occasionally made halfhearted attempts to convince friends to go camping there, but nothing ever came of it. And I didn’t want to go alone partly because I am not a very experienced backpacker and also because the Tetons not only have black bears but Grizzlies, who do actually eat people with some regularity. Last summer I read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, though, and I figured if she could walk the Pacific Crest Trail alone and survive, I could probably manage the Tetons for four days. The idea percolated in my mind until one night when I drank a few glasses of wine, went on Expedia and bought a ticket. Three weeks later I was taking the tram up from Teton Village to the start of my hike, feeling like I had gotten in way over my head. There was this nice older couple heading up for the view who were all, “Aren’t you scared to be a woman going hiking by yourself?” They were with their daughter, who lived in Jackson and was all geared up in Gore-tex, and she gave me this commiserating smile and said to them, “I’m sure she knows exactly what she’s doing.” And while I appreciated that she had this impression, internally I was basically like, HA.

On a scale of one to 10, how much fun did you have?

I’m actually not sure I had any fun. The trip was challenging, which I always like, and now that I’m through it, something I’m glad I did, but I basically spent the entire time in a state of sheer terror, so there wasn’t much room for fun. I guess a one?

What was your main terror?

The bears. From my summer in Jackson I knew people out there take the bear situation very seriously — most years at least one person is attacked, if not in the Tetons, in Yellowstone — and to prepare I read the “Be Bear Aware” chapter of my trail guide about ten times (it is filled with this kind of thing: “a large percentage of hikers mauled by bears were hiking alone”) and dutifully bought bear spray. I still managed to keep my fear in check until I got to the park ranger station to sign up for campsites. The ranger who gave the canister you’re supposed to keep all your food in and leave 100 yards away from your tent at night explained that even if you drink an Emercen-C in your Nalgene you should put it in your canister, and that was actually what put me over the edge. Because if bears can smell an Emercen-C in a closed Nalgene, they were clearly a sort of advanced supercreature that could definitely sniff out the crumbs I’d likely drop on myself at some point. Plus, for all I remembered the last time I had used my sleeping bag I had been binging on beef jerky right next to a barbecue smoker. Also I didn’t know how far 100 yards was.

I guess since I was hiking alone the ranger started out treating me like I was this super experienced backpacker, explaining the relative benefits of different camp sites and so on until I cut her off and said all I wanted were sites that put me as near as possible to other people — this was when her eyebrows went up. That turned out to be impossible anyway. Most campsites are pretty far from each other, probably because the goal of most backcountry campers is being close to nature and communing with the wilderness and having this experience of aloneness. Just them and the bears. This was not what I wanted.

Did you actually see any bears?

Well, no, but I also made more noise than I’ve ever made in my life. Constantly. The best way to avoid getting attacked by bears is to not surprise them, and the best way to do this is by being loud. I tied up my tin cookware on the outside of my backpack, so they tinkled as I walked, and I sang at the top of my lungs. This is exhausting, by the way, especially if you’re carrying a 40-pound pack and regularly climbing up and down 1,000 feet. The problem was I could only remember one song — She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain. I sang it over and over, making up different verses. (“She’ll be getting really tired as she comes” or “She’ll be hungry as a wolf as she comes”- it didn’t make much sense.) Occasionally I would throw in the National Anthem, because I knew the melody, though not, it turned out, the words. Two days in, once I got really sick of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, I started trying to remember all the states. I would get to about 40 and be at a loss for the rest. I’ve never fantasized as fervently about the capacity to Google. Also, and this is the weirdest part, sometimes I would narrate what I thought people in my office were doing at that very moment. Not because I love being at work but because I have never been afraid for my life there, and at the time that seemed like the utmost luxury. So beyond scaring off the two or three people I passed on the trail every day, who were probably having a peaceful and transcendent experience of the wild until I trounced through, screaming the wrong words to the National Anthem at the top of my lungs (also I have a notably bad singing voice), I successfully scared away all the bears. Actually, every other person I spoke to on the trail about bears, which is everyone, because it is ALL anyone talks about, had seen at least one bear, but I got nothing. I knew they were out there though, because without fail, every time I stepped off the trail to go to the bathroom I discovered a big pile of bear poop. Apparently I like to go to the bathroom in the very spots that bears like. Either that or the entire Teton mountain range is littered with bear scat.

Did you meet any interesting people?

I only really spoke with anyone my first night. I’d gotten a late start and after three hours the sun started going down. Bears come out most at dusk and dawn and I began to feel a strong need to get in my tent and lie there with my Swiss army knife and my bear spray and just, I don’t know what, hunker the fuck down. Around then I came across a camping area. The site I’d reserved was four miles further down the trail, but there were two people there already and it was such a relief to see them that I couldn’t quite bear the thought of getting back on the trail alone. (They likely weren’t as thrilled to see me — as I walked into the campsite I disrupted them in the midst of some naked yoga.)

I went to the next campsite — this was one of the rare areas where the sites were close together — and tried to figure out what to do. I wanted to stay there, but there were only four sites, and what if they were all reserved? Meanwhile two guys showed up who were staying at the second site. They said hi and that they’d be drinking whiskey and singing songs later if I wanted to stop by. They were extremely well equipped. They even had this gigantic machete that they laid on the ground outside their tent, and while normally this might have concerned me, that night I was completely nonplussed. We were dealing with bears. Of course you needed a machete. I wished I had brought a machete.

Eventually I decided to set up my tent. And right as I finished this lady came through and said she’d signed up a year earlier for the last two spots and so really didn’t understand what I was doing there. She was a little pissy about it, so I apologized profusely and started taking my tent down, at which point she launched into a litany of horrifying bear stories. She was unstoppable. Seriously. I had intentionally not Googled “people killed by bears” before the trip but she obliterated this uncharacteristic moment of self-control in about a minute. There was the guy in Yellowstone and the woman in Arizona and the guy in Alaska. He was the worst. “I made the mistake of reading the forensics report for him,” she said. “You want to know the worst part about? The bear ate his testicles.”

I put my pack on to say goodbye. It felt very primal, like being banished to beyond the village walls, where in all likelihood I would die. It also occurred to me that it was weird that she had reserved two campsites for herself, but I didn’t mention this because I was trying to be agreeable in the hopes that she might suggest I could pitch my tent at least nearby. Maybe somewhere where she couldn’t see me but I could see her? It was only as I started to walk out of the campsite that she sheepishly admitted she had originally planned to camp with her husband and her son, but they hadn’t been able to come, and she guessed, you know, if I wanted, I could take the other site. I have perhaps never been so grateful in my life.

What were some highlights?

Well there were some great vistas. The Tetons truly are an unreasonably beautiful place. And I was definitely excited when I reached the highest point I’d be climbing to, although as soon as I took the first step down what would be around 3,000 feet of straight downhill I realized I had really messed up my knees and an hour later I would have done about anything to climb up again instead. There was also this moment on my second to last day where there was a fork in the road and one path would have taken me back to town but instead I kept on going. I was feeling all confident until a mile into the hike, when I got to this sign saying a bear had recently been spotted at the campsite I was heading to.

Most of all, though, the highlight was how good I felt when it was over. I ended up about 20 miles from where I’d parked my rental car so I hitchhiked back to it and sitting in the front seat of a stranger’s car, looking up at these monstrously high mountains and realizing I had gotten myself all the way up there and back — it made me think I might be capable of a lot more than I had realized. I had been feeling pretty stuck in my life beforehand and sort of paralyzed by fear, and afterward the things I’d been scared of in regards to my career and life seemed a lot less intimidating.

I hear you took some nice video footage.

Ah yes. At a few particularly beautiful spots I pulled out my phone, switched it on and turned in a big circle to make a video. The problem was that I was in such a rush — I had been extremely overambitious about how far I could travel each day — and besides I never wanted to stop very long because of the bears. I got home and showed my husband the videos only to discover I had spun around so fast you could hardly see anything. Watching them literally made me a little dizzy.

I also took about five videos of a chipmunk that hung around my campsite one morning. I remember finding it incredibly fascinating and besides I had survived another night and was pumped about that. After the vista videos were a bust with my husband I was like, “Yeah, well whatever because I also have these amazing chipmunk videos to show you.” Midway through I realized I had basically been videotaping a chipmunk simply being a chipmunk. It was hard to get back into the mindset that would have let me appreciate that to the depth that I did.

What did you eat?

Honestly I was so afraid that I didn’t eat much. And I am not one of those people who doesn’t eat when I’m stressed, so it says something about how terrified I was that I lost my appetite. I did have oatmeal for breakfast, and a power bar for lunch and some beef jerky, until it ran out. For dinner I had a few cans of soup, but the first night I tried to eat one and discovered it was way too much food, except that I couldn’t throw it out because of the bears and had to scarf down an entire can of vegetarian chili. I think it put me off canned soup for good. I also had brought some cans of tuna, so during the remaining days I ate one of those for dinner along with some flax crackers. The worst was the morning I heated up water for my oatmeal and tea and put salt in it, thinking this would help it boil faster. Salty tea, by the way, is just as repulsive as you might imagine.

Would you ever do it again — by yourself or with others?

It’s weird because right when I got home I thought I would never do something like that alone again, but since then I’ve changed my mind. As time has passed my desire to get back to the mountains has gotten stronger — it’s this weird craving I get after a while, like being thirsty — and even though I’d prefer to go with someone else, most of my friends aren’t that into that kind of thing. Not that they wouldn’t want to go camping, but they don’t like it enough that they’d want to pay the money to get out there and use one of their few vacation weeks only to endure sleet, bears and salty tea.

Any bear- or camping-related tips?

As I am sure has been made blatantly apparent, I am not in any position to give much advice about this kind of thing. I will say that besides the bears, what I thought about more than anything else was lip balm. It was pretty horrifying how chapped my lips were — they were literally peeling off. My discomfort got so extreme that on day three I smeared them with Neosporin from my first aid kid, which basically meant I ate around an ounce of that stuff, and even at the time I knew that was disgusting. Also, do not use the batteries you’ve been keeping in the freezer for the last four years for your headlamp! If you do, your headlamp will definitely die on the second day and you will wake up in the middle of the night and have to pee because you’re drinking five liters of water a day and there will be no moon and you will be screwed. Oh and if you’re wearing leggings that leave your skin exposed between your knees and your ankles, definitely remember to put sunscreen on your legs unless you want to end up with burnt squares on the back of your calves that will still be visible six months later.

Otherwise, if possible try not to worry as much as I did — ? While there are real dangers to camping alone in a place like the Tetons, in the end I think it was more dangerous in theory than in actuality. The truth is that the only bad thing that happened to me was that I hurt my knees, and that was something I didn’t even think to anticipate.

Previously: Bones, Ghosts, and Paul Koudounaris

Molly Langmuir is a writer living in New York.