Teton Adventures: Surprise and Ampitheater Lakes

August 5, 2006.

I arrived late this morning and didn’t get to the trailhead until 10:30am. Yes, this is late for me. With hesitation, I chose the “very strenuous” route up to Ampitheater and Surprise Lakes. This 9.6 mile out-and-back trip is popular, so it’s strenuosity was questionable. I was intimidated by the grandeur of these big, Western mountains so I planned for a tough day.

To my surprise, I quickly ambled up the trail, reaching the lakes in about 2 hours. The trail was level and smooth, with tons of switchbacks, creating a slow and steady grade for its entire length. Surprise Lake comes first, providing impressive views of the peaks that encircle it. Several people were stationed around the lake, sunning themselves and enjoying the early afternoon. I sat and relaxed for a bit before proceeding to Lake #2.

Ampitheater Lake was also very cool but also crowded with people. I’d heard and seen people all day and was dying to get a wilderness experience. The trail seemed to continue past the lake, so I followed it until it disappeared. The landscape cleared out and the rocks were too enticing to leave unclimbed. I scrambled around, peering over steep cliffs and eyeing massive scree piles. I looked to one nearby “mountain,” which may have been Disappointment Peak, and decided to try and get up there.

The terrain changed from a woods-walk to a rock climb. I was alone, with no technical gear or expertise, and off trail. I didn’t ascend too far before I was too shaken up to proceed. I could pick routes up the rocks but I foresaw myself getting stuck up there like a cat in a tree. The side of the mountain dropped off significantly to my left and I couldn’t risk a fall. So I sat carefully on a small ledge, let my heartbeat return to normal, and retraced my path down the rock. Turned away by the mountain, my desire to climb a peak became much more intense, and I was determined to reach the top of something tomorrow.

I returned to the trail, and was stuck behind a man and two boys. They were moving at a decent speed but I was right on their tails. I was bored by the lack of character the trail had to offer. After passing the folks in front of me I remembered thinking on the way up that “it would be fun to run down this thing…”

For the next 4 miles or so, that’s what I did. And it was fun! Towards the very bottom of the trail my legs began to feel heavy and wobbly so I walked the last few tenths of a mile out. It was really invigorating to run on the trail, which seemed much rockier now than when I had ascended. I noticed many of the finer details of the trail when moving at a much more rapid pace. As much as the trail was lousy for hiking, it was great for running. It was only 3pm when I returned to the car.

In short, I completed about 10 miles in under 5 hours, which included some exploratory rock scrambling, lake admiring, picture-taking and trail running. It was hot and dry, and the trail was flat as a pancake, tilting up at a regular angle. More switchbacks than I can count!

I’d check out the tourist pit of Jackson, Wyoming before settling in at the Gros Ventre campground in the Teton N.P. Tomorrow, I’d be in for more grueling hiking.

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