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The Wind River Range in Wyoming

The Wind River Range in Wyoming

Kenneth A. Henderson

IT is not generally appreciated that in Wyoming is to be found one of the most alpine regions of the American Rockies. In fact to one who has visited the western mountains elsewhere the sight of the great glaciers and snow slopes of the Wind River Range is astounding. This, one of the least known parts of the Rockies, was strangely enough one of the first explored and best known to the early travellers. The usual fur trade route to Jackson Hole and the Snake River led up the valley of Wind River on the east and across one of the several passes at its head. The other alternative route, which later became a part of the famous Oregon Trail, led across South Pass at the southern end of the range and thence up Green River on the West.

The range itself had been visited by the trappers and was well known to them when the first government exploring expedition appeared in 1842 under Capt. Frémont. On August 15th of that year he with five companions accomplished the ascent of the, as he terms it, “highest point in the range.” Actually this peak, which now bears his name, is the second in altitude, being surpassed by Gannett Peak about five miles north. He determined the altitude barometrically at 13,570 feet, which is 140 feet too low according to modern U. S. G. S. measurement. From Col. Long’s measurements of the peaks in Colorado and the opinions of various traders, he thought he had ascended the highest point in the Rockies. This is the first recorded ascent in the main portion of the chain.

In Sept. 1833, Capt. Bonneville made an ascent from the valley of the Popo-Agie River which, from the description he gave, is believed to be that now called Wind River Peak. This, however, is in the more southerly and less alpine section. For many years, the mountains which he and Fremont ascended were considered to be identical but later history has given due credit to each.

The trappers and traders were not interested in the mountains except as obstacles to be overcome, so that for many years we hear nothing further of this region. It was not until the government survey parties of the Seventies that any further climbing was done. In 1878, James Eccles, with the Chamounix guide Michel Payot, accompanied Dr. Hayden’s party for the survey of the territories. On August first, he with Payot, Hayden, and two others climbed a peak at the southern end of the range near South Pass, probably Wind River Peak. On August seventh, he, Payot and Wilson climbed Fremont Peak by the west face from the amphitheatre to the south. He characterizes it as a short and easy climb. They reached the summit at 10 a. m. and found no trace of a previous ascent, but stated that a peak about four miles to the northwest appeared somewhat higher. That was the extent of his climbing that summer although he made an attempt on the Grand Teton later which failed through lack of time.

After that, climbing apparently lapsed for over forty years until about 1920 when several parties journeyed into the range for exploration. Among these must be numbered that of Mr. A. C. Tate, who finally, in 1922, accomplished the first ascent of Gannett Peak, the highest summit. On August 24th of that year Messrs. J. Wyman, A. E. Bent, and E. P. Jackson climbed a peak at the head of the Dinwoody Glacier which has been designated as No. 4 in this article.

In 1924, Messrs. Carl Blaurock and A. R. Ellingwood made the first ascent of two peaks to the south of Gannett which we shall for convenience call Nos. 1 and 2. They also made the first ascent of Mt. Helen and a new route on the north face of Fremont. In 1926, Mr. Ellingwood made the first ascent of the unnamed peak between Mt. Helen and Frémont Peak, also of Knife Point and a peak to the west of it.

I had visited the range in 1927, and although unable to make any climbs, had come away with the distinct impression that here was to be found one of the best climbing centres in the United States. The mountains were fairly high, thirteen to fourteen thousand feet, of good rock, and well surrounded by glaciers, so that the climbing should be varied and interesting.

Early in July 1929, H. S. Hall, Jr., R. L. M. Underhill, and myself met at the C. M. Ranch near Dubois in the Wind River Valley to pick up our pack outfit for the trip to the glaciers.

The first day, we went by car as far as the end of the road up Torrey Creek and then assumed the undignified and at times pained attitude of the mountaineer on horse-back. We then climbed steeply up the right wall of the canyon to an immense alp above the East Fork of Torrey Creek, which led by an easy pass to an equally immense alp sloping toward Dinwoody Creek. At the edge of the timber above the Dinwoody Lakes, we camped for the night.

The next day, we wound down through the Dinwoody Lakes, past Honeymoon Lake to the creek itself, just below the forks. We then proceeded up the South Fork to our camp-site at the head, where we arrived about two o’clock. Underhill and I immediately started out to climb the left wall of the canyon to obtain a view of the north-east face of Gannett. After a climb of about two thousand feet, we reached a minor summit which gave us a view of the whole cirque to the north and east of Gannett. The upper part was completely covered by a large fan-shaped glacier which flowed down to a snout at the bottom, and discharged into the South Fork.

There appeared to be no difficulties, unless the last thousand feet, which was very steep, should prove to be bad snow, so we decided upon an early start the next morning.

July eleventh marked the date of our first climb. We woke up the cook at an early hour and after a good breakfast and a few preliminary shivers we got away at 5:35. In the half light of the dawn, Hall led up along the creek by a route which he had explored the previous afternoon to the moraine of the glacier, where we arrived an hour later. We ascended the glacier, passing on our right a large rock island, to the foot of a steep ascent of perhaps a thousand feet. Here, we roped at 8:30 chiefly because Underhill was tired of carrying the rope. To the bergschrund at the base of the final peak it was sheer drudgery. The bergschrund was a sort of double-ended affair which although of considerable size, proved very easy to negotiate. We climbed up on the left and then traversed to the right across the badly split upper bergschrund. There were several bridges, most of which seemed quite solid.

Above the bergschrund, the slope rapidly steepened until it assumed an angle of fifty degrees. The snow was a hard, rotten, granular névé, very bad but sufficiently compact to hold our weight. Progress was slow, as we were all tired and the exertion of kicking steps was beginning to tell. We headed directly for the summit, traversing to the left and avoiding a snow passage through a band of rocks. Then taking to the rocks we proceeded diagonally upwards to the left to the summit cupola. The rocks proved to be so badly broken by frost that great care had to be taken not to start an avalanche. Probably the hardest part of the whole climb was the first fifteen feet above the rocks. The snow was so steep that handholds were necessary, and much worse than below. We finally waded, plunged, and staggered across the top of the cupola knee-deep or more in rotten snow (which recalled to me Whymper’s account of the ascent of Chimborazo) to the summit of Gannett ( 13,785 ft.). We reached it at 12 o’clock just in time for luncheon.

The whole Wind River Range lay stretched out beneath us, but what surprised us most was the vast array of peaks and glaciers to the west, of which the map gave no hint. Owing to a slight smoke haze, the Tetons were practically invisible. After an hour on top, we hastened down the usual route on the south side in order to get off the summit before the arrival of an approaching thunderstorm. On the rotten rocky ridge, a small shower of rocks hit Underhill on the head causing him to see gold, silver, and vermilion stars. But neither this nor the swamp-like condition of the glacier stopped us from regaining camp by six o’clock in time for the excellent dinner our cook had ready.

After a day of rest, Underhill and I left camp at 10 a. m. under dubious conditions for another climb. We tied up the horses a few hundred yards below the Dinwoody moraine, and started off afoot in a heavy sleet storm. On the more level part of the glacier the sun came out so that we progressed somewhat more cheerfully to the col between peaks No. 1 and No. 2. Near the col, a maze of crevasses forced us high up on the slopes of the second peak, but the view from the top was inspiring; behind lay the great expanse of Dinwoody Glacier with Gannett Peak looming up beyond, while through the notch could be seen the vast system of snowfields stretching away toward Frémont.

We sunned ourselves for an hour on the comfortable rocks above the col, finally starting for the ascent of peak No. 2 at 3 o’clock. A short advance soon showed us that we should not have time enough to climb the mountain and traverse the next two beyond it that afternoon, so we turned back to assault peak No. 1 which stood out alone to the east of the col. We started up the ridge and then traversed left into a couloir where we stopped at a snow patch for a drink and some food. Here we turned back toward the ridge up a subsidiary couloir which we followed a short distance until we saw that it would end in an overhang, whereupon we took to the slabs on our right. These were very steep, practically vertical, but with holds sloping inwards. Underhill led up there gallantly until we arrived at the ridge which at that point was so sharp that we could sit astride it and look down a thousand feet on either side. A difficult twenty feet followed, partly on the crest and partly on the left side, until we reached easier ground.

We could see the summit not far off and considered that our troubles were over, when the rims of my snow glasses began to crackle and the rope to hiss. As the crest of a sharp ridge is no place to weather a thunderstorm, we lost no time in scrambling down a convenient gully to the shelter of some overhanging rocks where we tied ourselves in and awaited the storm. It came rapidly, with stinging hail and piercing cold. It was brief, however, and soon we were on our way up the steep rocks to the summit (ca 13,500 ft.) which we attained at six o’clock in spite of all delays. There was a cairn but no record. We stayed for only a few moments for pictures and then hustled down. A couloir which seemingly led straight to the glacier invited us, but we did not trust its innocent appearance, so we scrambled over and around innumerable gendarmes on the east ridge to the col at the northeast end of the mountain, which we reached at seven o’clock. We found out afterward that the couloir was the route of ascent and descent of the first and only party to climb the peak. At eight, we dragged ourselves into the saddle and gave the horses their heads to find the way back as best they could. In the gathering dusk and gloom they brought us safely to camp in less than an hour, although at the end they showed more desire to join their fellows at pasture than to take us to the beckoning camp-fire.

The next day, Hall joined us on a late start at 8:20 for an attack on the three peaks Nos. 2, 3, and 4 which we had given up the day before. We used our new equestrian approach and found it highly satisfactory. Our tracks up to the col had melted out, so it was necessary to make new ones, but at 12:10 we were there. We made a long halt for lunch and general recuperative purposes, but at 2:30 p. m. started the attack. At the first overhang where the 1924 party had turned to the left, traversing into a couloir and then up, and we had tried, the previous day, to turn to the left by climbing up a series of twisted and folded gneisses, we now traversed to the right and slightly up, to the bottom of a wide ice-filled but snow-covered couloir. We decided that Hall after his experience on Mt. Logan liked snow climbing so he was invited to kick steps up the gully. He stepped out manfully to perform this task when, without warning, a great mass of slush and water poured down the center. After it passed we crossed the gully and worked up a comb of snow to a small rock outcrop where we traversed a second division of the gully to the right to some rotten rocks on the farther edge. Up these we worked to the large snow patch near the top which led us to the summit rocks (13,720 ft.). Here we found the cairn of our predecessors, but no record. We looked down upon our peak of yesterday and took in the whole range from Gannett to Fremont, and even further south. The Tetons were dimly visible in the distance.

A glance along the ridge before us disclosed that work was only beginning. A steep descent led to an ice col, then three gendarmes which we called the Dames Anglaises from their resemblance to those famous pinnacles, blocked the way to the next peak, No. 3. Beyond that we could see nothing but the impossible-looking wall of the last peak of the series, No. 4. Underhill led down the fairly easy rocks to the ice col, where we tried to find a solution to the riddle. The gendarme was unclimbable without pitons, karabiner, sneakers, etc., and would very likely prove extremely difficult. The traverse to the left offered nothing, but to the right was a possibility of cutting around it on a steep ice slope. We chose this solution. After a long bout of step-cutting, we finally turned all three gendarmes and stood at the foot of Peak No. 3. It did not seem so difficult on near approach. A winding ledge spiralled upward to the left and finally brought us to a nice little chimney up which we scrambled to the summit, arriving just in time for five o’clock tea. As there was no cairn, we were evidently the first to attain its elevation (ca 13,700 ft.).

Almost immediately we descended to the col separating us from our last objective. The ridge of snow was just wide enough to permit placing one foot before the other and walking along, but the drop of several thousand feet on either side was far from reassuring. Luckily, the distance across the col was only fifty or sixty feet.

The wall of Peak No. 4 now loomed above us, but in place of the black doubt felt earlier there now surged a new hope; for a slight break indicated a chimney and we could get into it. This chimney, difficult as it proved, led almost directly up to the top and although the height was not more than seventy-five or a hundred feet, it gave us quite a battle. It brought us to the coveted goal (ca 13,- 600 ft.) however and that only an hour after we had reached the Previous summit.

We found the records of the earlier ascent in 1922 made up the scree slopes on the back, and after a short rest on top started down the easy incline toward the glacier. Reaching this by a short glissade, we encountered a quagmire in its upper reaches. We sloshed our way through, however, and wearily mounted our horses at 7:30 for the hour’s trip back to camp.

After a day spent mainly in sleeping behind mosquito nets, Underhill and I set forth once more, this time at 6:45. We left the horses at the usual place and ascended the glacier toward Peak No. 5, directly at its head. It was a weary grind through deep slush. Below the col at the left or south end of our mountain we changed our plans and made directly up the rocky northeast wall on the right. Leading here and finding the going progressively more difficult as I traversed up and to the right, I finally headed directly up. After five hundred feet of very interesting but very exacting slab climbing, we emerged on the southeast ridge just beyond the turret at its end which dominated the col.

Once on the ridge we thought our difficulties would be over, but they had only just begun. The ridge was very narrow, dropping off more sheerly on the back side than on that we had just ascended. There seemed to be a feasible route down to the col around the turret but we could not see it in its entirety. We clambered along the ridge a short distance to the first gendarme, a great pile of rock effectively blocking our passage and offering seemingly insuperable difficulties. I went up a short distance and then not liking the prospects looked around both sides for a traverse. None disclosed itself and our hopes were rapidly disintegrating. Underhill, having brought his sneakers, was delegated a select committee of one to investigate the possibilities of a traverse to the right while I settled down into a crevice to belay the rope. Going a few steps, he dropped down a narrow crack in a reëntrant angle to a little platform just large enough to stand on comfortably. From here, he disappeared underneath a large corner. The nervous tension increased; would it go or would we be compelled to retreat down those terrific slabs? If this one passage went, would we still be able to continue or would we be getting more and more inextricably involved until it ended by defeat in a hopeless impasse. Finally from around the corner came a yodel of triumph and after ascertaining that the further way seemed reasonably hopeful, I followed with the two packs and the climbing boots. From the little platform, the way led across an almost holdless slab, ending in an abysmal void, to an overhang on which I found the weight of the two packs a considerable hindrance. Then up behind a great flake of rock split from the wall to a reasonably commodious ledge which we followed to the ridge again beyond the gendarme.

The ridge here was literally a knife-edge for it would have almost cut one to sit upon it. A few feet beyond, three little gendarmes balanced themselves squarely astride the crest. Luckily the slabs to the left were provided with holds, so the traverse was fairly easy, but beyond them again there arose another bulky tower to bar progress.

By this time, the mountain had risen much in our estimation and we had passed from the stage of mere annoyance to one of sheer defiance. We were now determined that, come what might, we would make the summit. Fortunately a ledge to the right offered a hope which we were quick to seize and by traversing up and down along several sloping ledges managed to reach a couloir that made towards the summit. Part way up this we came upon a snow patch which offered the possibility of a drink, so we halted for lunch and inspected the scene of our struggles.

The slabs up which we had come now looked terrifically steep, while the big gendarme seemed forbidding if not impossible and a long way below. The three little gendarmes on the ridge appeared ready to topple over at the first breath of wind. Shortly after a brief lunch we arrived at the summit (ca 13,500 ft.) at the, for us, colossally early hour of 12:45.

There was no cairn, so we built one, although nearly killing ourselves in the process. We had contemplated traversing the next peak beyond, that day, but when we saw its massive ruined pile and remembered our struggle of the morning, we concluded to rest upon our laurels, for we reasoned that six peaks in six days, all first ascents or new routes, wasn’t really such a bad record. We had fulfilled our original intention of doing only new routes and traversing all of our mountains, and now upon the summit of our last and most difficult peak, we decided that another would really be superfluous.

We solved the problem of our return by an easy descent to the col between ours and the next peak, and a much harder descent of the steep snow slope below the col, broken as it was, by an enormous and gaping bergschrund, to circumvent which would have entailed a tremendously long traverse. Straight down seemed the only solution, so we took it. It required several inspections to find a place where the upper lip overhung sufficiently to make a good jump. Neither of us realized the height or we would have discussed the matter even more than we did. Underhill went first, then the packs, then I. The take-off was easy but the landing was hard, in fact I have never felt soft snow so hard ; it came right up and hit me in the face with a most impertinent smack. The jump was all of fifteen feet and certainly gave us a good jolt. The rest of the descent lay down easy snow slopes, some en glissade, to the glacier; then down it to a very comfortable grassy nook close to water where we ate, talked, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves for the rest of the afternoon until it came time to practice our horsemanship once more and return to camp.

The following day, we returned to civilization, covering in one day the whole thirty-five miles to the ranch. I think we were considerably aided in our determination to do this rather long march by the fact that there was only one can of beans and one of tomatoes for our dinner had we remained out. That the spiritual and esthetic should be in man the predominant appreciative quality there is no doubt, yet there must be some nourishment from the material to breed that “mens sana in corpore sano,” without which our best efforts avail for naught.

NOTE

In the foregoing article “right” and “left” have been used in the orographical sense in all geographical descriptions whereas in the narration of the actual climbing they have been used as the terrain appears to the climber.

A list of some names which have appeared in previous accounts for some of the peaks mentioned in this article is given below with the names of the suggestors.

Peak No. 2. (Elsie)—Bent, Jackson, Wyman party 1922.

Peak No. 2. (Harding)—Blaurock, Ellingwood party 1924.

Peak No. 4. (Dinwoody)—Bent, Jackson, Wyman party 1922.

The following names are suggested by us for the various summits in this group, selected because of their appropriateness to the characteristics of each peak.

For Peak No. 1. (Turret) from the form of its summit.

For Peak No. 2. (Broad Peak) from its size, shape and spaciousness of summital area; or either of the previously suggested names above listed.

For Peak No. 3. (Doublet) from the two sharp pinnacles on the summit as seen from Peak No. 4.

For Peak No. 4. (Dinwoody) as above.

For Peak No. 5. (The Sphinx) from its general appearance.

BIBLOGRAPHY

“The Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” by Washington Irving.

“The Rocky Mountain Region of Wyoming and Idaho,” by James Eccles, in Alpine Journal, Vol. IX, p. 241 et seq.

“Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44,” by Capt. J. C. Fremont, Washington, Gales & Seaton, 1845, p. 61 el seq.

“Wyoming’s Yosemite,” by A. C. Tate in Travel Magazine Sept. 1920, Vol. XXXV No. 5, p. 30 et seq.

“Exploring Glaciers in the Wind River Mountains,” by H. N. Kleiber, in American Forestry, Vol. 29, No. 353, p. 288 et seq.

“The Wind River Mountains of Wyoming,” by Arthur C. Tate, in Appalachia, Vol. XV, No. 11, 1922, p. 156 et seq.

“A First Ascent in the Wind River Range,” by Arthur Bent, in Appalachia, Vol. XV, No. IV, 1924, p. 468 et seq.

“A Trip to the Wind River and Teton Ranges,” by Carl Blaurock, in Trail and Timberline, No. 83, August, 1925.

“An Excursion into the Wind River Range of Wyoming,” by Gaylord C. Hall, in Appalachia, Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1928, p. 108 et seq.

See also Appalachia, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1924, under “Alpina”, p. 97, for first ascents.

“Gebirgsfahrten in den Wind river—Bergen im Wyoming” by Herman Bühl in Der Alpenfreund, Munich, Feb. 1926, p. 85 et seq.