Technical Climbing in the Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming

Publication Year: 1930.

Technical Climbing in the Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming

Albert Russell Ellingwood

WHEN the history of mountaineering in the Rocky Mountains of the United States comes to be written, a new chapter will begin about the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century. At that time few, if any, peaks of major importance remained unclimbed. The more energetic climbers therefore turned their attention to ascents which were attractive because of their technical interest rather than because of altitude. There is a lure in high altitudes as there is a lure in high latitudes. But novelty has its fascination also. And difficulty has a charm that is irresistible for many. All of these elements must combine to make the perfect climb; the enthusiastic alpinist is completely happy only if his skill is severely taxed to bring him “new lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.”

To the incorrigible mountaineer, climbing is a dynamic impulse. He must develop, he must advance. There must be some accomplishment worth recording. He is not content to march up the same hill repeatedly, and then march down again. So, if there are no more heaven-kissing hills upon which he can be the first to alight, technical attractiveness becomes a more important desideratum, and he begins to feed his ambition upon a diet of new routes to old summits, traverses, tempting pinnacles, and ragged arêtes. The multitude of these is legion, and there are no duplicates. Age may weather them, but custom cannot stale their infinite variety. The pursuit of them is like the playing of chess, that greatest of all indoor games of skill. One uses the same pieces on the same black and white squares, but after the first few moves of a gambit, the game becomes unique, and the player is forced to “plot and plan as best he can” a campaign reaching many moves ahead, which he will continually modify to meet immediate exigencies. So, in the game with the rocks, there are familiar “pieces”—cracks and chimneys, chock-stones and over-hangs, shelves and ledges, bulging noses and razor-like granite ridges—and never are they combined twice in the same pattern, so that the winning of the game depends not merely on adeptness in manoevering the pieces but on strategic skill and the versatility that fructifies from experience.

But let us return to our history. After the ascents of the explorers, geologists and cartographers, we come in time to the period when mountain climbing is done for its own sake and not for any utilitarian purpose. First we have what Geoffrey Winthrop Young has called the “walking epoch”—when the climber’s two feet carried him to his destination. This lasted a long time. Under normal conditions, anyone of average physique, reasonable stamina and a modicum of determination can walk up most of the peaks in the American Rockies. A few good climbs went into the record before 1900, such as the first ascent of Fremont Peak in 1842, that of Longs Peak in 1868, Lamb’s descent of this peak by the east face in 1871, the first ascent of Mt. Wilson in 1874, and that of the Grand Teton. Some of the more difficult or less accessible peaks were not climbed till after the turn of the century. In this group would be included Pyramid, Capitol, Kit Carson, Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle and Columbia in Colorado, and Mt. Moran in Wyoming.

By the end of 1916, there was no virgin 14,000 foot peak in Colorado, and serious rock climbing was getting under way. Clark and Hagerman had already done good pioneering in the Elk Range, Mills had some interesting scrambling on Longs Peak to his credit, a few members of the Colorado Mountain Club had sampled the attractive cliffs along the Front Range between Arapahoe and Audubon, and several enjoyable routes had been traced on Kit Carson, the Crestones and Sierra Blanca. The good work went on apace. No complete account is possible, for the systematic and conscientious recording of worth-while climbs, so characteristic of Switzerland, finds only a shadowy counterpart in this country. But enough appears on the record to leave no doubt of the growing popularity of the kind of climbing in which a special technique is an essential factor. The grand total of the achievements of the past ten years is very encouraging. In 1920, the Lizard Head was ascended for the first time,1 and the possibilities of the Needle Mountains were revealed. All the more promising climbing centers in the Colorado mountains had now been brought to the attention of interested mountaineers, and the period of exploitation was at hand. A detailed chronicle of this decade is out of the question in the space now available, though some of the ascents will be mentioned later in our discussion of the several localities.

Meanwhile, the Wyoming mountains were coming into the limelight. The climbing done on Mt. Moran by LeRoy Jeffers and others from 1919 to 1922, the ascents of the Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton in 1923,2 and four first ascents in the Wind River mountains the following year3 set the ball rolling, and probably more serious climbing has been done in these two magnificent ranges during the last five years than in all the rest of the Rockies. In that time there have been at least seven first ascents in the Wind River range, either of new peaks or of old peaks by new routes. New and interesting routes have been successfully completed on the Middle Teton and the Grand Teton, and several of the lower pinnacles in this group have been climbed for the first time. The Grand Teton which has been called the “American Matterhorn” more often and more deservedly than any other peak in the United States, has become almost as popular, relatively speaking, as its Swiss namesake.

The achievements of mountain climbers in these two States during the past summer furnish ample testimony of increasing interest in the more difficult ascents, and set a high standard for next summer, and the next. On June 9th, Harold Wilm and Dobson West made the second ascent of the famous Lizard Head,4 using the same route yielded up by the spectacular little pinnacle to the first climbers nine years earlier. Carl Blaurock, Stephen H. Hart and W. F. Ervin made the first ascent of “Mt. Lindbergh,” an attractive prong on a western spur of the Continental Divide above Monarch Lake, on September 2d.5 The outstanding feat of the summer was the victory of Kenneth A. Henderson and R. L. M. Underhill over the east ridge of the Grand Teton, which undoubtedly will take rank as one of the finest climbs in the Rockies. Various climbers have tried to find a new route up this superb pyramid for the past six years, but have repeatedly been defeated by ice and snow, weather conditions or accidents, and anyone who has played around on that east ridge at all will testify that Messrs. Henderson and Underhill have put no mean accomplishment to their credit. The same party reached two new summits in the Wind River range and found new courses up four others, including the handsome northeast face of Gannett Peak.6 F. M. Fryxell was also busy in the Teton range, for the third season, and registered first ascents of several interesting peaks between the Grand Teton and Mt. Moran, as well as the first ascent of the Middle Teton by its steep east ridge.

The foregoing record is doubtless incomplete, but even if it is the sum total for the season, it is a very gratifying showing. Yet it should be emphasized that these climbers and all those who have preceded them have made only the merest sampling of the riches of the Rocky Mountains. For the last few years we have been trying to make Americans on a vacation realize that they need not go abroad to find things worth seeing. It is equally desirable that our mountaineers should learn that they can have crag work as difficult as they may wish right here at home. Of course, climbers of the Finch school, who dismiss all rock-work as nothing but acrobatics, will be disappointed. Yet even the devotee of the ice-axe will find, in the many miles of glaciers that surround Fremont Peak and stretch away to the north, no inconsiderable amount of practice that is not altogether beneath contempt. He will discover enough bergschrunds and steep icy walls, séracs and ice-falls, to lesson the novice at least, and he need not arise at 2.00 o’clock in the morning to do it. Let this not be interpreted as an intimation that the Rockies are the equals of the Alps, or ever will be. They are different in so many ways that a comparison is of little value. But just as the crags above Wastwater have served both to develop the skill and increase the happiness of two generations of English climbers of the first rank, so the cliffs, couloirs and needles that are grouped around a dozen climbing centers in Colorado and Wyoming will give joy to those to whom climbing is an art, as long as there is room for such things in men’s lives.

In the storied San Juan region, there are at least three of these centers—the Mt. Wilson group, the Needle Mountains, and the Uncompahgre-Wetterhorn district. Bilk Basin offers the best campsite for the first of these. The Lizard Head is the outstanding climb, and much honor awaits the discoverer of a new route to its ragged summit. Mt. Wilson has been climbed by every one of its principal ridges, and no one of them furnishes appreciable difficulty except for rather ticklish knife-edges of loose rock near the top; but there are very enticing cliffs along its east face. Finally, the western and southern precipices of Gladstone are most impressive. Chicago Basin is the proper center of operations for the Needle Mountains, which are by no means unworthy of their name. All the peaks have been climbed by one route or another, but there is a wealth of rocky walls that have probably never felt a human foot. The sweeping western and northern cliffs of the two peaks of Eolus, those on the east face of Turret and on the southeast and northeast faces of Pigeon, the sheer crags that almost encircle Sunlight and those that bound Windom Peak on the southwest, the battlemented amphitheater at the head of the north fork, the ridge between Eolus and Sunlight and that between Sunlight and Windom—these are only the more conspicuous attractions of this favorite playground of Vulcan. The opportunities for technical climbing in the Uncompahgre-Wetterhorn territory are not many, but any who have gazed upon the stupendous northeast face of the former peak will agree that its ascent (if possible) would be spectacular enough to satisfy the most blasé. The north ridge and northeast wall of the Wetterhorn look more feasible but would be “plenty” interesting. The camp for this climbing should be located on the headwaters of the Cimarron.

In the Sangre de Cristo range there are only two climbing centers worth mentioning. The Sierra Blanca massif exhibits some excellent cliffs in the basin at the head of Little Ute Creek (which can be reached easily from a camp in Burro Park), and in the aweinspiring cirque at the head of the Huerfano. The beautiful peak has been climbed (or descended) by each of its four ridges (except, possibly, the relatively easy southwest one), but there is no record of an ascent by the northeast, southeast or southwest faces, all of which are steep enough to satisfy anything but a fly. More good climbing will be found in the Crestone region than in any other part of the range. Willow Creek is the best campsite for those who are interested in Kit Carson, for its best cliffs bound the high basin of this stream. Two parties have come off the peak by this route, but many variations might be made, and there is no record of an ascent on this side. The best crags, however, are on the Crestone Peak-Crestone Needle ridge, and the ideal base of operations is South Colony Creek. Like the battlements of a giant’s fortress, these seamed and creviced buttresses and cliffs form a majestic wall over two miles long, abundantly adorned with the steep chimneys and near-perpendicular arêtes that are dear to the heart of a mountaineer. According to the record, it has yielded to attack at only two points—a descent part way along the south ridge of the Needle at the time of the first ascent of the latter in 1916,7 and the first ascent of the Needle’s east arête in 1925.8

The Elk range likewise boasts two groups of peaks that are worthy to be put on the alpinist’s itinerary. The one consists of the colorful North and South Maroon Peaks, two crumbling pyramids that have been climbed or descended from several different angles, but still offer various intriguing opportunities to the inquisitive, particularly if one likes the sort of cliff where the leader can hardly shrug his shoulders without shaking down a shower of small rocks, and all below him should really climb in coats of mail and steel helmets. The best climbing is on the east side, and one should camp at the upper lake in West Maroon Creek. The second, and better, group in this range is the Hagerman-Snowmass-Capitol concatenation of sharp ridges and sheer walls. Capitol (13,997 ft.) is certainly one of the two or three hardest 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado, and as yet only one passage to its summit has been discovered. Capitol Creek gives the easiest approach to this splendid peak, while Snowmass Lake (often called the most beautiful lake in Colorado) is the best base for Hagerman and Snowmass Peaks.

The Mt. of the Holy Cross is another place that one should not neglect, though there is not as much of interest here as in some of the other districts we have described. There are some excellent crags, too, in the neighborhood of Navajo and Apache Peaks and Paiute Horn (12,900 ft.) in the Front Range, best reached from Lake Isabelle on the east or Monarch Lake on the west side of the range. Some meritorious climbing has already been accomplished here, but the record is so imperfect that it is best not to attempt details.

One of the finest climbing districts in Colorado is unquestionably the Longs Peak massif. It is also one of the most extensively exploited, as will appear from the history of the peak given elsewhere in this issue of the Journal. Every ridge and every face on the mountain have been used to reach the summit, and the climber of the future can only repeat some of the interesting ascents of the past, or introduce “variations.” The roll of accidents shows plainly that the more difficult routes are only for experienced mountaineers, and some of them have been traced out only once. Perhaps more nearly virgin cliffs can be found on Pagoda, Chief’s Head and McHenry to the west of Longs. The first of these has been traversed from west to east,9 but has not been climbed by either of the imposing faces.

The main attractions of the Wind River range lie between Knife Point Mountain and the north Gannett glacier. Three bases of operation have been successfully used to explore this fascinating agglomeration of peaks and glaciers, practically unknown to alpinists ten years ago. The most accessible is the head of Dinwoody Creek, now opened up by a forest service trail from Torrey Lakes. This is the way to reach Gannett Peak and the great arc of sharp-pointed pinnacles that springs from its southern ridge, as well as two towering innominatae on the south side of the valley, one of which is the third highest peak in the range. The higher summits have all been reached,10 but a number of the needles at the head of the Dinwoody glacier bear no hobnail marks at all. The head of the north fork of Bull Lake Creek is the ideal center for excursions on the large glaciers that are banked in around Knife Point, Fremont Peak and Mt. Helen, and for climbing these interesting peaks and their smaller neighbors. On the other side of the range the best base is Island Lake, from which operations can easily extend from the Knife Point group as far north as the high pass to the Dinwoody glacier.

Finally, there is the incomparable Teton district, including about fifteen miles of the Teton range, from Moran Canyon on the north to Death Canyon on the south. Preeminent in this showy rampart is the lordly Grand Teton, bearing on its outstretched arms a number of slender sentinels. No one yet knows whether the tip of some of them is as exiguous as it looks from below, and few have been ascended more than once. The ridges, ribs and couloirs of the Three Tetons are a practically inexhaustible studio for the mountaineer, where he can work out almost any technical product he desires, from the delicate artistry of needle-work to the courageous and ingenious tactical campaigns that are exacted by the enormous tapestry of an intricately shattered and riven mountain wall. To get acquainted with this trio of giants, he should pitch his camp in Bradley Canyon, but when he is ready to get on especially intimate terms with the Grand Teton, he should move up to one of the small glacial lakes on the east slopes of that peak. For Mt. Moran, which also offers much and most varied climbing of the first order, the appointed base is Leigh Lake, though the southwest corner of Jackson Lake is even better if one can get a launch at the village of Moran.

Such are the special playgrounds for the more exacting mountaineers that have been made ready in Colorado and Wyoming by the Architect of the ages. They are fully equipped for recreation and ready for use, and they will not wear out for some time. They should be used cautiously and respectfully by novices, and even the most proficient can be directed to many courses that will baffle them again and again. Parenthetically, it may be added that there is a great deal of exhilarating climbing in these two States not embraced within the special centers that have been mentioned here. Almost every large peak has cliffs or couloirs that will repay investigation. Every poem need not be an epic nor every musical composition a symphony; the sonnet has its perfection and the bagatelle its charm.

There is no danger that any of the districts described above will, in this generation, attain the popularity of Grindelwald, Zermatt or Chamonix. It is to be hoped they never will. There is no more reason why the profanum vulgus should play on the myriad keys and stops and pedals of these Herculean organs of stone than there is for turning over the laboratories of Edison, Michelson or Steinmetz to the man in the street. The beauties and the benefits of the mountains can and should be generously opened up to the multitude who need them so badly; but the atelier which can be fully appreciated and used only by connoisseurs may well be left in some seclusion, to be reached by those who know what they want, and want it badly enough to make the effort necessary to attain it. Noble Longs Peak is fatally near the beaten track, and already has its guides and its tariffs, and the inevitable steel cable. May it be a sufficient sop to Cerberus!

1 First to Climb Lizard Head. Outing Magazine, November, 1921.

2 Our American Matterhorn. Outdoor Life, September, 1924.

3 A Trip in the Wind River and Teton Ranges. Trail and Timberline, August, 1925.

4 Second Ascent of Lizard Head. Trail and Timberline, August, 1929.

5 Climb up Mt. Lindbergh. Trail and Timberline, November, 1929.

6 An account of this climbing appears elsewhere in this issue of the Journal.

7 Climbing in the Sangre de Cristo. Trail and Timberline, June, 1925.

8 The Eastern Arête of the Crestone Needle. Trail and Timberline, November, 1925.

9 A Glimpse of Wild Basin. Trail and Timberline, November, 1927.

10 See Henderson's article elsewhere in this issue of the Journal.