American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Rocky Mountains of the United States

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  • Publication Year: 1931

The Rocky Mountains of the United States

Howard Palmer

ALTHOUGH the Rocky Mountains constitute perhaps the most important topographical feature of the western United States, few people realize their true extent, or the vast congeries of peaks which they contain. A recent tabulation1 lists over one hundred groups sufficiently well defined to bear separate names and these, of course, form but a part of the whole. The present paper embodies a rapid survey of the extent, elevation and relative positions of the principal component ranges and traces the course of the Continental Divide among them.

At the outset, it may be well to indicate what the Rocky Mountains are. In general terms, they comprise the system of lofty highlands situated between the great continental plains on the east, and the elevated basins and plateaux that extend from Nevada to Central British Columbia on the west. They correspond approximately with the states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and western Montana. Almost nowhere does this prodigious uplift present to the beholder a continuous wall of great peaks for any considerable distance, as many suppose. It is rather a vast complex of individual ranges and groups divided one from another by wide areas of rolling tablelands. At two places the latter attain extensive dimensions: Yellowstone Park and Great Divide Basin (60 by 100 miles). These delimit a threefold division of the Rocky Mountain system into north, central and southern portions, and for convenience of description it will be adopted here.

The Southern Rockies

At the south, the Rockies begin in northern New Mexico where they supply the head waters of the Rio Grande River, flowing southerly and easterly into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the International Boundary in New Mexico and Arizona lies a region of plateaux and scattered minor ranges drained by the Gila River, an eastern tributary of the Colorado. As the Gila takes its source on a subordinate range within fifty miles of the main Rio Grande River, the Continental Divide is here narrowed and depressed to comparative insignificance as a topographical feature—a fact which would seem to nullify the time-honored idea that the Rocky Mountains extend into Mexico.2 In this corner of New Mexico the Southern Pacific Railway crosses the Continental Divide at an elevation of only 4,615 ft. The Trans-Pecos Highlands, east of the Rio Grande, although they reach an elevation of 11,880 ft. in Sierra Blanca, are parted from the Rockies by a plain one hundred miles wide.

The highest peaks of the Rockies in New Mexico are North Truchas Peak (13,306 ft.), Taos Peak (13,145 ft.) and Jicarilla Peak (12,944 ft.), situated north of Santa Fé and Las Vegas in the Sangre de Cristo range, which divides the waters of the Rio Grande from those of the Canadian River and passes northward into Colorado as the Culebra (Snake) range.

North of New Mexico the Rockies rapidly grow wider and loftier until in Utah and northern Colorado the system of ranges is three hundred miles broad. In the latter state forty-six peaks exceed 14,000 ft., Mt. Elbert (14,420 ft.) being the primate of the entire chain and the second highest in the United States. Colorado includes upwards of 250 summits ranging between 13,000 and 14,000 ft. Northwest of this state, the elevation and width of the Rockies decrease, until at the Canadian Boundary they are less than one hundred miles across.

The principal ranges and groups of the Southern Rockies in Colorado are described in the following paragraphs.

The Colorado, or Front range, faces the plains, running north and south in an abrupt and rather uniform escarpment of serrated peaks. It contains five above 14,000 ft., of which Pikes Peak (14,109 ft.) and Longs Peak (14,255 ft.) may be mentioned.

Roughly paralleling the Front range to the west extend almost in line: The Park range (seven peaks over 14,000 ft., of which Buckskin Peak (14,296 ft.) is the highest), the Sawatch range and the Sangre de Cristo range. 1 he last two are perhaps the most magnificent groups in the state. The granite-cored Sangre de Cristo range, forty miles long and ten miles wide, exhibits an imposing relief of over a mile, being jagged and rough in the extreme towards the southwest. It contains five peaks above 14,000 ft., the loftiest being Sierra Blanca (14,390 ft.), and the next, Crestone (14,233 ft.).* The Sawatch range, eighty miles long and twenty miles wide, bristles with lofty pointed peaks. It contains eight surpassing 14,000 ft., of which La Plata Peak (14,332 ft.), Mt. Massive (14,420 ft.) and Mt. Elbert may be noticed.

The southwestern portion of the state presents irregular groups, of which the imposing Elk mountains, forty miles long, form the northerly member. They display a wild jumble of sharp, conical peaks and ragged pinnacles and spires. The highest is Castle Peak (14,259 ft.), and the most striking from its colored rock formations is North Italian Peak (13,225 ft.). Other notable groups in this quarter are the San Juan mountains, running east and west for eighty miles with a width of forty miles, the loftiest peak of which is Mt. San Louis (14,149 ft.) ; the San Miguel mountains, culminating in Mt. Wilson (14,250 ft.) and containing the spectacular spire of Lizard Head (13,156 ft.) ; the Needle mountains, a southwesterly buttress of the San Juan range, containing thirteen peaks between 13,000 and 14,000 ft., dominated by Sunlight Peak (14,084 ft.), and the Uncompahgre mountains. This great complex of ranges is incredibly wild and rugged, possessing literally scores of peaks above 12,000 ft., many as yet without names.

The Continental Divide enters southern Colorado between the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers, following the crest of the San Juan range. Passing thence across the Cochetopa hills, it gains the Sawatch range and continues northerly, parting the waters of the Arkansas River from the Gunnison and Grand tributaries of the Colorado. Looping around Leadville, it traverses the southern part of the Park range to the Front range. Following this past Longs Peak (14,255 ft.) it soon veers abruptly west to the Park range once more. Here it continues northerly to Great Divide basin where, at Creston (7,102 ft.), it intersects the Union Pacific Railway.

In general, it may be said that the Rockies of Colorado are characterized by rounded tops and evenly-slanting lower slopes covered with broken rock. They bear little permanent snow and are practically devoid of glaciers. The forests are often scanty and, in general, the impression of great altitude is wanting, owing to the high base-level from which the peaks spring. Nevertheless, by reason of its exceptionally clear and bracing air and the presence of vast park-like expanses in the very midst of the loftiest peaks, Colorado will always remain a glorious mountain playground. Remarkable evidences of former glaciation are everywhere apparent in prodigious moraines and numberless cirques dotted with rock-bound lakelets.

In central Utah, the Wasatch mountains, overlooking the Great Basin for one hundred miles, consist of abrupt ranges crowned with sharp peaks, of which Mt. Delano (12,240 ft.) is the highest. Other prominent summits are Mt. Timpanogos (11,957 ft.), with a small glacier, and Mt. Nebo (11,887 ft.). Seven more exceed an elevation of 11,000 ft. A neighbor of the Wasatch mountains is the Uinta group, having an east and west trend of 150 miles and a width of about 25 miles. Many of the peaks possess a rugged alpine configuration, the highest being King’s Peak (13,500 ft.), Emmons Peak (13,428 ft.), Gilbert Peak (13,422 ft.), and three others exceed 13,000 ft. in height.

The Central Rockies

The Wasatch and Uinta groups are linked up with the backbone of the Rockies in the latitude of Yellowstone Park by a system of irregular uplands that run north and south along the western boundary of Wyoming, and drain on the east into the headwaters of the Green River. In this quarter are the Crawford Mts., the Wyoming range, the Gros Ventre Mts., the Snake River range and the Teton range, all lying on the Pacific slope, west and northwest of Great Divide basin.

Scenically, the Teton range is perhaps the most impressive in all the Rocky Mountains. Of rugged granitic formation, it is characterized by an abrupt relief (6,000 to 7,000 ft. above the flat country of Jackson’s Hole) and by sharp pyramidal summits affording excellent rock-work for the climber. It occupies an area about forty miles by ten. The principal peaks are the Three Tetons, (Grand Teton, 13,747 ft.) and Mt. Moran (12,100 ft.) at the northerly extremity. John Coulter in 1807 was the first white man known to have seen the group, which contains a number of small glaciers.

Returning now to the line of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous Wind River range of Wyoming comes next in ordernorthwest of Great Divide basin, which separates the Central Rockies from the Southern Rockies, as above indicated. It is a “front range” of the system and adjoins the Gros Ventre Mts. on the east. In length about 100 miles, the central massif attains elevations above 13,000 ft. and sends out lateral offshoots cut deeply by canyons. Wind River Peak at the southern extremity reaches an elevation of 13,500 ft. Other conspicuous summits are Fremont Peak (13,720 ft.), climbed by John C. Fremont in 1842; Gannett Peak (13,785 ft.), the highest in Wyoming, and Chimney Rock (13,340 ft.). Many small glaciers occur on the northeast slopes. One, the Din-woody, is some three miles wide and a mile long. Both scenery and mountains are truly alpine and charming lakes and waterfalls abound.

Towards the northeast, across the Big Horn basin, in north central Wyoming, lie the Big Horn mountains, a huge outlier of the Rockies pushed out into the plains. They trend north and south for about 120 miles and are from 30 to 50 miles wide. The elevations range between 11,000 and 13,000 ft., rising some 9,000 ft. above the neighboring prairies. Several of the peaks exceed 13,000 ft. Occasional small glaciers rest in rock-bound amphitheaters. The highest summit is Cloud Peak (13,165 ft.). Others that have received names are Black Tooth (13,014 ft.), Penrose Peak (12,443 ft.), and Mather Peak (12,410 ft.).

The Northern Rockies

North of Yellowstone Park in the bend of the Yellowstone River, the Beartooth and adjacent ranges contain what appear to be the principal mountains of this category. Around Mt. Cowen (11,190 ft.) and Emigrant Peak (10,960 ft.) the relief reaches 6,400 ft., and Granite Peak (12,850 ft.), the highest in Montana, is located here, as are Grasshopper glacier and several smaller ice masses. The Beartooth group includes many peaks approximating 12,000 ft., and presents a very rugged and precipitous front towards the northeast. Other mountains hereabouts are the Needle (10,933 ft.), the Pyramid (10,720), Index Peak (11,741 ft.) and Pilot Peak. The volcanic Absaroka range along the eastern boundary of the park is eighty miles long by fifty miles wide. Among the loftiest summits are Mt. Schurz (10,900 ft.), Mt. Atkins (10,900 ft.), Mt. Eagle (10,800 ft.), Mt. Table (10,800 ft.) and Mt. Cathedral (10,900 ft.). All of the peaks in the foregoing ranges lie from twenty to forty miles east of the Continental Divide, severed from it by the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. West of the Yellowstone River and northwest of the park at the headwaters of the Missouri River are situated the Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson and Bridger ranges (7,000 to 11,000 ft.), largely composed of granite rocks, but with volcanic breccias in the Gallatin range (Mt. Blackmore, 10,196 ft.). In the Madison range, The Wedge reaches 11,251 ft.

From the Wind River group, the Divide pursues a winding course across the Park in a northwesterly direction, averaging about 8,000 ft. in elevation. Just beyond the western boundary of the Park, it dips to 6,938 ft. at Reas pass, loops around Henry Lake and then rises to 10,000 ft. once more in Sawtel Peak. Shifting next to a westerly course for something like 75 miles, it drops to 6,800 ft. at Monida, rises to 11,000 ft. in Mt. Garfield soon after and swings abruptly to the northwest for 100 miles to the 114th meridian. This stretch of the Rockies is designated the Beaverhead Mts. on some of the maps. Near the 114th meridian occur Crowfoot and Gibbon passes (each 7,000 ft.). Here the axis of elevation bifurcates in a surprising way, one branch continuing at an angle of 90 degrees towards the southwest only to resume its northwesterly trend through the Bitterroots (7,000-8,000 ft.) beyond Nez Perce pass, to within 125 miles of the Canadian border; while the other branch veers equally sharply to the northeast through the Butte and Helena districts, carrying the Continental Divide. The principal peaks of the Bitterroots occupy projecting spurs: El Capitan (9,936 ft.) and St. Mary (9,333 ft.). Mt. Lolo (9,570 ft.), near Missoula, overlooks the famous Lolo pass, traversed by Lewis and Clark. Beyond this, the range diminishes towards the northwest and the 125-mile interval is occupied by the Coeur d’Alene (6,000 ft.) and Cabinet ranges, the latter being picturesquely sculptured and boasting of a glacier on Bear Peak (9,000 ft.). These two ranges, together with the adjacent Flathead range northwest of Flathead Lake, lie to the west of the Rocky Mountain trench and therefore are not, strictly considered, part of the Rocky Mountain system, but rather intermediate links between that system and the Purcell and Selkirk systems of Canada.

West of the Bitterroots in central Idaho, stretches a vast labyrinth of sharp peaks and ridges designated in the south the Salmon River mountains and in the north the Clearwater mountains. They attain elevations of from 11,000 to 12,000 ft., Mt. Hyndman (12,078 ft.) in south central Idaho being the highest in that state.

In the district of Butte and Helena, the Continental Divide is ill-defined and inconspicuous, the passes around Butte averaging 6,000 ft. or less. Mullan pass near Helena is 5,870 ft. The Anaconda range contains Mt. Haggin (10,598 ft.) and Mt. Evans (10,635 ft.). Beyond Helena, the Divide swings to a north-northwest course and follows the Lewis range, which is the principal axis of elevation of the northern Rockies, almost to the Canadian border. In its northern reaches along the great plains the Lewis range is deeply sinuous and is marked by cliffs of exceptional size and steepness. Its southern section, between Lewis and Clark pass (6,320 ft.), and Marias pass (5,202 ft.) on the Great Northern Railway, is about eighty miles long and has three measured summits: Scapegoat (9,210 ft.), Cliff (9,120 ft.) and Pentagon (9,400 ft.). The Lewis range as a whole is so wild and formidable that not even a wagon road crosses it for 150 miles north of Lewis and Clark pass. Ten miles south of the Canadian Boundary the Continental Divide shifts from the Lewis range to the Clark range, which parallels the former fifteen miles to the west across the Waterton-MacDonald valley. The Clark range starts at Mt. Heavens north of Lake MacDonald and terminates at North Kootenay pass in Alberta, where it becomes a front range of the Rockies.

The other ranges in this general latitude are of secondary importance but may be mentioned for completeness. They are the Galton (White Fish), Swan and Mission ranges. The latter (60 miles long) lies south of Flathead Lake. Mt. MacDonald (9,800 ft.), the highest summit, supports a well-conditioned glacier and rises some 6,800 ft. above its base. Between the Mission range and the Lewis range is the Swan range, which attains an elevation of 10,400 ft. in Mt. Holland, northeast of Flathead Lake. The Galton range extends in the same line west of the upper valley of Flathead River.

Fifteen hundred square miles of the Clark and Lewis ranges between the Great Northern Railway and the Canadian Boundary have been set aside as Glacier National Park. Here is concentrated some of the very finest scenery of the Rockies. Bold peaks, hewn out with an exaggerated saw-tooth sculpture, two-score small glaciers of the “shelf” variety, and a myriad of gorgeously-hued lakes, combine to give this region a rare distinction. The Park possessesperhaps twenty peaks between 9,000 and 10,000 ft. and half a dozen others between the latter figure and 10,438 ft., which is attained in Mt. Cleveland, its loftiest summit. Of the glaciers, the largest are Blackfoot, Agassiz and Kintla, covering areas of from two to five square miles apiece.

1 “Mountains of the United States,” Federal Board of Maps, Interior Dept. Building, Washington, D. C., 1929.

2 See: “The International Geography,” by H. R. Mill, page 775.

3 The Spanish Peaks ( 13,623 ft.) at its southern extremity, where it projects sufficiently to become part of the Front range, are notable as examples of volcanic activity.

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