American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

An American Tyrol, Climbs in the Bighorns 1933

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  • Publication Year: 1934

An American Tyrol

Climbs in the Big Horns, 1933

W. B. Willcox

MOUNTAINEERS seem to have overlooked the Big Horns. The; region has long been a roaming ground for geologists, and for the dude-ranchers of northern Wyoming; but hitherto it has rarely been visited by climbers. I had never heard of the range until last autumn, and none of our party, when the climbing began, had more than a general idea of what we should find. The mountain which was our goal was the only one we had heard of ; its neighbors were a complete surprise, and turned out to be even more exciting. None of us had done any extensive climbing in the Rockies, and we were therefore unable to compare the region with others in the West. But by comparison with the Alps, it certainly deserves the title we have given it.

The range from the south is singularly unimpressive. The gentle curves are reminiscent of the Pyrenees, and do not promise good climbing. But the northern end changes abruptly : North of Cloud Peak, within the radius of a few miles, is a group of needles whose jagged outlines would do credit to Chamonix. The northernmost and highest of this group is Black Tooth (13,024 ft.) ; it is also the only peak north of Cloud which boasts a name of its own. The honor is deserved, for from a distance it is by far the most impressive in the range. As seen from the north, it dominates the foothills by virtue of its mass and outline. Two long flanking ridges, with glacier and cliffs between them, culminate in a tower of strikingly darker rock. All in all, a most respectable mountain.

This was our objective. It was reported—to someone by someone from someone else—to be the highest unclimbed mountain in the United States, but we were unable to confirm either part of this rumor. While attempts had certainly been made upon it, there was no record of success. There were stories of a cowboy here, a dude-rancher there; no one knew for certain, and no one could provide us with details. Current opinion, wherever we inquired, was certainly that Black Tooth remained virgin.There seemed to be nothing to do but complete our preparations, discover a route, and hope not to find prune pits on the summit.

We did know that certain attempts had failed.1 The most recent one had been in 1932, when T. H. Rawles, L. O’Brien, and W. Jenks had tried several times to reach the top. They had been defeated more by lack of time and breath than by difficult climbing, and Rawles had returned to New Haven with the hope of trying again. His enthusiasm and his photographs had persuaded Miss E. D. Woolsey and myself that the Big Horns were indicated for the summer of 1933. O’Brien and Jenks unfortunately could not join us, but my brother and sister did. The five of us intended to establish a camp with supplies for two weeks, so that we could besiege the mountain more seriously than the earlier party had had time to do.

The northern Big Horns have the sovereign virtue of accessibility. Sheridan is less than twenty-four hours from New York by airplane, and two nights and a day by air and rail. From Sheridan we were driven to Tepee Lodge, a dude ranch in the foothills some twenty-five miles north of Black Tooth. It is at an altitude of 7,200 ft., and both horizontally and vertically is the nearest climbing base. The owner, Allen Fordyce, did everything in his power to make our expedition a success. We found to our surprise that a dude ranch can be as delightful and as satisfactory a base as any in the Alps.

We established camp at an altitude of about 9,500 ft., some four miles to the north of Black Tooth. It was an ideal site, with a stream and forest behind us and a meadow and lake in front; on our right the final shoulder of Black Tooth fell in smooth cliffs to the water. There was pasturage enough for a half-dozen horses, and beauty enough for a hundred climbers. The sun rose in the sharp notch at the lower end of the lake, and in the evenings, long after sunset, there was still an alpenglow on the ridge above us.

As soon as we were established,2 we set out to determine the nature of our problem. From our camp a long hump leads southward to a sharp rock spire, and from this begins the northeast ridge of Black Tooth. The hump became christened Buffalo Back, and provided our first tedious training walk. I cherished hopes of completing the day with an ascent of the spire; at least we could determine whether there were a route around it, from Buffalo Back onto the northeast ridge. We didn’t, and there wasn’t. The end of Buffalo Back is at least five hundred feet from the spire—some one hundred horizontally and four hundred vertically. The gap looked impossible to cross, but there was little incentive to try : The sides of the spire seemed steeper and smoother than any mountain has a right to be ; the only conceivable access would be on the farther side, from the northeast ridge. We christened the spire Hallelujah,3 as an expression of our feelings, and went home greatly sobered by the first day’s recon- noitering.

Since Buffalo Back led nowhere, there remained the west ridge. This was the route followed by Rawles, O’Brien and Jenks in 1932. They had reached the ridge from the northwest, and had climbed it to the foot of the final tower, at a point where a wide ledge connects the tops of the two flanking ridges. Rawles assured us that they had encountered only very moderate climbing. But the route was long, and a large party could consume a great deal of time on it. There would be an obvious saving of distance in forcing a way directly up the north face to the ledge. Whether there would also be a saving of time, only experiment could prove.

On June 30th Miss Woolsey, Rawles and I started on our first major reconnaissance. We reached a point some half way up the face, and were surprised to discover a cairn. In it was a message, signed W. Gorrell, saying that the writer had reached a point some two hundred feet higher in September of 1932, and had turned back because of wet and dangerous rock. We were impressed by the effort, but not by the route. The face did not improve with closer acquaintance, and the line of cliff between the ridges looked anything but friendly. It might go. But we were not out to discover difficulties, and there seemed no question that it would take longer than Rawles’ old route.

A narrow couloir was visible on our left, between the northeast range and the cliffs of the face. That couloir seemed the only alternative to the circuitous west ridge, and worth investigation. Miss Woolsey and I therefore started out across the top of the great snow slope, leaving Rawles to bask on a rock. The traverse was easy but exhilarating; the steep, soft snow was enlivened by occasional bits of ice, and by one rock tongue which provided a few feet of delicate climbing, one foot on rock and one on ice. For the first time I felt that I was on a mountain which could hold up its head in the most fastidious Alpine society (although, as my brother pointed out, it might feel a trifle scantily clad).

The couloir proved to be steep but easy, and brought us out at the corner of the north and east faces. We were behind the cliffs of the north face, which here form a buttress parallel to the northeast ridge, and enclosing an odd little pocket invisible from below. Above us more easy snow led to the eastern end of the great ledge. We found ourselves on the north face again, under the final tower. It would go ; somehow, somewhere, it would go. We had all we could do to keep from trying it. But the others were still in camp, and it was already four-thirty; honor and prudence both urged a retreat. We glissaded down to the couloir, down the snow to the scree, and seemingly most of the rest of the way down to a late dinner. We had done enough to make an exciting day, and we had the solution to the problem.

The actual climb, three days later, began with an expeditious retracing of our route to the ledge. By eleven we were lunching on it, and looking nervously at the few hundred feet above us. It would almost obviously go, but…? Rawles soon started up, it being his mountain by right of priority. The rock was as bad as I have encountered ; not too steep, but so treacherous that even the rope was a danger. Within an hour, however, Rawles had finished his delicate leading, and we were on the summit ridge. No sign of a cairn, and not even the shred of a prune. It was a climactic moment.

The sight of the southern face was our first disappointment. It is a slope of tumbled scree, and a good walker might be able to find a way up it. Fortunately, however, there was no sign that anyone had. We built several cairns on several summits, and left a message in a sardine tin. It was somewhat inexact in describing the route, because I seem to be unable to tell east from west. But future climbers will be perplexed by more than inaccuracies ; for at the end, after our five names, appears the parenthesis : “(And Tallulah Bankhead!)” This cryptic addition is simply explained. Miss Woolsey had a dream, the night before the climb, that we reached the summit and found a cairn upon it. In the cairn was a note : “Crossed this mountain on skis last winter. Tallulah Bankhead.”

From the ridge we had our first good view of the needles to the south. Adventures were in store. The great knife-edged ridge running toward Cloud was hidden from us, a short quarter- mile away, by the crag of Mount Woolsey. The eastern and western faces, as we saw them in silhouette, looked too precipitous to be considered; the northern face rose from an airy col below us in an equally uninviting series of cliffs and ledges. The southern side, and the ridge beyond it, were still hidden from us. But in that unknown, if anywhere, we should have to find our future route; what we could see looked hopelessly unprepossessing.

The east face of Black Tooth is transected by a wide ledge, or rake, running obliquely down from the summit to the snow. Miss Woolsey and my brother decided to descend by this route, onto the glacier to the east of the ridge. They could then reconnoiter the invisible peaks, and return to camp by a long valley on the far side of Buffalo Back. This would be a roundabout way, but it appeared to be the only feasible access to the southern peaks.

The rest of us could not share this commendable energy. We therefore roped to descend by the way we had come. Rawles had chosen a route of ascent at the eastern end of the face, but wisely varied it on our return by a zig-zag across almost to the middle. This is a distinct improvement, since it reduces the danger from dislodged stones. We reached the ledge without incident, and lazed in the sun for almost an hour.

I have never seen such a day. Always it was raining somewhere ; lines of high black cloud across half the sky, throwing purple shadows on the foothills and plain. Over the Big Horn basin was sun, and a vague suggestion of the Shoshone peaks mixing themselves with cloud. Above our heads the fair and foul met in a changing shadow-line; someone remarked that it was two days running into each other. The east was dour, and the west was sunlight, and all morning we were where they met.

But we could not spend the afternoon watching the show; too soon it was time to leave. I was anchoring down the couloir, in its narrowest part, when I heard an explosion in the cliffs above us. A few endless seconds of waiting, and then the vicious hum of a stone. It passed some twenty feet to the right, burst below us, and whirred its particles off into space. A belated gesture, and the only one of the sort which the mountains made. But it is worth mention, as a sign that the couloir should be approached with a well-cocked eye.

We returned lazily to camp, to find the other two there before us. They had scrambled down from Black Tooth without trouble, and had found that the peaks on the southern ridge were all we could have hoped for. Beyond Mount Woolsey they had seen the Innominate, which looked more formidable than anything we had yet discovered. (It was.) Most encouraging of all, the side valley which they followed down was a long but feasible route of approach. Our opinion of the Big Horns began to rise.

We returned to Tepee for a few days’ rest, and on July 10th packed in to camp again. We had scarcely reached it when Miss Woolsey was recalled to New Haven by the sudden death of her father. This blow deprived us of one of our best climbers, at just the moment when we were finding more difficult mountains.

The gap which she left was never filled. But we soon had company, as welcome as it was unexpected. Warren Gorrell, whose cairn we had found on the north face of Black Tooth, returned alone to make another attempt at the direct face climb. He failed twice, but succeeded the third time, and reached the summit in five hours from camp—an extraordinarily creditable piece of solitary mountaineering. His is undoubtedly the most direct route of the three which have been tried. It involves one difficult pitch, immediately below the ledge, and just where there is the maximum danger from falling stones. Our route, therefore, seems preferable until the snow has entirely melted from the upper face, which this year was about the middle of July. After that time, the melting snow on the lower slopes would probably make our couloir at least disagreeable, and Gorrell’s route distinctly superior.

On July 11 th, the day when Miss Woolsey left, my brother and I climbed Hallelujah. Our initial motive was to find a practicable way to the southern peaks over the col between Hallelujah and the northeast ridge. If there were one, it might save several hours over the valley way. We scarcely hoped to climb Hallelujah itself. I surreptitiously tucked pencil and paper into my pocket, on the off chance of another summit cairn ; but it was a chance which neither of us mentioned.

The couloir on the north side of the col gave us three hours of excellent climbing. We skirted its lower opening, for fear of falling stones, and came into it where the bed was filled with steep, firm snow. The climbing was somewhat reminiscent of the Matterhorn couloir on the Riffelhorn : bits of snow, long sections of moderate rock, and two pitches of marked difficulty. One was at the end of a short ice traverse, where a wet and overhanging chimney blocked the floor of the gully. The second was an arm pull-up on a scanty flake of rock, one of the places where one’s boots seem to be made of lead. With these two exceptions, the going was easy enough. But it was 1.30 before we pulled ourselves onto the ridge and rummaged for some very welcome sardines.

The near view of Hallelujah is completely disheartening. The ridge rises almost vertically from the col, for a distance of some 60 ft. ; it looks impossible to ascend it directly, and more so to turn either flank. The only hope we could see was a twenty- foot sliver of rock, balanced on end upon an invisible ledge. If this rock were firm, there might be a way between it and the wall. The chances seemed meager, but pride demanded one effort. We changed into sneakers, and my brother gloomily began to climb.

It was the most surprising pitch I have encountered. The boulder was as firm as the mountain, and holds which were invisible from below appeared exactly where they should be. Within a few minutes we found ourselves, puffed and amazed, on the easy ridge which is all the rest of the peak. An hour and a half of scrambling, over unbelievably good rock, took us to the summit, and another hour back to the col. Our imposing mountain had concealed its weak spot by very enjoyable bluffing.

Our next problem was on a larger scale. Mount Woolsey is within a few feet of the elevation of Black Tooth, and from every angle—when it can be seen at all—is a greatly superior peak. The only approach seemed to be the south ridge, beginning at the col between Mount Woolsey and the Innominate. This col might be reached from the east by a couloir or by the face; above the col, the general angle of the ridge looked possible.

We were somewhat relieved, and somewhat nettled, to find that Mount Woolsey also began with a bluff. Within an hour, Rawles had led us at a merry pace over easy, broken rocks from the glacier to the col ; the lower face had turned out to be no more than an invigorating scramble. But the south ridge was to be taken more seriously. A fantastic jumble of slabs and gendarmes slowly resolved itself, as we worked our way up, into a real knife-edge. No single pitch was quite the limit of what we could do ; each unclimbable gendarme was provided with one detour, and usually just one. After an experience on the east flank— which ended with an embarrassingly naked slab and an equally embarrassing retreat—we stuck as close to the ridge as possible. We were first on one face, then on the other, then on the ridge itself ; the rock was superb, and none of the climbing really stiff.

Finally we were under the summit. I was hunting for a way onto the ridge, when Rawles suggested that we try the east face. I thought he was flippant or crazy, for all I could see of the face was smooth cliff. But when I joined him, I saw his point. From where we stood, a little ledge meandered up across the precipice toward what looked like the top. I here was vertical wall above and below ; but the ledge was some four feet wide, and at an angle of 30° or so. Since the ridge looked none too alluring, the ledge it was. Up it, around a shelf on the edge of nothing, a scramble over some boulders, and there was the summit. I have never seen a climb with such an easy and sensational ending.

We luxuriated on top for three-quarters of an hour, being surprised that we were there. Then we started down, with storms on each side of us. The wind grew worse, and we felt a few drops from one cloud or the other; our boots were 1,500 ft. below, and it would have been a slow descent in wet sneakers. There was heavy rain in the lowlands, and the storm lighting on the plains was magnificent. But we had the show without paying for it, and stayed in sunshine most of the time. It was our only day in the mountains when the weather was disturbing.

Our next problem was again on a small scale, smaller even than Hallelujah. The Five Fingers are glorified practice-rocks, like the Untergabelhorn at Zermatt. But like it, they are easily accessible and provide some excellent climbing. The Thumb, on the northern end, has the most sensational traverse : an airy ridge, dropping abruptly into the col toward the Index ; the descent is difficult, and there seems to be no way off the mountain from the col. The Index, from this col, gives some very stiff work, and the descent by the east face involves one extremely satisfying chimney. Third Finger is the highest and easiest; its only virtue would be for a training scramble. The Ring Finger, on the contrary, has some excellent problems on its northern face, and a delicate descent on its southeastern flank. The Little Finger is merely a walk, as is also a small wart beyond it. The Index provides the most interesting climbing, but there are enough good pitches on the others (unlike the peaks of the Untergabelhorn) to repay a traverse of the entire hand. The rock is superlatively good, and the climbing leaves nothing to be desired except more of it.

Our final mountain was the Innominate. It turned out to be the climax of our expedition, a magnificent peak. Our climbing hitherto had not taxed us to the limit. The questions had been more those of mountaineering than of actual climbing. The Innominate provided us with ample problems of the first order, and also with some of the stiffest rock work I have encountered. If we had designed the peak ourselves, it could not have been better fitted for the last day’s work.

The east face is steeper than the Montenvers face of the Grépon. From the summit to the glacier, for 1,200 ft., it is one almost vertical sweep of rock. The west face is steep, though in a less ultimate way, while the north and south faces are merely the angles where the other two meet. There are three summits, separated by gaps which seem to have been made by a giant saw, and which render a traverse practically impossible. It does not look friendly, and it is not.

We decided to attempt the west face, which could be reached only by the col between the Innominate and Mount Woolsey. The east face, as seen in profile from this col, had a sobering effect on our enthusiasm. It may one day be climbed, but never by anyone who spends too much time looking at it. There is one break in the wall : an alluringly awful ice couloir connecting the glacier with a gap beyond the middle summit. All we saw of it was a winding ribbon of ice between straight rock walls, curving off and up into the heart of the mountain. A large snow-patch clung to the precipice above. While we watched, the snow broke away, and raked the lower couloir with an avalanche. That approached seemed even less attractive.

Immediately to the south of us was a small needle, crowned by a fantastic rock which leaned westward into space like one of the monsters on Notre Dame. This Gargoyle Pinnacle gave us some excellent climbing. The ascent from the north was longer than we had expected, and stiff work all the way; it was of much the same caliber as the better parts of the Trift ridge on the Zinal Rothorn. The gargoyle itself was without holds, but at just the maximum angle to which rubber soles would stick.

The rest of the traverse was easy, but it was 3.30 before we had crossed the west face to a point under the highest summit of the Innominate. We had lost considerable altitude in the process, and must have had a thousand feet left to climb. There was obviously not time to do it, but equally obviously it had to be done. The first five hundred ft. presented no great difficulty, but the climbing was never easy; we stuck to the center of the face, and were able to make rapid time. Then the rock steepened to the nearly vertical (Montague’s “inexperienced clinometer” would probably have said about 60° ). The party by now had been reduced to my brother and myself ; the others had stopped at various points, where they were safe from falling stones and able to watch in comfort.

We wondered whether there would be anything to watch. There were three possible ways up the next thirty feet, but none of them looked probable. All three ended in a slab of evident steepness and dubious character. My brother tried his favorite of the three, a shallow trough without handholds. It brought him to the slab, after some very strenuous climbing, but revealed no way of securing his return. The slab was as steep as it looked, with rounded, water-worn holds which were on the thin edge of adequacy. But even those were preferable to slithering back, and foot by foot he worked up over them. At last he reached a ledge where there was a perfect thank-God belay, and our troubles were over. I followed him, with fervent delight in the rope, and soon we were scrambling up the last easy cracks under the top.

It was 4.30 when we came on the ridge, and already high time to be getting back. The actual summit is a great boulder, looking like an overgrown tin can dropped by some gargantuan picknicker. It seems much more impossible than the Baton Wicks, and we were quite willing to persuade ourselves that it would be an affectation to consider it as the summit. We therefore built our cairn on the ridge, and left a note of the route. I had a horrid fear afterward that I had described an ascent by the middle of the east face, instead of the west. If so, it will surprise any future climbers. We dropped a stone over the east face, a foot from the edge, and it was seven seconds before we heard it strike.

Our descent was rapid and uneventful. We rappeled down the one arduous pitch, gathered our party by installments, and within an hour were back at the col again. But we were too late ; darkness overtook us at the foot of the valley, and a walk which would have taken little more than a half-hour by daylight consumed three weary hours in the dark. It was midnight before we saw our camp-fire, and signaled to our very worried friends. They came out with flashlights to guide us over the last heartbreaking scree, and back to the most welcome dinner and the most welcome corn whiskey which I can remember. We had been going for eighteen hours, and next morning were still tired enough to be almost reconciled to breaking camp.

The Innominate was by all odds our most difficult ascent. It need not have taken so long, but it would always be a good day’s work. This is not true of all the climbs; the one major drawback of the Big Horns is that they are not big enough. It is not a question of altitude, for the summits are as high as many of the Alps, and there is little difference in the distance to be climbed. But the valleys run up to 11,000 ft. or so, and usually end in snowfields which abut against the mountains. The actual climbing, consequently, is for the most part within a vertical compass of less than 2,000 ft.

Anyone accustomed to the Alps will also miss the variety afforded by snow and ice. There are glaciers and snow-slopes in the Big Horns, and plenty of superb glissading. But our route on Black Tooth, and the approach to Hallelujah are the only ones which involve any snow-climbing, and that of a very rudimentary sort. The technique of rock-climbing is really the only one which is called into play. While this is a drawback, it has its compensation in the wide variety of rock, and hence of technical problems.

It is difficult to describe little-known mountains without giving a false impression. I am aware of the limitations of the Big Horns; they will always seem a bit like toy mountains in comparison with the peaks of the Oberland or the Valais. At the same time I have no wish to belittle the range as a climbing center, for we found it vastly better than our best expectations. As a gauge for the caliber of these peaks, it might be illuminating to make a few rough comparisons with the Alps. There are obvious reasons why the two are not accurately comparable ; but a few resemblances, based on the general difficulty of certain climbs, do suggest themselves. Black Tooth, for example, is of about the same order as the Rimpfischhorn. Hallelujah resembles the west ridge of the Besso, approached for good measure by way of the Matterhorn couloir. Mount Woolsey inevitably recalls the summit ridge of the Schreckhorn, just as the Innominate recalls the Chamonix peaks—the Charmoz, or some bits of the Dru.

A great deal of fascinating exploration is still to be done. There is a spire to the west of the Five Fingers, which looks from a distance like five hundred feet of smooth impossibility. There is the sensational ascent of Mount Woolsey from the north. There are the two other peaks of the Innominate, and even conceivably the traverse of all three. Still less conceivably, there is the east face of the Innominate. The east face of Cloud has been often attempted, but we could find no record that it had been done. The most gluttonous mountaineer would find repletion in the whole traverse from Cloud to Black Tooth, and the most brilliant rock-climber would be given pause by the cliffs of Hallelujah.

There are plenty of problems to try the most expert, and plenty which are für Geübter leicht. Any one of the summits could be reached a party of moderate strength, while a really strong one could find some very sensational routes. As a whole, the mountaineering is certainly equal to what we found in the Tyrol ; it is on much the same scale, for example, as that in the Stubaital. The absence of ice in the Big Horns is offset by vastly superior rock, and by the wide variation in the nature of the different peaks. The range is accessible, and the peaks are very close together. We returned to the East with the conviction that the mountains we had happened upon were ideal for a short climbing holiday. They certainly provided us with some of the most superlative fun of our mountain experience.

1The attempts of which I have been able to find record are the following : Those of Mrs. E. G. Adams, Dr. Alexander Forbes, Messrs. C. B. Newhall and N. L. Goodrich in 1928; that of Dr. Forbes and Mr. Newhall in 1930; and that of Messrs. Rawles, O’Brien and Jenks in 1932.

2 A word about equipment : Provisions were of the usual sort, dried and tinned, but augmented by trout from the lakes. Our one disappointment was dried soy beans; the altitude went to their heads, and after forty-eight hours of boiling they still tasted like unripe bullets. We used tepee tents, which can be bought in Sheridan for little more than the cost of expressing. Sleeping-bags, even in June, should be only of moderate weight. Rope and boots are necessary or advisable for all the climbing, and sneakers are a great help for much of it. We found ice-axes useful on the interminable boulder-fields, and more so on the frequent glissades ; one axe to a rope would be a scanty minimum. Dark glasses are not needed, although they are sometimes a comfort. Crampons and gloves we took but never used. Heavy clothing is unnecessary on the mountains, for the temperature is ideal.

3All these peaks are officially nameless, and have no local names which we could discover. We were, therefore, compelled to give them names of our own, and these—for lack of others—I shall use in describing them. The only personal name, and the only one which we are anxious to have retained, is Mount Woolsey. It was christened in honor of Miss Woolsey’s father, whose tragic death occurred just before we climbed it.

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