American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Shining Mountains

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  • Publication Year: 1945

The Shining Mountains

Floyd Wilson1

THE two figures silhouetted against the setting sun were as motionless as the snow-capped peaks about them; the fringes of their buckskin leggings fluttered in the evening breeze. Like two graven gods of the wilderness, they stood silent and motionless, overlooking the vast panorama of great peaks, mighty rivers, and awesome canyons that seemed to extend into infinity.

Like a tableau enacted 5000 years before on Mt. Sinai, one figure poised with outstretched arm pointing to the west, over mountains and valleys swathed in dusk of evening to where three great cathedral-like spires emerged from the shadows of the valleys into the clouds, while his companion looked wistfully over the great vistas of pristine beauty. Sadly he watched the setting sun drop slowly behind the three lofty peaks. In its reflected beams they glowed as though with an inner light. Majestic and domineering, they rose until they seemed to pierce the heavens.

As the light on the mountains faded and they merged into the purple of the night, the figures slowly faced one another. He who had seen the land which he was never to touch spoke bitterly, “The Tetons are awaiting you west of the Shining Mountains; to enter the valley is to await the coming of death.” Solemnly he turned once again and viewed the three lance-like peaks, now slowly disappearing into darkness. “Les Trois Tetons,” he whispered, “Les Tetons!” The Three Tetons!

A mask of despondency settled on his bearded and weather-seamed face as he turned to the stalwart Indians and said wearily, “My friend, you have spoken truly; this is the end of our journey. Let us return to our brothers in the valley. To my left rise these Shining Mountains that no man can cross; to my right rise those terrifying mountains in whose shadows dwell the wicked Sioux and before me lies a region wild in character and inhabitants. Let us go.”

As they swiftly and silently sped down the mountain to the camp of their comrades in the valley of the Wind River, the thoughts of the two men were as far apart as the shores of the sea. The leader was congratulating himself on fulfilling his mission satisfactorily and thinking of the food that awaited him at the end of his journey a few hours away. The other was embittered by failure and eight years of hardship spent in battling his way through regions of savage Indians; fighting hunger and cold; of leading his little band of comrades over prairie, forests and mountains, only to turn back in view of their goal.

Chevalier de la Vérendrye had set forth from the westernmost outpost of French civilization in 1732 to cross the continent and find the source of the waters that flowed into the Western Sea. With the courage and resourcefulness of a crusader, he slowly worked his way westward until his little band of adventurers found their way blocked to the south by a great range of snow-capped peaks whose summits seemed to be unattainable. The Indians who lived in the Wind River Valley to the north of these Shining Mountains told the now weary men that the rivers on the south side of these mountains flowed into Spanish territory, that the river that flowed into the Western Sea was just to the west, but to enter the valley was to court certain death from the predatory bands of Teton Sioux that inhabited this region.

The unlimited expanse of mountains and valleys to be crossed probably had as much deterring effect as the friendly Shoshone’s warning to this group of Canadian voyageurs. All we know of their travels are some brief and undetailed reports now gathering dust in the Montreal and Paris Archives. We do know they passed many months in the vicinity of the Wind River and Teton Ranges and that their time was spent in exploring for possible routes to the Western Sea. After eight years of struggle to reach this point, they would be unlikely to turn back because of danger from Indians.

In 1811, another band of frontiersmen paused on the pass and gazed at the three mighty peaks. Suffering many hardships and adventures, they had fought their way from the mouth of the Missouri to a point near its source and had crossed to the valley that Vérendrye had visited more than seventy years before. Triumphantly they gazed at the three peaks that marked the source of the waters that flowed into the Columbia.

Pilot Knobs was the name this little band of wanderers called them. In his diary, Wilson Price Hunt stated: “We called them the Pilot Knobs, though they are known by the name of The Tetons.” Tetons they were then and probably had been known by that name long before Vérendrye viewed their summits from the lofty passes of the mighty Wind Rivers.

Glowing accounts have been written of the Tetons and for many years they have reigned supreme in the hearts of American mountain lovers. But in their admiration and adulation of these superb spectacles of Alpine grandeur, they have entirely lost view of the grander and more magnificent mountains—the Shining Mountains of the early Spanish Conquistadors and the wanderers of the early eighteenth century.

Vérendrye in his meager reports never once mentioned the Tetons, though he did go into some detail about the Wind Rivers. Wilson Price Hunt confined his remarks on the Tetons to a few brief sentences, though paragraphs of glowing descriptions were his portions for the great range to the east.

Even before Vérendrye crossed the wilderness, these mountains were well known to Spaniards far to the southward. The Indians called them the Shining Mountains, and this name the Spanish priests put upon maps drawn, no doubt, from reports of wandering adventurers and Indians from the northern plains. It is true that the Colorado Rockies were known by this name in Coronado’s time, but the name seems to have applied to the entire continental watershed of which the Wind Rivers are the apex. Of these old maps and documents we know little except for verified reports of historians who have journeyed to Spain and France to delve into archives.

Of our own early American explorers we know much more, but unfortunately for us, few writers braved the terrors of the West, and the pageant of heroic figures which passes across the pages of history was written only by the cold-blooded pens of scholarly biographers.

Vague and distorted accounts of the West reached the world and many stories were told and retold, until the authors of them could be excused if they failed to recognize them as their own by the time they reached the press.

Perhaps no range of mountains in the world received more true and false recognition than did the “Wind Rivers.” (From the time of the Astorians to this day they have been known by that prosaic and unromantic name.) An insurmountable barrier to travellers, they must be skirted either at South Pass or 100 miles to the north at Union Pass.

Until the coming of the railroad, the crossing of the Wind Rivers was fraught with peril to the traveller. No one place in the West has as bloody a history as does the South Pass of the Wind Rivers.

Indians in their nomadic travels met and fought on the trails leading to the passes. Trappers and explorers sought vainly for safer avenues that would lead them through the mountains away from the savages along the primitive highways of the red man. In their explorations they ascended canyons and climbed great peaks. They discovered the greatest glacier system in the present confines of the United States, and brought back reports of peaks higher than the Himalayas, of the deepest canyons in the world and tales of strange and terrible happenings.

The Wind Rivers were the homes of a race of mountain people who, unlike mountain people the world over, were miserable derelicts from the ferocious tribes on the plains. Wild and timid, only the sharp-eyed trappers ever saw them. Like wraiths they flitted before approaching parties. Only an occasional mention is made of them in the journals of the early adventurers, but evidence of their fear-haunted existence remains in traces of old campfires, arrow points and weird symbols drawn on the walls of canyons.

Even today the Shoshones living in the valley tell of the little people who lived in the mountains until destroyed in a great war, of how they would creep into the teepees of the Indians and steal food and arms.

The Shoshones would flee to the mountains from the wrath of the blood-thirsty Blackfeet, and while in their exile they vindicated their own cowardice by the systematic hunting down and slaughtering of this hapless race. It is no wonder that Bonneville called in vain for two of these fugitive peoples to stop as he saw them dash across a canyon. Often at night while a party of trappers dozed or talked around their campfires, phantom figures would steal into their very midst and carry away food. Even the most cynical Christian would be converted into believing that this was a region haunted by evil spirits and devils. Years ago before I had heard of the Wind Rivers, I chuckled heartily over the accounts of the Astorians, Captain Bonneville and Colonel Frémont. Their journals were thrilling documents of technical errors, superstition and hearsay, but later knowledge of the regions of their narratives lessened my amusement, and in many cases their diaries presented understatement of facts.

Washington Irving, in his account of the adventures of the Astorians, brings authoritative statements to his descriptions of the Rocky Mountains. The surveyor of the American Fur Company “by barometric and trigometrical measurements estimates them to be no less than 25,000 feet above the sea.”

Captain Bonneville climbed to the highest peak “in North America and probably in the world” and took in the vast panorama in one grand view. Irving says, “He had the soul to appreciate the view.” This is the scene that made this much travelled man exclaim, “It is the most beautiful view in the world.”

Later the intrepid Frémont climbed another peak and claimed to have climbed the highest point of the Rockies. His description of this climb is a classic of mountaineering journalism.

Their detailed accounts of adventure in the Wind Rivers would fill an average library, yet only casual mention was made of the now famous Tetons.

These were the facts that made me wish to visit this famous region, not out of any desire of visiting it for its magnificence and beauty, but for the privilege of treading on the hallowed ground of history. Although I had read and re-read volumes of descriptive literature of the Wind River Range, I was little prepared for the ultimate in mountain grandeur that I found after once having climbed to the top of the concealing foothills.

Great rounded peaks thrust their snow-capped summits into the heavens. Like frozen rivers, eighty glaciers flow down their slopes, and isolated peaks, surrounded by ice, rise like the spires of cathedrals from frozen lakes. Canyons, sheer and terrifying deep, tortuously wind their course to the plains far away. Thousands of lakes, some of them ice bound, add to the beauty and loveliness of the region.

From the summit of Gannett Peak, the giant of the range, can be seen a vast expanse of mountains. As far as the human eye is capable of reaching, the view embraces ranges of the Great Rocky Mountain Cordillera.

Predominating the skyline 70 miles to the W., are the Tetons. Far away across their northern flank, like low clouds on the horizon, are the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Then as the eye sweeps the northern horizon, Yellowstone Park is seen, where the mighty Snake River is born, then the Absaroka Range monopolizes the view. From their junction with the Absarokas until they flatten out on the prairies far to the W., the Owl Creek Mountains present a magnificent picture of high rounded hills, deep canyons, high plateaus, highly colored badlands and forests. Over the northeast shoulder can be seen the famous Big Horn Range, then the celebrated Black Hills, and as you face the east the backbone of the Wind River Range. For 75 miles the serrated ridge of the Continental Divide (the Shining Mountains) rises like a rank of silver pointed lances, making one gasp at its awful height and grim aspect.

As the southern degrees of the compass are turned, in their order can be seen Laramie Peak, the Medicine Bow Range of southern Wyoming and Colorado, the Uinta Range in Utah. So far away as to be almost indistinguishable in the haze, the Wasatch Range floats above the horizon.

All this and many other wonderful things I discovered in retracing the footsteps of our pioneers. Everything is just as wonderful as their lavish praise painted it. The hills still resound to “sharp reports like cannonading”; streams still plunge over great precipices, “their waters reaching the valley floor as mist”; thousands of lakes still dot the hills, their surfaces “reflecting the mighty crags and precipices about them.” The great peaks thrust their summits “into the blue of the heavens” though not to the height of 25,000 ft.

I found everything just as it was written 100 years ago by the first enthusiastic mountain climbers, although many of their statements were distorted by ignorance of science. Their homely and naive explanations of the strange and wonderful things about them provoke a smile, but does the average city dweller of today know and appreciate the world in which he lives?

He knows the Empire State Building is the highest in the world and that a contrivance called an elevator whisks one up or down in a twinkling, yet he doesn’t know nor does he stop to ponder how that elevator works. He takes all the marvels of the Twentieth Century for granted and would, no doubt, be startled and at a loss for an answer if a stranger from another planet should ask about all the unusual things he saw on earth.

So it was with those hardy but illiterate men of our early West. What they saw was as unreal and mysterious to them as would be the cities of the East to the redman they found inhabiting “the fastnesses of the Wind Rivers.” Can we blame them for stating that the Wind River Range was the highest in the world? We know now that many ranges in the United States are higher, but we certainly cannot concede any of them to be more rugged and beautiful.

From the days of Vérendrye until the coming of the railroads, no mountain range on the North American Continent was more famous than these Shining Mountains.

That incorrigible adventurer, Mark Twain, was moved to speak reverently of the “Mighty Wind Rivers.” Longfellow, in his poem of Evangeline, journeyed in spirit with Basil to the Wind River. Bierstadt, the artist, journeyed thither to paint the “Wind River Range,” one of the masterpieces of early American landscapes. Travellers from all over the world have viewed it in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

If the legion of famous men who have found happiness in the beauty of the Wind River Range were to be resurrected, they would see this great wilderness as it has been from the beginning of history. Unmarred by civilization, it retains its primitive virginity. No roads or resorts are within its confines; no hordes of dusty, chattering tourists break the wilderness. A few excellent trails built by the Forest Service in harmony with their wilderness area program penetrate to the base of the great glaciers. But other than that these mountains are as untouched as they were during the days of Bonneville and Frémont, perhaps less so.

Mountaineers, fisherman and nature lovers, are becoming aware of this vast section of unknown territory at their own doorsteps, and are avidly scrambling over the trails trod two hundred years ago by the first visitors. The Shining Mountains are once more becoming the most popular mountains in America. In this day of high-pressure salesmanship, they are at a distinct disadvantage through the greater publicity given to more accessible and less magnificent mountains. They have looked down on the struggles of four great nations for their possession and now they are again witnessing a struggle; not of races, but of classes.

A group of people representing the tourist public would include them in the National Park System to become the victims of roads, trails and huge resorts. The other group, much smaller, but just as insistent, wish them to remain as they are and always have been, a primitive wilderness of calm beauty and grandeur, untainted by the polluting hand of progress, a haven for the wilderness lover and mountaineer.

Which side will win is beyond our prophetic capacities to state, but I am duly thankful that I discovered the Shining Mountains as they have been since the beginning of time, and that I have the opportunity of saying that I have entered the confines of these lovely mountains and have found all the beauties and none of the terrors the stalwart pioneers encountered in their adventurous visits to this enchanted region.

1The writer, a member of the Club now stationed at Camp Hale, guided in the Wind River area for several seasons, this article being a section of a proposed guidebook.—[ED.].

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