Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Northern Wind River Range: A High Ski Traverse

In the spring of ‘94 I skied from Lander to Jackson following the spine of the Wind River and Gros Ventre Ranges. After pulling a sled over Dinwoody Pass, and a short detour to Wyoming’s high point, Gannett Peak, I spent a long blissful day skiing a high straight line from the Dinwoody Glacier to Downs Mountain. This aesthetic route follows a major fault line, connects the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and never drops below 12,000 feet. It also traverses next to enticing 13,000+ ft. peaks.  For years I dreamed of returning.

Kings Peak, Utah

My wife, Amy, and I have a tradition of one last big ski tour over Memorial Day weekend. In 2009 we crossed Montana's Beartooths from Cooke City to Alpinein 2010 we skied Kings Peak (Utah’s High Point) in the Uinta Mountains; in 2013 we skied Ladd Peak in the Wind River Range; and this year we traversed Montana's Tobacco Root Mountains. In 2011, we completed a peak-bagging mission to the Northern Wind River Range.

Spring of 2011, however, was highly unusual in the Northern Rockies. Unprecedented spring storms and unseasonably cold weather left the mountains buried in record amounts of snow. In May, snowpacks averaged 150% of normal. Yet the record-breaking precipitation frustrated many of us skiers: lots of snow, but with few cold and clear days of high-pressure to enjoy it. Memorial Day weekend came and went. With low-pressure systems continuing to bombard the Rockies with even more snow, Amy and I went south and traded skis and powder for packrafts, sandstone, and sunshine. Better weather in June did allow a couple epic ski traverses in Southwest Montana: The Gallatin Crest and the Hilgard-Taylor Traverse of the Madison Range.

As the 4th of July (a three-day weekend) neared, Amy became restless. Our dog and mountain partner of 13+ years, Wister (the uber-mountain-mutt), had recently passed away. His ashes, in a metal water bottle, awaited one last trip to the summit of Gannett Peak. The holiday weekend also marked the 6th the anniversary of Heather Paul’s fatal climbing fall in the Tetons. Heather had been Amy’s main peak-bagging partner. Together, Heather, Amy and Wister enjoyed many miles and peaks together, including their first summit of Gannett. Amy and I like to believe Heather and Wister are back roaming the Winds together.

Friday after work we headed south.  We drove along a swollen Green River to the Green River Lakes trailhead, arriving just in time to see the alpenglow-kissed Squaretop Mountain reflected in Lower Green River Lake. Six hours later we awoke to a clear sky, a couple of Red Bulls, and a three thousand foot climb up the Mill Creek Route to the summit of Osborne Mountain. Above 10,000 feet the snow was perfect, frozen hard and still smooth. Glistening white, the high plateau country, characteristic of the range’s northern end, rolled out in front of us like a colossal welcome mat.

In the back of the 1994 addition of Joe Kelsey’s Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains is a list of forty-eight “High Summits.” Joe defines these as “….higher than 12,500 feet with at least 400 feet from a saddle joining then to a higher peak.”  Over the years Amy and I have summited more than half of them. As the list gets shorter, we find our missions to the Winds more focused. In the Northern Winds, there is a cluster of peaks on Joe’s list that we had yet to summit. From the top of Osborne Mountain, we can see many of them: Yukon, Desolation, Bastion, Flagstone, Koven, and Ladd.
Continuing east to the Wind River Crest and the Continental Divide, we glide along the lunar-like landscape of granite domes, snow covered ledges, gullies and frozen lakes. Our kicker skins and traditional three-pin bindings provide the ideal transport for the rolling terrain. Most of my original ski mountaineering partners have long ago switched to the light and well-engineered Dynafit binding. However, I’m old-school and find the natural motion of a Nordic rig better to kick and glide, quicker during transitions, and less fatiguing on long epic tours. Besides, my aluminum three-pins are lighter than titanium Dynafit bindings and much less expensive.

My old and worn knees don’t appreciate telemark turns anymore, so I no longer think of myself as a telemark skier. Instead I prefer the term “Nordic Mountaineer.” After a winter ski guiding in the Tetons with my Garmont Excursion telemark boots, I read the catalogue description and learned they weren’t designed for turning or steep skiing…oops. I am envious of the new ultra-light randonee racing boots. Maybe one day Dynafit will make a Nordic version with a bar binding.

Northwest Peak is really the western summit of Downs Mountain. Like many of the named summits that Amy and I have climbed it did not make Joe’s list because it lacks “…at least 400 feet from a saddle joining them to a higher peak.” Regardless, we stop, rest, and enjoy its summit. Descending its south slope we are rewarded with a slightly thawed thick crust – perfect corn.

The sky is the clearest I have seen it in years. The horizon is a panorama of familiar landmarks: to the west Wyoming Peak, Triple Peak and the Sawtooth; to the northwest Les Trois Tetons; to the north Three Waters Mountain, Mt. Leidy, and Pinnacle Butte; to the east Downs Mountain and Washakie Needles, and to the south Gannett Peak — our ultimate destination.
Our next stop is an unnamed peak (13,062 feet) that rises more than 400 feet above the saddles of Downs Mountain to the north and Yukon Peak to the south, yet is not on Kelsey’s list. Could this be the 2nd highest unnamed peak in Wyoming (Peak 13,198 being the highest)? I make a note to follow up with Joe on this.

Big Horn Sheep (Ovis canadensis), Absaroka Range

On our way south we cross fresh mountain sheep tracks. I scan the landscape to see if I can view this elusive Bovidae. In the early 1800s, mountain men like Osborne Russell reported seeing thousands of bighorn sheep in Greater Yellowstone. The first people to inhabit these mountains, the Tukadika or Sheepeaters, were named after them. Unfortunately, like the native people that they nourished, exotic diseases and habitat loss have all but eliminated the indigenous sheep from the landscape.

Connie Glacier, Yukon Peak
photo by Thomas Turiano

Wind River explorer, mountaineer, fisherman, and conservationist, Finis Mitchell, was the first to climb Yukon Peak and it is presumed that Finis chose the name to be consistent with nearby Klondike Peak and Sourdough Glacier. Like its namesake, Yukon Peak is remote and largely flat with a few notable rocky outcroppings. 

Amy McCarthy, Baker Lake

From the summit, we are startled by several ‘hoots’ and look to the west to see our good friend Tom Turiano and ski partners on a nearby summit. Delightfully surprised we watch them descend a steep face to the Connie Glacier and their camp at Kevin Lake. We follow suit and head south down the softening afternoon snow to find an attractive island of dry tundra beside the frozen waters of Baker Lake.
By first light the following morning we are cramponing up the Sourdough Glacier. While a real glacier with real crevasses, the ample snow cover and frozen morning crust ease any anxiety we had about traveling unroped. Regardless, we make haste and summit Klondike Peak shortly after sunrise. With the sun still low on the eastern horizon, the shadows and definition created are striking. Gannett’s North Face has grown in stature and behind it the spires of Mt. Warren, Doublet, and Turret pierce the sky.

Scratchy, yet smooth, snow provides a rapid descent to the Klondike-Pedestal saddle where a gentle north-facing snow slope affords easy access to our next thirteener — Pedestal Peak. Named for an eroded granite pedestal that defines its summit, Pedestal is 110 feet lower than its close neighbor: Flagstone Peak, and there is no definitive saddle between the two. While topography deprives Pedestal Peak of autonomy, it does allow easy passage to Flagstone, whose moderately steep snowy southeast flank has softened to the consistency of warm butter.

After a short climb and a few turns to bypass a small ridge we are greeted by the intimidating north flank of Bastion Peak. After some discussion and words of encouragement, we don our spikes and ascend a long steep couloir to its summit. Like Flagstone, Bastion trumps its neighbor, Rampart Peak, by a mere 54 feet and therefore receives all the glory. Rampart’s steep rocky summit is hard to discern. We tag the top of several granite gendarmes, call it good and proceed to descend its steep southeast flank to the Gannett Glacier below the craggy summit of Mount Koven. Lacking a rope we save the technical summit of Koven for another day.

Now mid-day, the sun bakes our skin and lips. Intense ultraviolet radiation reflecting off the snow has cooked unexpected body parts. I discover a new strip of sunburn under the visor of my hat. I lather up with sunscreen, even the inside of my nostrils receive a coat.

Gannett Peak’s iconic north face towers above as we cross a high pass (12,902 ft) to the Gooseneck Glacier and the standard ascent route, familiar ground for both Amy and I; and familiar territory for our dog Wister, who had effortlessly made it to Wyoming’s high point on six occasions. With ease we cross the bergschrund and ascend the Gooseneck Couloir. We cache our packs at the base of the summit ridge where we are joined by a pair of rosy finches that chirp with excitement and accompany us to the summit.

photo by Travis Garner

Amy and I are overwhelmed by the memories and the vistas. Wister had entered Amy’s life as a lost puppy and for thirteen wonderful years was an enthusiastic, ever-ready, and highly competent companion on our mountain adventures. To our best accounting, Wister summited over 60 Wind River Peaks, including multiple summits of Gannett and Fremont and singular summits of Raid, Hooker, Elephanthead, Jackson, Downs, Temple and so many others along this impressive range. Many of these peaks were visible, including Fremont Peak, a favorite annual climb for Amy, Wister and Heather.

Now atop Gannett, again, joined by the small birds that have appeared throughout this journey, we share handfuls of Wister’s ashes and toss them into the wind.
Skiing off the summit in late afternoon heat requires extra care. While ski cutting the top of the south couloir failed to produce major sloughs, a few massive pinwheels chase us down the slope, one nearly knocking me over. Hugging the shady sides of the couloir, where the snow was firmer, we safely pick our way down to the Dinwoody Glacier and traverse to Glacier Pass, the west side and the Mammoth Glacier.

The Mammoth Glacier and the upper Wells Creek basin is a special place with no easy access and few visitors. Craggy glacier-covered thirteen thousand foot peaks surround us: to the east Gannett and Koven, to the south Split Mountain and Woodrow Wilson, to the west Whitecap and Twin, and to the north Desolation. Below, Wells Creek descends a narrow cascade-filled cleft that has been the source of multiple epics and aborted Gannett missions. Like an indubitable Valhalla ruled by the Norse god Odan, the basin is a natural hall of mountain kings, with Gannett rising supreme. We spend our final night camped on a small stretch of barren ground near its hearth, Scott Lake.

In the morning we climb out to the northwest by Solitude Mountain, then descend Tourist Creek: a feasible, but hideous boulder strewn exit to Three Forks Park, the Green River, and the well-traveled Highline Trail. Crossing a few swollen creeks and a long twelve-mile hike in ski boots back to the Green River Lakes trailhead provide the final challenges.

After a trip like this, it is hard to resist some number crunching. In 60 hours, we covered approximately 45 miles. For over 25 miles, we never descended below 10,000 feet, and over 15 miles were spent above 12,000 feet. We summited 9 named peaks and one significant unnamed peak, 8 of them over 13,000 feet. In total, we ascended over 16,000 feet and descended over 16,000 feet, and we had one more grand adventure in the Winds.

Originally posted in OuterLocal in July of 2011.

A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on earth.” ― Finis Mitchell


  1. I quite liked the article, until you said you may switch over to an AT set up.

    1. Where did I say I might switch to an AT set up? I would like a pair of tele boots that are as light and flexible as some Rando Racing boots, but with a Nordic duck bill or bar binding.