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Wyoming’s Range of Light

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

Charlie Raymond on the first ascent of the North Face of Mt. Hooker [Photo] Royal Robbins Collection

Charlie?Raymond on the first ascent of the North Face of Mt. Hooker. [Photo] Royal Robbins Collection

The Wind River Range of Wyoming is the closest mountain landscape I have yet found to my first love, the Sierra Nevada. One-third the size of its California cousin, the Wind River Range also looks as if it were formed by some great tilting of a block of the Earth’s crust, rather than by a folding process of mountain building. Other similarities are the open spaciousness of the extensive highlands, the white granite of the cliffs, the numerous lakes and meadows, and the streams coursing over expanses of smooth granite strewn with erratic boulders.

Two things that you don’t usually find in the Sierra, but that you can expect in the Wind Rivers, are a thick population of mosquitoes and bad weather in the summer. Also, in certain areas you may encounter enormous herds of sheep. Our party of six, Dick McCracken, Julie Verran, Charles Raymond, Patricia Taylor, and my wife, Liz, and I, visited the southern Wind Rivers in July 1964. From Big Sandy Opening, we hiked to the Cirque of the Towers, one of the more famous and spectacularly alpine areas in these mountains.

We spent a week enjoying the magnificent climbing opportunities. During our stay, Dick and Charlie and I made the first complete traverse of the Cirque, from Pingora to Warbonnet. This excursion took us a little over one day. We enjoyed one section (the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head) so much that Charlie and I later returned with Liz and Patricia to climb it again. On July 18, Charlie and I made the first ascent of the 800-foot south buttress of the Watchtower, perhaps the most impressive wall in the area. This was an all-day climb, equivalent to a Yosemite Grade IV. Although difficult and challenging, this route did not meet the expectations aroused by the beauty of the buttress, as much of the rock was poor. Both of these adventures involved periods of rain and lightning.

After such pleasant successes, we shouldered our monstrous packs and hiked to Grave Lake, a large body of water below Mt. Hooker. To get there, we had to cross a tempestuous river by an exciting Tyrolean traverse. Our objective was the north face of Mt. Hooker, which had already repelled three parties. It looked repelling to us too, but we started our ascent on July 22. The pitonning was difficult, and after two days, we had climbed only 700 feet of the 1,800-foot wall. To get there, we used many pitons, thirteen bolts (the only ones used on the climb) and nine fifi hooks for direct aid on flakes or small ledges. We passed our second night fairly comfortably in hammocks. The weather was cold and windy, but otherwise fair.

Above the 700-foot point, the rock improved. We passed a third night on a good ledge and reached the summit at noon on July 25, after two fine and difficult free climbing pitches. As we relaxed on the summit, swatting mosquitoes, we agreed it had been an exciting climb, and that we had been extremely lucky with the weather. While we were making our way up the route, Patricia, Julie and Liz had been industriously ferrying our supplies from Grave Lake and then back up again.

Our trip to the Wind Rivers ended with a touch of despair. For we hiked out on the Fremont Sheep Trail and saw the shocking devastation the “hoofed locusts” (the nineteenth-century conservationist John Muir’s term for the sheep and other livestock that once trampled the alpine country of the Sierra) had dealt to the beautiful country. Whole hillsides had been turned from grassy slopes to sand dunes. Near the end of our hike, we passed a large herd of sheep. The noise they make does nothing for the wilderness. To get an idea of what it is like, imagine the vocal corollary of Michelangelo’s pictures of sinners being cast into hell and magnify this by several hundred. It is mildly terrifying.

Read more essays from our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile. Subscribe today or order your own copy in the store.