Rites of Passage

A Father's Education in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains

by Robert Yagelski

 

 Note: A slightly different version of this article was published in
the Albany (NY) Times Union (July 16, 2000; pp. G1 and G4).

 

     The first time I tied him onto the end of a climbing rope, he was just eleven years old.  And as he scrambled up the short, easy cliff face, wearing his baseball cap and a broad smile, I was gripped by an anxiety that I had never before had while climbing.  In between words of instruction and encouragement to him, I glanced nervously at the small but stout tree some forty feet above him that held the safety gear through which the rope was threaded.  It suddenly looked too meager to protect him if he fell.  Just as I had done countless of times before, I had built the safety system carefully, and my climber's eye told me it was solid.  But my anxiety grew as I fed the rope through the belay device on my waist harness that would hold the rope if he fell.  And although I was thrilled for Adam when he reached the top, I was relieved that he was once again on firm ground.  It was my first experience climbing with my son.


Adam rests beneath the north face of Ellingwood Peak.

           Five years later, a month before Adam's 17th birthday, I am battling those same conflicting emotions halfway up the steep northwest ridge of a 12,800-foot peak called Elephant Head in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains.  I'm about to climb the fourth pitch (or 150-foot rope-length) of the route, which my partner Mike has led and which Adam will follow, and I'm debating whether to pull on my rain jacket as a storm begins to blow in.  Adam and I are anchored with safety gear to a small, exposed ledge, perhaps two feet wide.  Below us the mountain drops away precipitously for a few hundred feet to a snow-filled gulley, or couloir.  The ridge rises sharply above us another 400 vertical feet to the summit.  We're shielded from the rising west wind by a large granite block, but I barely hear Mike's call from somewhere above us: "On belay!"  That's my signal that the rope is secured and I can begin climbing to the next ledge, where Mike is anchored.  As I untie from the ledge, I tell Adam to be sure he is safely on belay before he unties himself. 

            "Yeah, Dad," he says in his half-bored, adolescent way.  But even his practiced indifference can't hide his nervousness.  

            As I pull myself up onto the pitch, the wind slings B-B-size hail into my face.  I move quickly over the now-slick granite.  It's a beautiful pitch, following a series of short, steep faces separated by small ledges for timely rests--just the kind of climbing we came for.  But I'm not having fun.  I'm worried that conditions will worsen by the time it's Adam's turn to climb the pitch.  And as I climb toward Mike on the next ledge, I am looking into the deep couloir for a possible escape route--just in case. 

            This was my third--and Adam's second--trip to the Wind River Range.  We were joined by Mike, an experienced climber who had accompanied me on my previous Wind River outings, and Carl, a novice climber but veteran backcountry hiker.  Three other friends--John, Bud, and Vera--would come along as backpackers.  Our previous trips had been to the southern part of the range, and now we wanted to try for the higher peaks in the Titcomb Basin area to the north.  But the mountains rarely surrender their summits easily.  For me, that humbling insight was accompanied by the unexpected lessons a parent can learn in the high country.

 

            The Wind River Range is a spectacular collection of mountains, streams, and lakes that attract backpackers, fishermen, hunters, horsepackers, photographers, and naturalists.  The highest peaks extend for some 80 miles along the Continental Divide and cross a patchwork of National Forest land, designated wilderness areas, and Native American reservation land in western Wyoming.  Despite being lesser known than the famed peaks of Colorado's Rocky Mountains or the nearby Grand Teton range along the Wyoming-Idaho border, the "Winds" boast seven of the ten largest glaciers remaining in the contiguous United States as well as 48 peaks rising higher than 12,500 feet in elevation.  These peaks offer some of the best alpine (or mountain) climbing in North America.  Climbers come seeking the challenge of scaling solid granite or steep snowfields to reach airy summits with awe-inspiring views. 

Bob gazes up at Ellingwood Peak in Indian Basin.  The North Arete route 
follows the steep line that rises up the center of the face.

            The remoteness of most of Wind River climbs adds to their challenge--and potential danger.  To reach the higher peaks usually requires along approach hikes over strenuous trails.  Like other main trails into the popular areas of the Winds, the trails we followed from Elkhart Park, outside Pinedale, Wyoming, to Island Lake in Titcomb Basin, some twelve miles in, were rugged and busy.  The rigor of these trails can make for instant backcountry camraderie.  Hikers will meet, exchange trail information, and encourage each other as they wipe sweat from pained faces or rest weary legs on a trailside log.  If a rope is visible on your pack, inevitably someone will ask which peak you hope to climb. 

            The many people we met on the trail reflect the growing popularity of backcountry sports like climbing, which means larger crowds in these once-deserted mountains.  The U.S. Forest Service office in Pinedale estimates that each year 6000 people travel into the Titcomb Basin area alone, and thousands more follow the other main Wind River trails into the high country.  Wilderness Ranger Hank Williams estimates that these trails see 20% more traffic than they did 10 years ago.  All those visitors put a severe burden on the fragile mountain environment.  Lauren Bell, another wilderness ranger with the Forest Service, says, "You get into Titcomb Basin and see four or five tents and you think, 'It's not too crowded.'  But Titcomb Basin has a highly sensitive ecology.  Just a few tents is too much for that area."  The growing number of people looking for mountain adventure can mean accidents as well.  Although the Forest Service estimates that only 6 or 7 backcountry searches or rescues occur each year in the Titcomb Basin area, Bell notes that many climbers come unprepared for the serious physical and technical challenge of climbing high, remote mountains.  "The more people you have coming into an area, the more green people you see," he says.  "I see too many climbers with shiny new equipment that makes me wonder how prepared they are for these mountains."

Our group had the training and experience to understand the challenge, but like many others we saw on the trail, our first day was marked by fatigue and foot problems as we struggled under 70-pound packs and tried to adjust to the trail's 9,000-foot elevation.  At Photographers Point, about a third of the way to Island Lake, the stunning view that intimidated famed explorer John Fremont himself in 1842 spread out before us, and we could see the basin in which Island Lake lay hidden in the distance.  John said wearily as he dropped his pack for a break, "How are we going to get there from here?"  I wondered the same thing.  But already my concerns about Adam's capacity to endure the rigors of the trail were fading as he sprinted ahead on spindly legs that looked incapable of bearing his huge pack.  At 16, he was more than 20 years younger than the next youngest member of our party (Mike) and didn't weigh much more than the lightest (Vera), but I was quickly learning that he wasn't interested in my displays of parental concern.  Three years earlier, on his first trip to the Winds, I had shuttled his pack over a brutally rugged pass to spare his slight body the burden.  He didn't appreciate the gesture then, and his sharp glances made it clear that on this trip he wouldn't carry any less than his share of the load.  The harsh hike to Island Lake reminded all of us that the Wind River Range would exact a toll for our wish to climb its peaks, and Adam reminded me that a father's concern must sometimes be expressed subtly.


Base camp near Island Lake. 
Elephant Head Peak rises in the background.

     We arrived at Island Lake just as an afternoon storm began to obscure Fremont, Sacagawea, Jackson, Ellingwood, Elephant Head, and the surrounding peaks that form a spectacular backdrop to the lake.  Rain and hail whipped into the basin for almost four hours, forcing us to pitch a wet camp and spend much of our first evening cooped up in our tents.  It was not a hospitable welcome to what would be our base camp for the next five days.  But it was another reminder that changing and sometimes severe weather is one of the characteristics--and risks--of alpine climbing.

            Most climbers venturing into the Titcomb Basin region of the Winds set their sights on Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest at 13,804 feet.  Gannett was once considered the American 

equivalent to the famed Eiger in the Alps, and with its relative remoteness, its size, and the five glaciers protecting its broad flanks, it remains a prize for many climbers.  Ranger Bell estimates that about one of every ten people who come to Titcomb Basin are there to climb Gannett.  But we had decided to save that prize for a future trip.  Instead, we set our sights on nearby Indian Basin, which we expected (correctly) to attract fewer climbers.  Our plans included a route on massive Fremont Peak and another on Elephant Head Peak.  But our primary goal was the North Arete of Ellingwood Peak: a long, enticing line of continuous technical rock climbing that is described in one guidebook as "Titcomb Basin's most enjoyable rock climb."  I had been gathering information on that route and gazing at photos of it for nearly two years, and Adam and I talked often about it during early summer preparations for the trip.  I had envisioned the two of us on its summit, smiling and shaking hands, a triumphant father-and-son climbing team.  During the weeks leading up to the trip, whenever we discussed potential routes, I offered my alpine mantra: "We'll take whatever the mountains give us."  But I was secretly convinced that the mountains would give us Ellingwood--just as I was convinced that Adam would remember this trip for the rest of his life.

            We spent our second day at Island Lake scouting routes and preparing for an attempt on Fremont the following day.  The trail from our camp into Indian Basin, where our planned route began, is rugged and steep but it rewards you with a starkly beautiful vista of vast peaks above small, snow-fed lakes, still dotted with ice floes even in late July.  That night I catch an uneasy rest.  As I think about tomorrow's climb, I listen to Adam stirring in slumber in the sleeping bag next to mine.  It wasn't too many years before that I listened to his quick breathing while he lay sleeping in his crib.  But it seems a lifetime ago that I followed my own father along forest paths.

            He was not a man of the mountains.  For him, the backcountry was the Pennsylvania forests and meadows where he taught me to hunt.  Hunting was a rite of passage in the small town where I grew up, but for me it was also the first step into the mountains.  By the time I was in college I had given up guns for hiking boots.  On an early college trip, I backpacked in the Adirondack Mountains, and they thoroughly captured me.  It wasn't long before I took up climbing with a few friends who shared my passion for those mountains.  My father didn't quite understand that passion, and I always believed he was disappointed when I gave up hunting trips for mountain routes. 

            But careers and families have a way of making the mountains inaccessible, and after college I spent more time looking for professional success than I did finding routes on mountain crags.  Eventually, my career took me to a midwestern town whose highest point barely reached above a highway overpass, and I ventured onto Little League baseball fields with my two sons.  But the pull of the mountains never diminished, and in time I wanted to share their magic with my sons.  That desire mingled with anxiety as I dropped off to sleep.

 

            Alpine climbing is defined by variety and uncertainty.  To reach a high peak like Fremont or Gannett will often entail some combination of snow or ice climbing, steep technical rock climbing, glacier travel, and unroped scrambling.  Climbers must have experience with a variety of techniques, skill with different types of safety gear, and the ability to find an efficient way through sometimes confusing mountain terrain.  And they must be prepared for the unexpected.  Mountain weather, even in mid-summer, varies wildly and changes quickly.  In the Winds in July, daytime temperatures can reach into the 80's under a sparkling blue sky and drop into the 40's in a matter of minutes as a storm blows in.  We weathered sleet and hail during each of our six days at Island Lake, but we also used up bottles of sunscreen to protect us from the intense July sun.  Climbers must have the right gear to protect them in this uncertain weather and the sense to know when to continue or retreat if the skies darken. 

Our first route on Fremont Peak could have been a lesson from an alpine climber's manual.  It began with a strenuous scramble up a large boulder-strewn scree field, wandered onto a steep snowfield rising to a sharp ridge connecting Fremont and Jackson Peaks, crossed a short section of the Bull Lake Glacier, and then followed a long, broken, exposed rock ridge to the summit.  We expected a straightforward day of climbing.  But the morning skies seemed to promise a storm.  Just a short distance into the scree field, foot problems forced Carl to turn back.  Adam, Mike and I pressed on, slogging up the snowfield and scrambling onto extremely loose rock below the ridge.  Just a hundred feet or so from ridge crest, we decided to rope up for the final section of what was supposed to be easy scrambling. 

            "Damn!  This stuff is loose!"  I was getting more worried as I led up a short, damp chimney.  Every hold I grabbed seemed to move.  I knew that Adam and Mike would have no way to avoid any rocks I might dislodge onto the small ledge where they stood below me.  Looking up to the top of the chimney, I calculated two, maybe three moves to get to a large ledge.  I scanned for holds, decided on a course, and began to pull myself up.  As I did, my foot slipped and pushed a small avalanche of what I thought were pebbles and mud. 

            Mike's yell came a second later. 

            I looked down as I dangled from wet holds to see Mike gripping his left hand.

            "You OK?!" 

            "Yeah. My hand's cut. It's not bad, though."  His grimace told me otherwise.  The first aid kit was in my pack, but going back down in the loose rock was not an option.  I finished the pitch carefully, finally finding solid purchase at the top of the chimney.  Once again on a safe ledge, I set an anchor and called down, "On belay!"  Mike somehow climbed the short pitch without using his left hand much.  When he arrived at the ledge, I could see that he was still bleeding.   

            "My head's feeling light," he said, as he moved gingerly onto the ledge.  Once he was secured to the anchor I had set, I pulled the first aid kit out of my pack and handed it to him.


Adam emerges from the chimney near the top of the col between Fremont and Jackson peaks.

Meanwhile, Adam scurried up the pitch, looking relieved to be out of that chimney.  We cleaned and bandaged Mike's hand as best we could, then scrambled the few remaining feet to the crest of the ridge.  There, over lunch, we assessed our situation.  From our perch on the ridge, we looked over Bull Lake Glacier, which stretched southeastward in a magnificent low-angled sweep.  Our route ascended the glacier for a few hundred feet, then regained the ridge and continued for several hundred feet to the summit.  Mike was feeling better and wanted to continue.  I was less optimistic.  Time can be the alpine climber's enemy, and we had moved too slowly.  Ominous-looking clouds were again gathering to the southwest.  But a retreat down the route we had climbed might be even more dangerous than the ascent itself.  We could descend the glacier and return to camp via Indian Pass--a trip of five or six miles that would easily take the rest of the day.  Or we could continue to the summit.  I worried 

about getting caught in a storm on the ridge or the exposed summit.  And I was spooked by the rockfall that injured Mike, too.  Or maybe I wanted an excuse to get my son off that mountain.

            As discussed our options, Mike turned to Adam.

            "What do you think, Adam?"

            Adam hesitated.  "I'll do whatever you guys want to do."  It was uncharacteristic of Adam, who usually knows what he wants and sets out to get it, rarely deferring to others.  I knew he was worried.  But I also knew that if he wanted to retreat, he needed to say so himself.  It wasn't my call to make for him.  He was part of the climbing team, too.

            "OK, then," I said. "Let's do it." 

            I don't know if Adam was relieved or angry, but he climbed confidently and efficiently as we worked our way up the ridge for a few rope lengths.  Less than an hour later and only some 700 feet from the summit, the black clouds encroached from the south, forcing us to abandon our attempt after all.  Adam showed no disappointment as he quietly helped rig the ropes for the uncertain descent we had to make down the ridge and into a steep, icy couloir that would take us back to the snowfield.  Two hours later, after a few tense moments in the couloir, he was glissading rapidly down the snow toward the boulders, and I could only follow wearily.  By the time we reached the stream at the bottom of the basin in the late afternoon, the black clouds had disappeared without much more than some misleading raindrops.  I had been wrong about the weather after all.  As I slogged toward camp, I remembered a similar moment three years earlier on a different peak.  Then, just one pitch from the summit, a sudden front blew snow and lightning across the mountain, and Mike and I quickly retreated.  By the time we reached the base of the climb two hours later, the storm was gone and blue skies returned.  It was a sobering, disappointing end to an otherwise invigorating day.  Now I was feeling that same disappointment.  I thought I knew something about the mountains, but I was learning how little I knew--even as I was learning more about being the father of a young climber.

 

Adam rappels down the couloir toward the snowfield 
on our retreat from Fremont Peak.

            That evening in camp, we decided that our next objective would be Elephant Head Peak.  The uncertain weather made the route on Ellingwood Peak seem too ambitious.  We reasoned that it would be much easier to retreat from Elephant Head if necessary.  But changing skies the next morning again kept us from an early start, and Carl, still nursing sore feet, opted out before we started.  By the time Adam, Mike, and I scrambled onto the scree slopes beneath Elephant Head, it was after 11:00 a.m., very late for an alpine climb.  We crossed two steep snowfields, then scrambled up to a ledge at the base of the buttress.  From here it would be seven or eight roped pitches to the summit, and we discussed our chances.  Again, I was hesitant.  It was late.  As I looked west at the approaching clouds, I imagined a scary retreat in a driving thunderstorm.  The route looked inviting, but my parental caution overtook my climber's enthusiasm.  The three of us gazed silently at the sky.  Then I said, "Every time I've played it safe with the weather on this trip, the storm passed.  So I'm inclined to leave this call to you guys."

            Without hesitation, Adam said, "I think we should go for it."  Mike smiled, then agreed.  I added my assent.  And as we prepared the ropes and gear for the route, I realized that this young man I was trying to be a father to was learning about the mountains just fine on his own.

            I took the first lead, an uneventful scramble over big blocks, around corners, and up short faces to a large ledge.  Mike led the slightly harder second pitch.  The third pitch proved to be the most challenging of the route.  It wandered up steep corners and finished with two exposed overhangs, requiring delicate climbing technique.  I was invigorated as I grunted onto the small, exposed ledge at the end of the pitch.  Later, as Mike pulled himself onto the ledge, he was puffing hard and wearing a worried look. 

            "Nice lead," he said, catching his breath. "I couldn't have done it."

            "Sure you could," but even as I said it, I knew that Mike was feeling shaky.  Perhaps the rockfall from the previous day was on his mind.  It was his lead next, and he began to organize his gear with less confidence than I had come to expect from him.  As I belayed Adam up to the cramped, airy ledge, we both eyed the weather with concern. 

            "We need to move faster," I said to Mike.  "We're in for something."

           He began the next pitch and was soon out of sight.  Time seemed to slow as the winds increased.  The rope was moving unsteadily through my belay device, and I was becoming impatient.

            "C'mon, Mike," I said in a tight, low voice, and as soon as I did I regretted it.  Adam glanced at me, then up toward Mike fumbling with a piece of safety gear 80 feet above us.  The view from our ledge was stunning, and despite the impending storm, the last pitch had been fun.  I knew Adam enjoyed it.  But he was thinking about getting off the mountain, too.

            "How many more pitches do you think we have?"  he asked, as casually as he could.

            "I figure we have at least three left."  He wasn't reassured, yet his ability to stay calm was obvious.  And despite my own fears, I knew I could count on him if things got bad.  But when it was my turn to climb again as the weather began to worsen, I felt that parental need to remind Adam to stay anchored until he was on belay.  I should have just climbed.


Mike on lead high on the northwest 
buttress of Elephant Head Peak.

             Perhaps parenting and alpine climbing are uneasy partners, for even as I climbed through the stinging hail, I could see shafts of sunlight dropping from behind the black clouds, indicating that the storm would soon pass.  By the time I was anchored at the next belay with Mike, the hail had become rain and the storm was almost over.  Adam followed the now-wet pitch.  But he relaxed as he made the ledge, tied into the anchor, and looked at the clearing sky.  As I began the next pitch, the rock was already drying in the mountain air, and the sun began slanting through thinning clouds to warm the ridge.  The pitch was a great one.  The rock was solid, the climbing challenging.  The last half of the pitch followed two steep but beautiful parallel cracks up to a large and comfortable ledge.  By the time I made the tricky move onto the ledge, I was ecstatic.  The weather was going to hold--finally--and the summit looked to be two straightforward pitches above us.  I whooped.  It was the best climbing so far.  Adam followed the pitch in fine style, scanning the rock carefully for good holds and moving his slight body elegantly from one stance to the next.  His face showed confidence and concentration.  When he arrived at the belay ledge, he was smiling.

            "That was a great pitch!" he said. I didn't say anything for a moment, unable to sort through the intense emotions welling up inside me.  I knew it would have been a great pitch even if Adam hadn't been there.  But I also knew I wouldn't want to have been there without him. 

Mike (left), Adam, and Bob on the summit of Elephant Head Peak.

            Like everything else in the mountains, the rest of the route wasn't as straightforward as it looked from that ledge.  Mike's next lead wandered, and he slipped on a hard move, which further shook his already-shaken confidence.  He was happy that I led the final pitch.  But that last pitch was almost a replay of the chimney on Fremont: a 60- or 70-foot struggle up a narrow chute with loose rock everywhere.  Mike was again hit with a dislodged rock, though not seriously, and we all had tense moments as we worked cautiously up to the summit.  But by now we were learning what these impressive peaks could throw at us.  And later as we posed for photos on the summit, our smiles were as broad and satisfied as if we had been standing on Ellingwood Peak.  Our climb on Elephant Head could not give us the long, impressive line of Ellingwood's North Arete, but it was a fine route, with its own challenges and surprises.  As we descended toward camp, with the sun inching toward the horizon, I watched Adam plodding wearily ahead of me.  I was happy to be the father of a young climber in these mountains.  And I was relieved to see him once again on firm ground.

 

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