Wyoming 13ers Quest, The Sequel
The Wyoming 13ers are all the independent peaks above 13,000 ft. in Wyoming, and the Wyoming 13ers Fastest Known Time (FKT) is the speed record for climbing all of them in one go. This is the story of my quest to set a new FKT for the Wyoming 13ers from September 2-10, 2022.
There are 36 thirteeners in Wyoming with more than 300 ft. of topographic prominence. Most of them are clustered together in the northern Wind River Range, forming one of the most impressive mountain clusters in the American Rockies. One more 13er is located in the southern Winds and two are located in the Bighorn Range, leaving the famous Grand Teton and the obscure Francs Peak to round out the list. The Wyoming 13ers have a much different character than most other popular western U.S. peakbagging lists, with the exception of Washington state. Climbing them requires a mix of remote wilderness backpacking, alpine rock climbing, glacier travel, and endless scrambling on loose and ill-defined routes. And believe it or not, that’s what makes it fun!
My trip report is broken up into sections. This page gives an overview of the days and weeks leading up to the start of my FKT attempt, plus some commentary and analysis of various stats at the end. The meat of the story is organized by day (see links below). I take a lot of pictures in the mountains, so most of the story is told through images and captions. It’s rather long, so feel free to just skim the photos, but to get the full scoop you’ll need to click through the various galleries. I hope you enjoy the report, and as always, happy climbing!
Map of the 36 Ranked Wyoming 13ers
Opinions differ on the likelihood that any of the old-timers climbed all of the 13ers. Personally, I find it unlikely, because some of the peaks are just obscure talus piles that probably didn’t draw attention from the kinds of climbers who could make it up all of the harder peaks, and threshold-based peakbagging is a relatively new phenomenon. Anyway, few people seem to complete the Wyoming 13ers in general, probably due to the lack of any nearby megalopolises and the combination of technical difficulty and remoteness. The first people to report finishing the list were Teresa Gergen and Sarah Meiser, in 2015.
The next finishers were all in 2020, including myself. I had a long-standing goal of climbing them all in one year, and when my college’s required sophomore summer term was held remotely during the pandemic, it was the opportunity I needed. Eric and Matt pursued a similar project the same summer. I started earlier, but since I had to make a bunch of weekend trips in and out of the northern Winds, I was much slower. I ended up finishing in just over 44 days, only 2 days before Eric set a new FKT (just over 17 days). The next year, Sean O’Rourke set the first self-supported 13ers FKT, with a fast time of just under 9 days.
Then something interesting happened: I discovered a “new” Wyoming 13er! Thanks to the advent of LiDAR peak analysis spurred by John Kirk and others, I was able to demonstrate that Miriam Peak was missing a contour on the topo map and actually has more than enough prominence to qualify for the list. Of the previous finishers, only Teresa had already climbed Miriam. This meant that technically, all of the ranked Wyoming 13ers had still never been climbed in a single year.
I had several reasons for wanting to attempt the Wyoming 13ers FKT. First, with the addition of Miriam, I could no longer claim to be the first person do climb all the 13ers in a year, which was rather disappointing, since that was the whole point of my 2020 project. To re-establish this claim, I would need to re-climb all 35 of the other peaks in addition to Miriam, since a couple years had passed since I climbed them all the first time.
Second, I wanted to get a faster overall time. My 2020 record was mostly limited by my schedule, not my fitness or skill, and I knew I could do it way faster. Now, with Sean’s time on the leader board, the gauntlet had been thrown, and it was time for me to rise to the challenge.
Finally, I just wanted to spend more time on the 13ers and climb them all again. These are my favorite peaks in the world–the perfect level of difficulty to be intimidating but not unapproachable, notable but not so famous as to be crowded, and set in a beautiful environment. Moreover, the mix of moderately technical climbing and long backpacking/hiking sections made the perfect match for my skill sets. I’m not enough of a rock climber or trail runner to be competitive at either sport, but combine them, and I stand a chance.
So, through the winter and spring, a plan was fashioned: I would climb Miriam as soon as possible just to re-finish the list, and then I would attempt the FKT later in the summer.
Climbing Miriam meant that not only had I re-finished the list, I could finally finish my Wyoming 13ers guidebook that had been in preparation since my 2020 project.
As I prepared for my 2022 13er project, I neurotically reviewed every bit of information from trip reports I had already memorized, hoping to stumble on some useful factoid. Eventually I realized something at once terrifying and reassuring: my own guidebook was the most comprehensive compilation of Wyoming 13er beta available.
The horrifying part was that I already knew everything in the guidebook, and I was still quite unsure whether I could pull off the FKT. There was no more information available; I was on my own from here. The reassuring part was that somehow, without quite recognizing it, I had apparently become the leading authority on climbing the Wyoming 13ers. That had to inspire at least a tiny bit of confidence, right?
I spent the summer on the family ranch outside Dubois, which made a convenient base for accessing the 13ers. I wanted to go for the FKT as soon as possible for two reasons: one, to get it out of the way so I could relax and enjoy the rest of summer, and two, so that the glacier and snow routes would still be in good condition. My target window was late July, when the Grand Teton might be dry enough to solo but the couloirs would still be snowy.
However, the weather had different plans. It was a stormy summer, and we got hit hard by the monsoon nearly every day. I got into the habit of staying up past 11 p.m. every night to wait for the updated U.S. and Canadian forecast models to post on Spotwx.com, with the anxious hope that the long-range forecasts would show a possible climbing window. Alas, week after week rolled by with only a day or two of clear skies.
Finally, around the end of July, it looked like there might be a break in the weather. The forecasts promised a few days of cloudless skies, followed by intermittent storms, which sounded promising compared to the constant storms I had been seeing so far. To take full advantage of the short period of clear weather, I planned to start hiking around sunset on July 30th, climb the easy northern peaks overnight, and continue through the most difficult glaciated peaks the next day. The plan was way too ambitious, but I was desperate for anything that might work, so after posting a tracking link to 14ers.com and eating a light dinner, off I went.
It was a bit stormy in the afternoon, but the clouds were supposed to clear out starting around sunset. Instead, the storm settled in, and this first attempt was ultimately short-lived. As I climbed out of treeline on the Old Glacier Trail, I got hit with a downpour, and lightning was striking the peaks I had planned to climb. Unenthused, and only an hour into a many-day project, it was an easy call to turn around. It was definitely for the better, since my overly ambitious plan wouldn’t have worked anyway, and it was a good wake-up call not to underestimate the 13er project.
It looked like another weather window was shaping up a week or so later, beginning August 7th. This time, I planned to approach from the south, starting from Elkhart Park. After driving over from the ranch in the RV, I would start as early as possible, hiking the trail in the dark and getting to Harrower Peak sometime around sunrise. Then I’d try to climb the rest of the Indian Basin 13ers and rendezvous with my mom in Titcomb Basin; she would sleep in the RV until a more reasonable hour, and backpack in to meet me.
The day before I was to start, it rained literally all day. It was the rainiest day I have ever experienced in Wyoming. The skies cleared up overnight, as promised by the forecasts, but everything was soaking wet. Combined with exercise induced asthma issues that I started running into, the slick climbing conditions spelled the end of my second attempt, even though I made it considerably farther this time (5 total peaks).
I summited Fremont Peak around 11:30 a.m., a ridiculously late time to reach my first summit of the day if I were trying for the FKT. Realistically, though, I knew I wasn’t going to continue. It was such a beautiful place, and the weather was so perfect, but I was done. The slippery scrambling on the rain-washed ledges of Harrower Peak had rattled my nerves, and the painful chest spasms and nausea of the previous day were starting to manifest again as a result of my vigorous climb up Fremont. Overlooking the beautiful but intimidating vista of the remaining 13ers, I felt like I should have been inspired to continue, but I was just mentally beat. The immensity and risk of this undertaking seemed insurmountable, and the loneliness of solo climbing made things worse. I couldn’t continue.
I had cell service on top so called my dad for a bit. It was helpful to chat with someone and explain why I wasn’t going to continue. Before long, I headed down and met my mom on the trail below Titcomb, and we spent the rest of the day hiking back out to Elkhart Park. Even though it was another balked attempt, I enjoyed climbing Fremont and spending time on the trail with my mom, and it was a gorgeous day to be out in the mountains.
I’ve never considered myself much of a quitter. Heck, if anything, I’m stubborn. I got an entire degree in physics even after I realized I wasn’t smart enough to be a physicist, just because I told myself I was going to major in physics. In other words, I’m used to doing painful things just because I committed to it.
With the 13ers, I wasn’t so sure. It seemed like the weather was going to remain stormy pretty much all summer, and worse than that, I didn’t really believe in myself anymore. With two failed attempts, how could I? Apparently I had neither the planning wisdom nor the actual gumption to pull this off.
Then we went to Yellowstone as an RV trip for my birthday. It was the antithesis of the 13ers FKT: walking around on boardwalks with hundreds of other tourists, sleeping in a heated camper while the rain poured down outside, and enjoying the drive-up views. I relaxed in the comfort of an easy, fun trip, and reconnected with my genuine love of nature (not just my fear of dying in nature). As we hiked up well-maintained trails to easy peak summits, I also realized something important, even if I couldn’t fully articulate it at the time: the 13er quest seemed so hard because it was hard, it was supposed to be hard, that was the whole point.
One our last day in the park, we climbed Bunsen Peak, a cool little roadside mountain with a popular trail. I felt strong and fast. Expansive views spread out all around. I remembered why I liked this sort of thing in the first place, and I remembered that sometimes, I’m not half bad at it either. It was as I climbed this trivially easy mountain that I decided to try the Wyoming 13ers FKT one more time.
For my final attempt this summer, I would have to get creative. The long-range forecasts showed the monsoon dying out around the end of August, as is typical, followed by some drier weather at the start of September. However, as a 2nd year grad student, my classes started on August 31st. I devised a crafty scheme: if I primarily took short-courses and signed up for the options that met later in the semester, I would only have class on Wednesdays, which meant that I could get 13 days off by missing just one class. Thankfully, my advisor is understanding of such antics, and the plan was set.
I drove back from Wyoming to Reno on the 28th of August, went to my first day of class, and promptly flew back to Jackson Hole on the 1st of September. The plan was essentially a dialed-back version of my first attempt: I’d start with the northern Wind Rivers, going southbound from the Trail Lake Trailhead. The NWS forecast discussion called for unusually warm and dry conditions, with a protracted high pressure ridge sitting over the entire west, the perfect weather for spending day after day above treeline. It seemed like I had a decent chance, but I was too afraid to jinx it by bumping the live tracking thread this time. My only concern was the conditions–I’d never climbed in the Wind Rivers in September, but what I’d seen from photos and the airplane was disheartening. Most of the snow was gone, leaving behind unstable moraines and bare glacial ice. I adapted my route choices to avoid as much glacier travel as I could, but at some point I’d have to play the hand I was dealt and see what happened.
Attempt 3 was successful, obviously, or I probably wouldn’t be writing this report. I climbed all 36 ranked Wyoming 13ers in a single push and set the new overall speed record for doing so: 8 days, 20 hours, and 20 minutes from the first trailhead to the last. The story of each day is told in subsequent sections of this trip report.
It was by far the most intense 9 days of my life. As I said in my FKT submission, “This was simultaneously an extremely humbling and empowering experience for me, simultaneously visceral and religious, and will forever be a major part of who I am. I am so grateful to live in a world with such things in it.”
I’ve always been fascinated by what happens next, right after the big story arc reaches its conclusion. The hero completes his journey, and then what? He has dinner and goes to bed, then gets up the next day and goes to work. They don’t put that part in the action movies. As Robert Anton Wilson says in the introduction to Principia Discordia, “In conclusion, there is no conclusion. Things will go on as they always have, getting weirder all the time.” And that is the way it is here–life will go on as it always has, peaks getting climbed, memories getting made, stories getting told. Thanks to everyone who played a part in this one.
Stats and Analysis
For my personal reflections on this project, see the epilogue to my Day 9 trip report. In this section, my goal is to outline some of the more objective aspects of the Wyoming 13ers FKT, both as it relates to my personal projects and the record in general. To see all the details behind my methodology, download this text file.
First, a few random facts. I got over 470,000 steps during this project, which comes out to an average of 37 steps per minute for the entire 9-day duration. No wonder I was pretty tired at the end!
The hardest peaks were Mount Koven (steep, loose rock due to poor route choice), Mount Woodrow Wilson (exposed glacier ice), and the Twin Peaks (refrozen water ice and exposed glacier ice). This is an interesting contrast to my June/July climbs in 2020: in ideal conditions, those peaks are not the crux, and the hardest ones are instead Spearhead and the Grand Teton, both of which seemed tame by comparison this time around. It goes to show how much harder the project becomes in the late season, especially if you have to climb sections of bare ice without proper ice climbing gear. In addition to the trifecta of challenging peaks described above, I ran into significant objective hazards on Pinnacle Ridge (rockfall in couloir), Mount Sacagawea (massive rockfall across gully/glacier), and Francs Peak (grizzly sightings and probable presence in the dark).
I made a total of 7 rappels (Koven x2, Woodrow Wilson x2, Spearhead x1, and the Grand x2), wore rock shoes on 2 peaks (Spearhead and the Grand), and wore crampons on 12 peaks. This latter stat points to the fact that the northern Wind River 13ers still require a lot of glacier travel even in the late summer.
Some of my favorite routes included the north ridge of Gannett, the north ridge of Spearhead, and the east ridge of Fremont from the Upper Fremont Glacier. Some of my favorite memories include bivouacking on the summit plateau of Bastion, watching sunsets in the alpine (especially the views of Henderson and Harrower), noticing the fall colors in the subalpine regions, and watching the first snow of autumn frost the forest below Wind River Peak. And of course, finishing.
Table 1: Daily stats for my 2022 13er quest
|Day||Distance||Elevation Gain||Max Difficulty||Climbing Time||13ers|
|Day 1||25.2 mi.||13,700 ft.||Class 4||18 hrs.||7|
|Day 2||10.0 mi.||5,600 ft.||Class 5.5, AI2||14 hrs.||5|
|Day 3||16.3 mi.||11,600 ft.||Class 5.0, WI1||18 hrs.||6|
|Day 4||13.8 mi.||8,500 ft.||Class 5.4||16 hrs.||6|
|Day 5||12.2 mi.||8,500 ft.||Class 5.2||14 hrs.||4|
|Day 6||22.5 mi.||7,900 ft.||Class 4||16 hrs.||3|
|Day 7||27.2 mi.||8,600 ft.||Class 3||15 hrs.||2|
|Day 8||29.1 mi.||7,100 ft.||Class 2||14 hrs.||1|
|Day 9||20.7 mi.||11,100 ft.||Class 5.4||13 hrs.||2|
|Total||177 mi.||82,500 ft.||Class 5.5, AI2||138 hrs.||36|
This table shows a breakdown of my hiking distance (from Delorme tracks), elevation gain (from Caltopo), maximum difficulty grade, start-to-finish climbing time, and number of new 13ers for each day of my 2022 FKT. These mileage estimates are probably on the low side–my Samsung health app showed a total of 215 miles instead of the 177 miles reported by the Delorme GPS tracks, but I’m not sure how accurate it is in rough terrain. Adding 1.6 “energy miles” for every 1,000 ft. of elevation gain as found by this study, my stats come out to about 309 energy miles (using the shorter GPS distances).
The distances were pretty short most days, and the elevation gain, while substantial, isn’t anything crazy by FKT standards. The main factor to consider is the technical difficulty. On days with extended sections of class 4/5 climbing, the simple distance and elevation gain metrics belie the true difficulty. An hour spent climbing a technical peak might only result in a quarter mile of progress on the map.
It’s also interesting to note that I climbed progressively fewer 13ers (nearly) every day. This is mostly an artifact of my logistical choices: I started in the far northern Winds, where it’s easy to get many peaks at once, and finished with the isolated peaks that require dedicated hikes to get one summit.
Table 2: Comparison of Wyoming 13er FKTs
|Climber||FKT Time||Distance||Elevation Gain||Style|
|Eli (2020)||44 days, 5 hrs., 22 min.||370 mi.||116,000 ft.||Supported|
|Eric (2020)||17 days, 4 hrs., 42 min.||210 mi.||77,500 ft.||Supported|
|Sean (2021)||8 days, 22 hrs., 55 min.||217 mi.||81,900 ft.||Self-supported|
|Eli (2022)||8 days, 20 hrs., 20 min.||177 mi.||82,500 ft.||Supported|
In this table, I compare the four established FKTs on the Wyoming 13ers with the distance, elevation gain, and style of the respective record. Note that I have adjusted Eric’s time based on his trip report to appropriately reflect the trailhead-to-trailhead timing standard.
It’s interesting how widely scattered the FKT times are. Eric improved on my initial time by more than 60% since I was only spending the weekends climbing while he climbed all but one day. Since I had to backpacking in and out of the same region many times, my 2020 distance and elevation gain were outliers as well. Sean’s time marked an improvement of almost 50% again. My 2022 time was only 1.2% faster than the previous record, but 80% faster than my 2020 record, which is not bad for two years of improvement! This time, my distance and elevation gain were in line with the other records depending on my system of measurement, though I would believe that my route was a bit shorter since I was able to traverse the northern Winds instead of having to do a loop from one trailhead.
So far, Sean has been the only self-supported climber, meaning he didn’t have outside assistance during the FKT. It’s an impressive achievement, but for me personally, I value the communal aspect of these projects more than anything. Bonding with people over a shared project and receiving support from loved ones is an integral part of the FKT experience for me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.
Table 3: Comparison of FKT logistics
|Climber||1st Segment||2nd Segment||3rd Segment||4th Segment||5th Segment|
|Eli (2020)||Northern Winds||Wind River Peak||Grand Teton||Bighorns||Francs Peak|
|Eric (2020)||Northern Winds||Wind River Peak||Bighorns||Francs Peak||Grand Teton|
|Sean (2021)||Francs Peak||Bighorns||Wind River Peak||Northern Winds||Grand Teton|
|Eli (2022)||Northern Winds||Bighorns||Wind River Peak||Grand Teton||Francs Peak|
There are five distinct “segments” to the Wyoming 13ers FKT. The northern Winds, where most of the peaks are clustered, has the biggest technical challenges and takes by far the most time. The other segments are each manageable day-hikes: the gentle Wind River Peak in the southern Winds, a short but technical climb of the Grand, a long loop through the Bighorns, and a brief jaunt up Francs.
All four FKTs so far have chosen different approaches. Eric and I both preferred to start in the northern Winds, knocking out the bulk of the project up front, but Sean made the interesting decision to leave this segment for next-to-last. It seems to be popular to climb the Grand Teton and/or Francs Peak near the end of the project, with the Bighorns and Wind River Peak tossed somewhere in the middle. This makes sense since these are the two shortest round-trip climbs, making good last-dash finishers.
While these segments make a good basis for understanding the basic logistics of different people’s FKTs, it’s worth remembering that the segments themselves are highly variable depending on the conditions and weather. Most importantly, the peaks in the northern Winds are quite temperamental, and efficient travel is dependent on the condition of the glaciers. While both Sean and I climbed these peaks in early September, he got lucky with several late-season snowstorms that preserved the snowpack in key areas. The gallery below shows satellite images (credit Planet Explorer) of Mount Woodrow Wilson and the Twin Peaks on the days that Sean and I each climbed those peaks. I had to deal with bare, rock-hard glacier ice (and even refrozen water ice) on these peaks, while Sean reported moderate snow climbing, a difference that explains why this part of the project felt so much more extreme to me. In fairness, he had to deal with lingering snow on the north-facing rock routes, but all of my rock routes were dry. In general though, I’d much prefer to climb the Wind River 13ers with more snow rather than less.
Table 4: Comparison of segment times
|Climber||Northern Winds||Bighorns||Wind River Peak||Grand Teton||Francs Peak|
|Eli (2020)||36 days, 14 hrs.||14 hrs., 3 min.||14 hrs., 3 min.||9 hrs., 39 min.||6 hrs., 40 min.|
|Eric (2020)||12 days, 8 hrs.||13 hrs., 31 min.||9 hrs., 56 min.||13 hrs., 38 min.||8 hrs., 17 min.|
|Sean (2021)||5 days, 16 hrs.||11 hrs., 14 min.||8 hrs., 39 min.||6 hrs., 4 min.||5 hrs., 32 min.|
|Eli (2022)||5 days, 19 hrs.||15 hrs., 3 min.||13 hrs., 35 min.||8 hrs., 53 min.||4 hrs., 23 min.|
Different climbers have varied approaches to driving logistics, sleep schedules, and contingencies, but evaluating times for the specific trailhead-to-trailhead segments outlined above should provide a relatively even playing field for comparison.
The first thing that becomes apparent is that the northern Wind River Range really makes or breaks any FKT attempt. Eric made up most of his time there, as did Sean, and I had to keep my time close enough to Sean’s to stay competitive on the rest of the project. In the Bighorns, we all used pretty much the same route, which makes for an interesting comparison; apparently I’m the slowest on long non-technical slogs, which makes sense because I’m really not much of a trail runner. For Wind River Peak, Eric’s and Sean’s times are for the shorter west-side route, not counting the bicycle approach; similarly, for Francs Peak, my times are faster due to starting from the Phelps Mountain Road instead of Meadow Creek. The biggest relative spread is on the Grand Teton: Eric roped up with a climbing partner, I soloed both times but lost time rappelling and was probably slower on the trail, and Sean was by far the fastest.
I improved all of my personal segment times with the exception of the Bighorns; I was feeling pretty strong that day in 2020, but I was dealing with giardia and bad weather in 2022. It’s also interesting to note that my 2022 segment times were all slower than Sean’s with the exception of Francs Peak, which was only an hour faster. Based on the sum of our respective segment times, I would be 13 hours behind. So how did I get the FKT? The answer comes down to efficiency and knowing what bar I had to meet.
Table 5: Partitioning of time by category
|Climber||Total Time||Climbing Time||Driving Time||Sleeping Time||Ancillary Time||Efficiency|
|Eli (2020)||1061 hrs.||232 hrs.||45 hrs.||360 hrs.||424 hrs.||22%|
|Eric (2020)||413 hrs.||184 hrs.||17 hrs.||128 hrs.||84 hrs.||45%|
|Sean (2021)||215 hrs.||108 hrs.||15 hrs.||62 hrs.||30 hrs.||51%|
|Eli (2022)||212 hrs.||138 hrs.||20 hrs.||43 hrs.||26 hrs.||65%|
This table shows my best-guess estimates for a variety of time categories. The total time is the same as the FKT time reported in Table 2. Climbing time represents the time spent out on the peaks each day (trailhead to trailhead or camp to camp), estimated based on trip reports, photos, and tracks. Efficiency is just the ratio of climbing time to total time. Driving time is based on the route taken between different segments, primarily from Google Maps with the addition of auxiliary information where available. Sleeping time is estimated from trip reports for others and my memory/phone health app for myself. The ancillary time category is the residual of the total time after subtracting the other categories and accounting for overlaps (i.e., I slept during a lot of my driving time).
There are a lot of interesting patterns here, but the real takeaway is that it’s easier to beat an FKT than it is to set an unbeatable FKT. Once the bar is set, the next person only has to stay on schedule and finish a little bit faster. While I had originally planned on finishing a day earlier and probably could have with good conditions, the dangerous ice and loose rock in the northern Winds slowed me down and tired me out, leaving me with no choice but to increase my efficiency in other areas and hang on until the end.
Compared to Sean, my climbing time was 28% longer, which basically just means I was slower on the peaks. However, since I knew what schedule I needed to keep, I just climbed for more hours each day and spent less time in camp or sleeping. This explains why I ended up feeling so beat in the end. As a result, my efficiency was the highest of anyone so far: I spent 65% of my total FKT time actually climbing 13ers.
If there’s one thing I learned from all this, it’s that persistence goes a long way, and you can achieve something above your pay grade if you refuse to quit. Between the icy glacier conditions, snowstorms, coughing fits, and the total time spent climbing, I’m pretty sure I suffered a lot more than was probably necessary, but I got a lot out of it too. And isn’t that what it’s all about?