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Sunlit Summit

Wyoming 13ers Quest, The Sequel

Day 3: Twins to American Legion (6 Peaks)

After my mentally draining experiences on Koven and Woodrow Wilson yesterday and the cumulative physical effect of climbing nearly 20,000 vertical feet in two days, I decided to take my third day a bit easier. Or at least, that was the plan! Thanks to some unexpected delays and fatigue keeping me from climbing at top speed, today would actually end up being the second longest day of the whole project.

The plan was to make a loop over all the remaining 13ers west of camp, which I dubbed the “Peak Lake Loop” since it roughly circles the Peak Lake valley. I had planned this loop for a long time–it seemed like a natural linkup, even though it would require losing and re-gaining thousand of feet of elevation to traverse the deep valleys between several of the peaks. As a bonus, none of the peaks in this cluster are harder than class 4, which would be a welcome reprieve from the harder climbing of the past day. With a light pack (no rope/harness or bivy gear), I set out from camp around 4:45 a.m., expecting to return a few hours before sunset. My first target was the Twin Peaks, a pair of sharp rock horns at the head of Titcomb Basin.

First light on the Twin Peaks. My route would follow a gully from the snowfield to the saddle. It's a snowclimb most of the summer, but a chossy gully in the late season.
A short section of icy snow encouraged me into crampons for a hundred feet, and then I scrambled up the melted-out gully. Without snow, the crux was a short slabby face that I'd call 5.0.

To continue from the Twins to my next objective, Split Mountain, the most logical route calls for dropping onto the Mammoth Glacier, traversing to Split Mountain Pass, and ascending easy talus from there. The alternative would be to retreat down my ascent route and cross Knapsack Col to approach Split from the other side, but this would be less efficient, and I hadn’t scouted the route.

My views of the Twin Peaks and Mammoth Glacier so far hadn’t been very encouraging. My planned route would require descending the prominent glacier lobe, which appeared to be completely bare, blue glacier ice. Worse, it looked to be guarded by a band of black water ice at the top.

However, bolstered by the (false?) confidence of having succeeded on Woodrow Wilson’s similarly icy slopes, I strapped on my crampons and decided to go for it.

Telephoto view of the Twin Peaks from Desolation (Day 1).

There were no holds so I had to use skill.   ~   Climbers’ saying

Bullet-proof refrozen water ice at the top of the Mammoth Glacier.

The lower section was indeed bare glacier ice, which was a bit sketchy, but it was at a lower angle than yesterday and I wasn’t too worried about that part. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that the upper hundred feet would be completely different from anything I’d ever climbed before. It was seasonal water ice that had melted from snow up higher and refrozen on top of the glacier as a glossy, dark gray sheet, slick as glass and hard as rock, with an angle around 40 degrees.

I probably should have backed off, and it might have even been faster to use the Knapsack Col detour given the conditions, but at this point I was mentally committed. I balanced gingerly on my crampons and swung my mountaineering axe above my head. It usually took two or three full-strength whacks to get a stick in the bullet-proof ice, because unlike a proper ice tool, the tip of a mountaineering axe is not designed for this sort of abuse. I knew there would be no way to self arrest if I slipped, and it was more than a thousand feet to the flat glacier below, with a worrisome band of crevasses waiting at the bottom of my fall line. It was painfully slow, but I made each movement deliberately and worked my way down one step at a time.

Most Wind River climbing accidents are attributable to three phenomena: loose rock, lightning, and the slipperiness of snow and ice.   ~   Joe Kelsey, Wind River guidebook author

This photo from the summit of Split Mountain gives a good overview of the difficulties on Twin Peaks. The shiny black ice just below the saddle was the sketchiest section. Descending the lower glacier lobe was mostly easier, albeit still quite icy.
The slightly softer glacier ice felt like a relief after the rock-hard water ice. Still, it was a long, steep slope, and I worked my way down slowly.
One of several large crevasses where the steep upper lobe meets the lower glacier. These were fairly easy to negotiate on snow bridges.
Looking back up at the face. The water ice band is the thin black strip that's barely visible at the top.

It took me the better part of an hour to descend a thousand vertical feet, perhaps the slowest I’ve ever moved without employing ropes. I’m not sure what that upper section would be rated–probably just WI1, but with a single mountaineering axe, it certainly felt serious. It was a good thing I had sharpened my old steel crampons earlier this summer! Back in the sun on the lower glacier, I tried to shake off the feeling that I had once again cheated fate–after all, wasn’t this supposed to be the easy day?!

The Mammoth Glacier is pretty heavily crevassed, but most of them were small enough to step across. I traversed around the buttress of Split Mountain quickly, both to make up for lost time and to avoid the threat of rockfall. One area of the glacier was particularly threatening, where huge piles of fractured rock littered the surface, obviously accumulating from the cliffs directly above.

Looking back over the Mammoth Glacier as I climb the north side of Split Mountain Pass.
On the summit of Split Mountain. It's a definite outlier in this area--the peaks visible all around are much harder.
Mount Koven as seen from Whitecap. It's a small mountain, but not one to be trifled with.
Peak Lake gleams far below.

Split and Whitecap delivered just what I needed: finally, a couple easy summits with no unpleasant surprises! I called my dad from the top of Whitecap to catch up and take the edge off my nerves. He was kind to always be willing to chat when I called from random summits, and it was nice to know that there was someone following the Delorme track. We discussed my plan to climb an unreported route on Bow’s north face, and he agreed it looked doable. I was waffling at this point because “shortcuts” didn’t sound appealing after my misadventures on Koven and the Twins, but if it worked, the route would save me a couple miles.

I had cell service on most summits, which I would use to check my email (I was still technically supposed to be in grad school, after all) and download new weather forecasts. Today, I got an email from Teresa congratulating me on the previous day’s technical traverse, which touched me–a few years ago, I could only dream of repeating the climbs that Teresa, Sarah, and their group completed on these peaks. Knowing that one of my peakbagging heroes was following along added a bit more inspiration that helped me keep up a fast pace as I descended and crossed the valley to explore my new line on Bow.

The lower section of the route ascends endless talus, aiming for subtle Bow-Brimstone col. Brimstone is the spire on the right, an unranked summit on the ridge between Bow and Sulphur.
The upper section is a bit sketchy, with loose rock and slippery sand on top of steep rock slabs and hardpan gullies. It goes though, and before long I'm on the ridge.
After a short scrambling section above the col, I walk toward the high point along Bow's broad summit plateau.
Feeling beat on the summit of Bow.

I’m feeling pretty beat by the time I make it to Bow, and it’s already 2:45 p.m., which means I only have another 5 hours until sunset. It’s clear that I won’t make it back to camp with much daylight to spare, but I’m still hoping to climb Henderson and American Legion. It’s difficult to eat adequately on days like this, because it’s just hour after hour of aerobic exercise, which uses a lot of calories but leaves me without much appetite. I force myself to eat as much as I can stomach, make another quick call home, and head down.

When I finally reach the Henderson-American Legion col, I’m disheartened to see how long the shadows are growing in Titcomb. A brief fantasy of saving these peaks for another day crosses my mind, but I know that’s not a realistic plan. I decide to climb Henderson first, since it’s much more technical than American Legion, and I don’t want to get stuck scrambling in the dark.

In 2020, I really enjoyed climbing Henderson’s north ridge, but at this point it just feels like another complicated chore. The scrambling is more involved and slower than I remembered, and while I was hoping to make a round-trip ascent from the col in under an hour, it takes me 50 minutes just to reach the summit. By the time I touch the highest rock, it’s only an hour before sunset. I still have to downclimb the north ridge, make a round-trip ascent of American Legion, descend a thousand feet of scree to Summer Ice Lake, and find my way down a complicated rock buttress into Titcomb Basin. This isn’t exactly turning out to be the restful evening I had anticipated!

Shadows lengthen over Summer Ice Lake, as seen from low on Henderson's north ridge.
Amazing sunsets are the reward for getting behind schedule in the alpine. Henderson was really starting to look gorgeous in the golden light as I made my way up American Legion.
Over on the other side of Titcomb Basin, the great wall between Sacagawea and Fremont lit up bright orange, interrupted only by the sharp shadows of Henderson and American Legion.
Sunset on Henderson Peak an hour after I stood on top.

I made it up all 6 peaks as planned, but it was still a long way down. By the time I got back to the Henderson-American Legion saddle it was fully dark, and I slid my way down the scree and talus above Summer Ice Lake by headlamp. It took forever to get around the lake due to the interminable talus and frequently rim-rocked shoreline. Eventually, I climbed over a slight buttress and could see the light of our basecamp tent far below. Getting down into the basin involved some tricky routefinding through slabby cliff bands and annoying willow bushes, but I could smell the hay and tried to move quickly.

I could just discern the shapes of Henderson and American Legion towering above me from the boulder field above Summer Ice Lake.
Mount Helen looked ghostly in the moonlight as I descended to camp.
Bashing through some willows as I finish descending into Titcomb Basin. The tiny spot of light near the center is the tent.

I made it back to camp around 10:45 p.m., a full 18 hours after I started. The stars were beautiful above the peaks, but all I wanted was to take off my boots and lie in my sleeping bag until I could recover enough to eat. I think my mom half expected me to quit at this point, since I was so beaten up, but in my mind I couldn’t go through so much and give up now. I had originally planned to spend 5 days in the northern Winds, but I still had a shot at the record even if I used up 6 days, so I dialed back the plan for tomorrow and finally fell asleep sometime around midnight.

Daily Stats: 16.3 miles, +11,600 ft., 18 hours climbing time, 18/36 thirteeners

Day 3 Map (click to enlarge)
Day 3 Profile (click to enlarge)