Wyoming 13ers Quest, The Sequel
Day 7: Cloud and Black Tooth (2 peaks)
Due to the impending snow storm in the Bighorns, I was forced to adopt a very inefficient plan for my last few peaks, requiring a lot more driving than would otherwise be necessary. We discussed the possibilities and everyone agreed that my only chance to finish on time was to get Cloud and Black Tooth before they got completely snowed it. So, my dad drove about 5.5 hours non-stop from Pinedale to the West Tensleep Trailhead while I tried to get some rest (it was literally non-stop, all the stoplights were flashing yellow since it was the middle of the night). I tried to sleep buckled in on the couch, but the RV makes quite the racket at 65 mph and it felt like I had barely napped by the time we were bouncing up the dirt road to the trailhead. I tried to bandage my feet (they were starting to get some blisters) and re-pack while we were still driving, and I reluctantly left the warm, lighted sanctuary of the RV just after 4 a.m.
The night was dark and starry when I started, and I felt a glimmer of hope that I might sneak through before the storm arrived. Even though it’s an easy trail, I was hiking much slower than normal, around 2.5 mph, and I frequently had to stop for coughing fits. I was using the inhaler throughout the duration of the project, but I think it got less effective as the days went on. I also noticed I was starting to feel a bit nauseous, but I managed to eat a Reese’s Cup somewhere around first light. As I passed through meadows and wetlands, on several occasions I spooked a moose (I think they were moose) that went crashing off into the darkness. I always carry bear spray in my pocket when hiking solo below treeline at night, and even though I was pretty sure they were only moose, I was glad to have it.
As I hiked onward and emerged from treeline, things took a turn for the worse. First, it started to rain, but it was only a light sprinkle and the clouds weren’t the dangerous sort, so I wasn’t too worried yet. Second, I started having extremely painful abdominal cramps, to the point that I was hunched over and unable to walk at times. It turned out I had caught giardia, no doubt the result of drinking unfiltered water from stagnant lakes in the Wind Rivers. I knew this was a risk I was taking when I decided to save time and weight by not treating my water, but since the high peaks are so dry in the late summer, I ended up drinking from some sketchier water sources than I had anticipated, and now I was paying the price.
I texted my parents on the Delorme with a sob-story about how I could barely walk and wanted to give up, but I just couldn’t bring myself to quit now, after all the things I had gone through to get this far. I kept moving in short bursts between the cramps, and the worst part subsided before too long. Our wonderful family doctor was following along on the 13er project, and my parents picked up antibiotics for me to start taking as soon as I got out, which would start taking effect by tomorrow. In the meantime, I just had to hope it didn’t get any worse and I could continue to tough it out.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve always been a fair-weather climber, especially when it comes to clouds. Years of watching lightning strike the tops of alpine peaks while backpacking in Colorado and Wyoming instilled in me an irrational (rational?) fear of lightning, which transferred to a fear of climbing on cloudy days, since you can’t have lightning on a clear-sky day. Ever since my close-call with lightning when I got caught in a surprise thunderstorm below Downs Mountain in 2020, I’ve been even more sensitized to storms.
I knew today would push my comfort level for climbing in adverse weather. In my head, I pictured the lecture slides from a hydrology class illustrating the arrival of a cold front like the one that was presently bearing down on me: warm air is pushed upward by the dense, cold air, causing convection and leading to the formation of strong thunderstorms.
As I began the climb up Cloud Peak around 11,000 ft., the cold front arrived in force. It started raining heavily. Dense clouds socked in the valleys, gusty winds ripped across the ridges, and the temperature plummeted. I was terrified I would hear thunder any moment–not so much that I would be hit, but that I would be forced with the terrible decision of giving up or climbing the highest peak in the range during a lightning storm. Thankfully, it was still early morning, and there wasn’t much convection yet. I stopped for a moment to put on rain gear. I had left my rain pants in Reno, not expecting to climb through a storm, but when we noticed the weather was turning a few days ago, my dad had kindly picked up a pair, which I was very glad to use now. The initial downpour only lasted maybe 10-15 minutes, but it was enough water to drench the talus. Lichen-covered rocks are surprisingly slippery when wet, and I tried to move cautiously but quickly toward the summit, hoping to make it before the next squall.
The gust front and rain squall around 11,000 ft. turned out to be the worst of the storm so far, and when I reached the summit of Cloud Peak just before 10 a.m. the skies actually seemed to be clearing. I had cell service and updated my parents on the way I was feeling (better, fewer cramps) and the weather (threatening but ok at the moment).
It felt like the mountains were testing me, forcing me to face my fear of climbing in bad weather. I had passed the test, at least for now, and I was in good spirits on the summit. Somehow I was still technically on schedule: I wanted to be on Black Tooth before noon since that was when the real storm was supposed to begin in earnest, and I estimated it would take me two hours to do the traverse. It would be close, but with a bit of luck, or grace, or skill, I might still pull this off.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. ~ Frank Herbert, Dune
I’m usually pretty frugal when it comes to trail food, preferring to eat normal grocery store food instead of fancy stuff like protein bars. However, for the 13er quest, we went all out and bought an assortment of packaged trail snacks, including gel packets and blocks. I still ate some heartier foods too, like cream cheese bagels and pepperoni, but the rapid energy from the purpose-designed trail foods was worth the extra cost for something like this. This day, I saved one of my favorite gels, the birthday cake flavor, for the final climb up Black Tooth as a celebration for having it practically in the bag.
On long days spent alone in the alpine, the only thing that alleviates the boredom of tedious slogging is noticing cool rocks or similar natural curiosities. This talus block had a dike of reddish-orange quartz crystals running through it. The columnar shape of the crystals combined with the angular shape of the rock evoked the semblance of a shark’s head with a gaping mouth full of crystalline teeth, at least to my sleep-deprived brain.
As I hike/scramble along the rock-bound shores of Middle Cloud Peak Lake, the next round of storms hits the Bighorns. It had been calm and quiet for my whole descent so far, so the gust front makes a remarkable contrast as the wind screams through the valley, pelting me with sideways rain. It stings my eyes to look straight ahead, so I hunch over and stare at the ground as I scurry along bare rock slabs, hoping to find some shelter. Then wham–I run into something! What is it? A tree! Hah! I reached treeline just in time to ride out the gust front, and literally ran into the first tree.
I got back to the RV at 7:20 p.m., which was only the second time so far that I had finished hiking before dark. Within a few minutes of getting inside, a torrential downpour began, with rain and hail pounding the roof and flowing down the windows. As Donna sang with the Jerry Garcia Band, “maybe a little rain would soothe the pain,” but downpours are best avoided under a solid roof.
Thanks to the tireless support of my parents, I also got a real dinner for the first time in a week, with chicken noodle soup (one of my all-time favorites) and a delicious fresh salad. I snacked on some treats like rice pudding and peaches too. It was still painful to eat because of the lie bumps, but it seemed to be getting a little better. We had some topical anesthetics that helped too, including a spray that I carried in my pack all day since I was worried I wouldn’t be able to eat, but which I actually never ended up using on the trail. Oh well, it’s all just training weight…
The plan now was to return to the Wind Rivers to climb Wind River Peak, the only 13er in the southern part of the range. It’s an easy but long hike, and I expected it to use up a full day. That meant I would have to combine the Grand Teton and Francs on the last day–which might just barely work if everything went perfectly. While the worst of the storm was relegated to the Bighorns, the forecast wasn’t looking great for Wind River Peak either: all day cloud cover and a good chance of precipitation, but probably no lightning now that the front had moved through. My dad, the valiant chauffeur, once again drove overnight from the trailhead to Lander, as I slept. Since I got back earlier today and it was a shorter drive (4 hours), we parked in town for another ~1 hour of sleep before heading up to the next trailhead.
I would later learn that the storm did produce substantial snow in the Bighorns, as forecast. I use high-resolution satellite imagery from a company called Planet for my dissertation research on snow hydrology in Wyoming’s mountains, and I pulled a few images to illustrate the effect of the storm. The large map shows the Bighorn Range on September 10th, the day after the storm and the same day I needed to finish the 13ers. It’s impossible to know how deep it was up high, but it was certainly enough that I couldn’t have done the Cloud-Black Tooth loop during or right after the storm, which meant that my choice to go straight from the northern Winds to the Bighorns saved the whole project.
The set of smaller maps shows the same area around Cloud and Black Tooth (including my route) on four successive days. September 7th was the last day of summer weather, with dry conditions and clear skies. The September 8th image was captured around the time I summited Black Tooth and shows one of the sunniest parts of the day, with just a few clouds. On September 9th, the satellite just captured a solid-white image of cloud tops, as the Bighorns were fully enveloped in the storm. The skies were clear again by September 10th, but a fresh blanket of snow covered everything except the lakes. The snow line was somewhere around 8,000-9,000 ft., which meant I would have been hiking in snow the whole way if I were even a day later.