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Sunlit Summit

The Wyoming 13ers

Fear and Loneliness in Wyoming: A Saga of Gonzo Mountaineering

“Buy the ticket, take the ride…” ~ Hunter S. Thompson*

This is the story of my quest to become the first person in history to climb all 36 Wyoming 13ers in a single year.

News article republished from the Dubois Frontier HERE.

Official Fastest Known Time link HERE.

Original progress-tracking thread HERE.

WARNING: Read safety disclaimer at end.**

Very long report (101 pictures and >17,000 words).

Sunrise on Gannett Peak (the highest peak in Wyoming) from high on Mount Woodrow Wilson

I was somewhere around Pinedale, on the edge of the mountains, when the fear began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive.” But there was no hope of an answer, since I was alone. Are you ready for that? Backpacking solo into one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the Lower 48 in late June, completely solo, with intent to climb some of the most imposing peaks in the American Rockies? I sure hope so!

“Can you hear me?

That’s good. Because I want you to have all the background. This is a very ominous assignment–with overtones of extreme personal danger. I’m a Doctor of Journalism! This is important! This is a true story!” ~ HST

Let’s get right to the heart of this thing: I wanted to be first to climb all 36 Wyoming 13ers in a single year. The idea was simple enough: climb all the peaks, and do it in a single year, and do it before anyone else does it. Despite it being a list of only 36 peaks, at the beginning of this year, only two people had reported climbing them all: Sarah Meiser and Teresa Gergen, who finished together in 2015. Sarah’s website (HERE) documents many of her climbs, and makes the list sound almost as inspiring as it does imposing.

“How can 35 possibly feel like a greater accomplishment than 584? I think the answer boils down to three factors: ruggedness, remoteness and obscurity. If you’re a quality over quantity type of peakbagger, this might be a good list for you!” ~ Sarah, comparing the CO and WY 13er lists

The Wyoming 13ers List

Key component of this project: be the first to climb all 36 peaks in one year. But soon after I started, I learned I had competition. Two Washington climbers had decided to attempt all these peaks as fast as possible, and since they, of course, weren’t enrolled in a summer term of college, I was sure they would be much faster. In fairness, they weren’t attempting to compete with me directly, it just so happened that if they finished their project too early, it would obviously be impossible for me to be the first to finish in a year.

I’d spent literally hundreds of hours over many years planning this project…memorizing every relevant trip report, scouring the corners of LoJ and Peakbagger for useful tidbits, memorizing the lay of the land, and planning every possible route. I wasn’t excited about the prospect that someone else’s last-minute change-of-plans could eliminate my long-held goal of being the first to finish in a year. Thus, I desperately needed to get a big head start.

Some of the numerous routes I developed and memorized over years of preparation

As my own attorney in these matters, I advised myself that I would need a very sharp ice axe, at least 2 pairs of socks, and after that, a small green plastic elephant to photograph on top of each of the summits. On June 21, I posted a thread (HERE) announcing my plans. The next morning I was watching sunrise over the Tetons as I drove solo from the family ranch near Dubois to the Elkhart Park Trailhead, where I would officially begin my quest.

“Yeah we’re gonna knock ya, rock ya,

Gonna sock it to ya now!” ~ Big Brother and the Holding Company

Teton Range at sunrise, June 22, on the dawn of the 13er quest

My first views into the Wind River Range, or Winds as they are sometimes called, revealed snowy peaks. Way more snow than expected. The Great Outdoor Shop, which runs some semblance of occasional conditions updates, had reported that the Titcomb Lakes were iced-off…they weren’t. The trail was still in spring-snow conditions for most of the 16.5-mile trek into upper Titcomb Basin.

The first few miles of dry trail led me to Photographer’s Point. This didn’t last long: by the time I reached Barbara Lake, I had to start climbing through significant snow drifts. My pack was heavy–loaded with a climbing rope, 1-person tent, and sufficient gear for 2 nights solo above treeline in this hostile realm of snow, ice, and granite. My morale sank as quickly as my feet punched through the soggy snow. How long could I maintain? How long before I would start jabbering to the wind about hypothermia and whiteouts and broken legs?

Got to keep moving though…or they’ll sic the Woolly Mammoths on you. These trails have eyes.

Photographer’s Point, with Jackson Peak framed in the center

In a place like this, the waterproofing of one’s boots is irrelevant. Postholing through slush is perhaps the worst type of hiking one can do.

By the time I reached Little Seneca Lake, my feet were soaked and it was beginning to rain. I took off my boots and tried to wring the water out of my socks, reluctant to sacrifice my dry pair until tomorrow. Each group of hikers I met brought more dismal news than the last. At one point I met a mountaineering team with enough pickets to spear a mastodon, but they hadn’t even made it past Island Lake.

You can’t get past Seneca Lake, it’s straight Arctic up there, my stove got so coated in verglas that we had to eat rime-ice for dinner. Even the vodka was frozen….” ~ someone, probably

I kept going and made it to the head of Titcomb Basin. I was the only one camping in the whole basin.

Titcomb Basin in early “summer” conditions

My goal on this trip was to climb the hardest 13ers in the area…”get them out of the way”…that was the idea. In particular, my beta indicated that the obscure Spearhead Pinnacle would be the most difficult climb of the whole quest, and I planned to attempt it first of course. Catch the bear by the horns before it can even wake up from winter hibernation. One problem: it was much too snowy for safe solo rock climbing, so I turned my sights from the most difficult rock peak to the most difficult snow peak.

Mount Woodrow Wilson is rarely climbed, yet it dominates the view up central Titcomb, its south couloir perfectly splitting a crest of pinnacles, which together supposedly correspond to its namesake president’s Fourteen Points to end WWI. The route is obvious. Perfect. Symmetric. Aesthetic. And by most accounts, somewhat terrifying.

“It was out of condition but we climbed it anyway.” ~ literally every report from someone climbing the south couloir

Mount Woodrow Wilson, split by its obvious south couloir (left), and The Sphinx (right)

There is something about solo backpacking that makes the actual climbing seem much more intense than it should be. The worst part was that I knew what to expect. I’d started this project last year, and abandoned it after only one trip. With a similar too-early start, I had traversed the Divide from Downs to Flagstone, with a solo overnight below the Sourdough Glacier, before descending the rarely traveled Pixley Creek to the Green River. It was a fantastic trip in hindsight. At the time, I just felt exposed, like a deer in headlights, even though all the peaks were objectively easy. Scared for no good reason.

Soaked boots, sharp menacing wind, desolation on every side, and nearly complete isolation from all other living things. There is something sublime about being the only person for ten miles in any direction, surrounded and alone within a vast wilderness. And yet there is something frightening about it too. An irrational fear, an ancient fear, the fear of lost ancestors brandishing fire at a pack of dire wolves, the fear of a lost hunter on some high winter plateau.

“To martyr yourself to caution

Is not gonna help at all” ~ Pink Floyd

I set my alarm for some horrible hour of the night, traded nervous satellite texts with my parents, and fell into a dreamless sleep. Then I woke up and started climbing. Hour by hour, I made progress through the dark, across desolate snowfields and the Sphinx Glacier by headlamp, until I finally reached the bottom of the south couloir.

Looking down the south couloir of Mount Woodrow Wilson, choke point barely visible

50 degrees, maybe steeper. It felt steeper. The snow was still a bit unconsolidated from winter, and my ice axe was uninspiring even when plunged to the hilt. Worse yet, the crux section in the middle had already started to melt out, leaving a 20-foot section of thin snow and fragile ice over a smooth chockstone. The snow was less than a foot deep in places, but it buried any possible rock holds, putting me in a tenuous situation. Steep and loose, bad fall lines, impossible to self-arrest in this muck.

Through some mix of prayers, luck, and perhaps residual snow climbing experience, I hauled myself into the col at the top of the couloir just in time to watch a cascade of sunrise light crashing and splashing across the rugged face of Gannett (see first picture in trip report). Then, after a few minutes of 5.1 ridge scrambling in mixed conditions, I reached my first Wyoming 13er summit of the year. One down, thirty-five to go…the rest should all be easy, right? Ok. Don’t think about that now. Just take your pictures and figure out how to get down from this place of forsaken beauty.

Summit of Mount Woodrow Wilson, looking out across a frozen Titcomb Basin

From the tiny col where the south couloir topped out, I could also see down part of the north couloir, which I’d never heard of anyone climbing in recent times. It was mostly melted out, and only the top hundred feet or so looked steep; the rest looked like an easy scree/snow mix. At this point, anything sounded better than downclimbing thin, rotten snow/ice in the south couloir, so I decided to perform an exploratory rappel to the north. Of course, while getting out my rope, the webbing came out of my pack as well, and promptly fell right down the north couloir.

So I pulled out a knife and cut off a piece of my rope, creating a weird anchor that I’m perfectly sure was AMGA-satisfactory that involved a self-tightening double-overhand-loop-cinch around a pointy block. Whatever; I knew the knots were strong, and it minimized the amount of rope I would have to leave. Then I set up a biner-block and paracord-pull-string and rapped 100 feet down the steep top section of the north couloir, retrieving my fallen webbing exactly at the bottom of my rope. Perfectly convenient, just how I planned it.

I wonder if they teach this in the CMC technical snow course. I’ll probably never know, being forever condemned to inferior alpine style since I was too young to meet the 18-year age requirement for Mountaineering School at the time any of their climbing courses would have still been relevant to my skill-set. Well, CMC: now I’m 20, but you lost your chance to save me from Gonzo alpine style.

The rest of the north couloir was an easy scramble, and I promptly exited to the north on ledges, climbing up a scree passage to an isolated arm of the Dinwoody Glacier. I had never planned on this, but years of studying the range, memorizing guidebooks, and playing with Google Earth for hours had payed off. I knew exactly where I was and what I needed to do next: I found a suitable couloir on my right, and descend to the lower Dinwoody, from where I could hopefully make it back to the Sphinx-Wilson col, completing a loop around the summit and returning to my original plan to climb The Sphinx next.

Next up to bat: The Sphinx, viewed from near my escape point on the Dinwoody Glacier

From the lower arm of the Dinwoody, I climbed up moderate snow across the somewhat-notorious bergschrund below the Sphinx-Wilson col. At last, I reached the col, only 500 feet below the summit of Woodrow Wilson near the base of my ascent route, but the circuitous descent was worth it for increased safety and maximized ridiculousness.

I climbed the northwest ridge of The Sphinx, a route traditionally graded low-5th-class that is more in line with class 4+ in other parts of the range. It was steep, but the solid rock was a huge relief after the rotten snow. In the preceding picture, the route ascends the right ridge of The Sphinx after crossing the center of the bergschrund (bridged by avalanche debris) to reach the col.

Left to right from the summit of The Sphinx: Woodrow Wilson, Pinnacle Ridge, Gannett

I had planned to continue to the Twin Peaks, situated comfortably nearby. However, that would require further steep snow climbing, and though it was not yet 9 a.m., I was already seeing plentiful sun-rollers and sinking to my ankles. This meant that the snow was softening rapidly, and I did not want to get caught in a wet slide on the steep slope required to climb the Twins.

Instead, I turned back to camp, following some lynx tracks in the snow. What was this snow cat doing up here? Did it see me? This was the last-known home of the yeti family, who disguised themselves as mountaineers to engage in brutal wars with the lynx population. Would the lynx make that grim connection? Well if it attacks me, I’ll just have to kill it with my ice axe and bury it somewhere. Because it goes without saying…wait, the lynx tracks are going the other way than me, never mind. Was I talking? Did it hear me?

When I reached my tent in late morning, I realized I was dreading spending a full day sitting in Titcomb Basin, completely isolated, with nothing to do but worry. Instead, I packed up my gear and backpacked the 16.5 miles back to the car, in low spirits with soaked feet. When I turned on some music for the drive home, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded to hear human voices again.

Celebrating my return to civilization with the can of fruit I stashed at the car

“Long distance runner, what you standing there for?

Get up get out, get out of the door” ~ The Grateful Dead

My first trip had taken a big toll, mentally and physically, and honestly I wanted to quit. If it weren’t for the fact that I had publicized my project by posting it on the forum, I probably wouldn’t have headed back into the Wind Rivers for a while, at least not solo. But…I had said I was going to do it, so I at least had to try. For the ‘gram, you know?

I wasn’t about to hike up the dreadfully snowy Elkhart approach again, though. I had seen that the Dinwoody Valley looked drier, with none of those Woolly Mammoths I had fought on the west side of the range. Fewer yeti too. As a bonus, the Glacier Trail is my favorite trail in the world, and it was my first long backpacking trip when I was 13, so it is associated with good memories. This time, I headed out solo with only my 35l mountaineering pack, bursting at the seams from my overnight gear. I met a Boy Scout group in the first ten miles of trail…I think they were suspicious of my quest, but I told them I’m an Eagle Scout (which is true) and they let me go.

In fairness, I was wary of this undertaking too. The first peak I planned to attack was Mount Koven, which can be summarized in one word: notorious. The only pictures I had of this peak were from Sarah’s trip, where they encountered serious roped climbing to reach the summit. I was planning on soloing it from the east side , but beta from Teresa indicated it would still be plenty spicy.

Mount Koven as seen from Desolation; my ascent route went up the other side, then joined the ridge about 2/3 of the way up

Thankfully, the trail was almost entirely dry, and I made good time on the 20-mile trip to Gannett Creek, where I left the trail and bushwhacked through dense forest into the alpine basin below Gannett Glacier.

Double Lake on the Glacier Trail

The day was clear and the hour early, so I kept going, and pitched camp at 11,700 feet on a dry dirt spot in the moraine below Bastion Peak. I had noticed a really good weather window in the forecast, and skipped the first day of my summer term to make this second trip possible only a couple days after my Titcomb foray. I knew that logistics would be one of the biggest impediments to my quest, since I’m a sophomore at Dartmouth College, which requires sophomores to take courses during their summer quarter. Due to the pandemic, our summer term is remote, so I was still able to pursue climbing on the weekends, sometimes taking off Friday or Monday to optimize my use of weather windows.

I usually use an MSR Whisperlite stove to cook backpacking, but on this trip, it kept clogging and not working. I had to take it apart 3 times before I finally got my water boiled for my freeze-dried dinner. I think that oily Tanzanian gasoline we burnt when climbing Kilimanjaro unsupported last summer must have taken its toll. I felt lucky to get a hot dinner after so much trouble, and I carried a canister stove for the remaining trips.

The evening was lonely as always when solo backpacking, made slightly less so by chatting with my parents through satellite text and getting weather updates via the same.

Camping solo in the Gannett Glacier moraine

Since I camped so high, I didn’t have to start quite as early. Still, by first light, I was high above camp, wandering across the beautiful expanse of the Gannett Glacier. Mount Koven rose directly ahead, a fierce beast in the twilight. It has a reputation as one of the most fearsome Wyoming 13ers, but I believed I could find a reasonable solo route to the summit through a combination of early season snow climbing and a low-5th-class traverse reported by Teresa on Lists of John.

Gannett (left) and Koven (right) from the Gannett Glacier

This was one of my most enjoyable semi-technical climbs. From the glacier, I climbed steep snow on Koven’s east face to reach its south ridge a few gendarmes from the summit, over and around which I scrambled at about 5.0. Sunrise on Gannett was spectacular. It’s hard to believe this is in the U.S. Rockies.

I was truly excited to get this summit, since it was a peak I had imagined/dreaded for a long time. The situation could not have been better–jagged peaks soaring all around in the sunrise, vast glaciers spreading out below my feet, not a breath of wind, and no sign of humans in any direction. The one exception was the summit register, which sadly did not have a pencil. I briefly considered signing in blood, decided firmly against that idea, and resorted to cutting my name into the paper with a knife.

“Once in a while you get shown the light

In the strangest of places if you look at it right” ~ The Grateful Dead

Gannett from Koven, sunrise

I descended quickly and continued to Koven’s neighboring 13er, Bastion Peak. I ascended a broad easy snow ramp from the Gannett Glacier, and obvious and enjoyable route.

From Bastion, I could see the rest of my planned route, and it was a long way to Downs Mountain. I had to get moving, and moving fast. After a few moments on top of Bastion, I descended a small detached glacier arm in the eastern cirque between Bastion and Rampart’s east summit, returning to my camp and hastily packing my gear.

The northern Divide from Bastion, including 6 thirteeners

I set out with my now-heavier pack to reascend to the Divide, this time climbing a mix of snow (with occasional annoying postholing) and easy talus, then doing a bit of scrambling to reach the summit of Unnamed Point 13,180. This obscure peak is a hidden, ranked 13er nestled between the substantially higher summits of Bastion and Flagstone. For much of the way, I followed sets of bighorn sheep tracks in the snow.

“Vox clamantis in deserto” (A voice crying out in the wilderness) ~ the prophet Isaiah, and also the Dartmouth College motto

Hiking 20-hour days, solo, out of sight of civilization, provokes a curious sensibility in the mendicant mind. I have reckoned the experience similar to a silent retreat…stuck along with one’s thoughts, one thinks, especially here, alone and vulnerable in the wilderness. Perhaps inspired by the mountain pilgrims I learned about in my Tibetan Anthropology course I was taking during the summer, I figured I might as well offer my trips to God as some sort of eccentric pilgrimages…pick an intention, repeat it mentally each time I ask for successful climbing. For my family…for friends; for health, for the spreading of love. Walking, praying, and no sign of life in any direction save the sheep tracks in the snow.

Following sheep tracks towards U.N. Point 13,180 (summit on extreme left end of ridge)

From here, I have a wonderful view of my next peaks: Flagstone and Pedestal. This pair of well-named peaks sits on the Continental Divide, separated by a high saddle. This was the southern terminus of my solo 13er climbing trip in 2019. This year, I was approaching from the south, so I had to figure out a way to reach the easy ridge between the peaks while carrying an overnight pack. I ended up sidehilling a moderate but slushy slope to get to the easy class-2 rocks leading to the summit of Flagstone Peak. It was fun to read my register entry from last year–only one other person had signed in since then.

Flagstone (left) and Pedestal (right) from U.N. Point 13,180

The traverse between the peaks is easy, and before long, I was standing on top of Pedestal Peak’s unique summit tower. Both of these peaks are well-named in correspondence with the shape of rocks at their summits (though, of course, the flagstone-shaped rocks on Flagstone are actually granitic). Downs Mountain still looked far off, and I was starting to get tired.

Flagstone (far right) and Bastion from the summit of Pedestal; in the distant center: the Twins, Henderson, American Legion, Split

Next up, I had to descend a bunch of sloppy snow and traverse to the top of the Sourdough Glacier, where I dropped my pack to tag the summit of Klondike Peak, located just west of the Divide. This is one of the coolest class-2 peaks I have ever climbed, with a continuous easy snow ridge leading straight to the completely snow-covered summit area. There is hardly a rock to be seen on top of this peak.

Klondike Peak rising at the head of the Sourdough Glacier (ascent via left ridge)

The next section of the Continental Divide is both one of the coolest, and one of the most annoying. I spent a couple hours painstakingly walking through boulders, slick slabs, mossy spots, and soggy snowfields as I traveled from the headwaters of Pixley Creek over a saddle to the Kevin Lake region, where I could see the Connie Glacier below Yukon Peak (a 12er I’ll have to come back to climb someday). The terrain here is just easy enough to make it feel like the miles should go quickly, but just complicated enough to delay progress.

Also, my boots were starting to get wet by this point, since the sun had warmed the snow enough to allow for some serious postholing. Thankfully, though, it was substantially drier than when I came through this same region 364 days previously. After what felt like an eternity, my tired legs landed me on the summit of Unnamed Point 13,062, a talus mound which epitomizes the idea of “sublime desolation.”

South from U.N. Point 13,062, showing many of the 13ers I climbed in the morning

It was now only a couple more miles of big boulder hopping to Downs Mountain, which I finally reach a bit after 6 p.m., my eighth 13er summit this day (probably the most WY 13ers ever climbed in a day). The weather was still sunny as forecast, though a few non-menacing clouds hung about. I ate some of my remaining food–I was running low–and wasted no time in starting the long descent back towards home, knowing I would have to push just to make treeline by nightfall. What I didn’t know, was that soon I would be racing something far more ominous than the dark.

One cool fact about Downs Mountain is that it is the northernmost 13er on the Continental Divide. It functions as the terminus for most people doing a high traverse of the range; beyond this point the Wind Rivers drop into to lower heights and higher mystery. Nothing but talus fields and white walkers north of here. Keeps the tourist population low.

North from the summit of Downs Mountain: the real north

By the time I had descended a thousand feet of easy snow and talus to No Mans Pass between the Downs Fork and East Torrey Creek, an ominous storm cloud appeared over the summit of Downs. Apparently those small, friendly clouds I had seen a half-hour ago on the summit had metamorphosed into something ugly. The fuel of fate lit quickly on fire.

Goat Flat is an archetypal remnant of the peneplain, an ancient erosional surface that escaped recent glaciation. While there are no goats in the Wind Rivers, Goat Flat lives up to the other half of its name. What better place to be in a lightning storm than a flat, completely exposed plateau above 12,000 feet? I was terrified.

“Hold tight, wait ’til the party’s over

Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather

There has got to be a way

Burning down the house” ~ The Talking Heads

The only thing to do was to run, as fast as I could anyway with a full pack across wet talus after a day of climbing 10,000 vertical feet. Which was not fast enough. I was only 3/4 of the way across Goat Flat’s 5-mile expanse when the storm hit. Wind driving well into the 50s and 60s mph, hail flying sideways and ripping across my face, clothes soaked in an instant since I couldn’t risk the extra 30 second to put on a raincoat. That was just the gustfront. Then the real storm hit. Lightning. Thunder. Repeat. Keep going, only hope is getting to treeline. Time on target. Probability. No use running the numbers. Big sky theory. Lots of targets. Just keep moving, fast, but not too fast to slip and break a leg on this endless wet talus.

I wondered if my ice axe would buzz from the static electricity. I held it up next to my ear. Yes, it was buzzing. I decided to hold it by the rubber part.

Arrival of the storm (it got dark fast)

I made it, obviously. I don’t like leaving safety up to chance. I feel like I got away with something shouldn’t have. This storm was unexpected–the forecast was impeccable. A storm was supposed to arrive the next day, but it must have come early; it rained almost continuously the next couple days. The plan should have worked fine, and in a way, it did. Then again, isn’t that what luck is?

You can run, but you can’t hide. ~ various

By the time I made it to treeline on the Glacier Trail, the storm had mostly passed, and I hiked the remaining miles in the dark and light rain. One of my favorite memories of my life was seeing the headlights of my parents’ car waiting in the parking lot as I descended the final switchbacks a little after midnight. I ate a slice of pie and went to bed.

“There are things you can replace

And others you cannot

The time has come to weigh those things

This space is getting hot” ~ The Grateful Dead

You can’t replace life, and you also can’t replace the chance to be first at something. I had first heard of the Wyoming 13er list when researching easy winter 14er climbs on Sarah’s website in 2015. On a 26-day Wind River traverse in 2016, I climbed my first 13ers (Wind River Peak, Fremont, Gannett, and Downs Mountain). I was hooked, and I knew this was a list I had to pursue. At some point, I realized that 36 peaks is not too terribly many. “Someone could do that in a year,” I thought. Maybe I could do that in a year.

So I purposely avoided climbing 13ers for a few years, because if I was going to do them all in a year, why bother making most of them into repeats? At the same time, I became gradually aware of the Fastest Known Time (FKT) scene. No one had tried an FKT on the Wyoming 13ers. I figured the Wyoming 13er scene was many decades behind the Colorado 14er scene in terms of history. Blaurock’s and Ervin’s mutual first completion of the CO 14er list would correspond roughly to Sarah’s and Teresa’s completion of the WY 13ers almost a hundred years later. In 1960, Cleve McCarty climbed the 14ers in 52 days, presumably the first to do so in a single year; the rest is history, with modern 14er FKTs hotly contested. I figured if I had a chance to get my name into Wyoming mountaineering history, my best bet would be to be the first to finish all the 13ers in a single year, setting the first FKT and establishing the rules of good style before the real ultrarunners discovered the potential and took the record out of my ballpark.

Thus it was imperative to climb them all in one season before someone else did. I planned for months, generating hundreds of Google Earth tracks, and launched in the summer of 2019. After my first solo overnight and 50-mile Divide-crossing extravaganza, during which I climbed only class 2 peaks (Downs to Flagstone) but still managed to get nervous, I reconsidered. In addition, my dad is in a situation with serious health concerns starting the past couple years. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say I decided to use 2019, one of my last “free” summers before starting “real life” after college, to spend as much time with my family as possible, as we worked together to build a log cabin. “There are things you can replace, and others you cannot…”

It turns out, one of the things you can replace is an FKT attempt. I hiked in from Elkhart Park for my 3rd solo trip in 2020. It happened to be a couple days before my dad was due to head to Colorado for a tri-monthly test. Stress was high.

Bow Mountain and flanking 12ers above Upper Jean Lake

Snow levels were lower this time–just a few drifts by Barbara Lake, then more continuous snow on the Highline Trail as I followed it to the Jean Lakes. The stress of my dad’s looming medical test weighed heavily. In the tradition I had now begun, I offered this trip for the intention of my dad’s test. I doubted myself though–was I saying this out of selfishness, the desire that everything should remain ok so that I could continue the 13er quest without feeling guilty about spending every weekend away? Of course, I did genuinely hope for his good health. But our motivations are often complicated things…how can we know when they hold true?

Suddenly, in the distance, motion. Light-colored, tawny, fast. An elk, I thought. Good. Where the elk are, the bears usually aren’t. Turns out, it was a bear of course, honey brown and running fast a half-mile ahead. My bear spray is always clipped into my left bottle pocket on my pack, so I easily unclipped it into my right hand, then pocketed the stuff for a mile or two until I crossed the bridge at Fremont Crossing, after which I considered myself “safe.” My dad inadvertently set off a canister of the orange mist at Mile Long Lake a few years back, and everything was pepper-flavored for days. No need to keep the spray out longer than necessary and risk over-seasoning my dinner; back to the pack’s side it went.

A few miles of postholing and I crawled into camp above Upper Jean Lake. Dinner was interrupted when the late-afternoon sun melted a bit more snow than I had expected and the tent started floating, so I found a grassy knoll a few dozen feet away and carried the whole tent up there. A boulder had hidden this superb spot as I arrived.

Camp above the Jean Lakes, unranked peak “Bondage” in background

During my usual post-dinner, pre-sunset, “now-I’m-bored-and-lonely” phase of the solo camping routine, I texted with my parents a bit through the Delorme as usual. I’ve taught them how to use my favorite weather forecasting models to send pre-climb updates. “RAP clear sunrise to noon…winds…temps…no precip.” My dad had checked the American rapid-refresh model. It sounded good. “RDPS 90% clouds 6 a.m….CAPE rising…” My mom, in a different room and not knowing he had already responded to my inquiry, sent the Canadian model a few moments later.

90% clouds, 6 a.m., WHAT?! It was supposed to be clear all morning. The RDPS is my most-trusted model. CAPE is a convective index, and the memories of last weekend’s lightning storm still burned fresh in my mind. So…I guessed I just had to go anyway. By the time the sky started to lighten, around 5 a.m. this time of year, I was climbing moderate snow in perfect conditions–that crunchy crampon snow that climbers dream of–and watching some anvil clouds approaching from the west–a climber’s nightmare. Overhead, the skies remained clear; I probably had a couple hours.

Halfway up the sharp north ridge of Henderson Peak

The north ridge of Henderson Peak is a classic. It pushes the limits of class 4, with near-vertical terrain for short sections, but the moves are superb, like climbing a granite ladder into the sunrise. Snow sections break up the scrambling, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The summit register, dating to the second ascent in 1943, bears such names from the likes of Joe Kelsey, the legendary Wind River guidebook author, who signed it in 2000, after which he added the route to his 3rd edition book and gave it a “classic” rating. I was the 35th party to sign-in. I believe no others mentioned watching sunrise from the summit.

“The way we look to a distant constellation

That’s dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry” ~ Paul Simon

Visions of the sublime

And it was glorious. The Canadian model was right, and a storm was pushing its way into the Northern Winds, low clouds lit golden behind jagged snowy peaks. The first direct light rays glanced straight over the summit of Mount Helen. Blue and gold and even purple. Anyone who spends long enough in the alpine can get desensitized to the usual views, the grandeur of spire and valley lost into a sea of sameness. But there is no preparation for this view, no escape from the immediacy of its reality. It was here that I began adding “Gloria a Dios” on my summit register entries. No particular reason for the Spanish usage…other than perhaps memories of the prominent placement of crosses on other high peak summits in Latin American countries…Orizaba…Aconagua…have we U.S. climbers grown weary of the glory around us?

“Vaya con Dios!” ~ Gerry Roach in his 14ers guidebook

In excelsis Deo

Henderson and American Legion form a pair of steep-sided symmetric peaks on the west wall of Titcomb, and a traverse between the two is only logical. The latter, formerly called Buchtel after a pioneering Wind River climber, is now called American Legion Peak and bears a .50-cal ammo can as a summit register, complete with various American Legion insignia and ascents of local chapter members.

I raced up its steep southern talus field with a vengeance, intent on beating the storm that was bearing down over the range. The last hundred feet involved some 3rd-class past a huge white dike; then the summit boulder stood just beyond, a ten-foot-tall blade of rock only a foot or two thick, sitting edgewise on the apex.

American Legion Peak from Henderson

Bow Mountain was next, a low ridge of a 13er sitting only a bit to the west. If I didn’t get it on this trip, it would be “orphaned” in the peakbagger parlance, requiring a dedicated trip to get just this one peak. But the storm was closing in. Sometimes I just wish I could have a clear go / no-go signal written in the sky.

“I don’t think the heavy stuff is gonna come down for quite a while” ~ Bill Murray during a pouring rainstorm (Caddyshack)

Bow Mountain from the summit of American Legion, with the storm fast approaching

While racing down a moderate snow slope to the west, I got my sign. Boom. Only eight in the morning, and lightning strikes the New Fork Plateau five miles to the west. Nope, nope, nope. I used all my lightning luck last weekend. Forget this, no matter how hard it would be to make a dedicated trip just to climb Bow, I was not going to head up another big peak directly under a lightning storm. But wait…it’s clear directly overhead! What is going on here?

Satellite text to the rescue. My dad reported that the national radar mosaic shows a single fast-moving storm tracking to the northeast. The tail of the storm was just clearing Scott Lake by the time I dropped and traversed to approach the standard route up Bow Mountain. By the time I started climbing up again, the sky was perfectly clear.

Well…nothing like a little morning storm to get the adrenaline going. The southwest couloir is a nice easy route though, and my nerves relaxed as I settled into a rapid snow-climbing pattern. I’ve found the fastest way to make progress on moderate terrain is a pattern of a hundred steps uphill, then ten or twenty breaths while resting. One, two, three…ninety-nine, one-hundred. Breathe, breathe, breathe…

Soon enough I pop out in a hanging talus field perched above some cliffs and hop on up to the summit. I can just see the last storm clouds over the northern horizon, but all around the day is clear and bright. Directly ahead, the Stroud Glacier drops from the north face of Bow and forms the official headwaters of the Green River. Behind me, the western plateau of the Wind Rivers rolls gently into the plains around Pinedale, where the Green River emerges from the mountains on its way to its confluence with the Colorado River in Canyonlands.

Headwaters of the Green River from the summit of Bow Mountain (note the storm disappearing over the horizon)

Back to camp I went, packing up in mid-morning and using the last bit of storm-fueled adrenaline to hustle the 16 miles out to the car in as few hours as possible. No use waiting around here for the bears to eat you–and if I could get out before six-o-clock, I could make the four-hour drive back to Dubois in time to watch fireworks with my family. It’s the Fourth of July after all. Might as well make good use of the relatively dry trail and book it.

Uppermost Jean Lake; left to right: Stroud, Bow, Arrowhead, American Legion, Henderson, Bondage, Titcomb Needles

The only thing that motivates me at this point in a usual trip is the thought of reaching the car and eating. I’ve started a tradition of bringing a can of tropical fruit for celebration, and I knew it was waiting for me at the trailhead, tucked inside the tire rim to remain cool. The last four miles of downhill hiking from Photographer’s Point went by in a flash at just over an hour. The trailhead arrival sequence was well-orchestrated by now: unlock car, peel off boots from blistered feet, change shirts, eat fruit, play loud music, drive fast for Dubois. I made it with an hour to spare, and thus ended a Fourth to remember.

A few days later, we learned my dad’s tri-monthly test was negative again. His next test is scheduled in October.

Full moon and fireworks over Dubois, Wyoming

“Well I’m accustomed to a smooth ride

Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite” ~ Paul Simon

The solo trips were wearing on me. Fear and loneliness; I had already come up with the name of this trip report while hiking past the Seneca Lake outlet stream on my last trip. I had not reached the level of insanity of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I still felt like I was beginning to implode some main node of the human psyche.

So for my fourth trip, and third time up the Elkhart Park trail in as many weeks, my mom joined me since the trail was now into “enjoyable” conditions instead of “death-by-postholing” conditions. We plodded up the trail as I ticked off what had become exceedingly familiar landmarks: the first bend, the Wilderness sign, the second bend, Miller Park, Photographer’s Point, Barbara Lake, Hobbs Lake, the meadow, the Seneca creek crossing, the double pass, Seneca Lake, Little Seneca Lake, the big pass, Island Lake, the Indian Basin creek crossing, and all three of the main Titcomb Lakes. Finally we set up camp on a lovely hill below Mount Sacagawea, one of the several severely imposing rock peaks I planned on climbing tomorrow.

Yikes. The problem with Titcomb Basin is that all the peaks appear unclimbable from this side…a chain of impenetrable sentinels I had taken to calling “the Titcomb Wall Peaks.” Fear, yes; loneliness, less so, as I shared camp duties and conversation with my mom. It made a huge difference in my morale to have someone to talk to the night before climbing.

The glory of upper Titcomb Basin

But in the morning of course, I was climbing solo. By first light I had climbed moderate snow to a col north of Mount Helen, and at once the Helen Glacier spread out below me like a vast pearly sheet in the twilight. I dropped and contoured; climbed again; reached another col. It was time to switch shoes for the first time in the 13er quest. My thick leather hiking boots came off, and thin rubber climbing shoes went on. Spearhead Pinnacle was the name of the game.

Spearhead (left) and Forked Tongue (unranked, right) seen on an earlier trip; ascent via leftmost ridge

The Bonney “guidebook” to the Wind Rivers lists Spearhead as a class 5.3 climb. In the introduction section, they provide exemplars of popular climbing routes across the country at each of the different grades. All of the class 5.3 climbs in the exemplar section are currently rated between 5.5 and 5.7 on Mountain Project. I did not know this at the time.

Dawn patrol, Wind River edition; aka the wild and remote Helen Glacier at sunrise

Thanks to Teresa, I had a few pictures of the ridge, and thanks to Adam’s blog, a few notes on the route their combined group climbed on Spearhead in 2010. The first part is an easy scramble around the west side of a gendarme before returning to class 4 rock on the narrowing, steepening ridge. I had also heard that the 2010 climbing team rappelled to the ridge’s side on their descent instead of returning to the shoe-on/rope-up point, so I packed my boots into my backpack and strapped my ice axe on the side in anticipation of differing ascent/descent routes, in which case a gear cache would not be feasible.

For the first couple hundred feet I found myself wondering whether rock shoes were really necessary, but soon got my answer, when the ridge turned almost vertical.

Bypassing a gendarme (climber’s left) and nearing the crux pitch of Spearhead Pinnacle

At first I experimented with some friction moves on a slab, and backed off when the moves seemed beyond my limit for climbing without a rope (probably 5.6 or 5.7). To the left of the slab there was a weird chimney of sorts, where one slab’s edge overlapped sideways above the slab I had just tried. A committing jump-mantel-move brought me to a ledge where I could squeeze into the slot, but I quickly found that it lacked positive holds. It felt more secure than the bare slab though, and I wormed my way high enough to grab a small, suspiciously thin flake on the inside roof of the chimney. Around this point my ice axe kept getting stuck on the side of the chimney, so I kept having to stop mid-crux to straighten it out.

No doubt about it…while short, this was the absolute crux, and it was with relief that I grabbed the first solid holds at the top of the chimney/slot and pulled myself onto safer ground. Eh, I’d rate it class 5.5, a solid step up in difficulty from the Owen-Spalding cruxes on the Grand Teton, thus making Spearhead Pinnacle the hardest Wyoming 13er.

Looking down the crux slab/chimney

Boom. I crested a shoulder of the ridge and there it was, suddenly in my face: Spearhead Pinnacle in all its fierceness. Rock. Rock shoes. Climbing. Hand over hand, gentle granite soaring into endless dawn sky.

“Some people say the sky is just the sky

But I say:

Why deny the obvious child?” ~ Paul Simon

Spearhead Pinnacle: the secret king of the Wyoming 13ers

The final hundred feet of sheer granite rose steeply across a perfect knife-edge ridge and culminated in a singular white block. The scrambling was perfect. The rock was solid, the position was superb, the route was aesthetic, the moves were interesting but well within my comfort zone, and the first gold of sunrise was washing across the faces of nearby giants.

I crept across the knife edge, my feet straddling the crest of the Continental Divide, where the very backbone of the continent culminates in a serrated granite blade. Beyond, I practically danced up a delightful slab section, the moves and position reminding me of a micro-Flatiron floating in the sky.

“I am walking on the wire

And the wire’s what the whole thing is about” ~ Nanci Griffith

One ridge to rule them all, and in the sunrise bind them

I climbed onto the summit. Description would fail the emotion of sitting on that unforgiving rock, awash in sunrise, alone in desolation, yet alive in joyous splendor.

I was the first person to sign the summit register since the group of Jim, Adam, Teresa, Sarah, and Dominic in 2010. There was no pencil, and I had forgotten mine, so I improvised by cutting small strips of blue duct tape. This crew of modern-day Wyoming 13er pioneers had become some of my personal heroes over the years as I read and re-read their trip reports, and adding my name directly under theirs on this wonderful peak was a special honor. My ascent was, in all likelihood, the only solo (sans-rope) ascent of Spearhead to date.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” ~ Jack Kerouac

Summit view of Mount Helen, which I would climb a few hours later via the left-hand ridge

Careful down-climbing brought me back across the slab and knife edge, where I refurbished a rappel station to reach a snow couloir directly below the crux. It took two tries–my biner-block wouldn’t come loose on the first attempt, so I hauled myself back up and rapped double-stranded, which ended up still being long enough to reach scrambling terrain. A brief caving trip commenced when I dropped a glove into a rock slot, but eventually I commenced the final downclimb to Helen Glacier and looked back in awe on the hardest peak I had ever climbed.

Spearhead (right) and Forked Tongue (left)

Mount Warren was next, a behemoth of granite architecture sitting just east of the Continental Divide between the Dinwoody and Bull Lake cirques. Its sheer thousand-foot faces dominate most summit pictures from Gannett Peak, and it’s hard not to become enthralled when viewing its convoluted bulk from any angle.

I chose to climb the standard route from this side, the south couloir. This is a broad, deeply inset, pleasantly angled snow chute cutting hundreds of feet through the otherwise-impenetrable rock buttresses of Warren’s east face. Near the top, I angled right into a large subsidiary couloir, following the route beta from Sarah’s webpage, and climbed a short, relatively unexposed pitch of 5.0 difficulty to reach Warren’s sprawling east ridge. From there, a few minutes of talus hopping and light scrambling led to the summit.

Almost to the summit of Mount Warren, the 4th highest peak in Wyoming

I rappelled the crux on the descent, since there was already a great rap station set up and I was hauling around a rope, so I figured I might as well take advantage of the increased safety. After a quick descent of the subsidiary and primary couloirs, I crossed the Helen Glacier and headed for Mount Helen, one of the crown jewels of the Wind Rivers.

Helen’s lovely east ridge soared, snow-clad, into the sky above me. My legs were tiring at this point, having already climbed many thousands of vertical feet that morning, but I pushed on as quickly as I could, intent on maximizing my use of this clear-weather day. Across the abyss of the glacier’s valley, Mount Warren shot up, guarded by Turret (a notoriously difficult 13er) on its right, and Doublet (an unranked 13er) on its left. The couloir I used to climb Warren is the obvious, slightly angled strip of snow in the middle of this panorama. Turret, the jagged peak just left of Warren and one of the hardest of the 13ers I hadn’t yet climbed, would haunt my thoughts for the coming weeks until my eventual confrontation with this beast.

From Helen’s east ridge, left to right: Woodrow Wilson, Pinnacle Ridge, Gannett, Spearhead (foreground), Doublet, Warren, Turret, Febbas

I’d dreamed of climbing this east ridge on Helen since I passed just below it in 2016. The wait paid off, and I enjoyed easy snow climbing in a superb position, with the ridge gradually narrowing and ultimately culminating in an exposed class 4+ summit block. Helen is a steep peak, dropping dramatically into glacial basins on all sides. To the west, its famous Tower 1 and Tower 2 form part of the splendid wall of Titcomb Basin, where I had gazed up in awe the night before. Camp was somewhere down between the two main lakes.

Only four 13ers in Wyoming could be considered popular or busy: the Grand, Gannett, and Cloud Peak each usually see multiple ascents per day in summer, with Fremont probably getting visited several times a week. Helen seems to be a distant fifth in popularity, with records of rock climbers and spring skiers converging in its oversized summit register. On this day, though, I couldn’t see any sign of humans in any direction.

“Michael Jackson in Disneyland

Don’t have to share it with nobody else

Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand

And lead me through the world of self

Splendid isolation” ~ Warren Zevon

Looking down the Continental Divide between the Bull Lake Creek glaciers (left) and Titcomb Basin (right) from the summit of Mount Helen

I downclimbed a couloir to the south from a point just east of the summit, contouring across the cirque of the Sacagawea Glacier. I used a narrow snow ramp to bypass the main (crevassed) arm of the glacier, eventually reaching the gentle east slopes of Mount Sacagawea. This sharp fin of rock forms another part of the chain of high, imposing summits which I call the “Titcomb Wall Peaks,” referring to their dramatic west faces, which plunge about two-thousand feet vertically into the Basin.

Mount Sacagawea was also the site of a serious accident by a highly experienced member of the mountaineering community a few years back. I had heard the story: walking across talus. Suddenly: a shifting rock. Boom, contact. A single moment. Luck. This injured climber had partners, radios, people to help carry and shelter through the night. Later, a helicopter. Years earlier, a solo climber had become trapped in a similar moraine, leg crushed under a boulder, lying just out of reach of a lake, with a dwindling water bottle and no way to call for help. The place where that climber died is now called “Bloody Hell Pass.” It’s a couple miles away.

Moments of clarity; sobering. I wore a Delorme (satellite text and SOS) on my backpack. I touched these rocks carefully, cautiously, pleading for safe passage. But I climbed on anyway, pursuing my goal, my pride. Should I have refrained? Out of fear? Out of respect? I would climb it again the same way; does that make it the right choice?

Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?” ~ note found on a dead Japanese soldier in WWII, as adapted in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line

Mount Sacagawea; ascent/descent via a hidden ramp around the left edge

I don’t want to die in the mountains. I’m very aware of that. But there is a fine line between caution and over-caution, between daring and foolishness. I’m not sure where that line is; maybe the best we can do is live our lives, do the things we do, and remember that it can end.

In my freshman year of high school, one of the sophomore students died tragically in an off-road accident. I never knew that person. Practically the whole school went to the funeral. They passed out various trinkets as some sort of remembrance I suppose. One of them was a green wristband, etched with a phrase the family remembered him saying. I’ve kept that wristband at the bottom of the inner pocket in my mountaineering backpack ever since.

“Try to live each day a little better” ~ Adam Ginther

Did I remember all this now? I balanced across the wildly exposed, class 4+ summit boulders of Mount Sacagawea, gripping the rock to fight back as a raging wind threatened to throw me down the cliffs. Perhaps I did remember, at some level. Was death a risk I was willing to take to pursue this goal? No. But was it possible anyway? Surely. Perhaps a paradox, perhaps simply a fact that I must willfully ignore on occasion. They say belief is a powerful thing: if you’re going to do something, best believe it is right.

Precarious climbing in very high winds to reach the summit of Mount Sacagawea; there are 2000-foot cliffs on each side

So I climbed it, and I didn’t fall, and I didn’t get crushed by any rocks. Sacagawea was definitely not the hardest of the 13ers, but it was risky due to the unstable moraines and difficult climbing over extreme exposure in the high winds which had suddenly appeared. By this point, after four tough summits this day, I was feeling mentally exhausted (and physically fatigued too), so I bailed down a scree chute back to Titcomb Basin, where I rejoined my mom in camp. She had kindly moved camp to the junction with the Indian Basin trail so we would have a more convenient day tomorrow.

There is something sublime about relaxing after a day like this. I considered Spearhead the biggest obstacle on my quest, and it had fallen. Imagine me saying “yay,” but sounding kind of tired, and maybe still a bit scared.

Coiling my rope in camp in the evening after my most intense day of climbing ever

The 2:45 a.m. alarm is less menacing when there’s someone else also crawling out into the darkness too; human companionship is a good thing. So it was that my mom and I set off into the dark morning, hiking up Indian Basin accompanied by our family’s little white dog, Tess, a strong little pup, weighing about ten pounds but able to hike farther than most humans.

We headed up easy snow and talus slopes to reach the saddle of Fremont Peak’s southwest ramp, its standard ascent route. My dad and I had climbed this peak in 2016 while my mom had waited with Tess and Stella (our collie) in camp, but that time, we approached directly from Titcomb, which was rather sketchy in places. Climbing via Indian Basin, we only had to deal with short amounts of enjoyable class 3 scrambling up slabs and short vertical steps on the main ramp. This route ended up being a bit challenging for Tess (the little dog), and I had to help her with lots of the bigger steps, but we all made it.

My mom scrambling on the southwest ramp of Fremont Peak

Fremont is the third highest peak in Wyoming, and the second highest in the Wind River Range. While the higher summit of Gannett is relatively inconspicuous from distant vantage points, Fremont stands out proud and massive. It is likely this visual prominence which led the explorer John C. Fremont to climb this peak in 1842, claiming it was the highest point of the Rocky Mountains.

In modern times, the peak retains its awe-inspiring aura, with a dominating presence when viewed from Island Lake, and an equally inspiring summit view of the Bull Lake Glaciers sprawling out directly below. Fremont was the eighteenth 13er I had climbed this year, marking the halfway point of my quest. I was glad to share this summit with my mom!

Yours truly on the summit of Fremont Peak

We descended quickly enough that I figured I could sneak in one more peak before hastily backpacking out to the Elkhart Park trailhead that afternoon. While my mom waited in upper Indian Basin, I raced at top speed for Jackson Peak, Fremont’s slightly lower twin mountain. I used a diagonal ramp to access this peak’s broad upper slopes, then hopped boulders and speed-hiked across snowfields to reach the summit.

There was a slightly concerning bank of clouds rolling in from the northwest, but for now, I could enjoy a few more moments of exhilaration, sitting on one giant peak and gazing out at the others I had climbed hours or days earlier.

Panorama from the summit of Jackson Peak (Fremont prominent near center)

A quick descent and an endless hike out, and we made it back to the cars. Eat canned fruit, tiredly celebrate, play music, drive home, go to college classes on Monday. Rinse and repeat; week after week. It was a good lifestyle, but tiring, and only sustainable a little while longer.

At the end of the next week, our beloved collie dog Stella died. She was old and had grown weaker for the past year, so it was expected and definitely the right time for her to go, but such things are never easy. I’m sure she was in all of our hearts as we hiked back into the Winds that weekend, backpacking together as a family for the first time that summer. Stella had hiked these trails and climbed through these very basins with us years ago.

“Unless you love, your life will flash by. Do good to them. Wonder. Hope.” ~ Terrence Malick (director of The Tree of Life)

I had a habit of taking pictures of three wildflowers together for my family (parents plus me)

So we hiked together, in memory of the past and I write in memory, now, from the past, for the future.

“Said, woman, take it slow and it’ll work itself out fine
All we need is just a little patience”
~ Guns N’ Roses

Island Lake: Fremont and Jackson in center, Elephants Head (12er) on right

We camped above Island Lake by some joyful waterfalls tumbling through the wildflowers. The week before from high on Jackson, I had enjoyed phenomenal views of Harrower Peak, an aesthetically sharp 13er on the other side of Indian Basin. Now it was time to face this fearsome-looking peak.

Harrower Peak above Indian Basin

Luckily, the back side of Harrower is much easier than the imposing front face, so I set out to climb it solo in the morning. From a col with Faler Tower, I enjoyed hundreds of feet of moderate scrambling with occasional class-4 moves on good rock. I reached the summit just at sunrise, signing into the giant metal register and watching the first rays of light dance across the landscape.

Some climbers claim that this peak should be called Ellingwood after the pioneer climber of that name, but Ellingwood has plenty of other peaks and features named for him elsewhere, and he wasn’t even a Wyoming local. Instead, the summit register includes laminated papers from the descendants of James K. Harrower explaining, among other things, his contributions to early conservation and trail-building efforts in the Wyoming wildernesses.

Texting through the Delorme on the summit of Harrower Peak as the sun breaks over the distant summit of Bete Noire

There is no easy way to traverse from Harrower to other peaks, as it is cut off by large valleys and only connected to the Divide by a highly technical ridge. However, I could hardly be satisfied with a single peak in a day, since I knew that there was another pair of mountaineers who would soon be attempting a fastest known time on the Wyoming 13ers, and since I had school all week, every week, I needed to get as much of a head-start as possible in order to be the first to finish them all in one year.

Thus, I dropped down some interestingly sketchy slabs and icy gullies into the basin south of Harrower before climbing scree slopes to the Continental Divide.

Harrower from Knife Point; I traversed the basin on the left

Knife Point Mountain is supposedly the lowest of the Wyoming 13ers, at 13,001 feet elevation, but I suspect that it is actually a good bit higher, since the true summit consists of a single sharp pinnacle that might not show up in large-scale elevation models. Anyway, I clambered up a bit of talus and made my way up to the top of this cool summit, enjoying the views and perfect weather.

Summit pinnacle of Knife Point Mountain

Next up came a quick descent and ascent on unstable talus in order to cross Alpine Lakes Pass. This is a neat area, with several wildly remote cirques abutting each other across rounded ridges that offer easy walking. However, the terrain can be deceptively dangerous. In the absence of cliffs or hard climbing, I found myself moving too quickly through the talus, and I misjudged the stability of one section, resulting in a short tumble down the rocks.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”~ Edward Whymper discussing climbing in the Alps

Alpine Lakes on far left edge; then left to right: unranked Nebraska Point, Knife Point Mountain, Knife Point Glacier, Jackson Peak

The point of this side-trip was to tag the officially unnamed highpoint of the Brown Cliffs region, a rounded 13er called Bete Noire, meaning “bug bear” or “anathema,” the French slang for an object of aversion. It isn’t a terrible mountain though, perhaps just a bit uninspiring, and what it lacks in character it makes up for with good views across the range.

The wind was starting to come up, so I only spent a little while on top before retracing my steps (more carefully this time) to Alpine Lakes Pass, which I descended to the Knife Point Glacier. From its icy slopes, I climbed up to Indian Pass, my escape point to return back to my parents, who were waiting at the base of Indian Basin.

Frozen lake at the terminus of the Knife Point Glacier

We spent the afternoon moving camp up the middle of Titcomb Basin to facilitate my journey tomorrow. After camp was set up, we swam in the upper Titcomb Lake and ate macadamia nuts in the sun–a proper Hawaiian beach vacation. No palm trees though, just marmots and grass.

As I have said, my parents’ support was integral to the success of this 13er quest. On this particular trip, not only did their company help my morale on the approach and in the evenings, but they planned to carry my sleeping gear and the family tent back to the trailhead while I undertook a long traverse with just a daypack. My goal was to finish off two-thirds of the total peaks before the other climbers (my competition) started their project, and to do so, I would need to link together some peaks that are usually climbed over multiple days.

Under the cover of night, I snuck past the sleeping giants of western Titcomb Basin, looking up in awe at the towering summits I had climbed previously (and occasionally spotting a shooting star). I climbed a steep, icy couloir to the saddle between the Twin Peaks, a pair of rock horns at the very head of the Basin. Since it is unknown which Twin is higher, I tagged the western one first before continuing to the East Twin, where I watched daybreak across the range.

Sunrise from East Twin, with Gannett on the left (capped with snow), Woodrow Wilson off center, and the Sphinx at the right edge

The summit register of East Twin is the coolest one I have ever signed. It was placed in 1930 on the peak’s second ascent, and ninety years later, the penciled signatures of that party are still clearly legible, including Carl Blaurock, who was on multiple first ascents of Wind River peaks and was also one of the first two people to climb the then-accepted list of Colorado 14ers (along with climbing partner Bill Ervin). It felt like an honor to sign into the same register book as these pioneers!

I descended swiftly to the west down an arm of the Mammoth Glacier. This sprawling mass of ice would grant me passage to the peaks lying west of the Continental Divide along the upper drainages of the Green River. First up was Split Mountain, which I climbed via easy talus on its western slope.

Twin Peaks (close) above the Mammoth Glacier, as seen from the summit of Split Mountain

Next, I descended Split Mountain Pass into the Peak Lake basin, traversed some hummocky terrain, and climbed a nice couloir on the southeast aspect of Mount Whitecap. Although the route was listed in Kelsey’s guidebook, I’d never heard of anyone combining these peaks like this, so it was exciting to find out that the route “goes.”

The summit of Whitecap bore its characteristic snow beret, and by now I had my summit routine settled into a steady rhythm. Arrive, touch the highest point, take selfie as proof, take off pack and send update through Delorme, take picture of tiny green plastic elephant on the summit (because everyone needs a weird tradition), eat and drink, take spherical panorama and other photos, dash down and head to the next peak. For the descent of Whitecap, I used the convoluted west ridge to access Stone Pillar Pass, an equally confusing maze of glacier-polished slabs, surprise cliffs, and grassy ledges which ultimately granted me entry to the Lost Pipe and Wells Creek valleys.

Upper Lost Pipe Lake from Stone Pillar Pass, with Desolation Peak in the distant center and Gannett on the far right edge (shadowed)

This is an area of serious isolation: cut off by nearly impassable gorges and towering cliffs, there are only a few routes in or out of this valley. All are long, off-trail routes, with miles of terrain exposed to any inclement weather that might happen to pass through. After my thunderstorms on Downs and American Legion, I was particularly nervous about this sojourn, since I needed clear weather until the afternoon, and already a thin layer of clouds had moved over the peaks. However, the formation of a halo around the sun confirmed what I guessed: these were tiny, high-altitude ice particles, not likely to form serious storms.

Thus, I continued on my traverse towards the aptly named Desolation Peak. Along the way, I passed by Scott Lake, with its blue-green milky water colored by rock flour (stone ground into powder by the movement of nearby glaciers). Unfortunately, I got my hiking boots completely filled with water while I was crossing the inlet stream. I was in a hurry, but I should have taken the extra few minutes to take off my boots before crossing–now I would pay the price of wet feet for the next 19 miles of painful hiking.

Scott Lake in the Wells Creek drainage

I climbed steep a steep grass hillside above Scott Lake to reach a hanging basin below Desolation Peak, which I climbed by its standard northwest ridge (a fun, easy class 3 scramble). The sky was still clear to the west thankfully, since it was now a long way to the safety of treeline, and much farther still to the trail down in the valley, at which point I would still be twelve miles from the car. Desolation Peak is desolate indeed.

“The scene was one of utter chaos and desolation. On every side lay a great sprawling mass of rocky peaks, cloaked with broad glaciers and snowfields, and rent by yawning chasms. The sight was so grand and awesome that Desolation Peak seemed a fitting name for the mountain.” ~ Theodore Koven, after making the first ascent in 1930

The view west from Desolation Peak

It was a long way down, and already early afternoon. From the foot of Desolation Peak, I passed stunning alpine lakes and dropped into the idyllic upper Tourist Creek, where I filtered some water and changed socks (recall that my boots were soaked). I was racing the dark, and I was racing my own fatigue.

“‘How far are y’all going?’ Ruby asked us with a sigh

‘We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn

‘Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies’

Ruby just smiled and said, ‘Ah, you know some babies never learn'” ~ Bob Dylan

Upper Tourist Creek–a good spot to filter water

Lower Tourist Creek involved descending a vast sea of boulders and bushwhacking through dense and untracked forest. One problem: the trail is on the other side of the Green River from my exit point on Tourist Creek. At low water, people have reported wading it, and the alternative is usually to bushwhack down the wrong side of the river until the trail reaches a bridge.

Not wanting to do any more bushwhacking, I found a spot I thought I could cross. Long ago, a tree had fallen across the river, and now it was partially submerged. I ventured cautiously onto the log; I couldn’t touch the river bottom with my trekking poles, so the swift water must have been more than four feet deep. However, the water was only about a foot deep over the log, so I walked ever-so-cautiously across, knowing that if I slipped I would have to swim for my life to escape the rapids a bit downstream.

I made it across though, and soon enough I was cruising down the Highline Trail, headed for the Green River Lakes trailhead, where my parents were waiting in the car. By this point, my feet had become pruney (wrinkled due to soaking in my wet boots), and walking was excruciatingly painful. I was no stranger to this phenomenon, since it had happened on most of my previous trips due to postholing through sloppy snow. The progression goes like this: wet feet, strange feeling of warmth, no longer wet but highly wrinkled foot bottoms, gradual increase of pain until it becomes nearly unbearable to put any weight on my feet. It was twelve miles from the Green River crossing to the car, and my feet had already been wet for hours. I made it out just before dark; my feet were raw enough that I could hardly step into the car after taking off my boots. Oh well, they’d probably be fine by next week.

A mysterious spot somewhere along the Green River

After this trip, my competition entered the ring. The pair of climbers I had heard about earlier had entered the Wind Rivers, and since they had no other time commitments while I was actively enrolled in Dartmouth, I knew they would be much faster. I didn’t care about the fastest time, though, since those will always be broken by someone faster. What I cared about was being the first to finish in a single year–getting the first dedicated fastest-known-time of the Wyoming 13ers–thereby forever securing some obscure achievement.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last!” ~ Reese Bobby (Talladega Nights)

It was going to be hard to be first, though. To have any chance, I needed to finish all the northern Wind River peaks in my next trip. In mountaineering, it’s necessary to know when to turn around if something gets too dangerous, but by this point in the quest, I felt more and more committed, with an increasing mentality of “do or die.” I knew this was a dangerous mindset, particularly since one of the peaks I “absolutely needed to climb” was Turret, reached via one of the hardest and most dangerous routes on the whole quest.

I backpacked in solo the 22 miles up the fabulous Glacier Trail to upper Dinwoody Creek, where I weathered a big evening thunderstorm from the relative security of my tent. Meanwhile, my parents backpacked part of the way up the trail in order to join me at high camp the next day.

The uber-classic view of Gannett from the Dinwoody Valley (taken on my earlier Glacier Trail trip)

I only had one hard obstacle remaining in the Wind River Range: Turret Peak. The big question mark. The only trip report I had for Turret was Sarah’s report of climbing the class 5.7 west ridge, something I couldn’t possibly attempt solo. Old guidebooks mentioned a “4th class” route from the other side, and a couple people on Peakbagger or LoJ had reported climbing that way, albeit with almost zero additional information. It had looked plenty intimidating from every angle I’d seen it, and believe me, I’d been staring at this peak in awe every time I climbed one of its neighbors. Suffice to say I was quite nervous as I left camp and climbed towards Backpackers Pass by the light of my headlamp.

Turret Peak as seen from the summit of Warren, with my ascent route roughly following the left ridge (Mount Febbas on left, distant)

Almost immediately above the pass, the ridge proper became highly technical, and I had to divert to one side or the other. I chose the north side, since it looked drier, and ended up pulling very sketchy class 5.2 climbing moves on slippery, lichen-covered slabs over significant exposure. It was bad. In one place, one of the giant slabs even seemed loose! Turret is a malevolent mountain. It actively resisted my ascent. Even the white intrusive dikes cross-cutting its rocks look like haunted spider webs strangling the mountain’s rocky heart with some ancient affliction. But after paying due homage in the currency of fear and loathing, the summit loosened its death grip and I pushed my way into its upper ramparts.

The final castle wall guarding the summit of Turret Peak

“I hate to say this, but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.

Nonsense! We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit. You must realize, that we’ve found the main nerve.

I know. That’s what gives me the Fear.” ~ HST

This upper section, while steep and imposing, was much easier climbing than the lower part (crux far lower and out of view)

I hauled myself onto the summit, not in glorious triumph, but in quiet acquiescence to the hand I’d been dealt. Here I was, watching one of the most beautiful dynamic vistas of my life: the unfolding of sunrise across the highest, most rugged peaks of the Rockies’ best range. Yet it is only in photographs that I truly enjoy these wonderful moments, since in the moment I was too preoccupied with the looming descent. Would I find an easier way down? Would I slip trying to re-cross the sketchy slab section?

“Truckin’, like the do-dah man

Once told me, ‘You’ve got to play your hand’

‘Cause sometimes the cards aren’t worth a dime

If you don’t lay ’em down” ~ The Grateful Dead

I found a piton in the summit, doubtless left by early pioneers–perhaps on the peak’s first ascent by Blaurock, Ellingwood, and the Buhls in 1924. There were three registers here, but I could only open one of them, which I signed. This peak only seems to be climbed every few years, and for good reason.

Sunrise from the summit of Turret Peak; left to right, the obvious 13ers are Jackson, Fremont, Sacagawea, Helen

“Stand in the fire, stand in the fire, stand in the fire” ~ Warren Zevon

Left to right, the most visible 13ers are Warren, Woodrow Wilson, Pinnacle Ridge, Gannett, Bastion, and Downs (distant right edge)

On the downclimb, I desperately wanted to avoid the sketchy section I had to deal with on the way up. This time, I skirted the vertical section on the southeast, downclimbing a steep and treacherously loose gully and sidehilling some less-exposed slabs. It still felt about 5.2 difficulty this way, but the moves were much more solid and the exposure less extreme.

From Backpackers Pass, I climbed the fun west ridge of Sunbeam Peak, an easy scramble for the most part with a short, vertical class 4+ step just below the summit. I probably spent half of every minute stopping to look back at Turret, so glad to have knocked off the beast.

Turret (center) and Warren (right) from my ascent ridge on Sunbeam

Sunbeam is a fine peak, easy to access (short section of class 3) from Blaurock Pass, with the much more exciting west ridge offering the possibility of a convenient traverse. The summit register was old, too, bearing decades of signatures from renowned peakbaggers and forgotten mountain wanderers. The weather was great, and at this point all the difficulties were behind me, so I hung out quite a while on the summit. Warm sun; light breeze. Gazing casually across the untamed landscape.

Sunbeam Peak summit panorama; Gannett is front and center with the obvious snow cap

I walked down the lovely east ridge of Sunbeam to reach Blaurock Pass, a steep but easy backpacking route I had used with my family in 2016 to hike from the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek to the Dinwoody the day before we climbed Gannett. The strange part was, we had crossed this pass on July 26, 2016, and now I was standing in the very same spot on the very same day four years later (July 26, 2020). What better opportunity for a goofy selfie? I hold my phone out away from me like some snapshot-tourist in a Yellowstone parking lot. Instantly it slips, instantly it lands. Crack. Screen-first into the gravel and rocks of Blaurock Pass.

I pick up my phone and the screen is shattered of course. I’ve seen plenty of screen cracks on other people’s phones though, and I only think, “well, it finally happened.” But then I realize…the screen is black. I flick the home button. The power button. The volume controls. Nothing. It seems bricked. My phone is my only camera on this trip (I forgot the small standalone camera I usually carry). It has the only copy of all my pictures from Turret and Sunbeam, and I am instantly terrified that I’ve lost the only record of my ascent of a peak I don’t wish to repeat. And what will I do if I continue with my plan to climb Febbas, unable to record the hundred-odd memories that usually fill my gallery for each successful summit?

“Bad waves of paranoia, madness, fear and loathing, intolerable vibrations in this place. Get out! The weasels were closing in. I could smell the ugly brutes.” ~ HST

Sunbeam Peak above Blaurock Pass, taken just after the phone accident

The thought of attempting unknown micro-electronics repairs on a phone above 12,000 feet using a Swiss Army knife briefly occurred to me and I almost laughed. Well, what’s the worse I could do? Break my phone? Hadn’t I already accomplished that? So I started twisting it madly in any direction, and even whacked it against some rocks. Bent the screen back and forth, who cares, worse case it might break the rest of the way. Please, just let my camera start working again…ridiculous the things we humans care about, and phones seem rather unimportant on a cosmic scale yes, but this is a true story. I’ve got to document it, you know? So please, just make it work!

Then just as suddenly as the fall–boom, an answered prayer. The top half-inch of my screen flickered purple, green…and back to life. Better yet, I could still use the home button and volume-up control to take pictures. The other apps were inaccessible since the touchscreen was completely dead, and I had to frame my shots while seeing only a tiny fraction of the overall view, but, and this is the important part: the camera worked!

So I continued, and a few minutes of boulder-hopping landed me on the summit of Mount Febbas. This 13ers is the highpoint and terminus of Horse Ridge, a huge remnant of the erosional peneplain before these mountains were uplifted and cut by glaciers.

Peering into the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek from Febbas, with part of Horse Ridge on the left

There are some random locations in the Wind Rivers I have always wanted to see, so from the summit of Febbas, I continued north along Horse Ridge to Knoll Lake, a big glacial pool sitting high above 12,000 feet on the mountaintop. Sadly, I have not yet been able to recover the photos from this part of the day. (I was lucky and was barely able to transfer some of the photos from my broken phone.) I descended the outlet stream of Knoll Lake to meet my parents as they arrived into camp in the upper Dinwoody.

The next morning, my dad and I joined the train of headlamps wandering through the moraine on the approach to Gannett Peak, the highest summit in Wyoming and one of the relatively easy 13ers. But we quickly deviated from the crowds by moving left around a rock buttress and climbing a more-southern arm of the glacier. There were some crevasses around here, so it was imperative to step carefully and scope the snow bridges.

My dad negotiating an area of crevasses

This non-standard route allowed me to take a quick sidetrip to Pinnacle Ridge, one of the final two 13ers I needed to climb in this region along with Gannett. While my dad waited on the glacier, I climbed a pleasant snow couloir and scrambled to the top of the highest Pinnacle. True to its name, the summit block was a single sharp tower.

Mount Woodrow Wilson as seen from the summit of Pinnacle Ridge

After rejoining my dad, we both climbed Gannett via its southeast couloir. This route is the only logical way to link Gannett with Pinnacle Ridge, but it required much harder snowclimbing than the standard approach, since the couloir is longer, slightly steeper, and lacks the well-trod boot prints of the Gooseneck couloir. After topping out, I briefly met Eric and Matt, the two climbers who were also trying to do all the 13ers. It sounded like I would have to push hard to finish ahead of them.

Gannett’s summit ridge was exhilarating as always, and before long, we were the highest people in the state. Also of note, this was my thirty-first 13er of the summer, and I had finished all of the ones in the northern Wind River Range. It was…pretty cool to look out across those peaks and think, “I climbed all of those this summer….” What do we kids say these days? Neat? Yeet!

“Here on this mountaintop

I got some wild, wild life” ~ The Talking Heads

Summit panorama looking west from Gannett Peak; milky Scott Lake is near the center in the distance

We descended the regular Goosneck route (such a wonderful route on one of the best peaks in the U.S.). After getting back to camp in the early afternoon, I packed up my portion of the gear and started hiking out. I was finished with the northern Wind Rivers, and none too soon–my competition was closing in, as were some huge thunderstorms.

A glacial tarn in the Dinwoody moraine; left to right, the peaks are: Turret, Warren massif, Sphinx, Woodrow Wilson

In Floyd Wilson Meadows, I had the pleasure of meeting a group from, and we chatted about mountains for a bit before I had to head on. I was surprised that they had actually heard of my quest! My boots, as usual, were wet due to hiking through the melting snow of the glaciers, so my feet became more and more in pain as the miles ticked by. I wove my way between massive thunderstorms (replete with hail-covered trail sections) and crossed Arrow Pass just before sunset.

It was a long day of hiking–something like 27 miles including the two major peaks–but I was relieved to finally reach the trailhead sometime after dark. The Winds got one last laugh, though, as the car battery had run down, and I had to hike a mile down the road to use the car my parents drove instead.

“You’ll forget the sun, in his jealous sky

As we walk in fields of gold” ~ Sting

Sunset on the Old Glacier Trail, about nine miles from the trailhead

There was only one 13er left in the Wind Rivers, a solitary mountain near the southern end of the range that can’t be conveniently combined with any other 13ers. I had already climbed this summit in 2016, but I had to re-climb it in order to be the first to do them all in one year. By chance of geographic naming, it is called Wind River Peak, so it was fitting that I would finish the Wind River Range 13ers on this one.

My mom and I got an early start and dayhiked the peak from the Worthen Meadows trailhead just outside Lander. It was the longest mileage day of my quest, with thirty miles of hiking roundtrip, but since it seemed comparatively easy because there was only one summit to climb and it was just a hike (no climbing).

Wind River Peak (left) from one of the upper Ice Lakes

With the extensive trail system in this area, we decided to make a loop. We approached via the Deep Creek Lakes area, climbed a broad grassy ramp to Wind River Peak’s boulder-clad summit, descended to Tayo Lake, and followed a different trail back to the cars. It was a true loop, too: zero repeated miles.

My mom had regretted skipping this peak during our 2016 traverse, so it was a great opportunity for her to get peakbagging redemption. It was a great summit to share, and I enjoyed looking north along the Continental Divide to the endless sea of 13ers I had been visiting every weekend all summer.

Summit view from Wind River Peak, looking north into the heart of the range

The Wind Rivers were finished, but three more ranges of peaks still remained. Luckily, each of these other ranges–the Tetons, Bighorns, and Absarokas–could be completed in a single hike, since there are only four 13ers between them all. Of these, only one is difficult: the Grand Teton.

I climbed this famous (and infamous) peak in 2017 as my first alpine trad climb. Almost everyone uses ropes on this peak, even via the easiest route, and most take more than one day. I planned to climb solo in one day. A nervous evening of last-minute beta-checking led to a nervous nighttime drive and a nervous hike into Garnet Canyon. I knew this would be the second most technical of all the peaks, with a rating of class 5.4 via the Owen Spalding route. Not only that, some of the climbing sections are positioned above 2,000 to 3,000 foot cliffs. Plenty of time to contemplate your fate if you fall.

An unknown climber on the approach to the Upper Saddle

Sometimes it is hard to explain what it feels like to climb a route, or summit a peak under perfect weather–calm and cloudless from Nebraska to the Oregon coast. Sometimes we cannot articulate the sense of quiet, and soft sounds, soft placement of a rubber shoe on granite slab. Sometimes we cannot share the feeling of surging upwards above a half-mile abyss, or the ease of it, or the difficulty. The way the rock feels cold yet welcoming to bare hands on solid holds. The way the sun lights the canyon; the freedom of motion, giants in a giant land.

“Sun’s up, looks ok

The world survives into another day” ~ Bruce Cockburn

Crawling above more than 2,000 feet of exposure

“I had another dream about the lions at the door

They weren’t half as frightening as they were before” ~ Bruce Cockburn

In the middle of the Double Chimney (photo of me courtesy of unknown climber)

“And I’m thinking about eternity

Some kind of ecstasy has got a hold on me” ~ Bruce Cockburn

Successful solo ascent of the Grand Teton (note that I’m wearing a harness only for rappelling on the descent)

So I climbed the Grand Teton solo under perfect weather and got back to the car in under 10 hours. It was one of those days where everything just works out right: a fun, challenging climb in a beautiful area; a quick and safe descent, two rappels and then the hot trail pounding underfoot as I jogged down to the forest; driving back to Dubois in a pure glow, knowing that all the hard peaks were behind me; then later swimming in the lake that afternoon.

What Spalding Gray might call a perfect moment

Summit block of the Grand as seen from the Enclosure; the Owen Spalding route goes right up this steep, shadowed face

I only had 3 peaks remaining, but the other climbers were closing in. Around this time, Matt Lemke (one of the climbers) finished the 13ers on Bow Mountain, marking the end of their northern Wind River phase (he climbed most of the peaks this year, but did some of them in past years and didn’t repeat them, so the competition was only between Eric and myself). Now, it would be a flat-out race to see who could be the first to climb all the 13ers in a year. Now, I consider myself a good student and an upright citizen. But the duties of pointless heroism sometimes require a shifting of priorities, a temporary change of allegiance from Ivy League student to Gonzo mountaineer.

The benefit of remote classes is that it’s less embarrassing to skip them. I made all the necessary arrangements and bailed for Monday and Tuesday, heading east to the Bighorn Range with my parents in the RV. We camped at the West Tensleep campground/trailhead, and I awoke at some horribly early hour of the night to start hiking, only to find that it was raining.

Cue pandemonium. I needed this weather window to work! I didn’t have endless days to burn: the other climber would catch up, and I would need to go back to school someday. How could it do this to me? The outrage! The shame! Foiled by clouds, on Cloud Peak nonetheless. My dad heroically volunteered to drive into a nearby town where cell service would let him check the prognosis and send me an update through satellite text. Meanwhile, I began the hike towards Cloud Peak under a light drizzle.

“You can get it if you really want

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last” ~ Jimmy Cliff

First light and moonset on the approach to Cloud Peak

Thankfully, the clouds rolled away as dawn stretched over the range. My dad’s weather update confirmed the same. I proceeded into the alpine region, once again solo, once again attempting a route I’d never heard of anyone doing, once again praying it would work.

I climbed the standard boulder-hopping route on Cloud Peak (which is itself usually done as a backpacking trip by most folks), but this was just the beginning. Despite my trepidation for the next segment of the trip, I tried to savor my time standing on this lofty island in the sky, since Cloud is one of the most prominent peaks in Wyoming and the highpoint of the Bighorns.

Cloud Peak Glacier as viewed from just below the summit

There are only two 13ers in the Bighorns: Cloud Peak and Black Tooth Mountain. Both are only class 2 climbs when done independently, and both are usually done as multi-day trips. Since I was feeling rushed, I planned to climb both peaks in a single day hike. To do so, I’d have to figure out some way to descend Cloud Peak to the north into Wilderness Basin. I’d never heard of this being done, and in Google Earth it looked like there might be a possible way down by angling across through an apparent weakness in the cliffs. I figured at best it would be a real struggle, and at worst I would have to come up with an entirely new plan.

“Struggling man keeps reaching for the higher height…

Struggling man has got to move

Struggling man, no time to lose” ~ Jimmy Cliff

Black Tooth (center) and some extremely difficult neighboring 12ers as seen from the beginning of my descent into Wilderness Basin

Sometimes the mountains give nasty surprises–lightning out of the blue, sudden rockfall, etc. But today I got the rare pleasant surprise: Cloud’s north face included a broad swath of 3rd class blocks, which allowed unexpectedly easy scrambling all the way down into Wilderness Basin. It turned out I hadn’t pioneered this idea, either, as I found a tattered rappel sling part of the way down. Why someone would want to rappel on 3rd class boulders, I do not know. I did not care though; I was just glad that the traverse was going to work.

Black Tooth was an easy and fun climb, just a series of scree gullies up its southwest face, then an option of crossing a col to climb some fun black rock to the summit. I signed the register with my name, date, etc….then the last line: “WY 13er #35/36 this summer.” Only one to go!

From the summit of Black Tooth, looking across to the distant Cloud Peak; my descent route went directly down to the largest left snowpatch

All that remained was a quick descent before the clouds inevitably returned to haunt these summits. I hiked out through the characteristically untrammeled Wilderness Basin, passing countless mile-long lakes nestled among the waterfalls and wildflowers. The remainder of the 29 miles I did that day went by in a blur…all I could think about was tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would finish.

“There you stood on the edge of your feather

Expecting to fly” ~ Buffalo Springfield

We RV camped in the serene desolation of the western Bighorn Basin on the edge of the mountains. Pronghorn antelope grazed below silent skies in a sea of grass. In the morning, all three of us plus the little dog started driving up the Phelps Mountain Road. This track switchbacks ever-so-steeply through the forest and pops out on a vast treeless plateau.

The road was much more rugged than expected, and suddenly we heard a dragging sound. The rear left tire had been torn off by an encounter with an ill-placed rock. Miles from the trailhead and even farther from civilization, the only choice was to put on the spare tire and pray that we wouldn’t have any more accidents.

“We can’t stop here, this is bat country!” ~ HST

Sunrise on Francs Peak (distant, right of center) from the Phelps Mountain Road

Francs Peak is by far the easiest of the Wyoming 13ers, thus why I saved it for last. From the car, it was only a few miles of class 2 hiking to reach the summit, although there were a fair number of long, steep sections thrown in for good measure. A hail storm two days earlier had dropped a thick coating of ice over the upper tundra. Class 2 ice climbing…with bears!

The Absaroka Range is probably the wildest place in the Continental U.S., and the grizzly bears are rampant. Local papers carry tales of hunters stalked, killed, and eaten by rogue grizzlies over just the past couple years. Past parties reported encountering tons of bears all over Francs Peak, and we followed grizzly tracks through the snow for a couple miles along the summit ridge. I decided that if I was going to conquer this mountain, I might as well put up a real fight. That is to say, the lightness of my daypack–lacking the usual technical climbing gear–was offset considerably by the weight of an AK-47 slung across my shoulder–perfectly legal in its semi-auto configuration in the great state of Wyoming. Long live the Absaroka People’s Liberation Freedom Mountain Division! Gonzo! Buy the ticket, take the ride, pack the AK. Pass it off as training weight. Does REI sell 7.62×39? No, but the Russians do, and their surplus is cheap.

“7…6…2…millimeter…full…metal…jacket!” ~ Private Pyle (Full Metal Jacket, directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Francs Peak, getting closer now as we approach via its undulating north ridge

There’s always one more hill–until there isn’t. I stepped onto the summit of Francs Peak in the late morning of August 5, 2020, becoming the fourth person on record to finish all 36 Wyoming 13ers, and the first to climb them all in one year. I could come up with some flowery prose about how it felt, but in truth, I was just happy.

“More than this, you know there is nothing

More than this, tell me one thing

More than this, you know there is nothing

More than this” ~ Roxy Music

Summit of Francs Peak, my final ranked Wyoming 13er

Cupcakes with frosting…a brown paper commemorative sign my parents brought as a surprise for pictures…photos…more photos…and what’s that? A couple of grizzly bears just below the summit, paparazzi no doubt.

One of several grizzly bears sighted near the summit; 2 others were much closer, but this was the most picturesque

There was only one road back to Dubois, just a flat-out high speed burn through Thermopolis and Shoshoni and Pavillion. Then onto US 287 straight into frantic oblivion.

“Safety…obscurity…just another freak in the freak kingdom…a man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.” ~ HST

So I won my own game by finishing 2 days earlier than the other climber, setting a fastest known time of 45 days (relatively unimportant) and becoming the first person to finish in a single year (very important to me). The vast majority of these days were spent sitting still doing schoolwork, so I only spent 19 days hiking. Of these, I actually summited peaks on 13 different days, which is a secondary record of maximum climbing efficiency. I also believe that I am currently the only person ever to have free-soloed all of these peaks (some with rappels on descent), and the youngest person to finish the list. On August 7, Eric Gilbertson finished the list on the Grand Teton, climbing them all in 18 days (note that his time listed on the FKT page misses counting the pre/post summit time on the first and last trips, but it’s the current FKT either way).

My final stats for this quest were:

370 miles of hiking

116,000 feet of vertical elevation gain

My feet felt quite a bit damaged for a while…probably half of that mileage was hiked with wet socks and soaked boots (either from postholing or misjudging creek crossings). The maximum technical difficulty was YDS class 5.5 (Spearhead’s north ridge), and the most dangerous sections were Woodrow Wilson’s south couloir and Turret’s north ridge.

My favorite 13ers were Gannett and the Grand Teton for their sheer dominance and fun routes; Downs because it is my “local” 13er; Francs because it was my finisher and the area is so cool; and Henderson, Helen, Koven, Spearhead, Sunbeam, and Fremont for their fun climbing, aesthetics, and position. Every single one of the Wyoming 13ers is worth climbing more than once, and I would recommend this list to anyone with the requisite experience. I’m planning to publish a guidebook of recommended routes and general peak information sometime in the coming year, as well as a coffee-table photo book.

Sunrise from the summit of East Twin; left to right: Henderson, American Legion (both shadowed, distant); West Twin (illuminated, close)

Was it all worth it? Slightly lower term grades, weeks of stress, damaged gear, risk of accidents, pain. Fear and loneliness…. Yeah. It was absolutely worth it. A hundred times over.

The fallout has been more interesting than I expected. In the first days after finishing, I was incredibly honored to receive congratulations from and exchange emails with some of my all-time heroes in the mountain community, including Teresa Gergen, John Kirk, and Buzz Burrell. I have looked up to these groups of elite outdoors-people for years, and endeavors by these individuals and their peers had greatly inspired my quest, so it was a huge honor for me to “get noticed.” I ended up getting interviewed for a feature article in the local Dubois Frontier newspaper thanks to the journalist Christine Snow, and that article has been republished in a fair number of other regional newspapers. I got my most-liked Instagram post ever when I announced I had finished (go ahead, call me shallow). One day I got a surprise: my college’s daily news email (which goes out to all professors, students, and everyone else) had somehow picked up the story and ran it as a leading headline.

“Buy the ticket, take the ride…and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well…maybe chock it up to forced consciousness expansion: tune in, freak out, get beaten.” ~ HST

Upon reflection, I consider this the biggest achievement of my life so far. But how much of something like this comes down to personal endeavor, and how much is luck? I could have easily been hit by lightning that day on Goat Flat, or slid out of the couloir on Woodrow Wilson, or slipped on some talus, or, or…. This is the stuff life is made of, though. Moments, memories. Not just summits, but wildflowers too; not just rock climbing, but also the experience of identifying ptygmatic folds in a rock after learning about fold types that week in my geology course. In the end, though, it’s about the summits.

Remember, from the very beginning, when I mentioned a tiny green elephant? Yeah. So anyway, I took a picture of this little friend sitting on the highest spot on the summit of each of the 13ers because…why not?

The elephant on the summit of Klondike Peak, with Downs in the distance

*Some phrases within the main report text are also adapted from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (HST).

**Disclaimer: do not try this at home. There is no real beta in this report. All accounts are fictional and intended solely for entertainment. Various parts of this report severely overstate or understate objective dangers. You could die. Seriously.

Thanks to all those who supported me: friends and family, the community, Instragram supporters (@eli.boardman), and countless others who wished me luck in person and through the internet. Thank you, and greatest respect to the Wyoming 13er pioneers of every era. I greatly appreciate the exploratory efforts of prior climbers, from the earliest surveyors, to the alpine pioneers, to the guidebook authors (Bonneys, Kelsey, Pallister), to the modern trip report authors (especially Sarah and Teresa), and my quest would have been impossible without these legacies of mountain knowledge and inspiration.

Dedicated to my family, especially the ones who made it possible: my wonderful parents, Karenlee and Joe.

Titcomb Basin

St. Bernard of Montjoux, patron of climbers, pray for us.

Gloria a Dios!