Climbing the Wind River Range

Maven co-owner and local climbing veteran Mike Lilygren, ventured into the backcountry of Wyoming to unplug, clear his mind, and to seek new climbing adventures.  He has been rock climbing for over 30 years, and his exploits have taken him all over the U.S. and the world exploring new summits and new challenges.  This past summer he spent 10 days off the grid to help establish “Discovery” – a new free-climbing route on a remote wall in the Wind River Range.

By Mike Lilygren

I love technology.  I love being plugged in…to both life and work.  I know this is weird, but I like knowing what is going on and I like being able to react.  My smart phone is never more than a few inches from me, even while I sleep.  There comes a time, though, when enough is enough.  I need to unplug and escape.  There really is no way to do that when you are in cell range, so it was time to head to another range – the Wind River Range – one of the largest roadless areas in the lower 48.

There is nothing like completely throwing yourself at a project, both physically and mentally, to get away from it all.  That is what we intended to do.  My friend and climbing partner Sam Lightner found this particular objective in the classic 1960 guidebook to Wyoming Mountains by Bonnie and Bonnie.  The goal was to establish a brand new rock climbing route up a big cliff called the Monolith, located 11 miles deep in the Wind River wilderness. 

The Monolith is the second longest wall in the Winds at about 1500 feet.  There are a couple of routes up this massive cliff, both taking prominent chimney systems – we intended a more direct route up the North by North-East face connecting steeper crack systems.  Sam found this route 30 years ago while staring at the old black and white photo in Bonnie’s guide and has wanted to do it ever since.

This was our second year heading to the Monolith.  In our previous attempt we only got about 400 ft up and we ran into a blank area of the wall.  We ended up retreating and focusing on another 800 ft new route on the nearby Dog Tooth Peak.  This year we had a new plan.  By flying over the mountain during the winter and spending some serious time behind the spotting scope, we found a potential connector that would involve some adventurous face climbing.

Sam strategizing route options through the Maven S.1S spotting scope.

Our goal was to Free-Climb this wall – meaning that each and every move of the climb would be done with just our hands and feet, with ropes and gear just for safety.  It takes a lot of work to put this kind of climb together and our adventure team had all the skills.  Sam Lightner, the visionary of the team, was the strongest free climber.  My job was mixed as I needed to free climb often, but also aid climb (place equipment that could be used to move upward) any pitches that needed to be cleaned of lichen or dirt to get them ready to free-climb.  The third and most important member was Shep Vail – a Montana cowboy and contractor that would haul most of the heavy loads and hand drill any needed bolts – he can hammer with either hand.  Our plan was to equip the route for safe rappels, so he would get a work-out for sure. We also were accompanied by our good friend Elyse Guarino, an artist and an excellent backcountry chef.  We intended to eat like kings, since we knew we would be laboring like knights.  Later in the trip we would be joined by two other climbing buddies, Mark and Tyler, as well our friend Jessie Allen and Sam’s wife Liz.  It was to be a social camp.

Now we were doing this right.  We are in our 40s now and just because we know how to suffer and we intend to work hard, does not mean that we have to live without comfort.  Ten horses of supplies accompanied us to our camp.  We took everything we could possibly need, including two double-burner stoves, 300 pounds of food, multiple bottles of bourbon and over 1000 feet of rope.  We worked with our friend Jessie Allen of Diamond-4 Ranch to secure the horses and the needed wranglers.  Sam, Shep and I rode in with Elyse trail running in.  Shep was right at home on this part, but I found myself sneezing and constantly shifting in the saddle.

Nearly 1000 pounds of food, climbing and camp gear being unloaded from the horses and setting up camp in the boulders.

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Our base camp settled us just off the North Popo Agie River just 2 ½ miles east of the famous and crowded Cirque of the Towers. We were all alone down canyon, and the views were astounding – but we were not there just for the scenery. The West view from camp of the famous Lizard Head peak reflected in the North Popo Agie River.

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The South view south from camp – with the Monolith and Dog Tooth Peak. Sam checking out the route. The wall was a 1 hour walk around Papoose lake and up the scree field for about 1000 feet – a long way to haul hundreds of pounds of gear and rope.

Me climbing with a gear loaded pack low on the wall. We had to haul water, food and warm clothing as we climbed. The north facing wall went into the shade each day at about 10am, and the climbing began at about 10,800 feet above sea level, so it was anything but warm.

Sam scoped out a hard (5.11) traverse to get us into the goal of the major crack system above. He climbed smoothly and calmly connecting us to the more obvious route above.

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The climbers as viewed from the Maven S.1S spotting scope from camp. The crack sytstems were clean and long with one running over 300 continuous feet of climbing.

We would climb for two days and take a rest day to let our fingertips and muscles recover – remember we are in our 40s now and not as quick to rebound as we once were.  Progress was slow but steady and after 4 days of climbing we were ready to push for the summit.  We packed overnight gear, extra food and water up over 900 feet of rope to within what we thought would be striking distance.  But the fates were not on our side. After about 1200 ft of great climbing we ran into a band of crumbling rock.   For several moves we could not find a way to free-climb through the rice-like rock, and the clock was ticking.  As the three of us debated and the dreaded 5:00 hour hit we realized the safe and smart thing to do was to head down…  We were a mere 300 ft from the summit, but we had to turn around.

 

Two hours later we were at the base with hundreds of pounds of rope and gear.  We hiked down to drown our sorrows and stuff our bellies with another of Elyse’s awesome dinners.  The next day Elyse, Jessie, and Liz hiked up with us to retrieve gear.  I am not sure if Sam, Shep or I said more than a few words, lost in thought. Then it was Sunday – our time was up and we needed to hike out… 11 miles of thinking and hiking – the horses hauled the gear.  The work was good for us all.

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We regrouped with the horses and gear at the beautiful Diamond-4 Ranch and paused for a team photo before we headed home and back to the real world.  We were all safe and were refreshed and renewed.

 

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Now I am back in the groove, catching up and all plugged in. I find myself filled with a strange mixture of satisfaction and frustration… the project rumbles around in our brains.  Via phone and email we talk. We stew.  We spend spare minutes looking at photos closely and pouring over Google-Earth.  After only a few weeks we decide we have invested too much in this project – physically, mentally, spiritually and financially.  We will be back, and we have a plan!  

We returned to civilization refreshed and renewed and have decided to return to the mountains again… to escape, but also to finish.

TO BE CONTINUED…