The Wind River Range is my favorite in the Rockies. Warm, relatively dry summers create a paradise for backpackers, climbers, and photographers. Hundreds of peaks rise over 12,000 feet above glaciers and snows that last late into summer. Melt waters cascade into alpine basins filled with meadows, open pine forest, and countless lakes before joining into rivers separated by the Continental Divide. Gannett Peak, the tallest in Wyoming, rises slightly higher than the Grand Teton, a hundred miles to the west.
I thought I had it all figured out to spend a casual week there last summer. With five lectures and seminars booked over a three-week period in Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta, my wife, Barbara, would fly us in her Cessna 206 with lots of spare time to photograph the national parks. We'd meet Conrad Anker at the International Climbers' Festival in Lander, Wyoming, where I would give a joint slide lecture with him about our climbs in the Karakoram Himalaya. Then he'd join us and six other friends to camp in the Wind Rivers amidst pristine lakes and unclimbed rock faces. A horse packer from Allen's Diamond-4 Ranch would bring in 700 pounds of tents, sleeping bags, food, wine, climbing gear and photo gear.
In 1990, the same outfit hauled gear 19 miles to the base of the north wall of Mount Hooker, the longest continuously vertical cliff in the Rockies. On a tight schedule, that enabled me to join Wyoming climbers Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, and Tim Toula in making the first free-climb of the face by running the trail a few days later with only my camera.
Two years later, I joined Todd and Paul for an even more extreme and photogenic ascent in the Canadian Arctic. After the National Geographic almost bought the Hooker story and turned down the Canada climb, I gave up. I'd done one cover story on rock climbing way back in 1974, and the magazine hadn't run one since.
Todd never gives up (which directly relates to my return to the Winds in 1999). Just after our Canada climb, he and Paul founded the annual International Climbers' Festival as a celebration and a way to make locals aware that some of the world's finest climbing was happening in their big back forty.
Todd had grown up on a ranch in the Winds, where his kindergarten teacher, Mr. Cookie, inspired him toward greater things. Mr. Cookie had been a local rodeo hero until a bull named Gravedigger broke him up. Then he became a cook. When that didn't pan out, he taught kindergarten. He told kids that to succeed, you needed to heed some basic cowboy logic which Todd recounted around the campfire: "If you want something very badly; take it. If someone says something you don't like; hit 'em. And remember, cowboys don't smile unless they're hurt and there ain't never been a horse that couldn't be rode."
After my failure to sell Todd's climbs to the Geographic, he got back in the saddle and wrote a cover story about a later free climb of the Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram. Both he and Paul were a bit too successful and busy to join us after the 1999 festival.
Shortly before the festival, Conrad Anker found George Leigh Mallory's body on Mount Everest and sudden celebrity. He arrived in Lander having just written a National Geographic story. With a book due at the end of the month, he, too, was now too busy to join our informal outing. That seemed okay with me because we still had one top climber left. Twenty-year-old Chris McNamara had made his 54th ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan in June with Conrad and me. What was more of a problem was my state of exhaustion as we walked the nearly level seven miles to Cathedral Lake.
Over the past ten days, I'd done a solo 4000-mile drive after Barbara opted out of flying her single-engine plane through thunderstorms into Canada. A stationary storm system had been hovering across the border for weeks. She promised to try to join me as I took off across California's Central Valley on a clear 109-degree July afternoon. Less than 24 hours and a thousand miles later, I rolled into Lander a week before the festival. By air, dropping off all our camping gear plus my slides in Lander would have been just hours out of our way to Canada, but it was two extra days by road. There were alternatives, but what better excuse to drive both ways through Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier?
Starting from Lander in the dark, I made it to the Grand Tetons in time to photograph a splendid sunrise. After breakfast, I cruised through Yellowstone for the rest of the day, photographing bison herds in lush Hayden Valley and looking for wolves in Lamar Valley. The following afternoon in Glacier Park, I ran up a snowy trail to the Grinnell Glacier with my camera, following fresh grizzly tracks.
As storm clouds moved in the next morning, I photographed my best-ever dawn in the park just before my luck ran out. I spent the next three days within the storm system that had been hanging over the Canadian Rockies for a month. After lecturing in rainy Calgary and getting snowed on in Banff, the clouds parted while I was giving a seminar in Yoho National Park, where I shot twelve rolls of gorgeous wintry landscapes.
Meanwhile, Barbara flew to Lander on the only good flying day of the week. I met her there just in time to rehearse my lecture with Conrad and party each night with Todd, Paul, and other old friends, which brings me full circle to that hike in a state of exhaustion.
After we set up camp beside a lake that reflected the 1200-foot face of Cathedral Peak, I laid around and rested while others hiked up side valleys to check out the area. Barbara painted, others fished, and we soon fell into a routine of all getting together before sunset and dinner to share what we'd seen and done over a glass of wine. A Himalayan guide and his wife did long hikes every day. My working attorney, now in his sixties, made a first ascent with a retired software vice president in his thirties. But Chris McNamara, barely in his twenties, had failed to free climb the virgin 1200-foot South Tower Direct of Cathedral Peak with me. The hard Wind River gneiss lacked vertical crack systems, but had many horizontal ones with overhangs.
On the last possible day, Chris and I resorted to direct aid--standing in slings attached to rock anchors--to pass the hardest sections and stand on the flowered summit beneath a thunderstorm about to break. Though lightning never struck, a thought hit me with equal suddenness. Of course those newly beholden to adventure writing or photography assignments weren't here. Had I sought a big one beforehand, the editors might have air-freighted a few of us to attempt some greater Arctic or Himalayan superlative to satisfy their readers and advertisers, but not us. I'd been there before. The spontaneous camaraderie of our rainbow-watching, trout-eating, wall-climbing, water-coloring week never would have happened except on our own time.