Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Living The Dream


In the weeks (almost months now) since Phil and I returned from the trip to the Bighorn Mountains for which we were awarded an American Alpine Club/The North Face - Live Your Dream (AAC/TNF - LYD) grant, I have been hemming and hawing about how to write a trip report without making it sound as though I am attempting to make something out of nothing. It is true that by the standards of summits reached, or routes climbed, we had little success...but judged by, at least what I consider, the more important standards of adventures shared, knowledge gained of self, partner and place, and the strengthening of an old friendship - we accomplished much. For those that are only interested in summits and routes completed here is the list:
  • In the Bighorns, we reached the summit of Buffalo Back (ca. 12,300') via the West Face Route (II 3rd)
  • Outside of the Bighorns, we  reached the summit of Devil's Tower (5,114') via the Durrance Route (II 5.7)
For the rest of you that are psyched to hear about the adventure and the knowledge we gained...read on!


We were on the trip, from July 19th 2014 to July 26th 2014, but our journey started in February of 2013. I was unemployed, out of shape, and bored. I turned to the internet to research the Bighorn Mountains, a range I had loved since my first trip there in 1998. The searchable online archives of the American Alpine Journal led me to an article about a 1933 trip to the Bighorns by W.B. Willcox, entitled An American Tyrol - I highly recommend a read. Further research led me to a few articles in obscure, out-of-print, 40+ year-old regional climbing journals. I sent a quick email to the staff at the American Alpine Club Library and scanned copies of the articles were quickly waiting for me in my inbox. The whole process of requesting the scanned articles was simple, efficient, and professional - I was seriously impressed, if only all of my interactions went this smooth. The inevitable effect of my research was a deep desire to plan a trip and the training that trip would necessitate, but first I needed a partner.

Phil and I climbed together a lot during the early stages of our climbing careers. He is one of the few partners I have shared a rope with that I have nearly always been on the same page with. The frequency of our agreement was so regular, that it became an unspoken, running joke - agreement by one of us with a suggestion made by the other was signified simply by pointing fore and middle fingers at one's eyes. Phil too had also been sidelined for a few years with life's circumstances, and we both needed some motivation and some adventure. Who better to share an adventure with than an old friend with similar desires? So I contacted Phil, we discussed the trip over several months and a plan finally came together...a year later.

Once we decided to go on our Bighorn adventure we began the long work of training and planning. Almost as an aside I decided to apply for a Live Your Dream Grant, not expecting that we stood any chance of actually being awarded one. We knew that our dream, although large to us, was relatively small in terms of the larger climbing community. In the end we decided it was worth a shot.

Part of my training process was a trip to Joshua Tree National Park in April with another friend of mine. The trip was great, but one of the highlights was learning on a rest day that Phil and I had the good fortune to receive the AAC/TNF - LYD grant we had applied for. What an awesome voice-mail to get while in town grabbing a shower at the Coyote Corner. Phil and I were going to have some dough for gas and food on the trip - rad!

Phil and I spent the next few months continuing to plan and train for our Bighorn adventure. Our training culminated in an Independence Day weekend "dress rehearsal." We did a twelve mile hike with packs one day, and climbed quite a few pitches over the remainder of the weekend. The climbing included a fully-loaded jaunt up Turk's Head Ridge (5.6)an alpine-esque affair at Devil's Lake to test our planned rope, rack and pack systems. Everything was working as we had remembered and hoped - we were psyched and ready!
Phil (L) and I (R) after our last big training hike - the cooler in the trunk kept the mountains blue for us
Phil, on the third to last pitch of Turk's Head Ridge (5.6) at Devil's Lake, WI

The Trip

Two weeks later, on a Friday night, I drove down to Phil's place in Iowa and crashed for the night - after we had few beers and did some final preparation/packing. Early the next morning we pointed Phil's 2001 Tacoma west and hit the gas. Fourteen hours later we set up camp at the K.O.A Kampground outside of Buffalo, Wyoming. Being road-weary and excited for the next day to arrive, it was difficult to sleep and we woke early Sunday morning with anticipation.

We headed north to the small town of Big Horn, Wyoming where we turned onto the Red Grade Road, which would take us west, into the mountains. About twenty minutes and four-and-a-half miles after the pavement ended we turned left onto Evans Road (Forest Service Road 75), where the Tacoma's four-wheel drive became an instant necessity. Within a half-mile we forded Tepee Creek, a relatively easy crossing, but a harbinger of things to come. Another 1.8 miles on Evans Road (now Forest Service Road 314) brought us to the Little Goose Campground and a major fording of the West Fork of Little Goose Creek.
Phil, double-checking whether or not we really needed to ford the river
We had not even parked the truck yet, and it started getting real
After another few miles down FS 314, with the occasional shift into low-range, we decided to let the Tacoma rest. We pulled over at "Wild Bill's Huntin' Camp" (ca 8,300') - evidently the place where a local hunter makes his elk hunting camp in the fall. There we donned our packs and started out on the long day of hiking that awaited us. We walked to the end of FS 314 where we picked up trail #027. We headed generally southwest on trail #027 to a pass (ca. 10,250'), where trail #027 intersects The Solitude Trail (#038). From there we followed the Solitude Trail southeast into the basin that forms the head of the East Fork of Little Goose Creek. After hopping the creek (ca. 9,800'), we ascended to another pass (ca. 10,350'), at the head of Highland Park. Here we were treated to an excellent view of the peaks we had come to explore.
The Wilderness Boundary - Photo by Phil
Highland Park is a high-altitude bog, almost a swamp. The trail becomes indistinct, although it is marked with large cairns. It would be difficult to navigate here in low-visibility conditions. Equally challenging is high-visibility navigation, which is challenged by slack-jawed staring at the peaks across the valley. The Solitude Trail contours along the northeastern side of Highland Park to a slight saddle (ca 10,200') where trail #414 splits off and heads due south. At the split, we followed #414 along the eastern edge of Highland Park and eventually downhill through a hard to navigate section (look for cairns) to an intersection with trail #036. From there we took #036 west toward Highland Lake (9,660').
From the left, Penrose Peak (12,460'), Penrose Canyon with Sawtooth Ridge at its head, the long flat ridge of Buffalo Back (ca. 12,300'), with Hallelujah (12,590') behind, Mt. Woolsey (12,978') and Black Tooth (13,005') falling away into the right skyline.
Our plan for the night was to make camp on the western edge of Spear Lake (9,800'), and #036 should have taken us there. Indeed, it would have, if we had stayed on #036. However, shortly past Highland Lake #036 crosses the front of a ridge on a rocky slab and makes a sharp turn out of sight, at the same time a use trail makes a hard left and heads downhill. While #036 is difficult to see (especially after a long day on the trail), the use trail appears obvious. We took the use trail.
We ended up in comfortable flat spot near water, and since the sun was fading we decided to make camp. We were right below the waterfall guarding the entrance to Penrose Canyon, one-and-a-half miles from our intended destination. We cooked dinner, swatted mosquitoes and fell asleep quickly after a long, difficult day on the trail.

The light of early-morning, and an occasional raindrop on the tents woke us up early the next morning. We decided to move camp, and located another use trail on the north side of Kearny Creek that we assumed would take us to Spear Lake. Despite being indistinct at times the trail got the job done and we were skirting the north edge of Spear Lake within an hour of leaving camp. It started to rain in earnest just as we got to an acceptable campsite, and we hastily pitched tents and crawled inside.
We passed the rain time by sorting and organizing our gear. We had brought a portable weather radio with us, and to our surprise, we could tune in the channel for the northeast Bighorns out of Sheridan. The forecast called for the rain to stop, so we waited patiently and geared up for a potential route. When the rain stopped around 10:30am we left camp. We hoped to ascend Buffalo Back via its West Face Route, and perhaps, if it looked good, Hallelujah (12,590') by the North Corner (5.6) or its North Ridge (5.6).

It took us a while to find our way up to Bard Lake (10,400') and the base of the West Face. We were both feeling pretty worked by then, the wind was picking up, and high cirrus were forming in the west - we decided to cache our climbing gear by Bard Lake and live to fight again another day. On the way down to camp we learned we were sharing the valley with a cow moose, but she did not seem to be bothered by our presence.
We spent the remainder of the day resting and exploring the area. After a short nap, I loaded up a small daypack and headed west from camp along the south edge of Kearny Creek to find a way into the Five Finger Valley northwest of Black Tooth (13,005'). A well-travelled use trail skirts Kearny Creek, and a small cairn marks the less-distinct cutoff trail leading up the drainage due north of Starvation Peak (ca. 11,500') - the terminus of Black Tooth's north ridge. It took about an hour to reach the saddle northeast of Loomis Lake. Clouds were threatening again, and since I was alone, I hustled back to camp. That night we cooked big dinners and resolved to give the Buffalo Back/Hallelujah linkup another try.
Spear Lake Sunrise
We left camp at 6:00am the next morning and we reached our cache at 7:00am. We spent fifteen minutes there packing, and taking in some calories. About 8:00am we reached the top of the "difficulties" on the West Face of Buffalo Back and the angle dropped significantly. Ninety minutes later, after what felt like an endless talus slog, we were on the summit of Buffalo Back.
Phil on the gentle upper-slopes of Buffalo Back
Phil (L) and me (R) on the summit of Buffalo Back
The summit of Buffalo Back, in contrast to the rest of the mountain, is an abrupt, airy point. From it, we tried to scout the actual climbing route to the summit ridge of Hallelujah. There was a great deal of discussion, an aborted attempt to descend to the col separating the two peaks, and finally the decision to bail. From our vantage point the route looked improbable (at least at anything near a 5.6 rating) and difficult to protect. For two "never-was" dads, it just did not feel right. So we decided to continue our recon mission by descending the east side of Buffalo Back and finding our way into Penrose Canyon. After descending a bit, the whole of Hallelujah came into view, including the route we could not see from the summit of Buffalo Back. We contemplated returning, but our momentum was already downward, so that notion failed to gain any traction.
Hallelujah (12,590')
We scrambled down the upper talus slopes of Buffalo Back, skirting the east face, for a long way before we found an acceptable route down into Penrose Canyon. In doing so, we were fortunate to have excellent views of the opposite side of the canyon. We looked on in awe of Shipsprow Buttress (III 5.8 A2) originally put up in 1970 by Roger Wiegand, Pete Cleveland and Roseanne Cleveland.
Shipsprow Buttress (III 5.8 A2) ascends the prominent buttress at right.
Although the Iowa Mountaineers may have plucked one of the more beautiful lines in the area forty-some years ago, there are many new routes patiently awaiting a first-ascensionist. Penrose Canyon alone is full of them, and there are many more to be done outside of it as well.

After finding our way down into Penrose Canyon proper we found an intermittent use trail that took us down along the waterfall that guards the entrance to the canyon and down to Kearny Creek, virtually back to our campsite from Sunday night. From there, instead of taking the trail we had found the day before we decided to explore the south bank of Kearny Creek for a trail. We can conclusively say there is not a trail there, and that it is a sub-optimal way to return to Spear Lake - take the use trail on the north bank.
Crossing back to the correct (north) side of Kearny Creek - photo by Phil
Back at camp, and thoroughly worked, on Tuesday evening, after twelve or thirteen hours on the go, we hatched plans for Wednesday. We decided to scout the Five Fingers Valley, which was the westernmost of the valleys we intended to explore during our trip. While the valley was beautiful, the rock quality was not ideal for a pair of dads to be playing around on. So we took a bunch of pictures, and had a real conversation. It was Wednesday after all, and while more than half over, a good chunk of our trip remained.
The Five Fingers 
Looking down Five Finger Valley
We decided that it would be best to bail, leave the Bighorns, and salvage the few days remaining in our climbing trip by doing some climbing on the way home. We did not come to the decision lightly, but at the time it was the best course of action for us. We had come to the area with as much information as we could garner beforehand, found either routes that were bigger than we were prepared to tackle in our short window or carried more objective hazard than we wished to take. We were leaving with a wealth of additional information about the area that might serve us, or others, well in the future.
Hiking out
We returned to camp at 11:00am, by noon we had our packs packed and were back on the trail. We were back to the car at 6:30pm and we checked into the Buffalo K.O.A. at 9:00pm - exhausted. We took Thursday as a travel and rest day - we drove to Devil's Tower, sat around the campground, racked up for the Durrance (II 5.7), and rested. Friday the alarm went off at 4:30am and we still just barely managed to get first tracks on the route - but it was worth it - we made good time and even had time to drive to the Rushmore Needles and get a little climbing in. We spent Saturday driving home, and Sunday with our families before getting back to the real world on Monday.
Summit of Devil's Tower

Lessons Learned/Beta

  1. The Bighorns are...well...big - prepare accordingly.
  2. High-altitude mosquitoes are for real - bring counter-measures
  3. To go to the Spear Lake area and get something done you either need a single, clear-cut objective or two weeks - learning your way around costs valuable time and energy.
  4. Spear Lake makes a great base camp, but from there, spike camps will be necessary for any major routes.
  5. Penrose Canyon looks amazing - if I was solely looking to do new routes, I would skip Spear Lake altogether and go directly there.
  6. Hire horse packers, especially if you are short on time - it is a long way in, and short-changing your gear is not the answer.
Thanks for reading, and a great big thanks to the American Alpine Club, The North Face, and CLIF Bar for helping to make our adventure possible. I cannot say enough what a great experience it was and I encourage everyone out there to apply for a Live Your Dream Grant. I also want to thank a pair of local businesses for their support and products, Wildside Adventure Sports in Baraboo, WI and Mike's Mix Recovery Drink in Mazomanie, WI.


Unknown said...

Hey James, great post and beautiful pictures. Makes me think I should spend a little time in the Big Horns next season. Mike

James said...

Thanks Mike! Let me know if you want the firsthand beta.

Unknown said...

Excellent report on what must have been a grand adventure. Its frustrating when trips like this don't work out exactly as planned but I think that's part of what makes them worth trying in the first place. I'm glad you got to climb the tower, it's one of the most inspiring climbs I've seen.

James said...

Thanks Justin! We had a great time, and learned a lot. The tower is a blast.