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Wind River Universe

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

Cirque of the Towers. [Photo] Doug Kofsky

Cirque of the Towers. [Photo] Doug Kofsky

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” –John Muir

THOSE OFT-QUOTED, BUT NOT OFTEN enough pondered, words of John of the Mountains came to mind when I was asked to write about the “unique qualities” of the Wind River Range.

Every climber experiences those qualities, whether they make a free ascent of the legendary north face of Mt. Hooker or romp up the gentle Northeast Face of Pingora. The Winds have everything humans could ask of a range: a few dozen granite peaks above 13,000 feet, seven of the ten largest glaciers in the Lower 48, more than 2,000 lakes, and a serrated topography that even Joe Kelsey, the John Muir of the Winds, hasn’t fully explored. Each visit leaves us more complete, transforming us in subtle and significant ways.

On a clear day, the surface of Lonesome Lake reflects the sweeping silver walls of the Cirque of Towers, a glacier-polished mirror to the climber who cares (dares?) to gaze into it and to take those visions back to the larger world.

MY FIRST AND FAVORITE Wind River outing gave me a transformative personal experience: in 1972 I guided a woman named Elizabeth who had crossed the Pyrenees to escape the Nazis during World War II and who taught me a new dimension of the word “freedom.” I also enjoyed one of my best ascents with a then-new and now-old friend, Sibylle Hechtel. A third gift of that trip was a dream I had one night by Lonesome Lake. I turned the dream into fiction as a vision or hallucination (but it was a dream, honest) in a story published in Mountain Gazette:

He lay exhausted in the afternoon sun, his eyes resting on the great, broken east face of Warrior Peak. His vision moved slowly along the large vertical crack systems and intersecting, diagonal lines. One detached slab near the top of the face seemed like it would fall any instant, it could not last another winter and spring thaw. He imagined sitting in that spot for thousands of years, long enough to watch Warrior crash apart, piece by piece, until nothing remained but a mound of rock that once was a mountain. He pictured Warrior as it would eventually be, a rubble heap of broken rock, continuously reducing itself into smaller and smaller particles. Even mountains are returned to the sea.

When he superimposed this image over that which his eyes saw as the east face of Warrior, a strange thing happened. He saw a zigzag pattern of unbroken movement flowing up the fractures of the face. He perceived an endless mass of people jammed together on the same path. Some were carrying big loads on their backs, others in their hands; some carried nothing while others had carts drawn by animals–men, women and children, all struggling to progress. The pathway of people moved like a river, a flowing stream of light comprising all mankind, every man and woman carrying their own loads up the same strenuous path, together. He watched it a long time, filled with compassion.

It slowly began to change from movement to form, like the creation of understanding itself. That which was flowing up a steep, winding path formed itself into a human hand, a fine, beautifully formed hand, palm up, with long, graceful fingers extended and together, thumb relaxed and not quite touching the first finger. It was the hand of man and everything he had ever seen and known and touched and loved and felt and cared about was in that hand. As soon as he understood this, all that remained before his vision was the East Face of Warrior.

I TOOK THE GIFT of that dream back to the larger world as reminder of something we all know but fail to ponder with enough effort and focus: the hand of every human holds the earth; and the hand of every climber brings and leaves more than new routes, slings, bolts. On any busy summer day, at (what I once referred to but no longer can as “pristine”) Lonesome Lake, it’s not unusual to find two or three dozen campers. What they (we) leave depends on their (our) level of consciousness of being hitched to everything in the universe, including unpacked-out shit and toilet paper buried or not, carelessly or uncaringly abandoned garbage, campfire ash (from wood that will no longer be available to rejuvenate local soil), and thousands of footprints trampling vegetation and making hardpan of porous earth.

When I first wandered the Winds, visitors were few, and winter erased most signs of their passing. Within the span of a human life, forty-five years is huge, but in the time that is hitched to everything else, it is miniscule. The snowpack melts sixteen days earlier, today, than it did in 1972, and it will continue to vanish earlier each year. The environmental integrity of every range degrades as human overpopulation, overproduction and overconsumption fuel the rising temperatures of Earth. America drives those changes more than most nations–and so far suffers less–but eventually ecological devastation will visit all countries and all peoples.

I cannot imagine how climbing standards will accelerate in the next forty-five years, but I assume they will keep pace with the increasing velocity of environmental squalor that will meet climbers when they enter the Winds and that will accost them as they exit. I like to think that any solution to the manmade crisis that affects everything to which we are all hitched is in the hands of humans. The approach to climbing as pilgrimage. Environmental activism as a mission. Living our lives in a sustainable manner. Encouraging simplicity. And educating others about retreating glaciers and melting snow. I think the holy Wind River Range, which has given us so much, would be grateful to receive such a hand from its climbers.

Don’t you?

Read more essays from our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile. Subscribe today or order your own copy in the store.