As my junior year came to a close, I was rapidly approaching an unspoken deadline. It’s customary for every geology major to devote a part of their summer to research, and I had no idea what I was going to do. This changed when I met Christine Siddoway who had recently joined a mapping team in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. My friend and climbing partner, John Collis, was already a part of the trip and scheming up ways to include a rope and a rack in our daily routine. We came up with the idea of gathering data from the top of several prominent peaks, and when we asked our professor about it we received a resounding yes. Who better to collect data from steep technical terrain? It was a match made in heaven— our rock climbing/geology expedition was set!
After a 9-hour drive and brief field orientation, John Collis, Dave Freedman and I horse packed 6 miles into the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area and were dropped off just below the fire ban elevation of 9,200 ft. As we pitched camp, it became clear that this would be luxury camping. Our equipment included a folding table, a two-burner stove, three pounds of bacon, and four-dozen eggs. We were also loaned a loaded revolver from our trusted horse packer, Rusty.
As extended circumstances would have it, Dave had gotten stoked on a pair of firemen boots in Sheridan (i.e. very thick soles and no ankle support). On the first day of ‘work’, he attempted to jump between boulders. The soles ripped from the boots and he promptly tore his meniscus. The next several days we rested to give Dave some time to recover and process the natural denial that follows any injury of a proud man. It took some convincing, and an intimidating haze (We couldn’t tell if the wildfire was five miles away or 500), and before we knew it, we had loaded up all of our valuables (the rope, the rack, the whiskey and the revolver) and marched out. John had to sleep in an emergency blanket that night, but we were staying safe and one step closer to a doctor. This was Dave’s first hospital visit and needless to say, he was no longer stoked.
Yet in between the time of injury and our march out to find help, there were several wonderful days of limbo. Finally we had time to pioneer first ascents in the valley! We called our first route Who Dropped the Toaster (5.8) after a toaster-sized trundle high on the route that needed to go. Working left along the Toaster Wall we top roped Sliced Bread (5.10 R/X) and established two other chimney climbs, Hot Pockets and Lean Pocket. Our greatest first ascent was the Fortress of Solitude, which was a splitter 5.8 hand and finger crack within a dihedral. As traditional South Platte climbers, we felt that the Bighorns should be pioneered with similar principals of adventure, audacity, and understatement. These routes were fantastic and as John Collis said, “It’s a good thing we climbed here, before the crowds came.”
When the snow melted in the alpine, we knew it was time to move camp. Repositioned above Wilderness Basin, we set our sights on the Innominate. After 1,000’+ of fourth-class scrambling we pitched out two rope lengths of 5.6. We arrived at a large ledge system, but were still 25 feet from the true summit block— a boulder standing on its end in the shape of a giant domino. With a steep and blank face before us, it was time to use some techniques unique to this cowboy landscape. After tying all of our cordelettes into a 70’ loop, I picked my line, worked the sequence and stuck the toss. With this unorthodox lasso throw, we now had a top rope secured to the summit, and all in proper Wyoming style! While I later led this pitch on gear at 5.10 R, we both agreed that our lasso toss was the most pure and ethical form of ascent in such a wild western landscape.
The Gargoyle (the next tower north from the Innominate) steadily held my gaze–– not in pure stature, but in the precarious nature of its summit. Topping out with 20’ of 5.5 friction considered by our 1977 guidebook, “Holdless [and at the] maximum angle to which rubber soles will stick.” Due to the way the summit pinnacle curved and narrowed so suddenly, it looked impressive. And since there were no anchors or gear at the top, we both had to lead up and down this section.
In the Bighorns we found a healthy amount of adventure, camaraderie, discovery, and rocks! Between geology and climbing, the Bighorns have it all. In fact, if I could return to any climbing area in the world right now, it would be the Bighorns.
Bighorn Range, WY
Who Dropped the Toaster, 5.8, FA (Collis-Fay)
Hot Pockets, FA (Collis-Fay)
Lean Pocket, FA (Collis-Fay)
Fortress of Solitude, 5.8, FA (Collis-Fay)