“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Those oft-quoted but not often enough pondered words of John of the Mountains come to mind when I think about the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Every Winds climber experiences those qualities and all are altered by them in subtle and significant ways. Whether they take a 40 mile roundtrip trailhead to trailhead one day ascent of Gannett Peak or free the North Face of Mt. Hooker in a day, the experience transforms them differently‑‑but no more momentously‑‑than less ambitious endeavors like the Northeast Face of Pingora or the North Face of Haystack Mountain.
The Winds have everything climbers and other humans could ask of a mountain range, and each visit leaves us more complete. The unique character of the range includes 40 granite peaks above 13,000 feet, alpine forests, 7 of the 10 largest glaciers in the lower 48, more than 2000 lakes‑‑and a serrated topography that even Joe Kelsey, the John Muir of the Winds, hasn’t fully explored. On a clear day, the surface of Lonesome Lake reflects the sweeping silver walls of the Cirque of Towers, a glacial polished mirror to the climber who cares (dares?) to gaze into the reality that rock is more durable than but not immune to the transitory human touch and take that reflection back to the larger world.
My first and favorite Wind River outing in 1972 gave me a transformative personal experience guiding a woman named Elizabeth who had escaped the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees in World War II and who taught me a new dimension of all we mean by the word ‘freedom,’ and one of my best climbs with a then new and now old friend and climbing partner Sibylle Hechtel. A third gift of that trip was a dream I had one night camped by Lonesome Lake in the Cirque of Towers. I turned the dream into fiction as vision or hallucination (but it was a dream, honest) in a short story titled “Medicine,” previously 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: that the hand of every human holds the earth within it and the hand of every climber brings and then leaves more than new climbing routes, slings, bolts and other manufactured protection. On any busy summer day, at what I once referred to but no longer can as ‘pristine’ Lonesome Lake it is not unusual to find two or three dozen campers, not all of them climbers. 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 easily gathered wood that will no longer be available to rejuvenate local soil, the impact of millions of footsteps trampling vegetation and making hardpan of porous soil on and off the trails.
When I first wandered the Winds climbers and other visitors were still few, and winter erased most signs of their passing. Within the span of a human life 45 years is huge, but in the time that is hitched to everything else it is miniscule. Today the snow pack melts 16 days earlier than it did in 1972 and it will continue to vanish earlier and earlier each year. The environmental integrity of every mountain range is degrading with as yet unknown consequences as a result of human overpopulation, overproduction and overconsumption fueling the rising temperatures of Earth. Some countries and peoples are suffering the violence of climate change more than others. America drives those changes more than most nations and so far suffers less, but eventually the ecological degradation will visit all countries and all peoples.
I cannot imagine how climbing standards will accelerate in the next 45 years but assume they will keep pace with the increasing velocity of environmental squalor and unwelcome change that will meet climbers when they enter the Winds and that will accost them again as they exit back into that larger world. What I like to think about is that any solution to the man made global warming 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. Improving lives through living our own lives in a sustainable manner. Educating the ignorant about retreating glaciers and melting snow and encouraging simplicity as a (partial) solution. I think the holy Wind River Range which has given us so much would be honored, grateful, relieved and reciprocal to such a hand from its climbers.