| Wyoming's Other Ultra
Dates: Sept. 28-30, 2012
Peaks climbed: Cloud Peak, Washakie County HP
Climbing partners: Doug and Arthur Harris
Distance: 23 miles roundtrip
Wyoming, like Colorado, has three Ultras: the Grand Teton--which needs no introduction--and Gannett Peak, prized summit of state highpointers and experienced mountaineers alike. And then there's Cloud Peak. Nestled deep within northern Wyoming's Big Horn range, it is a peak at once both rugged and mild, both remote and accessible. Its lofty heights are surrounded by alpine meadows, craggy cliffs, hidden tarns, high rocky plateaus, and the Great Plains over a mile and a half below to the east. For us peakbaggers, it is the highpoint of the Big Horns, Johnson and Big Horn counties, and is probably the single most prominent summit in Wyoming. As I was to discover, Cloud Peak would live up to its name...
Cloud from near Mistymoon Lake
I had made plans to climb Cloud with Doug and his son Arthur, who'd completed the lower 48 state highpoints at an impressive 9 years old; several others expressed interest in joining us, but they ultimately were unable to come due to other commitments. So it was that I met Doug and Arthur on a Friday afternoon in late September, just after a grueling anatomy exam, and we began the long drive north.
We spent the long hours on the road in conversation, making brief stops in Wheatland, Douglas, and Buffalo. We were uncertain about the weather forecast--it showed great conditions in Buffalo and Worland, but rain, snow, and thunderstorms in the high country--and so had decided to hike in a few hours Friday evening and make a summit attempt Saturday. After passing what seemed to be a thousand deer on the side of the highway, winding our way deep into the moonlit mountains, and driving down a long, washboarded dirt road, we arrived at the trailhead at 11 PM. A half hour later, we had packed up, and we began the long hike in.
Beautiful, rolling meadows on the approach (taken on the hike out)
The Mistymoon Lake trail #063 was wide and easy, and the miles melted away quickly as we briskly walked through dark forests and moonlit meadows. Aside from a brief moment where we worried we'd gotten on the wrong trail, we had little trouble finding the way. Once we'd reached Lake Helen, however, we were all too ready to drop our packs and camp. We found a pleasant spot on a grassy bench overlooking the lake, and by 2 AM or so, we'd set up our tents. Still over five miles from the summit, and with a less-than-ideal forecast, we didn't have the luxury of sleeping in; alarms were set for 5 AM, and we grabbed what little sleep we could.
I awoke to bitter cold; frost lined the inside of my tent. I'd packed the night before, so the hardest part was getting out of my cozy sleeping bag, and by 6 AM we were once again on the trail as light began to grow in the eastern sky. Perhaps an hour later, we'd reached Mistymoon Lake, where several trails met. Picking up the Lake Solitude trail #038, we wound around the west side of the lake and over a low ridgeline to the north. At last, we could see the peak we'd come to climb. I was heartened to see that the upper reaches looked free of snow. A gradual, gray sunrise slowly lit the skies and clouds above.
Sunrise painting the clouds as we start the climb up Cloud
From here, we dropped down into a broad, grassy valley through which flowed the meandering Paint Rock Creek. At the Falls, we could not find an obvious way up, so we simply crossed the river and charged straight up the hillside until we found the continuation of the climber's trail.
Paint Rock Falls
The trail was at first easy, crossing patches of meadows and surmounting rocky buttresses, with cairns leading the way. We paused in a large meadow where the trail split, and I explored our options while Doug and Arthur filtered water. The left option looked to lead up the broad gully we were aiming for, while the right option petered out in a minute or two. Left, it was...
A view of much of the route up Cloud Peak. We're still a long ways off...
Somebody has way too much time on their hands!
After passing through more brief meadows and rocky notches and gullies, we were up into the higher basin inset into Cloud's west ridge. While the route purportedly went straight up the middle of the basin, we found cairns leading up the broad ridge to the right, and decided to follow them. It proved to be a fun and easy scramble up talus and boulders, setting the tone for much of the remaining climb: consistently fairly stable rock with a good, grippy surface. Being a native New Englander, I was in my element, and we made good uphill progress.
In the base of the broad gully leading to the ridge. Cloud's summit is barely visible
At the top of the gully, the terrain again eased, and our goal looked much closer (though it was still a good mile off). The boulder-hopping was easier here, and there were some grassy patches that made for easier hiking. We were surprised to find even some brief trail segments!
Near the top of the gully, still about a mile off
Views opening up behind us to the west
A few quick steeper sections of hillside, and we were certifiably on the ridge at last. Just ahead lay the "knife edge" of the route; it proved to be anything but, with probably a good 50 feet of safe terrain. All the same, we could now see down the steep north side of the ridge, which held several inches of snow.
Rugged terrain near the crest of the ridge
Cloud Peak showing its impressive west face as we draw closer
Looking back on the "knife edge"
Once we'd crossed, we could see that the last 700' of uphill held a bit of snow, but nothing that was likely to bar progress. I was far more worried about the building clouds. Above us, the skies were a benign blue criss-crossed with high, wispy clouds; to the west were grim, gray overcast skies. Now with some views to the east, we could see a line of gradually-building puffy clouds were building along the crest of the range. We knew we had some time, but we would have to make haste. Poor Doug was feeling rather under the weather from some sort of bug, but valiantly pressed onward.
With only 200' to go, I pressed on ahead, working to avoid the snow and trying to pick out the highest jumble of boulders. I topped out on a ridge and abruptly came to a sheer drop-off to the east. Far below the snowy, cliffy ramparts of the mountain lay several impressive glacial tarns, and beyond, the barren grasslands of northern Wyoming far beyond and below.
The sheer eastern side of the mountain
Glacier Lake, just below the summit
Checking my GPS, I realized the summit had to be mere feet away, and once I'd clambered up a few rocks, I could see it at last.
There's the top!
After a few more steps and hoisting myself atop the summit boulder, there was nowhere higher to go. I was surrounded by a small sea of snow-covered boulders, on the crest of a broad range that rose out of the haze of the surrounding lowlands. To the north, Black Tooth Mountain--the range's other 13er, and a far tougher peak--stabbed the sky. It was a blatant reminder of the difficulty of many of Wyoming's 13ers, a list that would put the 14ers to shame in terms of difficulty.
Made it! MUFFINS, YEEEEE
Black Tooth Mountain, the indomitable other 13er in the Big Horns
Doug and Arthur reached the summit only a few minutes after I did; with the building clouds overhead, our victory was short-lived. After all, we still had to descend. Above us, it seemed as though mother nature was undergoing an internal struggle between summer and fall, and we knew it would be unwise to wait around for the outcome. We began the long journey down, hoping to get as low as we could before bad weather hit.
From the summit, showing nearly the entire upper half of the route. Lake Helen is the most distant lake
Snowy ridges to the south
We made slightly better time back to the "knife edge", where Doug picked up his pack he'd stashed there. To this point, we'd seen nobody else on the mountain that day, so we were rather surprised to suddenly spot a climber making his way toward us on the ridge! The climber turned out to be from Gillette, climbing with a buddy who was several minutes behind him. Neither had ever been this high, and it showed; one guy was wearing jeans, and both looked woefully underprepared. We wished them luck and pressed onward, hoping they wouldn't learn their lesson the hard way...
It was about this time that fall won out over summer; light flurries fell from the sky for a few minutes, then stopped. The clouds above also took on a more benign demeanor. We kept heading down, not wanting to push our luck, but still breathed a mental sigh of relief. Soon back at the top of the broad gully, we decided to try descending right down the middle, and the route proved a good choice. We were all starting to feel the effects of sleep deprivation at this point, so we had to take short breaks every half hour or so, but were still making great time.
Wyoming, masquerading as Alaska
Fall high country scenery
We were soon back at Paint Rock Falls, which I took a few minutes to inspect and play around on.
Then, it was time to cross the broad valley and make our way up the few hundred feet of hillside. We separated on the climb up, and I ended up waiting several minutes for them to pop up from behind a slope, only to discover they'd somehow snuck past me! No matter...we were back on gentler ground, and were soon rounding the bend of Mistymoon Lake.
Mistymoon Lake, with Cloud in the background
We had maybe a mile to go, but the time dragged on, and even our conversation ground to a halt as we focused on getting back to camp, putting one foot in front of the other. My brain was pretty fried at this point, and random medical terminology kept flitting through my head. I needed sleep, badly.
Grim skies, and grimmer summits
Finally, around 2:40 PM, we staggered into camp--what a beautiful sight! I dropped my gear, changed back into my approach shoes, and used my last remaining energy to walk a few minutes around the lake for a few more pictures.
Cloud from near camp
Then, I crawled into my tent and slept like the dead.
We awoke a few hours later, feeling at least somewhat more refreshed. We ate dinner (noodles for Doug and Arthur, delicious animal crackers for me), then played cards a while until it grew too dark to see. I lost most of the games; perhaps I'd used up all my luck that day in getting to the summit and back safely. As darkness fell, I crawled back into my sleeping bag, and made a futile attempt at studying. It took a surprisingly long time to fall asleep, but I eventually dozed off to the sound of moose calling in the distance.
The next morning dawned chilly and clear, or so it appeared from the window of my tent looking south. However, Cloud Peak's spell was not so easily broken; thick, non-threatening clouds still hung in the sky in every other direction. We broke down camp and were on the trail by 8 AM. This time, we could relax a bit and were not quite so pressed for time...
A parting shot of Cloud on the hike out
Now able to see the trail we'd hiked in on two short days ago, our spirits were high. We were particularly hoping to see some "meese" in the meadows and streams alongside the trail, but would ultimately be disappointed. But the day was early, the skies not overly foreboding, and the miles back to the car were growing fewer. Finally, West Tensleep Lake was in sight, and we were soon walking the easy trail along its shores.
West Tensleep Lake
Just a few short minutes later, we walked the last few steps to the car. We quickly packed up gear and were driving out ten minutes later. Back on US-16, we could finally enjoy some of the mountain scenery we'd passed through in the dark Friday night; it was quintessential Wyoming high country.
I'd found out that an easy Wyoming county highpoint lay just off the highway near the crest of the range, so Doug was kind enough to stop and let me tag the few candidate points there (Arthur had made him promise he wouldn't get involved with county highpoints!). Tagging the three points involved a half hour, hopping a few unposted barbed-wire fences, easy bushwhacking through relatively open forest, and some nice views through the trees of the surrounding high mountain plateau. I returned and we drove down into Buffalo.
We weren't sure where to eat, but we spotted the Clear Creek Cantina and decided to give it a try--Mexican food was sounding mighty appealing about then! The food was tasty and plentiful, and the restaurant was well-kept and rustic; I'd recommend it. We watched the Buffalo Bills and the Pats battle it out on the big screen, and Doug got some death glares from the locals when he cheered on the Patriots.
After one last stop at the large Maverik gas station near the highway to get some tasty milkshakes, we began the journey south, admiring the Big Horns on our right--northern Wyoming's own little Front Range. The time on the drive back passed quickly, and we were back in metro Denver by 7 PM. Not too shabby, all told! Doug and I parted, talking about future plans to do more climbs together.
Cloud Peak proved not to be a terribly difficult peak from a technical standpoint, but it was a change of scenery that felt far closer to my early memories of Yellowstone than to the regular climbs I've done in Colorado. It is a wonderful introduction to the high country of Wyoming, lacking the lengthy approach to Gannett, or the technical challenges of the Grand. Go, if you can...
The magnificent Big Horns
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