Sublette Peak-- Losing to the Mountain, and a Call from the WildI don't think I ever said this to Mike, but there's a decent chance that his being with me for this climb is the reason I am still alive. The day before, we discussed plans to climb the Pinnacle Buttes, probably the landmark peak in the Togwotee Pass area. But nearby Sublette Peak, neighbor to Mount Sublette, was tempting us instead. There was no SP page for the peak, Mike knew nothing about it, and all I knew was that it was "challenging" (as stated in a photo caption on SP). We studied it from the meadows around Brooks Lake and discussed feasible-looking routes, and we soon had our minds made up to give it a go. Besides, with the short approach (maybe 2 miles) and moderate climb (about 1600'), we figured that if we couldn't make the summit, we'd have plenty of time and energy left to try something else later in the day.
Dawn was not typical for summer in the Absarokas. Thick clouds, seemingly from the Wind River Range to the south, quickly swept in, decapitating the mountains. Intermittent drizzle added to the grayness of the day and our enthusiasm. But since the alternative was to sit around and wish the weather were better, off we went through meadows and woods, eventually finding a trail (not marked on topo maps but obviously receiving regular usage, perhaps by guests at nearby Brooks Lake Lodge) that led all the way to the 10,000' saddle between Sublette Peak and Mount Sublette.
As we started up the ridge to Sublette Peak, we paused to listen to barking in the fog-shrouded meadows below. Mike identified the barking as that of a wolf and pointed out wolf scat along the trail. It has long been a dream of mine to see a wolf in the wild and hear its call, and though this wasn't an exact fulfillment of that dream, it was still a stirring moment that spoke to everything I love about the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, where my heart and soul are held as willing prisoners when I'm not out there.
The hike up Sublette Peak's ridge quickly became a scramble, and the scramble quickly became a climb. Problem-- many Absaroka peaks are composed of great quantities of Breccia, a hardened volcanic ash that is much like tuff. If someone were to hold a nominating convention for the worst climbing rock in the world, I would cheerfully nominate breccia. It might not win, but anyone who has dealt with it will understand why it could. Breccia is almost like dirt, and it breaks off in the hands and under the feet the way dirt will. It is rock in the technical sense of the word, but that is all.
This, quoted from the SP Absaroka Range page, is a perfect description of breccia-composed peaks (emphasis mine): "The sharper breccia peaks are, however, notoriously loose. They sometimes appear constructed of conglomerate similar to other areas in the Rockies (such as one finds in the pink conglomerate of Colorado's Crestone Peaks) but the ash matrix is largely softer and, while climbing, holds can become portable. This doesn't deter 'cobblehead' aficionados who become accustomed to the safety requirements of the area. (Frustrated climbers often describe the routes as 'kitty litter')."
Breccia makes even a simple scramble a dangerous undertaking, and when real climbing enters the mix, it just gets worse. Mike and I got to a narrow shelf about 100' below the summit and then started looking for feasible ways up. Most of the time, the fog prevented us from seeing more than 10 or 15 yards above us, adding to the difficulty of finding a good route. Several times, we climbed Class 4 and low Class 5 sections only to be thwarted by moves that were too hard, too dangerous because of the rock quality, or both. We started to traverse the long, narrow bench beneath the summit ridge, believing we might find a way up from the other end of the mountain, but we hastily abandoned that plan when we discovered that the bench was a steeply sloping avenue of hard, loose dirt. Finally, we had to admit defeat and head back to the saddle. A few breaks in the clouds appeared and true sunlight streamed through, tempting us to wait a bit and try again and allowing some shots of Mount Sublette's cliffs, but the holes closed in a hurry. Of course, real clearing started once we returned to the meadows below the peak, but by then it was too late and we were already working on Plan B, an afternoon summit of nearby Austin Peak.
I remain grateful that Mike was with me that day. Had I been alone, I most likely would have kept trying to get to the summit. This is not because I am braver than Mike or a better climber but because I am stubborn and sometimes very foolish. When I'm alone, I take more chances even though that's exactly when I shouldn't be taking more chances. But I'm not going to push someone else to do something he doesn't want to, and I wasn't going to be an ass and ask Mike to hang out and wait while I kept climbing. It was the right decision to admit defeat and head back down, and our failure certainly wasn't for lack of effort, so there was no shame involved. If I'd kept going up, maybe I'd have found the way, but the conditions also made it very possible that the ending wouldn't have been quite as happy as that. Good call, and thanks again, Mike, for being there. You helped me listen to my mind instead of my ego.
Austin Peak-- Splendid Consolation
Back in camp, we had luch and then relaxed for a couple hours, but the afternoon was shaping up to be a cotton-candy-cloud beauty, and a mountain called. We chose Austin Peak, a mountain unnamed on maps but which is known to those well-versed in Yellowstone Ecosystem mountain nomenclature, and it was just such a person who told us the name the next day.
Sublette Peak and Austin Peak are about two miles apart but starkly different. The former is small and very rugged and falling apart, and the latter is massive, more a small plateau than a mountain, with rolling tundra fields atop it. Austin reveals more ruggedness on its north side, where sheer, crumbling cliffs and pinnacles guard the wild expanses of the Teton Wilderness, but its other aspects are gentle.
I first hiked up Austin in July 2001, not knowing any name for it but just inspired by the idea of wandering the nameless 11,000' ridges my topo map showed. There was nothing technically challenging about the hike, but the solitude and scenery still make that hike stand out as one of my favorite ever. The sun-splashed tundra meadows high on the mountain are a paradise for wildflowers, and since Mike and I both take an interest in photographing wildflowers, I figured Austin would make a nice objective for us.
It did. That, plus the beautiful sunset colors on the Pinnacle Buttes to end the day, washed the frustration of Sublette Peak completely away. It was my second day of mountaineering with Mike, another great day.
More from Austin...