OverviewMount Helen is a thirteener in the Wind River Range and Wyoming's fifth highest peak. The fourth highest peak in the range, it is known for its graceful symmetry in appearance, the popular rock of Tower Ridge, and its fine alpine routes.
The west side of the Continental Divide-straddling peak towers over the upper reaches of Titcomb Basin. From the meadows of the basin, Tower 1 rises 1800' in a vertical spire of migmatite-banded gneiss. The routes on Tower 1 are considered classics and climbers sometimes make the two-day approach into the valley just for a climb of this tower. The Tower Ridge route (III, 5.7+), which takes in the next two towers and the summit knob, is one of the best alpine rock moderates in the Central Rockies. Tucked in between Towers 1 and 2 is the Tower 1 Gully, considered by some to be the best summer ice route in the range. Adjacent to this is the Grand Couloir (NW couloir) which is one of the finest and longest snow climbs in the range.
The east side of the peak features the long and wide east ridge which separates Helen Glacier from Sacajawea Glacier. The north face of the ridge supports steep, glacial alpine routes. In between features on this side are several Class 4 and up mixed routes, all of which lead to the Class 4/easy 5 summit blocks. There are crevasse and bergschrund difficulties on east side routes. Descents can be made via chutes leading from near the top of the East Ridge to Sacajawea Glacier, via the Grand Couloir or the North Ridge to Helen Col (12561').
With a multitude of fine, challenging routes, and snow/ice that stays in condition throughout the summer, Helen is one of the more popular peaks in the northern half of the range and sees up to a dozen ascent parties each year.
Note to anyone headed for this summit: The CMC register tube from 1930 (metal pipe) is still intact but the papers inside desperately need changed. A blank tablet needs brought up and all the old (loose) papers need archiving. If you need help with this, just ask.
|Helen (right) at the head of Titcomb Basin (photo: zzippyy)||Sunset on Helen from Bonney Pass. Tower 1 Gully is the ice seam between Tower 2 and Tower 1 (photo: asmrz)|
ApproachesTitcomb Basin approach to west side. The paved Fremont Lake road goes east from the south edge of Pinedale heading 14 miles to a campground and parking lot at Elkhart Park. A combination of the Pole Creek, Seneca Lake, Indian Basin and Titcomb trails lead 18 miles to upper Titcomb Basin.
Northern Approach via the Glacier Trail to Helen Glacier. 4 miles east of Dubois, turn south from highway 26/287 and follow the recently improved dirt road (FS #411; passable in cars) eight miles past Trail Lake Ranch to its end. The Glacier Trail is then taken for approximately 23 miles to the Dinwoody moraine. From here, cross either Blaurock Pass or Backpackers Pass to the Helen moraine.
Indian Pass/Bull Lake Glaciers Approach. This classic wilderness outing utilizes the Titcomb Approach as far as Island Lake. From there, the Indian Basin trail is followed 3 miles east to Indian Pass on the Continental Divide. The rest of the route utilizes a traverse NW over the high glaciers and moraines to the Sacajawea Glacier, SE of the peak.
For most of us, the approaches take 2-3 days.
Management and RegulationsThe west side is managed by the Bridger Wilderness and National Forest. The east side is managed by the Fitzpatrick Wilderness of Shoshone National Forest. Wilderness regulations apply for camp locations, group size, campfire restrictions and ethics. There are no permit requirements in these two wildernesses. Grizzlies have re-migrated to the eastern approach. Take necessary precautions. Food caching on this side is prohibited. Minimum-impact camping and travel ethics are increasingly important at Double Lakes cirque, Seneca Lakes and in Titcomb Basin. It is more ethical and less buggy to avoid camping alongside lakes in this range. Backpacking stoves are required and water filtration is suggested. A fee-based campground exists at the Elkhart Park trailhead. There is undeveloped camping at the Torrey trailhead.
Seasonal ConditionsSummer season in the Wind Rivers is generally July-September with snow lingering on the higher trails into July. A snow storm is traditional between the last week of August and the second week of September. This is normally followed by a dry period with crisp temperatures for 2-5 weeks. Crevasses on the Fremont/Bull Lake Glaciers are hidden in June and begin opening sometime in July. The snow & ice routes vary year to year but tend to remain in good condition into mid-summer. The road to the Torrey Lakes/Trail Lake trailhead is often reachable year-round, the exception being during April and May snowstorms. The road to Elkhart Park (the only paved road in the range) is plowed to within 2.5 miles of its end in the winter - about 2 miles past the turnoff to White Pine. The approach is heavy with mosquitos June thru August. Water must be carried the first 10 miles of the Glacier Trail. Ski approaches are generally much gentler than in other remote ranges of the Rockies.
An area webcam depicts current conditions.
GuidesHelen is guided by Exum and JHMG. It has also been climbed by participants in NOLS courses.
Outfitters on both the west and east side approaches can support trips into this area via packing or supply drops.
Popular RoutesGrand Couloir (II, 4) - The great snow couloir on the northwest face is pleasant and varies year to year; sometimes becoming icier (and dirtier) by early autumn. It is fairly wide, 1000-1400 feet tall and goes at Class 3-4 in good conditions, varying between 35 and 50 degrees. The top reaches the east ridge which is followed west to the Class 4/easy 5 summit blocks. It is often the most expedient route from Titcomb and offers a quick descent option with the proper gear, albeit with rockfall danger after warm-up.
Tower Ridge (III, 5.7, traditional rating) - The classic and much compared rock route up the edge of Tower 1 (5.6) and then continuing around Towers 2 & 3 (Class 4) and eventually to the summit pitches (5.7-5.8).
West Face (V, 5.10 A2) - A Beckey classic on the 1,500-foot gneissic wall.
Tower 1 (Ice) Gully (IV, Ice) - The ice climb up the north couloir between Towers 1 & 2. Grade IV includes summit pitches.
North Face (II, 5, snow) - Steep snow then rock from Helen Glacier directly to the east ridge.
East Ridge (II, 4) - Directly up the toe of the east ridge from the col between Helen and Sacajawea Glaciers that separates Helen from the Three Brothers.
History & EtymologyMount Helen was named by Green River Basin residents for 'Helen Fisher' 20 years before it was actually climbed. It is the 5th highest peak in Wyoming.
In 1923, Colorado Mountain Club member Carl Blaurock discovered the Wind Rivers and learned that three of its five highest summits had remained unclimbed. The following year Blaurock's climbing partner Albert Ellingwood proposed a trip to the Tetons and Carl explained the potential of the nearby Winds. Entering the range with friend Herman Buhl and his wife, they headed straight for Mount Helen, ascending to the summit after gaining the east ridge from the north ridge via Helen Glacier and Helen Col. Two days later they made the first ascent of the North Face of Fremont. Two days after that they made the first ascents of Turret and Warren, followed the next day by one of the earliest ascents of Gannett. Packing out, they headed for the Tetons where they ascended the Grand and, two days later, made the second ascent of Moran. In a span of two weeks they had made a total of two ascents in the Tetons and six in the Winds - three of them first ascents. In 11 days they had climbed the six highest peaks in the state and did so before constructed trails with wool, leather, heavy tarps, fire, a lack of topographical maps and mostly dirt roads from Denver! Their achievement would be very challenging to repeat even with new roads, the construction of trails and modern gear.
In 1946, Hans Kraus and Roger Wolcott made the historic ascent of Tower Ridge. In 1971, Laramie climbers Ray Jacquot and Bill Lindberg brought their ice skills (honed in the Tetons and the Snowy Range) to the Tower 1 couloir. Fred Beckey put up the center of the West Face of Tower 1.
SourcesBonney, O.H. (1977). Guide to the Wyoming Mountains, 3rd Ed.; Swallow Press. Chicago,IL.
Euser, Barbara (1984). A Climbers Climber: On the Trail with Carl Blaurock; Cordillera Press.
Kelsey, Joe (1994). Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, 2nd Ed.; Falcon Press. Guilford, CT.