Badlands Peak *
Religion is a mental disease, often confused with spirituality. --pjs-1965
Being such a large country, America is blessed with a great variety of spectacular natural wonders, and the American West has mountain ranges that easily find places on lists of the world's most beautiful mountains.
Wyoming has two such ranges-- the Teton Range and the Wind River Range. More user-friendly, the Tetons are more popular and iconic. Since the approaches to the alpine country are relatively short and since the peaks rise directly from Jackson Hole for thousands of feet with no intervening foothills, the Tetons draw hikers and climbers and photographers from all around the world.
Yet so do the Winds, though to a lesser extent. The longest mountain range in the fabulous Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
, the Winds are not so easily seen from roads (even when they are, namely on the west side, the peaks are so distant that there is not an intimate feel), and climbers and backpackers typically face long approaches, sometimes taking two or more days, to get to the truly alpine parts of the range.
Titcomb Basin is where one finds or accesses the highest peaks and largest glaciers in the range; it also has several fine technical routes on the peaks. Further south, the peaks of the Cirque are a good bit lower than those around Titcomb, but there are numerous high-quality technical routes on the spires there.
An additional plus, or minus, for the Cirque is that of all the major alpine settings in the range, it has the shortest and easiest foot approach (the driving approach is a different matter; it is very long, though not as difficult as you might have heard).
The popularity of the Cirque kept me away from it for a long time, but after I finally gave in and visited Titcomb following years of avoiding it for the same reasons, I decided I had to see the Cirque at last as well. Technically, I had seen its peaks before; I had looked out at them from the summit of Washakie Peak 13 years before, but that's not the same as being on and among them, is it?
Somewhere around 1 P.M., I reached the trailhead at Big Sandy and shortly afterward headed off, packed with food, gear, and beer to last me up to three nights. Climbing goals would be Sundance Pinnacle, Warbonnet Peak, the two Warriors, Temple Peak, and maybe Haystack Mountain. Warbonnet and the Warriors would let me see the Cirque and be atop some of its peaks without having to go over Jackass Pass. Then I would head out and make the long drive to the Snowy Range between Saratoga and Centennial so that I could settle a 4-year-old grudge on the last day of my trip and then return to Denver and fly home to the flatlands.
Just two hours is what it took to reach Big Sandy Lake, and I was lucky enough to find a good site close to a bear bin so I didn't have to hang my food. Soon, the thunderstorms that were easy to see building during the drive in hit, and I had to hang out in the test, killing mosquitoes that had slipped in as I was getting in myself.
As the storm passed and the rain abated, I decided to use the remaining daylight to attempt a climb of Sundance Pinnacle, which would allow me to check out the south ridge of Warbonnet as well.
Unfortunately, spells of rain continued to hit. Fortunately, I did make it to the summit, but the wet conditions made a Class 4 route feel harder and scarier. Probably, I should have saved it for the next day since it would have been just a quick diversion on the way to Warbonnet, but hell. It worked out.
Back at camp, I shoved Ramen noodles and beef jerky down the maw, had a couple beers, and wet to bed.
The next morning...we can usually look forward to clear mornings in the mountains, even in the midst of thunderstorm season. Not so this day. While the sun was not nonexistent, there was less sun and more clouds. Luckily, things actually got better as the morning went on, and the day became quite hot for the altitude.
Warbonnet's south ridge turned out to be disappointingly easy, though there was some redeeming exposure at the end. Still, my first "real" view of the Cirque did not disappoint, and I was hungry to hit the Warriors.
Both Warriors required a little scrambling, but nothing spicy. Actually, the hardest and best part was going from Warbonnet to Warrior 1. Joe Kelsey, the guru of hiking and climbing the Winds, says it is Class 2 from Warbonnet to Warrior 1, but I found it to be harder than that because of an intervening ridge and subpeak on Warbonnet. (This subpeak is well worth summiting for the very airy perch and the great views.) Maybe there is a Class 2 route over that ridge and I just didn't see it, but my way over it was Class 3 with a touch of Class 4. You could definitely Class 2 it by dropping way down into the basin south of the peak, but that would add significant extra distance and elevation gain.
By the time I got back to camp, it was both too early and too late, and it created a hell of a dilemma for me. Although it was way too early to call it a day, it was too late to do another objective. Haystack Mountain was a real possibility and probably would have been the next objective, but it had suddenly become really hazy, maybe from smoke blowing in from somewhere, to the point that as close as Haystack was, the haze made it seem not worth climbing since I would't see much from the summit.
My other option would have been to try Temple, but that would have added 13 miles to the day and over 3000' of gain. After the earlier outing, I just didn't see that happening.
Sometimes, when it's hard to decide on something, other factors decide for you. This day, there were two: mosquitoes and heat.
No matter where they are, mosquitoes suck. And not just blood. Among the many places in the country known for terrible mosquitoes are the Winds in early summer. While I was at camp, even though I had strong concentrations of DEET on, the bloodsuckers were still trying to find any vulnerable spot. Going into the tent was a poor solution because it was hot and I started sweating, even stripped down. Although going on a hike up one of the nearby lake basins was an option, it was still too early for that to chew up much time.
Deep inside the wildest mountain range of the Lower 48 yet not so deep as to require several days to get to and from it, Sunlight Peak is one of the best mountaineering objectives in Greater Yellowstone for several reasons:
- Climbing it is neither very hard nor very easy.
- It is a beautiful mountain when viewed from any direction.
- From the summit, there are no views of towns or paved roads. There is an ocean of mountains.
- There is a [dying] glacier at its base, and many approaches will involve crossing that glacier.
- A Class 4/5 traverse to Stinkingwater Peak is possible.
- Since there was no register or cairn up top as of July 25, 2015, you might have the chance to be the first (or the latest) to mar this summit with your sign. Spray away!
- At the right (or wrong) time of summer, a climber may find himself or herself among so many grizzlies that it may seem as if life has become a National Geographic special.
The Absaroka Range has just one 13er but many 12,000+ peaks both named and unnamed, which means that Sunlight Peak, less than 100' under that magic mark, might not make it onto a lot of to-do lists (not a bad thing at all), but seeing its distinctive profile and its position is going to make serious mountaineers want to climb it.
Fun fact: the view from Sunlight Peak does not take in Sunlight Basin proper; Stinkingwater Peak does offer a view into the higher parts of the basin.
Warning: If you have any issues whatsoever about bears, avoid this peak. Grizzlies are abundant in this mountain range, and they may have a liking for this section in particular. On the day my friend and I climbed this peak, we counted 20 different grizzlies on the slopes, and some were quite close. We had happened to pick a day when the bears were scouring the talus slopes for nesting moths, and they were so busy eating that all but a few completely ignored us, but it was nonetheless disconcerting to be surrounded by 10,000 pounds or so of possibly grisly death that day. For two people used to seeing grizzlies and comfortable going out into their dominion, we still were worried about all that could have gone so badly wrong, so anyone who would really rather not include close encounters with grizzly bears among his or her Greater Yellowstone experiences should probably stay away from here.
If you're solid on exposed, unprotected Class 3/4 rock in the mountains, then the crux might be the approach.
From WY 296 turn onto the signed road following Sunlight Creek into Sunlight Basin. This road is between Dead Indian Pass and Sunlight Bridge and is actually just before Sunlight Bridge if one is approaching from Dead Indian Pass, and just after it if one is approaching from the Beartooth Highway.
Drive about 20 miles, past where state maintenance ends and the road gets narrower and rougher, to an unbridged crossing of Sunlight Creek. Shortly before this spot, there is a turnoff on the left side.
If the water is low enough and if you have high clearance, drive down, cross the water, and go as far as you can and then park without blocking the road.
If the water is not low or if you do not have high clearance, park in an obvious turnout area just up the road.
Now, if you have real 4wd and high clearance and are up for some rugged driving, cross the creek and keep heading up the main road as far as you dare. It really is not too bad, but up high, it gets very narrow, steep, and rocky, with few options for turning around or pulling off easily. But if you and your vehicle are up to it, you can drive to within just yards of the logical place to camp, a meadow beneath the steep slopes leading up the the basin below Sunlight Peak. An added bonus is that you can store food in the car; the closest trees are a hassle to get to.
Driving the road can save up to 5 miles and 2000' of elevation gain.
This assumes you have hiked or driven to the aforementioned camping location. One-way distance from this point is about 3 miles, with an elevation gain of about 2600'.
Head up steep slopes to a moraine and then to what is left of the Sulphur Glacier. Head north along or beside the glacier (this is low-angle terrain and more snow than ice; crampons will usually be overkill) in a northerly direction to ugly-looking scree slopes leading up to a notch. This notch is not the saddle marking the lowest point on the ridge between Sunlight Peak and Stinkingwater Peak; it is the next notch south of it, or left of it as you face it from here.
Suffer up the scree. Actually, you can get on a rock rib some way up and climb reasonably good (by Absaroka standards) Class 3 and 4 terrain almost all the way to the notch. This is more challenging technically but far less physically exhausting for someone like me who hates slogs up sand-like scree above almost all other things.
From the notch, work south and actually descend a hundred feet or so. When you see a system of chutes and broken ledges leading up to the ridge again, take it. This can be kept Class 3 without too much effort.
Back on the ridge, you soon reach an exposed chockstone that is not really that difficult to surmount but is probably the mental crux of the route. There is a workaround below and to the right, but it is more difficult even though it is less exposed.
After that, there is a little more scrambling before the route becomes a ridge walk over some false summits until you reach the true one. It is too bad that the last false summit is not the real one; it is smaller, more aesthetically pleasing, and challenging to reach than the true summit is.
It's prime grizzly country. Make noise, carry pepper spray and have it accessible at all times, and know how to behave around the bears.
Sunlight Peak is on the border of the North Absaroka Wilderness, but in case you cross over for some reason, the following acts are prohibited in the North Absaroka Wilderness:
- Camping within (50) feet of any trail.
- Grazing livestock at sites posted as closed to livestock grazing.
- Using a campsite or other area with a group exceeding (20) persons and or a combined number of pack and saddle stock exceeding (30) animals.
- Possessing, storing, or transporting food for livestock except for pelletized feed or processed grain (rolled). Cubed hay is authorized only if certified weed seed free by an authorized Federal, State, or County Officer.
- Camping or otherwise occupying a single location for a period exceeding (16) consecutive days.
- Leaving camping equipment unattended for a period greater than 48 hours.
When to Climb
Summer. Late summer. Earlier, expect blowdowns blocking the road that you hike/drive up to the basin.
The parking area near the turnoff from the main road into Sunlight Basin has some campsites. Camping opportunities off the 4wd road diminish as the road steepens. The best place to camp is the spot mentioned in Getting There. There should be water there as well.