Musings on Wilderness
Although it may seem contrary to the whole idea of wilderness, sometimes real wilderness is just steps away from the car.
If you doubt this, take a trip to the Everglades and walk a few yards from the road into a mangrove swamp. Assuming a startled alligator or ravenous mosquitoes don't send you sprinting back to the car, and assuming you can even pass more than a dozen feet through the dense roots and other growth, you'll feel within minutes that you're far, far away from anything remotely familiar or civilized. Now take that canoe you have on top of the car and dump it into the narrow channel and paddle a little bit, and before very long at all, the world you know is a fading memory.
But this is a site about mountains, or at least it still mostly is, so let's turn this discussion to real mountain wilderness just steps away from the car.
Definitions of wilderness range from the legal to the emotional. Anyone at all familiar with my submissions knows that for me, pure mountain wilderness in the United States is not about distance from the road but instead means vast tracts of untrammeled country where the iconic wildlife species hold sway. It means ecosystems that are intact or damn close to it, even if humans had to help restore them. Thus, although there is mountain wilderness in every state that has mountains, only a handful of states have pure mountain wilderness as I define it for myself.
And Wyoming's Absaroka Range is, to me, the greatest showpiece for it, at least in the Lower 48. This, too, is no secret to people familiar with my pages.
As soon as you cross one of the invisible boundaries and enter Greater Yellowstone, it becomes a different world. Many, including me, have tried and failed to articulate the feel and the spirit of the country here. For us who love and understand the place and feel a connection to its magic, it is not yet another pretty area of snowy mountains and clear streams; it is a living entity and a sublime concept and a realm like nowhere else.
For a lot of Greater Yellowstone addicts, a great part of the ecosystem's power comes from the fact that it is the haunt of the Great Bear, the grizzly. Almost everywhere you go, there are reminders and signs that this is bear country. All bears are dangerous, and some, such as polar bears, are more dangerous than grizzlies, but no other animal seems to capture the imagination of the public and define the wilderness for it the way the grizzly does.
More than any other range in Greater Yellowstone, the Absaroka Range belongs to the grizzlies. The largest mountain range in the ecosystem, the Absaroka Range is both long and broad with huge roadless expanses. Big streams and epically long trails keep the human masses back, and it is a perfect refuge for wildlife, including the bears.
A step from the car into the Absarokas is a step into prime grizzly habitat. There is no approach. If you are out, you are there. The potential of the grizzly changes everything. Few informed people hike into Rocky Mountain National Park or the Sierra Nevada too terribly worried about the black bears, but all informed people walk into grizzly country with something that is all at once a blend of fear, anticipation, and respect. It is a different game, with different rules and consequences. Yet, it is also exhilarating, especially when you are alone.
Pinnacle Butte NE
And alone I was on July 1, 2009. For two days, I had climbed peaks in the northern Winds and the southern Absarokas with my friend Tim, and we'd gotten up Arrow Mountain, Talus Mountain, Two Ocean Mountain, and the northwestern Pinnacle Butte. But Tim had a tennis tournament and a family to get back to at home, and he left on the afternoon of the 30th, leaving me a couple solo days until meeting up with some other friends for some fun in the Gros Ventres.
Two years before, I'd had plans to climb the main summit of the Pinnacle Buttes, a well-known but seldom-climbed craggy breccia complex near Dubois, Wyoming. I'd had those plans for almost a year. Then, a few days before my flight out to Denver, someone put up a page on the climb, and it totally deflated my interest in the peak. I can't really say why; it's not as if I've never climbed a peak that's on SummitPost or never used this site for information to climb a peak. Perhaps it was the timing, and the fact that in my mind I'd already begun the outline of a page for the peak, that killed my desire for that summit. For sure, it took away the sense of "discovery" I had been anticipating. Therefore, instead of climbing that peak, a friend and I tried (and failed) to climb Sublette Peak and later climbed Austin Peak, just north of the Pinnacle Buttes. During that second climb, I got some good pictures of some of the other peaks of the Pinnacle Buttes, and I started getting the idea to climb them. With no apparent information out there on them, the other peaks there presented themselves as the kinds of mountains I love most-- obscure, unnamed, and rarely climbed-- and their secrets would be mine to learn.
It wasn't until two years later that I got to act on those plans, but I did return to climb the northeastern and northwestern summits. Both in pictures and on maps, they looked like non-technical scrambles (and were, though it was mostly hiking and bushwhacking except for in the summit areas themselves). Tim and I chose Pinnacle Butte NW for our climb because it promised better afternoon views than the other, and, because it was to be Tim's first real off-trail climb of much length or difficulty, we thought it would be the easier of the two (actually, both the scrambling and the bushwhacking were harder).
People who know me and have climbed with me are aware that it is nothing personal, but no matter how good the friends and the climbing are, I need my by-myself time in the mountains. Every time I go on a trip that will have me spending time with others, I build in that solo time when planning, usually at the beginning and end of the trip so that I can meet the mountains on my own terms and leave them on my own terms as well. So as I headed out alone at dawn on July 1, Pinnacle Butte NE my destination, I was excited to have the mountains to myself.
Nonetheless, I was not really by myself. With me went the silent potential of the Great Bear. That day, I neither saw nor heard a grizzly-- didn't even see any obvious signs-- but the grizzly was always with me in my thoughts and affected my movements, especially during the bushwhack from trail to timberline through a forest not yet kissed by news of the day just born.
It was, as I said, an easier climb than Pinnacle Butte NW-- the bushwhacking was simple, as opposed to the negotiation of numerous wrecked trees on very steep terrain the day before, and the Class 3 scrambling was not exposed much at all. But it was hardly a disappointment. Up high in the summit area, I found myself in a Mordor-like terrain of jagged pinnacles and gendarmes and a virtual maze amid dark volcanic breccia. And the solitude, the views...unforgettable. Another mountain on my long list of favorite climbs, and another Absaroka fix to deepen my addiction.
I can't wait for the next rush.
(Just three weeks until salvation)