Wyoming’s Remote Bighorn Mountains: A Kingdom of Rock

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Emerald lakes, lush meadows filled with purple lupines and gold, gray granite abound make this lesser-known climbing spot one of Wyoming's best—but you'll have to venture deep into the alpine to reach some of its most sought-after routes.

In north-central Wyoming is a little-known 1.1 million-acre national forest. With its vast granite and gneiss walls up to 1,200 feet tall, Bighorn National Forest lies east of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, butted up against Montana. It's one of the country's oldest national forests, protected in 1897 by President Grover Cleveland.

In regards to the state’s big three great adventure climbing areas: the Tetons and Wind Rivers, the Bighorns receive the least traffic, according to Susan Douglas, Public Affairs Specialist for the Bighorns. But the area is increasing in popularity.

Longtime first ascensionist Mark Jenkins, who often visits the long alpine routes found in the Cloud Peak Wilderness—within the Bighorns—tells the Co-op Journal, “I’ve done a dozen new routes, from bolt- and pin-free 5.9 to 5.11c, and the most I’ve seen is five people.”

Those five people were hikers on the summit of 13,176-foot Cloud Peak, the highest in the area. Jenkins has established routes on every side of Cloud Peak except the west side, which is a walk up, and says the remoteness adds to the appeal of the area. “There are places that need to be left wild and don’t need to be domesticated."

Douglas adds: “One of the draws of the Cloud Peak Wilderness is the solitude and self-reliance. It’s a refuge from the everyday noise of life.”

Considering the everyday noise these days, there's something to be said for climbing in secluded areas like the Bighorns.

High on the southeast arete of Cloud Peak | Photo: Dougald MacDonald

Though many head to the Bighorns to adventure deep into the wild, there are also more accessible cragging options, especially within the Eastern Big Horns, with much of the climbing (on limestone and Wyoming dolomite) located near Highway 14. There’s even a guidebook to the area, Trevor Bowman’s Rock Climbs of the Eastern Bighorns, which contains 700 routes that range from 5.3 to 5.14.

First visited by climbers in the 1930s due to its sweeping, smooth walls with chicken heads, white dikes and long cracks, the Bighorn Mountains have since been frequented by the likes of Fred Beckey and the late Galen Rowell, in the late 1960s, George Hurley and crew in ‘70s, and Steve Petro and Arno Ilgner in the ‘80s. The ‘90s brought Paul Piana and the late Todd Skinner.

“I love the fantastic wildflowers and the big open alpine meadows,” professional alpinist and all-around climber Josh Wharton says. “It’s a wonderful place to spend time in the mountains with my family. It’s a good place to live a slow, simple life.” One of the highlights of his recent trip included “watching my daughter walk through a giant field of alpine lupines up to her shoulders.”

The south face of Cloud Peak (left) and The Merlon (right) | Photo: Dougald MacDonald

In addition to spending family time in Bighorns, Wharton recently nabbed an ascent of the route Super Fortress on a sub-summit of Cloud Peak called The Merlin. To climb the route, he and his partner hiked in for 6 hours, camped for the night, then fired the route and hiked out in a day. “It’s an incredible 5.11 in the middle of nowhere that would be a well-known classic if it weren’t so remote," he says. (The closest "major" city—Sheridan, Wyoming, population: 18,000—is more than a 1.5-hour car ride away.) "There is lots of potential for good alpine adventures in the Cloud Peak Wilderness, but a willingness to hike is required.”

With these great lines also comes alpine wildness. Marmots and pikas are everywhere at higher elevations, while the alpine lakes are filled with brook, cutthroat and golden trout. The landscape in the Bighorn National Forest varies widely, with altitude ranging from 5,000 feet to more than 13,000. As to be expected in alpine environments, clouds build and the skies open with regularity, dropping rain, hail and snow. Clouds roll in and out of valleys all day, hiding the peaks from view.

“I remember snow pounding on one route for an hour. I was sitting at the belay making snowballs,” Jenkins says. “Eventually, the storm passed and it dried up enough to keep climbing.”

Mark Jenkins hiking up Paint Rock Creek en route to base camp. Photo: Dougald MacDonald

Adding to the challenge of the remoteness and alpine conditions, the climbing season is short, extending from July to September. (So, if you want to hit it this season, the time to go is right now!) Because of the high altitude, such as on 12,982-foot Mt. Woolsey, 12,590-foot Hallelujah and Cloud Peak, it’s cold, even in summer, requiring the use of long underwear, tops and bottoms, all day.

The long routes are at least 8 to 10 miles in. Pack horses are allowed—though lining them up is a challenge, Jenkins made 30 calls before he found a place that would work—which is great for schlepping pack-fulls of ropes and other hardware (and whiskey). But, the terrain is so rough and steep that the horses can only make it so far. To get the last few miles in requires visitors to hoof it themselves, weighed down by everything their pack animals carried.

And some teams carry perhaps more than necessary. Occasionally, climbers hand-place bolts on their routes in the alpine. Jenkins, without trying to sound like a curmudgeon, doesn’t agree with this practice in the Cloud Peak Wilderness. “I bring the tinniest RPs I can find. If I can’t make it, well that’s OK. If you’re going into the mountains, you have to go in with a deeper level of humility.”

5 Eastern Big Horns Classics

According to Mountain Project users

Time in Space (5.11c/d) | Photo submitted by Mountain Project user Clay Stoner

Cragging areas include the popular sport climbs of Ten Sleep Canyon, just outside of Bighorns, and within the national forest are the crags of Crazy Woman, Tongue River Canyon, Piney Creek Canyon and the Shipyard, to name a few. “Don’t miss the Crazy Woman area,” Wharton says. “Lots of great routes with fantastic camping within walking distance of the crags, and it’s generally far less crowded than Ten Sleep.”

Big Bird (5.9, trad)

Big Bird Area, Tongue River Canyon

"My favorite Tongue River Canyon trad line for the varied types of movement."

Sulphur Queen (5.11+)

The Shipyard, Piney Creek Canyon

"A fantastic line! Great job on developing this panel, Terry. It is a true anomaly for the area with wicked steep, juggy climbing."

Second Wind (5.12a)

Second Wind Wall, Piney Creek Canyon

"Great pitch, as good or better than most of the grade in Ten Sleep."

No Way Out (5.12b)

Crazy Woman Cliff, Crazy Woman Crags

"Another limestone classic that looks like crap but is actually quite solid and climbs like a dream. Great pockets, edges and jugs, fun athletic movement, ever steepening, to a 'sting in the tail' heartbreaker move below the anchors."

Super Streak (5.12+)

Second Wind Wall, Piney Creek Canyon

"I was pretty excited to come home and try this rig. Super fun climbing on good edges and pockets leads to a steep, beautiful headwall."

[ed. note: Quotes have been edited for clarity.]

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