Lizard Head is a big peak just to the north and east of the well-known, long and breathtakingly majestic line of mountains, ridges and spires in the Wind River Range, known as the Cirque of the Towers. On one particular trip, we backpacked into the area with two separate groups of 7, via different routes that both came in from the east and took us to Bear Lake. The lake sits just on the east side of Lizard Head and would be the location for our backcountry base camp on that trip.
Once there, we set up two close, but separate camps each located between the lake and mountain with the plan to use them as a base from which to explore the area. Since it was during the Fourth of July holiday, we knew that there’d be a lot of people in the general area, but that few, if any, would venture into that, more out of the way, neck of the woods. Our plans included a non-technical ascent of Lizard Head, fishing in area streams and lakes as well as a special Fourth of July supper, which was to include freeze-dried hamburger patties- a cutting-edge item back in the 80’s.
Once settled into our two camps, we had a chance to scope out the lay of the land and solidify a plan. To that end, we decided to make the Fourth our big day. The plan we devised was to divide the bigger group of fourteen back again into two smaller groups for the day’s activities, giving each person a choice of either fishing or going up the mountain. At the end of that day, we’d all meet up back together to tell tales of the day’s events and have our fine hamburger patty meal. It would simply be a fun and memorable Fourth. Barry (who’d been with me on more than one such excursion before) and I would lead the mountain hiking/climbing group while my old cohort/adventure companion from several past adventures, David Barrow would supervise the other. And so, we organized our teams of teenagers on the evening of July 3, with six plus Barry and myself opting to climb and the other five, along with Barrow, set to fish.
My group, the climbers, got an especially early start. There was a lot of ground to cover and we certainly didn’t want to get caught in an exposed area up high should a summer storm develop in the afternoon. Besides that, we really didn’t know what the climb/hike might actually entail and since we wanted to be back in camp in time for the supper extravaganza, we erred on the cushion side of allowing for what we assumed would be more than enough time to go up, down and then get back to camp.
We began weaving and wandering our way through dense forest almost immediately, as we walked out of camp and headed toward our goal. Within an hour or so, we broke clear of the trees and found ourselves on the lower southern side of the monstrous mountain. Perhaps, the sheer size of what we saw should have discouraged us, but it didn’t. We were going up and nothing we saw, at least at that early point in the game, was going to cause us to turn back. Our plan was, not so simply, to go to the summit. And to that end, after a few minutes of studying the various possible route choices, we found ourselves only getting more confused, and so just started going up. Nothing had really been settled regarding a route, but just putting one foot in front of the other as we moved forward was something we understood and could do.
The peak is a sort of bent, almost tooth-like monolith with a south face that’s broken up by long and apparently, semi-connected ledges. We concocted a loose plan (or more like a vision summary) as we began moving up the first ledge. It was to simply get to the top of that first one and then “go on up from there”. From our vantage point down low, it appeared that at the ledge’s nearly highest point, there might be a way to move from it up onto the next, which would then allow us to get even higher up the face. It seemed reasonable that if that were the case and that the others were similarly connected, we’d be able to continue on in that way, working our way up higher and higher, until we got to the top. If all went as we thought it might, and if the weather held, we’d be up on the summit in time for lunch and back down by mid afternoon. As one of the group leaders and one of the people calling the shots, I was pleased to see what seemed to be a fine plan coming together and in motion.
By the time we reached the lower ledge, the mountain just seemed to have gotten even bigger and the top farther away. Luckily, or not, the bottom ledge was about 30 feet wide, not too steep and mostly covered with grass, so it was something we could reasonably climb/hike up. Again, maybe it would’ve been better if the sheer scope of the mountain looming above us would’ve combined with a ledge that was non-negotiable to stop and turn us back right then, but it didn’t happen.
I did bring along something of a guide book and we stopped so that I could consult it every few minutes, although the few paragraphs describing our general route never seemed to change. Perhaps, I theorized, we were in the midst of discovering some sort of new route, which obviously wouldn’t even be in the book to begin with. During a guide book moment near the top of that first ledge, I looked out at Mitchell Peak across the valley to our south, let the alpine sun soak my face, felt the mountain almost tugging at me from behind, looked around at the helmet covered group doing and experiencing mostly the same things and realized that while getting up to the summit would be nice, it was the climb, itself, that mattered the most. And that, took some pressure off my feeling that we had to get to the top,
After our moment of somewhat confused rest, we turned back to the mountain and started up, once again, even though my thoughts of needing to stand on top had diminished. In retrospect, I think we kept going for the summit out of some sort of habit. We zig-sagged around some tremendous boulders near the top of the ledge, went steeply (but not rock climbing steeply) up a short gulley and then, almost abruptly, found ourselves up on the second ledge. I knew, from having looked at it from down below, that the second one moved up and to the left. Since it was still wide enough to walk up, we did just that. While it was wide, it was more boulder covered, making the going slower. I picked a route that stayed to the upper side of the various boulders, figuring that at least we didn’t want to have one roll and crush one of our people. I was cognizant of the fact that we had a mountain to climb and hamburgers to eat and not a lot of time built into the schedule for dealing with injury.
We consulted the guide book three times while moving up the second ledge. I could look ahead and see that it kept narrowing as we moved higher and farther and anticipated a problem with that. The third ledge, was just above us and headed back and up in the other direction. I kept looking for a way to cut up and get on it, while we still had relatively stable ground beneath us. I could see that while it was craggier, it was still wide enough to accommodate our group and felt like up on it was just where we needed to be. Just as I was giving up hope of finding a reasonable way to get there; a broken-up, almost stair-like series of small boulders appeared that looked to be stable and as if they’d take us right up where we wanted to go. It was almost too good to be true. I kept everyone off to the side and began climbing up, checking the stability, one rock at a time. I was almost astounded. The stack of five rocks was all stuck together in a way that kept them solidly in place and would undoubtedly and somewhat safely get us on up to the next level. And so, we turned right there and moved on up.
Within a few minutes, every one of our group of 8 was up on the third ledge. It was an ideal time and place for lunch, and so we each picked a rock or something to lean against as we sat down, pulled out snacks and water bottles, and in my case, the guide book, and began re-fueling. While our own mountain still seemed no less imposing, we could now look way down into the valley and see Lonesome Lake along with someone’s tent set up not too far to its west. To our south and at about our same elevation, Jackass Pass was obvious where it cut through the ridge between Mitchell and the bulk of the Cirque peaks to its west and north. Pingora jutted up not far north of the pass and off to our west and seemed to almost stick out from the wall of magnificence. Even in July, there was still significant snow scattered all over the tops and in the nooks and crannies of that whole alpine world. Looking down and around, it was obvious how far we’d actually come, although it didn’t necessarily seem that way as I looked back up toward the summit. It was daunting to look up, but I did. And so did everyone else. Everyone began speculating and tossing out ideas about Lizard Head things like where the next ledge led, what the summit ridge might do, what the rock quality was, or how long it might take to get up to the base of the big headwall below the peak. Up to that point, our going had been tedious, slow and tough. And I recognized that just the two-day backpack over mosquito, snow infested and little used trail would’ve stopped most people, before even getting to the mountain. But here we were- not remembering or worrying about any of that or how big the mountain we were on was, but thinking about and studying the possible. At that moment, I realized that we were all in the game, and that was success.
After lunch, we gave the climb a go for an hour or so and wandered our way farther up. Ultimately, the third ledge ended in a complicated series of small headwalls, essentially separating it from the rest of the mountain. At that point, we decided that the time had just caught up with us, along with a few technical situations, so decided to make that our high point. We’d climbed and hiked over half way up the thing (to something over 11000 feet), learned and lived the nuances of the three big ledges on the South Face, tasted its dust as it mixed into our snacks, felt the cold stored in its shade shielded rocks and wondered what the view was like from its summit. And so, we turned our focus back down to thoughts of hamburgers and camp, and began the long walk back, satisfied by where we were.
We’d turned and started back around 1:30. I’d told Barrow we’d be back and meet up with his group at the camp at “about” 4:00. As far as I’d been concerned, 4:00 was never intended to be any sort of firm, intended time, but apparently not so with Barrow. As we began walking, I did the math and could see that we wouldn’t be making our goal time, but wasn’t too concerned because 4:00 was never an exact meet-up/return time for me. I calculated that since it had taken us about 6 hours to get up there, we’d likely be down in about 3, which would mean 4:30. If it took us longer, we still had a good daylight cushion and would be back well before dark. And so, we just walked and talked periodically about various things related to the climb, our camps below, and the hamburgers.
At a little after 5:00, we came over the last rise above camp and could look down and see our Stretch Domes perched out on a wide, rocky ledge below some trees. We’d thought we’d also see scurrying around going on down there as the other group prepared things for the big celebration, but the whole area appeared lifeless.
Almost simultaneously, we all came to the same conclusion and someone verbalized it, blurting out that “they must be over at the other camp”.
We were all satisfied with the explanation, agreed and just kept working our way down. As we neared the camp, the anticipation mounted. Each of us camped at that first and deserted campsite, figured to get our burger packet out of our packs and then we’d all head over to the other camp to begin the festivities. After all, we realized, it had never been determined where the celebration would actually take place. As we entered the camp, we did so confident in how seamlessly it was all working out.
Once there, there was about 30 seconds of silence as people rummaged through their packs and food bags to get their burgers out until the mumbling, moaning, groaning, cussing, near sobbing, and finally screaming began as everyone came to the same conclusion. They were simply gone. The vacuum packs of ground meat was nowhere to be found. I was bewildered. I wouldn’t have been surprised if one person had ended up out there without theirs, but everyone? Mine was even gone. For the moment, I was paralyzed with indecision.
And then, they appeared coming up over the rise from the direction of the other camp. Barrow was in the lead of his well-nourished looking fishing group as they walked into camp.
The group leader stated and queried, “There you all are. Thank Goodness. What happened?”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, exactly, by “what happened”, because in my mind we had just gone up the mountain and come back, arriving well before dark. At this point, I was just trying to figure out the hamburger part, while he was trying to come to grips with the fact that we were back and all in one piece. I was concerned with something our group had once had, while he was thankful for what we did.
We had a celebration of sorts anyway that evening, until it got too cold and everyone went to their tents. There were no hamburgers, but there was hot Jello, individual Snicker Bars to pass around and a special can of Spam to share. There was plenty to ponder, but for the moment, no one did.
Years later, Barrow found a note on a post card stuck into an old guide book that he’d written and left out for us that particular day that said “thought you all lost, have gone for help”. He gave it to me and my pondering was over, except for the part about the hamburgers.