Hamburgers and Lizard Head

A group of backpackers attempts to climb Lizard Head and learns the true meaning of climbing.

Pingora, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming

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 Wyoming’s Wind River Range, known as the Cirque of the Towers. On one particular Outpost Wilderness Adventure trip, we backpacked with two groups of 7, via different routes that both came in from the east to Bear Lake. The lake sits just on the east side of Lizard Head and would be the location for our backcountry base camp. 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 particular neck of the woods. Our plan included a non-technical ascent of the nearby mountain, fishing in area streams and lakes, and a special Fourth of July supper, which was to include freeze-dried hamburger patties- a cutting edge item back in the ’80s.

Once settled into our two camps, we had a chance to scope out the lay of the land and firm up the plan. To that end, we not unsurprisingly decided to make the Fourth our big activity day. We divided our combined group of fourteen into two smaller groups for the special day’s activities, with each person choosing between either fishing or going up Lizard Head. At the end of the day, we intended to meet back together to tell tales of the day’s events and have our highly anticipated hamburger patty meal. We expected it to 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, David Barrow would supervise the other. And so, we organized our teams of teenagers on the evening of July 3, with six group members in addition to Barry and myself opting to climb and the other five, along with Barrow, set to fish.

My group got an especially early start since there was so much ground for us to cover. And besides that, we really didn’t know what the climb/hike up actually entailed 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 back to camp.

We began weaving and wandering our way through dense forest almost immediately as we walked out of camp headed toward our goal. Within an hour or so, we broke clear of the trees and found ourselves on the lower southern side of a monstrous mountain. Perhaps, the sheer size of what we saw should’ve discouraged us, but it didn’t. We were going up and nothing we saw, at least that early in the game, was going to cause us to turn back. Our plan was, not so simply, to climb to the summit. And so, after a few minutes of studying and discussing the various possible routes we found ourselves only getting more confused, and thus, just started going up— with nothing really settled, except for the need to just put one foot in front of the other.

The peak is a sort of bent and an almost tooth-like monolith with a south face that’s broken up by long, only semi-connected ledges or ramps. Our loosely concocted plan was to follow the lowermost one up as it headed up and to the right and then “go on up from there.” From our vantage point down low, it appeared that at the lower ramp’s highest point, there was a way to move from it up onto the next one, which would then lead us even higher. It seemed reasonable that, if that same sort of connection continued happening with the ramps, we might be able to keep moving on up in that way until we got to the top. If all went as we hoped and if the weather held, we’d be up on the summit in time for lunch and then back down to our camp by midafternoon.

By the time we reached the lowermost of the ramps, the mountain somehow seemed to have gotten even more massive and the top farther away. Luckily, or not, the bottom ramp was about 30 feet wide, not too steep, and mostly covered with grass, meaning that it could be easily negotiated by everyone in the group. Maybe it would’ve been better if at that point the sheer scope of it all would have combined with an unnegotiable ramp to turn us back, but that’s not what happened.

I did bring along a guide book, and we stopped periodically so that I could consult, although the few paragraphs that described our general route were somewhat vague. Perhaps, I theorized, we were in the process of discovering some sort of new route, which obviously wouldn’t have even been in the book, to begin with. During a guide book moment near the top of the first ramp, I looked out at Mitchell Peak across the valley and found myself reflecting on our situation. I let the alpine sun soak my face and could almost feel the mountain tugging at me from behind. I looked around at the helmet covered group of novices doing pretty much the same things that I was and realized that while getting to the summit would be nice, it was the climb, itself, that mattered the most. I knew what I was feeling and hoped they were experiencing the same. And the thought immediately relieved the pressure off of my feeling that we needed to get to the top for the climb to be a success.

After our moment of 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 that by this time we kept going for the summit out of some sort of habit. We zig-zagged around some huge boulders near the top of the ramp, went steeply (but not rock climbing steeply) up a short gulley, and then found ourselves up on the second one. I knew, from having looked at it from down below, that the second one moved up and back to the left. Since it was still wide enough to walk up, we did just that. While it was almost as wide as the lower one, it was more boulder covered which made the going slower. I picked a route that stayed to the upper side of the boulders, figuring that at least we didn’t want to have one of them roll and then crush one of our people. I was mindful 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 an injury.

I consulted the guide book three times as we continued moving up. The ramp kept narrowing as we moved higher and further and I anticipated a problem with that. I looked for a way to get up on the third one, which was just above us before the narrowing became a real problem and while we still had relatively stable ground to walk on. Even though it was craggier, it was still wide enough to accommodate our group and so, seemed to be where we needed to be. Just as I was giving up hope of finding a reasonable way to get up on it, an almost stair-like series of small boulders appeared that looked to be stable and as though they’d take us right up to 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 astounded. The stack of five rocks was all stuck together in a way that kept them solidly in place, and I was convinced that they would undoubtedly and somewhat safely get us on up to the next level. And so, we turned and climbed the staircase up to the third one.

Within a few minutes, each person in our group of 8 was up on the ramp. Since it was time to eat and we were at a good stopping place, we each picked a rock or something to lean against, pulled out snacks and water bottles, and began refueling. We avoided looking up at Lizard Head as we sat there but instead looked everywhere else. Down in the valley directly below we could 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 visible 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 protrude 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, we could see how far we’d actually come, although it didn’t necessarily seem all that far as I looked back up toward the summit. It was daunting to look up, but after a while, I did it anyway as did the others. Almost immediately, everyone began speculating and tossing out ideas about Lizard Head. Things like where the next ramp led, 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 that we’d done to get us to our Bear Lake campsite over snowy, mosquito infested, and seldom used trail would’ve stopped most people before they even got 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 recognized that we were all in the game– and that was real success. Thank goodness, I realized, the bottom ramp had been big enough to get us up onto the mountain.

After lunch, we gave the climb a go for an hour or so and wandered our way farther up, but far below the summit. Ultimately, the third ramp ended in a complicated series of small headwalls which essentially separated it from the rest of the mountain. At that point, we decided that time had just caught up and passed us by and that we had run into a few unsafe and tough technical situations and chose to make two-thirds of the way up the third ramp our high point. We’d climbed and hiked over half-way up the thing (to something over 11,000 feet) and experienced the nuances of the three big ledge-like ramps on the South Face. We had tasted the mountain’s 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 with where we’d gone.

We stopped climbing, turned, and started back around 1:30. I’d told Barrow that 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, written in stone time, but that was apparently not so with Barrow. As we began walking, I did the math and realized that we wouldn’t be making our approximate goal time, but wasn’t too concerned because 4:00 was never an exact meet-up/return time as far as I was concerned. I calculated that since it’d 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 get back well before dark. And so, we just walked and talked periodically about various things related to the climb, our campsites, and the hamburgers.

At a little after 5, we came over the last rise above camp and could look down and see our Stretch Dome tents perched out on a wide and rocky ledge below some trees. We thought that 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 with each other, and just kept working our way down. As we neared the camp, the anticipation mounted. Each of us that had camped at that first (and deserted) campsite, planned to first get our burger packet out of our packs and then our whole climbing team would head over to the other camp to begin the festivities with the others. After all, we realized, it’d never been determined where or when the celebration would actually take place.

Once we were down, there were about 30 seconds of silence as people rummaged through their packs and food bags to get their burgers out until the mumbling, cussing, near sobbing, and finally screaming began as everyone came to the same conclusion. They were simply gone. The vacuum packs of ground meat were nowhere to be found. I was bewildered. I wouldn’t have been surprised if one person had ended up without theirs, but everyone? Mine was even gone. For the moment, I was paralyzed with indecision.

And then, the other group 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 Fishing Group leader stated and queried, “There you all are. Thank goodness. What happened?”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, by “what happened,” because in my mind we’d 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 that our group members had once had in their possession, while he was thankful that we were there.

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 about what had taken place, but for that moment in time, no one did.

Years later, Barrow found and gave me a postcard with a note on it that he’d written and then left out for us on that particular day that said: “thought you all lost, have gone for help.” He gave it to me, and it reinforced what I’d been thinking all those years, although it did little to explain the hamburger part.

Tents on snow

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.