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 up to Bear Lake. The lake sits just on the east side of Lizard Head and was the location for our backcountry base camp. Once there, we set up two close but separate camps, each located between the lake and the mountain. The plan was to use each as a base for exploring and adventuring in 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 would venture into that particular neck of the woods. And, as a special Fourth of July treat, we brought along 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 a plan. To that end, we 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 attempting to climb Lizard Head. At the end of that day, we intended to meet back together to tell tales 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. My old adventure cohort, David Barrow, would supervise the other. And so, we organized our teams 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. Because there was so much ground to cover and we didn’t know what the climb/hike would entail, my group got an unusually early start. And besides that, since we wanted to be back in camp in time for the supper extravaganza, we allowed for more than enough time to go up, down, and then back.

Right from the start, the climbing group weaved and wandered through thick forest. Within an hour or so, we broke clear of the trees and found ourselves on the lower southern side of a humongous mountain. Perhaps, the sheer size of what we saw should’ve discouraged us, but it didn’t. We intended to go to the top, and there was nothing we saw, at least that early in the game, that was going to cause us to alter our summit goal. But after a few minutes of studying and discussing the various possible routes, we found ourselves only getting more confused as to the climbing options. And so, we just started going up— with nothing settled in that regard, and simply putting 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 of those as it headed up and to the right. And finally, we’d “go on up from there.” From our vantage point down low, it appeared that from the lower ramp’s highest point, we could go on up to 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 reached the top. If all went as hoped and if the weather held, I anticipated we could be up on the summit in time for lunch and then back down to our campsite by midafternoon.

By the time we arrived at the lowermost of the ramps, the mountain seemed to have become even more massive and the top further away. The bottom ramp was about 30 feet wide, not too steep, and mostly covered with grass, which meant that everyone in the group could easily negotiate it. 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 periodically stopped so that I could consult it, 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. 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 climbing novices and realized that while getting to the summit would be nice, it was the whole process of the climb itself that mattered the most. I knew what I was feeling and hoped they were experiencing the same thing. The thought immediately relieved the pressure I felt of needing 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. But my thoughts of needing to stand on top had almost completely diminished. Even so, we kept going for the summit, probably out of some sort of habit. We zig-zagged around some huge boulders near the top of that first ramp, went steeply (but not rock climbing steeply) up a short gully, and suddenly found ourselves on the second ramp. From having looked at it from down below, I could see that it turned 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 big rocks, figuring that at least we didn’t want to have one of them roll and 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 I anticipated a problem with that. I looked for a way to get onto the third one before the narrowing became a real problem, and while we still had relatively stable ground to walk on. I could see that even though it was craggier, it was still wide enough to accommodate our group. Just as I was about to give up hope of finding a reasonable way to get up on it, an almost stair-like series of small boulders appeared. They looked to be stable and as though they’d lead 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 all up to the next level. And so, we turned and went up the staircase.

Within a few minutes, each person in our group of 8 was up on the ramp. Since it was time to eat at that point and we were at a good stopping place, we pulled out snacks and water bottles and began refueling. Most everyone avoided looking up toward the top of 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. It appeared to almost cut its way through the ridge between Mitchell and the Cirque peaks to its north. Pingora jutted up not far north of the pass and off to our west and seemed to be protruding from that line of magnificent peaks.

Even in July, there was still significant snow scattered across the summits and in the nooks and crannies of that alpine world. Looking down and around, I could see how much distance we’d covered, although it didn’t seem to be all that far when compared to how far away the summit still seemed to be. It was daunting to look up, but after a while, I did it anyway, as did the others. Rather than being intimidated by the scope of it all, everyone began speculating and tossing out ideas about the summit of 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. Up to that point, the going had been tedious, slow, and tough. I recognized that the two-day backpack itself that we’d done to get us to our Bear Lake campsite would have stopped most people before they’d even gotten to the mountain. We’d post-holed through knee-deep snow, dealt with clouds of mosquitoes, and spent an undue amount of time looking for a seldom-used trail. Nonetheless, here we were, I thought. The group members seemed to have forgotten about all of that, and it was in the past. And now, it had become evident that they weren’t intimidated by the mountain we were on. Rather than talking about the impossibilities we faced, they were considering and studying the possible. At that moment, I recognized that everyone was in the “mountain climbing game”– which 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. We wandered our way farther up, but well 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 and experienced the nuances of the three big ledge-like ramps on its South Face. We’d tasted the mountain’s dust as it mixed into our snacks, felt the cold stored in its shade shielded rocks, and envisioned the wonder of its summit vista. And so, our group of suddenly experienced mountain climbers 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 was concerned, 4:00 was never intended to be any sort of firm, written-in-stone time, but that was not so with Barrow. 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. And even if it took us longer, we would still have an ample 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 5:00, we came over the last rise above camp and looked down and saw our Stretch Dome tents perched on a rocky ledge just below a big clump of trees. We thought that we’d also see some scurrying around going on as the other group prepared things for the big celebration, but the whole area was lifeless.

Almost simultaneously, we all came to the same conclusion, and someone verbalized it, blurting out that “they must be over at the other campsite.”

We were all satisfied with the explanation, agreed with each other, and just kept working our way down. As we neared the tents and packs, the anticipation mounted. Everyone camped at the deserted campsite planned to get their burger packet out, first. And then, at that point, our whole group would head over to the other campsite to begin the festivities with the others.

Once we were back at the first camp, there were about 30 seconds of silence as people rummaged through their packs and food bags to retrieve their burgers. But then, 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. 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, indecision paralyzed me.

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 up.

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 celebrated 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. As we sat around on logs and rocks, soaking in the moment, there was plenty about the day’s events to ponder. The way it had all unfolded was complicated, but the candy bars weren’t. And so we just ate.

Years later, Barrow found a note on a postcard that he’d written and left out for us on that particular day that said: “thought you all lost, have gone for help.” He explained why they never went for help and then gave it to me. It reinforced what I’d been thinking all those years, although it did little to explain why his group ate our hamburgers. The biggest lesson I learned that trip was about the crucial importance of priorities.

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.

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