Lizard Head is a prominent peak just north and east of the famous, 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 is 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 campsites, 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 many people in the general area, but 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. Each person chose between fishing or attempting to climb Lizard Head. We intended to meet back together to tell tales and have our highly anticipated hamburger patty meal at the end of that day. 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, Barry, and myself, opting to climb, and the other five, along with Barrow, set to fish. My group got an unusually early start because we had so much ground to cover and didn’t know what the climb/hike would entail. 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.
Our climbing group weaved and wandered as we hiked through thick forest right from the start. Within an hour or so, we broke clear of the trees and found ourselves on the lower southern side of a huge 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 nothing we saw, at least that early in the game, caused us to alter our summit goal. But after a few minutes of studying and discussing the various possible routes, we only got more confused about the climbing options. And so, we just started going up— with nothing settled in that regard and by just putting one foot in front of the other.
The peak is a bent and almost tooth-like monolith with a south face broken up by long, semi-connected ledges (or ramps). Our loosely concocted plan was to follow the lowermost of those ramps as it headed up and to the right. From there, we intended to continue climbing from ledge to ledge until we’d climbed the ones we could and then “go on up from there.” Assuming everything went as hoped, I anticipated we’d be up on the summit in time for lunch and back down to our campsite by midafternoon.
When we arrived at the lowermost of the ramps, the mountain seemed to have become even more massive and the top further away. The bottom one was about 30 feet wide, not too steep, and mostly covered with grass, so 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 guidebook, and we periodically stopped so that I could consult it for pertinent information. However, the few paragraphs that described our general route were somewhat vague. Perhaps, I theorized, we were in the process of discovering some sort of unknown new way to go, which obviously wouldn’t have even been in the book. During a guidebook moment near the top of the first ramp, I looked at Mitchell Peak across the valley and reflected on our situation. I let the alpine sun soak into 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. The realization immediately relieved the pressure I felt of having to get to the top to make the climb a success. It dawned on me that the journey was what mattered most.
After our rest, we turned our focus back to the mountain and started up again. But my thoughts of needing to stand on top had almost completely diminished. The mountain climb was now about the process and not the summit. We zig-zagged around some huge boulders near the top of the first ramp, went steeply (but not rock climbing steeply) up a short gully, and suddenly found ourselves on the second ramp. Looking at it from below, I knew it was wide enough to walk and that it turned back to the left. While it was almost as wide as the lower one, it was more boulder-covered, making the going slower. I picked a route 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 that we had a mountain to climb, hamburgers to eat, and little time built into the schedule for dealing with an injury.
I consulted the guidebook, to no avail, three times as we continued moving up. The second 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 the third one, though craggier, 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 stable and as though they’d lead us directly 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 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 for lunch 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 and a tent not too far to its west. To our south and at about the same elevation, Jackass Pass was visible. It 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 the line of magnificent Cirque peaks.
Even though it was July, significant snow remained scattered across the summits and in the nooks and crannies of the alpine world. Looking down and around, I could see how much distance we’d covered, although it didn’t seem to be that much compared to how far away our summit still seemed. It was daunting to look up, but I did so anyway, as did the others. Rather than being intimidated by the scope of it all, everyone began speculating and tossing out ideas regarding Lizard Head’s summit. Things like where the next ramp led, the rock quality, 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 laborious. I recognized that just the two-day backpack we’d done to get us to our Bear Lake campsite would’ve 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.
“But here we are, despite all that,” I thought. The group members seemed to have forgotten about the travails of the hike-in. And now, it had become evident that they weren’t intimidated by the mountain we were on. Rather than discussing the impossibilities we faced, they considered and studied the possible. At that moment, I recognized that everyone was in the “mountain climbing game.” The mountain’s nuances and the climb had become their principal goal. Getting to the summit was still important but no longer critical to our climb’s success. Thank goodness, I realized, the bottom ramp had been big enough to get us up onto the mountain to begin with.
After lunch, we gave the climb a go for an hour or so. We wandered farther up but only to a spot well below the summit. Ultimately, the third ramp ended in a complicated series of small headwalls, separating it from the rest of the mountain. At that point, we decided that we’d just run out of time and had encountered some unsafe and tricky technical situations. So we chose to make our “high point” two-thirds of the way up the third ramp. We’d climbed and hiked over halfway up and experienced the intricacies 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 to thoughts of hamburgers and camp and began the long walk back, satisfied with where we’d gone.
When we stopped climbing and started back, it was almost 1:30 pm. 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 the case with Barrow. In planning, I had calculated it would take us 6 hours to get to the summit and 3 to get down. So, if we left at 7:30, I figured we’d be back by 4:30. And even if it took us longer, we’d 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.
A little after 5:00, we came over the last rise above camp, looked down, and saw our Stretch Dome tents perched on a rocky ledge just below a big clump of trees. We thought we’d also see some scurrying 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 kept working our way down to the campsite. The plan for after our arrival was for those camped at the deserted campsite to get their burger packets out. Then, the whole climbing group would head to the other campsite to begin the festivities.
Once we arrived at the deserted camp, there were about 30 seconds of verbal 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. As they walked up, Barrow was in the lead of his well-nourished-looking fishing group. As he neared, he said, “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 a physical thing our group members once possessed, while he was thankful we were alive and well.
Even though there were no burgers, 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 to ponder about the day’s events. 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, and it 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 during that trip was about the crucial importance of priorities.