Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The Climbing of Mount Hooker

"It's time," came the voice outside my tent in a half whisper but instantly I was awake and adrenalin already starting to course through my body. It was still pitch black out but I packed my summit pack by memory and feel and stepped outside the tent into the cool mountain air. My father had the gas stove going and a pancake already cooking when I got to the kitchen area, which consisted of some flat rocks along Baptiste Creek. The day before we had climbed up the Creek drainage to Baptiste Lake and has fished for trout in the crystal blue waters so clear you could see the fish swimming forty feet below you. But this morning we ate our breakfast, did some quick dishes, made sure camp was in good order and set off into the darkness in the direction of the huge monolith known as Mount Hooker.

Mount Hooker is an amusingly named mountain that straddles the Continental Divide deep in the wilderness of Wyoming's Wind River Range. It consists of the highest unbroken vertical face in Wyoming and one of the largest in the entire Rocky Mountains with a massive plateau summit close to one hundred acres in size that was carved from high plateaus by glaciers. The ancient plateau surface is covered in boulders of frost-shattered felsenmeer and in two places is connected to surrounding peaks by steep ridges and faces. Wyoming's Wind River Range runs southeast from its intersection with the Absaroka Mountains at Togwotee Pass to South Pass, where the Continental Divide yields to the rolling hills and sagebrush desert of the Great Divide Basin. Nearly the entire range is wilderness totaling roughly 1 million acres, without a single road crossing or even entering the entire range.

We begin to climb the drainage towards Hailey's Pass for a while until we get to the lower slopes of Mount Hooker. The steep sixty-degree grassy slope salted with large boulders provides fairly easy climbing as we start our accent in dawn's early light. By the time we reach the south face slabs along the often overlooked southern scrambling route, the sky is an eggshell blue even though the sun is still caught behind a mountain on the east side of the valley. We pause for a moment to catch our breath and then begin hiking further up among the rocks.

In 1877, a scientific expedition hosted by Ferdinand Hayden (first director of the U.S. Geological Survey) to the Rocky Mountains was lead by an American botanist Asa Gray and English naturalist Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker. Thought out the later half of the nineteenth century, Joseph Hooker would lead scientific explorations around the globe to Antarctica, the Himalayas, Africa, Australia and the Middle East, which would dramatically increase our understanding of the taxonomic and geographical distribution of plants. He served for a while as president of the Royal Society and his life's accomplishments resulted in their attachment of names to Mt. Hooker and Gray's Peak.

We came to the hardest part of our climb where the ramp narrowed down to only ten feet with huge vertical drops off to each side. Our way was blocked by a huge slab of boulder, that was tilted slightly towards one of those vertical drops and tilted sharply along the slope of the mountain, that could only be scaled by friction walking up it and relying on the your weight holding the rubber sole of your boot to the rough granite surface. It was fairly easy going up but I was certain it would be more than a little spooky on our way back down. Soon we had topped out on the plateau and after taking drinks from puddles of the sweetest, purest tasting water caught in hollows of the boulders from last night's rain, we were boulder hopping our way to the summit.

W.O. Owen would claim the first ascent in 1890 of Mount Hooker but since naming conventions for the mountains have undergone many changes over the years, his ascent is uncertain. The previous location for Mt. Hooker may have been the current Dike Mountain (I'm not making this up folks), which is named for it's mafic intrusion. Owen was known for leaving his name chiseled into a summit rock and there isn't one on either of the mountains, which casts even more doubt on his first ascent claim. The vertical North Face was first climbed in 1964 by a group of climbers from California that included Royal Robbins. Now a number of routes exist on this face, all are difficult due to the discontinuous crack systems.

I looked at my watch, which registered just past ten o'clock in the morning, and then back up to see the magnificent view that was spread out before me from the summit of Mount Hooker. A slight wind was blowing from the west but still enough to chill us in the higher elevations where we currently were. We feasted on the view for a while before hunkering down in the sun filled rocks on the east side out of the wind to munch on an early lunch and to absorb the experience. Every now and then when we were good and toasty warm from the suns rays upon the baking stone like granite rocks, we would re-climb back up to the summit to view the world around us. It was beautiful.

We did this for slightly over two hours before the first wisps of clouds appeared on the western horizon signaling the coming of the normal afternoon thunderstorms. We headed down the way we have come, successfully navigating the friction rock that was very spooky as I had predicted and made our way down the mountain. Just as we climbed into the less steep drainage leading away from Hailey pass, the first big fat drops of rain began to pelt us as we made our way back to camp several miles away. I didn't mind. I still had the view from the summit of Mount Hooker replaying in my mind.

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