Re: Wyoming Article
Posted: Tue Aug 03, 2010 11:49 pm
Part I – The Tetons
By Bob Leverett
I will begin my Wyoming Rendezvous with a question. What is high in elevation, wide in longitude, and very windy? The title suggests the answer. Yes, it is Wyoming, the Cowboy State. I have long wanted to write about Wyoming, detailing my connections to its high, wide, and windy terrain -- and by the way, high, wide, and windy is not an original description of mine. It is the title of an old National Geographic article about the state. As I recall, the article was light-weight, but the title stuck with me. The author had deduced the incontestable physical and climatic features of Wyoming.
Wyoming is one of the six Rocky Mountain States. Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho make up the club. Geographically speaking, Wyoming is a large state, occupying 97,818 square miles. Relatively speaking, how large is this? If we compare the land area of Wyoming and Massachusetts (excluding coastal waters of the Bay State), it would take 12 Massachusetts’s to fit into one Wyoming. On the other hand, it would take 2.7 Wyomings to equal one Texas. For those unable to visualize Wyoming’s size, a state measuring 312 miles wide by 312 miles long would contain 97,344 square miles.
In terms of population, another measure of size, the Cowboy State is the least densely populated state in the U.S.A. It barely musters 5 people per square mile. It also has the lowest actual population with 544,209 as estimated by the Census Bureau in 2009. By comparison, in terms of population density: Alaska has 13; Colorado 48; Texas 67; California 234; 810 for Massachusetts, and a whopping 1,134 people per square mile for New Jersey. God bless Wyoming. May its spaciousness prevail in the decades to come.
Back to physical characteristics, which allows me to introduce the snooty western elevation club. Wyoming ranks second in the U.S.A. in mean elevation. The Cowboy State averages 6,700 feet above sea level. Only Colorado, at 6,800 feet, is higher. Utah is 3rd at 6,100 feet, followed by New Mexico at 5,700, Nevada at 5,500, and Idaho at 5,000. These are all the states with a mean elevation of 5,000 feet or more – a very exclusive club. For further comparison, the highest eastern state is West Virginia at 1,500 feet.
The above are state-wide averages. What about individual high and low points? The highest mountain in Wyoming is Gannett Peak at 13,804 feet based on NGVD 29 or 13,809 feet using the new vertical model – NAVD 88. NGVD and NAVD are systems for establishing a base point for measuring altitudes on the Earth. NAVD is the latest system and requires a change of elevation that depends on latitude and longitude. The Internet has plenty of material on the two systems and a formula for converting between the old and new systems.
To get an even better feel for Wyoming’s physical loftiness, the lowest point in the State is approximately 3,099 feet. Let’s put that low point into context. Mount Davis, Pennsylvania’s highest summit, is only 114 feet higher than the Cowboy state’s lowest elevation. I’m not picking on the Keystone State, which I like a lot -- merely illustrating how far up into the sky Wyoming floats.
What about climate? Wyoming is not known for having a desirable climate. Its weather can be ferocious. The high plains can bake in the mid-day summer sun. Temperatures in the 100s are rare, but the 90s are fairly common. However, everything changes when old Sol drops below the horizon. Summer nights are cool. That is a positive. But then come the winters. Temperatures as low as 66 degrees below zero Fahrenheit have been recorded in the state. Then there are the high plains blizzards, which can be life threatening. The Interstates have points where travelers must turn around if the snow becomes heavy and/or the wind gets too strong. So, Wyoming weather is not to be taken for granted, either in extremes or averages, but some of its citizens are proud of the ruggedness of their climate. Big Piney, Wyoming vies with Fraser, Colorado and Embarrass, Minnesota as the coldest incorporated town in the lower 48. Pinedale is not far behind Big Piney, and you don’t want to even know what the weather can be like in Yellowstone. All this said, I would not want to scare anyone off with the intimidating weather statistics. One can encounter worse weather phenomena in Minnesota.
Wyoming has long been a playground for Americans. It boasts the oldest national park in the nation. Of course that is Yellowstone, created in 1872. This one- of-a-kind national park covers an impressive 2,219,789 acres and contains the planet’s largest collection of geysers, fumaroles, steaming pools, and mud pots. Yellowstone was once called Colter’s Hell based on the descriptions that John Colter brought back, actually of a different area on the Shoshoni River near current day Cody, Wyoming. John Colter may not have ever actually seen Yellowstone, but the legend lives on.
Just south of Yellowstone another jewel is to be found. Grand Teton National Park offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the lower 48 and adds 309,995 acres to the protected pool of land that is off limits to exploitation. But the protected land in the national parks and monuments does not tell the whole story. Outside the parks, Wyoming boasts 3,111,000 acres of Federal Wilderness. If all Wyoming’s statutorily protected land, Federal and State, is added up, the total exceeds 6,000,000 acres. However, citing the fully protected acreage falls far short of conveying the entire story of Wyoming’s spaciousness and lack of development, especially when comparisons are made to other states. To fully understand what Wyoming has to offer requires that we travel around the state sampling its geographical, historical, and cultural features as we go. Only then can we fully appreciate the high, wide, and windy description that has been given to the Cowboy State.
It will not take readers long to gather that I am an unabashed fan of Wyoming. My earliest connections to Wyoming date to my youth when I read a national park book that my family owned. The book is ‘National Parks Portfolio’, published in 1928. I would stare at the pictures of the geysers and Yellowstone Falls and long to see them. The seeds of my western connection were sown.
My physical connection to the Cowboy State began in 1965 when I first visited there. At the time I was stationed at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. The Black Hills had become a favored haunt of mine, but after a year, I realized that the scenic Hills, as good as they were, didn’t afford me the taste of really big mountains that I longed for. I needed to forge a connection to high, glaciated peaks such as those I’d seen in the national parks book. One day I got out a Wyoming road map and looked for places with big mountains within reasonable driving distance. As a single, second lieutenant I had neither much money nor time. I needed locations I could reach within a few hours driving time.
While looking at the road map, the elevation of Cloud Peak in the Big Horns caught my attention. The Big Horn range of the Rockies was only 220 miles away. And there was a particular number that jumped out at me: 13,165, the listed elevation of Cloud Peak. The map also showed Powder River Pass at 9,666 feet and U.S. 16 going right over it. Those were real mountains and I could handle the drive to get to them. I sensed some latent connection to the Big Horn country that needed to be activated. So, on the first opportunity, a fellow airman and I headed toward Buffalo, Wyoming. I began exploring and climbing in earnest in that isolated, but beautiful range in the summer of 1965. My initial visit cemented a love affair that grew steadily over the next 3 years. Then I moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1968 (F.E. Warren AFB) and lived there for a year, before being shipped overseas. While in Cheyenne, I became introduced to the Laramie and Medicine Bow Mountain Ranges. The Snowy Range part of the Medicine Bows became my new high altitude haunt. In addition, my daughter Celeste was born in Cheyenne in December 1968. With that blessed event, my bond with Wyoming was sealed forever.
Since those early days, I’ve returned to Wyoming on visits at least 18 times, and so long as the body is able and the mind reasonably coherent, I’ll return as often as I can. I have come to accept that the Wyoming experience is an essential part of who I perceive myself to be. It isn’t about a nice place to vacation; high, wide, and windy is imprinted in the very fabric of my cells.
How about my wife? By contrast, Monica is a relative newcomer to the Cowboy State. Her introduction to Wyoming came in 2005 with our first joint visit. On our first night in Wyoming, we camped among the rocks of Vedauwoo, west of Cheyenne. Monica was recovering from a cold and sinus infection. The 8,600-foot altitude was not a pleasant experience for her. She had trouble breathing and had to sit up in the tent. I wish we had not chosen to camp that night. However, since that less than ideal introduction to Wyoming for Monica, we’ve returned 4 times. I think Monica is becoming attached to at least parts of Wyoming. Some of the wide-open spaces have yet to win her heart, but in time, I think they will be seen as part of the fabric of the high, wide, and windy Wyoming landscape. Meanwhile stellar attractions like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Medicine Bow, the Wind Rivers, and the Big Horns are calling to her. She especially likes a place called Popo Agie in the southern Wind Rivers. Monica frequently talks about the unique underground dive that the middle fork of the Popo Agie River takes in Sinks Canyon.
With the above introduction to Wyoming, I will now turn to a particular place – one internationally famous. We will begin with a tour of Wyoming’s incomparable Grand Teton National Park.
The Teton Mountains, centerpiece of the National Park, are a range of the North American Rocky Mountain chain. They extend for about 40 miles, not long for a range, but owe, what they offer! For many of us, the Tetons define visual mountain drama.
I will, start with an image that is iconic – the material of postcards. However, unlike postcard brevity, I will attempt to provide an interpretation of the image – perhaps heavy on numbers, for which I apologize in advance.
The high peak in the center of the image is the famous Grand Teton, Wyoming’s second highest mountain. It rises abruptly to an altitude of 13,775 feet. I should explain this elevation to those of you who are accustomed to seeing other figures. The 13,775-foot elevation is based on the new NAVD 88 system for establishing a common base point for taking elevations. It also takes into better account the Earth’s actual shape. The old NGVD 29 altitude for the Grand is 13,770 feet. An even older figure placed the Grand at 13,767 feet, and I have seen other numbers such as 13,772. The correct elevation is 13,775.
In the foreground, the 1,040-mile long Snake River flows by the Tetons from its source in Yellowstone’s Absorakas on its way to a union with the mighty Columbia River. The Snake is one of only a handful of 1000-mile long rivers in the U.S.A. The river corridor is seen in the above image lined with trees. At this location the surface of the water lies at about 6,550 feet – as best as I could determine with my GPS.
The Grand’s full altitude and the elevation of the Snake at the specified point give rise to an important statistic. The river to summit elevation gain is at least 7,225 feet by my calculation, and most of the change is very abrupt. This is about as quick an elevation change as you can get in the Rockies within the lower 48 states. The reason is because the eastern side of the Tetons is without foothills, fairly typical in fault-block mountains – a geological process where slippage along a fault line abruptly raises a section of the land. The visual impact of such abruptness is most dramatic. More to the point, it provides stunning scenery, and for me, is literally mesmerizing.
Back to the image. The pyramidal, pointed peak to the right of the Grand is Mount Owen (12,933 feet). Owen is the second highest summit in the Tetons. To the right of Owen is Teewinot at 12,330 feet. Teewinot is a Shoshoni word meaning pinnacles. Again, the elevations are all NAVD 88. For the latitudes and longitudes of these peaks, subtract 5 feet to get back to NGVD 29.
The peak to the left of the Grand is the Middle Teton at 12,813 feet, and the southern most of the three Tetons is seen just to the left of the Middle Teton. It is partly obscured by closer peaks. The South Teton reaches to 12,518 feet. The three peaks were visualized as ‘breasts’ by the early French trappers and the Native Americans who visited the region. The grand was the largest breast. So much for the wishful thinking of those early French fur trappers.
Let’s now have a close up look at the Grand and its alpine entourage. I will present it without further commentary, except to point out that the pocket of white about 1/3 of the way down from the summit of the Grand is the Teton’s largest mountain glacier. Its dimensions are approximately 3,500 feet in length and 1,100 feet wide. There are 12 active glaciers in the Tetons.
Thinking geologically, and as previously mentioned, the Tetons are an example of a fault-block formation, and according to current geological thinking, the Tetons are still growing. Geologists currently date the range to between 6 and 9 million years before the present. The Laramide Orogeny for most of the Rockies is given as beginning around 70,000,000 years ago. Obviously, the oft-repeated descriptions of the formation of all the Rockies as dating back to the Laramide period are far too simplistic. For example, the age if Utah’s Wasatch is thought to be about 20,000,000 years. Colorado’s San Juan Range have both an older and much more recent history –- the latter epic born of volcanic fire and ash repeatedly between 25 and 35 million years ago.
Regardless of these disparate time periods, geologists appear to be in agreement that the Tetons are one of the youngest ranges of the Rockies, if not the youngest. You can almost feel their youth when gazing into the long line of summits standing tall on the western horizon as seen from Jackson Hole. The peaks seem to reach out to us, challenging us to try to ignore them. We can’t. They are too dominant, too powerful. However, the more recent creation of mountain range and the ages of their exposed rocks are different matters. The exposed bedrock of the Tetons is about 2.5 billion years old. That is nearly half the age of the Earth.
Understandably, the visual attractiveness of the Tetons has made them a popular vacation destination. Over 2,500,000 people visit them annually. World-class mountaineers accept the challenge of the rock faces. Hikers discover alpine lakes, hidden canyons, and solitude. Other visitors only lightly sample the sights, preferring to lounge in the stylish town of nearby Jackson. Then there are the skiers. The Tetons boast the longest ‘continuous vertical descent’ to be found among American ski resorts. It is the 4,139-foot vertical drop at Teton Village. There are three other ski resorts in the U.S.A with a total drop of over 4,000 feet. One is in Montana and two are in Colorado. Telluride, Colorado is listed as 4,425 feet and number one in the U.S.A. However, comparisons are often not what they seem. Ski resorts play with the numbers. Apparently, there is more to the eye in terms of the quoted vertical drops. Than what is advertised for marketing purposes.
While the Teton summits steal the show, Jackson Hole to the east is an impressive mountain valley not to be ignored. It lies between the Tetons on the west and the Gros Ventres on the east. The valley is 48 miles long and 8 to 15 miles wide. The valley has a long, colorful human history, but more importantly now, the valley is the winter sanctuary for North America’s largest elk herd. The elk summer in the high country and then migrate to the valleys when winter sets in. I have only seen pictures of the wintering herds. Maybe one day Monica and I will visit Jackson Hole in the winter. But there are plenty of other big game animals to capture the attention and imagination. The Tetons are home to moose, mule deer, antelope, black bear, mountain lion, and yes, grizzly bear. As a consequence of the giant bear, campgrounds can be exciting places. Food must be properly stored or a very large intimidating visitor may relieve you of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a very unceremonious way. Each year, problem bears must be destroyed to protect campers. It is a sobering thought to wake up to the sound of a grizzly bear intent on making you both the main course and desert.
Our approach to the Tetons, this year, was via Idaho. We entered Jackson Hole from the west, crossing 8,431-foot Teton Pass. The approach through idyllic Swan Valley reminded me that there are so many beautiful, but unheralded places in the West that one never need visit the popular places to find beauty and solitude – or big trees. The following image shows an old Douglas fir near Pine Creek Pass. I measured it to 12.1 feet in girth and 116 feet in height. I estimate its age to be around 300 years. There were other large firs in the vicinity, but they were all isolated trees. The area shows the signs of past logging operations. In fact most of the region we traveled through getting to the Tetons has been logged either lightly or heavily, but even where past logging was heavy, places were spared due to the rugged character of the terrain. Ruggedness is the central distinguishing feature of the western mountains when compared to eastern summits. The younger western mountains are far rugged and consequently have many places where accessibility is an issue. This affords me unlimited opportunity to find at least isolated trees that speak to the glory of forests past. At least, this should be the case, but with the rise of insect pests, even isolated old monarchs may be living on borrowed time. It is a disheartening state of affairs.
Passing beyond the Swan Valley and Pine Creek, we approached the heart of the Tetons. Our road climbed sharply. The grades are between 8 and 11%. You definitely know you are on a mountain road. You must pay attention, but all in all, the road is well engineered. There aren’t any of those scary shelf segments (straight up on one side and straight down on the other with no shoulder or guard rail) that cause the knuckles of people to turn white as they grip the steering wheel for dear life. However, on our route the long uphill climb was worth the effort. The following image reveals the panorama that opened up to us at Teton Pass.
At the rest stop, I was fascinated by our surroundings, both immediate and distant. To the north and south, the ridgeline built toward summits accessible by the trail network. I think the north side trail reaches a 10,000-foot summit. The view from the top must be incredible. I’ll put it on my list of things to do.
Looking eastward, I could see the high peaks of the Gros Ventre Range rising on the other side of Jackson Hole. You ask, what is the Gros Ventre Range -- and justifiably so? The Gros Ventres are not a common household word. As mountains, the Gros Ventre is another Wyoming range that gets little attention, but offers much. Gros Ventre is French for ‘big bellies’, an Indian tribe related to the Arapahoe that speak an Algonquin tongue. There aren’t many left who can prove a bloodline. After an early alliance with the Blackfoot nation, the Gros Ventre established connections with the Crow. Subsequently, the Gros Ventre locked horns with the Blackfeet, which proved disastrous.
I am unsure why a name meaning big bellies was applied to a mountain range. More research is needed, because when whites first met the Gros Ventre, they were living in Montana. But if the origins of strange human monikers fade, the peaks remain. The highest summit in the Gros Ventres is Doubletop, which is somewhere between 11,720 and 11,760 feet. An exact elevation is not shown on topographic maps, but the anonymous summit of Doubletop represents a significant elevation. For example, it is higher than Mount Hood in Oregon. Yet in high Wyoming, Doubletop is lost in a sea of equally anonymous peaks. I think about that a lot – not quite sure why.
The long vistas from Teton Pass held my attention as they did for others. People stopped, talked to one another, snapped pictures, and looked at flowers. Monica and I were just part of an adoring crowd. But were we collectively doing enough to satisfy the mountains? I felt the spirits of the peaks were watching us. I tried to appease them by paying extra homage to the exquisite scenery they provided us transient visitors. Each mountain summit must be separately honored – at least in principle. I’m unsure of why I feel this way, but I do.
The next image brings the Gros Ventre a bit closer. I have no idea which summit is that of Doubletop. It will be a challenging project to make the identification.
From Teton Pass, we threaded our way down to Jackson and on. Monica and I chose to pass through Grand Teton National Park, spending only a few moments at several convenient overlooks. The Park was just too crowded for our tastes – a condition that spurs both of us to move on. However, we did stop for a short walk on a trail out in the valley that gave a commanding view of the peaks. As we walked among showy flowers, I couldn’t take my eyes off the overpowering sight of the Tetons. Sentinel after sentinel lined up on the western horizon, each competing for attention. It was as if each peak said: “Look at me.; I’m handsomest of all.”
The sun wasn’t in a good location for photography, but I clicked away. Next year I hope to return to the Tetons with a better camera and stay until I have satisfactorily captured in pixels what my eye beholds – if that is even possible.
The following image speaks to the visual impact these magnificent mountains create. The display of yellow wildflowers in the foreground contrasts with the green of the grasses and sages, the dark blue of the mountains, and the lighter blue of the sky. The small patches of white clouds and the remnant snowfields serve to accent the other colors. Additionally, the snowfields reinforce the heights of the mountains. The road adds nothing, but I couldn’t get it out of my field of view.
The above image gives us a mere hint as to floral variety. Monica identified them all. Her skill at quick identification is superior to my own, so she takes on the responsibility of identifying the floral species that we encounter.
I should point out that Monica and I complement one another exceedingly well. She knows birds, and as mentioned, has the requisite skills for quickly identifying the flowers. She observes leaf structure, petal arrangement, color, etc. She then holds that information firmly in her mind as she thumbs through our flower guides. I once could hold lots of detail in my head, but the aging synapses have thrown in the towel. What was that number of petals? Uh, what was I doing?
While Monica was making identifications, I became focused on the peaks, feeling compulsive about needing to identify each one. I think I’m a frustrated mountain man, explorer, or surveyor, born in the wrong era. I’m unsure of which -- maybe a little of all three. But to summarize our skills, once we hit the trail, each immediately goes to work, pursuing his/her specialty. We make a good team.
Here is a closer image of the floral display.
With one last image, I will conclude Monica’s and my brief 2010 rendezvous with the Tetons. Next year, we’ll probably do it again. We’ll be drawn to them, like the mountain men to their annual Rendezvous. The Tetons will begin calling to us in the spring. I can see the process working now. Images of craggy heights and dizzying rock faces will randomly pop into my head. Alpine wildflower books will magically move themselves from bookshelves to the table in front of Monica to catch her eye. The hints will become more intense as time proceeds. More likely than not, we will respond to these cues and include the Tetons on our itinerary, even if that wasn’t the original plan. The mountain gods are not to be angered – especially those dwelling in the alpine heights of the lofty, youthful Tetons. The last image -- ah yes.
It looks down the trail from which I took the above shots. I particularly like the image. I see it as a metaphor for the spaciousness of Jackson Hole. The valley stretches for miles and is almost level. But it is circumscribed by mighty mountains that fired the imaginations of Native Americans, explorers, fur trappers, soldiers, etc., and today, those of us who indulge our 21st century imaginations. I try to bridge the gap and think wistfully back to the years when daily survival was never assured, but the land seemed endless and opportunities limitless. What must early visitors thought of the sky-piercing summits? If Jackson Hole and environs can continue to spark a mere smidgen of that pioneering feeling -- even as modern development creeps outward from the town of Jackson -- the Hole will earn my undying gratitude. Viva la Jackson Hole.
As a final commentary, please indulge a few unsolicited opinions from yours truly. I will always compare mountain ranges to one another. By nature, I am a ‘comparer and contraster’. But even I have my limits. I have heard the Tetons called the American Alps. While I acknowledge the laudatory reasons for the comparison, I think it does injustice to both great mountain ranges. The Alps are geographically, historically, and socially European. The Tetons are quintessential western American. To love the Tetons is to know them and understand what makes them what they are: their specific geology, their indigenous culture, and their setting in the great American West. That is as much comparing as needs to be done. Viva la Grand Tetons.