Flashback to July and remember what it was like to only be four months into the pandemic. Plans had been sidelined for an unforeseen amount of time. Travel was difficult, international travel nearly impossible. As a rock climber who travels frequently, my plans were significantly altered with a large objective going completely unrealized.
Living in Montana, especially during this challenging year, has been quite the blessing when it comes to outdoor pursuits. Public lands abound, and even though my state has seen recent population growth, it is still easy to avoid people when recreating outside. So when my partner and I had to pivot and readjust our climbing plans for the summer, the possibilities of climbing close to home were next to endless.
As luck would have it, Montana and Wyoming boast some of the best and most challenging terrain for climbing and mountaineering in the lower 48. Our states tend to have a similar unpretentious essence as well, one of humility and hard work, and with this in mind, the stunning Wind River Range became the destination for a summer climb. The range sits in west-central Wyoming and while it’s hardly 100 miles long, it proudly holds 40 peaks over 13,000 feet in elevation.
While I had always wanted to visit the Wind Rivers (Winds, for short), the idea of this objective coming to fruition was terrifying. My partner and I chose to backpack into a basin that is roughly 14 miles from the nearest trailhead, and attempt a route on Mount Hooker. The north face of Hooker is a force to be reckoned with as it holds some of the hardest big wall free climbs outside of Yosemite Valley. I realized quickly that the individual components of a trip such as this would be fairly easy to manage, however the sum total of completing a difficult backcountry multi pitch free climb would likely push my comfort zone to a place it hadn’t been before.
The route my partner and I had our eye on was one of the originals on Mount Hooker. Wyoming pioneers Paul Piana, Tim Toula and the late Todd Skinner and Galen Rowell first free climbed it in 1990, calling the route Jaded Lady. Some of these individuals might sound familiar and I can guarantee their names will pop up upon researching any historical free climbs in the 80s and 90s. It was clear to me, knowing the accomplishments of Skinner and friends, that this climb was no pushover.
The hike into Mount Hooker was just as the map suggested. The majority of the initial 11 miles was over beautiful subalpine terrain, dotted with lakes and meadows. However the final few miles took whatever energy we had left to get up and over Hailey Pass. Even with heavy packs and tired feet, the basecamp location for Mount Hooker sent our excitement level through the roof. More lush meadows and alpine lakes made the living quite comfortable for our week stay, and the fears of the looming north face of Hooker were minimized by the utter perfection of the granite wall.
A little recon and relaxing comprised the first couple days of our visit to Mount Hooker. With the weather holding mostly solid, my partner and I struck out at dawn on the fourth day of our trip to head up Jaded Lady. The climbing was pitch after pitch of immaculate granite with movement that varied from technical and thought-provoking, to physical and gymnastic. Although our progress up the wall was steady, climbing roughly 1,800 feet in a day was no small task and we found ourselves digging deep to stay psyched on the task at hand. Oddly enough, when committing to doing this type of route in a relatively short amount of time, your only option is to keep going. The simplicity of this style of climbing is equally beautiful as it is daunting.
In low light, standing on the summit of Mount Hooker, reverence was the only word that came to mind. Looking out over the Winds was obviously a highlight as the numerous craggy peaks and deep valleys stretched into the distance. But even more, I was inspired by the human spirit and the pursuit to push our mental and physical limits. My partner and I, while our goal was unified, each approached Jaded Lady with our own set of doubts and challenges. I was reminded yet again the reason I climb, to push those personal boundaries and continue building relationships in wild and inspiring places.