Episode IV:  Bighorn Mpountains   April 08, 2008
  Bob Leverett



   This is the 4th episode of the series that at least a few of you have said that you enjoy. This is the first of two episodes on the Big Horn Mountains.




Big Horn Mountains - My Ultimate Mountain Mecca


Recalling my introduction to a mountain paradise


            On departing Devils Tower National Monument , Monica and I resumed our trip westward. Our walk around Bear Lodge had consumed more time than I had allotted on the austere schedule I had established for us, so we hit the road with no further planned stops until our final stop for the day. Our day's end destination was to be the little cattle town of Buffalo , Wyoming , an idyllic community (in some respects), nestled at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains . I had chosen that destination because reining it in at Buffalo would allow us to hike the following day in the region around the Powder River Pass, an old stomping ground of mine, and a place I wanted to share with Monica, but for the present, we were still within the sphere of influence of the great bear.

            As the road wound up the ridgeline that includes the red sandstone layers of the valley of the Belle Fourche River , our attention remained on the dominating presence of Bear Lodge, as recognized by Native Americans and Devils Tower to European Americans. Once out of the valley and onto the uplands, the Tower continued to show its presence for several miles. Monica and I acknowledged the continued experiencing of its effect. The tower has a far-reaching aura, but as we drove farther and farther, and the great form receded to the point of the appearance a mere thimble, its magnetic influence gradually faded. Still, Bear Lodge's effect on us would linger. We are connected to the Tower through channels that do not depend on physical distances. The Lodge remained a potent symbol in our imaginations.

            As closer features of the Wyoming landscape took center stage, I was reminded of the vast range of topographical forms one observes in the Cowboy State . I remember one article I read about Wyoming in a National Geographic magazine that described Wyoming as high, wide, and windy - one of many apt descriptions. Recent prairies fires had scorched large areas adjacent to our route and the blackened trunks of small ponderosa pines dotted the areas of the hillsides where the trees had secured a foothold. There were still small, remnant prairie fires burning, and the smoke would waft across the ro ad as we drove in their general direction.  It was an odd feeling to be driving toward the smoke of a prairie fire. One's natural urge is to reverse direction and flee. However, the scale of the remaining blazes was no longer threatening. We both became fascinated with the lazy swirls of smoke. At some previous time, I expect that the authorities were forced to reroute travelers since the fire had obviously hopped across the road. In today's mindset, such fires represent nature gone amuck, a demon to be feared and fought, the escape of a little bit of hell from the underworld. From the perspective of wiser heads, the fires are merely a natural element playing their role in a cycle that incorporated periodic burning of both grasslands and hillside forests. Even so, I felt a little sad at the sight of charred Ponderosas.

            From the Black Hills and their extension, the Bear Lodge region, our route was westward into the center of Wyoming and on to the Big Horn Mountains, a fairyland-like range of high peaks, rich in western history. They are textbook mountains for geological study of mountain glaciation, and a region of spectacular scenery. The Big Horn Mountains are the eastern-most range of the Rockies in the northern sector of Wyoming . Farther south, the Laramie Range assumes that distinction and still farther south in Colorado , the Front Range becomes the vanguard of the Rockies .

            Before entering the Big Horn country, one must first cross the Powder River Basin , a landscape dominated by high plains that are punctuated by numerous swells, valleys, and small buttes. This is the case at the surface of the land. Underground, vast deposits of low-sulfur coal underlie the area and make the Basin the number one coal producing region of the 50 states. Topographically, the Powder River Basin extends for 200 miles in a north-south direction and 120 miles east to west. These dimensions yield an area of 24,000 square miles, making the Powder River Basin equal to the combined area of Massachusetts , New Hampshire , and Vermont . Within the Basin, elevations range from around 3,500 to 5,000 feet, but these extremes of altitude are achieved over long distances as the land slowly gains elevation from north to south. In fact, the lowest part of Wyoming is in the northeastern corner. The absolute low point is where the Bell Fourche River flows into South Dakota . The elevation at that point is 3,100 feet, only 113 feet lower than Pennsylvania 's highest point, Mount Davis at 3,213 feet, to put the numbers into perspective. The average elevation for all Wyoming is 6,700 feet, second to Colorado 's 6,800, and above Utah 's 6,100 feet.  

            Precipitation in the basin ranges between 13 and 16 inches, quite sufficient to maintain short grass prairie vegetation, but insufficient for forests. Winter temperatures can drop to below -40 degrees Fahrenheit and soar to between 100 and 110 in the summer. Winds are ever-present, one of the shared features of the Great Plains region.

            The Powder River Basin is rich in Indian history, as the region of conflict between the Lakota Nation and the United States that culminated in the Red Cloud War of 1866-1868. The war, characterized by harassing raids of the Lakota, led to the Fort Laramie Treaty that ceded the Black Hills to the Lakota, closed the Powder River Country to whites, and guaranteed hunting rights to the Lakota across Wyoming , South Dakota , and Montana . Of course that treaty, like all others with Native Americans, was broken, the victim of wanton land grabs by th e greedy and falsely pious elements of our English-based society. Ownership of the Black Hills continues to be contested by the Lakota. The Powder River Basin once saw Crow and Cheyenne as well as Lakota, but the Lakota were never a people to share territory with other Indian nations.

            There is a bit of interesting trivia about the Powder River that I will pass along. The Powder River is known for the battle cry "Powder River Let'er Buck". Joe Glenn, a head football coach of the Wyoming Cowboys, adopted the cry, and I'm sure throngs of students have parroted the phrase during heated football contests. The origin of the phrase is attributed to a cowboy trying to cross the river on a cattle drive along the Powder River to Casper .  In dry spells, the Powder was said to be a mile wide and an inch deep. There were areas of quicksand and crossing could be easy or difficult. The phrase "Powder River Let'er Buck" was adopted by the military in World W ar I.  Its origin got debated when soldiers heralding from different regions used the phrase and assumed it pertained to their state. Apocryphal meanings arise, but the origin of this phrase seems to be well established.    

            As Monica and I drove west through the burgeoning coal town of Gillette into the rolling hills beyond, I began anticipating a scene that is firmly embedded in the compartment of my mind reserved for my fondest memories. As our car rolled along, my eyes were fixed on the western horizon. In a short period of time, a long line of blue mountains with shimmering summits would appear and increasingly dominate the skyline. As with many times before, my eyes would scan their long line of jagged summits, following plunging contours into narrow mountain passes and then abruptly rise again to cloud-piercing heights. I would be transported back to my earliest visitation of Wyoming 's Big Horn Mountain country. But on this occasion, the smoke from the prairie fires obscured the Big Horns until we were close to Buffalo .

            Buffalo can legitimately lay claim to a western history replete with cowboys, Indians, and the U.S. Cavalry. Fortunately, Hollywood has not yet over-dramatized and fictionalized Buffalo as that bizarre movie capital has done for places like Tombstone , Arizona , and Dodge City , Kansas . Nonetheless, there is material if Hollywood should choose to fictionalize another western town. Buffalo and vicinity is the location of the famous Johnson County cattle war, the subject of at least one relatively recent motion picture.

            Buffalo is still a cattle town, albeit a transformed one. It has its share of small town attractions appropriate to its role in western history, foremost being a museum that features cowboy, cavalry, and Indian cultural artifacts. It has a historic hotel named the Occidental that witnessed the passage of colorful personalities, real and fictional. Owen Wister's Virginian got his man at the hotel. The hotel's owners have retained an authentic décor. Near Buffalo are the sites of Fort Phil Kearney, the Fetterman Massacre (the Indians won), the Wagon Box fight (the whites won), and the famous Hole in the Wall, hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. 

            When I first passed through Buffalo in 1966, it did not show me much. At the surface, it was a sleepy little cattle town in a state of somewhat disrepair, but since then, Buffalo has undergone a face lifting. It has a new façade that is both pleasant and better maintained. In fact, Buffalo has become rather trendy. Fortunately, it has not yet been discovered by the masses and over-run - the death knell of any good western town, nor has it succumbed to an onslaught and the inevitable accompanying development from the spoiled ski crowd.

            As we came in range of the Big Horns, I was reminded of my first trip to those mountains. It was a time that I would like to share with the readers for the remainder of this initial episode on the Big Horns.

             During my first year at Ellsworth AFB, I needed weekly explorations of the Black Hills to satisfy not only my unquenchable thirst for the summits but to escape the pressures of my job. I was involved with highly classified missions and handled a lot of classified materials. My superiors made it abundantly clear to me that if I lost a document or compromised material in any way, my career was at an end. For a green second lieutenant, the stress built up very fast. As the weeks and months rolled by, and I became more acclimated, I sensed that a land beyond the Hills was calling to me. I had a deep yearning to look upon snowcapped summits, alpine meadows, glacial cirques, deep canyons, roaring streams, and ancient forests, but long trips were out. I had to be realistic in terms of my time and financial resources. A second lieutenant's pay was below starvation wages in the mid-1960s. However, there might be something within a day's drive, so I turned to a roadmap. What was the closest high mountain to my current location? I noticed an elevation in north-central Wyoming . It was the 13,165-foot summit of Cloud Peak , as shown on the maps of that period, and that peak was less than 250 miles away. It seemed to be calling to me.

            I do not recall how many weeks elapsed before I succeeded in putting together a trip with a fellow lieutenant who I will just refer to as Rex. I am reluctant to fully name friends who have not approved of their identification in my writings. I remember heading west in Rex's Ford Mustang, aiming for a rendezvous with the summits around 9,666-foot Powder River Pass. If I recall, the month was July.

            I planned the route and Rex and I hit the road. The scenery was interesting, but I was not into grasslands at that time. As the time went by, I began watching the horizon intently. As we approached the Big Horn Mountains I watched the long line of summits grow nearer. The snowfields appeared larger in my field of vision and my comparison-oriented mind drew sharp contrasts between the Black Hills and Big Horns. Since Rex was driving, I could focus my gaze on the crest of the Big Horns. I didn't know which summit was Cloud Peak, which was Bomber Mountain , Mather Peaks and other named summits. That determination would come later, but at the time, it did not matter. We were headed into big mountains, mountains of the artist's brush, mountains with peaks capped with white.   

            Rex and I arrived at the foot of the Big Horns, passing through the quaint little town of Buffalo at the eastern foot of the mountains. Buffalo sits at an altitude of 4,600 feet, an elevation not unlike the interior towns of the Black Hills , but that was where the similarity ended. From Buffalo , we continued westward beginning the long climb to Powder River Pass. I remember thinking that we were finally starting up into the mountains that I had watched grow nearer mile by mile. I had watched and wonder about the glistening summits. We would gain 5000 feet in altit ude before reaching the pass, which lies at timberline, that irregular line above which trees do not grow. From Buffalo , the first part of the climb into the Big Horns follows a stream, which has left fairly steep ridges on both sides Consequently, driving up the ravine limits the field of view. I had no idea what was to come into view. However, after a few miles, we reached the crest of the network of gulches and ravines and entered a region of intermittent meadows and forested ridges. I watched as the  trees become more numerous. Areas of Quaking Aspen, Lodge pole Pine, and Englemann Spruce vied with the meadows and glades for dominance. The soft green of the aspens with their white trunks gave the ridges a gentle appearance that belied the overall ruggedness of the landscape. At one point, we swung to the south for a few miles to line up with the watershed that would take us to the pass, and then as if a great hand had swept away all visual obstacles, the country opened up and I gasped at the sight that unfolded before me. I gazed directly into the stern granite faces of Big Horn and Darton Peaks . At 12,324 feet, Big Horn Peak is the highest point in the region of Powder River Pass. At one point, the distance to the rock faces had narrowed to approximately 7.5 miles, which was close enough to give the cliff region a stunning visual impact. The elevation difference to the summit of Big Horn Peak at that point is around 4,300 feet of which 1,500 feet represent a spectacular, near vertical cliff face.

            What lay before me was an area of immense cliffs and snowcapped summits that created a mesmerizing backdrop to a foreground of variegated alpine meadows. The contours of Big Horn Peak are exceedingly pleasing to the eye. The features of this high summit draws one toward the mountain across a foreground of lupine, shooting stars, alpine sunflowers, and a couple dozen other species for which I had no names. The artful blending of sky, mountain, and meadow is a scene that was etched into the recesses of my memory. It is a scene that I can call forth to take shape in vivid detail and that permanently tethers me to the Big Horn country.

            From the captivating view of Big Horn and Darton Peaks , the road winds on southward and westward toward its high point at Powder River Pass. The Precambrian rocks near the pass have been dated to over three billion years, or so the signs say. As such, they are among the oldest rocks in Wyoming . Just beyond the Pass, Rex and I found a rough, short, narrow road. We pulled off and drove to a spot behind an old-growth stand of Englemann Spruce and Subalpine Fir. The spot was well away from the sounds of U.S. 16. I hopped out of the car, eager to cl imb. A bare, rocky ridgeline loomed above us. Most of it lay above timberline and I was itching to reach the crest and fully savor the feeling of being in big mountains, on a rocky ridge crest over 10,000 feet. I was visually impressed with the upsweep of the ridge, but what occupied my mind most were the snowfields, patches of krumholtz, and jumbles of rocks that required attention to foot placement, but were otherwise safe. Other than an occasional use of the hands, the going was relatively easy and we reached what had appeared as a jagged line of rocks set against a cloudy sky.

            Once at the ridge crest, I sat down on a narrow rock outcropping and contemplated my surroundings. As I scanned the expanse of alpine peaks and valleys around me, I remember suddenly feeling extraordinarily small. I was but a tiny speck in an ocean of summits. For a brief moment, I think I experienced a snippet of geological time - a sense of the enormity of the process of building the landscape around me. The human-mission of Ellsworth AFB and the exaggerated self-importance of all humanity, focused in the moment, seemed more like a fantasy than the daily grind that I experienced at the Air Base. Creation on the scale I was observing was far more expansive and enduring than my limited mind could grasp. The geological reverie passed and my focus came back to the undeniable stiff breeze that was giving me a chill.

            From my vantage point, the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area lay to the north. The wilderness area includes 189,039 acres of mountains, lakes, forests, meadows, and unbroken solitude, but Cloud Peak was far away. Immediately to my north lay the rounded summit of 11,722-foot Loaf Mountain . Its benign slopes offered me an inviting target for climbing. Climbing Loaf was a goal I vowed to achieve, but it would have to wait for another time. For that time, I had to content myself with sampling its charms with a visual scan.

            As I shifted my position on that narrow crest, I could see from that particular vantage point a world of high ridgelines punctuated by the summits of individual peaks rising well above the general lay of the land. Some of those peaks exhibited exceptionally pleasing contours. One such mountain is Hazelton Peak . At 10,534 feet, Hazelton lies to the south and east of where I stood. Like Loaf Mountain , Hazelton Peak also seemed to be sending me an invitation to come and spend time on its slopes, to commune with it as one being to another, to meld with it, to know it intimately. Mountains talk to me that way. They always have.

            To the west, the Big Horn plateau loses elevation gradually, sloping downward toward rugged Leigh and Ten Sleep Canyons - the latter especially scenic. The name Ten Sleep has an Indian origin. It lies ten sleeps between two destinations, neither of which I can presently remember. Ten Sleep Canyon carries rushing, foaming waters to the bottom of the mountains and out into rolling hills and thirsty plains of the Big Horn Basin . The Basin is a featureless desert, receiving from 6 to 10 inches annually of precipitation. The Basin is a hundred miles across, and for the most part there is little to attrac t the eye, save the profiles of the surrounding mountain ranges - the Absorakas to the west, Big Horns to the east, and the Owl Creek and Bridger mountains to the south. The Big Horn River flows through the Basin - flowing north. Farther upstream, the river actually changes its name. In Wind River canyon and to the headwaters, it is the Wind River . The inexplicable name change occurs as the river flows out of Wind River Canyon .

            Topographically, the elevation of Big Horn Basin is around 4,500 feet near its eastern edge. A few spots drop to below 4,000. From such low points, one gains 8,000 to 8,500 feet elevation from the Basin to the crest of the Big Horns near the Powder River region and almost 9,000 feet farther north in the vicinity of Cloud Peak. This elevation differential compares favorably to that of the lofty Front Range of Colorado, and to my mind is a distinguishing feature of the Big Horn Mountains .

            After returning from the climb, Rex and I set up camp on Meadowlark Lake . The altitude of our campsite was around 8,200 feet, which was more than enough to satisfy my thirst for big mountains. It was a secluded spot with no other campers. In those days, I usually packed a Smith and Wesson 38 and a German-made 22-calibre revolver with interchangeable standard and magnum cylinders. I suppose I felt more like a westerner with those small arms strapped to my sides. I never remember shooting either revolver in the Big Horns. It was all for show.

            We slept on the ground in grungy sleeping bags that we had checked out of the Base Recreation Department. The bags showed the wear and tear of aging equipment and didn't emit an especially pleasing aroma, but sufficed for us. We were tough G.I.s. During the night, the wind came up, a little at first, and then gusts that shook the trees around us. I remember feeling slightly uneasy with each new gust, but the clouds passed on and the night sky became crystal clear. I was treated to a celestial show, the kind of starry display that causes the more reflective souls to consider their place in the universe. The clarity of the heavens was the kind of show that city dwellers never see, and seldom think about in their light and noise-saturated world. As I lay in my sleeping blanket, gazing into the firmament, a feeling of sadness suddenly s wept over me. I would awaken in the morning, rise, shave in icy waters, load our camping equipment, and return to Ellsworth AFB to resume a life dominated by military priorities, structures, and protocols. My physical body would leave the Big Horn country, but a part of my mental self would remain behind to explore the high peaks, the alpine lakes, and the color-saturated canyons. I knew that I would return to the Big Horns. Maybe one day, I would share that unique world of western drama and raw physical beauty with others, maybe a wife and children. Those thoughts were fleeting, though. For that moment, I was satisfied just to be there under that sky and in absorbing the ambience of those big mountains.  

            The following day Rex and I arose, packed our camping gear, and on empty stomachs headed east. Although we did not discuss our feelings, I think both of us shared a sadness. But we were proper military gents and expressing such emotion was out of character. In Buffalo , our stomachs dictated our next move. We stopped and had a hearty breakfast at a historic café named the Idlewild, a throwback to an earlier era when roughshod cowboys with big hats and a swagger ate prodigiously. The walls were decorated with pictures of cowboys and accounts of a colorful, violent past steeped in battles with Indians. The owners were proud of the town's history and the local clientele seemed equally so. I suspect they fantasized about the old days and hoped that a small residue of the fro ntier days lingered on. As I glanced at the pictures on the wall, I thought about the fanciful West as conceived by Hollywood and fictional writers as contrasted to the reality - a harsh land where survival required toughness, but everyday did not end with a shootout and a saloon being broken up. In the 1860s and early 70s, the area around Buffalo was dangerous, especially during the time that the Lakota were still the lords of the plains, and resisting incursions by the flood of whites. Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, American Horse, Sitting Bull, Man Afraid of His Horses, Bull Bear, Spotted Tail, and other colorful names suggest a proud, nomadic people who had no interest in settling down, learning English, becoming farmers, and adopting Christianity. In their souls, they knew they were not meant to lead sedentary lives.

            As I sat in the Idlewild wolfing down a cowboy-sized breakfast, my thoughts turned from pictures of cowboys and Indians to the cloud-piercing summits of the Big Horn crest. It was the promise of the peaks that had drawn me to the area and it was the peaks I had just seen that would call me back. They had woven their spell and I had succumbed. I knew I would return to walk in the shadows of the Big Horn's long line of 12,000-foot peaks. I would savor their lore and think wistfully about their locations with colorful names. I would think about the passes through the mountains. There were Florence , Geneva , and Powder River Passes . I would imagine the summits of Cloud Peak, Blacktooth, Big Horn Peak , the Innominate, the Gargoyle, Hallelujah, Starvation Peak , and Hazelton Pyramid. I would close my eyes and imagine Lake Solitude , Lake Angeline , Lost Twin Lakes , Misty Moon, and East and West Tensleep Lakes . These were names that spoke to a higher level of imagination. They w ere names that communicated an underlying appreciation for the landforms - a welcome escape from names bestowed on the high summits, passes, and lakes by exploiters who scattered their dull surnames on noble peaks. I do acknowledge that some human names are appropriate. The group I favor most for names is the surveyors, particularly those of the historic Hayden Party. Darton and Mather Peaks come to mind. If the surveyors sprinkled their names around the Big Horns, that is okay. The surveyors were a special breed and deserved to be honored for their tireless efforts in mapping the peaks.

            My return to the Big Horns would not be immediate. I would first purchase a car and develop a social life. I would travel to other Air Force bases on prolonged studies. My return would also await my marriage to Jani Leverett, my first wife. It would be with her that my bond to those lofty Wyoming mountains would be cemented and my Big Horn experiences become memorable, but that story and the subsequent introduction of my present wife Monica to the Big Horns will be reserved for subsequent Episodes.

Bob Leverett