Of Mountaintops and Memories

To celebrate Sierra’s tenth birthday we decided to summit a peak, because…well because we’re just strange like that. We pulled out our maps, spread them wide across the entire living room floor, discussed the merits of this summit or that, and ultimately chose Fremont Peak.

Fremont Peak is the third highest peak in the state of Wyoming and the second highest in the Wind River Range. It sits comfortably at 13,743 feet, falling just short of Gannett’s chart-topping elevation by a mere 66 feet. From Elkhart Park trailhead, the summit is around 18 miles in one way, with an elevation gain of well over 4,000 feet. We could have picked something like Warbonnet which is less distance, less elevation, and less scrambling, but no…we knew that she could do it. Sierra is strong. Physically, there is no denying that she is outrageously fit; she’s a climber, a swimmer, a skier, a runner…an athlete. However, her character is resilient as well. She has a drive that is unusual in its intensity, and she will rise to any challenge; the more arduous the task, the more enthusiastic she becomes. So, we picked Fremont Peak because it was so far away, and so high up, and so rugged. We picked it so that she could be challenged.

Life is either a grand, daring adventure, or it is nothing.

We started hiking out of Elkhart Park around noon, with the sun full and strong overhead. The first few miles out of Elkhart Park are thickly forested until you get to Photographer’s Point, but with the heat we relished the shade of the trees. It was the first week in July, so the bugs were horrendous but the wildflowers were simply unbelievable. Our first views of Fremont Peak were from sweeping meadows literally carpeted with wildflowers of every color and humming with the drunken sounds of bees having a party in the pollen. The very air was pulsating with life and the music of Mother Nature’s own orchestra. You could feel it in your skin like an electric current.

After around nine miles, we stopped at Seneca Lake for a late lunch.  It was still early in the day and, as we only had around five more miles to go before we reached our basecamp destination, we took off our boots and socks and stretched out on a big slab of sun-warmed lakeside granite for a while. We saw no one, and we heard nothing outside of birdsong, the occasional piercing chirp of a marmot, and the light slapping sound of the water on the surrounding boulders. The quietness of the world can be almost hypnotic at times, and we found that we couldn’t speak, each of us too mesmerized by the surrounding stillness to do anything other than breathe deeply and soak up the serenity saturating the sunny air.

After putting our boots back on our feet and our packs on our backs, we once again hit the trail beneath the bluebird summer sky and made our way to Island Lake. As you approach the tree line, the views get better with every step you take. We had a substantial snow year, and we began to hit snowfields as we gained elevation. The rocky outcropping that juts out above the lake was entirely covered in snow, and yet we still felt compelled to stop for a moment and stare at Island Lake unfolding beneath us like the most beautiful storybook illustration, too breathtakingly beautiful to be real. The mountains’ commanding presence dominated the horizon, and Fremont Peak in particular seemed to be standing tall and proud like a snow-topped sentry guarding the gateway to the very heart of the Wind River Range.

We set up camp directly beneath Fremont Peak, and ate our dinner below a wide sky vibrantly streaked with the sherbet tones of sunset. The sharpness of the peaks softened in the pink and then purple blanket of the approaching twilight before disappearing entirely in the enveloping inky shadows of the night. The crepuscular creatures of the dark gave their music to the stars as the three of us quietly drifted off to a sleep as deep and wide as the night sky overhead.

We left camp at 5:30 the next morning, while we were still hidden in the shadow of the mountains. The sky was chalky and the ground was covered thickly in frost that glinted in the pre-dawn sunlight like diamonds. As we climbed the short pass that crests into Indian Basin, the rising sun began to carve a path between the jagged peaks surrounding us, and was soon shooting rays of light across the ground, dotting our progress with fleeting beams of warmth.

Indian Basin is gorgeous. It’s an enormous lake-filled bowl, surrounded by sheer granite peaks stretching triumphantly to the uppermost reaches of the sky. I have never encountered another person there. When you crest the ridge and begin the drop into the boulder-strewn field that sits below the enormous cirque of mountains, it feels untouched by human presence. It feels like you are discovering this cathedral of peaks for the first time in human history, even as you walk along the trail that has been forged by countless footfalls before you.

We broke away from the trail and began to cross the snowfields that blanketed our way to Fremont Peak. From Indian Basin, Fremont’s summit route is clear and we began to ascend our way to the saddle through the snow, carefully kicking in each of our steps. When we found an area with sufficient slope, we taught Sierra how to glissade, and how to self-arrest in the event she should fall. The incline is not steep enough to necessitate ropes or crampons, but on a layer of snow, one misstep or fall could cause a person to slide into the boulders lining the basin. After several practice runs, Sierra proved to be adept at self-arresting and stopping herself from sliding, and we continued up the steeper terrain.

The saddle on Fremont Peak is a knife-blade ridgeline that creates a granite barrier between Indian Basin and Titcomb Basin. The views are impressive, offering a birds-eye perspective on the vastness of this area. From its height you can follow the depths of the Titcomb Lakes from shoreline to shoreline, easily visible in the varying spectrums of its crystal clear blue water. You can see the always-frozen Summer Ice Lake. You can see glaciers as old as the mountains themselves. You can see the passage of time.

“When you stop and look around, this life is pretty amazing, Mama.”

From the saddle, it took about two hours for Sierra to reach the summit. Scrambling over refrigerator-sized boulders, we occasionally stumbled across a cairn balancing precariously on a hostile slope, but mostly we picked our own way up the rocky and foreboding mountain face. Every now and then a pika would poke its nose out of a hole and gaze at us curiously, mystified to find such strangers in its otherwise barren homeland, and again, the lonely chirp of a marmot would echo around us before dissolving in the wind.

Summiting engages all of your senses. You feel the grittiness of ancient, crumbling granite lingering on your fingertips. You hear the wind as it dances around you like a whirling dervish, with all of the fervor it can muster. You smell the earth, older than time and as patient as the stars, resting heavily beneath your footsteps as you climb and climb and climb. You see the sky, the bold blue ribbon of the horizon growing wider as you ascend, beckoning you ever closer to the top. And you taste sweet, flooding joy as you reach the summit and smile, and laugh, and throw your arms in the air, tickling the uninterrupted sky with your outstretched fingertips as the sunlight pours down around you. Sierra did just that. She stood on the very top of Fremont Peak with her arms extended up into the sky and laughed with exhilaration at what she had done.

“What if I fall?”

“Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”

Sierra learned that people do not conquer mountains. Sierra learned that the mountain feels nothing as you sit astride its highest point. It does not care about your exhilaration or your breathlessness as you survey the whole world below you. Sierra learned that to summit a mountain, we must conquer ourselves. We must conquer every fear, every doubt, every ache, and every single excuse. She learned that it might take time. She learned that it might be hard, but that if you can just hold on long enough, if you can just keep taking those uphill steps, you will find that you have the strength to rise up, and you will conquer yourself.

We chose Fremont Peak because we wanted to challenge her. We chose Fremont Peak because in our family this is how we celebrate strength and drive, and how we teach our young daughter that even if she is tackling a mountain, dedication and persistence and strength of character will get her to the top every single time.

We chose Fremont Peak, and she found herself equal to it.

A bird sitting in a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking because her trust is not in the branch, but in her own wings.


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