As I left the Cirque of Towers, a search and rescue crew with five helicopters, seventy-five rescuers and several teams of dogs were gathering at the trailhead, preparing to hunt for the Wyoming state public defender Ken Koski, who had been lost in the Wind River Mountains for several days. Koski’s job had been to supply attorneys to represent the poor in state courts. Now it seems that the public defender had encountered something that he himself was unable to defend against. It was a sobering state of affairs as I prepared to re-enter the wilderness on my own, seeking to ascend Fremont Peak, the third highest mountain in Wyoming.
The northern Wind River Mountains looked naked from a distance – flesh-toned and vulnerable, like a dog shorn of its fur. But as I approached Fremont and the other peaks that guarded Titcomb Basin, I gradually lost my sense of pity. Eventually I stood within a hillside campsite opposite the highest peak, staring across Island Lake to a summit that looked beautiful in the setting sunlight, but deadly. Up close, there was something beastlike in the appearance of the humpbacked mountain. It had a mottled, wrinkled hide like that of a diseased elephant, and nothing living could grow upon its steep, furrowed slopes. Freemont was another mountain that seemed to repel life, and I doubted I could catch it in a mood when it would take kindly to visitors.
So with trepidation, I advanced upon the mountain the following morning, but the experience wasn’t so bad once Fremont and I got to know and understand each other. The sheer face of Fremont’s south wall conceals a buttress of crumbled stone, and once I was close enough to actually distinguish it, I could conceive how the ridge might lead me on a steep scramble up to the windy summit. The grade was so vertical that amid the boulders I could not see where I was going or where I’d been, but the rock itself seemed comforting… full of swirled quartz lines, like fudge marble cake batter.
It’s strange how one’s fears or impressions of a mountain can be analogy-dependent. The night before, I had read of Frodo and Sam’s ascent of the volcano Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, so perhaps I had filled my head with too many bleak and pessimistic images. Marble cake is a much more comforting vision.
Still, the vision was unable to keep me warm at the mountain crest, where I was forced to huddle behind a granite slab, fighting the insidious windchill and peeking out occasionally to survey the scenery. The side I’d climbed was as dry as a bone, while the north side held a wide expanse of glacial ice, kept cool in the shade of the mountain. I surrendered the summit, and gradually I warmed my blood to a more reasonable temperature as I dropped a thousand feet, listening to political coverage of congressional primaries on my radio walkman while bounding from boulder to boulder. As much as I am an outdoorsman, I must also admit to being a political junkie.
But suddenly I halted and turned down the volume, for I finally realized I had made a really stupid mistake. My day pack was not slung over my shoulder as it should have been; I had left it somewhere between my present location and the summit when I stopped to pull on my knee brace. Wincing, I turned back around and craned my head to look up the wide avenue of broken stone. Somewhere up there in that jumbled mess was a pack containing my car keys, the lock to my laptop computer, my water bottle, and my digital camera. I had some serious searching to do.
A pool of fear and anxiety began to slosh around in my gut as I climbed, for besides the labor involved in re-ascending a thousand feet, the debilitating environmental conditions, and the extreme necessity of recovering all these items, I couldn’t remember the route I’d taken or the spot where I’d left the pack! It wasn’t a simple case of searching along a marked path – there was no single pathway to the top of the mountain, just a hundred-foot-wide ridge overloaded with boulders and slabs, stretching a thousand vertical feet up into the sky. I could scramble right past the day pack and miss seeing it, if it was tucked behind a rock.
But somehow, after eight hundred feet of climbing - with the radio turned off, I might add – I paused, looked up, and saw I had blundered straight back to the location of my day pack. I hugged the bundle of gear and breathed a deep sigh of relief. The instinctual imperative to remember one’s water supply had failed me earlier when I was absorbed with political intrigues, but at least my instinct was sufficient to lead me back to where I’d committed the error. I guess it’s a truism that politics overrides instinct and common sense, even in the wilderness!
Snow was falling upon Fremont Peak one day later when I took my backpack and departed the basin. And the public defender? Upon exiting the backcountry, I learned that his body was found on the slopes of Mount Bonneville, a mountain he’d always wanted to conquer. Evidence points to the conclusion that he reached the summit before he died. I like that thought. When reality is too awful to bear, I suppose we all look to an image that will give us comfort. And a man on a mountaintop is one of the best visions I can think of.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and works as a naturalist at the Rancho Alegre Outdoor School in Santa Barbara, Calif. You may reach him mid-journey at email@example.com.