Guests at the Bitterrot Ranch have the wide vista of the perpetually snowcapped Wind River Mountains in view across the valley from their cabins or while they are our riding on the trails. They are within easy reach for a day’s hike or an afternoon fishing or canoeing expedition. It might enrich your stay to know a little more about the geology and history of these fascinating mountains.
The spectacular Wind River Range is the highest in Wyoming with 35 peaks over 13,000 ft., including Gannett Peak which even tops famous Grand Teton above Jackson Hole.
No roads cross this hundred mile long chain of mountains which also form the Continental Divide. Most of it is Forest Service land and designated wilderness where no motors are allowed. A series of tumultuous volcanic and glacial forces have created over 2,000 lakes and ponds, many of which are stocked with trout including the prized golden trout. The Winds are also home to the nation’s largest herd of bighorn sheep and provides habitat for elk, deer, moose, bear, wolves, wolverine and many other animals. The National Bighorn Sheep Center with excellent displays depicting these magnificent animals and their habitat is located in the little nearby town of Dubois. Before the arrival of domestic sheep, introduced by settlers, the wild bighorns were far more abundant. A tribe of Native Americans called the Sheepeaters or Tukudeka found an unusual niche for survival by hunting the wild sheep in the high mountains which they frequented even in winter when they fed on windswept slopes and lichen growing on rocks. This meant that the Sheepeaters also had to live high in Wyoming’s rugged mountains near their source of food, but they adapted well to these difficult conditions and found comfortable shelters in remote Alpine valleys. They often hunted the sheep by driving them into funnel-like traps they built and killing them with the help of their powerful bows and fierce wolf-like dogs.
The Wind River Mountains are some of the most ancient in the world and are very different from the much newer Absarokas across the valley to the north. The Winds are crazily broken up terrain with sheer rock faces, deep gorges and all manner of unexpected outcroppings. Hard granite raised high long ago from far beneath the earth’s crust predominates. The softer sedimentary material which used to be on top was eroded away or scraped off by the titanic power of immense glaciers, sometimes 1,000 ft. thick, creeping slowly and inexorably, leaving the hard rock exposed. The glacial activity continued for many years and is still going on. The ice is now receding as global warming increases and how much of this is man-caused is a matter of fierce debate, but over the last million years there have been in the order of ten important swings of climate change when the glaciers expanded and receded. A few degrees can make all the difference. It has been a little over 10,000 years since the earth moved into its present warm cycle. The result of all this grinding back and forth in the Winds is to make them ideal for mountaineering because climbers can trust that their pitons will stick firmly and the rock will not split away at a crucial moment as it might in the Absarokas.
Wind River Country contributes to the world a different kind of product from oil or beef. The National Outdoor Leadership School, with its headquarters in the remote little town of Lander located at the base of the mountains, has touched many lives, not only in the US, but internationally. The school has over 120,000 graduates since it was begun in 1965 by that almost superhuman mountaineer, Paul Petzoldt. The challenging courses lasting up to three months teach survival, self-reliance, resourcefulness and leadership in a wilderness setting. The school is now running programs in many parts of the world, but its headquarters remain in Lander where it has 350 instructors based and an office staff of 140. It would be difficult to find a more appropriate setting for the operation than the vast, remote Wind River Mountains which tower above the town. The jagged mountains present all kinds of opportunities for mountaineering exercises, which are part of some of the NOLS training courses.
NOLS of course has no monopoly on the Winds and many mountaineers, hikers, fishermen and hunters have visited, loved and sometimes written about them. One of their attractions is that visiting them in any depth requires considerable physical effort. Thus they are still comparatively uncrowded and visitors usually see few other people in contrast to places like Yellowstone Park.
One of the great sagas of the exploration of the West began on the Green River which rises on the south side of the Wind River Range and is one of the main tributaries of the Colorado. In 1869 John Wesley Powell’s expedition was the first to make the perilous thousand mile descent of the Green and on down the Colorado and through the Grand Canyon, opening up the last large, unexplored tract of land in the Continental United States. It was not only an amazing feat of courage, skill and determination, but it produced a wealth of useful scientific information about this hitherto unknown area.