Yellowstone Reports

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So you want to climb Eagle Peak?

Notes on that, and other late summer peak bagging
by Dr. Nathan Varley

Aug. 20, 2012

August to me has always represented the once yearly opportunity to access the high country of Yellowstone.  While pretty well all of Yellowstone might be considered such, there is the highest of the high, some 10 to 11 thousand feet above sea level, that experience very little dry, warm conditions, most of which occurs in August.  Before, the lingering snowpack makes for wet, muddy conditions and after the threat of snowstorms is ever present.

The park’s tallest peaks are found in its remote southeast corner where the headwaters of the Yellowstone River flow from the heights of the southern Absaroka Range.  Red Lodge author Gary Ferguson describes this country in his delightful book, Hawk’s Rest, and remarks in this country lies the location furthest from a navigable road in the lower 48 states:  a mere 28 miles.  While this seems a bit sad for the state of wilderness in our country, make no mistake—an expedition to this region is no casual endeavor and requires many miles of trail hiking prior to even stepping off trail for an ascent.

My recent journey started with a boat ride across Yellowstone Lake to the southeast arm where we could join the trail, cutting off at least a day’s hike.  Xanterra will arrange such a drop (and pick-up) from Bridge Bay marina.  From there we ascended, in partial segments, the Yellowstone River, Mountain Creek, and Howell Creek.  Here my companions and I debated which of the marvelous high points in our midst were to be toppled attempted.

Yellowstone’s highest, Eagle Peak at 11, 367’, has good access via the trail to Eagle Pass.  From the pass, the route is anything but straight-forward.  After traversing some steep outcrops along the southeast ridge, we scrambled up some loose chutes to ascend the terraced ridgeline.  This lasted until midway where a massive red wall of the Trout Peak Andesite stood firmly in our way.

The fabled trick to Eagle Peak lies in side-hilling below this layer for quite a distance to the west before veering back upward through a steep ravine.  At its start is a narrow chimney choked with rock fall.  One slithers upward through this chimney so narrow that we took our packs off and pulled them up the adjacent wall with a rope.  This is the crux move; however, the loose slab above requires patient and careful scrambling to regain the summit ridge.  The descent reverses this route, but is even slower going.

The summit register at the top contained my entry from 1996 when I first climbed Eagle.  My companion on the ‘96 trip, Travis Wyman, was also on the present trip, 16 years later.  Our 2 companions Dan Stahler and Dan MacNulty, were astonished that we were willing to repeat this climb.

Indeed, the rigor of Eagle Peak requires prolonged concentration for moving on steep and loose rock, at some spots exposed to long falls, which suggested our youthfulness dealt with this better years ago, and our present age contributed to forgetting its challenge!  I thought the chimney had further filled in with rock since ‘96, making it even more difficult to squeeze up, and suggesting the route is slowly closing.  I personally don’t recommend Eagle Peak because its challenge precluded the relaxation and enjoyment that I so much seek in a climb.

The following day we endeavored to do a route up Table Mountain, 11,065’, Eagle’s neighbor, which had an entirely different feel.  While the south ridge presented some tough scrambling, it was brief and gave way to upper sections that were much more stable.  Once atop the Table, rolling grasslands led past dramatic sheer cliffs all the way to the eastern summit.  The cry of Peregrines accompanied the ease and splendor of this section, and evoked much more the timeless joy and wonder of the mountaintops than did the rockslides of Eagle.  Our time in the rarified air of Table’s top had become nostalgic even before it was over.

To complete the trip we descended the northwest ridge past Turret Mountain and a gigantic column of stone Jackson Hole climber/author Tom Turiano called The Watchtower in his description of the first ascent of Turret in Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone.  A herd of bighorns retreated to the ridge as we traversed below The Watchtower.  Near exhaustion, we bushwhacked through nasty stretches of deadfall and regrowth to Trapper Creek.  Following wolf, moose, and elk tracks into the evening along Trapper Creek took us to the trail and the day’s final segment where a rising full moon cast our shadows on the path.

Because the peaks of Yellowstone garner little attention, they are the oft-overlooked attraction of the park.  The benefits are many, including elements of solitude along with mindful travel through pristine wilderness.  The experience might range from blissful to humbling, but always invigorate and transform.  What I recommend:  choose a mountain that fits with your ability, plan carefully, and do it now before the snows fly!

Reporter’s Note:  September 13-17, I will lead an expedition in the Gallatin Mountains, The Wolf and Grizzly Basecamp.  This program combines wildlife watching with day hiking, including an attempt on Electric Peak.  A few openings still remain.


View slide show

Table Top

Howell Creek Sunset


Eagle Peak

Table Mountain

The Watchtower