What Is the Worth of the Wind River Mountains

“The beauty of the natural world is given to us,” says Gretel Ehrlich author of This Cold Heaven, “but we abuse the gift by not looking, by using it for profit, by not recognizing its intrinsic value.” 

Photo by Adam Bacher

Once the Wind River Mountains were covered by a continual icecap that ran the length of the range, pierced only by the high peaks of the Continental Divide. Outlet glaciers spilled ice from between granite flanks, and meltwater fell from the edge of the faulted plateau. Massive terminal moraines wound down on either side of glacier-cut canyons smoothing the landscape into wide meadows and undulating moraines—an alpine universe entirely carved by ice.

Now the view is not of ice sheets but of the sculpted body of land after the retreat of ice: bowl-like meadows, ice-scoured plateaus, uplifted Archean basement rock, polished granite walls amidst crowded peaks, towering cirques, string lakes, U-shaped canyons, and wild rivers that flow into three major watersheds—the Columbia, Colorado, and Missouri rivers, which spill into slow oxbows and hard rapids, straightening and crooking their necks like swans.

The Wind River Mountains push southeast like a thick thumb from the wilderness matrix that holds Yellowstone Park, the Tetons, and the Gros Ventres. They are an appendage of the Rocky Mountain cordillera that stretches from the Brooks Range in Alaska to the Sangre de Cristos in northern New Mexico. They carry a piece of the Continental Divide like a snake on their bold shoulders and create their own weather. At twelve, thirteen, and fourteen thousand feet, clouds curdle, pool up, spill down, and loft sideways; ribbons of stunted trees waver beneath granite walls stained by the leaking meltwater of blue tarns.

The Winds are pinned at an angle to Yellowstone Park and its active volcano at the northwestern part of the map. When the volcano blew 640,000 years ago it destroyed a mountain range bigger than the Winds, killed off prehistoric camels and mammoths, and poured a deep ashbed across Montana and Wyoming. Because the volcanoes occur in 600,000-year cycles, the Yellowstone volcano is now 40,000 years overdue. Earthquake “swarms” have been shaking the ground in the park and the ancient caldera that holds Yellowstone Lake has begun to bulge again.

Running north–south at an angle to the Winds are the Gros Ventre Mountains, and these are connected by the Hoback River to the east–west Wyoming Range. In the sheltered cove made by these three mountain ranges lie the Upper Green River Lakes, the Green River, and the sage-steppe grasslands of an ancient migration corridor, in use for at least 6,000 years; on it 100,000 animals—antelope, mule deer, and elk—move from the high country of the range to the Red Desert. This is their winter habitat—eight million acres of windblown native grass and sage.

To see is to stop. To open oneself to what is there. To open one’s eyes, nostrils, ears, or as John Muir suggested, stand on one’s head to see the world anew. The beauty of the natural world is given to us. We abuse the gift by not looking, by using it for profit, by not recognizing its intrinsic value. Real wealth is biological diversity: sun, grass, water, birds, antelope, elk, bears, moose, and the joys that we find living among them.

At this writing the Red Desert, the Hoback, the Upper Green River Valley, and the entire Yellowstone ecosystem—every river, lake, valley, and mountain—is under siege from the oil and gas industry. To the south, on a mesa above the town of Pinedale and the New Fork River, the Jonah Field has been transformed into an industrial area with 1,500 gas wells and thousands more planned. They would like to put natural gas wells everywhere from the Upper Green River Valley to the southern tip of the Red Desert.

How these mountains, glaciers, rivers, deserts, and valleys connect and work together as critical habitat and a place of unique beauty tells the story of why we must work hard to protect this part of the world.

Mountains are a vertical altar and a wide barricade. They push and pull us; they dismantle confusion and reconstruct darkness as light. By thinning oxygen they go against life, and give it back in the form of elbow room. They represent danger; they give us beauty in jolts. We go up into them to experience hardship and find ourselves overcome with what the Chinese call “rustic joy.” Mountains provoke a different kind of breathing, as human entanglements come unraveled and vision clears.

Mountains are both forbidding and enticing: they invite us in and throw us out. Their vertical intricacy acts as a narcotic on us. Thought to be the center of the earth in indigenous cultures, mountain environments have been celebrated in poems and songs since humans began walking their trails, bathing in their rivers, finding food in their high meadows, and taking refuge in their caves.

The first inhabitants of the Wind River ecosystem were the people called the Sheep Eaters. One was named Togwotee, a shaman for whom Togwotee Pass is named. The Sheep Eaters lived in the high country and made their winter homes on the northeastern side of the Winds near Sleeping Ledge in the Dinwoody drainage. Their medicine wheels, at the tops of mountains, were made of rocks positioned in the shape of a wheel with twenty-eight spokes, said to represent each of their tribes. In the middle was a stone hut for the tribal chief. Along the spokes the participants stood and sang and danced to the god of beauty and the sun god.

They lived in skin lodges; ate buffalo, elk, deer, rabbit, wild carrots, roasted juniper berries, elk thistle, chokecherries, and wild strawberries; and used wild geranium for stomachaches and snowberry tea for healing after childbirth.

The Eastern Shoshone Indians arrived in present-day Wyoming by the early 1500’s. It is unclear whether they were related to the earlier inhabitants, the Sheep Eaters, but after adopting the horse from the Comanche in the 1700’s, they ranged as far north as Alberta and south to Mexico. Closer to home, they lived and hunted near the Green River, the Popo Agie, and the Wind River, traveling east to the Big Horn Mountains, north to the Yellowstone River, west to the Salmon Mountains, and south to the Yampa River and Brown’s Hole.

The neighboring Blackfoot were shocked when they saw the Shoshone atop these powerful four-legged creatures, and called the horses “Big Dog” and “Elk Dog.” Before encountering guns in the hands of their neighbors, what the Shoshone feared most were the dwarf Nunumbi, tiny creatures said to live in the unexplored recesses of the Wind River Mountains. For the Shoshone, the Winds marked the beginning and ending of life: the young rose out of their nesting glaciers, the very old flew to the tops of their peaks, and the dead floated away on their rivers.

In 1811 members of the American Fur Company, 61 people with 118 horses, were the first white people to make contact with the Shoshone. They camped in the Green River Valley far below Gannett Peak and feasted on the buffalo they hunted there.

Mountains pull at us, soul, psyche, and body. They are a vertical resting place for our eyes. The view from a west-slope meadow is into the interior of the mountain range. Behind a handful of bracketed peaks are more peaks: broken turrets, shadowed side-canyons, polished square-top domes, and serrated granite blocks. From Pronghorn Peak above Middle Lake, there’s a view past Gannett Peak of the Tetons. To the south there’s a defile of rugged mountains, including Rampart Peak, Desolation Peak, and Mt. Solitude.

Dome Peak rides Gannett Peak’s shadow; the Cirque Towers make a bump in the Continental Divide, ballooning it out to hold a circle of peaks including Bollinger, Wolf’s Head, Overhanging Tower, Shark’s Nose, Block Tower, Pylon Peak, and Warbonnet, with Pingora Peak pushed out from the circle to stand sentinel by Lonesome Lake.

At dawn Mt. Bonneville and Fremont peaks are orange walls, what the soldier and explorer John Fremont called “the red comb of the mountains.” The peak named for him is a flat-walled front that holds tapestries of snow, icy glazes, and the unpolished glow of the sun. In every month of the year the “red comb” of corniced ridgelines strobes black against white.

Today winter snowbanks are broken into by steady threads of rain. Hard winds, glass-still mornings, directionless breezes hushing themselves, pink days that end in flame—that’s a summer day in the Wind River Mountains.

To be here at any time of the year instructs us about how natural beauty saves us. The Chinese phrase for going on a pilgrimage—ch’ao-shan chin-hsiang—means “paying one’s respect to the mountains.” It is while walking in the mountains that the transformative effect of beauty, the outer becoming inner, can be felt.

On a July day the moon rises in daylight, making granite walls go blank. Night tries to hide the moon’s light and fails: black ponds coin it in bright rounds. A wind rinses dawn with pewter, pushing the cloud-lid to one side until snowflakes scatter into the void.

A doe rises out of the green haze of new grass with two fawns. The sky blazes. Shoshone storytellers once said that Cottontail saved the earth from burning up. The sun was too strong and, after several tries, the rabbit knocked the glowing orb out of the sky with his fire drill. The sun fell. Cottontail cut the sun’s chest open, took out its gall bladder, and from it made a new sun and a moon that would shine, but not too hard or too long in a world where day would alternate with night.

A tree-engine churns as wind roars up its white trunk and the sky is thrown into surging planes of gray and black. Lightning dangles—the sky’s lost jewelry. A piece of a rainbow hangs down from a cloud. Rain drives at a diagonal from above a ridge. The night grows cold. How brief summer is here: July still feels like spring but by mid-August, there’ll be snow.

The regional and global crisis we are feeling seems surreal. Climate change is being driven by human-caused pollution. Glaciers are melting, species extinctions are rampant, and the alarming warming trend of the weather is accelerating. The temperature increase at high elevations on Fremont Peak is 3.5 degrees Celsius.

At the same time, the oil and gas industry (the source of all greenhouse gas pollution) is forcing its way into these regions of extraordinary mountains and valleys. Air pollution is now a problem; the 6,000-year-old migration of antelope, the longest migration corridor in the lower forty-eight, is severely threatened; and glaciers in the Winds have receded dramatically since 1986. The concept of beauty itself, and its necessary place in human society, is no longer recognized.

Climate change is most obvious in the Arctic where the thickness of seasonal sea ice has gone from an average of twenty-five inches. But if you look closely enough, you’ll see it is happening everywhere. Two years ago, during an unseasonably hot summer in the fifth year of drought, there was an outburst flood—what glaciologists call a jokulhlaup—and a thirty-acre, ice-dammed lake at the head of Grasshopper Glacier broke, spilling 650 to 850 million gallons of water down eight miles of three east-slope drainages, including Dinwoody Creek where, in the 1700’s, the Shoshones made their winter camps.

Glaciologists say that these outburst floods are the result of global warming. As the Grasshopper Glacier shrank, the ice dam sank to the elevation of the natural spillway and the lake water carved a new outlet.

Wind noise in the trees, silence on the moraine, heartbeat loud. Autumn comes. Mountains are the places where the dead reside, where the spirit circumambulates, where blizzards go blind. There’s a chainsaw whine in the distance; high clouds are sliced open by sun.

By September new snow hangs like tapestries from Fremont Peak. A tarn silvers around my foot; the sky tarnishes. Wind pulls at the peaks: they are geological trees straining for the season’s last light. How many octaves does thunder have? Snow and rain take turns swiping meadows and peaks. A sweeping rain is counterpoint to wind-wounds.

Migration begins. A bull moose chases four females through the timber. Two antelope spar. One is finally turned away and the other collects his harem. Sandhill cranes practice flying in formation. Willows rust in ponds. No water in them: they are dry depressions.

Meteorologists say this is the season of Dead Clouds—clouds that drift listlessly over the whole continent bearing no rain. Wind does not play or pressure them. They touch no mountains. A north wind blows Arctic air into place and it stays. When moisture-laden clouds do come, they hang like fish over scalloped peaks, fish that are still swimming. Reeds lie prostrate. The mergansers and mallards have gone. A mirage rises from sun-cured meadows making mountains move: they are root-cut from bunchgrass, antelope, and buffalo.

Before dawn, above treeline, in a wide basin surrounded by serrated peaks, there is no light and no color, no weather. The sky has been abandoned. October becomes November. A friend explains three Haida words: xhaaydla, alluding to the boundary between two worlds, and the words for feather and snowflake—ttaghaw and ttaghun.

Today it snows and a curtain falls over the mountain front dividing the cordillera from the valleys, the realms of the gods from the one inhabited by humans. At any time of year when the view from a high peak of the entire ecosystem is occluded, I take the landscape inward and see it with my mind’s eye. Yellowstone’s volcano fumes and at the other end the Red Desert is a tongue curled up into a desert wall, holding hundreds of thousands of animals in its embrace until spring. But up and down these valleys there are natural gas wells pumping.

Wind stops at dawn. It is December. Day comes as slowly as an ice age, a white scrim that ties ground to sky. Winter does away with the tension between night and day. One slit in the clouds reveals a seam of something incandescent, then closes. We are almost out of light now, and when it does show, it does so sparingly.

A brisk wind knocks eyes into the sky but instead of blue, there is titanium. Aspen leaves are shifting heaps underfoot and gray trunks are sticks that wave like hair. A trail leads to ice-polished walls shouldering the whole range. Two ravens tilt and gyrate as they fly by, then they are lost inside the black reaches of a glacier-carved canyon.

Snow fills the hours. It is March now. A wolf walks the edge of the timber, itself a place of night at midday. As the storm abates snow flickers, making a kind of fire in the air. The Wyoming Range, the Gros Ventres, and the Winds sparkle. A moose breaks through ice in the Green River and drinks. There is the scent of thawing earth. To see is to stop and look, to love what is before us, and stop its desecration: past midnight white shafts of auroral light beam up; a meteor sails down behind the mountain wall bringing day.