On this cold winter afternoon in Maine, I am dreaming about summer days on Mount Washburn. The temperature is even colder today at Mount Washburn, but this past August, we slathered on sun screen and wore shorts and t-shirts when we hiked the 10,243-foot mountain. Our daypacks were stuffed with fleece and windbreakers, because we knew that no matter what time of year, it’s always much colder at the summit of Mount Washburn because of the wind that blows across the Washburn Range. Even with the wind, or maybe because of it, the mountain is still the most popular hike in Yellowstone National Park.
But popular doesn’t mean crowded, at least not by eastern standards. In the summer, hikers will always encounter other hikers on the trails or at the summit, but not hundreds of them — not the crowds at Mount Washington or even at the summit Maine’s Mount Katahdhin.
This past August (2012), I travelled to Wyoming with my family for a reunion with my old haunts at Yellowstone, where I had worked one summer almost 30 years ago, at an ice cream stand with a view of Old Faithful.
Although not the longest, most remote or most adventuresome, my hike up Mount Washburn in June 1984 was my favorite of that season. The blue sky that morning was crystal clear and the green slopes of the mountain blossomed with mountain lupine and other wildflowers. I don’t remember if we saw any of the bighorn sheep rumored to hang out on the mountain’s slopes, but I do remember the feeling of freedom I felt on my first hike through wide open mountain meadows, with lots of sky and big views, so different from the hiking I had known in the mountains of New England.
Mount Washburn is named for Henry Washburn, one of the leaders of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition of 1870, organized to find out once and for all if fantastical tales told by trappers and mountain men about the Yellowstone region were true. Rivers that poured boiling water? Spouts of water erupting 200 feet in the air? Deep blue pools in which a man could cook a fish or lose his life if he decided to take a bath? Such phenomena could not possibly exist, but perhaps gold or other valuable resources might be found in the rivers and mountains of Yellowstone.
The expedition soon learned that “The Wonders of Yellowstone” (the Nathaniel Langford article published afterwards in Scribners magazine) did exist and that mountain man Jim Bridger (and others) had not exaggerated in telling his tales. In this land of boiling mud cauldrons, smoke and sulphur, climbing a mountain might have seemed an arduous but necessary task, but when Lieutenant Gustavus Doane completed the climb on August 29, 1870, the beauty of what he saw was almost impossible to capture with language (although he did manage to bang out 500 or so words when he wrote about the trip in official report):
“The view from the summit, “ Doane noted, “is beyond all adequate description. Looking northward from the base of the mountain the great plateau stretches away to the front and left with its innumerable groves and sparkling waters, a variegated landscape of surpassing beauty, bounded on its extreme verge by the cañons of the Yellowstone. The pure atmosphere of this lofty region causes every outline of tree, rock or lakelet to be visible with wonderful distinctness.….The mind struggles and then falls back upon itself despairing in the effort to grasp by a single thought the idea of its immensity.”
The experience of hiking up Mount Washburn, I learned this summer, hasn’t changed all that much in spirit, either my from 1984 trek or from Doane’s 1870 adventure. Hikers can ascend, as we did, from the 2.8 mile trail that ascends from the Chittenden Road, or from the three-mile trail that begins at the Dunraven Pass picnic area.
From the Chittenden Road parking area, the hike climbs gradually uphill, with an altitude gain of about 1,500 feet from the parking lot. The trail follows the path of an old road cuts up the mountain in a series of long switchbacks. The road now services the fire lookout, but originally was used by stagecoaches and wagons to take tourists to the summit, and then by automobiles until it was closed to regular traffic in the 1960s. At the summit, hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views and can warm up in the shelter of the fire lookout. On the August day when we climbed Mount Washburn, a small collection of hikers were eating their lunch inside the stone structure. Outside the wind blew hard, and we were glad to have our fleece pullovers and windbreakers.
From my 1984 visit, I remember the clarity of the alpine air and a scene much like that described by Doane. On this August hike, the view was hazy, obscured by the persistent smoke of several small forest fires. Throughout the day, a faint scent of smoke pervaded the air. On the trail, large swaths of gray lodgepole pines swept up the mountain’s flank, gray ghosts left from the forest fires that consumed much of Yellowstone in 1988. The hazy views are partly the result of new fire management policies implemented after the devastating 1988 fires, which were exacerbated by the then-existing policy of extinguishing fires as quickly as possible. Although well-intentioned – who wants to see a forest consumed by fire? – the “no-burn” policy caused dead trees to gather on the forest floor, creating ideal “ladders” for fired to climb into the treetop crowns, and then quickly spread throughout the park.
Today, small fires are left to burn, which both kills off dead branches that might build up into fire ladders and also promotes a healthy forest ecosystem. The pinecones of the lodgepole pine need fire to burst open and release their seeds so that new trees can propagate. The “no-fire” policy, therefore, had the effect of twice killing off the forest it was trying to save. But we didn’t know, or maybe we did know — by the 1980s, scientists understood that fire suppression wasn’t the answer – but maybe those scientists couldn’t convince the policy makers that trees needed fire, just as congressmen and senators couldn’t believe that a caldera of steaming land existed in the northwest corner of Wyoming.
The persistence of the smoky air might be a change from the time of the Washburn expedition. Over the past couple of decades, a hotter, drier climate out west has created ideal conditions for fires to burn quicker, bigger and longer. Is the increase in fires an indirect but predictable consequence of climate change? Or part of a fire cycle that was interrupted during the many decade of the fire suppression policy? Or a combination of both?
We don’t have all the answers, or definite solutions, to the challenges facing the forests or to the problem of climate change. As someone who was born wanting to travel, I feel pulled by conflicting impulses –– wanting to be part of the climate change solution, but also wanting to travel to the ends of the earth even if that means contributing to the spread of carbon poisons. I’ve done more than my fair share of travel by human power – on foot, by bicycle and kayak – but inevitably, I rely on fuel-powered transport to get me places. I know that jet fuel leaves an especially large carbon footprint. Can I offset that footprint with at-home recycling and reduced consumption? Does it really matter if I do so, given that millions of people in China, India and other countries can hardly wait to buy their first cars?
Although I’d like my actions contribute to solving the problem, I don’t feel guilty about the carbon footprint generated by my travels, nor does this knowledge diminish my pleasure in climbing Mount Washburn. (But maybe I feel a little guilty about not feeling guilty). One paradox of hiking and enjoying the great outdoors is that visits to places such as Mount Washburn cultivate an appreciation for the environment while also encouraging an exploring lifestyle that contributes to environmental problems (albeit on a much-reduced scale compared to industrial pollution).
I could choose to hike only in mountains closer to my home, but then I wouldn’t have climbed Mount Washburn on this beautiful August afternoon. Perhaps I am like most other Americans, preferring to ignore the problem, or refuse to believe all the evidence of its existence, rather than truly step up to the plate of my responsibility.
But not today, not when I am dreaming about Mount Washburn. When I am remembering the satisfaction of putting one foot in front of another as the stone base of the fire tower gradually comes into view. When I recall the greenish-brown alpine landscape spreading below me. The joy of holding onto my hat as the wind threatens to blow me away…..
For a current view from the summit of Mount Washburn, check out the Park Service web cam.
Notes and sources:
Doane, Gustavus C. “The report of Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane upon the so-called Yellowstone Expedition of 1870 (Report).” U.S. Secretary of War. March 3, 1871.
Langford, Nathaniel P. “The Wonders of Yellowstone”. Scribner’s Magazine. May 1871.
Nijhuis, Michelle. “Forest fires: Burn out.” Nature. 19 September 2012