“This city’s louder than the whole state of Wyoming.”
—Michael Reno Harrell, “Road in Wyoming”

“What’s the strangest thing about living here?” I ask.

Martin taps the steering wheel and looks off to the distance. Cattle graze on grassy, brown hills. Snow fences, constructed to minimize snowdrifts on the road, remind summer tourists such as me just how harsh Laramie winters can be: In 1970, just weeks after the stretch of I-80 near Laramie first opened, blowing snow closed it for months.

“My neighbor has a squirrel house,” he jokes. “I thought that was pretty strange.”

This past May, Martin graduated with a M.S. in Geology from the University of Illinois. Now he’s spending his summer at the Wyoming State Geological Survey in Laramie, as a part of the USGS STATEMAP program. His pale skin is redder than I remember—he spent all last week working outdoors, mapping a quadrangle near Rawlins, praying he wouldn’t get the survey’s truck stuck in the dirt.

Kelsey, another U of I graduate, chimes in: “Is it the wind?”

“No,” Martin replies. “In all seriousness, the vehicles—they’re strange. There are a ton of old VW busses. You don’t see those in Illinois.”

He’s right. Earlier we’d seen a Volkswagon bus with four bicycles on its hitch rack. And we’d seen a few other things a flatlander might find odd:

Snowmobiles parked in lawns. Climbers coiling their ropes into 80-liter backpacks. Cross-country skis propped up by front doors, right next to sandals and running shoes.

The passion for outdoor recreation in Wyoming, Martin explains, is tremendous. His roommate mountain bikes every day.

And although Martin has only been living in Laramie a month, the fervor for all things outdoors has gotten to him. Right now we’re headed for the Snowy Range, about 40 miles west of town, to hike to the top of Medicine Bow Peak. At 12,013 feet, it’s the highest in southeastern Wyoming.

Google Earth Image of Medicine Bow Peak

The Snowy Range and Medicine Bow Peak as viewed with Google Earth.

“I’ve heard reports from some co-workers,” Martin says. “They tried to climb Medicine Bow Peak and had to turn around near the top. Too snowy.” It’s now the beginning of July.

The route through the Snowy Range, WYO 130, is the highest paved road in the state. West of Centennial—population 270—the road soars into the mountains. Every few hundred feet, the landscape changes. Aspen and pine replace the grasslands. Shrubs and flowers decorate the understory. Soon we’re cruising at 10,000 feet. The aspen and pine are replaced by spruce. And then the spruce by the flowers of alpine meadows, and then, up on the ridge we plan to hike, the meadows by fields of boulders.

The change in geology isn’t any less striking. Back near Laramie, the road went through a rolling, grassy plain—the Laramie Basin, bounded by the Laramie Mountains to the east and the Medicine Bow Mountains to the west. (The Snowy Range, where we are headed, is the northernmost segment of the Medicine Bows.) Both ranges are products of the Laramide Orogeny, the event that, 70 to 50 million years ago, raised the Rocky Mountains.

In Wyoming, the Laramide buckled the Earth’s crust like it was a bunched up rug, shoving uplifted blocks of ancient metamorphic and igneous rock over and next to low-lying basins, full to the brim of younger sediments. Now, as Martin’s car struggles out of the Laramie Basin, we climb one of these ancient and enigmatic blocks, which itself contains fragments of mountain ranges that predate the Rockies by billions of years.

Geologic Map of southeastern Wyoming, modified from link by the Wyoming State Geological Survey.

Geologic map of the Laramie Basin and adjacent Laramie and Medicine Bow Mountains, modified from the Wyoming State Geological Survey. Our hike is within the light brown unit labeled “Xlc,” the Libby Creek Group.

But today, we’re more interested in modern mountains. Our goal is to hike what locals refer to simply as “the loop,” a seven-mile circuit beginning at Lake Marie, ascending along the ridgeline to the top of Medicine Bow Peak and making a quick descent down the other side to Lookout Lake. As far as summits go, Medicine Bow Peak is considered a walk in the park.

The trail follows the ridge in the upper left of the photo. Medicine Bow Peak is hidden here behind the smaller peaks south of it.

The trail follows the ridge in the upper left of the photo, which is covered with periglacial rubble. In the lower right,  meta-sedimentary beds dip steeply away from the ridge.

Soon after starting up the ridge, we meet a young woman with a climbing helmet and an ice axe. I suddenly feel less certain about this walk-in-the-park thing. “Doing the loop?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I answer. “Er, how’s the snow up there?” I ask, glancing at her ice axe.

“Not bad,” she responds. “I know somebody who made it to the summit on Monday no problem.”

It’s still early in the morning, and I now realize she’s coming not from the summit but rather the cliff face,  having just finished a technical climb. “Just watch out for cornices,” she warns us.

We thank her and continue our trudge up the ridge.

“What’s a cornice?” Martin asks a minute later.

“Er, it’s, uh, like on a building,” I try to explain. “The overhang of the roof, over the sides. But a snow cornice is, well, made out of snow. So probably not something we want to step on.”

“Well, it is called the Snowy Range.”

Though there’s still plenty of snow up here in July, the Snowy Range wasn’t actually named after snow, at least directly:  The bright white rock that forms the main ridge, the Medicine Peak Quartzite, tends to look snow-covered from a distance. This quartzite was once a sandstone, deposited on the shore of the Wyoming craton over two billion years ago. Now the rock has been baked by the heat and pressure of metamorphism into a hard, sugary mass with only hints of its former structure.

We wheeze up several switchbacks. Though the ridge’s southeastern face is a near-vertical cliff of quartzite, its top is nothing but rubble. Until recently, geologically speaking, the Snowy Range was covered in glaciers. The rock up here was broken into polygons by alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Cairns—manmade stacks of cobbles—lead the way across this treeless landscape.

Above the tree line, the way is indicated by cairns dotting the rocky meadows.

Above the tree line, the way is indicated by cairns dotting the rocky meadows.

“How are you feeling, Derek?” Martin calls out.

Kelsey replies for me: “Slow,” she says. I agree. The area behind my brow throbs—an altitude headache. Even though I’ve been in Wyoming for over a week now, it’s still no small feat for the human body to adjust to a nearly  5,000-foot change in elevation, from Laramie to the summit, within just a few hours.

“I’m not feeling too great, either,” Martin says, though his quick pace carries him ahead.

Soon we’re scrambling over boulders the size of shopping carts. Kelsey leads the way, navigating through the maze of potential twisted ankles. That the boulders are coated with lichen is comforting: They haven’t shifted recently, so the likelihood of the slope giving way and becoming a cliff is slim.

Quartzite boulders on Medicine Bow Peak Trail

Lichen-covered quartzite boulders on the Medicine Bow Peak Trail. Large quartz crystals, perhaps part of a recrystallized conglomerate or a post-depositional vein, are exposed in the foreground.

Martin lets loose a burst of energy. “This is the homestretch!” he exclaims, scrambling up what we think are the last 50 feet of the ridge.

But as he nears the crest, his shoulders slump. “Aw, man!”

It’s a false summit. The ridge continues upward. Though a peak may be the tallest thing around, it can play hide-and-seek exceptionally well, taking cover behind smaller hills or simply the curvature of its own slope.

Three more false peaks and psychological setbacks later, we approach the real summit. I’m half expecting one last cliff face near the top, a monolith meant only for true mountain climbers, with their helmets and ice axes.

But it’s just more periglacial rubble, and a hell of a view:

From the top of Medicine Bow Peak, we can trace the road as it meanders back toward Laramie. The main ridge of the Snowy Range, with its near vertical cliff face, slopes to the south down to Lake Marie, where we began our hike. Other lakes fill the low points of the landscape, carved out by glaciers in the Pleistocene. Though it’s July, some of the lakes are still partially covered with ice. And at the horizon, the Colorado Front Range, with peaks over 2,000 feet taller than this one, is just barely discernible.

Panorama from summit of Medicine Bow Peak

Panorama from just below the summit of Medicine Bow Peak. WYO 130 winds away to the upper left. The main ridge of the Snowy Range is to the right. In the distance, a few Colorado peaks are barely visible.

Time for a break. We snack, boulders serving as our chairs, tables, footstools and pillows. A chubby little critter crawls out from beneath the rubble, eyeing us curiously. “Martin! Kelsey calls out. “You’ve got a marmot by your rock!” Martin looks around, but before he spots the marmot—basically a glorified alpine groundhog—it dives into the field of boulders as if into a swimming pool.

Then no one speaks for a long while. We just stare off into the distance, listening to the wind.

Near the summit

View to the northwest from the summit. Martin and Kelsey scout out a safe route for our descent.

Kelsey breaks the spell: “Shall we head down?” she asks. We know we shouldn’t linger—though the sky is  blue now, thunderstorms are sudden and violent in the mountains. And we’d rather our heads not be the highest points around during an afternoon downpour.

So we begin our descent down the other side, scrambling over boulders to avoid a patch of precarious-looking, steeply sloping snow. As we struggle across the rocks, four young women, wearing shorts and sneakers and not carrying any daypacks or water bottles,  prance up the mountainside and straight through the snow, chatting all the way.

“Well,” Kelsey sighs. “Guess that works too.”

Leaving our rocky detour behind, we descend switchback after switchback. Suddenly, we’re walking along Lookout Lake, the escarpment of the Snowy Range above us. Only descent by free fall would have been faster, though my knees feel sore enough as it is.

Down in the valley, our geologic instincts take over. As we pause to appreciate wavy folds in the Lookout Schist, the metamorphosed mudstone that comprises the low area by the lake, Kelsey notices a dark-colored igneous sill cutting through the ridge above. We find a similar piece of rock at our feet, decorated with garnet crystals.

Folded Boulder of Lookout Schist

A folded, phyllitic mess of a boulder protruding from the snow near Lookout Lake.

Up on the mountainside, an older man slides down through the snow, whooping and laughing the whole way. His companions follow him cautiously, trekking poles in hand. As we dawdle, the whooping man and his entourage catch up to us. Kelsey greets him: “We admire your…snow skills,” she says.

He grins. “Last month, I was doing that on skis!”

The woman beside him raises her eyebrows: “Yeah,” she says. “You led us on quite the adventure.” They laugh.

The man parades down the path. “A beautiful day!” he proclaims.

The path back to the trailhead is bustling. Children in short-sleeves play in the snow. Boys fish in the lake. A family searches for a picnic spot. We chat with them for a bit, but then another woman interrupts us, exclaiming, “Wait, you guys were up there?” She looks up at the ridge in disbelief. “Wasn’t it snowy? Cold?”

“No, not much snowier than down here,” Martin replies. “And maybe even warmer.”

“The sun,” Kelsey adds, “it really beats down on you  up there.”

“But honestly,” Martin continues, “the view from down here is even better.”

The woman gives him a quizzical look.

View of Snowy Range, from northeast of Lookout Lake

View of the Snowy Range, from northeast of Lookout Lake.

The remainder of our hike is spent daydreaming about lunch and discussing the appeal of mountains and mountaintop views. It felt amazing—both physically and mentally—to conquer the highest peak in southeastern Wyoming.

But we realize something, walking alongside Lookout Lake. Martin was right. The best view isn’t from the summit. It’s from the base of the mountain you just climbed.

Down here, you may not get the panoramic view, but you gain perspective. There’s a meadow in the foreground. Or perhaps a shimmering lake, turning the mountain on its head. Maybe a few trees for shade. And there’s a trail, leading not up the mountaintop, but to the side, to someplace that’s always out of sight, off in the distance.

The summit panorama, on the other hand, is all background—tiny roads, tiny lakes, tiny trees and people and cars, distant hills and distant clouds with weather meant for someplace else. Everything is less…tangible from the top of a peak. The world becomes a scale model, its happenings miniature effects.

Perhaps that’s part of the appeal.

Later that day, we sit down for lunch at a Laramie bistro. On the western wall hangs a massive, framed photograph: the Snowy Range as viewed from just above Lookout Lake, yellow and purple flowers in the foreground.

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