Medicine Bow Peak
(Summer, Winter, and Spring snow climbs)
Because of the proximity of Medicine Bow Peak to Cheyenne, we have climbed it at least a half dozen times over the past ten years. Rather than write of a multitude of climbs, I will stick with a brief description and information on some of the more interesting Medicine Bow climbs.
“Med Bow” is located above Centennial, Wyoming and accessed via Rte 130 running from Centennial to Saratoga. If you have not crossed this range in the summer, you have truly missed out on some of the most beautiful alpine scenery around. A summer hike can start from any number of points and be a relatively short (same route up and down) ascent or a longer round about alpine tour. If we have time (meaning a morning start on this lightning magnet), parking at the Lake Marie lot and taking the alpine tour has to be my non-snow route of choice. We leave the car and climb the signed trail up the obvious steep headwall to the top of the ascending ridge. The trail is well marked by posts and cairns and leads along the ridge for a long way, eventually depositing one on the summit of Medicine Bow peak, elevation 12,013. From there, a steeper trail descends the other flank of the peak, leading back through the lake filled valley to the parking area.
Another worthy goal is the “dead of winter” ascent. On its face, a winter climb does not appear that hard of a task and in hindsight, if the wind is calm, it is not that bad. However, the wind in Wyoming, and especially around Medicine Bow, blows much of the time. After living in Wyoming for a while, you can almost convince yourself it is normal, but in reality, if the wind blew on the East Coast as it does here, they would have a hurricane every other week. Needless to say, getting to Medicine Bow in the winter can be an exercise in fighting the wind and cold.
Our first attempt was in February 4, 2001 . We arrived at the road snow closure at 6 a.m. and donned gear for the long hike in to the base of the peak. The road was closed for the winter and that adds a 4-½ mile road march to get to the start of the climb. The wind was screaming and the snow was falling but off we went up the well-packed trail. Well packed trail? Of course, this is Wyoming . . . and we were definitely the trespassers on the snowmobile track that the road becomes once the snow closure is in effect. Generally, it was a peaceful co-existence (we stay all the way over on the side) with the exception of the occasional 60 mph close passing “ambassador to the sport”idiot. We hoofed our way up the road, on snowshoes, until we got to the Libby Lake cutoff, after which we took a more direct cross county route to skirt around the backside of Sugarloaf Peak. A stop for lunch in a small copse of trees broke the wind but the mealtime was still thankfully short as renewed movement meant the promise of renewed warmth.
We skirted Libby Lake and came to the start of the climb. Our investigatory snow pit showed well-bonded layers and shear test that took a pounding and kept on standing. The snow was “safe” (we still avoided wind loaded zones) but the weather was going to hell on a fast horse (or fast Skidoo) and where earlier we could see Medicine Bow in the distance, we now lost sight of it in the close foreground. The snow was still falling and the wind was not letting up so we assessed our time, energy, and the distinct possibility of losing all visibility. We decided to call the main climb and scurry to the top of Sugarloaf (11,398 ft.) as a consolation climb.
During the summer, Sugarloaf is an anthill, but on that particular day, it was a climb to be respected. We dropped the snow shoes and for a short distance ended up postholing unexpectedly before hitting the rock ridge we planned to climb to the top. The scramble to the top was easy and after what was probably ½ hour we were on top and looking at lots of cloud and the horizontal snow that likely helped to form the icy accumulation on any vertical surface that filled the role of permanent wind sock. We did not dilly-dally on the summit but headed back down to snag the shoes and head back to the “hard” track. The walk back is supposed to go fast but unlike most every other climb, this one was an eternity. Sure, I guess we could have thumbed a ride but what kind of climber would ruin a perfectly good death march by doing something like that? (Climbing Medicine Bow in the winter is what my wife refers to as a “guy thing”)
A bit over a year later, on February 17, 2002, we took another shot at Medicine Bow and this time scored one of those exceptional beautiful low wind and mostly blue-sky days. We again left the truck early and made just fantastic time up the road to the 4 ½ mile point. No snowshoes this year, instead X-C skis, which we hoped would alter the duration and effort required to backtrack the road on the way out. Skis went on and we took almost the same cross-country route to skirt the lake and pass around the backside of Sugarloaf. Once we reached the saddle connecting Sugarloaf and Medicine Bow, we dropped the skis and climbed on rock, hard wind-hammered snow, or an occasional segment of blown clear summer trail. We traced the summer route to the ridge, cutting off that portion of the trail that cuts across the face of the peak to the east of the summit for a more direct route to avoid the possibility of sliding snow. The wind was blowing right well across the ridgeline and we walked the snow covered ridge to the summit. Lunch on top, Ok, I confess, a bit below the top, in the lee of some big rocks, and for just a few minutes, before we retraced our route back down to the skis and headed out.
It took two tries but we managed to score a winter ascent of the Medicine Bow Peak to accompany those innumerable summer hikes. More importantly, we managed to do it without being plastered to the front of some Iowa or Minnesota based sled.
One of the most attractive things about the proximity of Medicine Bow is the opportunity to practice climbing steep snow in preparation for climbs elsewhere. Before heading far afield to the Bolivian Andes and the Canadian Rockies, we have headed to Medicine Bow for some serious practice to not only hone steep snow travel skills but also ice axe arrest techniques from the various fall positions. For the benefit of prospective snow climbers, honing skills does not mean learning new skills but means practicing old ones gained through earlier instruction. Teaching oneself or hoping the ice axe arrest will come naturally can quickly qualify any beginning climber for a posthumous Darwin award.
There is quite a selection of snow to choose from, both on Medicine Bow Peak proper and the Diamond shaped headwall that forms the background of Lake Marie and neighboring lakes.
For a July 2001 climb of Medicine Bow Peak proper, we parked at the big bend in the road and hiked across the saddle to the base of the Peak’s southern face. The face was snow covered and presented an ideal multi hundred foot snow climb, ending just to the west of the summit. Climbing steadily up the face, we used snow pickets for protection, alternately belaying each other or leapfrogging as we ascended. We made the top just as the snow took the morning heat and started to deteriorate, indicating a late start on our part. We walked the short rise to the summit and then went on down the summer trail route to a relatively shallow sloped snowfield where we practiced ice axe arrests for an hour before heading to the truck. This route was by far not the steepest snow route, but was ideal preparation for the climbing we would be doing just one month later in Bolivia.
In preparation for Canada 2003, we chose a steep snow route just above Lake Marie that appeared to promise a 45 degree snow climb of perhaps 800 vertical feet but in fact turned out to finish up with steepening slope eventually calling for a full rope pitch at approximately 70 degrees. Our previous trip to Canada had taught one lesson we were unwilling to forget, it is not the speed of the climb but the efficiency of the belays and their construction that make or break a summit bid up an icy slope. We climbed steadily up this couloir until the angle exceeded 45 degrees and then alternated the lead over three roped pitches, both Gary and I placing belay points and bringing the remaining two climbers to the next station. We reached the top as the snow turned to mush and concluded the climb by skirting the substantial cornice remaining from the winter snowpack.
There is certainly no shortage of steep snow routes in this area but anyone seeking out such terrain should not underestimate the skills and tools required to accomplish climbs such as these in a safe manner.