This letter by Jim Wolf was directed to the editor of Annals of Wyoming, but it was never published.
I wish to thank Annals of Wyoming for publishing my observations on the historical geography of the Continental Divide in Wyoming – both in the Autumn 1999 issue (“General Sheridan’s Pass, 1807-1883”) and in my earlier articles on the explorations of John C. Frémont and Benjamin Bonneville.
The first part of the 1999 article, dealing with John Colter’s route, has a small error that should be corrected. The passage in question relates to my interpretation of the Clark manuscript map’s “Lake Biddle” -- which I believe refers to Heart Lake instead of Jackson Lake. Lake Biddle is shown to have an outlet stream that flows south into the Wind River.
This is not surprising, since Heart Lake does have a south-flowing outlet (Heart River), though it is actually in the Snake River drainage. If Colter went west by way of Togwotee Pass, he would have crossed a large stream – Brooks Lake Creek – that might reasonably have been thought to carry Heart Lake’s discharge. If Colter went over Sheridan Pass, however, he would not have viewed Brooks Lake Creek. Yet, between Dunoir Creek and the trail up to Sheridan Pass, he would have crossed a different large tributary – which should have been identified as Long Creek rather than the Lava Creek that is mentioned at the top of page 32. (The elevation is actually about 7480 feet instead of 7400 feet.) It further occurs to me that the appearance on the map of just a single stream flowing into the left bank of the Wind River lends a pinch of weight to the Sheridan Pass alternative (since Colter would have crossed both Long Creek and Brooks Lake Creek if he traveled up to Togwotee Pass).
Publication of Captain W.F. Raynolds’ map might help readers to follow the analysis of his route in the recent issue. Would it be possible to print the relevant portion in the next Annals?
I would also invite anyone who is interested in the Wind Rivers to refer to my earlier essays in Annals of Wyoming – both “Frémont in the Wind Rivers” (Volume 60, No. 2, Fall 1988, 2-11) and “Bonneville’s Foray: Exploring the Wind Rivers in 1833” (Volume 63, No. 3, Summer 1991, 93-104). The views expressed in each of these papers should shed additional light on some of the questions raised in your last issue’s article ( at 15-28 ) by Vernon L. Volpe, “Beyond a Literary Adventure: Bonneville’s and Frémont’s Conquests of the Wind Rivers.”
Dr. Volpe’s footnote 2 identifies Mount Bonneville, Gannett Peak, Mount Chauvenet, and Wind River Peak as candidates for the summit that Bonneville climbed. The 1991 essay makes the case for Wind River Peak. Mount Bonneville can be ruled out for a variety of reasons, notably that a successful climb there would have been followed by a descent to the Green River rather than a return to the Popo Agie. As the Bonneys pointed out in their Guide to the Wyoming Mountains and Wilderness Areas, the attribution to Mt. Chauvenet disregards all reference to the Continental Divide and the Green River. The Bonneys’ choice was Gannett Peak, but they give no plausible account of an approach route, nor do they explain how a couple of untrained explorers could have accomplished an ascent for which the authors assert that “rope and ice axe experience is needed.” Other speculations identify Raid Peak and Frémont Peak as the mountain that Bonneville climbed. The 1991 essay not only addresses each of the theories, but it provides a step-by-step account of Bonneville’s entire route.
In the same footnote, Dr. Volpe asserts – relying upon Joe Kelsey’s 1980 Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains -- that “the more likely choice today” for the summit climbed by Frémont is the eponymous Fremont Peak instead of Mt. Woodrow Wilson, which was favored by the Bonneys.
Kelsey’s view boils down to the supposed belief of Frémont’s mountain-man guides that they were leading him to the Rockies’ highest summit – and since Mt. Woodrow Wilson (approx. 13,500') is clearly not the highest, it must not have been the one that they climbed. Bear in mind that Frémont approached the mountains from the south, by way of Lester Pass. From that vantage point he was able to see both Fremont Peak (13, 730') and Gannett Peak (13,785') – the latter a great snowy mass. From Lester Pass, however, Woodrow Wilson is on a direct line to Gannett and cannot readily be picked out as a distinct summit. When the climbers set out on August 14, 1842, their goal was to ascend Fremont Peak, which so far as they could tell might well have proved to be the highest summit. But they were unsuccessful in that endeavor and so they turned to climb a different mountain – “Snow Peak” – on August 15. They were not headed up Fremont Peak, we know, because they followed a long defile [Titcomb Basin] to the left of the previous day’s route [up the slopes of Fremont Peak].
While they may well have thought they were headed up Gannett Peak, they ended up on Woodrow Wilson instead. The Bonney analysis is absolutely on the mark.
Allow me to refer, in this regard, to my earlier article:
… the discovery of Gannett Peak was a shock. As noted above, its summit snowfield had appeared from Lester Pass to be part of the same mass as Mt. Woodrow Wilson. Preuss’ journal provides some more evidence of their expectations. According to the diary, Frémont had explained in the morning that they would try to ride their mules to the base of the last of the very high peaks, which they would then try to climb. This makes sense if they thought they were indeed going to attack the highest summit.
The point is that even if the expedition’s aim on August 15 was to conquer the “highest summit,” as Kelsey correctly notes, this turns out to have little significance. I agree that this was the objective, but that the climbers expected to reach the top of Gannett.
The larger significance of Dr. Volpe’s article is that Frémont’s candor, if not his honesty, is subject to serious question. The Pathfinder would not be content to carry out his official instructions, but intended instead to “achieve fame” by venturing into the Wind Rivers and climbing a high peak there. It was that same drive for fame that in my opinion led Frémont to claim an ascent of “the loftiest peak” when he stood a mile away, on Mt. Woodrow Wilson, instead. As I previously pointed out, “scarcely a mile away, there could be no question of [Gannett’s] superior elevation – a 300-foot differential at that distance cannot be mistaken.” Frémont’s duplicity regarding his intentions is of a piece with the falsity of his summit climb report.
Incidentally, the 1988 article was accompanied by a photograph that was designed to show the relative heights of Mt. Woodrow Wilson and Gannett Peak. Unfortunately, the picture was cropped so that the summit of Mt. Woodrow Wilson was omitted. This would be an appropriate occasion to reproduce it in its entirety, together with the original caption.
Corrections and additions for Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone.
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