I have stood in the great halls of the gothic churches of Europe, overwhelmed by the grandeur. Stunned by the scale of craftsmanship, by the amount of time it must have taken, and the painstaking detail. Simply left in awe, exactly as they were designed to do. Want to know where else I was left speechless while gazing at towers of stone that seemed almost hand crafted to make you feel inferior?
Giant rock walls in Wyoming.
Togwotee Pass is not something I can say I’d searched for. I hadn't done years of research on it. And I hadn't spent countless hours lost in daydreams wondering if I'd ever make it there.
But it should have been.
So much of my focus through the years has been on destinations outside of the borders of the U.S. that, magnificent as they may be, places like Wyoming have stayed on the back burner. Until 2020 shook up the entire world.
In days of sullen desperation, my phone would sometimes ring. A voice would explode out of the speaker before I could get out a gruff, “Hello”.
“DUDE!! When you finally coming to Wyoming?!?!”
That voice belonged to Matt. I have known Matt since we were both on the ski team in high school, but our positions in the race line up were drastically polarizing. Matt was the tip of the spear, known for either ripping a course apart and pushing us into the lead, or exploding out of the run in what can mostly be described as utter carnage. I was in the critical position of inspecting the turns and gates that had previously been worked over by these incredible skiers. That's right, I was dead last.
Thankfully, much time has passed since those days. Years of abuse chasing snow across the planet has a funny way of tuning up ones legs just right.
Matt worked for NOLS and is based in Lander, Wyoming. With that as his base of operations, he and his built out Toyota have taken to charging into Wyoming's notorious backcountry whenever conditions allow. He’s a hard charger, in a location that is only suitable for hard chargers. I had to come and join him and see this monstrous playground for myself.
Togwotee pass sits almost equidistant between Jackson and Lander. The drive from Lander alone would make the trip worth it. The approach leads through the Wind River Reservation, and is subsequently a full display of the contrasting beauty and harshness that exists in this place. My eyes were glued to the windows for the entire drive, both directions, every time.
It isn't until the last half hour of the drive that the scale of the mountains, and of the physical output that will be required to play in them reveals itself. They just keep going up and up. And when they top out, they don't do so quietly. For so many, they top out with solid faces of rock. Hundreds of feet of vertical, flat rock. They overpower the landscape, even from the parking lot.
We did three separate trips into the pass; each weekend with a different objective. Due to sheer luck, at least one day each trip had conditions you hope for all spring. Warming cycles that didn't ruin the snow, temps that cooperated during the day, and at times full on pow turns with low avalanche risk. In April? My yells were echoing off the Grand Teton itself. I was fired up.
The first trip into the pass was the ideal way to have my mind blown. A long approach up the backside of the mountain hid the entire zone until the last half hour. When we finally approached the lip, I slowly made my way over to Matt and his shit eating grin. He knew exactly how sick this place was, and exactly how stunned I was about to be.
With the Grand Teton in the background, I tried to mentally absorb the scale of where we were. Matt would constantly point to spots far off in the distance, emphasizing just how much there was hidden out here. A land of limitless possibilities for the right crew. As I ripped the skins off my skis, thoughts of returning on a full blown mission with snowmobiles and tents was already swirling.
That first day can be described in the colorful verbiage used frequently in the mountain sport community to describe something of overwhelming beauty and intensity. It was "SICK".
The snow was good, the angle of the run ideal, and not a single mark of other people to be seen. We were definitely out there. This was my first big mountain drop in since leaving Austria, that familiar heart pounding mix of nerves and excitement was a welcome feeling.
Cathedrals of stone in every direction, the rock faces shining bright against a pure blue backdrop, we let it ride. Screams echoed, stoke was high, it was an all time day. Matt even decided to go full Euro and bring the headband out for one bonus lap. It would’ve felt like I was back in the Arlberg if it wasn't for the uniqueness of the mountains themselves and our elite combination of Trader Joe's dark chocolate and peanut butter.
I've never ridden anywhere that looks like Wyoming.
Our second mission was to a face called “Two Oceans.” I left early on a first light mission to the other side of the pass. I was gifted a morning of pure bliss as a storm passed and I watched the sun slowly rise over the Tetons in total silence. If the day had ended there, it still would’ve been a trip highlight. But the levels of epic on this day were only building. We did three full laps of this face in 2.5 hours. The snow having been untouched, every run was ours to make, and we were not going to miss out.
The day was full of pounding hearts, pounding during the fast pace ascents, and pounding during the incredible runs we were afforded.
I have had to develop ways to manage the repercussions of that heart pounding excitement. When the adrenaline starts pumping it can be overwhelming, now add launching and flying a drone while getting blasted by wind while standing on the edge of a massive mountain, it can feel like my entire body is going to jump out of my skin.
The subsequent adrenaline spike that resulted from trying to land the drone and not lose any fingers in the process had my hands shaking and eyes popping. But this is why practice makes perfect, and this is why doing things in crazy places is worth it. I knew I had gotten the shot, the only thing left was to get my run.
It is never lost on me how fortunate I am to be doing these things. To get to turn around and look back up at a mountain that looks like it was out of the ski movies I grew up watching.
The third and final trip to the pass was a bonus trip. Due to a snowstorm cancelling my flight I lucked out with a bonus chance at going after a zone that Matt pointed to time we drove home. The area was a giant field positioned directly under the biggest wall of rock in the pass. Boulders dotted the entire area, reminders that these mountains are alive and constantly changing. Having thought this zone was going to be put into the, “hopefully next time” category, I was beyond excited to get the chance to check it off the list.
The entire way into the zone, I could see the silhouette of these mountains poking through the trees. The farther we got, the bigger their presence became. The intimidation factor building until we finally got beyond the tree line, and my jaw hit the floor. Just like the gothic churches of Europe, these mountains seemed designed to make you feel small. To humble those who come to play under their watch, and to remind all visitors that they are just that, visitors, guests, temporary observers in a place that was here long before you, and will be here long after you are gone.
But for a brief moment, this place seemed ours alone to enjoy. And so we did.
With temperatures building, we had a small window to get up the last pitch. The skin turned into a bootpack, and step by step we worked our way to stand at the feet of these giants.
Matt was the shepherd, and last to take his full lap. Watching him bop in between rocks that would dwarf anything other than an elephant was a testament to the beauty of the mission we just accomplished. A lot of work for one run? Definitely, but as I get older quality is replacing the importance of quantity in many aspects of my life.
The need not for more, but for better.
As that need grows and I continue to grow with it, I know Wyoming will be a place were I come to quench that thirst time and time again. Trips that were born on ski team buses early on Saturday mornings. If you had told any of us that this would be in our future I’m certain not a soul would have believed it.