Home > Uncategorized > Up Mt. Washburn

Up Mt. Washburn

August 2. The central third or so of Yellowstone, where all the geothermal weirdness takes place, is actually the collapsed throat, or caldera, of a massive volcano. At roughly 45 miles in diameter, it’s the largest caldera in the world, and likewise the largest active volcano. During its last major eruption 640,000 years ago, Yellowstone volcano spread a blanket of ash as far west as the Pacific, as far north as Canada and as far south as San Antonio. The area registers over 1,000 earthquakes, large and small, every year. The caldera heaves up and down several feet over a decade, like a sleeping monster.

It’s eerie to think I’m sitting on the very top of the largest pustule of magma on earth, extending from several miles beneath me at its shallowest, to hundreds of miles deep far away in Utah. That’s a huge volume of magma, under tremendous pressure, straining to pop. When she blows—and she will again one day, right here—life on earth as we know it will change. Al Gore, get your speech ready.

This morning presents at 40 degrees, with a cold fog shrouding the landscape. I’m wondering whether it will spoil the views or if it will soon burn off. I decide to take my chances that the weather will improve and make preparations for a 3.1 mile (6.2 round trip) day-hike to the top of Mt. Washburn, where a classic old fire watchtower—one of the few still in active use around the country—sits squarely atop the mountain. Most watchtowers have been mothballed; first, because concepts of wildfire management have changed in the last few decades and, second, any necessary surveillance can be done more cheaply by airplane.

The trail, showing angle of ascent

It’s about a 50 minute drive to the trailhead; by the time I get there the fog is gone and the sky is clear azure. The trail to the top is actually a navigable gravel road used to bring supplies to the, ahem, Lone Ranger in the tower, who spends all summer there alone, on duty seven days a week until the snows begin to fall in September. The problem with this road is that it starts at about 8700 feet and assumes a relentless 9% grade all the way to the top at 10,243 feet, a 1400 foot elevation gain without the respite of even a single step downhill. I thought I was in pretty good walking shape, having averaged 6-8 miles per day for the past several months. And I thought I was getting fairly well acclimatized to altitude, having spent over 10 days above 7000 feet.

This, however, is not the case. By the time I’m halfway up I’m gasping. My legs are okay, but my lungs protest. I have to stop at about every third snowplow marker—about 150 yards—to catch my breath. Having smoked for 20 years in another lifetime, I guess my oxygen-exchange ratio is lacking.

But I should digress here for a moment while I’m thinking about dying. While driving to the trailhead I stopped at Canyon Village, one of the more developed areas of the park with a lodge, store, gas station, restaurant and education center. It’s here that I discover I don’t have my wallet. No ID. I’ve come too far to go back and get it, so on a 3×5 card I scribble, “In Case Of Emergency…” with my name, Jane’s name and phone number, and the license number of my truck. I stuff the card into my pocket, figuring if anyone should find me splayed out on the trail, this will help prevent a great deal of aggravation.

To continue: I notice, even in my state of inebriative oxygen deprivation, that heavy clouds are starting to form over the mountains. This encourages me to quicken my pace, to the extent I can. I move doggedly upward, upward, imagining I’m one of the storied adventurers who climbed Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks.

The watchtower

And then I’m at the summit. My relief cannot be overstated. I sit for a spell until my breath fully returns, then begin to wander around the watchtower. There is an enclosed observation deck one flight up, and above that the Lone Ranger’s residence. While we’re not allowed into the residence, there’s a photo of it on display: one room, containing a stove, sink, bed, desk, books and various minor furnishings. It’s probably about 600 square feet, surrounded by fully 360 degrees of windows, no walls. Nice view. I have to wonder how the isolation, the rapidly shifting weather, the unmatched beauty in all directions, would affect a person who spends months at a time there. And where do I apply?

The clouds now assume a threatening aspect and force my decision to leave. The best part of the story is that it all goes downhill from here.


Lots of big scenery. Also plenty of small.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Brian, I find your travelogue so interesting and well written – you should have them published. you’re surely having a unique experience – i guess one that has been on your
    dream/wish list for a long time. Make the most of it, and continue being reasonably
    Today the person who bought the presses was at the shop beginning the dismantling
    process for moving. He bought them for a song and will sell the motors and scrap
    what can’t be used. Love, Mom

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