CLOUD PEAK WILDERNESS, Wyo. — The boulder field seemed to form in waves. Rocks the size of Volkswagens and refrigerators are piled on top of each other like they’d been thrown from the peak by a giant.
Scrambling up and down them required hands and knees and occasional leaps of faith.
At the crest of each wave the rocks calmed and opened to short patches of dirt, snow and wildflowers hugging the ground, bits of reprieve for the wary climber.
Keegan Hornby, 16, and his two friends clambered up the mountainside, stopping periodically for Hornby’s dad, Kelly Hornby, to catch up. It was the tortoise and the hares.
Kelly muttered occasionally about being out of shape, or not moving as fast as the teenagers-turned-mountain goats. But at the top of Cloud Peak recently, with views of glacial lakes, deep valleys and far-away ranges, father and son were created equal.
It was the second time the Hornbys summited the mountain in as many years.
“It’s a challenging but relatively safe climb,” Kelly said. “You can still get hurt pretty easily up there, especially with all of the snow, but it’s a lot safer than (Colorado’s) Longs Peak.”
Cloud Peak, topping out as one of Wyoming’s highest mountains, is one of the main attractions in the similarly named wilderness area in the Big Horn Mountains. But the peak is by no means the only attraction. It offers trout-filled lakes, gurgling streams, moose, elk, deer and black bear. It is also one of the easiest ways to reach the solitude of some of Wyoming’s biggest country.
The idea of a wilderness area around Cloud Peak dates back decades before anyone considered it for legislative protection. It was 1932, and the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to put a dam on Lake Solitude, one of several lakes near the base of Cloud Peak, said Craig Cope, the wilderness manager for the Bighorn National Forest.
To avoid an irrigation project like others popping up around the West, residents asked the Forest Service to give the area a primitive classification with select protections. It started as 94,000 acres, but grew to nearly 160,000 by 1940, Cope said. Except the designation fell in a precarious balance.
“An administrative determination can be changed by the stroke of a pen by whatever leadership is in the forest service or in charge at the time,” Cope said.
Officials considered the area for permanent wilderness in 1940 and again in 1949, but never with any luck. When the Wilderness Act passed 50 years ago, in 1964, it wasn’t on Wyoming’s list.
Cope doesn’t know why. It met the requirements for wilderness: It wasn’t full of roads, wasn’t leased for drilling or other demands and there was a need, but it didn’t make the cut.
A local legislator introduced a Cloud Peak wilderness bill in the House in 1975. It lost again.
Finally, in 1984 with the passage of the Wyoming Wilderness Act, the Cloud Peak Primitive Area became formal wilderness, protected by law.
“It’s important summer range for big game,” Cope said. “Some of the highest prehistoric stone rings found in North America are there. Prehistoric folks were in the high country hunting and fishing and trying to escape the heat.”
The wilderness also boasts more than 100 lakes and has water quality nearly as pure as distilled, he said.
For Kelly Hornby and his son, the wilderness is about more than lakes, elk and rocks. The climb gave them a challenge, the hike a reason to get away.
“I like climbing quite a bit, and backpacking,” Keegan said. “I like being away from the city and stuff, being on our own. You can’t just call someone. It’s also less populated than other areas.”
It was likely the same for other groups on the nearly 10-mile trail leading from West Tensleep Lake to the base of the mountain.
The climb is, as Kelly pointed out, challenging enough to feel accomplished, but easy enough for a family.
Kelly hopes to return each year with his son. It will be their annual adventure.
“You laugh a little and struggle and challenge one another,” Kelly said. “Which is good for relationships and family.”
Keegan set his sights a little higher. He conquered the waves of boulders and sweeping snowfields. With Cloud Peak under his belt, he plans to drag his dad up bigger mountains with taller peaks and more challenging routes.