Bill Sniffin: Wyoming’s Most Fantastic Mountain Man Was Finis Mitchell

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes: “He was the Johnny Appleseed of the future trout paradise that these mountain lakes became. Today, it is common for hikers to catch trout in the 18-24 inch range. Each fish should have a label: ‘Courtesy of Finis Mitchell.’”

Bill Sniffin

June 09, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Perhaps it is fitting that the man who first climbed all 244 peaks in the towering Wind River Mountains would be referred to as his “High-Ness,” which also rhymes with his first name FINIS.

To me, Finis Mitchell is the true and only Lord of the Wind River Mountains. The man was a legend and I was lucky enough to be his friend. 

He died in 1995 one day before his 94th birthday. Seldom has Wyoming seen such a pioneer mountaineer.

Besides being its most active mountaineer, he stocked trout in 314 lakes in the southwestern Wind River Mountains, an area that a century ago featured lakes devoid of fish.

Because of the steep terrain, fish could not go upstream to spawn. He estimated he stocked over 2.5 million fish during his lifetime in the Wind Rivers. The fish came from the hatchery in nearby Daniel. 

His mountaineering career started in 1930. After being laid off from his railroad job in Rock Springs, Finis and his wife Emma started their fish camp in the Big Sandy area. The dudes they hauled up to the mountains enjoyed the scenery but caught very few fish.

Finis decided to stock the lakes with trout. When the Game and Fish found out what he was doing they said they would provide the fingerlings if he would stock the lakes. He was delighted.

It was a common sight to see him with six packhorses loaded with milk cans full of baby trout headed up the mountain trails.

He was the true Johnny Appleseed of the future trout paradise that many of these mountain lakes became. Today, it is very common for hikers and mountaineers to catch trout in the 18-24 inch range from lakes across the Wind River Range. Each fish should have a label on them: “Courtesy of Finis Mitchell.”

He also climbed all those mountains. He climbed the tallest one, Gannett Peak, four times. He even has a mountain named after him, Mitchell Peak, which he climbed at least 11 times.

The agency that names mountains after people normally only do that after the person dies. In Mitchell’s case, they made an exception and named it while he was still alive. First time he climbed his mountain was in 1923. The last time was 50 years later in 1973.

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    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
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    (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Low Impact Mountaineering

The Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) founded by Paul Petzoldt is often given credit for a back country ethic called Leave No Trace. But Finis Mitchell may have been the first one to really believe in it and practice it. 

He said he rarely cooked in the back country but packed in dried food to eat. Emma was an expert of fruit cakes and other items to keep him nourished.

Photos of early mountaineers show some natty guys with their fancy sweaters, jaunty hats, glorious scarfs, knee-high breech pants, and fancy stockings. Nice boots filled out their wardrobes.

Finis always wore bib overalls, a wool cap, a canvas water bag, ordinary-looking shoes (but skip the leather soles, he always said), and a 70-pound backpack. In later years he had his walking stick. He looked more like an Iowa farmer than a famous mountaineer. 

120,000 Photographic Slides

I invited him to Lander one time around 1978 to present a program at the community room at the old First National Bank. At the time he had 92,000 slides and he had them all catalogued. Before he died, the total was up to 120,000.

He was a little late because of South Pass weather but he ultimately got there. It took him a while to set up his slide show. And then he started. He went on and on . . . and on and on. He loved these mountains and he knew his Lander audience loved them, too.

By midnight, just a few hearty souls remained and the janitor came by and said we had to shut down.

He loved talking about his Wind River Mountains. And I loved listening to him.

I learned a long time ago that photography has three simple rules: First, you need skill. Second, you need adequate equipment. Third, you need the moment. All three are necessary to take great photos.

Finis had average skill and his equipment was adequate. But wow, had he experienced the moments. His photos were just spectacular to those of us who do not spend our times in the rarified air where he wandered and loved.

Later he created thousands of color slides of the mountains and western Wyoming, which he sold all over the west.

Finis Means A Lot To Our Family

Our daughter Shelli Johnson and her husband Jerry named their third son Finis, in honor of the heroic mountaineer.

They have two other sons and all have enjoyed a family tradition of climbing Mitchell Peak. They each made solo climbs the summer between eighth grade and high school.

The entire family climbed the peak in 2022 and to memorialize their 30th wedding anniversary. They all have the geographic coordinates tattooed on their arms.

Pinedale Photographer Dave Bell, who is a big Finis Mitchell fan, discovered that the plaque on top of Mitchell Peak had been stolen.

He put together a plan where Eagle Bronze Foundry created a new plaque which will be placed at the summit this summer. Hope this one stays.

Finis’ Book Is A Treasure

“Wind River Trails” by Finis Mitchell is a true bible of the Wind River Mountain Range. He published it in 1975 and he purposely created it in a compact format where it would fit easily into a pocket.

Countless hikers, fishermen, and mountaineers have used his guide book for their trips in the Winds.

The quote: “The mountains are calling and I must go” is attributed to California environmentalist John Muir. But it sure does apply to Mitchell, even more so. 

I have known mountaineers from Paul Petzoldt to Todd Skinner, but the one I call the Lord of the Winds is the late Finis Mitchell. A true Wyoming icon and legend. 

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.