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Sam Lightner

Sam Lightner Jr.: Finally, A Route Up Wyoming’s Gigantic Monolith

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By Sam Lightner Jr. 

It was my sophomore year in college, 1986, when the hook was set. 

On veteran mountaineer Paul Piana’s advice, I’d gone on a quest to find a copy of the Bonney and Bonney book “Guide to Wyoming’s Mountains and Wilderness.” First printed in 1960, this cowboy climbers’ Bible was hard to find, so my buddy Bill Walker gave me his copy. 

“You need it more than I,” he said. I raced home, ignored the necessary studying for a history exam (not that much to remember then as not too much history had passed yet), and opened the book to page 498. Randomly hit it, first try. 

There on 498 was a striking photo of The Monolith, an 1,800-foot buttress of Big Sandy Peak, deep in the Wind River Range. It was an oddly shaped block of Precambrian granite with only one route to the summit, and that one route was not the one I would have chosen for the beautiful wall. 

With a pen I scribbled in where I would someday go on the mountain, then spent the night paging through the tome of possible Wyoming adventures. I think I got a “C” on that 1986 history exam.

Flash forward 30 years, through dozens of countries and up hundreds of rock walls. Some small and some big, but none like The Monolith. 

My friends Shep Vail, Mike Lilygren, and I had made it a yearly priority to climb something, anything, together. With wives, kids, businesses and mortgages, this usually meant something that took no more than a day, but that huge wall, which would certainly take multiple days to ascend, had never been forgotten. In 2015 we made a plan to go into the Winds and try the line I had scribbled into Bonney and Bonney decades before. 

With a combined age well over the century mark, our Spartan days of sleeping wet and eating cold were behind us. We decided this trip would be treated like an international expedition, just one to a rock that was 30 miles from our bedrooms. 

We hired Miss Jessie Allen, aka Miss Wyoming 2014, to haul in gourmet meals, individual tents with multiple sleeping pads and a half dozen gallons of bourbon, then convinced other friends to join us. One, Elyse Guarino, was willing to do so as our chef. From the shores of Papoose Lake in the Wind River Range, our trip in the mountains was going to be plush and soft . . . except for the climbing.  

We made the 1,500-foot vertical walk from the lake to the base of the wall, which faces north and begins at 10,500 feet, the next morning and then began the climbing. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” was the adage on that trip, as we had not brought all the necessary big wall equipment needed for an ascent of the scale and altitude of The Monolith. 

Too much bourbon, not enough rope. OK, not enough rope, otherwise fine. Dismayed after a week of work, we tucked tail and went home, bound and determined to come back stronger and with more rope the following year.

That year rolled around and Jessie again rolled our stuff off the mules and into Monolith Base Camp. This time we got very high, up to about 12,000 feet of elevation, but a band of bad rock had sent us back to the base. 

We were actually in good fortune with that . . . had we topped out on the mountain that day in 2016, we would have had to spend the night there, and thus endured (or not endured) one of the most serious electrical storms any of us had ever seen in the mountains. The summit of The Monolith got pounded like Baghdad on a bad night. 

No matter, we were coming back, but the following year we changed tactics. The bottom 1,400 feet of climbing was some of the best we had ever done, so the new goal was to make sure that future generations had a route open that was of exceptional quality. 

Only being 300 feet from the top, less than two full rope lengths, the best way to do that was from above. We came into the mountains from the west, without horses, and went up the west slope of Big Sandy Peak. By the end of the trip we had found a route up the big wall that was exceptional in every way. 

But there was still a problem; we had not completed the climb in the correct style. In modern rock climbing and mountain climbing, the goal is not to just get to the top, but to get to the top without using the rope for anything more than a safety net. 

You are supposed to use the rock for upward movement, not the rope, but there was one section of rock so difficult we could not do it without resting on the rope. If the first attempt had been about “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” this attempt was “you’re gonna need bigger muscles.” 

The fact is one of us might have been able to free climb the crux, but we needed insurance. We needed something that could assure the clean ascent on the next attempt. 

We needed youth. 

Assuming we could not find a fountain that would provide it, we found someone who still had it; Alex Bridgewater. 

Alex was then a 25-year old professional trainer on the cutting edge of difficult climbing in Wyoming. He was also a really nice guy with a witty sense of humor, and at 115 pounds soaking wet, he didn’t eat much. That combination made him perfect for this route. 

The following season, 2018, we asked him to join us. Over a two-day period, our team managed to free climb all the hardest portions of the route. We were met on the summit by our chef in the first couple of efforts, Elyse Guarino, and all agreed to name the route “Discovery.” 

The name came, in part, from the space ship in the movie “2001; A Space Odyssey” that is sent to research the Monolith, and in part from all we learned about the mountain and ourselves while climbing. 

Discovery has since gotten rave reviews by the climbers who have gone into the Winds to find it. We are proud to have been able to find such a thing and open it up to others.

And I am happy to have finally put the dream to rest that started on page 498 in 1986. 

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Sam Lightner: Just A Normal Sunday With Lightning, High Winds, Baby Elk, And A Wounded Dog

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Columnist Cowboy State Daily

LANDER — Wyoming is the greatest, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Take last Sunday . . .

I was going climbing in the burn-area of the Little Popo Agie Canyon. Most Muggles (non-climber folks) think of rock climbing around Lander to be at either Sinks Canyon or the Wild Iris on Limestone Mountain, but we have actually been climbing in places like the Little Popo Agie and Sweetwater Rocks areas for over 30 years (60 for the latter).

This day was to be spent actually cleaning slabs of guillotine-like rock from a wall that had been damaged during the fire of 2003. Fires cook the outer surface into giant flakes of dolomite and render it unclimbable, and my plan was to clear an area so it would be safe to climb again in the future.

I was accompanied by Dasher, a spunky, 19-pound, mix of everything small and canine, and Sadee, a cross of Chocolate Lab and Healer at a manageable 35 pounds. Both pooches were a bit nervous as the Wyoming-wind was blowing pretty hard, but we all made our way up the slope to the dolomite in about half an hour.

As I began to rappel down the face, the wind caught wind of me and picked up to something Laramie and Casper people might refer to as “breezy.” I’m not real good with the Beaufort Scale, and sailing-stuff like that doesn’t mean much to rock climbers, but with the way I was swinging about  on my 9 mm rope I’d guess it was a steady 35 mph with gusts that could have been twice that. It was hard enough that I couldn’t do what I’d planned with the false sense of security that makes climbing fun. I discussed it with dogs, and we agreed it was time to call the plan off.  We high-tailed it for the truck.

Crossing the deadfall, Sadee in front and Dasher in the rear, our little team almost stepped on an elk “freshie.” No, not poop, but a calf. The cute little ball of brown with white speckles, his fur still matted from birthing fluids, was curled up in some juniper less than proper social distance away.

Sadee lunged forward as the critter wobbled up onto spindly legs. I grabbed the dogs tail but she got away, then stood next to the elk realizing it was 3 times her height. I dove for her over a log and the elk tried to take a step away.

Sadee howled, Dasher yipped, and the elk yelled “Mommy” in Wapiti. Mom must have just stepped out to go shopping or something. Anyway, the elk ran (more like “spindled”) from the obvious danger, and Sadee followed, still not knowing what she was supposed to do with this smelly deer on stilts. I finally got control of her as the elk wobbled over some logs, all the while yelling for mom.

Problem two averted, except we looked up to see a thunderstorm over the Oregon Buttes, and it was headed our way at whatever the crazy speed the wind could carry it. We picked up the pace as the rumbling got closer.

Twenty minutes later we were greeted by two pronghorn who were using the truck as a wind break. Yeah, it was blowing so hard the antelope were looking for cover. I yelled at them to go find a dip in the sage, which notified Sadee they were in the area.

Now we all know it’s illegal and wrong for dogs to chase wildlife, but the Wyoming Game and Fish should have a “Pronghorn Clause” for that law. Dogs have no more chance of catching a pronghorn, or even bothering one, than Sheriff Buford T. Justice did of catching The Bandit. Antelope could make a greyhound look like a glacier.  These two speed-goats jogged south, laughing at what lousy predators canines are, and Sadee seemed to realize how silly she looked in their dusty wake.

The would be hunter-dog was back in the truck moments later, but Dasher was reluctant. Normally wanting to be the boss of the shell, he was demanding to be in the cab of the pickup. As thunder roared overhead, I chased him around and under the truck, trying to explain in my most calming scream that we could get zapped by Thor at any moment. I eventually caught him, got him in the shell with Sadee, and the days problems were solved. Right?


On the way out of Pass Creek I came onto three fellow climbers headed into the Little Po. Despite obvious 307 cultural differences, they being in a Dodge pickup and me in the GMC, we had a polite chat about the conditions. They had work to do the next day and were hell bent on climbing, thunder god or not. I continued towards Highway 28.

For some reason, Dasher was staring at me through the window of the cab. It was out of character, so I pulled over to see what was up. I lifted the back hatch and the Dash-man stood on his hind legs, exposing a 2-inch puncture and gash in his lower chest. Now I understood what he was trying to tell me. It wasn’t pouring blood, but it wasn’t good, either. I grabbed him, put him in my lap, and made for the Lander Valley Animal Hospital at a pace that WyDot would not have approved of.

For those keeping count, my dogs had now assisted me in breaking three unpopular Wyoming laws that morning; two on how poorly domesticated dogs are at harassing wildlife and one, on  what is considered to be a reasonable speed on a prairie highway, when you have a tailwind. But I digress.

We zipped through the yellow lights of Main and managed to beat Doctor Lisa to the vet hospital. I haven’t done the math, but coming from Wild Iris that fast might violate a few laws of physics as well as those of the Highway Patrol. Doc Lisa greeted us with an assuring smile and asked if I would assist in the light surgery that was coming. Dasher heard this and decided the back of the truck didn’t sound so bad, but a few cc’s of Versed with a Lydocaine chaser and he was happy to have his wound irrigated and stitched up. Doc Lisa gave us some meds and we were back home by 3:30.

That’s after 5 pm to those on the east coast, so we poured some distilled Kentucky relaxant and sat down to watch the unhappiness of 2020-America flow across the tv screen.

With fires and looting in Minneapolis, L.A., Chicago, and D.C., all interspersed with a thousand more dead from disease, I was reminded how good even a hard day can be in Wyoming.

(Note: The author retains the right to claim none of this really happened if he so-needs.)

Lightner: Against All Odds: A 4,000-mile RV Trip To Bring Mother-in-law Home

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Cowboy State Daily

Within the given parameters, the task was daunting. How during a pandemic, that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, to transport a package across the country in as little time as possible —  with assurance you will not expose it the disease?

The package, in this case, was my spry 79-year old mother-in-law who’d fought her way to the top of the male dominated industry of trademark law. She’d been “sheltered in place” for two months in Atlanta and was sick of it. And who could blame her. It’s Atlanta.

Every Spring she boards up her place in Georgia to move to Lander and be near her beautiful daughter, Liz, and smart-ass son-in-law. However, this is the Covid spring, so those a-for mentioned parameters were disrupting her plans.

Considering the package, Federal Express, even with next-day-air, was out. They’d shipped a live rhino to a zoo once, but despite some similarities, mother in laws don’t travel like rhinos.

They get cranky when you try and put them in an envelope. Also, the rhino-shipment had cost over half a million dollars and involved a lot of personal contact between the rhinoceros and his handlers. So, no Fed-Ex.

Putting her in a hazmat suit and sticking her on a plane was also not an option. This Package comes with two schnauzers, Drool and Drool-more, and they wouldn’t ride well with the luggage.

The Package didn’t feel up to the traverse of North America on her own, and we couldn’t just drive out and drive back in the family car. Half the hotels between Atlanta and Lander were closed, and there was no way to know that the rooms were as Covid-free as we’d like them to be. What’s more, one needs food on a big drive like that, and we had taken all the precautions to make sure our food was sans-Covid for that two months.

Liz and I had been as diligent about social-distancing as Matt Damon in The Martian, thus we knew we could be a part of the plan to get The Package out west. 

With her brother’s advice, we decided to rent an RV, sanitize it, and make the drive, sleeping, eating, and pottying in the camper for the estimated six days of out and back. A few phone calls, a couple shots of bourbon, and we committed. Liz, I and our smallest dog Dasher, loaded the minivan the following morning and Operation Elder Extraction was under way.

We rented the RV, a “Chateau” as it was called, from John Russell in Cheyenne. The vehicle was in excellent shape and was germ-free as Mr. Russell had sanitized it himself.

We continued to sterilize the surfaces as he explained, properly distanced and masked, how to work all the systems. Within an hour we were passing Pine Bluffs in a 50-mph cross wind. There is nothing like sailing a Schooner across the plains along the route of the Oregon Trail.

We gassed up, wiping down all surfaces at the station with Sani-wipes, in Kearney, Nebraska, then found a place to camp to its east.  I don’t know if you have been to central Nebraska, but it reminded me of a scene in the classic film “The Unforgiven.”

“I heard you were dead, Bill,” says English Bob. “Yeah, I heard that one too Bob . . . turns out I was in Nebraska.”

So, we moved on. The next day had a little less wind, a few more trees, and ended with a stopover in St. Louis with Liz’s step mom. We had dinner on her patio while she sat inside, thus staying distanced.

The following day we crossed onto the east coast, that being the other side of the Mississippi, and suddenly there was traffic. I’m not sure how people in the eastern third of our country can socially distance. They are packed in like hibernating wasps.

As we caught our first glimpse of the Atlanta skyline, ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” came on the radio. I had to agree. Angus Young repeated his three chords as I thought how wise General William T. Sherman approach to the Peach State had been in his famous March to the Sea.

Or maybe I was just grumpy about driving across the country and still only being half way home. We pulled in to the driveway of The Package, from here on known as Mommy Dillon, to tears of joy. She appeared to be as ready to get out of there as General Sherman and I.

The next morning, we packed the RV and turned north for the Mason Dixon Line. And then, as we passed Chattanooga and the Chickamauga Battle Site, it happened; Liz coughed.

I glanced at her as she stifled another cough, and she turned to me with saucer-size, tear filled eyes. We’ve been together for a while, so I could read her mind: “I gave my mom Covid19!”

“No,” I said. “We haven’t been within 15 feet of anyone without a mask on in two months, and our hands have been washed so many times they are permanently scented like lilac. You are in the allergy capital of North America and that’s why you coughed.”

As Mommy Dillon watched the majestic Lookout Mountain out the huge side window of the Chateau, Liz ran for her suitcase. Clothes flew as she rifled for something.

Moments later she was back in the passenger seat, digital thermometer in mouth. It came back 98.2. Then 98.1, 98.4, 97.9, and 97.6, and all that before we hit Kentucky. A bad night’s sleep was had for Liz and I near Hannibal, Missouri. Mommy Dillon was comfortably tucked in with the Drool-brothers.

The following day we managed to reach the Cabela’s campground in Sidney, Nebraska. It’s a step up from Kearney, probably cuz you can smell Wyoming.

The 37 temperature recordings taken that day maintained the low trend, and the coughing eased as we got further west. We crossed back into Heaven about 9 a.m. on the 6th day, exchanged the RV for the family minivan by 11, and at 3 p.m. Liz, I, Dasher, Mommy Dillon, and the two Schnauzers pulled into Lander.

But it wasn’t over yet.

The Covid-cough had to be confirmed as Bluegrass-infused phlegm. Fremont County Healthcare was now able to test anyone who had as much as a sunburn. One deep poke in the nose, followed by a long weekend of staring at the phone while waiting for results, and we were in the clear.

 Liz had not infected her mother, and Operation Elder Extraction was a complete success.

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Sam Lightner: Bring On The Cold And Snow As We Endure ‘The Covid Spring’

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By Sam Lightner, (author and mountain climber)

Spring. I’ve heard about it. I might have even seen it a few weeks ago. I had to change the clock on the microwave, which requires a post-doctorate degree in button sequencing, and that often has something to do with spring.

There are cute little birds in the yard and bouncing off the windows, and in the past that has had something to do with spring as well. But with a foot of white stuff on the ground and lows in the single digits, spring is merely a myth.

Of course, I often ponder where spring is at this time of year. In Lander we get nearly a quarter of our annual precipitation in April and May, and much of that comes in back-breaking high-density snow. We take showers in August because of the snow in April, and I like showers, so I can’t really complain about the cold, white blanket.

Nope, the problem this spring is not the extension of winter; it’s the Covid Spring.

Now what I am writing here might seem a bit callous, but I don’t intend to make light of Covid 19 or its victims. In fact, I feel terrible for those who have suffered with it and am terrified of the disease.

However, for most of us, either not yet infected or not badly infect, the biggest problem is the forced break in our routines. Normally in spring I’d be out rock climbing as much as possible. My friends and I would generally go to Sinks Canyon, but the warmest days could take us to Sweetwater Rocks, Fremont Canyon, or even Devils Tower. Jaunts to Tensleep Canyon and Vedauwoo are even possible.

This particular Spring, I was going to do a book tour, which I tell everyone was to showcase my new book, Wyoming: A History of the American West. Of course, the real reason was tick a dozen or so of Wyoming’s best rock climbs and write it off. But then came “The Pandy” (as in Pandemic) and it’s call to “social distance,” and with it a quagmire of boredom.

Rock climbing has a reputation for being an individualist’s game, but in many ways, it is the ultimate team sport. The most common form of rock climbing is known as “sport climbing” and it is more closely related to gymnastics than slogging up Mount Everest.

In sport climbing, you push your physical limits to the absolute maximum, crimping your fingers onto thin edges and sliding them into one and two finger pockets, all to scale some 60 to 80-foot stretch of slightly overhanging stone. The goal is to push yourself to the absolute limit of endurance and power just as you reach the top, thus risking a fall for trying something just a little beyond your limit.

You can risk falling because of the safety systems employed in sport climbing. The rope, the harness, and the safety equipment fixed to the wall, all work in combination to save a falling climber when he/she attempts something beyond their limit. The most integral part of the safety system is your climbing partner, the person who holds the rope and maintains the safety system while you climb.

In that sense, rock climbing is the ultimate team sport as your teammate literally keeps you from dying. This helps climbers to form bonds that no NFL quarterback and receiver could ever dream to have.  However, social distancing is forcing climbing partners apart.   

In a non-Covid Spring, not only would I be travelling around the state to scale rock walls, but other climbers would be coming to Wyoming just to climb. Sinks Canyon, for instance, sees hundreds of visiting climbers every spring weekend, and the license plates in the parking areas show visitors from all over the country.

However, this spring the Central Wyoming Climbers Alliance, the organization that hosts the International Climbers Festival every July, has gone to great efforts to let would-be visitors know that they are not wanted in Wyoming right now.

We love them, even the ones from Colorado, but putting us all together along the dolomite walls of Sinks Canyon would not be good for public health. Add to it that the Governor, who happens to be a climber himself and very-much wants to see Wyoming’s recreational opportunities utilized, has asked everyone to stay home. To top it off, the hotels, restaurants, and even camp grounds are closed, giving those visitors few places to hunker down when these spring storms roll in.

There are worse things than boredom. A bad case of Covid-19 is one of them, and I personally don’t want to fight with it or make someone else fight with it simply to satisfy my climbing ambitions.

So, I wait and hope it passes by summer. But I thought you might like to know that The Pandy has not just ended March Madness and put off the Olympics. The smaller sports, some of which help to pay the bills around Wyoming, have also taken a hit in the Covid Spring. So, it might as well snow. That way I can take a shower, or at least wash my hands for 20 seconds, when August comes around. 


Sam Lightner holds a copy of his new book, which was scheduled for a book signing tour until “The Covid Spring” postponed it.

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