Words by: Jeff Burke
Photos by: Brenton Reagan
We arrived late. The dirt road to Allen’s Diamond 4 Ranch left Hwy 26 and wound its way fifteen dark miles into the southwestern foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Climbing 4000 feet into the Shoshone National Forest, my truck crept slowly under the moonless night en route to the remote dude ranch and outfitter. Our drive dead–ended into a dark collection of cabins and stables where a single figure emerged in the solitary wash of our headlights. Clad in a patchwork of wool, denim and poly pro, she extended her hand, smiling. “You made it,” she said. “I’m Megan.” With that, she directed us up the hill to our cabin for what remained of the evening. “Breakfast is at seven,” she said, before disappearing into the darkness.
We’re here because my partner is Exum Mountain Guide’s Brenton Reagan, a former Marine and Arc’teryx ambassador. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years and never climbed together. The impetus for this particular style of trip into the Winds is in part a recon mission to create a superior, three-dimensional experience that clients and climbers alike can have in the Winds.
Our main objective is the Northeast Face of Pingora (5.8+ IV) in the Cirque of the Towers, a featured route in the seminal “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.” A bastion of granite climbs, alpine cirques, and world-class wilderness, the Cirque is one of the most popular mountaineering destinations in Wyoming. Most parties access the Cirque from the west, departing from the Big Sandy Trailhead, slogging over eight miles into the Cirque by way of Jackass Pass, a scenic but arduous route rising 1700 vertical feet before descending down to the backcountry camp sites that surround the aptly named Lonesome Lake.
Enter the Diamond 4 Ranch. Founded in 1973 by Jim and Mary Allen, the Diamond 4 is the highest elevation guest ranch in Wyoming. Now, you can find a lot of dude ranches in Wyoming, but what sets Diamond 4 apart is its sublime austerity, intimate nature, rustic cabins, and unfettered access to hunting, fly fishing, and, of course, the inimitable rock climbing of the Wind Rivers.
After breakfast, our wrangler, Taylor, helped us pack gear for the horses that would ferry the load into the Cirque. She’s been working for the ranch for many years, hails from nearby Lander, and knows the beat intimately.
Horse packing has its advantages. In two words: weight savings. Our route into the Cirque from the east is farther than from the west—to the tune of 14 miles along the North Fork of the Popo Agie River (six miles farther than that of Big Sandy). But, when the heaviest thing in your pack is a salami poor boy, those miles evaporate. Having done both portages into the Cirque, I can tell you that I’ll trade a fifty-pound pack for six more miles every time.
Dickinson Park Trailhead is located a skip away from the Diamond 4. A long, wooden land bridge leads one away from the parking area, keeping the marshy understory at bay, directing hikers into the thick forest beyond the sweeping meadow.
Miles of single track into the Cirque gives one time to appreciate just how vast the Wind River Range is. With every few miles there’s a stream crossing, each stretch of trail turning a corner to reveal another streak of distant granite peaks, flat water meadows and seemingly endless Shoshone National Forest. Taylor’s one-eyed packhorse Chet shouldered our load, so Brenton and I could focus on the solace, forge the river time and again, and enjoy emergent panoramas as we marched deeper into the wilds without the punishing weight of a multi-day pack.
At camp, close to the northern shore of Lonesome Lake, we had plenty of remaining energy to scout the entire approach to our climb that evening, taking in the setting sun as we returned to camp from the base of the wall. That in itself was worth the price of admission.
To be clear, two tools elevated our collective experience both in spirit and in practice: the Norvan SL running shoes, and Laird Hamilton’s Superfood Creamer. Together our combined efficiency, stoke and performance remained in the high percentiles for the duration. Arc’teryx did something right with the rubber compound, as these shoes were as good as any high performance approach shoes I’ve ever used. There is a lot of boulder hopping, talus crossing, and scree to deal with in the Winds, and they ruled it all, let alone the single track.
But the trip wasn’t really about the climb, rather the climb helped craft this special trip.
As for Northeast Face itself, we got an early start and had a spectacular day in the mountains. The recon paid off, and we were at the base of the climb at sun up. The topo called for 10 pitches. We turned it into twelve. I haven’t been climbing much the last few years, so Brenton was my rope gun. Which he likes. The fall colors were peaking in the canyons below, and the face provided steep, sustained climbing, airy moves, good pro (mostly) and a stellar view of neighboring Wolf’s Head’s serrated ridge off the summit. There’s a reason Pingora’s Northeast Face is in that book. Oh, and yes, I pulled on some gear. But just once.
The next day we made an attempt at Wolf’s Head, but inclement weather shut us down. By afternoon rain clouds passed, and we ran over Jackass Pass and back, lake bagging along the way. What made the trail run so enjoyable wasn’t just the pristine backcountry environment, hulking masses of granite and electric blue lakes. To be sure, the scenery was outstanding, but knowing we were meeting a wrangler in the morning, and thus reducing the specter of the long slog into a simple commute changes the vibe. It makes a big psychological difference. Here’s why. I’m in my late forties, I have two herniated discs in my back from a lifetime of trail running, skiing and climbing, and if I can mitigate the slog, I’m winning.
Our rendezvous for the pack out was close to camp. Our egress wrangler, Cali, had ridden in with two horses, Stormy and Idaho, the night before our departure. She met us at our predetermined spot, the same location Taylor left us two days prior. For the record, Cali hails from Laramie, Wyoming, works the ranch during summers and attends a little school in the United Kingdom called Cambridge University each fall. I’ve heard it’s decent.
We set off with light daypacks and Cali followed. Horses take a little longer to walk out, which gave us time to relax back at the Diamond 4. There we met the ranch manager, and learned more about its past, present and future.
Jessie Allen has spent every summer of her life growing up and working at her parent’s ranch. By the age of thirteen she was packing in client gear alone on horseback, performing drop offs deep in the wilderness, spending nights with a couple horses as company. Now, 29 years old, she is the ranch manager, in charge of day-to-day scheduling, hiring the crew, doing bookings and ultimately being responsible for over 80 horses throughout the working season. “I want to maintain the culture of what the Ranch is,” she says. “So I like that we’re off the grid, and I like that we don’t have electricity and it is so remote and so rustic. I want to maintain [those aspects because] it’s getting less and less like that in the world.”
For her part, Jessie is augmenting the scope of the ranch’s offerings to include a strength-and-conditioning coach, perform yoga and daily workouts and how they are amplified in the high country. She also includes a yearly backcountry camp for adolescents, where teens can learn horsemanship, fly fishing, how to handle an ax properly, how to shoot a rifle safely, how to track animals, find edible plants, navigation, orienteering—all condensed into a week. It’s with that spirit that Diamond 4 distinguishes itself by offering customizable experiences that most outfitters can’t. “We offer the dude ranch vacation, and the backcountry pack trips and gear drops,” she says. “It’s very rare to have both offerings like that.”
Brenton wants to bring the Diamond 4 into the fold for more multi-day trips that would include climbing, running, and general peak bagging. By bringing the virtues of a storied horse packing outfit into the objective, gaining exposure into their history, their wranglers and horsemen, and couching the adventure with a night’s sleep in a cabin deep in the Wyoming wilderness only elevates the experience. “What’s wrong with romanticism?” he says.
Learn more about our trip ascending Wyoming’s famed Cirque of the Towers in Wind River here.