Climbing a Mountain: A Blog Post on Wilderness Character Monitoring


It’s like learning to walk uphill all over again.

With each step, my brain’s doing this frantic calculation, trying to use trigonometry, algebra, anything – something to make certain that I'm not going to fall in a shower of loose granite. It’s my first time climbing a mountain. So far, not living up to the expectations. Somehow, I never pictured this steep of an incline. 

I grew up hiking in Missouri and while I love our rolling hills, worn limestone, and the way that rivers cut through the karst and leave behind a whole mess of caves, our mountains are ancient. They are knobs of granite worn to smoothness by years of wind weathering and glacial erosion. Hiking back home did not prepare me for this. The highest point in the state of Missouri is only 1,100 feet. And here I am trying to summit something that is closer to 11,000. I’m quite literally out of my depth.

Years of looking at historical photos have led me to picture Wilderness with a mountaineer surveying the valley from the top of a peak, looking out at all of the other peaks they’re going to conquer. One such man is the person from which this Wilderness draws its name: Jedediah Smith.

Credited with being the first white man to make the trip to California from the East Coast and back, Jed was an explorer in the early 1800s who paved the way for generations of pioneers who would travel west over native lands and mountains to the coast.

Almost 200 years apart, we both made the trek from St Louis, Missouri to Wyoming, him on horseback and me in a beat-up Honda Civic. While he never climbed up the same 4,000 ft of elevation I’m currently huffing up, he passed within 150 miles of this place, rediscovering the Wind River’s South Pass.

But unlike me, he exemplified the best of mind, body, and spirit and poured himself into outside exploration. Instead of surviving a grizzly bear attack and charting unexplored frontiers, I’ve been entering data into spreadsheets and trying to understand the complex legislative history which led to this rugged landscape’s eventual Wilderness designation. I’m working on the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Character Baseline Assessment Report in order to document the status of Wilderness Character and set the stage for future monitoring, which will record how the Wilderness is changing over time.

Jedediah Smith Wilderness provides abundant recreational opportunities over its 123,541 acres. It's a refuge for a wide variety of flora and fauna including charismatic species from bighorn sheep to the smallest pika. The Wilderness stretches along the western slope of the Teton Range consisting of water-carved limestone and granite, weathered by over 9 million years’ worth of glacial activity. As the snow melts every summer, historic evidence of life is exposed. 250 million-year-old trilobite, stromatolite, and other shell fossils can be found in old seafloor rocks that were once deposited in a shallow sea.

Clearly, I’m not the only animal who’s felt like dying here. However, one of the beautiful things about public land is that anyone, regardless of how buff their calves are or how robust their experience is can hike in the Wilderness and overcome their own personal mountains. This means there’s a place for me here too. I’ve struggled a lot wrapping my head around the complexities of land management in an ecosystem so far from my own context but I’ve come to a key realization.

Understanding how Wilderness Character Monitoring works is a lot like this uphill climb - there's a steep learning curve and the only way to get through the experience is by taking it a step at a time. There’s a lot of new terrain to cover, and the type of ground keeps changing. Sometimes you’re scrambling up sliding gravel, other times you’re walking across rock fields of shattered granite that creak like death. I may not always be certain of where this work is taking me, but the view from the top, when the earth carves away from you on either side and you can see the vast potential ahead of you is well worth the climb.


Ellen Sulser is a Wilderness Fellow in USFS Region 4, working on the Jedediah Smith and Winegar Hole Wildernesses. 

Ellen is a 2018 Smith college graduate with a major in Environmental Science and Policy. Throughout her time at Smith, Ellen worked at the college’s Field Research Station, where she developed a passion for land management, environmental communication, and composting toilets. Last Summer Ellen Served as the Fellow for Region 9 at the Mark Twain National Forest. She was proud to be in Midwest and working at the intersection between community engagement and scientific research. Wilderness is an ecological archive —a record of the environmental past by which we can chart our progress towards a sustainable future. Ostensibly uncurated, the wilderness is nevertheless profoundly shaped by human action, and Ellen is excited to advocate for responsible stewardship. Enthusiastic and passionate about natural resources and being able to experience the outdoors, she strives to understand how natural resource policy is developed and implemented and how science should contribute to ensuring that policy is based on a sound foundation. On long hikes, Ellen can be heard from miles away singing an eclectic blend of opera and barbershop music.

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