“Sulphur Creek heads to a point south and South East of Stinkingwater peak in a great amphitheater formed by the lesser ranges. [It is] connected with the main peak and the whole, forming a narrow valley with the high mountains rising abruptly on either side to a height of 1500 feet above the creek and with steep slopes showing an angle of 40 degrees in some places.”
This is how Wyoming’s state geologist Henry C. Beeler described the terrain in a letter to the President of Winona Gold and Copper Mining and Milling Company in September, 1907. He goes on to outline geological the features of the mountains,
“Dykes of many varieties of rocks, and varying in size from thin stringers to huge intrusions many hundreds of feet in thickness and veins of quarts and lime material are frequently noted, and many of these are heavily mineralized. Copper being the principal mineral with gold and silver.”
The rights to mine the land were purchased by Winona Gold and Copper later that year and by 1910 they utilized the creek to build a steam and electric plant. Eventually there would be 10 wooden buildings constructed in the area along with 1032 feet of tunnels to access fissure veins and extract copper. A smelter was also erected on the premises. A narrow road still traces the center of the valley, crossing avalanche and rockslide paths. Plans were underway to install a narrow gauge railroad to accelerate transportation.
Under President Woodrow Wilson’s guidance on September 21, 1917 the price of Copper, which had climbed steadily during the war to 35 cents per pound, was fixed at 23.5 cents per pound. The U.S. Government had 45,000,000 pounds of copper under contract at the the higher rate for the army and navy. The lower price going forward would help arm the troops but lead to the shuttering of the Winona Mine sometime before 1922. Since, most signs of the operation have deteriorated.
The terrain is a skier’s paradise nestled some 15 miles into the Absaroka Wilderness on rough dirt roads. Neither the locked forest service gate 10 miles in, nor the four-foot-deep, fifty-foot-wide Sunlight Creek slow our host down. He is sixty-seven-year-old John Housel. A Cody, Wyoming Native, John is a former Cody Circuit Court Judge, a practicing Attorney, and the owner of the old Winona Mining claim. He unlocks the gate and locks it behind us, then crosses the creek on his snow track equipped 4-wheeler.
We follow in Mike Gimmeson’s flat-bed pickup and are three short miles from the mine by the time the road becomes too narrow to continue without risk of losing our ability to turn around. Mike is our connection to John, a former manager at Sleeping Giant Ski Area, he is also a Park County, Wyoming native. Mike is a general contractor and skier who cut his teeth on steep descents across the state. He knows John as an avid Sleeping Giant skier who often skis in shorts and laps the 800 vertical foot local hill from bell to bell. Mike helped John build the second of two cabins. It sits perched at 8500 feet on the flat area formed extracted rock from the Winona Mine tunnel, which John is in the process of re-opening.
John continues up past the snow line and carries our gear on his 4-wheeler, which has already conquered rocky roads, downed trees, and river crossings. The downed trees and the off-camber snowy trail are what eventually lead John to abandon the vehicle. From three miles out we all continue on skis. Mike has brought a Cody local named Dean with an impressive and heavy new video camera, a carpenter named Macayan who is on his first splitboarding mission, and Sleeping Giant Freeride Coach and Cody Enterprise Reporter Leo. As Sego team Manager I have with me two skiers who I was able to rally on a day’s notice. Toby is a Teton Village skier who works seasonally as the director of a freeride ski school and a cook, he is fully unemployed amidst the Corona Virus. Nick is a high school senior from Driggs and agrees to join us as long as he can be home promptly at 9 am the morning after the trip to present his final high-school project. For the project Nick, an aspiring mechanical engineer, has welded an awkward old Diamondback mountain bike frame into a modern dirt jumper. Both Nick and Toby joined me on 12 hours notice.
Three miles later we arrive at John’s cabins. No one beside John and Mike has packed well. Blisters abound and it takes Dean with his heavy pack and Macayan with his never before used split-board until nearly dark to arrive. The cabins are neat and tidy and have all the basic amenities plus breath-taking views. The wood used was planed on sight. They are separated by a 10 minute skin and maybe 200 vertical feet. The upper cabin’s western wall is mostly window and faces up into the “great amphitheater” described by Henry C. Beeler in 1907. The terrain we can see from the window includes Jerry’s Peak, named after John’s father, with a wild curving and nauseatingly steep looking couloir down it’s North West face. It has been skied by Mike and few, if any, others. Above this is Sunlight Peak – between the two is a hidden bowl full of shorter chutes and rock spires. The amphitheater continues and is bordered by Stinkingwater Peak out of sight to the South. Dean rejoices as he points out that he can film right from the cabin – though in the morning he will have found the energy to join us. The skiable terrain looks endless as long as you’re willing to ski things well steeper than the 40 degrees suggested in 1907 by geologist Henry Beeler, whose slopeometer must not have been calibrated.
In the morning we leave John at the lower cabin – he claims he’s a “malingerer”– and head up the center of the cirque. We skin over rolling mounds of rock pushed into heaps by glacial forces which might be explained to us were Mr. Beeler present. High clouds shield the top of Stinkingwater Peak and Toby, Nick, Leo and I leave Mike and the others as they consider skiing its south facing couloir. Mike points us toward the north-west facing couloir between Jerry’s and Sunlight Peak. Mike calls it the "Green Wall Couloir" because of its lichen covered walls. It is the obvious line in the middle of the cirque that connects Jerry's and Sunlight Peak. Its North West aspects makes it seem the safer bet on this rapidly warming Memorial Weekend Sunday.
What follows is what all of us will remember as an idyllic ski day. We ski the Mossy Couloir, which is Toby and Nick’s first ski mountaineering objective, then watch Mike and Mackayan – who abandoned their south facing plans – ski a creative line through a rocky area out on to a spine and down into the basin. Dean films it all and Mike, Leo and Mackayan ski a second couloir off Jerry’s while Toby and Nick start building a kicker. I spot John touring above us and watch as he makes smooth, careful turns down the steep apron of Sunlight Peak. He joins me at the end of his run and asks, “How has the mining for snow been?” He’s happy to have identified a potential new route for a summer summit of Sunlight Peak. We ski together down to Toby and Nick and John helps us complete the jump by stomping it out with his skis as we shovel.
He hangs out in the shade as Nick and Toby session the jump and encourages them between hits. This jump is the first of its kind in this remote cirque, he is quite sure, “Archeologists will wonder what the purpose of this strange monument was when they dig it up in 2000 years.” Nick, John emphatically remarks, is ready for the Olympics – forget his plans of studying to be an engineer.
When we leave the next day John gives us meat sticks as a parting gift and tells us, “Don’t say I never did anything for you.” Toby, Nick and I drive back home through Yellowstone and Nick is ready in the morning to present his project to his class. His sunburn is of epic proportions, the pattern of his goggles is seared into his face. But, he aces the presentation.
Lewis Kennedy Morse, The Price-Fixing of Copper, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 33, Oxford University Press
Henry C. Beeler, E.M, Letter to Mr. L. Cavnah, President, Winona Gold Copper Milling Company, September 19th, 1907
George Otis Smith, Director Department of the Interior, USGS, Mineral Resources of the United States Calendar Year 1910, Washington Government Printing Office