Any time I talk to people about the Wichita Mountains, I describe them as “my Oklahoma happy place.”
Growing up in Colorado, the mountains were always near, and in plain sight. Moving to the Southern Plains, that changed. But in the southwestern quarter of the state is an ancient mountain range of granite domes, spires and towers that give me the mountain fix I need.
A buddy of mine named Trent gave me my first real introduction to the Wichitas back in my 20s. Later, another friend of mine named Johnny took that to the next level. Johnny and I, and at times, his sister Ouida, tromped all over the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.
I like to take people to these places, to pass down what was shown to me. Last year, it was my friend Brian, who has become so transfixed by outdoor adventure that he’s sold all of his stuff, outfitted a van and is roadtripping across the country full-time now. He plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and already has a bunch of big hikes under his belt. Brian and I spent a couple of days in the Wichitas in January in what was not just an introduction for him, but a badly needed homecoming for me.
This month I’ve made a conscious effort to hike more, and when company was available, bring ’em along. I put out the word that I wanted to go down there and revisit an old favorite of mine there, Mount Mitchell. The peak is in the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge and it one of the most rugged mountains in the entire range. It’s great practice for people wanting to graduate from hiking and into scrambles and climbs just short of where you might need ropes.
My brother-in-law and his wife signed up. I felt good about this for a couple of reasons. Jen is someone I’ve hiked with before. She did Mount LeConte with me a few years back and likes to climb. Luke, being a firefighter, is trained in rope rescue and is no stranger to high places. I like taking all kinds of people on these trips. But it is a relief knowing that the chances were good that these two would be able to handle to challenges Mount Mitchell offers.
The hike takes you about three miles from the Sunset Trailhead to the base of Mount Mitchell. It’s fairly easy hiking, going over a few hills and following a decent trail right up until we got to the junction that takes you to a rock formation called Crab Eyes (more on that place later). The trail fades a bit west of there, and eventually we were “off trail,” hiking through grassy meadows and an burned-out forest until we got to the mountain.
What I’ve told people about the Wichitas is that the area has something for everyone. If you’re looking for easy, short and scenic hikes, there are plenty. If you are jonesing for difficult roped climbs, there are dozens of them throughout the refuge. Mount Mitchell is in between, a peak that can be scaled without ropes, but is no hike, not even by its easiest route. There is plenty of Class 3 scrambles and Class 4 climbing throughout.
I figured I’d taken them up the same way I went last time I was here, up a gully on the mountain’s north face. It’s rugged, steep and filled with route-finding problems. The granite on the mountain is grippy — great for handholds and footholds, ideal for friction climbing, and tough on your hands unless you’re wearing some sort of glove. I learned a few years back that when doing scrambles like this, a pair of batting gloves can save you a lot of grief when the rock is cutting up your fingers and palms on every move.
The downside for the three of us was that it has been nine years since I’ve climbed Mitchell. I knew the basics of how to get to the top, but the specifics eluded me. So I did a lot of scouting to see if a particular line would go, only having to turn around and look for another way up. Mitchell’s north face is a complicated mix of boulders, cracks and slabs, and some obstacles aren’t visible until you’re right up on it.
That said, Luke and Jen provided plenty of feedback of their own, often helping us move forward, and eventually to the summit ridge.
One thing I was looking forward to was finding a fissure below the summit that leads to a fun 15-foot chimney climb. Had to do that one again for old-times’ sake.
Eventually we topped out, took a few pics on Mitchell’s tiny summit, then found a place protected from the winds to chow down on some lunch. Jen brought a book and read a few pages. We all checked out the views overlooking the wildest, most rugged part of the range, where Styx Canyon links Crab Eyes to Mitchell, and where Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain guard Treasure Lake.
Luke and Jen noticed some grassy meadows below us on the south face and figured heading down there and following the east ridge to the bottom might be the easier path off the mountain rather than descending the way we came. Earlier I’d told them, “The good news is that we got the summit. The bad news is that we have to go down the way we came, and going down is always harder than going up.” With that in mind, we agreed the east ridge down was worth a shot.
It turned out to be a good choice. I have memories descending the north face, and it had a couple of pucker-factor moments. Going down the south face/east ridge was considerably easier, though still Class 3 in some spots.
We did some more off-trail hiking around the mountain, then up a hill that gave us some great views of Sunset Peak’s south summit. We heard what sounded like a large animal give off a huff/grunt somewhere on the other side of the hill. I figured this might be our shot to finally see a buffalo (we hadn’t seen any all day), but no dice. Whatever it was stayed out of sight.
Our next stop was Crab Eyes. This is a popular hiking destination, and if you’re a seasoned climber, it has challenging routes that go all the way up to 5.10. You can also get to the spot just below the two “eyes” at the top of the formation’s tower, something that involves an awkward, and at times highly exposed scramble to the top. Jen was keen on doing it, so we got there and climbed around on this odd little peak for a while before a few others arrived to do the same. I’ve had Crab Eyes to myself a few times, but the last couple of trips have seen more visitors than in years past.
Crab Eyes capped off a solid day of hiking and climbing under blue skies and mild temps. I love hiking in the Wichitas in the fall and winter, and I think my buddies felt the same way. And we finally saw an elusive buffalo on the drive out.
I can envision another trip coming soon.