Whiskey Peak: Great air, deteriorating ground

  • Kevin Christopherson, airborne from Whiskey Pk. - Richard Alan Hannon/Casper Sta

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WHISKEY PEAK, Wyo. - Two hang-glider pilots ran into the air off the top of Whiskey Peak one day last summer and began circling over treetops. Just 20 minutes later they were soaring at 16,000 feet.

"You just catch a thermal and blow downwind," said Kevin Christopherson, who set two world distance records from the peak: a 245-mile flight and then a 287-mile flight. Both times he landed in South Dakota. Other fliers have landed in places as far-flung as Kemmerer on Wyoming's western border; Manila, Utah; Walden, Colo.; and Busby, Mont., Christopherson said.

Wind and topography make Whiskey Peak one of the best hang-gliding spots on the planet because gliders can launch into the wind from three directions. But gliders aren't alone on this 9,200-foot peak. The mountain also provides a home for elk, wild horses and cows; water for the little oil-producing town of Bairoil; and a spot for a booster tower for cellular phones. And some Native Americans say the place is sacred.

Unfortunately, the area is particularly vulnerable to erosion, which sends choking silt into streams. Erosion worsens considerably when humans in four-wheelers leave many of the roads and two-tracks created during the uranium mining boom in the 1970s and drive across open country.

To shield the elk during spring calving, and also to keep vehicles off roads when conditions are muddiest, the Bureau of Land Management in recent years restricted access to the peak between June and December. That left the hang-glider pilots unhappy. "We lost half our season," complained the pilots. Previously, they'd made flights from the peak from April through fall.

The BLM has the job of protecting the area and at the same time ensuring that no legitimate uses get excluded. This winter, the Lander, Wyo., office of the BLM will write an environmental assessment sorting out the various uses of the mountain.

The main question is which of three bad roads should be improved to allow better access to the top. Agency officials hope that fixing one road and closing off the other two will protect the elk and reduce erosion while still allowing the hang-glider pilots their full season.

The routes end at an open, three-sided, concave bowl at the top of the peak. Depending on the wind, hang gliders launch from points at the north, southeast, and southwest corners of the bowl. Faint two-tracks now lead to the north and southeast corners, while a better road leads to the more frequently used southwest launch site.

Christopherson said the hang-glider pilots will be satisfied if they can drive to the two southern corners of the bowl. The walk from the southeastern corner to the northern corner is fairly flat and short. "We just don't want to lose anything," he said.

BLM officials say spring flying should again be possible. It will mean substantial improvement of one of the three routes, and at the same time using buck-and-pole fences and strategically placed boulders to curb four-wheelers' wanderlust.

"The main thing is to keep people from bailing off and trying to pioneer new roads down through the timber" on the north slope of Whiskey Ridge, said Sue Oberlie, a wildlife biologist with the BLM.

Confining vehicles to the top of the ridge, stopping new roads and reclaiming old ones should protect both the elk and the fish in creeks on the north slope, Oberlie said. With roads pioneered all over the place, she said, new gullies send dirt into creeks, which ruins the spawning habitat for trout.

For more information, contact Ray Hanson, Bureau of Land Management, 1300 N. Third St., Rawlins, WY 82301 (307/328-4317).

Tom Rea writes from Casper, Wyoming.

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