Friday, June 7, 2002

Climbing in the Wind Rivers

The first week of the road trip, we plunged into the heart of the Wind River Range in southern Wyoming, to a daunting kingdom of rocks known as the Cirque of the Towers. Figuring the place had an abbreviated name (climbers are trained to speak in abbreviations, for the sake of big walling ... and general laziness), I made a guess and started calling it The Towers. I later learned it's called the Cirque. Maybe that wasn't worth mentioning.
Two days later and seven hours out from base camp, we found ourselves perched high on a narrow ridge known as Wolf’s Head with an electrical storm forming around us and dark setting in. After a long day of climbing and traversing knife-edge ridges, we had just enough time to make the long rappels off the wall and descend the snow-filled gully back to camp. We were right on schedule for one heck of a climbing day - until our ropes got stuck.
The climb had begun at 5:30 a.m., just as the sun crested the mountains around us and the grass in the meadow warmed and dripped off ice from the overnight freeze. Feeling small among the waterfall world of illuminated granite, we pulled ourselves out of our sleeping bags and got the stove going.
Our route involved a several-hundred foot ascent of the south face of Pingora, followed by a technical 2000' traverse along Wolf’s Head, which varied from three to thirty feet wide, but stayed 800 feet high. Pingora sits on the northern corner in the horseshoe of the cirque. Wolf’s Head leads west from there, straight into a set of jagged and wispy spires that turn south and eventually east. We put on daypacks and headed up the giant boulders that lead to the shoulder of Pingora.
We climbed Pingora in good weather, summiting in a few pitches and fewer hours, and rappelling off the west face to get onto Wolf’s Head. Two 200' rappels took us to the saddle. The initial terrain seemed mild, though exposed, so we divided into two groups and simul-climbed. Nell roped into me, 40 feet down the line, and we both scrambled. We had to surmount several blocades before gaining the true Wolf’s Head, but old webbing and rappel rings comforted us with the thought that others had done the same traverse.
On Wolf’s Head, the ground narrowed beneath our feet and we found ourselves crawling on hands and knees, not because it was steep, but to prevent vertigo from setting in. I placed gear before and after the more difficult sections of rock, and Nell cleaned it as she followed. In this way, we both kept climbing until I needed to restock the gear on my harness.
Not far behind us, Josh and Jen picked their way over towers, around shallow corners, and up diving board platforms. We climbed fast for several hours. Our tent was in view, but we knew we had to reach the highest point on Wolf’s Head for a sure-fire rappel back down to it.
Mid-afternoon, the weather turned. Nell and I were taking a break and giving Josh and Jen a chance to catch us. Nell had just remarked that she only had a plastic bag for rain protection when the first drop hit. We scrambled. I pulled out a lightweight shell and threw it on. When I raised the hood, I felt my head getting pelted by something other than water.
“It’s hailing!” I yelled to Nell, as the pricks increased. She yelled something incoherent in response, as the jolts spread to the rest of my body and I realized we were in an electrical storm. I dashed back the hood, which seemed to aggravate the electricity, and rushed to a nearby rock. Nell joined me, we laughed, and she told me that her helmet was buzzing. The storm swirled away for a moment and Josh and Jen crawled over the rock toward us, with more stories of humming helmets.
With the storm suddenly past, but hovering uncertainly on the horizon, we considered escaping the mountain right there. We peered over the side for a possible escape route, but found none. Even if we were able to lower ourselves down the 800 feet of paper-smooth wall, the wave of snow and ice at the base would have to be negotiated, and we had no snow protection to help us if it turned out to be too steep to slide down.
We pressed on, with a sense of urgency. Three of the largest towers remained in our path. They posed not only technical problems, but mental challenges as well. They slowed our pace to a crawl, and made the seconds pound in my ears. Each tower forced us out onto the wild and exposed walls that, up till that time, we had been trying to ignore.
The last tower was to be passed via a long, “fortuitous” crack on the wall, according to our guide book. It is so named because it is the only flaw in an otherwise smooth tower, the only way around the last and biggest obstacle on the ridge. We scrambled down into a cave, then peered around the side to find the crack. Shooting out from foot level, it was a wide crack over nothingness. After placing a couple pieces and letting Nell get comfortable, I jammed my foot in and leaned out onto it.
I slid my hands over blank rock, praying for Spidey spikes, and glowered over sweating cheekbones at my feet. Unable to lean over to place any more protection, I let my mind wander to happier times and kept moving. The crack ended before flat ground was attained, and I leaned out of the crack to grab a knob that took me to higher ground. I threw in a quick anchor and belayed Nell across.
From there it was an easy scramble to the summit, our take-off point for the rappel down. It began to sprinkle for a moment and then, just as before, it let up. We hoped that it wasn't toying with us. We took a few minutes to eat and drink and enjoy the view of a mountain range growing dim in the setting sun, then headed for the tent.
We found old webbing slung around a boulder at the ridge’s edge. After adding a fresh piece of our own, we knotted our two ropes together, threaded a rope through the anchor, and tossed with a sigh of relief. We were going down. We heard the ropes unravel in the air, then slap against the wall below. I clipped in first, made a mental note of which side the knot was on, then leaned back and descended. From the end of the rappel, I swung left to meet a gully that angled up toward the ridge in another area. This gave me a good ledge to stand on, and I took myself off belay. Jen followed.
Once we were all down, we positioned the ropes and yanked on the one on the right. It slid freely for a few feet before wedging firmly in an unseen notch, almost 200 feet above us and well out of view. We pulled on the other rope and felt no movement. I got as high in the gully as I could and threw large waves up the line that was stuck but they drifted into ripples by the time they made the top.
We hung on it. We jumped on it. Nothing worked. Just as we were making our escape, the wolf got loose and grabbed us by the tail. Now he wouldn’t let go.
We had one other rope in our packs. We could have carried on with it. But one rope meant more rappels, more anchor building, and more route finding. Plus we’d be leaving behind two good ropes. We decided that I should venture up the gully, try to gain the ridge and backtrack to our anchor. With darkness coming on, we had no time to hesitate. I tied into our remaining rope and took off.
Thirty feet below the summit, the gully faded into the wall, and only a couple cracks continued on. I was faced with a choice. I could place protection and climb it safely, or I could go for it, and hope that I could place pro if and when it became necessary. The first choice would be costly in time, since the pieces would have to be retrieved. I climbed without it.
Carefully examining each move before I made it, I drifted out onto the wall. The long, slender rope cascaded down from my harness into Jen’s belay device far beneath me, and a couple feet below the ironical look on her face. Firm handholds linked together, and soon I was at eye-level with the ridge. Shaking my head to stay focused, I slung an elbow up and over, and rolled to safety.
I corrected the rappel lines by lowering the knot well below the wedge where it had been stuck, then rappelled down again. This time, they came easily.
From there, we rapped the gully another 150 feet, regrouped, and rapped again, that time in darkness. We could see a long snow slope that led into a jumble of rocks leading down to the edge of a frozen lake. An old, ratty fixed line assisted us down some slippery rocks, wet with melting snow, to another ledge. We lowered Jen and then Nell out onto the snow and down to the rocks, then Josh and I worked together.
We lowered each other in intervals. I lowered Josh to a protruding rock about 40 feet down the hill. He straddled the rock and began taking in rope as I worked my way toward him. I took a few steps and slipped. The slope was long and steep and I would have soon been heading for rocks at bone-crushing speed if Josh hadn't been able to arrest my fall from his perch. Downhill from my spread-eagled friend, I rose cold and soggy from the snow and plodded to the next rock. I don’t think I would have been able to catch Josh's weight if he had slipped, which I think he knew, but he seemed to take comfort in the fact that if he went, I was going with him.
He never fell. After more than an hour of kicking steps and working our way down the snow, we got down to Jen and Nell, and an exquisite stretch of dry and flat ground. We took our time getting around the lake. The bad weather had left with the light and bright stars now illuminated the night sky. Behind us loomed Wolf’s Head, now a frozen tidal wave of blackness.
We got back to the meadow at midnight, shaking with hunger, fatigue and excitement. I sat in wet shorts and waited contentedly for the asparagus to cook.

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