Climbing at the Cirque without gear
August 30, 2011
When looking at pictures of the amazing Cirque of the Towers, the big question I always had was: can one climb there without gear, or scramble, or boulder, or have any much fun at all? I read as many trip reports as I could find, and the answer was still elusive. Many people hike in just to look at the big walls and towers, and some give route reports they managed without rope and partners while bragging themselves up as world-beaters, but my goal with this trip report is to provide more precise detail for those of you who either travel alone, are decent climbers without gear, or who maybe just like to boulder or scramble or grab summits but are not into serious hairy climbing for whatever reason.
Now before I write on, I offer those of you who are very busy or have A.D.D. a very brief executive summary: Yes, there are options for everyone in the Cirque of the Towers, from 2nd class scrambles, up to 4th class staircase work, and several peaks with light 5th class. Mitchell Peak, Watchtower, Warbonnet 1, Camel's Hump, Texas Pass, and Jackass Pass are all "accessible" destinations without gear. There are also sub-peaks, and several routes with low 5th class moves. Storms move quickly so a tent is a good idea, though I did not carry one, and personally found 4 huge boulders with alcoves a bivvy sack can be placed under to stay dry. The one I used is about a 1 minute walk South from the waterfall in the Cirque, pictured below. Wish I could direct anyone curious better, but that's the best I can do. End of summary.
I finally got to the Cirque last autumn, at the front end of Labor Day weekend. I went in on Thursday and stayed 3 days and 2 nights, thinking by going in early I could assure myself parking and beat the rush. I think half of Wyoming knows that trick though, as the parking lot was full and this added 1/2 mile to my entry. Oh well. Not much harm with 30 miles to go for the next 3 days. I had big plans to grab as many peaks as I could, but was not very certain which peaks I could do. So it was a loose penciled-in plan, which is always the best kind for mountaineering. As this was Labor Day weekend, I expected big crowds and was not let down there. I met with many other hikers and there were a dozen teams or so in the actual cirque, but the area is huge, and I never collided with any other groups. The day I arrived it was late afternoon, so I simply packed and made the hike in to Big Sandy Lake. I had horses, dogs, fishers, children, and more all around me but could pick a very secluded spot as I chose not to bring a tent. I slept well and comfortably in a bivvy sack, though it rained lightly and I had to fashion a primitive shelter with a tarp I packed as storms were predicted by weather trackers. Morning was a beautiful swirl of clouds, but was clear above me, and I made a quick start feeling wise for not toting in a heavy tent. However, long before I reached Jackass Pass, I was getting dumped on with the next wave of dark clouds. It poured for about an hour. I huddled in a poncho under a pine tree near North Lake, though at the time I thought it was Arrowhead Lake, which is a little further along. This was a cold time, but hey, its the wilderness. A few other teams passed me on their way out from the Cirque and stopped to say a wet hello. Most were slipping on the slick rocks and looked as miserable as I, with bigger packs, though most did have warmer clothes.
When things cleared a little more I finished the hike to Jackass Pass, enjoying it mostly. I dried quickly and the clouds were flat on bottom giving an impression of being near the top of the world. The scenery in late fall probably would have been unimpressive along the passage to the Cirque if not for the clouds. Jackass Pass's famous view was marred by the weather though. Descent to Lonesome Lake was depressing as I didn't want to lose all my hard-fought elevation. The approach trail to the Cirque of the Towers is typically described as simple and swift, but I thought that with a pack it was a real yo-yo run. Up 50 feet, down 50 feet, up 200 feet, down 100 feet. You get the idea. There is plenty of reason not to over-pack. Spare your legs for the good stuff.
I reached the Cirque around 1 pm and spent a good hour wandering about, looking around, not quite in awe, because the scene was familiar to me, having looked at hundreds of pictures of this amazing place, but pleased to be here for myself after years of wanting to go. I eventually settled on a camp site which was a mere 60 second stroll downhill to a watering place, near a little waterfall central to the Cirque, away from all the tent cities, and which offered the best shelter I could hope for: a huge boulder with a hollow "wing" where I could stash my stuff, set up a little cave-camp and hope to stay dry in more storms. The weather was fine now, though with dark edges to the sky, ominous, if not threatening. I thought caution was in order, but also felt energized and eager to explore. So I set up a camp under my little 24 inch alcove, hung the tarp over the "door" to try to keep out a storm should one come, and headed off with my light half-day pack (similar to a fanny pack, but which straps over the shoulder and is good for scrambling as it stays out of the way) and headed for a little peak in the center of all the bigger ones. This little fellow is named "Watchtower" on the top maps, and looked like an ideal short scramble and a great potential place to take in the whole cirque.
Clouds swirled about me overhead, moving with shuddering speed, but spared me their tears, so I began to make my way up the hill, or mountain, whichever term you prefer, a little more interesting. This peak could be conquered as nothing but a Class 3 scramble, as a Class 4 up a series of about man-high steps, or as a very low 5th class with some singular climbing moves, never strung together in pitches. I chose this last option, and mixed in a fun ledge walk which looks impressive in pictures. Mitchell Peak, a simple scramble near Jackass Pass which would promise special views looked much more remarkable than I anticipated, as the peak is casually mocked in most reports on this fine area. I began to wish I had grabbed the summit before heading for the lake. From the Watchtower summit I had inspiring and borderline-terrifying views of Wolf's Head, one of the more jagged and jarring silhouettes you will ever see of a mountain. This is the peak I really wanted to climb here, but from close in, I was hard-pressed to pick out any route that looked safe for a soloist. I have read of people doing it, but it looked sketchy to me. This is not to say I rule it out entirely. The air had that vibrant feel of pending storms, yet nearby to Watchtower, just a walk, a skip, and a jump away, was a cool but tiny little fin of smooth rock. It looked so appealing and I wanted to use my afternoon. All I had waiting for me below was a dismal little cave too short to sit up in and a bivvy sack. So I decided to switch my approach shoes for climbing shoes and make a quick run up it.
My quick run got me into trouble. I cliffed out about 50 feet from the summit, which is really just a spear, almost a sneer of angled rock, unfit even for a goat, by my guess. I was so close though. I headed back down and saw a different route that looked simpler. I laughed at myself for having picked the wrong angle and made quick work back up to the exact same spot I had gotten trapped before. So now, with the air all about me seething, serpents of clouds writhing all about me, constricting in closer and closer, I promised myself to make a quick break for my shelter, such as it was. Only I noticed this other decent route up a different side of my little sub-peak. This pattern went on. I spare you the paragraphs it would take to explain why I am or am not an idiot. Thing is, I knew I would get wet, but it just seemed cosmically ridiculous to let an un-named sub-peak so small the Shark's Nose probably doesn't even know the thing is there beat me. This could not stand. I tried 6 runs total and finally had to settle for slapping the summit and then moving down in break-neck speed as raindrops fell. Almost in-sync with my slap. So that was cool. Its always nice when my ego can pretend the mountains are not only aware of me, but are focused upon me. No one else was climbing in all the Wind River Range that day, I am sure. They were wisely buttoned up in tents, sharing ghost stories, or hot cocoa, or whatever it is people do when they go adventuring in teams. I named this spire Churchill Spire because of Winston Churchill's famous speech: "We will never surrender, never surrender, never, never, never surrender." I think that's how it went.
Let me simply assure of this: the descent down something even as wimpy as most of you readers will think the Watchtower is, is an expedition under hard rain, light hail, lightning, thunder inches from your ears, slick rock waterslides, mud, and more. I was a mess, but I was happy. Have you ever feared a thing: such as being soaked and trapped on a mountaintop during a storm and then you find in facing it, that it isn't so bad, and you feel stronger and larger for it? Well that's how I feel having been soaked in the Cirque of the Towers. I laughed and shouted to the air between booms: "Is this it? Is this all you got? And whooped as loudly as I could. Below me, drier climbers did the same. Either in camaraderie or because they couldn't believe some fool was out and couldn't read the weather. The worst part of getting soaked: my pants weighed 10 lbs easy.
August 31, 2011
The night was long and cold, with rain steady keeping me pinned in my sleeping bag. But I stayed dry, and no bear or badger ever tried to burrow in and get at me. The next morning was clear, but crisp as late autumn mornings are, even in sunlight as sharp as a dried apple slice. I ate such things as home-made dried apple slices, while wondering if I had maximized my time by getting in some fun the previous afternoon and evening, waiting for the sun to dry my boots and pants enough to at least dare slip into them. Around 9 am I did so and hiked myself warm and approximately dry, heading out to the Texas Pass area. I thought Camel's Hump looked pretty appealing and this offered me a chance to scout Pingora, which I have read has a 5.2 route on it. As with Wolf's Head, I did not see anything that looked doable safely without gear. But the day and Camel's Hump were fine. The way is long, but Texas Pass, windy and bleak, is a fine sight, with sinking ships of peaks jutting out at double-take angles and hillocks of boulders piled to elevations to make your head spin. I made simple work of Camel's Hump, which, as with Watchtower can be done as a scramble, a bouldering series of huge steps, or with occasional simple climbing. The twin summits are very close and both require a single or possibly two exposed moves. To grab both I made a short "leap of faith" rather than climb down and then back up. With a spotter, this is as easy as eating a pastry, but alone, I suppose it does take a few guts. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering about, not taking any chances with peaks that looked challenging, as the sky began to darken again, around the bright sun. I had no desire to be wet a third time on this trip.
The path back through boulder fields yellow from late summer's heat was slow but welcome. I was warm and my legs were fresh for another run the next day. I slept in the open so I could actually sit up this time, and the sky never gave in to the urge to rain again. Texas Pass will take a full day if you plan any peaks also, but the views are nice, water is available, and there are plenty of sharp peaks to choose from. I do recommend this excursion for those not going to do more serious climbing up sheer cliffs.
Water should not be a problem heading to Texas Pass. There is at very least a dependable trickle of a creek just to the West of "Skunk Knob" on your way toward Camel's Hump. Listen and you will hear it, though finding a decent place to filter water can take a little scrounging between rocks.
September 1, 2011
I rose early this final day knowing I had to make my way out before dark, but wanting to put some of the real peaks of the Cirque to the test. I knew Overhanging Tower was rated 5.4 and is considered a prime solo option, and as it sits neighbor to Wolf's Head, this was a good target to aim for. From Cirque Lake, Overhanging Tower looked radical and Wolf's Head still seemed intimidating. If I knew the route at all, I may have tried it, but instead I just angled for Overhanging. There are several teeny jags and peaks in the same area and I made short bouldering problems of them, thousands of feet above lakes below just to make sure my nerves were good in the case Overhanging Tower was tricky. The whole way was cairned on the "backside" (West) and was looking like a dull walk, so I did my usual behavior pattern and decided to invent a new way. Doing this I just went straight for any cliff that looked fun and doable, and the last several hundred feet of elevation were low 5th class. The final block will be 5.4 or 5.5 no matter what you do, and will involve an exposed crack climb of 100 feet or so. This was not as bad as some other moves I'd made during the day though. Actually I thought the "walk" to the base of the mountain was harder than the climbing as it involves a lot of loose and steep scree which is not fun to mess with. There are 2 short chimneys of about 50ft each with clutter in them. I did some 360 degree spins to work around the noses of some of these sharp rocks. A lot of fun without much threat I thought.
I could see teams at work on Pingora and Wolf's Head and was envious, though Overhanging Tower is great fun, great exercise, and good adventure in itself. There is nothing shameful about this prize, though it is not quite a "big-game buck" to brag about. I inspected Wolf's Head from the saddle it shares with Overhanging Tower but just could not convince myself there was such a thing as a "walk down" which I'd read about. From Cirque Lake, Churchill Spire looked comically small and simple, and Shark's Nose appeared to be a solo possibility, as I had thought from Churchill Spire when I was right next to a not-quite-vertical wall. But I can't promise anything there as I did not have time to explore. So oh well, I descended and packed and headed out. I made the exit route more interesting by taking the "short cut" for climbers to the West of Arrowhead Lake, which involved less footsteps but a lot of bouldering and hopping with a full 20 lb pack. I don't know how some climbers get up the moxxy to tote a gallon of cheap whiskey all the way to Cirque Lake, but some do. I know because the camp for one of the teams on Wolf's Head (a noisy team who kept falling by the by) was built around such a giant golden treasure. Did I steal a sip and toast the crew above me? That, you must decide for yourselves.
I hope you either found this amusing and useful or had the sense to stop reading before now.