After climbing Gannett a few weeks earlier, I was looking forward to the
relatively short hiking approach to Pingora. The approach drive, however,
was longer and far less obvious and marked with signs. We saw more than 1
person driving back and forth between Sandy and the Big Sandy trailhead.
From the Big Sandy trailhead we casually packed past Big Sandy Lake and had the
first views of some of the most impressive rock towers I've ever seen.
Just past North Lake we traversed the west side of Arrowhead Lake, just under
War Bonnet Peak. This shortcut has a distinct trail that leads over a pass
into the Cirque of the Towers without dropping down too far near Lonesome Lake,
like the Jackass Pass trail does.
We had a spot with a great view of the route and the dilemma that we faced was: we found a
backpacking spot and set up camp just 1 mile from the start of the climb of the
South Buttress and it was only 2pm.
What to do? Not being one to sit around, we headed out to start the
climb. We crossed a beautiful meadow and followed the Cirque Lake drainage
and started the scrambling portion of the climb just to the west of the South
Buttress. Following cairns across Class 3 and 4 territory with
intense views of the surrounding rock towers, we made it to the base of the
technical section and roped up. We later found out that this first pitch
could be bypassed on the right side with some Class 4 moves and could have saved
us some crucial time. The first 4 pitches I led were easy and short, and
went rather easily, but time was running out and we still had several pitches
and a descent to complete. The 5th pitch under the K cracks presented the
first challenge to me and with darkness approaching and energy levels depleted
after the heavy backpack earlier in the day, it was painfully decided to retreat
off the climb.
On the descent we saw several other
parties and I overheard one climber say in a celebratory way "Psilocybin
and Jack Daniels here I come". I couldn't help but stop and take in
this amazing area as the sun went down. Wolf's Head, Watch Tower, Pylon
Peak, Warrior Peaks, and The Shark's Nose just to name a few, all towered
menacingly over the Cirque of the Towers Valley. This is one of the very few
times in my life where I was almost okay with not reaching the summit because
the experience and surrounding terrain were so wonderful. Besides some of
the world's best backcountry climbing, this area has great backpacking.
our way out, we learned that there was a group, long overdue on Wolf's Head. They
had been out for 36 hours and there was some real concern regarding the safety
of the group. While I really loved this area, I was discouraged by the
sheer number of people in this backcountry. It seems clear to me that one day,
unfortunately, there will some type of quota system in place. Besides
counting about 50 different tents in the Cirque, we saw a group every 5-10
minutes while on the trail. This was late August and the weather was still
excellent, which may explain the crowds. The mosquitoes have a reputation in
this area and there were none at this time. All in all, my first trip to
the Cirque was an enjoyable experience. If your looking for some of the
best rock climbing in the Rocky Mountains, this is the place. Just don't expect
solitude while climbing or approaching.