Following our pursuits in the Tetons and a few days playing at tourists in Yellowstone we made our plans for our trip in to the Winds. The plan was to go in for three days climbing in the Cirque of the Towers area taking in a route on Pingora, the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head and one other climb.
The trip started with a slow leisurely breakfast in Jackson and a trip to the supermarket. The drive down to the Winds was interesting for me. As we left the Teton hills the countryside opened out into fairly flat farmland which looked a bit dusty and bleak. Our last stop was at a service station where we filled up our water bottles. The last part of the drive to the end of the road was on dirt roads and the navigation got a little more serious. Fortunately Darren was more switched on than myself otherwise we would have been driving around aimlessly for hours. There was also an air of apprehension in the car. The landscape was very bleak, almost desertlike and it seemed a bit weird that within a few hours we would be in an alpine environment. Eventually we came to the end of the road and the Big Sandy Opening car park. We threw all our gear out on to the ground and got packing once again. After our heavy packs in the Tetons we were keen to try and cut down on what we’d take in. Some climbing gear was sacrificed and more foolishly we only took in food for four days.
We finally hit the trail just after 4, way later than we’d expected. The guidebook said it was a five hour hike in to the Cirque, which meant if we were going to get there on the same day we’d have to motor. Just after setting off we stopped to chat with a bloke who was just coming off the trail after a week of wandering around. He was full of himself and had clearly had a super week. He was yet another person who had nothing but praise and admiration for the Winds. We continued along the flat trail close to the gently flowing river crossing long grassed meadows and hiking through pine woodland. It was very pleasant, occasionally we’d smell some kind of sweet pine, not sure what it’s called but it was the sweetest natural smell I’d ever smelt. We kept a good pace and soon hit the grassland surrounding Big Sandy lake. It had taken us two hours to cover five miles. Again the scenery was quite stunning, the large calm blue lake, surrounded by pine forest with sweeping granite slopes in the background, all under a blue sky in the soft evening light. Taking it all in we decided to bin our original plan and camp by the lake for the night.
We chose a spot under the trees on some high ground just off the trail next to a stream. This was way more pleasant than our rocky campsite in Garnet canyon back in the Tetons. Once again I pitched the test while Darren filtered the water. We dined and got a good fire going before hanging the food away from the tent and out of reach of the tallest trampoline using bears in north America. The night passed with a bit of rain.
Next morning we had a slow and leisurely start. The plan was to hike the 3 or so miles into the Cirque, pitch the tent and climb the South buttress of Pingora. This next stage of the hike was way more taxing. We took it slowly as the path rose and fell. I was filled with a mix of excitement and apprehension at what lay ahead. Through breaks in the trees I eagerly looked for the peaks of the Cirque. The climbing in the valley we were in looked impressive enough without going any further. The guidebook told us there was a small path we could use that would avoid the worst part of the hike in, Jackass Pass. We managed to identify the so called climbers trail and followed it down the side of a small lake and then along the large boulders of another small lake. We hiked steeply up from the lake following a trail of cairns aiming for the gap between a huge boulder and the rockface. We passed through the gap and there in front of us was our first view of the Cirque.
Straight ahead was the chunky column shaped Pingora and just to its left was Wolf’s Head. It felt weird seeing them for real after spending so much time in London studying the guidebook. Again I was filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Everything looked big and I felt small. The names of the surrounding peaks added to the sense of respect that I had for the place. Warbonnet, Warrior I and II, Lizard Head and Shark’s Nose, all suitable names for the surrounding towers. Two years before in the Canadian Rockies I had been a little dismayed with the early climbers/pioneers naming of the peaks. Naming a mountain after a monarch or dignitary in my opinion is very dull and doesn’t really do mountains justice. Not so, in the Cirque of the Towers.
We plodded down into the cirque passing a couple of yellow tents, crossed a large stream and started heading up the next slope towards Pingora in search of a spot to pitch the tent. After spending a bit too much time hunting around, for which I take all blame, we found just about the most picturesque spot ever. We were in a meadow between the trail and a small babbling stream, and next to a large boulder. All around us was an amazing selection of wild flowers. We pitched the tent and sorted out the gear and got ourselves ready for an ascent of Pingora.
Hiking up to the base of Pingora’s rocky slopes I was more focused on the east ridge of Wolf’s Head. That was the route that I was really psyched to do and had spent hours going over the guide book description back in London. At the base of Pingora we started scrambling up a rake heading up to the right. Darren was shooting up as if being pulled up by a magnet. It was fun scrambling up and I have to say in a few spots I felt rather exposed, well aware of the drop below. Once at the base of the route we looked up at what lay ahead and then across to the west for any signs of approaching storm clouds. As it was late afternoon we decided to leave the climbing for the next day. We left most of the gear in a sheltered spot between some rock and headed back down to check out the beginning of the Wolf’s Head route and for a wander around a small tarn.
Back at the tent we chilled out, enjoying our surroundings, Darren did a spot of bouldering on our large boulder, I preferred to sit on the top drinking tea saving my strength for the next few days. Next morning we had another leisurely start. The short hike up was easier this time with our light packs. Again, Darren was clearly under some kind of spell. I was feeling very apprehensive, I’d had some pretty whacky dreams in the night and didn’t feel too relaxed.
The scramble up was quickly polished off and before we knew it we were back at the gear. Some vermin had dined on my rock boots during the night but otherwise everything was unmunched. The first few pitches were easy steps which Darren quickly knocked off. At the beginning of the first real pitch I took the sharp end of the rope, traversed round to the right and then headed up a crack system. The rock was perfect, excellent purchase, nice gradient and tons of potential gear placements. It was a delight to climb. About 20m up I was running low on quickdraws and feeling on the tired side, presumably the altitude, so set up a hanging belay on some insitu slings. Darren quickly followed up and finished off the pitch onto a big ledge at the base of the K crack. Still feeling tired I offered the last pitch to Darren. The K crack looked very inviting but we stuck to our intended route and headed off to the left and up. Darren made short work of the last pitch. I followed, again thoroughly enjoying it and a little sorry that I’d handed D the lead as it was a very nice pitch. The last section on to the top was an easy scramble so we dumped the rope and gear and skidaddled up onto the top. The usual summit photo session followed and it was then time for a good look at Wolf’s Head. From the top of Pingora the first section looked very narrow and exciting. The sky off to the left was getting duller and rain was looking imminent so we set off on the descent. As we abseiled back down we spotted a couple beginning the Wolf’s Head route. We thought they were pretty mad considering it was mid afternoon and the sky wasn’t looking particularly friendly. Once off the rock we ambled back down to the tent happy with our ascent even though it was rather short.
As we were cooking up dinner the rain started to fall in big heavy drops. We moved everything into the tent and finished off cooking and dining under cover. Outside a full scale storm developed with rain bucketing down and crashing thunder with lightning. We both lay staring out the back of the tent across the flowers at the steep walls of Wolf’s Head wondering how the couple we had seen were faring. The rain was cascading down the granite slopes and the thunder continued to crash and roll around the cirque. In a way it was quite exciting to witness. The light was also starting to fade. We were getting very worried about the couple plus another party of four who we knew were also doing the route. We considered going out on a search mission but didn’t really think it would achieve much so decided to stay put until it was nearly dark. Eventually we saw the foursome head down the small trail, we flashed our headtorches at them and they quickly passed in search of shelter.
20 mins or so later we were very relieved to see the couple come down and called them over to our tent. They were French Canadian and had got caught on the top. Their quickest way down was to abseil down the steep south face through cascades of run off water and rain, sacrificing gear in the process. Amazingly they got down safely. The girl didn’t even have a waterproof jacket. They were very lucky. After telling us there was no one else up there they shot off and we zipped up the back of the tent to try and get some sleep. All our food was in the tent with us. We had visions of the storm disappearing, with the local bears coming out of their caves into the fresh cool night air and immediately honing in on the food odours coming from our tent.
We didn’t have a peaceful night. The storm continued. The tent had epileptic fits in the wind but held fast and watertight. The thunder kept on crashing and rolling. At times we heard the disturbing sound of major rockfall. Standing on top of Pingora I felt we had conquered one of the towers, now in the bottom of the cirque in our small tent in the storm I felt very small and insignificant again. We got some sleep and when we woke the next morning the rain had stopped. Outside the sky still looked hostile, and the clouds were racing across the sky. There was no way we would be going up onto Wolf’s Head. We wondered what to do. We didn’t really have enough food to wait for a day or two and dry weather. After breakfast I headed off to the party of four that we saw the previous evening. They had been soaked to the skin and all the gear was lying out around their tents drying. They were staying for the rest of the week and would wait out the bad weather. Back at our tent we eventually made up our minds to move out. We packed up with very heavy hearts. As we headed back up to the pass we met a guide and discussed the conditions with him. He reckoned it was the worst storm he’d experienced in the Winds and that our decision to go was the right one. This made us feel better but we were still disappointed.
The hike out didn’t have the same atmosphere that I’d experienced on the way in. I took it easy and was relieved when we finally dropped down to Big Sandy Lake. Darren had shot off in front. I took a breather before starting the last 5km back to the trailhead. As I got nearer the end I started to really tire. We had pushed it and when I finally got to the car I felt totally whacked and took a lot of satisfaction in dumping my pack. After a good drink we threw everything in the car and began the rough and rocky drive back to the tarmac road and on to Jackson and Dennys.
We spent more time deliberating on whether we had made the right decision. As it turned out the weather remained lousy for the rest of the week and we got nothing else done back in the Tetons either. The week and the trip ended back in Salt Lake City with a very enjoyable day’s rock climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Our few days in the Winds left a big impression on us and I’m sure that one day we’ll be back to take care of a lot of unfinished business!