With only three weeks off during intern year as a family medicine resident, an effort to do something exciting during this break in August had to be made. My housemate, Duc, and I originally planned for a trip to Gannett Peak with a couple friends from Albuquerque. One of them broached the idea of the Cirque of Towers and we jumped at it. Unfortunately, they couldn't make it so it was just Duc and I on this one.
We left Salt Lake City at 7:15 pm to begin our journey. Only guided by the poorly detailed images displayed on the vehicle GPS, we felt our way through the dark to get to the Big Sandy Campground by midnight. *Beta* The best way to negotiate the complex network of dirt roads is probably by driving north on 191 and taking 353, which is paved a good distance to the southeast. Take a left on the Lander Cutoff Road and follow the signs to Big Sandy Campground from there.
Take a detailed dirt road map of the area to make getting there easier.
Much to our dismay, the parking area and surrounding roads overflowed with vehicles. Rather than mess around with a tent in the crowded lot, we opted to throw down the back seat and sleep in the SUV.
We slept in (9:45am) due to the poor quality of sleep in the Escape. We ate bananas and steamed buns Duc's mom cooked for us as we chatted with some folks from Colorado College there for a 12-day trip. Soon after, around 11am, we began our arduous hike in with 60-pound packs.
It took us 2 hours and 12 minutes (hiking time only) to cover the 6 miles to Big Sandy Lake. The gradual incline getting to the lake also made it possible for many other people to enjoy the wilderness, which explained the mass of vehicles at the trailhead. We even encountered people on horseback and lots of horse excrement to boot.
After a 30-minute lunch break at the lake, we tossed our packs onto our aching backs and ventured on. The next 3 miles would be more difficult than expected. All the inclines were rather steep and the loss of elevation at North Lake proved a major let-down. Not to mention, the negotiating of 3rd class terrain through it all.
Above North Lake was another steep, dirty section of elevation gain where we took a left to travel along the climber's trail. The boulder field on the west side of Arrowhead Lake gave us a chance to test our balancing skills with the packs — quite fun. Unknown to us, the climber's trail takes an immediate left up the hillside just after the boulder field. We continued on to meet the main trail exiting Jackass Pass above. Either way, the cirque lit up with the low-lying sun and the brilliance of it all made the trek in worth it. It required a total of 3 hours to get over the pass into the Cirque, which was a total of 3 miles.
We set up camp, ate dinner, and fell asleep quickly.
The alarms startled us awake at 5 am. After a breakfast of 3 eggs with bread each, we packed up and headed out. Trying to shake off the soreness from the previous day, we pranced along the tops of more boulders on the west side of Lonesome Lake and meandered up the slopes along the stream coming in from the north. The NORTHEAST FACE OF PINGORA would finally reveal itself and drop our jaws. What a stunning piece of rock!
Only to be ruined by the daily thunderstorms infamous in the Winds.
With another deep breath, we crossed the stream and scrambled up the 3rd-class terrain. We free-climbed some of the 1st pitch and set a small anchor above the grass ledges. We began the official, roped climbing at 9:10am.
The 5.8 slab down and across onto the ledges was a challenging way to start the climb but I managed to get through without a single slip. Unfortunately, I couldn't connect the 1st and 2nd pitches because of lack of enough gear so I set up the first belay in the middle of the second pitch.
The 5.8 slab down-climb at the start of pitch 1.
-Take a larger rack with a 70-meter rope to gain the advantage long ropes provide (ability to link pitches).
Duc would lead the rest of the 2nd pitch and the 3rd, both rated at 5.7. Shivering while belaying as I refused to put on my jacket, I wore myself out and had to ask Duc to lead the next pitch of 5.8. Lame-sauce, for sure.
-When cold, put on your jacket and save yourself needed energy for your time to climb.
Duc would lead the pumpy 5.8 roof and part of the pitch-4 5.7 beyond to a good stance. Another team that day went further right and later had to correct left across some poorly protected slab to get back on route. Kudos for Duc finding the right path.
In the middle of pitch 3, more or less.
Meanwhile, the clouds began to gather and would hover above and around us the rest of the day.
From the middle of the fourth pitch, I connected the rest of pitches 4 and 5 (both 5.7) to set up Duc
for the crux.
Instead of doing what looked like a cross between the 5.8+ flare and 5.9 layback (still can't figure out which line was which), Duc went further right for a little fun on the rock. Probably a 5.10, this line was neither a layback nor a flare but a thin, dirty crack. Duc managed to finish it after only one fall and established an anchor above on the ledge.
Duc getting through a tough section prior to the hard line he would work through higher above.
At this point, the hail and rain set in. On wet rock, I worked behind the leader of the party climbing alongside us. 40 feet above, she had to stop and set an anchor in a thin crack. I chose to set one where I was to avoid overcrowding. In a chilly hailstorm on a minute ledge without much wiggle room, I started belaying Duc up. The leader from the other team yelled down an apology, explaining that she had missed the large, obvious ledge to the right where we both were supposed to be. A fatigued Duc had to come to my anchor and finish the last 30 feet of the pitch. Luckily, the hail and rain had ceased.
From there, it got a little sketchier. Both teams were now on the large ledge below the last 5.8 section followed by a 5.6 chimney. The leader on the other team could not be heard from below and was nearly out of rope. We all decided it would be okay for me to start. I placed one piece as their follower came up behind. He gave me the okay to continue on. I continued on hesitantly only because he seemed okay on the top of the flake 10 feet above the ledge. I didn't expect him to follow so soon at which point, he started urging me to get out of the way because he didn't know if he was on top-rope or if they were simul-climbing. Understandable impatience.
Rushed and off-balance, I wanted to get in a piece but one of their cams was already occupying the obvious spot for protection. I clipped their piece in a panic so as not to fall on him as he voiced his disapproval. All our ropes now were in the same draw, which is a major no-no. I repositioned and unclipped. Still pressured to get out of the way on a single line of crack, I struggled and managed to get one nut in a few feet above and hung on. As he tried to pass, he became entangled in his own gear. With Duc taking the rope, I let go of the my draw and untangled him so he could move on quickly. Once he got on the dirt patch above my nut placement, we let out a collective sigh of relief.
- Do not clip into other people's protection.
- If someone is on top-rope or simul-climbing in the same vicinity as yourself, let them go ahead.
I shook off the disappointment in myself and my decision-making as I continued on into the chimney and onto the 5.6 section nearing the top of Pingora. From there I belayed Duc up. Our bad luck would continue as Duc lead us off route, which included what felt like 5.7 off-width. Impatient at this point, I followed and cleaned the last pitch in a hurry, finishing the last pitch before 7pm—making for a 10-hour adventure climbing up.
We hung out on top for a while discussing what happened during the last half of the climb. There were mistakes and misfortunes and we would learn from them, but we agreed to give ourselves credit for staying calm and collected through it all.
Spotty, violent cloudbursts frequent the area in the afternoon. Pray they pass you by.
We went to climb Pingora with only info from Kelsey's book and the general description from Mountain Project, both of which were not too helpful.
- Get up-to-date beta on ascent and descent from multiple sources.
First thing is that it took us a minute or two of searching to find the blasted rap anchor on the east summit, which is closer to the south side and is extremely short. From the base of the rap, we scrambled to the main west summit for a summit snack and look-around.
The Windrivers are surely a magnificent range. The sheer ruggedness of the peaks is remarkable—truly world-class.
From there we traveled east and took the 3rd-class gully that drops to the south. For a second, we thought we were supposed to scramble from the bottom of the rap from the east summit, but this is not the case. *Beta* Turn south as soon as you can as you walk east from the true summit.
Once on the grassy, dirty ledge we looked down and to the left (carefully) to find the first rap station. We made this easily with one 70-meter rope. The beta from Kelsey's book says the second rap is off to the east from there, but I couldn't find it. Duc suggested I try to the west from the ledge. I shimmied the rope back onto the ledge and rapped to the west side where I found the next anchor. From there, we rapped twice with both 70-meter twin ropes tied together with European Death Knots.
Used only one rope on this one.
The 3rd-class walk off to the base of the south buttress wasn't bad but darkness soon consumed us. Rather than scrambling in the dark with ropes weighing down on our tired bodies, we built a rap anchor and managed to get down the ledges in one rap. Back on the trail at 9:40pm, we felt mildly rejuvenated, and walked on.
As we meandered through the upper meadows, a lone headlamp appeared in the night and invited us over for tequila and treats by the campfire. We consumed water and trail-mix greedily as we chatted with our new friends from Colorado for about an hour or so. We would not arrive in our own camp until 11:30pm at which point we forewent dinner and just hit the hay.
We woke up at 8:30am and took our time getting breakfast ready and relaxing. Joking about our soreness and reluctance to make the hike out, we packed up our mess. The pain-train started at 11:40am.
We ran into a couple folks from the campfire who had just finished summiting Mount Mitchell. We congratulated them and told them to expect invites to future adventures.
It rained and hailed for 45 minutes soon after we passed Arrowhead Lake, which made the trail dicey at points. We managed to survive with only a couple small tumbles and arrive at Big Sandy Lake by 2 pm. The real pain came after the lake, which we left at 2:20pm. We took multiple 3-minute stops due to cramps and fatigue as well as abrasiveness on the hips from the weight of the packs. The last mile seemed to last forever. The restroom at the trailhead finally met our eyes at 4:30pm.
I went on to retrieve the vehicle at the far end of the parking lot, thankfully without a pack. We booked it as soon as we could. On our way out, we tried the dirt roads leading to Farson rather than northwest to Boulder. The dirt roads are incredibly well maintained so the average speed was close to 50 mph.
Duc would fall asleep as I saw the Winds fade in the rear-view mirror. Life was good.