One look at the Deep Lake Cirque this past July and it was love at first sight.
Three weeks later, Mr. Kaplan and I were rocketing through intermountain deep space, blaring Metric, Tool, and Elton John, he texting to relieve the boredom of sub 150 mph speeds, me ratfucking his passenger seat with Bugle and Big Breakfast crumbs; a metallic comet of planned chaos accelerating towards the budding petro-boom town of Pinedale, Wyoming.
After stopping at the Rockrabbit for strong coffee and maple bacon pancakes served while a flat screen resurrected Jerry Garcia crooned, we drove the empty miles to the crowded Big Sandy Trailhead, armed with enough supplies for 9 nights out and hardware to tackle any route up to 5.9 that would entertain our advances, plus an alpine aider for those that wouldn’t. That, and Josh’s new micro-USB based, solar powered sound and light studio.
Nine days is a long time to smell each others’ feet. We opted for individual camp chairs, stoves, and tents; his spotless in its organization, mine stained, dusty, and festooned with Gorilla, Tenacious, and Seam tape, courtesy of a chicken sized missile that had entered unannounced in the wee hours of a Liberty Ridge ascent a couple of years prior.
We hung a 4 day cache at Big Sandy Lake near the Cirque of the Towers/Deep Lake trail junction and moved up to flat slab camp at the south end of Deep Lake. We had this gorgeous cirque all to ourselves.
Warmup: Day 2 - North Face of the Haystack 5.6, 4 p
Nothing special, but a good way to acclimate and great way to tag Haystack’s summit (which is all the way on the south end of the ridge). We took the opportunity to familiarize ourselve's with one of the Haystack's most unique features, the Grassy Goat Ledges (sans goats) – a walk/scramble descent route that diagonally traverses right down the middle of the Haystack’s mile long face.
Electroshock: Day 3 - North Ridge of The Steeple, 5.8, 7 p
Do you like airy traverses and getting caught in the rain? If you’re into huge chimneys, and chockstones big as a train…look, the Steeple is so wonderfully weird, you have to hit it.
Springboarding towards victory from a typically slackpine start of 10:30 or so, we found ourselves poised for the technical portion on Steeples north ridge when Josh turned to me and asked “you don’t have any TP do you?”
Poo can be a friend or a nemisis. These fickle, fragrant creatures wield tremendous power over a climber's success or failure. The morning started off perfectly, with two text book coffee nudges, but Josh, who is built like a brick shithouse, has the alimentary canal of a paper mache shithouse on a rainy day. He was staring down round two, and round two was leaning on the steam whistle.
“All I have are these toffee wrappers. Some of them melted, though. I’ll try to chew the toffee off of them for you.”
I think that may well have been a climbing first. To whomever invented hand sanitizer: we salute thee. Hand sanitizer would save my ass, too, as we shall soon see.
Josh was rusty and slow – he’ll readily admit that. The traverse crux move certainly warranted a more deliberative approach. After this, we arrived at the base of the Great Northern Chimney.
The Steeple is the only mountain I’ve ever climbed through rather than on. The Great Northern Chimney is formed by a skyscraper sized block that one day will make for one of North America’s most spectacular natural trundles. The subject of hydraulic jacks came up, of course, but I digress. It provides the passage from the Steeples north to south ridges.
It’s a chimney gym. Perfect ass to feet. Wonderful chockstones. Some challenging moves. Great pro. Even a resident bushy tailed woodrat.
We emerged on the south ridge to deteriorating weather and a pitch that Kelsey had omitted – mostly 5.7 with slick, quartzy rock.
BOOM. The strike was close. The rain began. Slick got slicker. I was still mid-lead. It was on! I scurried to a belay and brought Josh up.
The lightning transformed him. He wasn’t just fast, he was, well, lightning fast, and remained that way through the rest of the trip. Flaring cracks, overhangs, laybacks, tiptoe traverses; didn’t matter. The man had instantaneously grown a pair…of wings, I mean.
We quickly topped out and scurried down the south ridge (4 raps), the short squall sparing us from breaking out our emergency bivvys. A scramble started sounding pretty good for the following day.
To hell with federal holidays. Seriously, who came up with that turd in a shoebox? The Labor Day herd had arrived, and we’d forgotten all about it. One party lit off a huge bonfire (which they were later fined $150 for) while another made the lakeshore their night soil repository. An older British couple set up camp so close we had to wait until they were gone before talking trash about them for it.
We scrambled up East Temple Peak – a gorgeous trip, but the Witch of September came calling and this time she was really pissed off. Josh had descended before me to avoid another round of electroshock therapy. When the driving rain went horizontal, I went full rodent and slipped under a rock to wait things out
We’d planned to climb the Minor Dihedral, but chose the shorter Central Corner as a test piece. From several accounts, however, the test piece is sketchier and more sustained than the real deal.
Our timing was perfect – after two pitches of easy 5th with a few 5.8ish moves, we started up the crux pitch, with its layback roof (not bad, but the thin lead up makes it a real challenge) just as the sun rounded the corner. Unplanned, of course – we just got up late.
With a sloping, ledgy section below the crux, I took my time figuring out a safe way to do it. If you like laybacking, the Central Corner delivers. There are really several 5.9 ish cruxes, and the 5.8 is thin, shallow, flaring, and sustained. Pro can be a challenge at times, particularly without offsets. Overall, the climb has a nervous feel about it. Even the 5.7 chimney at the top ends with a kicker layback. We were happy to be off it.
I spent that evening relaxing and training our camp mouse. The first night he went full kamikaze, slamming against my tent door in his repeated attempts to jump through the narrow opening above. Once inside, he was a master of concealment until I finally evicted him.
Every time he got near the tent I slapped the nearby fabric to scare him. By the fourth night he made no attempts to get inside the tent, content instead with policing crumbs from the slab. Our mutual interests satisfied, we left him be.
Howdy from 1890: Temple Peak scramble
We extended our stay in Deep Lake for this – stretching our lunch food in the process.
From Temple’s summit you can look straight down – all the way down. The summit block – perched precariously over this precipice – isn’t as unstable as it might seem, given the 1890 something graffiti scratched into it. There we met Chance, a young petroleum engineer from CO, who informed us that the Pinedale region is just beginning to be developed for fracking. Will sleepy Pinedale be a meth fueled lap dancer’s paradise in 10 years? We’ll see.
We returned to our cache, hungry and out of food, arriving just after dark. More accurately, we returned to where our cache had been.
It was gone.
The Lone Ranger and our Tuan Tuan Fistfight In Heaven (Cirque of the Towers)
Where's the cache, Lebowski?
Josh was quick to figure it out by reading the back of our map, as you do in these situations. “Caches aren’t allowed. It was a ranger.”
I went to a nearby party of six down to beg. These generous souls ponied up two freeze dried dinners and six energy bars. After dinner, Josh announced “I’m running out to the trailhead. I need an itemized list of what you need.”
“OK, we can do that first thing in the morning.”
“I’m leaving right now.” It was 10:30 pm.
Now, you may think this a bit odd, but I do not. Every now and then nocturnal hyperactivity takes hold and he goes into “I’m going to build an entirely new civilization by morning” mode. The disadvantages of such behavior are relatively small – awaking at 2:00 am to his headlamp light sabering through the woods as he prepares to burn a ragged, abandoned tarp he’s just unearthed, for example.
The upside, however, is a guy who will get a completely hosed trip back on the rails by noon the very next day. His superpowers kick in, and they are prodigious. An hour and five minutes later, he was at the car and driving to Pinedale. After all, the ranger had stolen his snus. Not the crap from 7-11, but that fine Swedish snus you can only buy in Seattle.
This was war.
Meanwhile, back at Big Sandy Lake, I was enjoying my own adventures. To comply with the 200 foot rule, I’d pitched my tent exactly one rope length from the trail atop a large, flat boulder that lorded over the trail Cirque/Deep Lake junction. From Camp Barely Legal I chat with the passing llama hippies, cowboys, hikers, and climbers while keeping an eye out for Josh and incoming squalls.
After a breakfast of Builders Bar and my last two Vias, the poo train whistle predictably began to blow in the distance. I should have paid more attention to the Doppler shift. As I performed a stretchy yoga move to exit my tent, I thought to enjoy the morning's first fart when the unthinkable happened.
Free will is an illusory luxury born of a functional sphincter. The moment one’s sphincter malfunctions, it takes charge. Busy performing brain surgery? Tough. You’ve now got a scheduling conflict, and that glioblastoma multiforme excision will have to wait.
Fortunately, I was on top of an 8 foot high boulder and could pirouette just in time in to mitigate the disaster, then carpet bomb the result from the air with dirt. I also had two full water bags nearby and lots of hand sanitizer, which I can’t stress strongly enough is really not for mucous membranes. Good thing I had the water, because the only alternative was a Pepperidge Farms Geneva wrapper. Our TP resupply was in the cache.
My tent door faced away from the trail – another positive, so all my fellow travelers could see was a fake-smiling head bobbing above my tent, and not the chocolate dipped porky pig desperately hosing himself off with a camelback behind it.
Once I'd recovered, I circumnavigated the lake looking for a ranger, our cache, or both. Along the way I met four campers sported shoulder holsters with a variety of firepower – a chrome .357, a Glock – wow, different world, Wyoming.
Josh returned around midday. A ranger had, indeed, taken our cache. When Josh got it back, it was light by half. Every baggy within baggy within baggy had been gone through. Tobacco, coffee, tuna, energy bars, candy - everything good had been stolen, about 100 bucks worth of supplies. Funny, they left the Chili Mac.
Josh wanted to make a break for the Cirque, but two violent squalls earlier that day gave me pause. I reluctantly agreed, and half an hour later we were huddled under his sil tarp in a third torrential downpour…about 400 feet from Shit Rock. When it let up a couple of hours later, we moved to Horse Piss Camp for the night, just up the trail. The sil tarp would come with us on Wolf’s Head.
The Cirque. It’s famous. It’s beautiful. And it’s full of poo – under every rock, it seems. I just wish that person suffering from anal bleeding had sought medical attention rather than continuing to climb there. Seriously – that was disturbing, even to me. I don’t know what disease you’re afflicted with, pal, but the rest of us would prefer not to catch it, thanks. I'm not sure it was a guy, though, given how TP-only caches grace the Cirque - including one right in our own camp under a cute li'l rock. Hey ladies: just a rumor perhaps, but I've heard they've come up with burnable TP. Check it.
We got up early for the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head and were only the third party on it. We quickly tucked behind Liz and (CO) and her partner and happily joined the conga line on this spirited, scenic outing.
Further on we asked Dan and Gordon, a couple of docs from HI and CO, respectively, if we could pass, then immediately cockblocked them when Josh could neither retrieve a foot level cam on an airy traverse nor communicate his pain to me. We should have simuled with a half rather than full rope. Fortunately, these two gentlemen have a superbly dry sense of humor, so our fail quickly became the trip joke. We recovered and continued our momentum. All six of us got along famously. It was a really great day.
We finished the route quickly and descended via 4 short raps and northside ledges. At the Overhanging/Wolfs Head col we met two parties from Washington who I’d previously chatted with on CC coming down from Overhanging Tower and the Shark’s Nose. Washington represents! The weather was fine and the day was just getting better and better.
We met a party of older gentlemen on the hike out. My accent de jour was that of a New Zealander, and I somehow failed to slip back into Merkin when speaking with them.
“Are you from Australia?” one asked.
“Auckland” I replied.
Actually, I am from California.
They were also coming down and I told Josh that we need to stay ahead of them because I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep the act up.
No such luck. We took a break and there they were.
“When’s your flight back?”
“Oh, I’ve been living in Seattle for a while” I replied in my best Aucklandese, which was quickly degrading into Afrikaaner.
“Have you climbed Mt. Cook?”
“Noi. Just Aspiring. Bettuh weathuh.”
“Oh. Well, cheers then!”
Cheers indeed. What a ride!
Upon our return we began waging peace, love, understanding and reform with the USFS in an effort to get the regulations, or at least their local enforcement, to accommodate properly stored temporary caches so no parties are ever endangered in the Winds again. And get reimbursed for our stolen goods. We’ve had one productive conversation with the district ranger there, he called us promptly after receiving our initial email report.