Senior Citizens in the Mountains of Wyoming
By Penelope May-Smrz.
The Wind River Indians starved themselves, thirsted themselves and tortured themselves in order to obtain visions. We did just the same, and were treated to the majestic visions of the Cirque of the Towers, the Grand Tetons and Gannett Peak. We also lost 10lbs each!
Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Mountains
Walking into the Cirque requires stamina. Alois had already bought me the largest female backpack available for my torso size (Osprey’s Luna 85, 5,100 + cu in) and it, and his, were full to the brim with dry food for 10 days and rock-climbing gear, some 60-65 lbs each. We staggered the 6 easy miles on a good trail from Big Sandy Trailhead the first day, enduring mosquitoes and dodging rain showers to spend the night at serene Big Sandy Lake. The next day was worse, if a shorter 3 miles: uphill, poorer trail, heavy rain, thunder and lightening, finished off with a mile of huge talus scrambling along the shore of Arrowhead Lake, the so-called Climber’s Trail. Bruised hips and general misery were rewarded as we approached the Cirque and saw our first vision of grandeur! We found a private campsite, hung our precious food on wire off a huge boulder, made camp, ate our measly dinner, marveled at the beauty and crashed. During the night, the first of many thunderstorms to come pelted us; as we came to say, “the skies opened”, but the Bibler held.
We came to climb the two Wind River “Classic Climbs of North America” on offer, Pingora and Wolf’s Head. So, after spending an entire day watching the weather pattern, we swiftly set off the next day with topos and enthusiasm to climb Pingora, via the South Buttress. We found the right-slanting approach ramp and scrambled up to the shoulder, from where 5 pitches awaited.
Alois was licking his chops at climbing the famous K-Cracks, but nature conspired to deny him and served us one of our biggest epics yet. As Alois started up the 4th pitch, about noon, a clear sunny day began to deteriorate; skies were darkening all around us but we had seen that come and go before, so carried on. As Alois was half way up I heard distant thunder; as I followed him up, thunder was crashing closer; by the time I reached him, on a ledge at the base of the K-Cracks, nicely exposed near the top of the buttress, hail was falling, followed by cracks of lightening and booming thunder. As we threw on our rain gear, I felt a zap on my hip and Alois smelled burning: I was struck by lightening! I have never seen us throw off our harnesses and gear so quickly. Then the “skies opened” completely and we endured three hours of storm, water cascading down the rock, our feet soaked and freezing, our gear buried in 5 inches of hail and a couple more “mild” lightening strikes in our legs, just to cap it off.
After the storm passed, we briefly considered the easier variation, on wet rock, to reach the summit, but wisdom prevailed and we prepared to rap. Fortunately there was a rap station right below us (slings around boulder, typical) and Alois eagerly set off. Unfortunately, we realized too late that he had gone 60’ down the wrong way. Since it was about 5.10 to return, he was loathe to do it, but our hero was obliged by circumstances, and succeeded with a little tension from me and only a few slithers on the wet rock. After he went down the right way, I followed to discover he had missed the next station, due to getting the rope stuck. I saved his bacon by penduluming to dislodge it and belaying him to the correct spot. Another rap found us at the bottom and we happily located our wet boots, changing into them about 6 pm, for our walk back to camp, arriving 7:45 pm, just a bit tired, and ready for our measly dinner again. And that was just the first climb!
The next day was, of course, picture perfect, as we licked our wounds and viewed our past and future exploits from our campsite.
The next day dawned all socked in, much to our chagrin, but wiser now, we decided on discretion, and stayed home. Of course the sun came out at 9 and we spent the day sharing our food with mosquitoes and feeling frustrated. Next day we were up at 5:30 and went for it.
The obvious saddle to the right of the Wolf’s Head is the starting point for the technical climbing, with 5 pitches straight up the prow on the skyline being called 4th Class, no rope needed. I had seen the view of if from Pingora and was “impressed”. We decided to attempt it the next day, weather permitting, and went for a hike to Lizard Head Meadows where we enjoyed the exciting experience of a huge bull moose calmly walking by us.
The “Grassy Ledges” approach was 3 pitches, the 4th Class Prow 5 pitches. From there it was another 9 pitches to the summit, traversing four towers on the ridge.
Traversing the four towers involves some exciting exposed face climbing as well as squeezing through a narrow slot. Toward the end of the Fourth Tower is the ledge made famous by the photo in “50 Classic Climbs of North America”, which we enjoyed in the full sunshine of a glorious day. Within minutes, we felt a few spots of rain and I strongly urged Alois to get up the next chimney FAST! Fortunately he was able to, and we found ourselves under a small, slanting roof as the familiar “skies opened” and the day’s thunder and lightening show rolled in. Being more experienced now, we donned rain gear, threw our metal away from us and “nonchalantly” avoided being struck. This storm only lasted an hour as luck would have it. So, we continued and arrived at the summit in late afternoon. Only those 6 rappels remained.
Having two ropes is essential to make these rappels. We had them. Unfortunately, we also had new Mammut Phoenix 8mm ropes which kinked on us in a spectacular way. We spent hours rappelling as the ropes tangled in mid air and had to be untangled every 20 feet or so during descent. We finally reached the Overhanging Tower col and descended the ugly 1200 feet of slippery scree in the dark, by headlamp, cursing Mammut regularly in between adrenalin charges from the huge drop-offs. After reaching Cirque Lake we talus hopped a couple of miles back to the tent, arriving rather late. Wind Rivers’ Grade III for you! The only advantage was that our measly dinner meal more or less combined with our breakfast ration.
After recovering, we decided not to risk any more long exposed climbing due to weather and opted for a fun climb of the Sundance Pinnacle. It was only about 2 miles away and relatively short; at the request of my partner, I lead the entire route. We were up and down it before the inevitable thunderstorm set in. This time we merely found a rock overhang for shelter, calmly coiled our ropes and ate our lunch scraps.
10 days was beginning to smell like the limit for the efficiency of Wet Wipes, and we were almost out of food, so we prepared to leave this little bit of heaven. Unfortunately, Alois’ back started twinging and by the time we arrived back at the Big Sandy Trailhead (one day only in this direction), he was in tremendous pain. We bee-lined for a Pinedale motel and soaked ourselves, ate real food, used the library to check our e-mails and rested his back. After three days, his back was still not ready for our next segment, the strenuous carry to Titcomb Basin for Gannett Peak; also, a cold front had come in, the “skies opened”, and were raining heavily, non-stop.
Grand Teton National Park
A brilliant idea surfaced: visit the AAC Climbers’ Ranch in the Grand Teton National Park, about 70 miles north, near Jackson, and use its cabins and covered cooking area for shelter from the weather. We were lucky enough to find space in this popular spot, which enabled us to “comfortably” and cheaply wait out the cold weather, chat with other climbers, read in the climbing library and heal Alois’ injured back
We stayed at the Ranch for 5 nights. Finally with both his back and the weather improving, Alois suggested a hike. Another climber told us there was a “trail all the way to the top of Middle Teton”. We enthusiastically embraced the idea and only after 16 miles RT, 6,800 feet of gain scrambling up scree and hopping over talus, managed in 12 exhausting hours, did we realize that the “trail” was an elusive concept. It did, however, whet our appetite for climbing the dike on Middle Teton, 22 pitches of 5.6, another time
We finally left the Ranch privileged with a delectable invitation from a local climber to return in the winter (average temperature below 0 degrees F in the day) and stay in his guest room, a yurt, which he offered to “fire up” for us.
Titcomb Basin/Gannett Peak (Highest Point in Wyoming), Wind River Mountains
The Grand Finale approached. If you needed stamina to hike with all this gear into the Cirque of the Towers, you needed more of the same plus a deranged mind to face 17.5 miles, each way, to reach Titcomb Basin with ice tools, crampons, etc. as well. We qualified.
We stumbled into Titcomb Basin after two days, to find a wind-blasted zone from which two men were fleeing with their tent in tatters. We camped in a rock-walled shelter, which braced us against the wind that night, although we still had to lie on the edges of the tent to help stabilize it. After a day “off” during which conditions did not change, we concluded that this was a cold, windy place and we would just have to go to the summit and endure it.
Getting an early start (3:00 am), we emerged from the tent to find a most welcome and surprising calm: the miracle of fine weather which stayed with us all day. We hiked up the valley and up the 2,400’ of miserable steep scree to Bonney Pass, from where, around dawn, the majestic panorama of glaciers and peaks met our astounded eyes. Here, two parties ahead saw the distance and turned back.
Since we had spurned the regular route on Gannett (Gooseneck Pinnacle, rock scramble), we set off for our planned ascent via the North Face ice slopes. Once down the rubble on the other side of the pass, it was a beautiful, sunny, and magnificent crampon walk over the glacier, 2 miles to the base of the North Face. Then, it was 5 + pitches of 45 degree ice and 3 + pitches of easy 5th Class rock. We soloed it, saving time.
At about 1:30 pm we were on WY’s highest peak and soaking up the vast icy views… the most glaciers (5) together in the US, outside Alaska.
We descended the Gooseneck Pinnacle ridge, a rock and snow combination, back to the glacier. Tired and cold, and determined not to bivvy (!) we hauled ourselves back to the top of Bonney Pass where we arrived about 7:30 pm. With one hour of fading daylight left, we skidded as far down the other side of the scree slope as possible, avoiding most of the hazards. From there, we donned headlamps and slowly crossed 2 miles of talus, slabs, boulders, river crossings and bogs to reach our wonderful tent about 11:15 pm. A 20 hour day (another Grade III). After boiling up some tea and soup we collapsed with a few swigs of celebratory single malt and slept: mission accomplished!
After a day off feeling shattered but euphoric, we lugged those horrific packs back down the trail. En route, two young men, licking their wounds, told Alois that they had failed to make Gannett, quitting at Bonney Pass, and asked about the Gooseneck Pinnacle route. Alois explained that we had only descended it but climbed the North Face. Curious, they asked how many pitches it was; Alois said he was not sure as we did not rope up for it. Wide-eyed, they asked how long it had all taken. Upon hearing the answer, they asked how old he was; upon hearing THAT answer, a respectful silence fell.
Eventually these two “senior citizens” reached Elkhart Park (Pinedale) again, finding morning frost for the first time on the tent. Perfect timing; a reluctant sign to go home after enjoying these beautiful, lush and grand, Wyoming mountains.