“I hate buffalo”, I said for about the 50th time in the last hour, as my body vibrated with stress. “Calm down, you’re stressing me out!” replied Greg Cutforth, my good friend and climbing partner, with some obvious frustration. Good start to the trip, we weren’t even there yet, and Greg was pissed off at me.
We had left from Hinton, Alberta the day before and were ¾ of the way down to Wyoming to climb in the Wind River Range. The day before, we had driven until about 2 in the morning and then bivied in the back of the van somewhere in Montana. We were on the road again by 7 am; but unfortunately, we made a very large route finding error
by deciding to go through Yellowstone Park in the middle of August (it was the closest way, but not the fastest).
I still haven't fully recovered from the stress of waiting (for what seemed like hours) while hordes of tourists stopped their cars in the middle of the road to take pictures of buffalo – they (the tourists and the buffalo) obviously didn’t know we were in a hurry. In retrospect, driving through “Jellystone” was the most stressful part of our climbing trip. In any event, we finally did make it through the buffalo jams, and got traveling again.
We were trying to hit the trailhead in the Wind River Range in time to make the 6 mile hike into Big Sandy Lake. We finally arrived at the trailhead at about 6 pm on August 5, 2006 and started to sort gear.
Now one thing I have to say about Greg is that he is a great guy to go on backcountry climbing trips with, as he’s not shy about carrying a big load. Greg is over 10 years younger than me, bigger, and has good knees (unlike me). And, he’ll take the heavy stuff – he says he’s doing this for himself, so he doesn’t have to pack me out – whatever, I’m just happy he carries the rack (and the rope, and the food, etc., etc.)
After we had loaded our packs, we started the hike into Big Sandy Lake, where we intended to camp that night. About an hour into the hike, Greg thought he might actually have to pack me out as I started to have severe stomach pains. I had just had my gall bladder out 6 weeks earlier, and I think my body might have been rebelling. I sucked it up though and we completed the hike to the lake in about 2.5 hours and arrived just before dark. We camped in pretty spot and I soon felt better. We were up early the next morning for the remaining few miles of hiking into the Cirque of the Towers via the aptly named “Jack Ass Trail”.
We figured it’s called “Jack Ass Trail”, because the guy who built it was a jackass. The trail goes over a pass between two peaks at the highest point in the pass. So you gain about 200 more feet of elevation that you need to. We branched off Jack Ass Trail, opting to take the climbers trail over the pass (as I think almost everyone does) because it goes over the lowest point in the pass (climbers are lazy, but smart).
Looking back at Jack Ass Pass from the Cirque. The climbers trail comes in from the low point on the right, while the Jack Ass Trail comes in at the high point on the left.
It took us about 2.5 hours of hiking from Big Sandy Lake to reach our destination – the Cirque of the Towers. The views of Pingora and the Cirque were incredible. We located our camp on a ridge over looking Lonesome Lake. We had a beautiful cooking area about 50 yards from the tent, a place to hang our food (away from bears) about 100 yards from our cooking area, and just to top it off, someone had left a hammock slung between two trees right by our tenting spot. It was a perfect spot – we figured the best site in the Cirque.
Our primary goal of this trip was to climb the Northeast Face of Pingora. Pingora is an 11 pitch 5.8 climb – and is well known as it is listed as one of the 50 classics in the Roper/Steck book “50 Classic Climbs of North America”.
That evening we hiked up to the base of the route, scoping the approach – we dumped some gear and water at the base, and then headed back to camp.
Northeast Face of Pingora
We got up early the next morning and made the 25 minute approach hike in the dark. It was just getting light as we started racking up. There was an ugly looking weather front to the east, which we were hoping was going to dissipate. We started climbing at about 6:45 a.m.
Our plan was for Greg to lead the first 5 pitches, and I would lead the last 5 pitches. We find leading in blocks is more fun, as you’re not hanging out at the belays for as long, and you can break up the climbing into sections that suit each individual’s style.
On the first pitch, it’s obvious where you have to go (a big right facing corner system), but not obvious how to get there. Lots of people, including Greg, want to do a slow rising traverse over to the corner system; however, the correct way is to traverse almost horizontally, with a little down-climbing move. Greg figured this out and got established on the route.
Pitch 2 on the Northeast face of Pingora.
The following four pitches were fun, with the occasional harder move. Route finding was more or less straight forward. Greg got off-route once, but was soon back on track. The grass hummock pitch was memorable – one of the better on the route.
On Pitch 6, I took over leading. Here is where lots of people get lost. The best beta I can give is to look for the obvious crux feature of pitch 7 (the wide flaring crack) – it can easily be seen from pitch 6 – and then aim toward it. Climb the easiest looking line toward that crux feature. This will avoid getting lost by going too far to the right; which by the look of the number of bail slings, lots of people have done.
Pitch 7 was the crux; it’s a short awkward offwidth section that was a bit tricky to protect. After some grunting, I managed to make it through without too much trouble. The rest of the pitch was stunning, with gorgeous positions and fabulous exposure.
Pitch 8 was one of the more fun pitches on the climb. It was long and relatively sustained (for 5.7). You’re also getting pretty high up on the wall, so the views between your feet are brilliant. Pitch 9 went over a small roof and had some fun moves with awesome exposure. Route finding on pitches 8 and 9 is not difficult.
Looking down pitch 8
Pitch 10, however, is not to be trifled with. The topo calls it an “easy chimney” – all I can say to that is “I call bullshit”. Luckily, we had been warned about this so called “easy chimney”. To me, this was the hardest pitch on the climb. The chimney is flaring and protection is hard to get. I managed to grovel my way up it, but by the time I grabbed the jug at the top, I was breathing pretty heavy. At least I didn’t have to do it with the pack on, like poor Greg.
After this pitch, we wandered up to the summit (electing not to do the 5.6 variation) arriving there just before 12:30 p.m. The views from the top were amazing, but the weather was a bit iffy (thunder), so we didn’t hang around too long. The descent was straight forward.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, hanging out, napping, and visiting with some other climbers. There was a beautiful waterfall about 200 yards from our camp – I spent lots of time there reading and relaxing. The temperature; however, was such that if the sun was out, you were just right (in the shade), but if the wind came up or the sun went behind a cloud, it was too cold.
Greg (right) and I - the hero shot. The route generally follows the right hand skyline
The next day we spent hiking around the Cirque and scoping out the start of the East Ridge of the Wolf’s Head. We were not sure how we wanted to handle getting up to the Pingora/Wolf’s Head col, as there were a number of different options to do this. It wasn’t entirely obvious to us which way to go from looking at the topo and guidebook. We couldn’t see an obvious line to solo, and had heard most parties had pitched it out (roped up).We thought we knew where we were going, but weren’t sure. We hoped it would make sense in the morning when we started climbing. We stashed some water at the base of the route to save us some weight in the packs the next morning, and headed back to camp.
East Ridge of Wolf's Head
On our 4th day in the Cirque, we got up early eager to climb the East Ridge of the Wolf’s Head. We started climbing just as it was getting light and managed to find a relatively easy way to solo up to the col – saving us lots of time. We roped up as soon as we hit the col, and then started simu-climbing, with me leading. The climbing was very enjoyable – in one section you’re climbing along with 1000 foot drop offs on either side of you. It is hard to look graceful though, as the slope is just a little too steep to walk, and not quite steep enough to climb – so you end up with your butt in the air and your hands on the rock in front of you. Greg’s only complaint was that I was climbing too fast and didn’t give him enough time to take pictures. I can’t help myself, when I’m in the mountains, I’m always about speed; no dicking around.
Simu-climbbing the ramp pitch
Once we reached the first pitch that requires down-climbing, we started pitching out the leads (too much rope drag for simu-climbing). As the sun hit us, the day warmed up, and weather looked fantastic.
The first lead was Greg’s and involved down-climbing for 10 yards, followed by a traverse, and ending in a squeeze chimney. I hated following this pitch with the pack as I ended up almost stuck in the chimney.
The next pitch, called the “Piton pitch”, was moderate and fun. The pitch after that (see bottom photo) was the best of the climb and was Greg’s lead. It was a hand traverse along a crack, with a big drop below your feet (but nice hand holds). The views were spectacular and the weather stellar.
The following pitch, I led, and it involved some traversing along the south side of the ridge and then chimneying up to the north side. Greg led the last pitch to the summit, which was more or less walking about on big ramps to reach the top. We were on the summit at about 10 a.m. approximately 3 hours after we started climbing.
The coolest pitch on the climb - note the large smile.
The rappels were fairly straightforward, but this was because another climber had given us a small topo of the rappels and it helped considerably (this topo was found on summitpost.org). After a series of rappels and some down-climbing, we ended up back at camp before noon.
This was an enjoyable climb, especially as we weren’t worrying about weather (lightening). It wasn’t too challenging, and had a bit of everything. Greg still had enough energy to do another hike (to the top of Skunk Knob) after we got back to camp – I didn’t.
South Buttress of Pingora (via the K Crack)
As a sidenote, I should say that during our research on the Cirque of the Towers, there were two reoccurring themes – mosquitoes and crowds. I’d like to say that we encountered neither. Although there were other climbers in the Cirque, the area is so big that we actually only talked to one other group. We had just climbed two classic routes and were the only ones on them both times. Maybe we were lucky, maybe other were not.
On our last day in the Cirque, we climbed the South Buttress of Pingora (4 pitches). Apparently, it is one of the most popular climb in the Wind River Range. It’s short and non-committing. We climbed a 5.8 variation called the “K-Crack” – Greg led the “K-Crack” and was pretty pumped. It was a beautiful little pitch and reminded me of the crack climbing in Squamish. We had finished this climb by 9 a.m. – we then rapped, packed up camp, hiked all the way out, and drove non-stop back to Hinton, Alberta – a stretch of 36 hours with no sleep.