Due to the fact I’m currently short one ACL, I’ve found myself with adequate time to write up my stories past. This is the account myself and my friend Tim’s venture to the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range of Wyoming in September of 2016.
Let me start by saying: if you haven’t been to the Cirque of the Towers, put it on your bucket-list RIGHT NOW.
Still need convincing? I didn’t think so. The left-most peak in this photo is Pingora (more about it later).
After a grueling 8 hour drive that included getting a speeding ticket at 4am, several wrong turns, and a long stretch down an unmarked dirt road … we arrived. The parking lot teemed with climbers and backpackers whose license plates proclaimed recreators from distant, mystical places such as Iowa and Idaho.
It was late afternoon, but we decided to still attempt to make it into the Cirque before nightfall in order to get a jump on climbing the following morning. Now, the hike into the Cirque could be considered it’s own crux. An 11 mile approach atop the Continental Divide gets even harder when you’re carrying your cams, nuts, harness, helmet, and shoes in addition to your tent, sleeping bag, bear canister, and food. Thankfully, we decided to cut weight by forgetting our nut tools (more on this later). Needless to say, the Iowan backpackers passed us with ease. We eventually called it quits just before the Cirque and set up our tent and cooked our dinner by headlamp. And thus, our first benighting.
Tim on the approach to the Cirque as daylight dwindled.
Morning came and we got our first look at our surroundings. The last obstacles that stood between us and the climbing was a high saddle beyond which was a large, deep lake. The route of passage around the lake was a very large, untamed boulder field which more-or-less brought you to the mouth of the Cirque via another saddle. We packed up our climbing gear (sans nut tool), stowed our bear canister, and began our trek. Our objective: Pingora.
We set out to climb Pingora’s East Face, Left Side Cracks (5.5 to 5.7, 7 pitches, Grade III): the breadth of the route-description left much to be desired. We later found out the guidebook we had is famed for being written purposefully vague to incite adventure for its unwitting victims. And that’s surely was what we got.
According to our guidebook, the route started in a gully. Well, we found a gully (which turned out to be the wrong one) and began our vertical plight. We progressed over insecure grassy ledges, mini-waterfalls, and extremely loose choss piles. At the beginning, we didn’t see the need to rope up. It should be 5.5 after all, right?
We quickly found ourselves at an impasse. The vertical progress we were making was becoming more and more harrowing. We decided to tie in for some stomach-dropping, exposed, over-hanging moves. That’s weird. That doesn’t quite seem 5.5 … and why is this route so dirty? Typically for classic routes, most grasses and loose rocks have already been removed due to decades of hands touching them. Oh well. Press on.
We quickly turned to simul-climbing through lower-angle gullies filled with thorn bushes. Okay … this really doesn’t seem like a classic route … And then, I stopped. I built an anchor, belayed Tim up to me, and looked up at what loomed before us.
This surely was the most vertical terrain we’d come across in the many hot, frustrating hours prior. What lay before us was an approximately 200 foot (60 meter) crack system that appeared to lead to a spot just below the summit. It didn’t look 5.5, but hey, maybe it was better once you got up there!
I roped up, racked up the remaining cams and nuts that made up our light alpine single rack, and started up. It was not 5.5. I don’t know what it was, but it was not 5.5. After the first several insecure moves, I reached a ledge. I looked below me, I’d used 2 pieces. There were 3 pieces in the anchor at the bottom with Tim. Above me I could see I still had about 50 meters of climbing to do. With a single rack and a 60 meter rope … the math didn’t quite add up. I was going to have to run it out. Oh. And we forgot the nut tool. So I would have to try and not use half of the light rack I did have … ?
But if we were going to made it to the summit rappel anchors, I had to put my big girl pants on and keep going up. Oh good, the next sequence was a slight off-width. With 2 pieces in the last 40 feet – I squirmed, squeaked, and trembled my way up. I remember completing the moves and calling down to Tim, ‘Whew! That was exciting!’.
Off-width conquered. What was the next move? The crack system I was following had abruptly ended. But I could see another system that continued about 7 feet to my right. The problem was, I was atop a block and the crack system was on a vertical face with no feet between the two, just a lot of exposure. Changing crack systems also would be introducing a lot of rope drag (which can get so bad, it can feel like you’re pulling another person up behind you). I held my breath. I shifted my weight across on bad feet. And pressed on.
The terrifying-ness eased off for a while, thank goodness. But I had quickly run out of cams and I still had another 50 feet or so to go. I had to start placing the nuts. And as the extremely rational 23-year-old I was, I was trying to place the nuts loosely enough that we could recover them without a nut tool instead of setting them well to protect a potential fall. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t fall)
Four horribly contrived nut placements later, I found myself at a fist crack just below the top out (which no nut had a hope of protecting). It looked like the fist crack ended in a dramatic ‘Shamu’ move to the belay ledge (picture: a whale beaching itself). It was insecure, vomit-inducing, and scary as all get out. I made it by pulling the rope up as high as I could to relieve the rope drag that was threatening to pull me off and promptly plopped onto the ledge. I built an anchor out of slings and I realized why what I thought was rope drag was so bad. I was fighting rope stretch. I was literally at the end of my rope. If I needed to make even one more move – I would’ve been stopped short. That was fortunate!
I belayed Tim up. I think his first words words when he reached me contained some expletives about the harrowing 200 feet below us. We both decided it was time to rappel down. Which involved approximately 8 climbers, 6 ropes, and having to pee on a small ledge.
But our journey was not yet over. We still had to make it over the saddle, through the humongous boulder field, around the lake, and over the second saddle. At this point, the sun was already starting to set.
During one of our lunch breaks, we had noticed a trail out to looker’s left that seemed like the easiest way to gain the saddle (easier than the berry bushes we tramped through during our morning approach). We had agreed we would try and take that trail back to camp.
Pretzels from our lunch break thanks to our friend Eli – they’re shaped like Figure-8’s!
With the remaining twilight, we aimed for the switch-backing trail. But in order to reach it, we needed to pass through a small forest. We got our bearings and plunged in. The very faint ‘trail’ we followed into the woods quickly disappeared. We continued on in the direction we remembered last seeing the trail. Thus, our second benighting.
It continued to get darker and darker, we were two headlamps surrounded by black trees hoping to stumble upon a trail. Tim started talking about bears. At one stage, we actually did a complete circle. It was almost comical.
We eventually wandered out to find ourselves exactly where we entered the forest. We decided to trek back to the berry bushes, scraped our way up the saddle, and began the boulder traverse.
Of all the climbing we did, the house-sized boulder traversing we did in the pitch-black while teetering next to a fathomless, deep glacial lake was definitely the crux. Many, many, many hours later we FINALLY made it back to our tent. We cooked food, took some Advil, and went to bed.
We were awoken by the sound of rain hitting our tent hard. We pulled our climbing gear in from the vestibules laid and our sleeping pads over it. And then began the thunderstorm. It was ear-splitting – the thunder reverberating off of the 1000-foot peaks around us sounded like huge boulders crashing down. There we were, in an electrical storm, atop all of our metal climbing gear. Oh boy.
The next morning we left the Cirque. We drove to Vedauwoo. We climbed easy, single-pitch, 2-minute-approach off-widths and vowed we would return to the Wind River range.
We both can’t wait.