An old grandmother of mine once told me that laughter is the key to a long life.
This is a story about an adventure with a great friend in the Wind River Range.
Enter Gavi: long-time outdoorswoman, equal opportunity climber of all rock types, will never pass up a good nut placement, loves the feeling of sun shining on rarely exposed skin, ignorer of time, serious foodie, professional toy-designer, now with a flexible lifestyle allowing her to live and work in climbing areas throughout the Western United States. Currently in Boulder.
Enter Anne: granite lover, fledgling doctor, buckled in for years of residency ahead, but busting out of the Bay Area in spurts for crack fixes, doesn’t call a climbing day complete if no blood has been shed, finds efficiency to be orgasmic, and loves how being fully immersed in glacially cold water makes it hard to breathe.
Enter Cirque of Towers: sharp granite peaks in semi-circle shape around Lonesome Lake, many spires over 12,000 feet, but defined by the striking Pingora, with climbing routes galore, steep approaches on 3rd and 4th class “ledges,” fragile descents, faces dappled with thousands of slings, some with this season’s color, others merely the faded and fringed remains of bails of years past, swarmed by mosquitos, and guarded by 50 miles of dirt roads in southwest Wyoming and a 9-mile trail approach crossing Jackass Pass.
Enter Gear: 6 days of food, mostly and mistakenly in bar form, a tent, a stove, down coats, a deck of cards, a set of nuts, double set of cams from small to #3, a #4 for good luck, and a 70 m rope, all kinds of other sh#t, but not enough toilet paper, toothpaste, sunscreen, or corn nuts.
Act One: Getting There
Gavi picked me up at the airport in Denver, and we drove straight to downtown Boulder for some gluten-free vegetarian meatloaf and some organic handmade local grass-fed frozen yogurt. We stuck around for the night, but only so we could have the experience of spending 4 bucks on a cup of chemex-brewed coffee (google it) on our way out of town in the morning.
The drive took 8 hours with a few pit-stops along the way. A very informative news article on the bathroom wall at one establishment featured Sandy the horse, who had been hospitalized with a rattlesnake bite to the nose. We also saw a statue of Abe Lincoln, many historically significant trees, and a lot of cows.
It was evening when arrived at the trailhead. Under Boulder’s spell, I had somehow thought that seaweed salad would be great for dinner at the trailhead that night, but we decided to hike in and the seaweed became less optimal. We offered our fresh food to a startlingly large number of people before getting some takers, but in the process, we met some nice folks.
That night, we hiked in a few miles and spent the first night in a lovely meadow along Big Sandy Creek. We got our first taste of the mosquitos, which we battled with 100% DEET and stylish headnets (tip: first lift headnet, THEN eat or drink as desired).
The next morning, we walked into the Cirque of Towers. We took the standard trail over Jackass Pass (here forth known as Jack Pain-in-Ass Pass, or JPIAP), because the climber’s trail looked like the climber’s swim, with section of trail either flowing with snowpack runoff or still consumed by Arrowhead Lake.
Up and down and up and down, and finally over JPIAP, we descended the trail into the Cirque about halfway to Lonesome Lake and then sighted a waterfall off to the west. We walked towards the waterfall and then continued upstream to some meadows lined with clumps of pine trees. We set up camp in a well-protected area, racked up for a climb in the morning, and hung our food up in a tree with what appeared to be reinforced dental floss that Gavi had found at the hardware store.
Act Two: Climbing
Just kidding. No climbing yet. First, weather moved in. The two trees above our campsite made a lot of noise in the wind, and it rained off and on all night. At 5 am, we peaked out of our tent, and most of Pingora was in a cloud of fog. Having been fairly sleep deprived for the past year, I gladly pulled my sleeping bag back up over my head and closed my eyes again.
We woke up later, had some coffee, and then took a meandering tour of the Cirque by foot. We scoped out the approach and descent to the Northeast Face of Pingora, one of Roper and Steck’s 50 Crowded Classics. Funny, I wish there had been some people around to show us the way, but we were all alone!
We figured out (and later read in the guide…duh) that the easiest way to approach was to walk down to Lonesome Lake, walk along the northern side of the Lake, and then walk uphill on the left (west) side of the inflow stream until sighting a headwall. The approach ledges were above the headwall, which was passable on the right. From there, the dihedral of the first 300 feet of the climb was visible off to the left.
After the scoping the approach and descent, I was consumed by emotion and nearly in tears. Was it the altitude? Was I hormonal (that’s what my mom always told me when I cried)? Or more likely, was I hungry? “I don’t want to climb! It would be too scary and stressful! What if we got struck by lightening or hit by rockfall? We wouldn’t even be able to see the weather coming from the Northeast Face! I am scared! I don’t want to die! I don’t like alpine climbing!” Like some crazy reverse psychology, as soon as I dumped all that onto a very sympathetic Gavi, I saw the truth: “Hell yes, we are going to climb! Climbing is awesome! I can’t wait to climb! Let’s go get ready! Should we just start now? I love you, Gavi!”
Yeah, it probably was hormones.
It might have been nice to first do a shorter route on Pingora’s south face, like the classic 5.6 South Buttress, but our plans changed with the weather. Now we would just do the Northeast Face as soon as we got a weather opening. Again, that night, we racked up. This time we set the alarm for 4 am. When we woke up, the wind was (still) audible, and there were some sporadic clouds. But we thought the weather to be breaking rather than building, and we decided to the do the approach and make the final call at the bottom of the climb.
At go-time, at the start of the traversing ledges, the sky was mostly clear. We roped up, and Gavi led us bravely leftward and upward across a seeping slab towards the prominent dihedral. Gavi ended up a little above and over from the start of it, so when I got to her belay stance, Gavi lowered me down into the corner. Then, I started leading the first pitch, straight up a right-facing dihedral. I went for about 170 feet of fairly physical lie-backing, jamming, and stemming, and then found a nice belay ledge (p1).
While I was climbing, my mind had been clear, and the long pitch allowed for great flow. The rock was solid. Once I stopped, my stomach tightened, and all I could think about was the weather. I looked up. It was 7 am. Clouds blew over the summit, and each time, they broke, but it was nerve-wracking not being able to see what was coming our way. But every once in a while, I was able to actually enjoy the ridiculously awesome views of the Cirque!
Gavi led the next pitch (p2), finishing out the corner system and then climbing over a bulge, bypassing a prominent roof on her right-hand side. This put us in a right facing corner system, which leaned slightly left, and we stayed in that for a few pitches (p3 and p4) until we found ourselves at the base of three cracks: from left to right, a flare, a lieback, and something else that I didn’t get a great look at.
I went for the flare (p5), which left me winded in the altitude but enthusiastic. It was clean and, dare I say, fun! The rest of the pitch was also a blast. The 40 feet below the flare was stemming in double cracks, and then after exiting the flare, there was some exciting and exposed face moves before reaching another ledge. Gavi picked up with some thin cracks and ledges (p6), still trending slightly left, and I finished up with some more thin cracks and then around a roof to the right and into a chimney (p7). The entire way, the climbing was sustained, the rock was excellent, and the pro was all there. After exiting the chimney, I scrambled up another 50 feet to the East Ledges, with the Northeast summit right above me.
Yay, we did it! And the weather held! We had some snacks and took some glamour shots.
And then, oops, we lowered our proverbial guards, and I must have hit the off button on my internal GPS. We proceeded to destroy (in the true sense, not the hip, agro “crush” sense) the Descent: Take One. For some reason (read: persistent intense fear of weather), we thought we should get off the peak as soon as possible, even if it meant not going to the Northeast Summit. Thus, we set out for the rap route down the South Buttress route, following the East Ledges past the Northeast Summit on the south side (got those cardinals straight?). This path led down a loose and exposed 4th class section, which terrified me. Gavi, already down it, kindly put out her arms in a psychological maneuver, pretending she would actually catch me if I pitched forward into space. I bought into it and scrambled down to a large ledge. There, we found discolored slings threaded underneath the pinch of a large boulder.
With thinking-Anne apparently still on snack break, it made sense to head down. The rap station was less than fresh, but (as we all will probably say until we are not around to say it) I’ve seen and rappelled from worse. Gavi reluctantly descended to a large ledge about 100 feet below us. She looked around and did not see any more slings. Over to climber’s right, she spotted a mass of white, and she carefully traversed over to check it out—old slings, all discolored and no rap rings.
At this point, my brain started taking up glucose again, and it dawned on me that we were NOT on a frequently used rappel route. We were NOT on the South Buttress or its rappel route. I gave Gavi the bad news that she should come up, and we should go a different way. Gavi used every ounce of spinach she had ever eaten and simultaneously conjured images of ex-boyfriends to ascend the rope over steep terrain with two Prusik hitches. I sat above and watched, rattling off every motivational phrase I could think of. There were a lot of “Good jobs,” which just didn’t seem to cut it.
We needed to get up on the Northeast summit and navigate from that vantage point. We backtracked to our sunny snack spot from earlier, so recently such a happy and blissful place, but now the sight of our route-finding indiscretion. We roped up, and I led up the easiest terrain I could find, with some interesting traverses and cracks along the way (p9).
Gavi followed me up, and we found a rap station off the southeast side of the Northeast summit slab. We rapped to the higher of two ledges, which led to the true summit. From here, we continued west on easy terrain until we found a south-facing 3rd class gully, which we knew from the route description we had to be the top of South Buttress. We descended the gully and were thrilled to find a rap station, fashionably outfitted in this season’s latest sling and cord colors.
Three easy and one ridiculously traversing (to the point we called it a “lead rappel”) raps and we were down on the ground, sort of. We then scrambled down the approach to South Buttress. It was exposed, but by this time, you could have hung me out the side of an airplane, and I probably wouldn’t have flinched. We scampered down, and sadly had to turn on our headlamps for the last 15 minutes of our walk back to our campsite. I peed for the first time in 12 hours (shout out to my kidneys!), and we ate some turkey jerky and cheese, and Gavi even wrote in her journal.
Act Three: Rest Day
The next morning, not surprisingly, we woke up with major climbing hangovers. My lips cracked and bled as soon as I tried to speak. I struggled up a gentle incline from the creek after fetching water. We ate and drank and ate and drank, and after all of our camp chores were done, around 10 am, we had nothing to do but re-apply lip balm. It was amazing!
The weather was sunny and warming, with a light breeze. We experimented with various rock shapes for sunning upon, played Gin and Rummy 500 (I got whooped), swam by our favorite waterfall, slept, meditated until we slept, napped, dozed, toodled around, and wrote in our journals. As I jotted down notes, I felt so proud of us for going through with the trip and with the climb. We could have flaked out at so many points over the last few months to the few minutes before getting on the rock. But we didn’t, and it had been awesome. We had also made a route-finding blunder but were able to safely maneuver back on track.
On my other list of things to think about in the wilderness was my current medical specialty. Because I hate making money, love working my ass off, and want to work at the bottom of the totem pole for the foreseeable future, I am thinking of switching residencies and starting over again in different specialty. After describing our ascent of Pingora in full detail, I made a nice “pro”-“con” list of my current field versus the one I might switch to. Go figure, neither list was crazily appealing at the moment. I chalked it up to “perspective” and quickly returned to napping, followed by a short toodle.
Around 6 pm, it seemed reasonable to start getting ready for bed again. Thoughts that had been kept at bay all day crept in: was it already almost time to leave the Cirque? My flight out of Denver was in 48 short hours.
Act Four: Homeward Bound
We wanted to get on rock once more, and since we knew the South Buttress of Pingora so well now, and it actually looked really fun, we decided to climb it in the morning. The route provided more fun movement on solid rock, with a 4th class approach pitch, a long varied corner pitch, and the final K-crack pitch leading to a nice ledge with rappel anchors (the same ones we had used to get off Pingora a few nights ago).
Then it was time to hike out. Boo! But the mosquitos were getting bad, some organized trips had descend upon the Cirque, crowding our little meadow, and my flight was now a mere 24 hours away. We packed up our stuff after climbing and then went to our favorite waterfall for one last swim. We put on a bit of a scandalous show for an audience of boy scouts who happened to be lunching nearby (sorry, troop leader, but we found that swimming hole first).
Cooled and fed, we started back over JPIAP and took some parting pics. The mosquitos seemed to gain strength as we descended from the pass. At this rate, I was going to need a blood transfusion by the time we got back. We deeted up and hiked with headnets. When the Cirque was no longer visible, the hike out turned into a death march. To pass the miles, we started singing and blew through several musicals, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Miley Cyrus, and Pink, a thought-provoking compilation. Perhaps even more perplexing was that the only song we knew all the lyrics to was “Part of Your World” from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Down by Big Sandy Lake, with 6 miles to go, I had a mini-meltdown when we had to “bushwhack” through 50 feet of open grass to get to the trail. I hadn’t been eating much the past day, for lack of ability to stomach any more bars. Luckily for us both, a man and his girlfriend appeared, angels in the evening. They needed DEET. We needed the amazing-looking homemade trailmix in their hands. We made the trade. The trailmix was gone before they were fully DEETed, and I was soon feeling more able to tolerate the challenges of the trail.
We continued to sing, and another pair of hikers came around the corner just as we were free-styling our own trip anthem. “We came to the Cirque/with more than turkey jerk/we climbed up granite/but going down, we didn’t plan it/the sun kept shining/kept the clouds at bay/there was water all around us/cuz the snow melted away.” Then it devolved into a lyrical, “Eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs, we want eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs. Eggs. Eggs. Eggs.” (Still singing) By the time we wrapped up that tune, we only had time for one more song before we got back to the car. Yes, we blew into Big Sandy campground singing Hound Dog.
We planned to camp at the trailhead, but Gavi’s green Subaru just looked so freakin’ mobile, we couldn’t help ourselves and jumped in the car and started driving. We managed our way out the dirt road system (“Look, I see lights! Go that way!), and a few hours later, we were showered, laying our heads on fluffy Best Western pillows, and dreaming of eggs.
This time, we woke up with generalized outdoor hangover, and stumbled out our room for our free hot breakfast. Eggs! And bacon, and sausage, and toast, and butter, and coffee, oh my!
Then, it was time to go catch my flight. We passed Abe Lincoln again, stopped amply for food and drink, and listened to songs that we had tried to sing on the hike out. Before long, we were passing the bright blue demonic horse statue that guards the Denver airport. And with that, great friends parted. Adventure was had, relaxation earned, life decisions pondered, friends grown closer, and rock faces climbed.
Longing for nothing, I checked my larger bag, watched the security guard carefully examine my cam-filled carry-on, impulsively bought the first book of Game of Thrones at a newsstand, and boarded the plane home.