I felt compulsion to climb the Southwest Arete of Lost Temple Spire.
Compulsion generated by Wind River guidebook author Joe Kelsey’s inclusion of the Southwest Arete route on his list “Recommended Routes” augmented further with an asterisk denoting it as one of his “special favorites” and spiced up yet more with his description of the Spire as the “most difficult to reach of Wind River points.”
Compulsion generated by at least seven prior trips to the Alpine heaven of Deep Lake and its surrounding peaks - Haystack, Steeple and Temple - with literally miles of steep, glacier polished granite walls of gleaming white, carved by glaciation. And with each trip, while climbing lesser features and more modest routes, I had yearned to some day reach the Spire’s summit.
Compulsion generated by knowledge that my first, best climbing partner from back in days of my youth, Stan Mish, made the first ascent of this route in 1980 with partners Guy Toombes and Jay Wilson. Stan and I had fine hours in 1976 when Stan, as a young punk high school dropout of 15, had teamed up me, then an “old man” of 23 in law school but who had wheels, to ferry us to climbs like Don’s Crack on Baboquivari, a desert massif and sacred icon of the Papago Indians.
Compulsion generated by a personal desire to achieve climbs of sufficient difficulty, aesthetic beauty and proud character that my desire for self-satisfaction stemming from personal achievement which might give me momentary reprieve from the existentialist quagmire of “my life” - in which I always doubt my self worth and seek outward signs of achievement for self-validation.
And compulsion of knowing that at age 61 Father Time would only give me but a few more years in which to either climb the Spire - or live out my life with regret that I had never “given it a go.”
In August 2012, a collection of Jim and Angela Donini’s climbing friends - Steve Arsenault, Corey Fleagle, Liz Donnelley, Thom Engelbach, Roger Shimmel, Mike McNeil - using my pack string of seven llamas as freight haulers, assembled at Big Sandy Opening for the mellow eight mile trek to base camp at Deep Lake for a week of climbing. As the llamero I enjoyed certain, unspecified privileges to be feed my the group and included in the climbing ventures; thus, I felt emboldened to ask Thom Engelbach if he’d care to have a go at the Spire, though in this venture I would be more like “freight” hauled up as a weak second on the rope than an equal climbing partner.
Thom and I had never climbed together nonetheless he accepted my suggestion to join forces for this test piece without the slightest hesitancy, as if to say, of course, we can do it!
The morning after I first broached the idea, we sallied forth at the reasonably early hour of 6 A.M. My ambitions were modest: return alive, before dark, without making a fool of myself and in one piece. By nightfall, my ambitions were exceeded.
To a discerning Alpinist’s eye, the approach is obvious enough in broad outline, with a few questions only answered once engaged. As we approached and the bottom pitches came into view. The opening band looked complex and broken, with no obvious line of ascent. Nothing for it but to get on lead and piece together the best line. No clean, spitter on pitch one. No arete; not yet.
I undertook this first lead and roughly 200 feet later set up an old school, “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills 1971” belay stance to bring Thom up as quickly as possible. Out of rope, I’d fallen short of reaching the ideal stance from which Thom began climbing a second pitch in earnest. A bit of improvisation lacking the dignity to be called another pitch in fact bridged the gap. By then, we were located on more obvious features that so much as said, “This is the way up, boys” via steep corners and cracks of clean, fine and classic granite lines. Ah yes, now we are on an arete!
After about five or six pitches, we reached the crux where the climbing no longer offered the security of either sinker jams or positive-edged lieback holds that had predominated below, making the climbing fun, muscular and thoroughly enjoyable. Now we faced steep face climbing where tricky counterbalancing and opposition with hands and feet and finesse were required. Eschewing any show of false bravado epitomized by a bold, rapid and sparsely protected lead, Thom sowed up the crux pitch with 14 pieces of cleverly-placed, mostly thin wired stoppers, showing his good judgment in light of our highly exposed perch, 800 feet above the deck and two plus long days from the remote possibility of rescue, as is the given on any Wind River climb if one blows it badly. The air beneath one’s feet on this pitch took away all perspective of height. Was it only 800 feet to the ground? Not in my mind’s eye!
With the crux pitch dispatched and but a single lead remaining to the summit, we turned out attention to the cloud build up which showed the potential for an ugly, drenching squall at any moment. Thom was clothed in short sleeves and shorts, perfectly attired for an August day on Miami beach and confessed he’d brought not a stitch of rain gear, so he counseled a short rappell to a ledge where he hoped to find a shallow recess where he might hide and wait out the impending storm. Rappell we did and naturally the corners which had looked promising from 80 feet above proved to be desultory and worthless if rain did come. In this moment, I felt wiser than Thom, the wily veteran of Alaskan and Patagonian weather madness and frozen ascents of Fitzroy, St. Exupert, etc. for I did have a storm parka in my sack. Luckily for us both, in twenty minutes the threat abated and we resumed upward progress, throwing in an extra stretch of 5.10 jamming and liebacking to regain lost ground, before completing the incredibly enjoyable last pitch.
Approaching the top while still on belay, I remember an odd moment in which I heard Thom speaking in conversational tones with someone - but obviously not me. Had he lost his mind? No. The summit of the Spire and the summit of East Temple, though separated by a mighty chasm, stand a mere stone’s throw apart. Thom was casually bantering as if at a cocktail party with an ascensionist standing at that moment on East Temple’s hiker-friendly, true summit.
The descent follows the route of ascent with well-placed ledges such that a single 60 meter rope took us back to the base in about six low-stress, easy-to-set, easy-to-start, non-overhanging rappells.
I was most pleased that before darkness set in, though after sunset, we waltzed back into camp - victorious, exuberant, and well-pleased with ourselves. A fine and complimentary reception from our fellow climbers topped off the feelings of contentment and satisfaction with which I fell fast asleep that night.
The pleasure of the ascent continued. After this trip with Donini, Engelbach, et al. ended, another began immediately on its coattails. My old buddy Stan Mish and his long time friend Gloria Hardwick met me the next day at the trailhead with fresh supplies for our own 12-day excursion. Upon arrival, it gave me immense pleasure to greet Stan, the route’s first ascensionist, with news of my just-completed ascent.
Months later Thom sent me a wonderful email, sharing his feelings about the climb. It portrayed well the melodramatic, self-deprecating, graveyard wit of Mr. Engelbach as climbing philosopher. In tones of mock seriousness, he recalled our brush in near death and successful completion of the ascent, which had been in doubt to the last extreme. I would quote it directly - if only I could find it again.
“He followed his compulsions” - let that be my epitaph. Lost Temple Spire vindicated the credo.