We met up with some like-minded folks in the parking lot and hiked in with them over the aptly named Jackass Pass where the trail rises approximately 300 or 400 ft above the low point in the pass. I don’t believe this pass is named for the local fauna. Also, the weather wasn’t behaving like it had our best interests in mind.
Our first morning in the cirque dawned not rainy so Jimmie and I went on a walk-about to see what the place had to offer, and to scout out the approaches to Wolfs Head and Pingora. We accidently took a rope and a rack with us because, well, that’s just the kind of guys we are. We found some nice crags for some warm-up climbs before committing ourselves to an alpine start the following morning.
Everyone else camping within our vicinity were going to Pingora and it was obviously going to be a bit crowded up there, so Jimmy and I placed our marker on Wolfs Head for the day. That afternoon back in camp Jimmie and I were approached by a climber from Devils Lake, Wisconsin, who wanted to know if he could tag along with us on our sojourn to Wolfs Head. He had never climbed in the mountains before and was somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of things in the Cirque. My memory for names is not even the envy of 2-year-olds, but I think our new friend’s name was Jeff. Given the difficulty of the routes at Devils Lake, he was a solid rock climber but a newbie to genteel pastime of mountaineering. Of course we said yes, and the following morning at first light we were off bright eyed and bushy tailed.
We eagerly scrambled to the point in the ridge where the south Ridge route starts, then romped our way along the ridge towards the start of the actual climbing. Although Jimmie and I felt right at home jumping down some of the drops and scrambling over minor pinnacles along the narrow ridge unroped, our new colleague Jeff from Wisconsin was nonplussed by the exposure and our rather casual attitude towards it.
Where the ridge angled up there was a bomber crack for jamming but the angle was still low enough for safe 3rd classing. At the top of this section we decided to ease the discomfort of our new friend Jeff and rope up from this point forward.
There comes a point along the ridge where large exfoliation cracks yield a nice traverse and chimney system around on the left (west) side of the ridge. None of this is even moderately difficult climbing, but the rock is sound and the setting is nothing short of spectacular. Added to this were the clouds moving in, which added a very “Lost World” vibe to the whole enterprise. I half expected pterodactyls to come soaring out of the mists.
By and by, we achieved the summit in a total white-out. It was quite eerie; we couldn’t see squat, couldn’t hear squat because of the way the cloud damped out all noise from the basin, yet the air was almost dead calm. Working our way north and down the ridge off the summit, we came to the rap anchors. We had not brought any route descriptions with us and had failed to memorize any details about the descent. And we couldn’t see anything. After threading our ropes through the anchors and initially tossing them off the right side of the ridge, I looked apprehensively as the ropes hung free down into the mist. I had a bad feeling about all of it. We reconsidered our options and decided to rap off the left side of the ridge instead. It was a wise choice. We found additional anchors right where they should be just as we slipped below the cloud base and were down in two easy raps.
A grand time was had by all and Jeff was quite taken with his first mountaineering experience. The following morning found us enveloped in icky, poopy, and yucky weather, with no idea how long it would last. We elected to pack it up and head out. We were young enough at the time to think we had all the time in the world to return and pick off Pingora. While I certainly do not regret not climbing it in the rain that day, I do rather regret never going back. My good friend John Ferguson did go into the “Circus of the Towers” some years later and reported that Pingora is well and truly worth the effort to go back over Jackass Pass. That being said, I would love to return to Wolfs Head as well, if I could convince my crabby knees to give Jackass Pass one more try.