“What’s this?” I asked, sifting through the pile of guide books Tom had eagerly grabbed from the shelves. To say my partner is a bit of a guide book geek is a complete understatement. We were looking for the Rifle guidebook at the classic Neptune Mountaineering gear store in Boulder, CO. We found every guidebook in North America save the one we were looking for. Needless to say, Tom was in heaven. I held in my hands a guidebook titled Cirque of the Towers & Deep Lake: A Select Guide to the Wind Rivers’ Best Rock Climbing. I had never heard of the area before.
“We need to go here this summer,” Tom said, flipping through the book, “I’ve heard it’s amazing.”
Although I am no alpine climber, it wasn’t hard to convince me that this was an area we should visit. A quick look through the book showed clean, monstrous granite monoliths, blue skies, and stunning scenery. I am a sport climber at heart, but recently I have been developing a desire to explore and expand my boundaries into other areas of climbing. Alpine climbing is most definitely one of these areas.
Fast forward two months, and Tom and I are back in our great little mobile home (Baloo and the Big Box), heading south to Wyoming once again after a short stint in Canada to renew Tom’s U.S. visitor’s visa and to visit my wonderful family. After a short two days visiting Lander and Wild Iris, we laid out our gear and food, packed it all in to our big ass hiking packs, and drove out the the Big Sandy Trailhead.
Our destination was the Cirque of the Towers, a relative semi-circle of 12 large granite peaks, surrounding a rugged meadow filled with streams, lakes, boulders and trees. With 9 miles of trails between us and the Cirque, I put my head down and tried not to think about how heavy my pack felt.
Although I never quite got over the weight of my pack, the scenery that I witnessed during the hike was more than enough to inspire me to push on. After an unfortunate uphill detour, Tom and I spied the stunning granite peaks of the Cirque.
After 6 hours of hiking (I would say this is a rather slow approach time, as I tend to hike at turtle pace), we finally descended into Cirque of the Towers. I was in love.
Our two objectives for the trip were two of Roper and Steck’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America: East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) and the Northeast Face of Pingora (5.8).
After drinking in my thirst-quenching sight of the Cirque, Tom and I chose a campsite. It was the first one we came upon, mainly because I felt like I couldn’t walk a step further. Luckily, it rocked.
Although it was only 2 pm, Tom and I soon found out that if you’re not climbing, you’re chilling in your tent. The mosquitoes were out in force, and if you weren’t moving around, you were quickly surrounded. I happily crawled inside out tent and passed out for a few hours.
Our plans for the first day was to do Wolf’s Head. At 5.6, it is one of the most popular of the Cirque climbs. Although the grade is moderate, I went to bed that night full of anxiety. The immensity of these peaks stirred some fear in my heart, and when I told Tom about my apprehension, he assured me that I was not alone. We awoke at 5am to soft dawn light and blue bird skies. After a quick oatmeal breakfast while swatting awake the skeeters, we started our approach.
The climb didn’t start out perfectly, as the apparently third class scramble approach to the proper start of the climb was wet and slick. After a few hundred feet of scrambling, we eventually roped up. Although Tom placed maybe two pieces of gear in the entire rope length of climbing up the start, it’s amazing how comforting the act of tying into a rope can be.
The entire climb itself from tent to tent took us 10 hours. Tom took the lead on most of the climbing, as he is more experienced in alpine climbing and route finding. I was happy to follow, trying to learn from his example. The exposure on some of the pitches was incredible, and I remember feeling physically nauseous when having to cross over a chasm with thousands of feet of air beneath me. My first alpine rock climb! Check out the pictures:
After the long day up Wolf’s Head, Tom and I discussed our plans for the next day. We had not expected the day’s climb to take so long, and were both concerned about how long the next day’s climb up Pingora could potentially take us. On the approach into the Cirque, we had met a pair of climbers who had attempted Pingora’s Northeast Face the day before and had been caught in a hail storm 2/3rds up the mountain. The Cirque is known for it’s routine afternoon thundershowers, and everyone we spoke to warned us to be off our climbs by 2pm to avoid getting caught by the weather. Although we were both keen to do this classic climb, we were concerned that with my lack of experience and our rather slow progress that day, it may be best to back down and try a shorter route. Although I was a bit disappointed, I was also partially relieved. A shorter, easier day is never a bad thing!
We turned our sights to the most popular route on Pingora: The South Buttress (5.8). This route is only three pitches long, with third class scrambling leading up the south shoulder of Pingora. It was a blast, and I was psyched to lead a fun, aesthetic ~50m 5.6. Despite this being the most popular route in the Cirque, we didn’t see a soul the entire day! Check it out:
Once again, we were blessed with splitter skies the entire day!
The next day we packed up camp, loaded up thankfully lighter packs and headed back to the trailhead. It’s hard to explain the impact this trip had on me. It made me realize just how much I have to learn as a rock climber. I have been climbing for about 15 years, but have only experienced a tiny aspect of this sport. This area has opened my eyes to how much more there is for me to learn, experience, accomplish and fail at. The beauty of the Cirque was unmatched by anything my eyes have laid eyes on before. In short, this was a life altering experience. It made me appreciate the relative safety and comfort of sport climbing, but also made me yearn to be more ambitious and hard-core. I hope that in the future I will be more open-minded and willing to push myself and go on more and more of these adventures. In fact, I even have made myself a goal when I am more comfortable with trad climbing and pushing some limits. One day…
For trips like this, the gear you have can make or break the trip. I am truly lucky to be supported by Arc’teryx, as they make the best, most cutting edge technical clothing on the market. I was psyched to be able to put their clothes to the test, and they truly proved themselves. (Luckily I didn’t have to test out the Goretex, but coming from Vancouver, I know it works!). I have compiled a list of all the gear I brought with me to the Winds for those who are interested in knowing what clothes to pack for their alpine trips!
Arrakis 65 pack (plenty of room and waterproof!)
Cierzo 35 pack (packs down small to fit in a large pack, amazing for approaches and climbing)
Phase SL Camisole (perfect base layer/tank top that endures the sweat and doesn’t stink)
Down Hoody (Look out for the new Arc’teryx down jackets coming out this fall!)
Atom LT Pant (perfect for the cool evenings and mornings)
Squamish Hoody (great for multipitches as it packs up small to hang on your harness when not in use!)
Gamma AR Pant (perfect alpine climbing pants)
Phase SL Bottom (long undies are essential)
Alpha FL Jacket (FL: Fast and Light!)
Solita Shorts (perfect for the hiking in and out of the Cirque)