Everest '99 Trek
Ouray Ice Festival
Hill and Feagin
Letters to the Editor
Climbing in Wyoming's Wind River Range
We started worrying around dinner time. Hours earlier, we had left our friend Zac at the base of Pingora Peak. The four of us scrambled back toward camp, and Zac, wanting to climb another route in the long afternoon, had headed toward the dramatic East Ridge of Wolf's Head.
Now, four hours later, we were surprised and worried that he hadn't shown up yet.
It was only that morning that the five of us had left our camp high in the Cirque of Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range and made the short approach to the South Buttress of the hulking mass of granite known as Pingora. Considered a classic by many, this route features moderate, enjoyable climbing and incomparable views of the rest of the Wind River Mountains.
The 5.8 route proved to be enjoyably mellow that morning, the only difficulties being our odd number, and the crux pitch, known as the "K Crack." It wasn't long though before these difficulties were overcome and the five of us enjoyed a pleasant summit. From the top, we had a perfect view of the East Ridge of Wolf's Head, a gnarly razor's edge less than two feet wide in some spots and with over a thousand feet of exposure on each side.
"There is still time to put up Wolf's Head this afternoon... anybody up for it?" Zac had said as we sat on the summit. Amy, Erin, Kim and I looked at one another, eyebrows raised.
"I don't know, Zac," I replied, again revealing my identity as a less than hardcore climber, "I might do it with you tomorrow, but I think that I'd rather just have a mellow afternoon in camp today." Amy, to my relief, echoed my sentiment. I told him I'd think about it on the way down though.
"Wait, I'll climb with you. That route is too hairy to do solo," I said. Zac asked if I was sure and though I said I would rather wait until tomorrow, I'd go with him.
Zac could tell that I was offering to climb with him to keep him safe. "No, I'll be fine. See ya back in camp in a little while."
There are very few climbers in the world that I respect more than Zac West. He is completely solid in every mountaineering skill ever tested. While he pushes himself constantly, he is always undeniably safe, so I had little doubt that he would come back fine.
Just as we had begun mapping our strategy, Zac crested out over the ridge just below our camp. Looking beat up and hurt, and carrying only one rope and half his small rack, Zac looked worse than I had ever seen him. My relief was palpable.
A long and epic story revealed that Zac had ascended the East Ridge and had started the long traverse toward the summit. The traverse, it turned out, was extremely technical, weaving in and out of mini spires, and over exposed faces. If Zac had fallen, survival would have been questionable.
While Zac was climbing solo, he had to lead each pitch, anchoring a rope at the bottom of the pitch, then climbing lead, and placing a piece or two so if he fell it wouldn't be more than 80 feet. Upon reaching the top of the pitch, he would anchor a second rope, and rappel down to his first anchor. He would then break down the first anchor and climb the second rope with ascenders.
This proved exhausting, and Zac soon found himself dehydrated and hungry, sucking on the last of the honey that he had brought for our lunch hours earlier.
Placing nuts when he could, and camming devices the rest of the time, Zac descended six rappels, losing all of his webbing, one of his ropes and a good chunk of his rack in the process. "I'm just glad I'm safe," Zac said as he reached camp. "I feel stupid and lucky at the same time."
After hearing all of his frightening story, Zac eyed me. I didn't want to hear what was coming next.
"Are you still up for climbing the East Ridge tomorrow?"
Even though I half expected the question, I was still amazed that he would even consider going up there again after his near death experience that very afternoon. I was even more amazed when I said, "Sure."
Zac and I rose early the next morning. Kim, Amy and Erin, still asleep, were going to break camp that day, and move out of the Cirque of Towers to a camp at Shadow Lake. Our hope was to meet them that night after the climb at the new camp.
As we started the approach, I wondered what the hell I was getting myself into; why I wanted to climb this obviously dangerous route, only to recover a couple hundred dollars worth of gear. My life was surely worth more than a couple hundred dollars. Wasn't it? Scaling the lower ramps towards the ridge, I didn't feel ashamed asking for a belay in a couple places. I knew that today, on this route, I would need to be safer than I had ever been before.
As we got onto the ridge, even though I was still nervous as hell, I actually started to enjoy the climb. The exposure was incredible, dropping almost vertically on both the north and south.
The ramp angled an average of only 45%, 5.2 climbing at your local crag, but with a thousand feet of exposure on both sides, it felt like 5.9 to me. The ridge was quite a thrilling ride, but once on top of the ridge, the real adventure began. Our pitches were kept to half of our rope's length due to rope drag around the fin-like spires on the summit ridge. Traversing around these spires put us in incredibly exposed positions - traverses where the mantra, "just don't look down" repeated endlessly in my head.
After three short nerve-wracking pitches on the traverse, we had reached the point where Zac had descended the day before. I made no qualms about saying I was okay with not going to the summit. I'd had enough adrenaline for the day.
To my relief, this was fine by Zac and looking down the shear face, we could see the blue rope he had left the day before after it caught in a crevice, jamming it tight in the rock.
Zac rappelled first, on our pink rope, and tied a double fisherman's knot to the blue rope, creating a more comfortable double rope rappel for me. Upon reaching the second rap station, we carefully pulled down our two ropes so we wouldn't get another one stuck.
Upon collecting the errant ropes, we continued on three more rappels, collecting Zac's gear every 75 feet and replacing it with nylon slings that I had brought with me. Upon reaching the low angle ramps at the bottom of the peak, we both breathed an amazing sigh of relief, hugged each other, and continued down the trail.
Less than 24 hours later, the five of us reached the Big Sandy trailhead and our waiting cars. Next destination: Rocky Mountain National Park for a few more climbs in the fading summer. By now it had become apparent to us: Like many climbers, Zac and I have some sort of learning disability.
Riley Morton, Mountain Zone Correspondent