A Two Week Adventure
Tetons and Wind Rivers
Participants: Steve Doorn and Gina Pasquale (written by Steve)
Our adventure in the Wyoming mountains started with a flight to Jackson Hole via SLC after work on the 15th, amid doubts about the weather. Reports of a wet cold front coming in from Canada (now where have we heard that before), coupled with word from the rangers that no-one had summited the Grand in the last week due to icy conditions, had us wondering if we would be spending our vacation rubbing elbows with touristas in Jackson Hole. Waking up on the 16th to see the Grand and Mt. Moran completely enshrouded in clouds did not add to our confidence. The 16th was spent getting our bearings, permits, and taking a pleasant walk around Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls.
Upper Exum Route on The Grand
On the 17th we got up early and started the climb up Garnet Canyon. Going the 5000 feet up to the Lower Saddle with heavy packs is quite a grunt, but the awesome views of the Grand and Middle Teton and Nez Perce Pk plus a fantastic wildflower display made it easier. The climb up was during a beautiful cloudless day--so much for the nasty weather from Canada. The scramble up the 4th class headwall that protects the saddle was exciting, but made easier with the fixed rope set up by the park service. Camping at the lower saddle is a fairly windy experience, but the view of the Grand and surroundings can't be beat. (Plus, it has the added advantage of having the most scenic outhouse anywhere.)
We had planned on rising at 3:30 the following morning, but the massive thunderstorm that rolled in around 2 AM got us up a bit earlier. On the trail by 4:30 behind the Exum Guides. You know you're on a classic route when you get to climb through features like "the eye of the needle", "the belly roll almost", and "the golden stair". Scrambling in the dark up to Wall street was pretty uneventful, and we caught up to the guides at the base of the Golden Stair. Route finding in general pretty much followed the guidebook descriptions without any surprises. The Golden Stair led to a couple very cold pitches in the well named Wind Tunnel that resulted in Gina becoming almost hypothermic. Luckily we were now climbing in full sunshine. An enjoyable thin hands crack and stemming led to the base of the famous Friction Pitch, which Gina led. Straightforward climbing led from there to the V-pitch--a fun dihedral that, for us, had a fair amount of ice in it, as did the following pitch. A couple tricky moves then led to the base of the summit block. We summited around 1 PM. Not blazing speed, but it let the guided parties get ahead of us, so we felt we had the route to ourselves until another couple caught up to us near the top. Down climbing the Owen-Spalding route was very tricky with all the new snow and ice on the route. Two short rappels led to the top of the infamous Owen-Spalding rappel. The free hang at the end of the O.S. rappel was almost too much excitement for me. The down climb to the lower saddle followed, with us arriving in camp to be greeted by gusts of wind strong enough to knock us over. The alpen-glow on the Grand that evening was spectacular. The descent to the valley the following day was again in perfect weather.
CMC Route on Mt. Moran
Stayed the next two days at the AAC Climber's Ranch, with another perfect weather day in between spent as a rest day. Took a nice hike to a lake and saw a huge bull moose and an Osprey pluck a fish out of the lake. The morning of the 21st saw us driving to String Lake with a watercraft attached to the roof of our car. We had a beautiful canoe ride on glassy water across String and Leigh lakes, with only a minimum amount of zigzagging. After beaching the canoe at the base of Mt. Moran, we tip-toed around the black bear munching raspberries and started the 3000 foot STEEP climb up to the CMC camp at the base of the West Horn. The CMC camp is nestled in a grove of trees and has fantastic views of the Tetons south to the Grand. Amazingly, we had the camp and Mt. Moran completely to ourselves for the next 2 days. Spent the rest of the day scouting out the route through the cliff bands above the camp. Another alpine start on the 22nd found us at the top of Drizzlepuss for a spectacular sunrise. At this point clouds were starting to blow in but didn't look too serious so we down climbed most of Drizzlepuss and then rapped into the notch between it and Unsold's needle. The CMC route goes up the east face of Mt. Moran and is mostly on nice edges with a few cracks here and there for pro. We stayed roughly in the middle of the face and caught a fun 5.6 dihedral variation about halfway up the route. Of course by now the clouds were starting to look like some weather was moving in. We completed the route and stayed a total of 5 minutes on the summit (made of a sandstone cap on the granite peak) since the weather was rapidly getting worse (the Grand was by now catching a pretty good downpour). We stayed dry through most of the 4th class down climb and made it to the rap off of Unsold's needle just in time to see lightning hitting the lake 4000 feet below us and with rain coming down. The rap was pretty smooth and the rain stopped just in time for the not very fun climb back to the top of Drizzlepuss followed by the exhausted stumble back to camp in a downpour. Ramen noodles never tasted so good! We headed back down the following morning for a windy and rainy canoe back to the car.
Cirque of the Towers--Wind River Range
After an awesome breakfast at the Bunnery and an interesting hour or two at the Jackson Hole laundromat on the morning of the 24th we headed south to the Wind Rivers. On the drive in to Big Piney campground we saw several large thunderheads rolling over the Winds and were wondering if our good luck had changed. Spent the night in the campground and backpacked in to the cirque for 6 days the following morning. The pack in is quite beautiful, going through several big meadows and past a number of lakes. The peaks above treeline all looked like perfect, solid granite. Unfortunately the route over Jackass pass has a lot of ups and downs, and just when you think you're there, you realize you have another 2 miles to go. (Our friend Jim Dennis claims it's called Jackass Pass, because only a jackass is dumb enough to go the whole way with a heavy pack on.) The approach to the pass fills you with anticipation as Pingora and other peaks of the cirque come into view...and finally the whole cirque is in front of you and takes your breath away.
The day after arriving we started with a nice warm up climb of Pingora's south buttress. Third and fourth class scrambling up the west side of the shoulder brought us to the base of the route at sunrise (yes, we're addicted to alpine starts). The route is 3 fantastic pitches of sustained 5.6 climbing in perfect cracks on solid granite. Each pitch was also a full ropelength. Pro on the route doesn't get any better. You can leave your cams at home--hexes and nuts worked perfectly anywhere you wanted a piece. We unroped after the third pitch to scramble to the summit for an incredible view of Wolfs Head's east ridge. After an hour on the summit by ourselves we rapped the route (with one exciting episode of freeing a stuck rope). Spent the rest of the day being lazy in camp, enjoying the views, and psyching up for the next day's climb of Wolfs Head.
You guessed it, another alpine start. Having decided the day before that we didn't like the looks of scrambling up the chimney to the notch between Pingora and Tiger Tower, we climbed to the start of the ridge via the "easy grassy ledges" to the west of the tower. This was probably our worst route finding fiasco of the trip, as it ate up a good portion of the morning and our energy. But, we started up the exciting first pitch (a two foot wide, unprotected gangplank with 1000 feet of exposure on both sides) under blue skies. After two more pitches of fun cracks and knobs we were on the ridge proper. Scrambling along the top of the ridge brought us to a loose chimney, which we downclimbed. (Don't know what happened to the traverse around the so-called first tower. We never saw it and had no trouble just staying on the ridge to this point.) A short traverse led to the claustrophobic squeeze chimney that leads to the slopey belay ledge at the base of Darth Vader tower. I got to do the crux lead out onto a tiny ledge that I'm sure couldn't have been wider than 1mm (well maybe it wasn't that bad). Luckily there are two fixed pitons to clip on the way to help with the extreme exposure. Of course, halfway across in the worst possible spot, good old Elvis has to show up. Finally, I reached some vertical cracks that led back to the ridge. Gina followed, doing it as a hand traverse, and moved much faster than I. Gina continued with the lead of the fun double crack traverse around the next tower. At this point we noticed several thunder heads rolling in on us but decided there was no way we were going back the way we came--over the summit or else... One more traverse on slightly wider ledges led us to a tough chimney and then on to the final ledges to the summit. Once again we had the entire route and summit to ourselves (and we though climbing in Wyoming would be a crowded experience). After some badly needed snacks we rapped off the west side and started the long way back to camp. Four more short raps and a lot of loose scrambling brought us to the col leading over to Cirque Lake. We arrived at the lake just in time for a colorful sunset behind Warbonnet. Headed back to camp with the headlamps. Easily the most challenging climb I've ever tried.
The following day was spent as a much needed rest day under blue skies on the shores of Lonesome Lake watching the progress of a pair going up the East Face Cracks on Pingora. The morning of the 29th we actually waited until it was light out to eat breakfast (thanks to an early morning shower that quickly blew through) and then headed back to the Wolfs Head col to climb the west face of Overhanging Tower. The climb was a very pleasant third and fourth class scramble to the low 5th class summit pitch, all on solid granite. We did the whole route unroped and made the summit 2 hours after leaving camp--I guess we were well rested. Of course, everyone goes to the cirque to climb Pingora and Wolfs Head and then bail, so we figured we would have yet another summit to ourselves--no such luck today. Two climbers who decided not to go through with George Bell's first ascent route of Wolfs Head ended up following us up. So after an hour of enjoying the view and watching 3 peregrines soar and play among the towers we headed back down to laze around at Cirque Lake and watch another pair of climbers completing the last of the traverses on Wolfs Head.
After five days in the cirque it was finally time to leave--definitely a hard place to turn your back on. We discovered on the way out that Labor Day weekend is not the time to go climbing in the Winds. We had all our routes to ourselves and saw only a handful of climbers during our stay. On the hike out we saw easily 100 people going in, with probably 30-40 of them being climbers--the circus had begun. We spent our last full day in Wyoming playing tourist in Yellowstone and discovered Gina has the magic touch with geysers. Every one we walked past would all of a sudden go off--a pretty rare day. We feel our trip was quite extraordinary--five successful climbs during a period that everyone else was experiencing storms all over the West. We're pretty thankful for the spell of good luck we had and will definitely go back.