Pingora, Northeast Face

By: Warren Teissier | Climbers: Warren Teissier, Martin Leroux |Trip Dates: July 18, 2005

Photo: George Bell, Jr.

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After agreeing with Martin a year ago to make a trip to the Winds to climb the two NA classics there, the time came to actually do something about it. We left Boulder on Saturday 7/16/05 in Martin's Escape and headed to Wyoming. This was to be Martin's first time in Wyoming and thus our drive was filled with the fascination that usually accompanies the exploration of a state where the population of 90% of the towns is lower than the altitude in feet above sea level of the town.

We reach the trailhead with little trouble about 7 hours after leaving my house. The trailhead is packed with at least 15 or 20 parked cars, and the first thought that comes to mind is that there will be no campsites available. The next thought is that the climbs will be mobbed. As it turns out, most of the cars are from folks that are already "in the Winds" and not camping at the trailhead and to our relief, most of the crowds have headed elsewhere since we will find very few people camped at the Cirque.

Next morning, we shoulder our 50lbs+ packs and head in for the 8 mile and 1,500 vertical feet hike into the Cirque. The hike is beautiful and I am sure would be really pleasant if we had been carrying 5 times less weight. After about 5 hours, we reach a soggy Cirque of the Towers that still has large amounts of snow and ice. It is full-on early spring conditions including large clouds of very hungry mosquitoes. Back at the trailhead, some moron had told us that the mosquitoes were worse there than at the Cirque. Bigger morons, us, believed him. Years ago, I experienced the mosquitoes at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, reputed to be the worse place for the bugs. In comparison, the Wind's mosquitoes that greeted us made their Alaskan kin look like amateurs. Simply "indescribable" was the only thing Martin could mutter.

Our first concern is whether or not the route on Pingora will be wet. After setting up the tent, putting on insect repellent and hanging our food (to keep it away from bears) and packs (to keep them away from marmots) (it is amazing how time consuming and aggravating it is when one is no longer at the top of the food chain) we head over to scout the approach and the route. The route looks dry, but the slabs at the base leading up to the start have a couple of small waterfalls created by a snow patch above them. We will have to tip-toe through the water the next morning.

Up at 4:30 am for breakfast, I notice how pleasant this place is without mosquitoes. It is quite cold and as we step on snow during our approach we realize the snow is very hard - better skip them patches. The slabs near the beginning of the climb are still wet and have a healthy layer of lichen to boot. Martin leads an "approach" pitch across the wet 3rd class slabs and to the start of the "delicate 5.8 traverse pitch". Scary stuff, stepping on licheny, wet, run-out, sloping rock with climbing shoes. It is 7 am.

The feel of the rock is absolutely awesome, and as I enjoy the mixture of emotions between fear and excitement that accompany the first lead of a long committing route, I promptly get off route on the 5.8 traverse and wind up too high. Some REALLY delicate downclimbing more in the "5.9 mildy run-out category" take me to the grassy ledge.

Martin gets to lead the 5.7 dihedral under the roof, and promptly finds out that this ain't no "sissy 5.7" climbing place. "Sustained", "lieback" and "burly" promptly become choice words that we repeat often during the next 7 hours. After the 5.7 dihedral, I deem it is appropriate to feel apprehensive about the roof pitch I am about to lead, but it turns out to be really nice climbing and not as stiff as the previous pitch. Not all 5.7s are created equal I guess. Martin leads us up the short steep 5.8 dihedral and up the first "grass hummock" pitch. The hummocks are no longer as large as depicted in the Fifty Classics book but still provide some help in what would otherwise be steep finger crack climbing with scant footholds.

The grass hummock system goes on longer than I expect, with the last bit of climbing before the "traverse to the right pitch" getting pretty steep. The day before we had met a couple of guys who had climbed the route and had gone way right on the traverse pitch. They dead-ended higher up and had to rap back down to the previous belay losing tons of time and some gear. The beta they gave us was spot on; the traverse to the right is just 10-20 ft and then up and eventually a bit left. From the belay one can see the "crux" flare crack directly above. Martin's lead puts us near the base of the crux pitch and with much trepidation I "launch" into it.

The famed "flared crack" constricts under a small overhang and then widens. The "business" is in the moves leading up to and past the constriction. I plow right into the crack and plug away as it steepens and bulges. At the crux I find it impossible to jam my left hand any more, with no face features for my left hand and scant footholds my advance grinds to a halt. I stubbornly try to jam my left hand but my shoulders can't fit in the flare. Liebacking the lip of the flare is an option but not while on lead, at least not for me, at least not today. As I hang there, my right forearm is pumping out and at 12,000 ft, I can't breathe fast enough to fix that problem. And so it comes to be that a judicious tug on a #1 Camalot sees me past the constriction and as I clip a fixed stopper, I feel I've earned a well deserve "take" on the rope. After catching my breath and de-pumping my arms, I re-enter the flare and finish the pitch. Martin manages to free the pitch by cleaning the pieces from below and then doing a "very strenuous lieback" to put it in his words.

Martin leads the "easy" pitch above the crux and I in turn lead us past the Flake pitch and set us up for the last pitch, the other "crux" 5.8 pitch. Luckily (for me) this time it is Martin's turn to lead it… We are pretty tired by now; the previous day's hike in, the 10 pitches climbed to this point, the sustained nature of the route and mainly our age and beer guts are all taking their toll.

Martin starts out well enough up a thin vertical finger crack right of a huge roof. The crack opens and closes allowing for sporadic fingerlocks and gear placements, and the footholds are a bit awkward. As I stand there wishing Martin to levitate and get this pitch out of the way, he says "oh" as he barn-doors right and then "aiding" as he yanks on his piece. "That wasn't supposed to happen this way" he says in a tone reflecting frustration. He had lost his only available finger lock to the piece of protection he had previously placed...Classic…

Apparently, and in spite of all other empirical evidence to the contrary, neither Martin nor I can lead 5.8 without yarding on gear, at least not in the Winds. In an effort to stem his frustration, I promptly offer my big wall philosophy: "All is fair in big walls in my book, at least in my book when I am in the middle of nowhere, at 12,000 feet, scared witless about getting hit by a thunderstorm on a route I can't escape from." This seems to do the trick and after setting another piece of protection he starts up the crack again and finishes the pitch, including the nasty little squeeze chimney at the end.

We scramble around the false summit to the gully leading to the real summit. We drop our gear and reach the top at 2:15pm. The beauty of the Cirque from this vantage point is simply amazing. We eventually proceed to the rappels and get through this exercise with no issues. As we hike down the South Buttress towards our camp the stress of the climb's commitment fades in direct proportion to the build up of the cloud of mosquitoes around our respective heads. Time to retrieve the packs and food in order to eat while we're being eaten…