Cirque of the Towers and the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head

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On the approach up the Grassy Ledges approach.

August 30-September 2, 2013

Over the long weekend Matt, Jamie and myself visited the Wind River Range for some alpine rock climbing.  Our objective in the Cirque of the Towers was the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (12,165′).  The route is one of the 50 Classic Climbs in North America.  While it is only 5.6 is difficulty it is one of the headiest, most exposed climbs of any grade, anywhere.

Matt, Jamie and I headed out after work on Friday and toward the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  The drive is only around 5 hours but the last hour at least is on dirt roads.  Some of them are good and as you approach the trailhead they get a little bit worse.  Still very passable by normal cars but just a little bumpy.  About 10 miles from the trailhead we decided to stop to sleep for the night.  The National Forest land out where is so much better than back East since you can just park and camp without any trouble.

As we arrived at the trailhead we were astounded by the number of cars which were parked–there must have been 150 cars in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.  It was Labor Day weekend so we shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Heading in on the 8 mile approach we made good time.  This was due in part to the minimal elevation gain or loss.  While our eventual camp would be around 10,300′ the trailhead starts around 9,000′.  The main elevation came in the last 2 miles.  The landscape along the way changed from forest and plains with lakes and rivers to high alpine lakes and tundra.  As we topped out the Continental Divide and dropped into the East side, we were welcomed with a great view of the Cirque of the Towers.  Pingora (11,884′), towers over Lonesome Lake and a beautiful alpine scene.

However, very quickly this idyllic scene was tarnished by the number of people we saw.  Cirque of the Towers has no permitting system or what even seemed to be enforcement of basic rules of alpine environments.  We saw lots of tents, some less than 200 feet from water courses.  There were perhaps 50 tents, luckily not all in the same spot, but there were few places you could look that didn’t has someone stating there.  Many of these visitors were probably not climbers, but some were.  The lake of knowledge or regard for Leave No Trace had prompted people to bring their dogs.  I saw at least 6-8 different dogs.  While I’m a big fan of dogs I think people are trending to bringing their pets into many places that should not have dogs.  Restaurants, retail stores, airplanes, and alpine environments.

There are a number of reasons why I don’t think dogs belong in the alpine.  Dogs do not understand Leave No Trace.  They run and defecate anywhere, including through or near water sources.  They are not natural inhabitants, not that humans are either, of this area.  Humans can avoid disturbing natural wildlife, like pikas, as little as possible.  Unless your dog is very well trained or on a leash, can you keep your pet from going after a pika.  While the dog probably won’t be able to catch one, it certainly keeps a pika from gathering food.  Dogs are pets, but they are not 24/7 companions, especially in a delicate environment where small amounts of damage take a long time to be repaired.

The other major problem that I saw were fires.  Fires are more egregious than dogs.  There are few trees and those that do exist are only 20 feet tall because of the short growing season.  Snow covers the ground for a long portion of the year.  Dead wood isn’t very available.  A fire, even a small one takes an extremely long time to be absorbed in the cold environment.  Especially when you build it on rocks.  We did see a Ranger, but it doesn’t appear that he could prevent people from making fires.  It is too bad that the Cirque doesn’t have similar permitting and enforcement rules to the Tetons.

Sunday we got up early to do our climb, we were on our way out of camp at 4:30am.  The early start was to make sure we could get on the climb first.  Because of the moderate difficulty and number of people in the area we figured that getting on the route first was prudent.  This turned out to be a good idea.  We had a little bit of route finding problems on the approach before the sun came up.  After we figured out our problem we waited at the start of the technical climbing until there was enough light to see.

Wolf’s Head’s East Ridge is a knife edge climb.  The first crux of the route is what is affectionately called the “sidewalk” a 1.5 ft wide, 30 ft long, 30 degree angled slab.  While the low angle doesn’t seem all that imposing and were it only 5 feet off the ground it wouldn’t pose much trouble for most climbers to just walk across it.  However the section is hundreds of feet off the deck and the valley sweeps away from the approach ledges down another thousand feet.  It is one of the most heady sections of climbing I’ve done.  There is some protection, a good cam at the start, a small horn that can be slung, and a good cam at the end.  Great climbing for sure.

Just after this pitch a party of two passed us by simul climbing by.  This didn’t pose much of an issue for us since they were moving much more quickly than our party of three.  Jamie led a few pitches of simul climbing until reaching the first of numerous knife edge climbing which found us hand/foot traversing on one side of the ridge or the other.  A soloist passed us as well.  While passing us he mentioned to Jamie that though he’s solo’ed the route many times he’s never been able to walk across the sidewalk, he’s always crawled.

We finally summited in mid afternoon.  The descent wasn’t too bad but there was a bit of route finding to contend with.  The main thing was to traverse all the way across the saddle between Wolf’s Head and Overhanging Tower.  15 hours after leaving the tent we arrived back and made some dinner.

The hike out Monday was uneventful with a few rain showers.  Our fun alpine climbing weekend was shattered on our ride out upon news of the death of one of our friends and co-workers.  There are many things I would like to write down on the matter, but I am not at a point to do that, nor do I possess the ability.