2018-08-09 thru 12 Cirque of the Towers

Sunrising on the Cirque. Pingora in the sun, Wolf's Head in the shade behind it.
Sunrising on the Cirque. Pingora in the sun, Wolf’s Head in the shade behind it.

August 9-12, 2018

As we have done in the past, Carly and I put various climbing destinations in the calendar through the summer to help motivate us to go to different locations.  While we haven’t been 100% successful in going to all the places we entered, we’ve gotten some good trips this summer so far.  One of the bigger ones was another trip back to the Winds and the Cirque of the Towers.  

Two years ago we went to the Winds, but to a new area.  That trip turned out good, but weather kept us from climbing too much.  This year we planned for August, typically a little more stable weather month.

For this trip we decided to go to the center of it all in the Winds climbing, the Cirque of the Towers.  I’d been here before a number of years ago.  Similar to that trip the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) was on the ticklist.  In addition was Pingora.

Not unlike the last two times I’d been to Big Sandy Trailhead, I was amazed at the number of cars.  There were again perhaps 200 cars at the trailhead and unfortunately the parking is probably designed for only 1/2 of that at best.  We squeezed in and did our final packing.  This really included just going through our packs and leaving out anything we thought we didn’t really need.  Still our packs were 36 and 42 lbs for Carly and I.  

The hike in is about 8 miles and ~2000′ of elevation change.  We decided to get a little more sleep and leave Thursday morning drive to Big Sandy Trailhead.  This unfortunately necessitated much of the hike being during the peak heat of the day.  Luckily the hike is scenic and the first 5 miles are relatively easy.

Almost there. Topping out Jackass Pass with Pingora and Wolf's Head in the late day sun.
Almost there. Topping out Jackass Pass with Pingora and Wolf’s Head in the late day sun.

Cresting Jackass Pass and getting the full view into the cirque is a great reward for all the dusty miles traveled.  The temperature cooled and the gargoyle like spires of granite tower overhead.  After finding a campsite, not a trivial task, we made some food and enjoyed the view.

Early Friday we set off towards the spine of granite that we’d seen illuminated brightly against a shadowy backdrop of north facing walls.  The East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) was our objective.  I did this route last time in the Cirque, but it is classic enough to warrant a second, third or even more visit.  This time I had a slightly better idea of what the climb entailed and therefore better gear.  Proper climbing shoes and larger gear to protect the many wide hand traverses.

Starting off we ran into a party of 4 gents who included Peter Metcalf.  His group, and the group of two strong girls who caught up to us, were all a pleasure to share the route with.   2018-08-10_36254

Carly opted for me to lead the “sidewalk pitch.”  A 18″ wide, 30 deg tilted plank of granite that kicks off the climbing.  I recall this pitch being gripping last time.  A little warmer temps, real climbing shoes, and not on-sighting all made it a bit easier this time.

Carly took over the next block of leads and we simul-climbed for the next few pitches.  After that we caught up to the other parties at the first chimney tunnel.  Metcalf was leading and got a little off route trying to find the piton pitch.  The trouble is the pitch is an improbable traverse with little protection save for 3 pitons nearly a dozen feet apart.  After that pitch we all spaced out again and we were able to climb at our own paces.  We ended up being bringing up the rear.

The route was much more casual the second time around.  Better gear, shoes, and technique on the shorter sections all helped in that.

Panoramic from the summit of Wolf's Head.
Panoramic from the summit of Wolf’s Head.

We had expected to meet up with our friends Mark and Jess.  There definitely is no cell reception in the Cirque of the Towers, so it makes syncing up with people more challenging.  We’d expected to see Mark and Jess the same day we hiked in, but did not.  At the end of the second day we’d still hadn’t seen them either.  We’d figured that something came up and they stayed in Wild Iris.  Not about to let that slow us down we decided to do the South Buttress of Pingora for our second route on Saturday.

The South Buttress of Pingora isn’t the most iconic on the peak, but it is perhaps one of the least committing, which is what drew us to it.  There’s really only 2-3 pitches of technical climbing and mostly easy scrambling otherwise.

Starting at a leisurely 9am we hiked to the base and scrambled up the shoulder to begin the technical climbing.  I’d hoped to simul or do a long pitch to get to the base of the proper climbing, but the ledgy nature of the beginning of the route made me think otherwise of doing this.

Once into the proper climbing it was quite good.  Just enough protection to keep it safe enough and just enough insecurity to keep you alert.  At the base of the “K-cracks” we again ran into Metcalf and his pals.  They were a great bunch and got a few pictures of me and I of them. Carly working through some flary finger jams.

The right K-crack is a bit tricky and keeps your attention, particularly through the crux.  After that pitch it is an easy couple hundred feet to the summit.  We met a few Irish pensioners at the top enjoying the “wilderness” that the American West offers compared to much of Europe.  

On returning back to camp after Pingora we finally met up with Mark and Jess.  They’d had some confusion to our actual objective and so had been looking for us the last couple days.  We caught up and made some food while the sun shown.  We agreed to take Pancho, their dog, the next morning to allow them to get a climb in.

Packing up camp on the morning of our hike out we were afforded another great sunrise.  In fact the weather the entire weekend was fabulously clear, not a hint of rain.  The wildfires made it a little smokey, but not bad.

We collected Pancho and headed out.  He was a little confused at first why these other random people were taking him away from his owners, but after a mile or so we got into the groove and we made reasonable time.  Again we ran into Metcalf and crew on the hike.  Everyone was impressed the Pancho carried his own pack.  Little did they know it contained not only his shit in a bag, but ours as well.

A few tenths of a mile from Big Sandy is a lodge which offer cabins, pack animal outfitting and burgers & beers.  After making it back to the van and a copious soak in the river and our own beers we headed to the lodge for our first fresh meal in a few days.  The burgers weren’t the best I’ve had, but they were certainly tasty and hit the spot, along with the cold brews.  Yet another successful trip to the Winds.