In Two Parts………..
Deep in the heart of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, there’s a place that we called Golden Lake. No marked or named trails go there, and if you look on a map or search a guide book for information about it, you’ll find nothing. While there actually is a lake there, it has another name. It sits in a glacial cirque, or basin, along with two others at the top of an obscure drainage that leads down to the North Fork of the Popo Agie River. The main lake of the three is full of Golden Trout. Thus, the name.
Craggy peaks with snowfields, rock faces broken up by couloirs, and towering buttresses that swallow voices rise up from the highest lake to the Continental Divide. Water thunders out of each lake and then makes it’s way down through tangles of willow and Gooseberry before finally spilling over rock slabs only to do it again. It’s a place worth going to.
How we got there, the first time is something of a story in itself. Years ago, I was leading a group of teenagers across a barren Continental Divide slope. A big storm suddenly appeared on the western horizon replete with humongous billowing clouds– not something that anyone wants to see when they’re out in such a place. I was well aware that we were completely exposed to whatever potential violence a thunderstorm might bring. And so, I knew that we needed to do something right at that moment to protect ourselves from the pending onslaught. There wasn’t enough time for us to go back the way we’d come up from our campsite at Deep Creek Lake, and so I began looking for other options.
We were more than a thousand feet above the nearest trees, and trees were what I was looking for. Even though most people think of them as being something to avoid in the event of lightning, I knew that being in the midst of a lot of ’em was actually our best option. Likewise, I was also aware of how poorly rock provides refuge since lightning often travels right through it. Since we were well above treeline and our immediate world inundated with rock, it was evident that we needed to go down to find any reasonable sort of cover.
There were no trees nearby, and the situation appeared bleak when I climbed up on a rock for a better view and saw a bunch surrounding a lake far below.
And so, with no time for further speculation, we began heading for it. There was a patch of steep scree along the way, and sliding down it was fast, which was how we needed for it to be right then. Once we got below the scree field and as we neared the lake, an accessible route almost miraculously opened up. It took us through what had appeared to be an impenetrable boulder field and then finally right down to the lake-shore and trees just before the storm hit. We had just enough time to cover and stash our packs, put our rain gear on, and find likely looking trees to get under before all hell broke loose.
Within only minutes, the rain, wind, and lightning arrived with a fury. But after only a short while and just as suddenly as it had arrived, it stopped. We were a bit confused but relieved. In an instant, the ominous dark clouds were followed by blue skies.
With no energy left in our legs for backtracking back up the 2000 feet to the Divide, we decided to call the cirque home for the night. We took advantage of the remaining few hours of daylight to explore the area. It had never been our intention to go there in the first place. In fact, before our forced evacuation, we hadn’t even known that the place existed. That first lake unsurprisingly came to be known as the “Upper Lake.” It was barren of fish, although it did offer good camping as well as the storm protection we had initially sought in the first place. After a few minutes of unsuccessful fishing, the fishermen and explorers in the group headed a few hundred yards to the one just below.
The second one was profoundly scenic, surrounded by even more trees than the one above, and brimming with Golden Trout. Right then and there, we became hooked on the area, and ended up spending several days there on that first trip and repeatedly returned in subsequent years. The fishing was always good and sometimes great, the surroundings unfailingly spectacular, and all sorts of amazing and mostly potential rock and alpine climbs continually beckoned.
Further explorations of the area led to a third, even lower lake, which did have a few fish and became known as the “Lower Lake,” oddly enough. We just called the whole area, Golden Lake, because the place needed a name. It was a captivating place, and we chose to keep it to ourselves.
A few years and trips up there later, I was camped at the middle lake with another group of teenagers. The previous summer, I’d eyed a rock face on a buttress that rose some 300 or so feet above the Upper Lake and, for whatever reason, had decided to try and climb it. I’m still not sure what caused me to want to do that. But from the moment I first saw it, I pictured myself standing on its summit, physically worn out after a hard climb, but enthralled by what I saw and felt.
Right then and there, I began mentally developing a climbing route up it. It started off with 75 feet or so of lower angle and solid-looking rock, which appeared to lead up to a promising looking ledge suitable for belaying. Above that, everything seemed to get steeper, and after about 20 feet, a big rock block jutted out and created a crack, where it joined into the main face. The crack provided a potential route to the upper section, I speculated. The block seemed to be about 75 feet tall. And since the top of it seemed to be more or less in the middle of the whole rock face, I estimated that the entire buttress was probably about 300 feet tall. The upper section, above the block, was exceedingly steep. It did have cracks and features all over it, so I reasoned that there would likely be some sort of obvious way to move up onto the actual summit from there.
Once I’d scoped out a potential route, I turned my attention to other details related to the endeavor. I figured that it would take about half a day to do the whole thing and that the weather would be a concern. I didn’t want to get caught part of the way up in a storm. And since the rock that I’d be going up was east-facing, and most storms come in from the west, I decided that it would be best to do it during a stormless period.
I also considered the fact that more than likely, the rock had never been climbed, meaning it would be an adventure climb. And assuming I got to the top, it would be considered a “first ascent.”
To officially convert the idea from theoretical to real, I realized that I needed to come up with at least one other person to do it with me. A climbing partner or partners would be important both for practical, rock climbing technical reasons, and for my own personal confidence. My mind ran through various possibilities for who that person or those persons would be. But there was no one older than 15 on that particular trip, who was even a possibility. Thankfully, I didn’t get into a rush and resort to pulling from the pool of skilled and willing teenage group members. While I didn’t come up with someone that time around, I did make the decision to put things into motion so that I would have at least one suitable person to do the climb with the following year.
I stewed about it all through the winter. While organizing the logistics for our programs for the following summer, I paid particular attention to details related to the climb in question. I set-up the schedule so that our Wind River Expedition group would spend three nights at Golden Lake and would include one full day for fishing. I assigned two other, initially unidentified, people, in addition to myself, to lead an anticipated group of 8 teenagers into the area. The fishing day could effectively be managed by just one leader. And it would be an opportunity for me and whoever that somebody else/my unwitting climbing partner was to do the climb.
And so, as I assembled the staff, I was mindful of finding someone who’d be both a top-notch guide and a good climbing partner. I knew the parameters for that role when I hired and then assigned Matt to be one of the leaders for the trip in question. We’d been tied together on a climbing rope on Mt. Hunter in Alaska, he was a good rock climber, and a solid adventure guide. As for the rock climbing aspect, he was curious, physically fit, and had previously demonstrated a willingness to confront the unknown. In short, he “fit the bill” well.
The trip inevitably rolled around, and we backpacked with our group up to Golden Lake. And then, on the day after our arrival, it finally became time for us to do the climb. After making sure that all was set for the group’s fishing day, Matt and I checked and organized our climbing equipment and then put it into our day/climbing packs. We ate an early trail lunch and then went over the plan one final time with the third group leader. Finally, at a little past noon, the two of us walked out of camp, headed for the Upper Lake, and the climb.
After a short hike, we passed just beyond the lake and arrived at the rock face. We suddenly found ourselves perched on a rock at the climb’s base, putting on our harnesses, and otherwise gearing up for whatever lay ahead. It’d been a long road to get there, but the climb was finally about to start.
The bottom of the buttress was not steep, and we didn’t even bother roping up as we scrambled up to where we figured the actual rock climbing part would begin. Once there, we stopped, turned around, and found ourselves looking out eye-level at the entire cirque surrounding us. It utterly dwarfed the Upper Lake and our puny buttress. I’d never seen it from that side of the valley, and being above the trees made the view especially grand. It was almost sensory overload. Our buttress had seemed so big and significant from down below. But now that we were higher up and on it, I could see how small both it and we were. Everything I was looking at made me feel small and insignificant, but at the same time, it also somehow made me feel like I was an integral part of it. What we saw gave me even greater confidence that we were doing something that begged to be done.
And so, in the relative comfort of the nook of sorts, we broke out and uncoiled the rope. Matt tied himself into one end, and I, the other. At that point, we became physically connected. The climbing was easy initially, and we just scrambled unprotected from there up to the ledge some fifty feet above. Once there, we set up an anchor and began what we considered to be the real climb. The plan was for Matt to belay me up to the first ledge where I would set up another anchor and then belay him up to it from above. Finally, I’d belay him from there on up to the next belay point while he led that section.
That’s simply how the rock climbing operation typically works. One climber leads a pitch (generally a section of the overall climb that goes from one belay or anchor point up to the next) and is belayed by the other. They set up an anchor at the belay point and then often switch tasks, essentially leapfrogging their way up the entire climb.
Anchors are hopefully, stable and trustworthy. A marginally good one can be several things but is nearly always downright dangerous. There are multiple anchor applications for different situations. The first is at the top of each pitch. At that point, the climbers and the entire climbing system are attached to the rock. The second is a bit more confusing. While it’s straight-forward enough to conceptualize a climber being belayed from above, it’s harder to visualize someone being belayed from below.
A climber who is the first person climbing up to a belay stance is considered to be lead climbing. As the lead climber moves up, he or she either places removable or utilizes permanent anchors to connect themselves to the rock. The climbing rope is tied to the lead climber, anchored to the rock, and ultimately runs back down to the belayer. If the rope is kept tight and the climber doesn’t stray too far from an anchor, a fall is typically short and painless. There are various scenarios where that isn’t the case, but rather than delve into those, just suffice it to say that there can be complications. A sigh of relief is breathed when the first anchor is placed and the entire climbing system secured to the rock at the belay stance. At that point, the anchor is what’s actually holding the climber. Of course, this assumes that it “holds” or stays connected to the rock like it’s supposed to. Another sigh of relief is breathed when a second and then subsequent anchors are clipped into. At that point, the system is considered to be redundant, since, at that point, there are multiple anchors.
The Second Pitch— To be continued………