In Two Parts………..
There’s a place deep in the heart of the Wind River Range that we called Golden Lake. There are no marked trails that go there, and if you look on a map of the area, there’s nothing with that name. There actually is a lake there, although it has another name. It sits in a glacial cirque, or basin, along with two others at the top of an obscure drainage leading 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 its 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, to begin with, is something of a story in itself. I was leading a group of teenagers across a barren Continental Divide slope when a storm 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 with it (including lightning) and knew that at that very moment we needed to do something 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 thousands of 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 right then. While a particularly tall or a solitary one may be a target, a mostly uniform forest often serves as protection when humans or animals of any sort go underneath the canopy and suddenly become smaller than their surroundings. Likewise, I was also aware of how poorly rock provides refuge, especially since lightning often travels right through it. And so, since at that moment, we were well above treeline and our immediate world inundated with rock, it was evident that we’d have to go down to find any, at least theoretically safe, cover.
Just as I was about to give up on my idea of getting into some trees and was beginning to consider the possibility that we might have no choice other than to hunker down in place out in the wide open, I climbed up on a rock and noted a lake surrounded by trees far below.
And so, with no time for further speculation, we began heading for it. There was some steep scree along the way, but sliding down it was fast, which was how we needed for it to be right then. Once we got below it and as we neared the lake, an accessible route through what looked to be an impenetrable boulder field at the bottom almost miraculously opened up and led us right down to the shore 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 an abrupt 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, and in fact, before our forced evacuation, we hadn’t even known that the place existed. The first lake which we came to and which came to be known as the “Upper Lake,” was barren of fish, although it did offer good camping as well as the storm protection we had initially been hoping. On that first trip down there, the fishermen and explorers in the group, lured by the call of the unknown, soon headed a few hundred yards down to the next one below. That second one was profoundly scenic, surrounded by even more trees than the one above, and full of Golden Trout. Right then and there, we became hooked on the area, and ended up spending several days there that first trip and then 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 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 that we chose to keep to ourselves.
A few years and trips up there later, I was camped at the middle lake with another group of teenagers. The summer before, 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.
The route up it, which I began mentally developing right then and there, 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 ledge, everything seemed to get steeper, and after some 20 feet, a big rock block jutted out which created a crack, where it joined into the main face. It was 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, horizontally, I guessed that the entire buttress was probably about 300 feet tall. The upper section, which was above the block, was really 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 critically important to do it during a stormless period.
I also considered the fact that more than likely, the face had never been climbed. That meant that it would undoubtedly be a pure adventure climb and, if I got to the top, would be considered a “first ascent.” The thought that I might see things up there and have a perspective that was utterly unique bordered on mind-boggling.
To officially convert the idea from theoretical to real, I realized that I needed to come up with at least one other person who’d do it with me. A climbing partner or partners would be important both for practical, rock climbing technical reasons and for my own confidence enhancement. 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 likely 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 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. Since the fishing day could effectively be managed by just one guide, 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 good climbing partner for the personal adventure. 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.”
The trip inevitably rolled around, and we backpacked with our group up to Golden Lake. And then, on the day after 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 all 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. At a bit past noon, the two of us were walking out of camp and headed for the Upper Lake and the climb.
After a short hike, we passed just beyond the lake and arrived at the rock face. Then, almost abruptly it seemed, we were 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 up there at that point, 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 the side of the valley that we were on, and being above the trees made the view even grander. 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. Even though everything I was looking at made me feel small and insignificant, 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 at that point, and we just scrambled unprotected from there up to the ledge some fifty feet above. Once up there, we set up an anchor and began what we considered to be the real climb. The plan was for Matt to belay me from the first ledge up to the next. Once up there, I’d set up another anchor and then belay him up to it. Finally, I’d belay him on up from there 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, which is usually a section of the overall climb leading from one belay or anchor point up to the next. At the top of that pitch, the leader stops at what is called the belay stance and creates an anchor. Then, he or she connects into it and finally, belays the second climber up to that point.
Anchors should be solid and trustworthy. A marginally good one can be several things but is nearly always downright dangerous. There are multiple applications for them. The first is at the top of each pitch where the climbers and the entire climbing system is 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 in between the belay anchors. The climbing rope is attached to the rock as it goes from the climber, through one or more linking devices known as carabiners that are anchored to the rock, and then 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 onto the rope is typically short and painless. But there are all sorts of scenarios where that isn’t quite the case, but rather than delve into those, just suffice it to say that there can be complications. There’s usually a sigh of relief when the first anchor is secured to the rock above the belay stance and then clipped into since at that point, it’s holding the climber in the event of a fall, rather than the direct anchor of the belayer. Of course, this assumes that it actually 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, as the system at that point has become redundant, and redundancy in climbing is a good thing.
The Second Pitch— To be continued………