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 there’s nothing with that name. There actually is a lake up there, but it has another name. It sits in a basin of sorts, along with two others. The basin is actually a glacial cirque which sits at the top of an obscure drainage which leads down to the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River. The main lake of the three is full of Golden Trout. Thus, the name.
Craggy peaks with snowfields, magnificent rock spires, towers, headwalls, rock faces broken up by couloirs, aretes, rubble covered ridges and towering buttresses that swallow voices, rise from the highest lake up on to the Continental Divide. Water thunders out of that lake, making its way through tangles of willow and Gooseberry and spilling over rock slabs and settling into pools 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 that are not something that anyone wants to see when they’re in such a place at any time. 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. It was obvious to me that 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.
I knew that 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 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. Since at that moment, we were well above tree line and our immediate world inundated with rock, it was instantly obvious to me that we’d have to go down in order 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 and out in the wide open, I climbed up on a rock and noted a tree lined lake far below. Instead of being surrounded only by huge rock slabs leading directly down to it, I noted a more moderate and partially vegetation covered slope which led down to it from almost where we were and then almost right to it.
With no time for further speculation, we did what needed to be done and headed down. There was some steep scree along the way, but sliding down it was fast, which was what we needed right then. A passable route through the boulders at the bottom almost miraculously opened up for us as we neared the lake and we got down to its 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’d 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 and explored the area. A few of the group members broke out their fishing rods to test the promising looking waters and others just hiked around. As mentioned, it’d never been our intention to even go there. In fact, at the time, we didn’t even know that the place existed. That first lake, which came to be known as the “Upper Lake”, was barren of fish, although it did offer good camping. The fishermen and explorers in the group, lured by the call of the unknown, soon headed down the valley, following a small stream which flowed out of the lake and dumped into another and even bigger one, only a couple of hundred yards further down. The second one was profoundly scenic, surrounded by even more trees than the one above it and, as the fishermen found out, full of Golden Trout. Right then and there, we were hooked on the area, so to speak, spending several days there that first trip and then returning repeatedly 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 constantly beckoned. It was a captivating place that we chose to keep to ourselves.
Further explorations led to a third, even lower lake, which did have a few fish and became known simply as the “Lower Lake”, oddly enough. We named the whole area, Golden Lake, because it needed a name.
A few years and trips up there later on, I was camped at the actual Golden Lake with another group of teenagers. The year before, I’d eyed a rock face on a buttress that rose some 300 or so feet above the Upper Lake, and had decided to climb it. The route, which I began mentally developing right then and there, started off with 75 feet or so of lower angle, solid looking rock which appeared to top off at a promising looking ledge, which appeared great for belaying. Above the ledge everything seemed to get steeper. About 20 feet above that lower ledge and more or less in the center of the face a big block jutted out and created something of a dihedral crack along one of its sides, where it joined into the main face. It was a potential route up to the upper section, I speculated. The block seemed to be about 75 feet tall. The top of it seemed to be just about in the middle, horizontally, which led to my guess that the whole buttress was probably about 300 feet tall.
The upper section, above the block, maintained a steep angle. It did have cracks and features all over it, so I reasoned that there would be some sort of obvious way to move up onto the actual summit from the top of it. Once a potential route had been scoped out, I turned my attention to other details. It seemed like it would take about half a day to do the whole thing. Weather would be a concern. I didn’t want to get caught part of the way up in a storm and since the face was east facing and most storms come in from the west, it would be preferable to do it during a stormless period.
I also considered the fact that more than likely, the thing had never been climbed. It would be a pure adventure climb and if I got to the top, likely what is known as a first ascent. The thought that I might see things up there and have a perspective that was completely unique bordered on mind-boggling. And so, a climb was sort of born, assessed, and all systems were go, at least almost.
Once the decision was made to do the climb, I went straight into figuring out the specific logistics. In order to convert the idea from theoretical to real, I needed to first come up with at least one other person who’d do it with me. I realized that a climbing partner or partners would be important both for practical, rock climbing technical reasons and to give me the extra needed confidence to actually climb on the rock. My mind ran through various possibilities for a climbing partner, but there was no one older than 15 and not a client 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 potentially willing teenage group members. While I didn’t come up with a specific person for that time around, I ultimately did make the decision to put things into motion so that I would have at least one suitable person to do the climb with me on the following year.
I stewed about it all through the winter and had plenty of time to work through the logistics of making it happen. Eventually, the next summer rolled around and the trip in question came to be. I’d set aside three days for us to camp in the Golden Lake area on the trip in question, which included a day for us all to stay around the general camp area. I assigned two others, in addition to myself to lead the group of 8 teenagers. The rest day meant a great fishing or hang out around camp day for the group—a task easily managed by just one guide. It was also an opportunity for me and whoever that somebody else/my unwitting climbing partner was to ascend the unnamed, backcountry, probably never before climbed, East Face of some obscure rock buttress in the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie drainage in the far reaches of Wyoming’s Wind River Range, that I’d scoped out the year before.
During the winter before the summer of the climb, as I assembled my adventure camp staff, I was mindful of finding someone who’d be both a good and game climbing partner for my climbing “project”. At the same time, I was certainly aware that the person I was looking for also had to be a solid adventure guide and group leader. And so, I knew the parameters that I was looking for when I hired and then assigned Matt to be one of the leaders for the trip in question. The two of us had been tied together on a climbing rope on Mt. Hunter in Alaska, we’d slogged alongside each other on Swiss glaciers, he was skilled in and enjoyed being in the midst of the backcountry, was a good rock climber, a solid fly fisherman, and just a good guide to have out on the trail with a group. As for the rock climbing aspect, he was curious, physically fit, not bothered by the thought of failure and had time and again demonstrated a willingness to confront the unknown.
And thus, the logistical part of the whole thing worked itself out. I’d gotten myself back to the area, had sufficient time to climb, suitable weather and a solid climbing companion.
Ultimately, it came time to actually do the climb. We checked our climbing gear, more or less, and then put it all into our day/climbing packs on top of all of the other gear we regularly carried while out with groups in the wilds.
We ate an early trail lunch with the group and then went over the plan once again with the other group leader who was staying back to supervise. By a little after noon, Matt and I were walking out of our camp at Golden Lake, headed to the Upper Lake and the climb. The short hike up to the lake was easy enough and we passed just below it and then on to the west. The rock face was only 100 yards or so from the lake and we soon found ourselves perched on a rock at its base, putting on our harnesses and otherwise gearing up for whatever lay ahead.
The bottom of the buttress was not steep and we didn’t even bother roping up as we scrambled up to where we anticipated the actual rock climbing would begin just above a small, clear flat area in the middle of a jumble of boulders. Once there, we stopped, turned around and found ourselves looking out eye-level at the entire glacial cirque, which completely dwarfed the Upper Lake and our puny buttress. I’d never seen it from the side of valley that we were on and being above the trees made the view even more grand. It was almost sensory overload. Our buttress had seemed big 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, somehow, at the same time, it made me feel like I was actually an integral part of it. For whatever reason, it gave me even greater confidence that we were doing something that begged to be done.
And so, in the relative comfort of the alcove of sorts, we broke out and uncoiled the rope. Matt tied himself into one end and I, the other. We were suddenly physically connected. I initially pondered and then actually began lead climbing the first pitch. We hadn’t actually considered it to be an actual pitch, since it was so easy. Our plan had always been to climb up to the ledge at the top of it, set up an anchor and from there begin what we considered to be the real climb. The plan was for Matt to belay me up from the first ledge to the next one higher, where I’d set up another anchor, belay him up, and then belay him while he led that section.
That’s simply how the rock climbing operation typically works. One climber leads a pitch, which is typically a section of the overall climb leading up from one belay or anchor point to the next. At the top of the pitch the leader stops at what is called the belay stance and creates an anchor. The leader ties himself/herself into it and finally, belays the second climber up to that point.
If anchors are used, and most of the time they are, they simply need to be solid. A marginally good one can be several things, but is nearly always downright dangerous. There are two applications for anchors. The first is at the top of each pitch and anchors the climbers along with the entire climbing system to the rock and is typically at a point above the climbers.
The second is a bit more confusing. It’s straight-forward enough to visualize a climber being belayed from above, with the belayer utilizing the anchor at the belay stance. Such a situation is essentially called top roping- since the belayer and anchors are above the climber with the belayer removing slack in the connecting rope as the climber below moves up. Top-roping or belaying from above is simple enough once the belayer is at the belay stance and the anchor is created. But unless they can just walk to it, one of the climbers has to climb up to it, which is where the difficulties begin.
As the person climbing up to a belay stance, or lead climber, moves up, he or she either places removeable or utilizes permanent anchors to connect themselves to the rock. The climbing rope is attached to the rock as it runs through a linking device, known as a carabiner, and then goes back down to the belayer. If the rope is kept relatively tight and the climber doesn’t stray too far from an anchor, a fall is often 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 normally a sigh of relief when the first anchor is clipped into above the belay, 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 like it’s supposed to. Another sigh of relief is breathed when a second and then subsequent anchors are clipped into since at that point the system becomes redundant and redundancy in climbing is a good thing.
The Second Pitch— To be continued………