Adventure Climbing- Wind River Range

Climbing an unnamed buttress in the Winds…..

Lead Climbing


In Two Parts………..

Part 1

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 real 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 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, rubble covered ridges, and towering buttresses that seem to swallow voices rise up from the highest lake and on up to the Continental Divide. Water thunders out of each lake, makes its way through tangles of willow and Gooseberry, and then spills over rock slabs before getting quiet 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 at that moment. 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. 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 sort of decent 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.

With no time for further speculation, we headed down. There was some steep scree along the way, but sliding down it was fast which helped expedite our descent. A passable route through the boulders at the bottom almost miraculously opened up for us as we neared the lake and we arrived at its shore just before the storm hit. We had barely 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 lake and 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. The first or highest 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 one only a couple of hundred yards further down the valley. The second one was profoundly scenic, surrounded by even more trees than the one above it and full of Golden Trout. Right then and there, we were hooked on the area and spent several days there that first trip and returned repeatedly in subsequent years. The fishing was always good, the surroundings unfailingly spectacular, and all sorts of amazing 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 just called the whole area, Golden Lake, because it needed a name.

A few years and trips up there later, I was camped at the actual Golden Lake (the middle one) 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 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 looked to be ideal for belaying. Above that ledge everything seemed to get steeper and after some 20 feet and more or less in the center of the face a big rock block jutted out and created something of a dihedral crack, 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 and since the top of it seemed to be just about in the middle, I guessed 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, it had never been climbed. It would be a pure adventure climb and if I got to the top, then likely my climb would be 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 thus, a climb was conceived, assessed, and ultimately born.

Shortly after I made the decision to go up it, I went straight into figuring out the specific logistics for making that happen. 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 various logistics. 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 day around camp 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 North Fork of the Popo Agie drainage in the far reaches of Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

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 needed 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 and we’d slogged alongside and rock climbed together in the Alps and I was confident that he would be a solid person to climb with. And, as far as being a good outdoor group leader, he was skilled in living in and traveling through the backcountry, was a solid fly fisherman, and an overall good guide to have out on the trail.

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, and a solid climbing companion.

We backpacked with our group into Golden Lake and ultimately it became time to actually do the climb. After making sure all was set for the group’s day around camp, we 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 once again with the other group leader. By a little after noon, Matt and I were walking out of our camp at the Middle Lake headed toward the Upper Lake and the climb. The short hike to the Upper Lake was quick and easy and we passed just beyond the lake shore and then on to the west. The rock face in question 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 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 part would begin. Once at that point, we stopped, turned around, and found ourselves looking out eye-level at the entire glacial cirque. It completely dwarfed the Upper Lake and our puny buttress. I’d never seen it from the side of the valley that we were on and since we were above the trees, the view was especially more grand. It was almost sensory overload. Our buttress had seemed so 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, at the same time it also somehow made me feel like I was an integral part of the whole area. 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  studied and then began lead climbing the first pitch. We hadn’t 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 that point begin 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 to there, and then belay him on up from there as he led that section.

That’s simply how the rock climbing operation normally works. One climber leads a pitch, which is typically 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 ties into it and then 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 at the belay stance and attaches the climbers along with the entire climbing system to the rock.

The second is a bit more confusing. It’s straight-forward enough to visualize a climber being belayed from above, with the belayer anchored to the rock and removing slack in the connecting rope as the climber below moves up. 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 lead climber moves up, he or she utilizes either removable or permanent anchors to connect themselves to the rock. The anchors have linking devices known as carabiners attached to them on one end. The climbing rope runs through the carabiners as the climber ascends and then back down to the belayer and so is thus attached to the rock. 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………

Crack Climbing


Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.