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; if you look on a map or search a guidebook for information about it, you’ll find nothing. But, while there 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 snow couloirs, and towering buttresses that swallow voices- rise 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 the first time is something of a story in itself. Years ago, I was leading a group of teenagers backpacking across a barren Continental Divide slope. A big storm suddenly appeared on the western horizon, replete with massive billowing clouds- not something anyone wants to see when they’re out in such a place. I knew we were completely exposed to whatever potential violence a thunderstorm might bring. And so, I needed to do something to protect the group from the pending onslaught. Since there wasn’t enough time to return the way we’d come up from our campsite at Deep Creek Lake, I began looking for other options.
We were above tree line and surrounded by open alpine tundra and rock. Rock, as in caves or overhangs, provides poor refuge from storms since lightning can pass directly through it. And tundra is composed mainly of miniature grasses and plants, making it useless to provide shelter. So, I looked for the nearest trees. Even though most people think of them as something to avoid in the event of lightning, I was aware that being in the midst of a lot of ’em, as in a clump, was our best option. And because of our location, I realized that we would need to descend a thousand or more feet to find any. The situation appeared bleak when I climbed up on a giant boulder for a better view and saw a bunch of them surrounding a lake in a valley far below.
And so, with no time for further speculation, we headed down toward them. There was a patch of steep scree along the way, and sliding down it was fast, which was how we needed our descent to be right then. Once we got below the scree field and neared the lake, an accessible route to the bottom miraculously opened up. It took us through what, from above, had appeared to be an impenetrable boulder field and ultimately right down to the lake shore and trees. 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. The rain, wind, and lightning arrived with fury within minutes. 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, blue skies followed the ominous dark clouds.
With no energy left in our legs for backtracking up the 1200 feet to the Divide, we decided to call the cirque home for the night. So we took advantage of the remaining few hours of daylight to explore the area. We’d never intended to go there in the first place. In fact, before our forced evacuation, we didn’t even know the place existed.
That first lake we came to unsurprisingly became known to us as the “Upper Lake.” It proved to be 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 unsuccessfully fishing its waters that first trip, the fishermen and explorers in the group headed a few hundred yards down to the next one. The 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, spent several days there on that first trip, and repeatedly returned in subsequent years. The fishing was always decent and sometimes great, the surroundings unfailingly spectacular, and all sorts of amazing, but only potential rock and alpine climbs continually beckoned.
Further explorations of the area led to a third, even lower lake, which had only a few fish and became known as the “Lower Lake.” Ultimately, we called the whole area Golden Lake because the place needed a name. It was an enchanting place, and we kept 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 several hundred 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 challenging climb, and enthralled by what I saw and felt.
I began mentally developing a climbing route up it right then and there. The plan I concocted started with 75 feet or so of lower angle and solid-looking rock, which appeared to lead to a promising-looking ledge suitable for belaying. At that point, everything seemed to get steeper, and about 20 feet above that, a big rock block jutted out and created a crack, which joined into the main face. I speculated that the crack would provide a potential route to the upper section. 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. But since it had cracks and features all over it, I reasoned that there would likely be some 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. First, I figured it would take about half a day to do the whole thing, and 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 it would be best to do it during a stormless period.
I also considered that the rock had likely never been climbed, which meant 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 I needed to come up with at least one other person to do it with me. A climbing partner or partners would be necessary for practical, rock climbing technical reasons along with my own personal confidence. My mind ran through various possibilities for who that person or those persons would be. But no one older than 15 on that particular trip 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 put things into motion to 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 upcoming summer, I paid particular attention to details related to the climb in question. First, I arranged the schedule so that our Wind River Expedition group would spend three nights at Golden Lake, which included one full day for fishing (the day when we could do the climb). Second, I assigned two other, initially unidentified, people and myself to lead an anticipated group of 8 teenagers into the area. One leader could effectively manage the fishing day, creating an opportunity for me and whoever the somebody else/my unwitting climbing partner was to do the climb.
And so, as I organized 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 assigned Matt as 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 to Golden Lake. And then, on the day after our arrival, it became time for the two of us to do the climb. After ensuring that all was set for the group’s fishing day, Matt and I checked and organized our climbing equipment and put it into our day/climbing packs. We ate an early trail lunch and then went over the plan with the fishing group leader one final time. 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. Suddenly, we 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 very steep. We didn’t even bother roping up as we scrambled for a short distance before reaching the spot where the rock became more vertical, and the actual rock climbing began. Once there and before we started climbing, we stopped, turned around, and looked out eye-level at the entire cirque, which enveloped us on two sides. It utterly dwarfed the Upper Lake and our puny buttress. I’d never seen the area from that angle, and being above the trees made the view especially grand. It was almost sensory overload. Our buttress, which had appeared so extensive and significant from down below, had shrunk. Everything I was looking at made me feel small and insignificant, but simultaneously like an integral part of the surroundings. What I saw and felt gave me confidence that we were doing something that begged to be done.
And so, in the relative comfort of the nook, 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 initial climbing was easy, and we climbed unprotected (without a belay) up to a big boulder about fifty feet above the ground. Once there, we set up an anchor and began what we considered the actual climb. The plan was for me to lead the first pitch up to the belay ledge with Matt belaying me from the big boulder. Once up to the ledge, we intended to reverse roles, with Matt leading while I belayed him.
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 then belays the other person up. At that point, they often switch roles for the subsequent section, essentially leapfrogging their way up the entire climb. And that’s the way we intended to do it.
From the bottom, we had envisioned how both the scramble to the rope-up spot and the first pitch would unfold. And so, we were mentally prepared for each. But above that, things were a bit fuzzy, although we were confident it would all become more apparent once we got there. Better not to confuse the issue with too much of a plan, we determined.
As mentioned, the first pitch didn’t look all that difficult from below. As suspected, it wasn’t, and we hadn’t even bothered to belay that section. But the second pitch, where we actually began to belay, turned out to be serious. We hadn’t completely figured out how to get up the second pitch from down at the bottom but had seen some promising features above the first belay ledge stance. From below, there seemed to be a lot of cracks, knobs, and bulges in that area to work with. But we hadn’t noted the water seeping and spreading across it. So what appeared to be straightforward climbing with many options was, in reality, trickier than anticipated.
Once we got up the first pitch, we were comforted that the belay ledge we’d scoped out from below was more or less as anticipated, although a bit more compact. Once we saw the sliminess of the second pitch up close, we were relieved to see that at least the belay area was more or less dry.
Since the first pitch was so easy, I decided to go ahead and lead the second. At the top of the first pitch, Matt sat down on the small ledge and created an anchor. He clipped us into it, which boosted our confidence even further. However, we both had to wonder how solid and secure it actually was. Cavalierly, we had no thought that his anchor would come into play.
Before we could overthink our location or what we were or weren’t doing, we gave each other the proper climbing commands back and forth, and the real climb began.
While standing on what appeared to be a solid block that was a part of the ledge, I placed my first removable anchor piece. It was a tiny nut about the size of a pencil eraser, and I wedged it into the same crack I was planning to climb. Getting a first anchor secured to the rock is supposed to be a relief. But in this case, it was more of an occurrence that made me feel a little less insecure. In short, I wasn’t all that gung-ho about it. Above that point, only a few feet above the belay ledge, things became more challenging. First, I looked up and noted that the face had become significantly steeper and even more massive than it had appeared only a few minutes before. And then, just as I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed, I did something that I knew better than to do and looked down.
It was suddenly evident to me that the climb was “big-time.” My thoughts of a short blurb in the American Alpine Journal describing our first ascent of an unnamed buttress in the Wind River Range turned to thoughts of a mention in the same publication announcing the deaths of two climbers in the Wind Rivers and the subsequent search for the teenage group they’d left behind.
Skepticism was creeping in. But a strange pressure to keep moving up and complete the climb as envisioned seemed to be in control. I wedged my left foot into a section of the crack and stood up. Next, I tried to stuff my whole body into the same crack slightly higher up, but my head was too large. I somehow created a second anchor, five feet above the other. The second piece was another nut, larger than the little thing I’d stuck in the first time but still small. After I placed it, I tugged on it to check how well it seemed to lock itself into the crack and then clipped the climbing rope into its attached carabiner. At that point, I had two anchors connected to the rock and was feeling more confident all of the time. At least, I rationalized poorly, two marginal anchors were better than two non-existent ones.
Once the second anchor was placed, I was 100 feet above the ground and 10 feet above Matt. After a few chit-chat words, I took a deep breath and began looking up and pondering my next move. Each rock feature I touched was just not quite the “thank God” hold I was hoping for. The crack itself tapered and became rounded, rendering it mostly useless for climbing purposes but making it an excellent funnel for the trickling water. There were some potential hand and footholds not far outside of the crack. But when I touched the first one, I realized they were all covered with a snotty sort of liquid that was more like oil and would be useless to me.
Up to that point, we had stuck to the plan. But all of that changed once I was above the belay ledge. The idea of getting to the top as pictured, walking back down to Golden Lake, and recounting our exploits to anyone who would listen was no longer my ultimate goal. Suddenly, the “getting to the top as pictured part” was highly questionable. But I also realized that the other part of it- walking back to camp and recounting our exploits was actually the more important of the two and wasn’t as much in question. So I began to wonder if I’d been confusing my goals all along and taking some mighty significant things for granted.
As my pondering was getting deep, my foot slipped from the crack. It happened instantaneously and without warning. The full force of my body was going down. I had no time to think but did see my upper anchor piece pull out from the crack. But then, I stopped, held by the remaining anchor piece, which was the tiny nut I’d been the most concerned about. At that point, I was more or less standing on the tiny 6-inch wide belay ledge and only a few feet from Matt. The whole event had happened in a flash and was more than either of us wanted to acknowledge. We didn’t want to think about the various “what ifs.” Things such as the little nut not holding, Matt’s belay anchor failing, or the two of us tumbling 100 feet down the rocks tied together by a rope. So, we just nervously laughed.
Even after the fall, our thoughts were not about retreat. But instead, they were on an apparent walk-off to our north which was, in fact, a retreat route. We gathered ourselves together mentally and then began scrambling toward it. Eventually, we rounded a corner, and mercifully, a low-angle slab appeared, which provided a viable walking descent route back down to the Upper Lake.
Once on the grassy tundra just above the slab, we unroped, took off our harnesses, and loaded them into our daypacks. Before leaving that high point, we took a few moments to look around and absorb our surroundings from the new perspective for one last time. And then, we began the trek back down.
On the one hand, we were both disappointed that the route had not worked out how we’d thought it might. But on the other, we simply felt happy and energized to be walking back to water cooking, dirty hands in the food, and talk about the Ruth Glacier, bush planes, and the Matterhorn. The two of us never talked much about all that happened on our adventure climb of the unnamed buttress in the Golden Lake cirque that July afternoon.
The day’s events once and for all hammered home the meaning of outdoor adventure for me. I had dealt with the concept of priorities on multiple occasions in the past. But only after my experiences on that rock face that day did I fully buy into the idea that it really is the journey that matters most.