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 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 on up 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 and billowing clouds 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 right then. 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 humongous rock slabs leading directly down to it, I noted a more moderate and partially vegetation covered slope which led down from where we were and almost right to it.

With no time for further speculation, we did what needed to be done and headed down and toward it. There was some steep scree along the way, but sliding down it was fast, which is what we needed right then. A passable route through the boulders at the bottom almost miraculously kept opening up for us and we got down to the lake 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 a short while and just as suddenly, it stopped. We were a bit confused, but relieved. In an instant, the ominous dark clouds were followed by blue skies.

With no energy 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 daylight and the fact that we had time to spare, 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 came to another one, which was even bigger and only a couple of hundred yards further down. It was profoundly scenic, surrounded by even more trees 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, that appeared great for belaying. Above the ledge everything appeared 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 creating something of a dihedral crack along one of its sides, where it joined into the main face. 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, so I figured 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 to the actual summit from the top of it. Once the 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. 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, almost.

Once the decision was made to do the climb, I went straight into figuring out the logistics. I knew the climb would be a two-person endeavor, because they mostly are. My mind ran through various possibilities for a climbing partner, but there was no one older than 15 and not a client on that 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 a suitable climbing partner with me for the following year.

I stewed on it all through the winter and undoubtedly had plenty of time to work through the 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 area on the trip in question, which included a rest day in the middle, or a day in camp for the group and a climbing day for me and whoever my climbing partner might end up being. I assigned two others, in addition to myself to lead the group of 8 teenagers. The rest day around Golden Lake meant a great fishing or hang out around camp day for the group—a task easily managed by just one guide, and an opportunity for me and somebody else/my unwitting climbing partner to ascend the unnamed, backcountry, probably never before climbed, East Face of some obscure 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 our adventure camp staff, I was certainly mindful of who might make a good climbing partner, although I was hopefully looking for top flight, all around adventure guides. A few years later, I came to realize that thankfully, the two are pretty much the same. And so, as time and circumstance would have it, the twenty-something from Houston, Matt ended up being one of the guides for the trip in question and became that climbing partner. We’d been on a rope together on Mt. Hunter in Alaska, had slogged along Swiss glaciers, he obviously liked adventure, 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 climb aspect, he was curious, not bothered by the thought of failure, and, like all good adventure partners—willing to go along with things which didn’t make good sense, probably because he figured I knew something that he didn’t.

And thus, the logistical part of the whole thing worked itself out. I had gotten myself back to the area, had sufficient time to climb, suitable weather and a solid climbing companion.

Ultimately, it came time to 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 including raingear, fleece pullover and hat, gloves, sunscreen, water, snack, toilet paper, first aid kit, pocketknife and duct tape.

We ate an early trail lunch with the group and went over the plan once again with the leader who was staying back to supervise the group. By a little after noon, the two of us were walking out of our camp at Golden Lake, headed to the Upper Lake and the climb. The walk 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 were soon perched on a rock at the 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 for it. Within minutes, we had scrambled 30 or 40 feet above the lake up to a small, clear flat area in the middle of a jumble of boulders. We stopped, turned around and found ourselves looking out eye-level at the entire glacial cirque, which dwarfed the Upper Lake and our puny buttress. I’d never seen it all from the side of valley 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 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 simply begged to be done.

And so, in the relative comfort of the alcove of sorts that we were in, 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 didn’t actually consider the first pitch to be an actual pitch, since it was so easy. Our plan had always been to climb up to that first ledge (where we currently were), set up an anchor there and then begin the real climb. Matt would belay me up from there to somewhere, where I’d set up another anchor, belay him up, and then belay him while he led the next pitch.

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 then ties himself/herself into it, connects the climbing rope 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, as mentioned, is at the top of each pitch and anchors all of the climbers and the entire climbing system to the rock and is 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 taking in rope and removing slack in the 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, then they have to climb 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 which are hopefully above them. The climbing rope is attached to the rock by a linking device, known as a carabiner, and then runs back down to the belayer. Typically, if the climber falls, they only fall a short distance and it should be noted that in actuality, most of the time it’s actually just that their weight goes fully onto the rope. There’s usually a sigh of relief when the first anchor is clipped into above the belay, since at that point, the anchor created on the rock is holding the climber in the event of a fall, rather than the direct anchor of the belayer. Of course, this assumes that the thing actually holds like it’s supposed to. Another sigh of relief is breathed when a second intermediate anchor is clipped into (and so on for additional ones) since at that point the system becomes redundant and redundancy in climbing is a good thing.

Types of anchors vary. In the earliest days of climbing, natural features such as stationary boulders, trees and rocks wedged into cracks were used. Eventually, pitons, or small steel spikes, were developed. They were pounded into cracks with the rope clipped through a rapid link, now called a carabiner, attached to its end. Sometimes they were removed and then reused, but more often than not they were just left in the crack. Finally, anchors that could be wedged into cracks and then removed to be used again- things that actually look like the nuts that go on bolts and other weird looking little pieces of metal, were developed.

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.