From down at the bottom of the climb, we’d envisioned what the scramble up to the rope-up spot and to a lesser extent the first pitch would be like and were mentally prepared for both. But things above that point were fuzzy, although we were confident that it would all become clearer once we got up there. Better not to confuse the issue with too much of a plan, we’d determined.
As mentioned, the first pitch hadn’t looked all that difficult from down below, and while it wasn’t, the second one was. We hadn’t completely figured out how to get up the second pitch from down at the bottom, but had seen some promising looking features that were up above the lower ledge belay stance. Even though we didn’t know how exactly, we were confident that it would ultimately work out. In regards to that, while there seemed to be a lot of cracks, knobs, and bulges in that area to work with, we hadn’t been able to see the water seeping and spreading down along and on top of most of them until we got up there. What’d appeared to be straight forward climbing with a lot of options was in reality a good bit trickier than anticipated.
Once we got up the first pitch, we were comforted to see that the obvious belay ledge that we’d scoped out from below was essentially as we’d thought it would be, although a little more compact. On seeing the sliminess of the rock on 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 planned to lead the second. At the top of the first pitch, Matt sat down on the small ledge close to where the route was set to go and created a sort of anchor. He clipped us into it, which made us feel better in a confidence sort of way, although we both wondered about how solid and secure it actually was. Cavalierly, we had no real thought that the belay anchor would come into play and were less concerned that we should’ve been that it was less than bombproof. Before we could think too much about where we were, we gave the proper climbing commands and the real climb began.
While standing on what appeared to be a solid block that was actually a part of the ledge, I was able to place my first anchor piece. It was a tiny nut about the size of a pencil eraser, and I wedged it into the same crack that I was planning to climb. As mentioned, getting a first anchor secured to the rock is typically a relief, but in this case it was more of an occurrence that made me feel a little less insecure– I wasn’t all that gung ho about it. Above that point, which was only a few feet above the belay ledge, things began to get more challenging. I looked up and noted that the face was significantly steeper and bigger than it’d appeared from the Upper Lake. The crack system that had looked so good and stood out so well from the rock when viewed from down below, I realized only appeared that way because the water trickling across it had turned it all dark which made it stand out. 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 obvious to me that this 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 still a strange pressure to move up and do the climb as envisioned was in control and I turned my attention back to the route up. I wedged my left foot into a section of the crack that was somewhat wider than the rest of it and stood up. Next, I tried to stuff my whole body into the crack a bit higher up, but my head was too large. I was somehow able to create a second anchor, five feet above the other. The second piece was another nut, which was at least larger than the little bitty thing that I’d stuck in the first time. After it was placed, I tugged on it to check how well it was locked into the crack and then clipped the climbing rope into the attached carabiner. At this point, I had two anchors connected to the rock and was feeling more confident all of the time, although the second one was also a little suspect. At least, I thought, two marginal anchors are 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 words of chit chat, I took a deep breath and then began looking up and pondering my next move. Each hold that I touched was just not quite what I was hoping for. The crack itself tapered and became rounded, which rendered it mostly useless as a climbing route, but made it a fine funnel for the water as it trickled on down the rock face. There were some promising looking hand and footholds not far outside of the crack, but when I touched the first one, I realized that they were all actually covered with a snotty sort of water that was more like oil, and would be of no use to me.
Up to that point, the idea that we’d get to the top as envisioned, walk down and back to Golden Lake before supper and then recount our exploits to our cooking groups as the dinner water came to a boil was how we were thinking it would all unfold. But now, the getting to the top as envisioned part was in question. At the same time, I also started realizing that the other part of it—the walking back to camp and recounting our exploits was perhaps just as important as actually getting to the top. I began to wonder if I’d been confusing my goals all along and taking some very important things for granted.
Just as my pondering was getting really 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 tiny nut that I’d probably been the most concerned about and was then more or less standing on the little 6 inch wide ledge only a few feet from Matt. The whole event was more than either of us wanted to acknowledge. We didn’t want to think about the various “what if’s” such as the little nut not holding, Matt’s anchor failing, us tumbling 30 feet down the rocks tied together by a rope or the logistics of just getting our bodies out of there. So, we just nervously laughed.
Even after the fall, our thoughts were not about full retreat, but instead on what appeared to be a walk off to the north. We gathered ourselves mentally and then began scrambling in that direction, still connected by the rope. We eventually rounded a corner and almost mercifully, a low angle slab provided a viable descent route from the rock we were crossing out onto the alpine tundra which headed both up toward The Divide and back down to the Upper Lake.
Once on the grassy tundra, we unroped, took off our harnesses and loaded them into our daypacks. Before leaving, we took a few moments to look around and absorb our surroundings from our new perspective one more time and then began the trek back down.
On the one hand, we were both disappointed that the route had not worked out the way we’d thought it might, but on the other, simply felt happy and energized to be walking back to water cooking, farting, dirty hands in the food and talk about the Ruth Glacier, K2, bush planes and the Matterhorn. We never talked much about the various events that we experienced on our adventure climb of the unnamed buttress in the Golden Lake cirque that July afternoon, but there were two things that I did ultimately acknowledge at various times and which served me well through the years. The first one is a simple thought with possible profound ramifications– if you have to choose between dark wet rock and less dark wet rock, choose the latter. The second is a bit more profound, but less wordy– ponder your priorities.