So, back to our 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 of those. But things above that point were increasingly fuzzy, although we were confident that it would all become clearer once we got that far. Better not to confuse the issue, 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. We were confident that, while that particular section would be a challenging lead, it would work out. In regard to that, while there seemed to be a lot of features in that area to work with, we hadn’t been able to see the water seeping and spreading down most of them until we got up there. What had appeared to be straight forward climbing 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 we had 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.
Somehow, it had worked out that I would lead both the first and second actual pitches, and I did. At the top of the first pitch, Matt sat down on the small ledge at the base of where the route was set to go and created a sort of anchor. He clipped us into it, which made us both feel better in a confidence sort of way, although I wondered a bit about how solid and secure it actually was. That part of it didn’t really matter that much to me anyway, because I had no thought that it would ever come into play. And so, we gave the proper climbing commands to each other back and forth and suddenly it was simply time for me to begin climbing.
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 piece of protection, which in this case was a tiny wired nut about the size of a pencil eraser, into a nice section of the crack that I was planning to follow up. Normally, getting a first anchor placed is a relief, but in this case for me it was an occurrence that made me feel a little less unsecure, which means that I wasn’t all that gung ho about it. Above that point, only about a foot or two 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 and that the crack system that had looked so good and stood out so well from the rock when viewed from down below, appeared so because the water trickling across it had turned it all dark. I knew better than to look down, but did so anyway.
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 nut I placed in that one was larger than the little bitty thing I’d stuck in the first one and it had a larger fixed cable attachment. 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 carabiner that was attached to it. At this point, I had two pieces connected to the rock and was feeling more confident all of the time, although the second one (as well as the belay anchor and first piece) was also a little suspect. At least, I thought, two marginal anchors are better than two non-existent ones.
At this point, I was maybe ten feet above Matt and we were able to carry on a normal conversation. I took a deep breath and then began looking back 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 essentially rendering it useless as a climbing route, but it did create a great funnel for the water as it trickled down. At this point, the most promising looking finger and footholds and horns of rock were out on the face, but were unfortunately mostly covered with a snotty sort of water that was more like oil.
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 group as the dinner water came to a boil was how I was thinking it would go.. 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 then recounting our exploits was perhaps just as important as the getting to the top thing. Was I confusing my goals? Was I taking some things for granted?
Just then, 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 standing on the little 6 inch wide ledge 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 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 on retreat, but instead on what appeared to be a walk off to the north. We gathered ourselves mentally and scrambled a couple of hundred yards, still connected by the rope, which we at least sort of coiled up between us. We eventually rounded a corner and almost mercifully, a low angle slab provided a decent route out onto the alpine tundra that headed either up toward The Divide or down to the Upper Lake.
And so, we went that way. Once on the grassy tundra, we unroped, took off our harnesses and stuck them, along with our climbing racks which included assorted anchor pieces such as nuts, cams and hex’s, back into our day packs. We took a few moments to look around and absorb our surroundings from the new perspective one more time and then began the trek back to camp.
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 we experienced on our adventure climb of the unnamed buttress in the Golden Lake cirque that July afternoon, but there was one thing that I did ultimately acknowledge at various times and that served me well through the years. It’s a simple thought with possible profound ramifications– if you have to choose between dark wet rock and less dark wet rock, choose the latter.