<-- Map of summer 2014
(click to enlarge)
The Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range had captured my attention this summer. In July, I spent eight days in the Cirque. It had been a fun and rather successful trip where the weather was great and I climbed six Cirque classic moderate routes in six days. Nonetheless, I finished the trip feeling a bit disappointed, since for reasons I still don't quite understand my partner and I did not climb or even attempt any of the routes we had planned to climb. So a return trip to the Cirque before the summer ended was definitely on my mind.
Since the Spring, I had been corresponding with climber Dow Williams about planning a climbing trip. I put the bug in his ear about a trip to the Cirque, naming some grade IV routes like Warrior I's Northeast Face (a classic "Beckey adventure route") and Warbonnet's Black Elk ("hardest route in the Cirque") and Feather Buttress ("wildest 5.9 pitch in America"). Dow was interested and we set aside some dates to do a few of the harder routes in the Cirque.
It's always iffy when you nail down trip dates well in advance of any reliable weather forecast, but we were lucky and nailed a five-day weather window between thudershower systems. On the first day of our trip, we hiked into the Cirque and established camp below the northeast side of Warrior I. For some reason, I had it in mind that this would be a good camp for Black Elk as well, which we figured would be our first objective while we were fresh. But (doh!) the better camp had been a mile back just off the trail before Arrowhead Lake. So we quickly adjusted our plans and decided to climb the (Climb 1:) Northeast Face (IV, 5.9, ~8 pitches) of WARRIOR I as our first climb of the trip. This turned out to be a good choice — a nice 5.9 warm-up with enough route-finding challenges to make it a non-trivial undertaking. The key with this route is to stay on route and then it's a great climb. For our second climb of the trip, we decided it logistically made sense to choose a route in the Cirque before moving camp and tackling Black Elk. We tossed around the idea of climbing Feather Buttress on Warbonnet, but ultimately decided against it due to our lack of route beta and the shady aspect of the route (temperatures were cold in the shade, especially if windy). Since Dow had never been to the Cirque, we decided to run up the (Climb 2:) Northeast Face (IV, 5.8, ~11 pitches) of PINGORA, a Fifty Crowded Classic that features sustained and fun crack systems and is a must-do climb of the area. Despite arriving at the base of the route to discover three parties already queued for the second pitch, we were on top of Pingora in just over three hours. This gave us plenty of time to pack up and move camp to below the base of the southeast side of Warbonnet, where we could sit and stare at the next day's objective: (Climb 3:) Black Elk (IV, 5.11a, ~9 pitches) on WARBONNET. We were mostly worried about the infamous wide crux 5.11a pitch, since we had brought only two size 4 Camalots, whereas various sources suggested the need for four or five cams of this size. Sure enough, we found two size 4 Camalots to be woefully insufficient for the crux pitch, forcing us to break the pitch into three short pitches. But apart from this pitch (which was good, just quite burly and a bit inefficient with our rack), the climb was superb. It was my favorite route and certainly the prize of the trip. The next day, we hiked out. But a mile from camp, we couldn't resist dropping our packs on the trail climbing just one more thing: the (Climb 4:) Northeast Arête (II, 5.10c, ~4 pitches) of SUNDANCE PINNACLE, whose gleaming face beckoned in the morning light. This was a fun and rather spicy adventure with a mellow descent. Satiated with climbing for the day, we shouldered our packs and hiked the remaining six miles out to the trailhead. It was a phenomenal trip—four Cirque-area classics (three of them grade IV) in four days, wow! Thanks Dow for being a great climbing partner and taking all of the hard leads so I could kick back and enjoy my role as photographer.
This page provides a trip report for our four climbs in and around the Cirque.
|Climb 1||Climb 2||Climb 3||Climb 4|
(IV, 5.9, ~8p)
(IV, 5.8, ~11p)
(IV, 5.11a, ~9p)
(II, 5.10c, ~4p)
APPROACH DAY - AUG 15
Meet at the trailhead, pack up, and hike in and establish camp in the Cirque.
a-d. There are some rather sharp turns on the drive to the trailhead, and it's easy to take them a bit fast before realizing that gravel does not have the same grip as pavement. I passed a truck that had evidentially flipped on one such turn. Not a good start to a climbing trip.
e. Dow hiking along the west side of Arrowhead Lake on the approach to the Cirque.
f. We passed below the towering SE Face of Warbonnet. The Black Elk route (which was our third climb of the trip) goes right up the center of the face.
g-i. We camped near the southern entrance to the Cirque, under the towering walls of Warbonnet and Warrior I. I found a flat boulder to pitch my tent on.
j. Hanging our food to get it away from the 5.12-climbing marmots.
k. Near our camp we found a nice bivy spot. I would have retreated to here if it had rained a lot, since my tent has lived a good life and by this point has too many rips in the fabric to be called waterproof.
l. A dramatic photo of Wolf's Head and Pingora as seen from camp.
m. Warbonnet as seen from camp. The Feather Buttress route goes up the sweeping buttress. We tossed around the idea of climbing this route, but in the end decided against it due to too little route beta and the shady aspect of the route.
n. During our trip we enjoyed the light of a waning moon. This photo shows moonlight on Warbonnet and Warrior I from camp.
o. Starry moonlit night above the Cirque from camp.
CLIMB 1 - AUG 16
Climb WARRIOR I Northeast Face (IV, 5.9, ~8 pitches).
Click here to go to Dow's excellent description of the Northeast Face on summitpost.org.
6:15 am - leave camp
6:52 - at base
7:07 - begin roped climbing
12:05 - summit
12:27 - begin rappels
2:00 - base
2:45 pm - camp
~5 hours base to summit, ~1.5 hours summit to base, ~8.5 hours camp to camp
|Route Notes: This route was first climbed by Fred Beckey and John Rupley in 1962. Beckey + Warrior + 5.9 = Potential 5.9++++ Adventure!
Ascent Notes: There are stories of parties epicing on this route or having to bail because they get off route. Our goal was to stay on route at all times, which we did following a useful topo I found on mountainproject.com. I led us a bit offroute for the final pitch, but we made it up on more difficult offwidth terrain than needed. We combined Pitches 1 and 2. I led Pitches 1, 2, 5, and 7. Dow led Pitches 3, 4, 6, and 8. Pitch 3 is perhaps the crux pitch. Pitches 4, 6, and 7 were my favorites.
Descent notes: Beta said to have 2 ropes for the descent, but we decided to bring one and scope out the rappel sling situation as we climbed up, and figured we could always climb to the summit and hike off if we felt we could not do the rappels with a single rope. When we saw the gendarmed summit ridge and the amount of additional climbing required to get to the summit, we made the decision to rap. It turns out that the rappel descent can indeed be done easily with a 70m rope (a 60m rope would be tough as several of the raps were rope-stretchers). We made 9.2 rappels with a 70m rope. We had to leave one sling/biner and do a short 20 ft rap (where the 0.2 comes from) off a fixed nut/biner someone else had left.
a. Heading up the talus to the base of the route. This took us just over 30 minutes from our camp, which was perfectly-situated for a climb of Warrior I.
b-c. The Northeast Face route is notorious for being a classic Beckey adventure climb where parties get off route and either climb through sketchy terrain or bail. We were determined to nail the route. We found Tom Wolfe's beta (written + topo) on MountainProject.com to be very useful for navigating the route. When you stay on route, the climbing is quite good and the route is a fun day.
d. Looking up the flakes of Pitches 1 and 2, which we combined with a little simulclimbing.
e. Looking down from near the top of the pillar that marks the top of Pitch 2.
f. Dow leading up Pitch 3. This was perhaps the mental crux of the route, as the climbing was a bit unprotected and the rock quality was not ideal. Rock quality improved above this pitch. From where Dow is in the photo, he climbed up a bit, and then traversed leftward on slabs and face moves to the right-facing, right-leaning corner above.
g. Make sure to choose your hand and foot holds wisely on this pitch. I had a nubbin break off in my hand.
h. Dow starting up Pitch 4. This pitch features a hand crack, offwidth, and finger crack. This is a clean and sustained pitch with great climbing.
i. The offwidth on Pitch 4. A size 4 Camalot is nice to have here.
j. Dow following the top of Pitch 5, which was a 5.5 slot on the right of a pillar. This might differ from the Bechtel guide route on this pitch, but either way Pitch 5 ends at the top of the pillar at the base of the "money pitch".
k. Dow starting up the splitter 5.9 hand crack of Pitch 6. This is the "money pitch."
l-m. An old bolt and old piton on Pitch 6. I wonder if these date back to Beckey's FA in 1962?
n. Looking up Pitch 7, which moves up slab and flake toward the rap anchor near the edge of the corner, and proceeds to step right around the corner here and go onto a nice exposed hand traverse. The climbing is 5.7ish.
o. Looking down while leading Pitch 7.
p. I took the hand traverse too far right on Pitch 7, and we ended up a bit right of the normal route. So we climbed up this corner, which was kind of grainy and difficult (5.10-?) offwidth. The normal route follows easier cracks to the top.
q. The Northeast Face route does not top out on the actual summit. This photo was taken from the top of the route. The true summit of Warrior I is on the right. Getting there requires negotiating some impressive gendarmes, which reportedly can be overcome by rappelling and then some 5.7 climbing. We had entertained the idea of traversing to the true summit and walking off via the Wisconsin Couloir, but when we saw the scope of the ridge gendarmes we decided to brave the rappel route with a single 70m rope. I think very few climbers continue to the true summit.
r. Another view of the Warrior I summit ridge from the top of the Northeast Face route. You can see the rap anchor in this photo as well as the giant chasm before the ridge gendarme.
s. A view of the gendarmed ridge between the true summit of Warrior I and where the Northeast Face route tops out on the right. This photo was taken from the summit of Warbonnet a couple of days later. I would suspect that the supposed 5.7 route first rappels into the deepest notch, then involves downcliming and then traversing and climbing back up along the weaknesses in the photo. As long as all goes well, it's much faster to just rappel the NE Face to get back to camp.
t. This is a photo of the Wisconsin Couloir and Pylon Peak. For climbers choosing to traverse to the true summit, the Wisconsin Couloir is the usual way to get back into the Cirque. It is probably just a bunch of loose 3rd class scrambling.
u. The second rap station we used (note we had a single 70m rope, so many of our rap stations could be bypassed with double ropes).
v. The second rap did not quite make it to the third station with a single 70m rope, but we found a nut and biner someone else had rapped off of to get to the next station.
w. The third rap station we used.
x-z. The fourth rap station we used.
a2. The fifth rap station we used.
b2. The sixth rap station we used. This was the only one we had to establish ourselves, despite the fact that most sources claim two ropes are needed for descent. The rap cord and biner I used here I had actually taken off a horn below the Overhanging Tower-Wolf's Head col on my July trip.
c2. The seventh rap station we used.
d2. The eighth rap station we used.
e2. The ninth rap station we used. This got us back down to the start of the route. We were pleasantly surprised how easy the rap descent went with a single 70m rope. It only took 1.5 hours from summit to base. (Note: Many of these raps were nearly to the end of the rope, so a 60m rope would not be a good choice if you are planning on trying to descend with only one rope.)
f2. Descending the talus back to camp. Less than 30 minutes.
g2. I had tweaked my knee while climbing the offroute offwidth on the final pitch of the climb. It was pretty painful but I did not sense any weakness in the ligaments, so I decided to just load up on Vitamin I and treat the knee as if it were uninjured. Fortunately the knee improved over the course of the trip despite the continued climbing.
h2. Evening light in the Cirque. It's such a beautiful area. No wonder I want to keep coming back.
CLIMB 2 - AUG 17
Climb PINGORA Northeast Face (IV, 5.8, ~11 pitches).
5:30 am - leave camp
6:36 - base of route
6:45 - begin roped climbing (had to wait 10 minutes between pitches 1 and 2)
9:59 - top of route
10:11 - summit
10:55 - begin descent
12:00 pm - camp
~3.5 hours base to summit, ~1 hour summit to base, ~6.5 hours camp to camp
Route Notes: This is a Fifty Crowded Classic and certainly one of the classic climbs of the Cirque. Great views, exposure, and beautiful sustained climbing.
Ascent Notes: We got an early start as we knew there would be other parties on route. Even so, when we got to the base just as the sun rose, there were already three parties piled up at the first pitch. Fortunately all the parties were incredibly friendly, and also understanding that we were a faster party, so we were able to simulclimb past all of them over the course of the first hour or so (another thing we had in our favor was that the weather forecast was bomber for the day, so the other parties were not frantic about waiting 10 minutes to let us pass). Descent Notes: We rappelled (4 raps) and then scrambled down the South Buttress. I had done this descent a couple of times already this summer so I had it dialed and we made quick work of it.
Other Notes: I had climbed this route already back in 2007 with my cousin Lisa (this route had actually been one of the first multipitch alpine climbs either of us did), but it is a route worth climbing twice so I was happy to run up it again with Dow. Even with 7 more years of climbing under my belt since 2007, I was surprised at the sustained nature of the climbing, which can make even the 5.7 on this route seem spicy at times.
a. I took a long exposure photo as we got ready in the morning darkness. The forecast was bomber, so our main reason for getting an early start was to beat the crowds to the base. The Northeast Face of Pingora always has parties on it on nice days in the summer. Plus, it was a Sunday....
b. Another photo taken while getting ready in the morning darkness.
c. Getting to the base of the route involves hiking quite far around to the far side of Pingora. The route is not visible from the Cirque.
d. Dow running to the base of the route to get our spot in the queue. Mitchell Peak and Lonesome Lake are in the distance.
e. Despite our early start, when we arrived at the base of the route there were already three parties getting started. Fortunately, they were okay with letting Dow and me jump ahead and climb past them.
f. As we waited, we had a nice view of morning light on Mitchell Peak and Lonesome Lake.
g. Some cool clouds above.
h. Looking down at climbers on the lower pitches of the Northeast Face route on Pingora.
i. Dow climbing somewhere midway through the Northeast Face route on Pingora.
j. A view of Warbonnet and Warrior Peaks on the other side of the Cirque.
k. We staggered our belay positions with these two climbers named Brian and Mandy for a few pitches. They were climbing the route for the first time, but would be climbing it again in a few weeks along with the guy who would marry them on the summit. What a great way to get married. A few months later, Dow came across this video on Vimeo documenting Brian and Mandy's wedding adventure. Super cool video and a super cool couple.
l. Dow climbing on one of the upper pitches of the route.
m. The final "easy chimney." It was indeed easy this time, but I remember it had seemed hard when I climbed it in 2007, which was only my second real season of alpine climbing.
n. Dow on the summit of Pingora, with Wolf's Head behind.
o. The summit of Pingora gives the best view of the East Ridge of Wolf's Head, which is another Fifty (Crowded) Classic. We spotted at least a few parties on the route.
p. The flowers and sunlight made for a beautiful landscape as we hiked through the Cirque back to camp. This photo is taken looking back up the trail towards Wolf's Head.
q. More flowery sunlit meadows, with Mitchell Peak in the distance.
r. We packed up and moved our camp a mile to below the SE Face of Warbonnet, which is an aspect that does not face the Cirque. We found a nice campsite here. This set us up nicely for climbing Black Elk the next day.
s. Water at camp below the SE Face of Warbonnet.
t. There were some clouds in the night sky which created these cool streaks in a 5 minute exposure.
CLIMB 3 - AUG 18
Climb WARBONNET Black Elk (IV, 5.11a, ~9 pitches).
Click here to go to Dow's excellent description of Black Elk on summitpost.org.
|Click here to see a full resolution version of the above photo without the annotations, so you can see the route features.|
6:00 am - leave camp
6:34 - base of climb
6:53 - begin roped climbing
9:22 - start up Pitch 4 (wide crux pitch)
11:39 - get to top of Pitch 4
2:10 - top of route
2:51 - summit
3:03 - begin descent
4:05 - camp
~8 hours base to summit, ~1 hour summit to camp, ~10 hours camp to camp
Route Notes: This route takes a wonderful line up the clean southeast face of Warbonnet. Although technically not in in the Cirque (the southeast side of Warbonnet does not face the Cirque), it held the label of "hardest route in the Cirque" for nearly 20 years. Characterized by excellent rock, morning sun and an infamous wide crux pitch, Black Elk is an area classic. The route was first climbed by Charlie Fowler and Jeff Lowe in 1979. Because of the wide pitch, it is recommended to bring a couple of extra fist-sized pieces and size 4 Camalots.
Ascent Notes: The climbing on this route was excellent. Except for the infamous size-4-Camalot wide crux pitch, which I did not enjoy. In my memory, this was the first time I've encountered a crack which I physically could not figure out how to climb up; I was able to get decent hand stacks, but then could not get adequate foot jams to move my hands without popping out of the crack. I guess size 4 cracks are my nemesis. After several minutes of grunting around with no upward progress, I prusiked up to the nearest size 4 cam and then just aided up the rest of the crack with this. We had only two size 3 Camalots and two size 4 Camalots. We found this incredibly insufficient for the wide crux pitch, which we had to break into three parts in order to collect the wide gear to adequately protect the pitch. Because of this and because of my prusiking antics, getting through the crux pitch took over two hours. The size 4 Camalots are really only needed for the crux pitch, but the ideal rack for this pitch would have perhaps two size 3 Camalots and four or five size 4 Camalots. We combined Pitches 7 and 8 and scrambled Pitch 9 unroped. The route does not top out on the summit, but I wanted the unique view into the Cirque plus I like to tag the not-often-summited summit, so I scrambled up the last 400 (vert) feet or so while Dow headed down. This is one of my favorite alpine climbs to date. What a route! Dow did most of the leading (and an impressive job of it) while I carried the pack with our shoes, water, jackets, food, first aid kit, and extra tat we had just in case.
Descent Notes: The descent was a straightforward 3rd class scramble down the south slopes of Warbonnet. We had camped below the SE Face, and we were able to get back to camp by going through the first major notch in the ridge saddle between Sundance and Warbonnet. The entire descent from the summit to camp was about an hour.
Other Notes: I am not sure of the origin of the name of this route, but I convinced myself that I could make out a shape of an elk in the upper pitches of the route. The belly is the large dark chasm under the chockstone, the eye is the upper chockstone, and the antlers are above the eye.
a. I took this photo as I brewed my coffee in the pre-sunrise darkness.
b. Dow on the 3rd class ramp to the base of the route.
c. This is where we roped up. The first pitch starts with some somewhat-unprotected 5.8 face moves and then moves left along a ramp towards the obvious right-facing corner system.
d. A fixed cam near the top of the first pitch.
e. Dow leading up Pitch 2. This follows a pretty right-facing corner, 5.10-.
f. Looking down Pitch 2.
g. Dow leading off Pitch 3, which continues up the corner to a nice ledge, 5.10. Pitches 2 and 3 can be combined to avoid the intermediate belay at a small stance, but it would be strenuous and require strategic gear usage.
h. Looking up the start of the crux Pitch 4. This pitch starts with a splitter hand crack that passes a small roof but then widens into 5.11 off-fists.
i. The crux section only takes size 4 Camalots. We only had 2. So we had to break up Pitch 4 into three small pitches so that Dow (who was leading) could collect the size 4 cams and protect the pitch. Here were are at one of these intermediate belay spots.
j. A fixed hex in the crux 5.11 off-fists section. This hex was useful for setting an intermediate belay.
k. We needed more than 2 of these.....
l. Finally we escaped the crux pitch. Here I am looking up Pitch 5, which ascends fun hand and finger cracks.
m. The upper part of Pitch 5.
n. The giant chockstone. Pitch 6 goes behind this chockstone.
o. There are a couple of options for Pitch 7. Either climb a right-facing dihedral with bad gear or go up the offwidth to the right. We went up the offwidth, which was pretty good climbing.
p. Pitch 7 is short, so we linked it with Pitch 8, which climbs to the right of the chockstone in this photo and continues up a nice gully/chimney with lots of options.
q. We unroped at the top of Pitch 8 and scrambled towards the south slopes of Warbonnet. I continued up to the summit (about 400 ' vert) while Dow began the descent.
r. The view into the Cirque from the summit of Warbonnet.
s. The view of the Deep Lake area from the summit of Warbonnet. I was hoping to climb in this area this summer but time is running out....
t. 3 bars from the top of Warbonnet! I checked my emails.
u. The descent from Warbonnet takes the 3rd class south slopes to the saddle between Sundance Pinnacle and Warbonnet, shown in the photo. To get back to camp we took the gully that descends from the notch on the saddle closest to Warbonnet.
v. I spotted this bone on the descent. Climber or elk? =)
w. This photo clearly shows the notch and gully we descended to get back to camp below the SE Face of Warbonnet.
x. Starry night above camp.
CLIMB 4 - AUG 19
Climb SUNDANCE PINNACLE Northeast Arête (II, 5.10c, ~4 pitches).
Click here to go to Dow's excellent description of the Northeast Arête on summitpost.org.
7:50 am - leave packs on trail
8:26 - base of route
8:46 - begin roped climbing
11:53 - summit
12:00 - begin descent
12:25 - back to packs on trail
~3 hours base to summit, ~0.5 hours summit to trail, ~ 4.5 hours trail to trail
|Route Notes: This route takes a proud line to the summit of Sundance Pinnacle. The crux splitter finger crack on the NE face/arête is visible as you begin the climb to North Lake.
Ascent Notes: As suggested by most sources, we traversed into the route via 3rd class ramps from the south, which avoids a few pitches of easy 5th class climbing from the base of the Pinnacle. We followed the route line in the Bechtel guidebook and ended up on some rather dirty and untravelled terrain for the first couple of pitches. I think a better line would have been to the left perhaps intersecting the first pitch of the Right Crack route. There is some discussion about this on mountainproject.com, as apparently others have experienced some confusion between various route descriptions and route overlays for the initial pitches. Once we got up to the crux pitches, the climbing was great. It was spicy climbing at times, with some face traversing off an old bolt and some tenuous moves on 10c finger tips and a wild 5.8 hand traverse up high.
Descent Notes: We scrambled down the south side of Sundance Pinnacle. I had done this descent in July so had it dialed. There are a couple of short 4th class downclimbing moves, but this is a very quick descent (~5 minutes from the summit to the meadows!) and requires no rappels if you find it.
a. Morning light on Sundance Pinnacle.
b. Dow on the 3rd class traverse into the upper pitches of the Northeast Arête route. Most climbers traverse in to avoid the unremarkable easy 5th class pitches that go straight up from the base of the pinnacle.
c. Looking up from the usual start of the routes. The Klettershoe Chimney route is on the left, Right Crack is in the middle, and Northeast Arête goes off right.
d. The route overlay in the Bechtel guide told us to start here. This corner was okay climbing, but rather dirty and untravelled. I think most parties cut into the Northeast Arête route from the spot where I took the previous photo.
e. Dow on the second pitch of the route as per Bechtel. This was still dirty and untravelled, but the climbing was still pretty good, just a bit more sketchy because it was dirty and had more potential for looseness.
f. Looking up the crux 5.10c pitch of the route, which goes up the crack, then traverses right on slab to a splitter tips crack.
g. The slab moves are preceded by this old bolt. It doesn't give much confidence.
h. Looking up the splitter 10c tips crack. Finger cracks are my favorite kind of climbing.
i. Looking over at the Klettershoe Chimney route.
j. Looking over at climbers on the last pitch of the East Face Center route (I had climbed this route in July)..
k. Dow on the 5.8 hand traverse at the start of the final pitch. It goes up from here on cracks and corners and face moves to the top.
l. Looking down the Northeast Arête from top of the pinnacle.
m. On the trail hiking back to the trailhead.