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Cirque of the Towers

Pingora and the boys.

Written as a beginner's guide to alpine climbing

Story and photos by Jason Griffith

When the summer of 2020 rolled around, let’s face it, we were all going a bit stir-crazy. And so my regular climbing partners and I hit the road rather than spend our traditional one-week alpine climbing holiday in the Cascades. Destination: The Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, home to two of the “50 Classic Climbs in North America” (Roper and Steck 1979), including the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head (12,165’).

But before we get into the details of our trip, you may be wondering what is alpine climbing anyways? And what makes an alpine climb a “classic?” I’ll explain using our climb of Wolf’s Head as an example.

Alpine climbing is incredibly varied, but there are some common themes. These climbs are often deep in the wilderness, meaning a long hike to the base of the climb. Sometimes this is on trails, but often it involves cross-country travel through brush, cliffs, streams, etc., combining elements of orienteering and backpacking.

In the case of Wolf’s Head, we had driven for 30-plus miles on a bumpy gravel road, hiked 5 miles on good trails, rock hopped off trail for 2 miles to go over a 10,000-plus foot pass only to arrive in the basin at the base of the peak. This was just what climbers refer to as the “approach” (walking, or class 2 travel) to a climb, but with a pack laden with ropes and other climbing gear it can feel just as strenuous as the climb itself.

Camp set up, we turned in early the night before our climb. Above tree line, the travel to alpine climbs from camp is often across snow, glaciers or steep terrain, which bring with them their own sets of challenges. It is best to get an early start, often very early, and so we cooked breakfast in the dark and left camp by headlight. Weaving through gnarled trees, jumping over streams, we gained altitude as the slope steepened and we had to carefully pick our way through cliff bands, using both our hands and feet to make upward progress. A fall on this terrain often has serious consequences, but since it is relatively easy “scrambling” (or class 3 or 4 travel), alpine climbers typically skip roping up in the interest of moving quickly.

Right as dawn broke we arrived right on schedule at a spot on the mountain where the angle increased dramatically and we decided to “rope up.” Though we were eventually going to climb the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head, we had decided to start on the South Buttress of Pingora, a major summit immediately adjacent. This start minimized the unsavory scrambling below Wolf’s Head Pingora col (notch between summits) and added seven rope lengths (“pitches”) of solid, fun rock climbing, up to class 5.8 (on a scale from 5.1 to 5.15).

"I really didn't want to fall here. The team behind us had a climber take a big fall here. Her screams were not great to listen to."

On high angle rock, snow or ice, climbers typically “pitch out” a route, meaning that one team member is anchored to the climbing surface at a “belay” while the “leader” climbs above, placing “protection” into the surface. This protection (“pro”) varies with the climb, but on a rock climb like Pingora we mostly used spring-loaded camming units (cams) and wired metal wedges (stoppers/nuts/chocks) placed into cracks.

The pieces of pro are attached to the climbing rope with “slings” (loops of webbing) and carabiners. As the leader climbs higher, the belayer feeds out rope. The rope passes from the belayer’s “brake hand” (hand holding the rope), through the belay device, through the pieces of pro, to the leader. While the leader can’t ever fall on an alpine climb (you’re in the middle of nowhere, remember?); if they do, the belayer can use their brake hand to keep rope from being pulled through the belay device, meaning the fall will be limited to about twice the distance the leader is above their last piece of pro. But only if the belayer is paying attention!

For our climb of Pingora, everyone was paying attention, nobody fell, and we arrived on the summit of Pingora a couple exhilarating and uneventful hours after starting up the roped climbing. But we weren’t even close to done yet — we had to descend to the Pingora/Tiger Tower Col, climb over Tiger Tower, descend to the Tiger/Wolf’s Head col, climb the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head, then descend Wolf’s head and hike back to camp. All before dark.

And so, we got on with getting off Pingora. This involved a series of “rappels” (or raps) down the nearly vertical rock toward Tiger Tower. Rappels are made by threading the doubled over rope through an “anchor” (usually a slung horn of rock or a chockstone in a crack on an alpine climb) and then sliding down the rope with the belay device to the next anchor. Sometimes anchors are established on climbs, and sometimes climbers will need to use webbing and gear to create their own. On Pingora, all the stations were established, greatly speeding our descent. If you have to build new rap anchors, descending a climb can be as time consuming as ascending. And why you wake up early.

Rapping off Tiger Tower en route to Wolf's Head.

At the Tiger/Pingora col, the raps were over for a bit and we switched to exposed fourth class scrambling until a final couple raps to the Tiger/Wolf’s Head col and a return to fifth class climbing on the “classic” East Ridge of Wolf’s Head. Given all the facets to alpine climbing, how does a climb become “classic” (besides being in a book)?

Well, that is highly subjective, but generally it means an interesting approach; aesthetic or solid climbing; a magnificent, exposed or scenic position; and a descent that isn’t too hair-raising. Often the classic nature of the climb has less to do with the actual climbing and more to do with the entire package. And Wolf’s Head checked all the boxes.

From the col, we tiptoed and wove our way from one side of the ridge to the other for 10 very exposed and traversy (often going as much sideways as upwards) pitches. Never severe climbing (to about 5.6), but always engaging, the route had us scratching our heads and puzzling out the way forward. Although we were armed with a detailed route description, the way wasn’t obvious. We marveled at the boldness of the first ascensionists who had to figure this out in 1959, without any modern gear whatsoever. This uncertainty adds to the special allure of alpine climbing, where success (up or down) isn’t guaranteed, and the costs of failure can be quite high.

But, with enough head scratching, we found ourselves on the summit of Wolf’s Head on a perfect July day without a thunderstorm in sight (another common hazard that can force a panicked retreat). We even had a few hours of daylight to spare to figure out the complex descent. Six more raps, interspersed with exposed scrambling, finally got us to the non-technical terrain and the ramble back to camp in the early evening (12 hours on the go). Eating dinner, watching the light fade on the peaks of the Cirque, we noticed headlamps of unlucky climbers starting to be visible high on the peaks, scanning right and left for the way down. We smiled at our luck, knowing that it was indeed part luck.

Quietly, we organized gear, packed lunches, turned in early, and made sure our alarms were set for 0400.

Jason is a fisheries biologist who would rather be on a summit than down by the river. When he isn’t fiddling with his camera in the mountains, he lives in Mount Vernon with his wife and two boys. x