When Can We Go Back to the Cirque of the Towers? – Wind River Range, WY: 7/16 -7/23

Once again the Raffs had no plan, which might be the theme of the summer.  Sticking with our new rule, only visit towns where the population is less than the elevation, we headed to Pinedale, WY.  Pinedale was also centrally located to our three top options… Wind River Range, Tetons and Sawtooths, so it seemed like a great place to spend a few days to get organized. 

We opted for hotel in Pinedale to kill 3 birds with 1 stone… much needed showers, laundry, and internet.  After a bit of research and chatting with the local gear shop, we decided to head into the Winds to visit the Cirque of the Towers.  This has been on my list for years, and we were hoping to make it here last summer but just ran out of time.  So, I was thankful to learn that the snow melted early this year, and the climbing routes were in. 

The town has a great vibe and even though it is touristy, it has a definite local presence.  The little gear shop in town was a great source of information and had a great selection of gear.  We ended up visiting the shop 3 times in 3 days, so they got to know us well.  I also liked the local laundry mat with their trophies on the wall!

This would be our first real alpine adventure of the year.  We had two main climbing objectives and planned for 6 days and 5 nights.  Our packs were enormous – 50 lbs. for Mike and 45 for me.  We went back in forth on bringing KEENs or not, as they added an extra 1.5 lbs.  We also had a long debate over the rope length – 60m vs 70m.  The 60m was 2 lbs. lighter but would require some downclimbing between raps on one of the mountains.  So, we opted for the extra assurance, and Mike hauled in the 70m! 

After packing in the city park and all the final preparations were completed, we headed to the Big Sandy trailhead 2 hours out of town.  Our plan was to sleep there and hike in the morning.  We arrived at the most crowded trailhead I have ever seen!  Over 100 cars were parked everywhere – as there were not enough spots. Somehow, we lucked into a flat, shady spot in the parking lot near a vacant picnic table.  It was perfect. 

As we were relaxing, we met 2 Czech-Americans who had just finished a 5-day backpack trip.  We had a great time chatting with them about Czech Republic and traveling in general.  It is always fun to chat with fellow travelers who enjoy swapping stories and laughing.  They even shared their Czech beer with us, the original Budweiser, and we got to practice saying cheers in Czech…nicedriving (really fast!).

In the morning, we started our hike with our normal mantra – slow and steady.  We were excited as we only had to carry 1 liter of water as we would have plenty of opportunities to re-fill along the way.  Forty-five lbs. is heavy, so I was all for our hourly break to take the pack off for 5 minutes.  The first 5 miles are flat and follow the Big Sandy river through meadows and trees.  The river is perfectly clear with a rocky bottom. 

After the Big Sandy lake, the trail starts to climb toward a few lake basins, dropping in and climbing back out again.  The views were incredible, and as we got closer to the Cirque, we got our first views of Pingora – wow!

After the last lake, we climbed up to the pass, which is the Continental Divide and got our first full view of the Cirque.  It was stunning and even more spectacular than the pictures!

The campsites in the Cirque were not obvious, and it was hard to find spots that were both shady and flat.  After sending Mike on a house hunting marathon, we settled into a nice spot for the week.

The mosquitos are notorious in the Winds.  We received good advice from our friend Mac to bring bug shirts.  They worked like a charm, and we wore them around camp.  We may have cancer, but the bugs stayed away!

The day after our pack-in, we climbed Pingora’s South Buttress.  The approach was quick with some 3rd class scrambling up to a large ledge where the route starts. 

I led the first pitch and felt a little off balance due to being more tired than I expected from the pack-in, plus I was not used to climbing with a rack and a pack.  Mike led the fun 2nd pitch which went up a big corner and had some nice stemming. At the base of the 3rd pitch you have options.  There is a K-shaped crack with 2 5.8 options or to the left an easier 5.6 crack.  Based on how the first pitch went, I opted for the 5.6 option with the plan to come back another day and climb the 5.8.  I climbed it easily, and it felt a little better than the first pitch. 

From here to the top was 300’ of easy scrambling, and then we were greeted with an amazing view!  The summit is large, and we enjoyed soaking up the views.

The whole reason we opted for the 70m was the rap descent of Pingora.  If you do not have a 70, then you must downclimb 2 sections and do an extra rap.  Well, I messed up when I went first and ended too soon, so we ended up doing all the raps that we would have with the 60.  Plus, our rope got stuck on the last rap, so I had to climb up the downclimb anyways.  So, next time, we would save the weight and just bring the 60!  Mike was gracious about it.

The next day, we decided to rest.  We both felt tired after the pack-in and climbing Pingora, plus we wanted to be at 100% for our attempt on Wolf’s Head.  After a slow morning in camp, we hiked up to scope the start of Wolf’s Head.  There are 2 options – scramble grassy ledges or a climb a gully to the summit of Tiger Tower and then rap to the start of Wolf’s Head.  We had chatted with a few climbers who said the grassy ledges were wet and super slick, so we checked out the gully.  It didn’t look too bad, similar to a lot of gullies we have climbed in the North Cascades.  We also enjoyed checking out the lake in the upper basin.

Back in camp, we moved around to various shady spots while watching the climbers on several different towers.  I enjoyed the afternoon feeling satisfied from the prior day’s climb and anticipating the next climb.

Wolf’s Head is a committing climb as you climb up one side of the mountain and descend the opposite side.  It would be difficult to bail off in emergency or bad weather, so it felt a little more serious.  We were excited to see that the weather report looked great for the next day, and we were a go.

From right to left… Pingora, Tiger Tower, Wolf’s Head. We climbed the gully between Tiger and Pingora. Then climbed the entire ridgeline shown in this photo.

We were up at 3:30 and hiking at 4:15. It was a beautiful night sky with all the stars and the milky part of the Milky Way!  We made it to the base in 45 minutes, faster than planned.  After getting all our gear on, we ended up waiting 20 minutes for first light! 

The gully ended up being okay, not too loose and only a few easy 5th class moves.  We got to the col quickly and roped up to summit Tiger Tower.  It was fun easy climbing to the summit.  From there, we had 2 raps down to the start of Wolf’s Head.  The first rap was straight-forward, but the second rap was weird.  After a little more climbing, we were at the start of the actual climb… the sidewalk!

The sidewalk is a 30’ long section that is 3’ wide and drops off 500’ on both sides.  There is little protection for the 30’, so it feels extremely exposed but really fun too!  After the sidewalk, we simul-climbed for several hundred feet on the ridgetop.  The climbing was easy, but the ridge continued to narrow so the exposure felt more and more intense! 

The ridge has 5 towers that you bypass either on the north or south side.  We arrived at the base of the first tower at the same time as the party behind us.  They were climbing a little faster than us, so we let them pass.  They were nice and took a few great pictures of me climbing!  However, we didn’t realize that the second climber was leading his first ever climb, so we ended up having to wait a few times for them too.  It all worked out, and it was fun to share the climb with them.

To bypass the first tower, you make an exposed boulder move and then squeeze through a slot to go to the other side of the ridge.  Mike led the pitch, and I heard many grunts as he squeezed himself through the 1’ wide slot.  I had it quite a bit easier being smaller!

The next bypass is called the piton pitch as there are a few old pitons protecting the exposed slabs.  The crux of this pitch was a short downclimb on tiny feet! 

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The 3rd pitch is the money pitch with a fun hand crack traverse on one side of the ridge before you cross to the other side for a tiny foot ledge traverse.  This was when the exposure was starting to feel extra real!

The final pitch was a 4” crack traverse that you could either put your feet in or your hands.  I opted for my hands, so I could put gear in but then had to smear my feet while looking down at the nothingness below me!  Then I had a little downclimb, a final chimney and one last squeeze through a hole back to the other side of the ridge.  The last squeeze felt more like a belly flop than climbing, but it was fun!

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From here, it was easy climbing to the tiny summit!  We made it and were grinning from ear to ear!  The climbing was all easy, and I was impressed with the first climbers who figured out how to make this climb go!

It is not over once you are at the top, as we now had to descend, including 6 raps and some exposed walking.  We had heard that the descent could be confusing and was not trivial.  The first rap ended up being the crux of the descent for us as we had to downclimb a very exposed 10’ to an anchor.  Mike went first, and the end of our rope got stuck so he had to rap much further than normal to get it unstuck.  All the while he is doing this, I am sitting at a somewhat manky anchor with a 1000’ drop off.  It all worked out, and the next few raps were much easier!  I did not find the descent to be nearly as bad as expected.

After a final rap, we were at a col and from here it was an easy hike back down to Cirque Lake.  We were back to camp after 13 hours where we quickly got water, ate, and crawled into the tent right as the rain hit!  Perfect timing.

We woke up to low misty clouds.  The weather for the next day had extremely high winds forecasted, so we decided to hike out a day early.  We had successfully climbed both of our objectives, so we felt okay with our decision. On the hike out, we continued to enjoy the gorgeous views while making plans on when we could next come back to the Cirque!  It is so beautiful, and there is so much climbing!

After getting to the trailhead, we drove a few miles down the road to a lodge for a burger and beer.  As we were eating the burger, beef from the local ranch next door, a huge lighting/hail storm hit.  So glad we were dry and not still hiking!  The burger was amazing, and the beer tasted darn good too.  After dinner, we paid $4 for a hot shower to clean off the bug spray and sweat from the last few days.  We lucked back into our amazing parking spot at the trailhead for a good night sleep in the van!

The Cirque of the Towers was everything that I had dreamed about and more!  Sometimes things do not live up to the hype, but I would say the Cirque exceeded in all categories… beauty, climbing quality/fun, and adventure.  I cannot wait to plan another trip into this majestic place!

This entry was posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Spring/Summer 2020. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When Can We Go Back to the Cirque of the Towers? – Wind River Range, WY: 7/16 -7/23

  1. Doug says:

    This was a great write-up. Even makes an old man want to go there and experience vicariously the adventure.

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