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The Shady Lady: A 1st Ascent on the North Face of Mt. Hooker


 

by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published in Climbing Magazine Sep-Oct. 1979

"Play for more than you can afford to loose, and you will learn the game."
Winston Churchill


Many climbers are driven to some extent by the puritan work ethic. I know I am. If I work (climb) I feel good about myself; if I laze around or quit before a project is completed I am left with an uneasy feeling. Due to this psychological hangup, and the magnetic power of a fantastic mountain, I found myself compelled to make three expeditions spread over a two-year period. Each trip had the same single-minded goal, to climb the north face of Mt. Hooker in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.

Mt. Hooker is located in the middle of the Wind Rivers, which in turn are located in central Wyoming. The Winds are an unspoiled, roadless wilderness area known for fantastic trout fishing found in the numerous rivers and lakes. To a climber they represent a paradise of seclusion. There is fine solid granite in the southern part of the range, or more alpine climbing in the north around Wyoming's highest mountain, 13,875 foot Gannet Peak.

The 2,000-foot North Face of Mt. Hooker is the largest big wall in the Wind Rivers. The first and only reported climb done on the face when I investigated was the 1964 Robbins route put up by Royal, Dick McCracken, and Charlie Raymond. They spent three and a half days of hard climbing, putting up Wyoming's first Grade VI. Their route takes a beautiful line up the steep north prow which soars above the blue-green waters of a small glacial fed lake, to the plateau like summit at 12,550 feet. The climbing on the lower section of their route was predominantly difficult and devious aid climbing. Bonney's Field Book Wind River Range does not even try to describe this part, starting the route description 700 feet up!

My first exposure to the face was on a "know your mountains" page in the old Sumrnit magazine. The caption read, "An unclimbed 2,000 foot north face in the Wind Rivers of Wyoming." Many years later I remembered the photo while discussing a possible winter climbing project with Homan Aprin. When I saw the gleam in his eyes once he saw the picture, I knew this was it. At the time we were looking for a significant winter wall climb, one that would test us to the limits, forcing us to experience a new level of intensity. Hooker in winter fit the bill, and then some, and its close proximity to our homes in Salt Lake City fit my student's budget.

Our audacious winter attempt was the hardest, most unenjoyable trip I have ever taken in the mountains. It was an incredibly tough test of endurance (stupidity?) paid for in pain and ego. We left in early March, just before the heaviest storms of the winter hit the Rockies. Skiing in with 90 pound packs was a fiasco. It took us nine days to arrive at the base of the wall, exhausted and demoralized.

More to use the gear we had carried in than anything else, we climbed one pitch. What a joke! What would have been hard scrambling in the summer took me an hour to lead in my bulky clothes and boots. One look up the huge wall looming above me and all thoughts of "a search for intensity" disappeared. More like a death wish, I decided as we skied back down to Graves Lake.

The trip out was almost worse than the approach. Below zero temperatures, two feet of new powder, white out conditions, and minimal food for the last two days finished off a masochist's dream.

My next attempt on the wall was in August of 1977. Rick Bradshaw, a fellow student at the University of Utah, and I had the Bears Ears horsepackers carry in a load of gear, so the 25 mile approach was very pleasant with light packs. We had a feeling of deja-vu walking in shorts through flower sprinkled meadows we had skied five months before. Base camp was set up under two huge boulders near the base of the wall.

Since we had no idea of where the Robbins route went we decided to work out one of our own. We started just to the south of the prow, eeking out four hard won pitches in as many days. Each afternoon thundershowers would send us scampering down our fixed ropes. On the third day we didn't even start up, sitting out a day of mixed rain and snow.

On the fourth day we decided to go for broke, but another rainstorm sent us down, out of time and food. The climbing to this point had been continuously steep, difficult mixed climbing with few moves easier than 5.8 or A3. We had placed thirteen bolts and hook holes on the third pitch, which also included a series of six cliffhanger moves in a row.

Another school year passed by, another year to think, train, and climb with one goal: to prepare for Hooker again. Both Rick and I went to summer school, and so had a better chance to climb and train together than the summer before, when I had worked on an oil rig. We were returning with a grim determination to get up the bitch or else, but this determination was no longer a result of any hubris or ego tripping. We knew the mountain and its formidable defenses, and we knew ourselves for what we were, competent climbers, but still mere specks of transient flesh against the awesome age-old bulk of the mountain.

And so a year later Rick and I were back. We returned with renewed hopes and enough food, supplemented with trout, to stay for three weeks if need be. This time we hiked the approach in one long day, meeting the horsepackers just below Baptiste Lake at dusk. We were accompanied on this trip by John and Brian Smoot, who intended to fish and do shorter climbs on their first trip to the Winds.

The next day dawned clear and cold. Even though we were burned out from the approach and altitude gain, we knew we shouldn't waste good weather, so we fixed the first two pitches. I almost fell from the 5.10 face climbing crux of the first pitch when a hold broke off. Rick had to reorient himself to the complexities of mixed free and aid climbing on the intricate second pitch. We didn't get back to camp until late afternoon, the difficulty of the day's climbing, and the scale of our project weighing heavily on our minds.

Thankfully, it stormed the next day, allowing us to rest and acclimatize to the 10,000 foot base camp altitude. After too many games of twenty questions, we all put on our rain suits and went out for a walk. I found a nice overhanging boulder to sit under, while watching windwhipped sheets of hail scour the face.

The next morning I awoke, not exactly confident, but determined. I could sense that Rick felt the same. Shouldering the two haul bags, with the Smoot brothers helping porter, we set off once again.

We were soon established at the top of our fixed ropes. Rick led the blank third pitch which finishes with a series of hook moves to a two bolt hanging belay. The climbing was relentlessly steep and thin; we were starting to feel the big wall exposure again. As I slowly moved away from the belay via three hook moves, I began to wonder what I was doing there. An electric nervous tension flowed through my body, activating the adrenalin pump. I almost whimpered out loud as I clipped into an A4 wired stopper and moved up on it. This is fun? But by the time I got to the next hanging belay I was starting to get back into the engineering mentality necessary for efficiency, and my brain was becoming anesthetized to the hundreds of feet of space beneath my feet.

One more long hard mixed pitch landed us at our first hammock bivy in the "Brothel," a huge dish-shaped gouge in the rock where we thought we were going to connect up with the Robbins route. Our route below had been tenuous and blank looking. We called it "The Red Light District," due to the large amount of hooking involved. Above the bivy it looked like continuous crack systems, and so we anticipated faster, easier climbing; little did we know!

The night was long and uncomfortable, doubly so for Rick, who dropped his down parka while clamoring into his hammock. The next morning I lightened our loads even further when I dropped all the toilet paper while rappeling to the commode. Luckily, we had two paperback books, and my pile jacket helped replace Rick's parka.

That morning, as we waited in vain for the warmth of the sun to rejuvenate our cold, stiff carcasses, we discovered the awful truth about our route. In four days of climbing we were only to be in the sun for a few hours, on the evening of the third day, and on the afternoon of the fourth. The rest of the time we were shadowed by dihedrals during the brief period of sunlight on the prow. As a consequence we were thankful for our wool knickers, wool shirts, and gortex windshirts. We made every belay in a down parka, wool hat and gloves, although the rock was not so cold as to numb our hands while climbing.

The second day started off inconspicuously enough,with an easy crack leading up and right. This put us beneath a gaping chimney roof that looked hideously difficult. With no way to aid or protect it, it had appeared to be the crux from the ground. Rick led a thin A4 traverse to the crack which flowed from the chimney's bowels. As I aided up this 5.8 crack, I forced my numbed brain into overdrive, trying to find a solution to the horrendous problem confronting me. Finally, I saw a possible escape in the form of a series of tiny flakes on the vertical wall to my left. A fifteen foot tension traverse off a four inch bong, two bad cliff hanger moves, and a couple of rurp placements found me pounding away like a mad man to place a good bolt,which got me to the corner of the roof. Twenty more feet of easy free climbing and I was belayed to a huge loose flake and two wired stoppers bashed into a bottoming crack.

When Rick arrived at the belay I jokingly begrudged him the next pitch, which looked like the best so far on the route. "Easy free climbing, finally," I said as I reracked and he slipped on his EB's.

Well, what had looked like fist jamming and nice chimney climbing from below turned out to be 5.9 offwidth leading up to a 5.10 flaring slot. Rick was up and out of sight when he came to the crux; a narrowing, flared, offwidth chimney formed by a huge left leaning flake. I could only stand, staring up at the rock and sky, my body tensed and alert for the big screamer, while I listened to the horrid guttural moans and desperate gasps from above. Before he knew it, Rick found himself twenty-five feet above his last protection, having just completed some irreversible moves. The hoped for protection spot turned out to be useless. With no rest possible he continued squirming up the overhanging chimney until it became too narrow for his body. With a last supreme effort he managed to get out of the crack and layback up the last ten feet, forty feet above his last nut.

When I arrived at the belay, I found a stunned zombie, who had lost his hat, ripped the front of his new gortex windshirt, and was left a thousand feet up Mt. Hooker with one bad nut for a belay. He had passed the rope behind a big block, figuring if the nut came out his body would act as a human chocksone. After more trials and tribulations hauling the packs, we were comfortably ensconsed on the "Clinic Ledge." The "Penicillin Bolts" to which we were attached eased our minds, and helped erase the awful memory of the "Syphilitic Crack." I handed opened cans of salmon and peaches to Rick as he sat beside the ledge in his hammock, slowly recovering his senses.

We awoke the next morning well recovered, with renewed confidence. We felt that nothing above would be as hard as what we had already done. For the next few pitches we connected with the Robbins Route as evidenced by some fixed pins (although they did not look thirteen years old). The climbing was pleasant, predominantly free, up a series of cracks and dihedrals. We had one mishap on a traverse when the sheath on the haul line was worn off during a pendulum. We ended up cutting off thirty feet.

After six pitches we arrived, in the sun for the first time, onto spacious terraced ledges (Der Major). The night was crystal clear and bitter cold; neither of us slept very well despite the comfortable ledge.

The next morning we traversed right along ledges to a green dihedral. The next three pitches provided beautifull mixed climbing on fine orange granite. The rock on the last two pitches was not so good, being more exposed and weathered. We were wondering if the next pitch would be the top when Brian Smoot's smiling face popped over the edge. With much frustration, I bashed my way up a last rotten A3 crack. Brian helped me haul the pack up, and then the Smoots hauled our gear up the last forty foot wall as Rick and I traversed off to the right on a big ledge.

Devout Mormons, the Smoots had sacrificed principle for their heathen friends and carried up four cans of beer, which they had cooled in the summit snowfield. We toasted our success in the glow of an incredible sunset, and stumbled down in the dark, arriving back in camp at 2 a.m.

For the next three days we relaxed, fishing and taking pictures. Then, shouldering our typical, ridiculously heavy packs, we trudged out to the road.

We had finally done it. The adventure was complete, the work was done. I was free of my psychological hangup, or was I? I knew the time would soon come when another route, another goal to work toward, would tickle my fancy, and I'd be off on another obsession.



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