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Head Games on Wolf’s Head

 Head Games on Wolf’s Head

by Mark Robbins

August 14, 2002

Photo by Mark Robbins

The Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range of Wyoming has resided in a special niche in the climbing section of my brain for quite some time now. You know- the “really cool and mystical sounding place that I haven’t been yet” niche. When the tech company that Rick and I work for gave us the “take a break we can’t afford to pay you” week off over the fourth, I immediately suggested a trip to the Winds. I had to twist Rick’s arm for all of 30 nanoseconds. And so on July 1st we found ourselves sitting on top of Overhanging tower, staring to the north at the narrow rib of rock known as The Wolf’s Head.

Rick and I put considerable time and effort into formulating Plan A. We scoped out the approach- up the gully behind Pingora, then over the Tiger Tower to the narrow (and I do mean narrow) saddle at the start of the climb. We scoped out the descent- raps down the west face to that grassy spot, then traverse over to the col, cross over into the east couloir and follow the gradually easing gradient back to camp. We also put some thought into Plan B. B as in Bail. A cursory glance at Wolf’s Head from any angle will tell you right away that Plan B is not an attractive option. Plan B mostly has to do with realizing that you will have to sacrifice a large portion of your rack to rap off the route in the event of a storm. Having accepted the consequences of Plan B we redoubled our efforts at formulating an efficient Plan A.

Our day started at first light in the basin below Pingora on July 2nd. There are 15 hours of daylight in the Wind River mountains of Wyoming in early July, and we would use up every last minute before returning to camp. Breakfast was light and quick- primarily because the local wildlife was due to arrive in the Red Cross truck at 6:15 to start taking donations. We were on our way ten minutes after unzipping the tent door, sucking latent oatmeal off of the roof of our mouths as we went. We weren’t winning any good neighbor awards either; the hexes were clanging louder than usual as I hiked and swatted myself at the same time. Soon, however, we reached tree line and bid the blood sucking little buggers adieu until dinner time (ours and theirs).

Head Game #1: The Approach

After scrambling and climbing up the gully behind Pingora we donned climbing shoes and continued the 4th class approach over Tiger Tower. Narrow by most standards, Tiger Tower is obese compared to Wolfs Head, and not without plenty of exposure and a few dicey sections. Rick and I not only climb together but also play poker together, so he knows when I have a bad hand, and I know when he’s bluffing. With one look he knew that I was a bit wigged out on an easy but exposed foot traverse, and I knew he wasn’t bluffing when he said “I can’t watch”. Let the head games begin. A few deep breaths calmed my nerves, and I crossed the 20ft long, 6” wide ledge without event. A bit more scrambling and two short raps brought us to saddle and the beginning of the climb by 8:00am.

Head Game #2: The Sidewalk

The first pitch of the east ridge on Wolf’s Head has got to be one of the best 5.3 pitches in the US. I say that in total ignorance of most other 5.3 pitches in the US, but it has to be true. Start with a very low angle slab of high quality granite lined with nice hand cracks, then shave off the sides so that the middle 30 feet is only two feet wide with 100 feet of air on either side. Very, very cool. The head game is this: the middle 30 feet is un-protectable and even though I felt secure as I aped my way across on hands and feet, the thought of a gust of wind sending me out into space kept me moving right along. I reached the other end of “The Sidewalk” in about 30 seconds, plopped a cam into the nearest crack, and lead the rest of the pitch at a more leisurely pace.

Head Game #3: The Weather

Pitches 2 & 3 continue up the slightly wider but steepening ridge following nice cracks and well featured rock. As Rick was finishing the second pitch, someone spit on me. Must have been spit- last time I checked the sky was blue. I checked around for camels, but unfortunately for me dromedaries have been extinct in Wyoming for quite some time. Alas, I turned my head to the sky to find a small gray cloud hovering over my belay- and took another drop in the eye. Rick set the belay and reeled me in double time as I prepared my bailout speech on the way up. “Say Rick, did you feel that rain?”, I asked with visions of nasty wet exposed traverses in lightning dancing in my head. “Yes” he replied calmly, oblivious to my visions. “So, um, maybe we should bail.” “Perhaps” he replied, “It was only a few sprinkles and the weather isn’t getting any worse.” I parried: “The bail will be heinous from the traverse section.” He blocked: “The bail will be heinous from here”. Then he says- get ready for the big lie- “It will probably be faster climbing over the top anyway.” I knew (and so did Rick) that his prognostication was utterly bogus, but while we were talking the weather had cleared and so we continued on. For the rest of the climb, however, the fickle weather played games with our heads.

Head Game #4: The Squeeze

Towards the end of P3, the ridge gradually rolls off, and the rest of the climb traverses around towers and blocks. It wanders back and forth from south side to north side, up, down and around- almost always exposed. I’m belaying, and Rick is leading off around the corner somewhere. After a while the rope stops for a while, advances, then retreats, then advances and stops. Hm. Wonder what that was about. A faint “Off Belay” drifts around the corner, followed by “On Belay” and three tugs. I follow around the corner, down a chimney, under a block, and up a chimney to where the rope disappears into a narrow gap. That can’t be where the route goes, but there is nothing else even slightly resembling 5.6 around here. “Hey Rick, are you in there?”. “Yup.” “Does it go?” “Yup.” “Are you sure?” “Depends on how many donuts you ate last week.” Gads. I suck in my gut and squeeze in, and sure enough there is light on the other side behind Rick’s silhouette. We simul-squirm for a bit, and after much grunting and cursing Rick pops out on to a ledge, sets an anchor, and hands me the rack upon my escape.

Head Game #5: The Hand Crack

At this point the salient sentence in Joe Kelsey’s guide for the route is: “Traverse a thin ledge to a crack; use it to regain the crest.” So I traverse the ledge around the corner, and find a nice finger crack with an old pin about 5 feet up, and a bit of chalk here and there. The crack doesn’t seem to regain the crest, but it does go to a slanting ledge which leads to easier terrain. I reach up and clip the pin, then climb a few feet past it and place a #2 HB curve in the crack. At this point the finger crack is too shallow for jams, and Elvis has come to visit my right calf. If Rick could see my face now he would bet the farm. I look down for foot holds and see 800 feet of air below my trembling heel. Gulp. I’m not feeling too happy about that small nut and manky old pin right now. If I can just extend my reach a few more feet there is a good finger jam, and then the ledge of salvation. Sweat drips off of my brow and lands in a shallow dish next to my right knee. That’s it! Ok, here’s the plan: right foot in dish, left foot in dubious toe jam, left hand up to finger crack, right hand up to ledge. Deep breath. Step, step, jam, grab... Phew! I pull up and throw my right leg over the ledge, then reach down with my left hand, grab a cam, slam it home in the crack at the back of the ledge, clip in and breath easy. Gads. That didn’t feel like 5.6. I shimmy along the ledge, around yet another corner, up a flake and set the belay at a comfy spot near the crest of the ridge. As Rick follows, I note that the rope has stopped for quite some time, and I’m thinking he must have just taken out the #2 HB. Sure enough, he shouts up “Hey Mark, is that piece in the back of the ledge up there good?”. “Yes” I shout back. The rope moves up a bit, then down, then up, then down again. “ARE YOU SURE THAT PIECE IS GOOD??!!!” “YES!!” He then asks for slack, and after a few moments is climbing again at a much quicker pace. Soon he climbs around the corner and follows the flake up to my belay. “Uh, Mark?” “Yeah, what’s up Rick?” “You were a bit off route back there- 10 feet to the left of your line there was a nice hand crack up to the crest.” Damn. Suckered by an old pin.

Head Game #6: The “Fortuitous” Horizontal Crack

A little while later (two pitches, that is), after a hand traverse on the north side of the ridge and a foot traverse on the south side, I am reeling Rick in to a sheltered belay under a large block above the south face. The route seems to disappear around the corner to the left, and when Rick arrives I ask him to poke his head out there and take a look. He continues on for a few moments, and when he returns his poker face is gone. Uh oh. “What?” I ask. “’fortuitous horizontal crack’ my ass” he replies, referring once again to Kelsey. The horizontal crack was there all right, but the term ‘fortuitous’ was up for some debate. If the crack did not exist the climb would be rated 5.12, and Rick and I would be taking a siesta in the tent rather than sitting here contemplating yet another wild traverse. Several hours of near continuous exposure has taken it’s toll on both of us.

Rick quickly hands me the gear that he cleaned off of the last pitch, and I step around the corner. Whoa. I immediately place a cam in the horizontal crack at my feet. The thin ledge I am on gradually narrows from six inches where I am standing to nothing about 20 feet out, reappears after a few feet, and continues for about 10 feet more to a flake. Lots of air. No hands. Yowza. I suck in the ‘ole jelly roll, shimmy out about 15 feet and gingerly lean over to my right to place another cam. I then scooch out on my toes as far as I dare, look across the gap to the thin ledge on the other side, and consider my option. Not much to consider- one ledge, one option, lots of blank wall and 800 feet of air under my heels (again). With hands plastered to the wall I shift my weight on to my right toes and send my left foot out on an exploratory mission, probing for a few inches of terra firma on the other side of the gap. My toes touch down, I gradually weight my left foot, and it sticks solid. Oh, how I love my new shoes. Transferring my weight I move my right over to match, and then step over to a nice fat four inches of ledge with my left. Phew. After placing a cam I zip over to the flake and take a breather. Hand holds never felt so good. Then the fun continues. The flake arcs down and to the left, but the ledge for my feet disappears, replaced by insubstantial dishes and nubbins. At this point a brief mental tangent leads me to formulate the “Wolf’s Head exclusion principal”, which states that while traversing the east ridge of Wolf’s Head you can have good holds for your hands or your feet, but never both at the same time. Returning from my postulating, I decide to confront the task at hand with some good old-fashioned lie backing. I know that it would be much more efficient to search out even the smallest of foot holds, but I just want to get this traverse over with. So I curl my fingers around the nice solid granite, work my feet up, hang my butt out over the void, and exit stage left. Thirty seconds later I slam my left foot home into a crack in the back of a chimney, stem my right foot out, lean into the rock and drop my quivering arms to my side. After a rest I reach back out to my right and place yet another cam, then head up the chimney. Fortunately the climbing is not too strenuous, and going up never felt so good. The chimney ended in another slot, which I squirmed through head first and dove out of onto a fat ledge on the north face. I set the anchor, put Rick on belay, and leaned back to relax and enjoy the view.

What a climb it has been. It is not over yet, but I can see that only a few easy pitches separate Rick and I from the summit, and as long as the rope doesn’t get stuck while rappelling the descent, we should be fine. I gaze out at the walls, towers and granite ribs which soar over crystal lakes and verdant forest to define this fantastic place, and wonder at my good fortune to be here. The Cirque of the Towers now resides in that special niche in my brain labeled “Really cool places that I can’t wait to return to.”

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