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3 Climb Roadtrip


by Travis C. Brooks

December 29, 2001

"It's out!" my wife calmly but urgently declares after a very mild fall.

"OK. It's ok." I say as I lower Taska of the route, and put her shoulder back in socket. It is almost exactly a year to the day since she dislocated it the first time. We are in the same gym, and she dynoed onto the wrong shoulder, missing the grab, hitting the "rock." Same as last time. Damn. Damn.

It's back in socket, she's healing fast, but she knows it isn't going to be all better in 1.5 weeks, when we leave for our first real climbing roadtrip. I know she's disappointed, she knows I am, but we both suck it up. "We'll manage," we both say, to each other, to our fears, to our reasonable selves.

Our trip was planned for 5 days in the Wind Rivers, doing routes in the Cirque of Towers (we considered dropping that part because of the article in "Climbing"), then 4 days in Boulder, visiting friends, and Eldo. Then 4 days in Salt Lake City, maybe Little Cottonwood, but mainly she had to go to the Outdoor Retailer show, so not much climbing. If there was any extra time, go by Arches and see how hot it really is. Now what? 2 weeks after a dislocated shoulder, what should she do? How confident could she be? She leads all the hard pitches for me, could I take up the slack? I knew she wanted to pretend it never happened, but I knew she couldn't. Maybe by leading the things that she had wanted to do, I could make it possible for her to see the trip as a success.

A few days before we go, we go back to the gym, and she gets back on "rock." She does great, even manages a "5.8" (which is normally a warm-up in the gym for her) although she does it essentially one-handed. Not a bad sign, but she's not going to be climbing like she normally does. She tries out a heavy pack, luckily this doesn't bother her shoulder. "If you can't climb, we can just backpack for 5 days, it's not like that's not fun." But I know she wants to climb, she knows I want to. We'd been looking forward to it for so long, planning, thinking about it.

9 miles from the _very crowded_ trailhead in Wyoming (damned magazine article) we find a place to camp that is at least 20 feet from the nearest tent (damned magazine article). Going to the stream to filter water is a social occasion, we wonder if we should dress up for it. What a spectacular place, though. It's not suprising to find so many here, and truth be told, most people did a pretty good job of being out of the way and preserving a backcountry feel (you just notice the ones that don't).

Our plans, after the injury, were to do something short and easy the first day, after the hike in, to get a feel for the place, then maybe try to tackle Wolf's Head East Ridge (5.6) the next day. Of course, we took longer than we thought on the hike in (someone tells you four hours, smack 'em for me) and it was gearing up for the normal afternoon t'storm by the time we set up camp. Probably not the best time to start. Tomorrow.

Tomorrow. I sleep late. Almost 8am before I wake up. Hadn't bothered with the alarm, after all, I always get up around 5 when I'm in the wild. Oops. Doesn't matter, we are just going after something short. Pingora, South Buttress, (5.6, 3-4 pitches). We should be done by noon. Noon finds us at the base of the route, roping, not unroping. Ah well, it really didn't look that far from camp. Fun approach though. I lead a little fourth class stuff to get to the first real pitch. I know I have to lead everything, since Taska doesn't trust herself, certainly not yet. I feel good, for the first time fourth class really does seem to be fourth class, and I don't bother with pro. Good, I feel good here. At the base of the real climb, Taska starts taking the rack from me. "'re leading this?"

"Yeah." Almost no emotion. What else would she be doing with those hexes?

"Are you sure?"


"OK," its not my place to tell her what she can and can't do, she knows her body better than I do, off she goes.

Let me pause to tell you a bit about Taska. She's a great climber (well, compared to me) and is capable of very competent trad leads, up to 9's, and has occasionally ventured into the 10 territory. She has one weakness. She has one big weakness. She can't find the easy way up a rock to save her life. She's always trying to do moves that are 3 grades harder than the route, when the easy stuff is staring her in the face. I'm not much better, but at least I look ahead every once in a while, thinking, "is that where I want to be going?" I truly don't know if this thought ever crosses her mind. (OK, in the last few months she's gotten better, it just takes experience, like the kind you are about to hear.)

The first pitch is 5.5, and she dispatches it smoothly, except for the part where she gets off-route and spends about 15 minutes on a ledge, looking around for the "right" way to go. "Whew!" I think as I follow, "this is a bit harder than that fourth class." Have you ever noticed that following a pitch can be just as scary, maybe scarier, than leading it? I'm not talking about traverses or other such, I'm talking about your mind messing with you when it doesn't have to concentrate on climbing as much. Leading is more dangerous, but I think seconding is scarier. Now I am nervous about my next lead, the dreaded 5.6.

Let me pause to tell you a bit about me. I'm not a great climber, but am capable of middling trad leads, up to 7's and have once ventured into 8 territory (with success, but only after much terror). I have many weaknesses. I have many big weaknesses. I don't trust my gear enough. I don't have a solid lead head. I get freaked out doing easy moves anywhere. She's much better, I wish I could get more of her style. (OK, in the last few months I've gotten a little better, it takes experience, like the kind you are about to hear.)

A corner awaits me. My last 5.6 corner lead was kinda scary at first as it was a pretty slick flare, with not a lot of pro (it had great pro, but not by my standards when I get wrong-headed). I look up. This is different, it is a corner, but not smooth at all. Lots of cracks and blocks, no problem. And it isn't a problem. I don't stop every few feet for gear. I even put in a few hexes, which I'm not that familiar with, and I'm reasonably happy with them. I am confident, in control. "I am Jack's lead head, I have been hiding from you." The pitch is great fun. almost a full ropelength of consistent 5.6 climbing. Not a move above 5.6 if you know where to look, but not too many below. Nicely exposed. I even saved 2 big pieces for the belay, on the off chance that I'd need them. When I was greeted with one manky stopper placement and a nice 2-3" crack, I thanked my stars that I was, however temporarily, "in the zone."

As I set up the belay the thunder starts. Oh, yeah, the afternoon t'storm, right on time. The late start. The speed of our climbing (some call it "slow", I prefer "deliberate.") How close are we to getting drenched? To lightning? Well, that's alpine climbing, kinda energizing. Taska follows. She struggles. Maybe she hasn't found the easy ways. Or she can't reach them at 5'1". When she grunts her way onto the ledge I see the problem in her eyes. She's afraid. For her, fear is a binary thing. She is either petrified, or not. That is why she is a calm and confident leader, or not. For now, her shoulder, the lightning, the "second's fear," have combined to put her on the "or not" side of things. I better go find the rap slings. We knew the rap followed this route. It is one of the reasons we picked it as a good intro to the area. I find the rap after a bit of tricky downclimbing...oops, I shouldn't have done that on lead...damn. She follows the downclimbing with curses, but she makes it fine. We rap. We bail. We reach that point after the climb where it all becomes fun again. We don't remember any of the terror, any of the mistakes, and of the bad things. We reach the time when, looking back, it was all pure joy. For us this happens as we coil the ropes.

It rains.

But not badly. We should have kept going. We now wonder why we didn't.

Tomorrow. Alarm. 5am. Wolf's Head. From the looks of it we are the first on the route. About that approach, it was nicely described, but the picture in the guide book, which looks like a big blur with a few little blurs, indicates that we should go straight up by this chimney for a bit. That looks hard but it must be right. Let's rope up. Along comes another party. "I think the start is this way," I can now hear the suprise and confusion in their voices as they see someone starting up an awkward vertical/overhanging corner as part of the 3rd class approach to a 5.6 route. I didn't hear it then. They walk on up the 3rd class ramps, mumbling something like "yeah I think you must be doing the 'direct' start." As I pull on to the belay ledge after a pitch that nobody would describe as "we 3rd classed it in our approach shoes" I start to realize that Taska isn't the only one who needs routefinding skills. She follows, for some unknown reason. She explores the ledge we are on, to see if we can link up with the real approach. She's unsure, but we are both a bit flustered. We rap. We bail. We were lucky, there was a nice flake for our (dark-colored) sling. We reach that point after the climb where it all becomes funny again. We remember the terror, the mistakes, and the bad things, and they are hilarious. We reach the time when, looking back, it was all pure comedy. For us this happens as we coil the ropes.

We give up on Wolf's Head.

We feel better. We look up at the route from afar. It is obvious where to go (and that isn't where we went). We have a talk. We realize that I thought she needed a route like wolf's head to be able to pretend her shoulder was fine. She thought I needed it because otherwise I'd be disappointed. We realize that neither of us need it. What we need, we decide, is better routefinding, and to summit something before we pack out.

Tommorow. Alarm. Early. Pingora. East Ledges. (5.2) Tricky routefinding, but we've stared at it from afar with binoculars, and thought about what we are going to do. (What an original idea!)

I lead, feel great. Taska leads, gets off route into a overhanging chimney, has to lower down and regroup, mentally and physically. We move on, she leads again, no problems. Quickly, efficiently, very smoothly, we summit. Not as quick as we thought we might do it, but we did it. It wasn't one of the 50 classics, but we did it. It didn't have a move above 5.2 (except the 5.6 crack I did at the end, for fun, because it was there), but we did it. Dammit that was fun. It was fun the whole way. We reached that point after the climb when... for us it happened the entire climb.

It may not be as famous, or as good a route as the NE face, but it sure felt good to us. I understood a bit about backcountry climbing. The joy of moving quickly over easy-ish rock. Not having a huge rack, because you don't want it or need it. Not wasting any time, because you need to get off the top before the storm. Not looking at a topo all the time, because there is no topo. The joy of being in the backcountry, and happening upon a rock to climb, and being able to do it. These things all make more sense now, and I'm glad for it. Everytime I climb, I learn something new. This trip I learned a lot. We were lucky, we were not as competent as we thought we were, in that setting. But we weren't too underprepared, and through luck, and a tiny amount of skill and judgement, we avoided any serious mishaps. I don't think anyone can be fully ready, or fully competent, to attempt something new. That shouldn't stop one from trying it.

The rest of the trip was great as well, we bagged a fun Layton Kor/Pat Ament route (Wind Ridge) in Eldo, though OR was more work that anticipated, so we missed out in SLC.

And her shoulder didn't come out. And she got more confidence on it. And I got to lead a lot. And it was good.

Later, Travis

P.S. I never asked on the ng for beta on the winds, because everyone else seemed to be asking so I didn't need to. Thanks to all who wrote about the winds, especially to Brian in SLC, who provided the useful but unheeded quote above about the WHER approach, and his info on the descent was probably just as good, but we wouldn't know.

P.P.S. The Cirque was seeing a lot of traffic when we were there in early August, probably due to the twin demons of the mag. article and general increase in climbing. It is getting bad, it doesn't feel too much like wilderness, and it is probably past its healthy capacity. There is, we were told by a very nice and talkative Forest Service caretaker (in his 80's but still hikes 15 miles with a full pack), much good climbing elsewhere in the winds. The cirque is popular because it is beautiful, but it won't be as beautiful because it is popular. A local we met polled us about the magazine article, and said that, excepting ourselves and himself, everyone he talked to came because of the article. So maybe next year it will be better, when people have long forgotten the article. On the off chance that it hasn't gotten better, be aware that it isn't really a backcountry climbing destination. 9-10 miles of uphill trail isn't enough, apparently, to keep people away. If you want solitude, find somewhere else. The climbing is great though, just 1)don't expect to be alone and 2)be very careful about your impact on others and the cirque itself while you are there (I feel bad enough about our rap slings).

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