Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Route with No Name

I'm on a boat! And I'm not impressed.
Many climbers have comfort items they take into the mountains. Some carry a can of sardines or a flask of whiskey. Others require an extra sleeping pad or a pair of down booties. These creature comforts bring peace of mind and are almost always worth their weight. But between us, Spencer and I had managed to pack 270 pounds of food and gear for nine days in the mountains. On a pound-per-day basis, this was a personal record. Were we too comfortable?

“Eh, screw it,” we thought. Two unlucky mules would be carrying it all for the first 12 miles. Then we’d load it into a raft to cross a reservoir. After that, it was only a few thousand vertical feet to our planned base camp. We had enough time to make it work. Our goal was to climb a new route on Cloud Peak, the highest point in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming, a range still cloaked in mystery. We weren’t sure what we’d need, so we brought it all.

After accompanying our mules to the reservoir, it was time to say goodbye. We piled all of our gear, plus three adult males, into a tiny inflatable. While the motor was being gassed up by our guide, I noticed the fine print on the side of the raft: “Weight limit 600 lbs.” The engine sputtered to life and we shoved off. I felt the desperately cold water as we motored along and quickly realized it would prove impossible to salvage our gear if we sank. We hadn’t yet seen our objective and already I felt committed. None of it seemed to bother Spencer. He spent the whole ride making small talk with our guide who, in a dusty Stetson and painted-on Wranglers, didn’t strike me as the nautical type.

Our guide, the nautical cowboy, leaves us in the wilderness.
After 30 tense minutes, our captain deposited us on the far shore of the reservoir. Spencer and I took a minute to survey the scene. It resembled the chaos of an amphibious invasion. The beachhead was strewn with our gear, and two 12-packs of beer had been thrown under a tree. Clouds were gathering overhead. There was a temporary feeling of helplessness, but we knew we had to move.

The landing at Omaha Beach?
Over the next three hours, we managed to carry everything to the southeast shore of  Lake Mead, about a mile away. It was there we slept for the next two nights while ferrying loads up to our high camp. Getting to this camp proved a lot more difficult than we anticipated. On our first carry, we were hit with an afternoon hail storm and had to take shelter in a cozy cave. We spent 90 minutes contorting ourselves to avoid the rivulets of water pouring in from the ceiling. Eventually we were settled into a site next to Glacier Lake with a great view of our primary objective—the East Face of Cloud Peak.

Seeking shelter from the storm.
The East Face is intimidating. It’s half a mile wide and rises 1,200 feet straight out of the glacier at its apex. There is only one route known to exist on the face, and that was established 30 years ago by some very capable hardmen. This aspect of the mountain is well protected from casual visitors. After three days of approaching, we still hadn’t touched the wall.

The next morning, we packed about 120 pounds of gear and set out across the south shore of Glacier Lake to finally get an up-close view of the face. It took roughly an hour to reach the glacier. Neither of us brought crampons, so we roped up for the initial steep section, kicking solid steps along the way.
After establishing our base camp, we spent the afternoon surveying the East Face.
Humping our gear to the wall on the first day of the climb.
Once safely atop the glacier, we were like kids on Christmas morning. We dropped our gear and scattered, each of us checking out potential routes we had seen in pictures or through binoculars. After about an hour spent scouting the wall, we met in the middle of the glacier for a debriefing.

Spencer wanted to try the tallest section of the wall, right in the middle. I was unable to discern a climbable line in that sector without resorting to aid climbing (using gear to make upward progress instead of your hands and feet). I don’t particularly enjoy aid climbing, and I especially hate aid belaying. But Spencer had been examining photos of this wall for years, and he had always been drawn to the proudest part.
A rewarding view from the glacier.

I agreed we had come too far not to at least try it, so Spencer racked up and began to climb a detached pillar before coming to an abrupt stop. There was a horizontal crack that went clear through the feature, turning the top half of the pillar into a teetering Jenga block. Spencer gingerly weighed his options for a moment before deciding to downclimb. Even if we managed to avoid knocking the pillar down, it would topple sooner or later. Would our climb-to-be even exist anymore once it had fallen?

We thought better of committing to a route that had existential issues on the very first pitch. Instead, we trained our eyes toward more obvious weaknesses further north. There were at least three lines that appeared climbable, but in the end, it was the longest that won our affections. The rock was of high quality and aesthetically pleasing. Plus, it looked like the route would intersect with a large, grassy ledge about 700 feet up. A Shimmering Abstraction (5.11 R, Grade IV, 1986), Arno Ilgner and Steve Petro’s original route on the face, also met up with that ledge. Armed with this knowledge, we knew we could get to the top if only we could reach that ledge.

The daily commute.
Since Spencer was still racked up from his first attempt, I offered him the start. He found little gear in the first 60 feet. He had to resort to placing three knifeblades before finding natural protection higher up. There was no consistent crack system on the pitch, but hidden face holds revealed themselves at just the right moments, making upward progress possible after athletic, committing moves. The pitch ended up being an excellent 5.9 but would have been X-rated without the iron.
By the time we finished the pitch, it was cloudy and late in the afternoon. We fixed a rope and hiked back to camp, leaving all of our climbing gear cached on the glacier. This pattern of early-morning/late-afternoon commutes continued for the next two days. We would put in two or three long pitches each day and then descend back to the glacier to sleep in relative comfort. We brought enough rope to fix lines for about 700 feet. On the fourth climbing day, we ascended our ropes and committed to a final push.

Once on the large, grassy ledge, we had hoped to continue straight to the top with our own independent line through the headwall. Directly above the ledge, the summit was guarded by an imposing escarpment of golden rock that overhung slightly for about 300 feet. It looked like incredible climbing. But would it go?

Following the first pitch.
We knew we had to find out, so I racked up and ventured onto the headwall. The climbing was easy, at first. But as the wall steepened, everything got harder. About 50 feet up, I found myself forced to make a decision. I had small cams at my feet, but the moves immediately above me looked difficult. I thought I could see an opportunity for gear about 15 feet over my head. I was ultimately angling toward a gorgeous right-facing corner about 30 feet away. If I could just make it to that corner, the rest of the headwall looked climbable.

After some deliberation, I committed to the moves. Brilliant 5.11 face climbing took me to a perch 15 feet higher where I had anticipated some gear. Alas, there was nothing—not even a seam to hammer in a lousy piton. I couldn’t help but recall Fred Becky’s excuse for avoiding the East Face decades ago when he had visited the Big Horns: the wall was “flawless of piton cracks,” he had declared.

Our pattern of finding gear just where we needed it had come to an end. I sniffed around and scouted the moves above me. It would be at least another 15 feet to the safety of the corner. But the sequence looked difficult, and a fall would be catastrophic. We discussed the idea of placing a bolt, but quickly dismissed it. We hadn’t yet resorted to placing any—other than for rappel anchors—on the entire route.

I couldn't convince myself to commit to that kind of risk. We knew then that finishing the headwall was not going to happen, but I still had to return safely to the ledge. I did not relish the idea of reversing those moves 15 feet above my gear. As I downclimbed, I started to get pumped, and had to resort to resting on a bat hook—I was starting to understand the appeal of aid climbing. I was only a couple feet above my highest piece, but when I tried to gently step into a sling attached to tiny cam, the placement failed. Luckily, an even smaller C3 was backing it up. I didn’t expect it to catch me, but I’m glad it did. I managed to get back to the ledge safely, but the aborted attempt had burned a lot of daylight. We decided to escape via a wide chimney on the Ilgner-Petro line. (As an aside, we do believe the headwall is climbable—and outstanding—but it would require either bolts or reckless bravado.)

After climbing the chimney, we ended up on a smaller ledge. The Ilgner-Petro exit pitch looked like fun, but we wanted our final pitch to be our own. Spencer spied a line about 20 feet to the right and decided to give it a go. At first it did not seem likely. He climbed up, placed some gear, climbed down again, only to go back up and tinker with the marginal placements. There appeared to be committing moves above the suspect gear.

I was skeptical after my false start on the headwall, but Spencer pulled it off. With a grunt, he made the moves. Another series of athletic moves led him to an awkward stance below a final roof. He was a mere 10 feet from the top of the face. Our whole route came down to whether or not he would be able to climb that roof. I stood watching, rapt and wide-eyed, from the belay. Spencer reached backwards over his head, pawing at the lip of the roof, searching for anything that would give purchase. Finally, his arm paused, as if his hand was inspecting something. His feet moved, unsure at first. Then they kicked off the wall with gusto as he let out a holler that echoed through the cirque. It was a jug! He had found a jug! She goes, boys!

Our line is shown in red. The blue line shows the aborted line on the headwall, and also our rappel line.
I followed the pitch as Spencer snapped photos of the spectacular position. The last pitch was perhaps the best of the route. It was fun, bold climbing, and it landed us directly on the sunny summit plateau of Cloud Peak. Topping out was one of the most satisfying moments in my eight years of climbing.

After all was said and done, we thought the route was 5.11+, with many of the pitches deserving of an R rating. It’s roughly 1,000 feet long. No pitch is easier than 5.9. We climbed it in eight or nine pitches, but it could be done in six long pitches with a 70-meter rope.
Topping out into the sunshine.

It took us four days to complete the route. We fixed ropes and bolted rappel anchors. It wasn’t exactly done in a committing alpine style. But, we free climbed every pitch, ground-up, onsight, save for the crux pitch. On that pitch, I had to jump off when a flake threatened to come loose and crush my belayer. I was able to find an alternative sequence on small crimps on my next go. When Spencer followed the pitch, he easily trundled the dangerous flake.

We installed six double-bolt rappel stations, four of which can also be used as belay anchors. The top two rappel anchors take you from the summit plateau straight down the unclimbed headwall and provide a convenient plumb-line descent using two 60-meter ropes. Our decision to bolt a rappel line was driven by the fact that a safe way off the mountain and back into the eastern cirque does not exist. Ilgner and Petro, the first ascensionists of the East Face, actually approached their climb by coming over the top of the mountain and down a steep snow gully. That gully still exists, minus most of the snow. Instead, it's filled with dangerous scree. We did not know if going up and over the mountain and hiking back to camp would be possible. Knowing we would need to rappel, we decided to do it in a way that future climbers could benefit from.
Looking up at the 5.11+ crux on the fourth pitch.
I will admit to some uneasiness about our chosen style. Climbing routes in the mountains had always required a certain level of commitment, and by using fixed ropes, we were able to circumvent that. Some might argue that those tactics take the adventure out of it, and I wouldn’t disagree. However, the efforts did result in an excellent route on a beautiful alpine face, and I am proud of it. The climbing itself is bold, the scenery is gorgeous, and the time spent with a good friend in the mountains is always a pleasure.

On the eighth day of our trip, we rested. We still had lots of comfort items (pudding, beer, and whiskey) left to consume. We had decided to forgo the raft and the mules on the way out. Unless we got rid of some weight, it was going to be a death march.
Spencer carrying too much weight.

We ate and drank plenty that day, but the hike was still hellish. We each carried 100 pounds on our backs for 17 miles. By the time we made it back to our car, 13 hours after setting out, I had sworn never to do this kind of thing again. But we all know how that goes. If we had a long memory for suffering, we wouldn’t be climbers.

I’ve now managed to regain the six pounds I lost on the trip, and then some. The blisters on my feet are healed, and the bruises from the heavy pack have faded. But we still haven’t agreed on a name for our route. Perhaps that’s an indicator of how meaningful the climb was to us. Who knows? We’ll come up with something sooner or later. When we do, it will be final—on the record and immutable. Until then, we can still relive the adventure and maybe even capture that feeling again of being just feet from the summit, hands searching for that key hold.
Pulling the final roof, with my hands on "the jug."

Saying goodbye to an "American Tyrol."


  1. Super cool - sounds like an incredible experience!

  2. We are delighted you both had a fine time and THRILLED you are safely back home!
    Nora & Randy Gray