Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cirque Traverse: attempt. Proposed First Winter Ascent of Wolf's Head

Zach passes the final tower on Wolf's Head, one of the wildest positions in the Wind River Range.
The most beautiful and oddly frustrating climbing I've done in winter. Taken from the summit. Background peaks in L-R order: Pingora, Mitchell, Wind River, Haystack, Steeple, Lost Temple Spire/East temple, Warbonnett, Temple, the Warriors.
"The nullifying, defeating,
negating, repeating
Joy Of Life."   -Joanna Newsom, Time, As A Symptom

The Cirque Traverse, again, this time in February with Zach Keskinen, a friend from CC, originally from Fairbanks, AK. We had previously climbed together in the Canadian Rockies, doing Curtain Call together, and in the Waddington Range, sending "The Wadd" and Combatant. He guides on Denali most summers, and I learned some things from his solid base of winter skills. He generally dealt with the cold better than I did, and his sense of humor kept morale high.

    Last year in January I skiied nearly 20 miles across the desert just to get to Big Sandy Trailhead, the normal summer starting point, with Niels Davis. We towed toy plastic sleds from harnesses, laden down with way too much gear, adding to the suffer quotient. Our friend dropped us off, and we traversed out the lander side to Sinks Canyon after climbing Pingora. 
     This time around Zach and I were able to borrow snowmobiles from Josh Wagner, a friend from Dubois, Wy. This helped us cross around 20 miles of snow-drifted sagebrush high-desert to get to within about three miles of the wilderness boundary, at which point the machines were stuck in bottomless powder. From there we skiied around 12 miles into the cirque where we slept in a wet snow cave and got-to-it on Pingora the next morning. The perfect, flaring, smooth granite of the cirque is poorly suited to double boots and crampons. Many of the cracks were full of snow and ice, and we would have an interesting challenge ahead of us. our heavy packs weighed us down but the psyche was high. Our sleeping bags were draped over our packs all morning to dry as we simul-climbed the sunny, southeast facing headwall.
Zach leading on pingora. We got off route trying the follow the East ledges (5.2) and ended up climbing some vertical handcracks (~5.7) and joining the upper South Buttress. In the future staying on the ledges would save time.

rapping off of Pingora and down to Tiger Tower.
Summitting Tiger Tower. Photo Zach Keskinen
Zach initially trying the sidewalk in boots and pons.
Zach, opting for a much harder but more protected and crampon friendly way around the sidewalk, (initially without crampons).
The East Ridge of Wolf's head was horrendously difficult. Without rock shoes the 4th and low 5th class sections of friction climbing became insecure and impractical. Anyone who's done this route in summer knows that it's a wonderful III 5.6, and part of the 50 crowded classics list. While the route finding is hard to nail (this fucked us hard, over and over again), the route is a casual outing in summer and gets soloed regularly.
Our pace was falling below that needed to conserve our food and fuel, and beat the violent close that our weather window would experience on Friday night. We climbed way too slowly.

When we hit the sidewalk I knew this would be an "attempt". This is sortof a hilarious place to start failing.

For anyone who hasn't been on Wolf's Head, the sidewalk is a blank 30 degree slab, directly on the knife edge, about 4 feet wide, with no protection for around 60 feet. It's difficult to even rate. In summer people routinely walk across it. Similar to Thank God Ledge on Half Dome, this is non-technical climbing requiring only balance, but with a twisted world of exposure (in one direction on Half Dome, but in both directions on Wolf's Head). With rock shoes this pitch is a cheese-cake scramble. Zach opted for a much harder way around it.

Whenever the wandering route ended up on the north side of the ridge, slabs up to 50 or 60 degrees were covered with a blanket of worthless sugar snow. Each hold needed to be excavated, by which time the footholds would be covered with snow as well. We were at the tail end of our first day, and I felt a lack of fitness and a massive lack of confidence mixed climbing on smooth granite creeping in. Any fall would end with a crunch on some ledge or slab.
For this level of difficulty, I can think of few routes less suited to winter techniques.
We got off-route in numerous spots, with the piton pitch being an especially bad spot.

Perhaps it's Kelly Cordes who said it's not the crux that'll shut you down, it's the unprotected snow on slab. The hard parts usually aren't hard.

The full sense of commitment kicked in. Falling and getting hurt would mean a 3-5 day self-rescue, and this (maybe justified) feeling showed through in our shitty leading. Sections we would have soloed in summer took hours as we pitched out slabby and wandery terrain covered with sugar snow, presenting no use-able footholds for our double boots and dulled out crampons. We were under-fueled and underhydrated, and we underestimated the magnitude of difficulty of every aspect of this adventure, from getting the car stuck, to getting the snowmachines stuck, to trying to keep our down bags dry, to the weight of our packs, and the impossibility of making good time on the ridge without soloing or simuling basically everything.

To our knowledge, Wolf's head has not been climbed in winter, and our newly adjusted goal would be to make it up and over Wolf's head, down the west face, and around to the Overhanging tower col, where we could safely bail back into the cirque. Rapping the S. face Beckey route was tempting, But we knew wet slides were ripping on the lower slabs, where we would find no anchors. This provided a good excuse to bail up and over the summit.

To complete the traverse we would have needed to climb Overhanging Tower (5.2), Sharks Nose (5.6), and Block tower (5.5), followed by a convoluted 2 miles of third class terrain over the Watchtower, the Warriors, and Warbonnet, then a descent back to our skis around the beautiful face with Black Elk.  We were done with the actual crux, but the alpine equivalent of the "redpoint" crux was still to come, maybe even somewhere after the "end of the technical difficulties" (as it always fucking seems to.)

While the climbing would have been easier ahead of us, and we may have been able to carry our momentum despite deteriorating form, the weather would not hold for us and we lacked the fuel to sit out a storm without running out of water.
I got cell service on the summit of Wolf's head and we made a few phone calls to our significant others. My dad gave me an updated weather forecast, 40mph gusts and snow the next day and night.
The Bail it is.

After we were set on bailing, it was easier to let go of the ego and just enjoy the views and the place, and the company of a friend. Our senses of humor greatly improved at that point.  Having a deadline to get out of the high country strangely seemed to lower the stress level for us.

Zach chimneying past tower 2
Day one draws to a close. our bivy on Wolf's head. We dug out the side of a hanging snowfield on the north side of the knife-edge. We slept tied in. Photo Zach Keskinen

crusty hands, trying to sleep in the cold at ~12,200.
Following the 4" foot traverse in double boots, with a 30lb pack. Got a crampon stuck partway through the 35 foot runout. (we didnt bring a #4.)uncomfortable to say the least. Zach enjoyed it more than I did. Photo Zach Keskinen
    I now have come to realize how stupid it is to try to do this cruiser, beautiful, fun ridge in calendar winter. It amounts to turning something great, which many people have done casually, into something difficult for a bunch of dumb and contrived reasons, and destroying a pair of crampons (at the very least) in the process. I'm not sure whether I enjoy the added challenge of climbing in winter or if I'm just vainly grasping at the novelty of the "winter ascent". Dates are just arbitrary numbers, but conditions are real. Someone could easily do this in an especially dry winter, or right around the equinoxes, maximizing the use of rock shoes and bare hands and minimizing weight in the pack, but I'm less interested in the distinction of "winter" than I am in the challenge of climbing in full conditions.
     That said, we both learned a lot about efficiency and technique when trad-mixed climbing in this type of moderate terrain. It was certainly strange to be so humbled by such a "classic trade route", but this didn't preclude the trip from being a good one.

I'll stop questioning this in time, and if the snow-pack settles and the weather calms next year I'm sure I'll try it again. I'm still obsessed. This year we had a great trip and made some progress.
Alpenglow on Bollinger peak (not a part of the traverse.)
If anyone knows about the winter history of the peaks here, drop me a comment. I've asked around  quite a bit and haven't found anything. Specifically most interested in whether wolf's head or pingora have had winter ascents, and if so via which routes?

1 comment:

  1. Great blog you have here, gets me stoked. Keep it up!