Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wind Rivers (Part I)

In September I joined Mark Jenkins for a trip into the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. Over the last couple of years we’ve established a small number of new alpine rock climbs in the Winds. This trip was a concerted effort to add a few more.

Mark Jenkins

Mark is an iconic Wyoming climber. He’s exuberant, dedicated, and tough. He’s made his living as a writer and has seen more of the world than anyone I know. While hiking into the mountains with him you’re just as likely to hear stories about dodging police in the jungles of Burma or trying to find poachers in the Congo as you are climbing tales.  He currently writes for National Geographic and when he’s not writing, on assignment, or with his family he likes to climb new routes, especially in the mountains of Wyoming.

Climbing a new route in the mountains is pure, unadulterated adventure. The concept is simple but the subtleties are complex. After choosing a large alpine wall one must glass the rock with binoculars, looking for cracks and weaknesses that are climbable. Some degree of difficulty is desired, but humility must play a part as well – one blank section on the route can mean failure and retreat. Beauty is desired, both in the overall objective and in the climbing itself.

Scoping a new line

Once an inspiring line has been chosen the time comes to see if the idea will become a reality. With confidence and a small backpack you leave camp before the sun rises. And then you start climbing. You climb all day, with everything you need to survive in the vertical world on your back. Nothing is more important than movement, decisions need to be made carefully and quickly. Without a topo or notes from someone who has been there before, you spend your time lost in a giant puzzle that requires all your strength, stamina, and experience to crack.

Mark on the first ascent of Alexander's Band. IV 5.10.

At some point you’ve climbed high enough and become committed to reaching the top. At this point the overwhelming nature of your surroundings finally sinks in. You feel small, insignificant, and extremely vulnerable. With intuition and experience as your guide, you throw all your cards on the table. Immersed completely, belief in the objective and your partner become absolute. It is without doubt the most rewarding climbing I’ve ever done.

Mark committing to the objective.

Mark has been climbing new routes around the world for decades. It’s not the most glamorous climbing and often it is dirty, loose, and scary. But climbing with Mark has opened my eyes to entire new world of adventure.

Mark reaching the top of You Gotta Want It. IV 5.11a.

A couple of years ago we took things a little too far on a new route. We reached the summit late in the day and night caught us when we were still high on the wall. Our descent slowed to a snails pace as we rappelled in the dark. We lost most of the rack and were forced to use some less than ideal rappel anchors. We became totally committed to our line of descent when we rappelled over sections we could not climb back up. It took us all night to get off the climb, and it was a lesson we won’t forget. Climbing in the mountains keeps you honest. 

Yours truly getting ready to drop into the abyss.
Mark Jenkins Photo.

This year we hiked into Titcomb basin which is the heart of the Winds. Our base camp was a 17 mile hike from the car so we hired a horse to help us carry our stuff in. The horse dropped everything at mile 15 so we had to carry some obnoxious packs the last two miles.

Beer and ropes inside the pack. Everything else strapped on. 
Mark Jenkins Photo.

The West Face of Fremont Peak is a maze of pinnacles, gullies, and huge walls. It is a veritable ocean of vertical granite. We made base camp just below. 

 West Face of Fremont Peak. 
Mark Jenkins Photo.

We were up before dawn on the first day and we headed straight for a steep rock pinnacle in the middle of the face. We made quick work of a moderate wall below. The climbing was easy but there was a cold wind and we were in the shade all morning. The cold slowed us down and sapped our strength. I had an unsettled feeling in my stomach all morning. I chalked it up to the cold but something didn't feel right.

Cold granite for breakfast.
Mark Jenkins Photo.

Climbing in the Shade
Mark Jenkins Photo.

Just before midday we reached the base of the pinnacle and we found an impenetrable mass of steep granite. As hard as we looked we could not find a route that looked climbable. With the sun finally upon us we warmed our frozen fingers and headed for the only option we could find - the southern ridge line of the pinnacle.

The Pinnacle. Stumped.
Mark Jenkins Photo.

I lead a traverse pitch onto the ridge line but ended up in a gully below instead. Our options were quickly diminishing as we wasted valuable time trying to find a climbable way up. 

Mark Traversing into the Gully.

Mark continued up the gully while I belayed below. He was just finishing his lead when I head him scream frantically. He'd just dislodged a rock and from the panic in his voice I knew it was big. I squeezed up against the left side of the gully and watched as a rock the size of a flat screen TV came hurtling towards me. I was two feet from being smashed into oblivion and afterwards my whole body was shaking with adrenaline and fear. Mark belayed me up and we rested for a moment, thankful to be in one piece.

We were stymied. Our objective was too ambitious, it wasn't within our abilities. We had to descend. We set up a rappel and I headed down. Twenty feet below the anchor I found this . . .

Mark Jenkins Photo.

The rock had hit one of our ropes - shredding it. We cut it, and continued down. Humbled and thankful.

Mark Jenkins Photo.

Climbing requires resourcefulness. Using the bad part of the rope to descend.

Mark Jenkins Photo.

Sometimes defeat teaches you more than success. We spent the rest of the evening scouting, trying to find an objective more closely matched to our abilities and ambitions. The ultimate goal in climbing is to live to tell the tale. We were reminded of this fact as we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.

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