The Cirque

Part II of III

I didn’t make it into the Cirque of the Towers on my 2002 Wind River trip.  There was a forest fire in the southern range and most of our route headed north. I’m glad I didn’t see it then, because I would not have recognized it for the amazing alpine rock playground that it is.

Cirque of the Towers, WY

Rock candy. Warbonnet (l) and Warrior 2 (r)

Short approaches, classic routes, and fun friends, all set in spectacular deep wilderness scenery. It doesn’t get better than this. Bryan was supposed to meet me in the Cirque on Tuesday night, so I found a great spot right under the pass and tried to get his attention.

rope note

How did this not work?

It didn’t work because Bryan took “the climbers trail” directly into the best part of the Cirque, rather than the hiking trail to the Lake. We didn’t line up Tuesday, and I figured I would go on a scrambling mission Wednesday morning. I ended up meeting Dallon and Rich from SLC on the hike to the base of the classic route on Wolf’s Head, and they offered me a spot on their rope.  I led out simul-climbing on the sidewalk pitch and about 80m later I heard them talking to someone.  A soloist was climbing fast behind us, and talking about a partner that didn’t arrive the previous night. It took about 3 seconds to realize I had just found my intended partner.

wolf's head sidewalk pitch

Straight in hands on the ridge. (Photo: Bryan Feinstein)

Splitter rails, and splitter exposure.

Bryan, ridin’ the rails.

Wolf's head 3rd tower

Splitter exposure. (Photo: BF)

The four of us found a good ledge, Bryan tied into my extra rope, and he and I simulclimbed the rest of the route. Per it’s inclusion in “50 Classic Climbs of North America” it is hilariously fun climbing. Route description is “climb the crest of the ridge, weaving between towers.”  You might add- “follow sinker hand cracks and large chimneys, along with everyone else in the Cirque.” The route wasn’t crowded per se, but there were two parties that finished before us, and at least two more that finished after us. I was glad to move fast with Bryan. Not exactly solitude for a Wednesday afternoon. We met Liz and Ryan rapping off, and enjoyed a dip in the lake on the way down.

Summit #1 for Bryan+Skander

Summit #1 for Bryan+Skander

Cirque Lake, Cirque of the Towers, WY

Bryan in wonderland on the walk down.

Bryan and I met on my first Denali trip in 2009, and he’s always been a lot stronger and more experienced than me.  I knew climbing with him would bring up my game, and his preference for routes didn’t disappoint. We were both drawn to the natural line on the northwest face of Warbonnet.  My thought was “damn, I wish I could climb that.” Bryan’s thought was “damn, we should go climb that!” The Feather Buttress is advertised as a grade IV 6-8 pitch 1,000′ 5.10c. We fired the route on Thursday. Goerge Lowe & co. were strong kids- we felt our version was a grade IV 10 pitch 1,300′ 5.11a. I later learned that the guidebook description had been submitted by email, from memory, 30 years after the first ascent. Props to Bryan for powering through the crux lead, as well as the super burly squeeze chimney.

Ready to fire.

Ready to fire. (Photo: BF)

Bryan, about to fire the crux.

Bryan, about to fire the crux. (Photo: BF)

The route is named for “the feather,” a 1′ wide sliver of rock at the very top of the route with zero protection and maximum exposure. We were more impressed at the route as a whole rather than this single feature, and it might be the hardest thing I’ve ever climbed. The quality of rock, position, and commitment factors all combine into a superb route that for some reason seems rarely done. There wasn’t a pitch by pitch description in the guidebook and I’m happy to leave it that way. Suffice to say there were a few pitches of 5.8-5.9, and the rest was solid 5.10 or better. I lost my lead head after the 4th pitch, and was grateful for Bryan’s clear vision and steady nerves to punch the crux and routefinding. If Wednesday was spectacular, Thursday was perfect.

approach to the feather buttress.

Yours truly on the last 5.10 roof. (Photo: BF)

Floating on top of the feather, high above the range.

Floating on top of the feather, high above the range. (Photo: BF)

Summit #2.

Summit #2. (Photo: BF)

Friday dawned a little rainy, and we were still plenty tired from our adventure on the Feather. We had met Bryans friends Jon, Andy, and Briton on the trail the night before while coming off Warbonnet, and it was fun to share coffee over a slow morning and watch the weather. Around noon we all got the itch, and headed towards the base of the NE Buttress on Pingora, the other “50 Classic” in the area. I wasn’t feeling super energetic, and had substantial doubts about the weather, but the NE Buttress was a route I had thought about since early in my climbing career. We finished the slab traversing by 2pm and Bryan shot up the first real pitch.

We swung leads through the afternoon and stretched the full 60m on almost every pitch. The climbing was perfect, sustained, and secure. Being on the third big route in three days, but left foot was ready for rest, but good weather and a great partner kept my stoke high enough to push through the pain. Andy and Jon followed closely. I popped out the last chimney pitch just as the evening colors were getting good. Bryan and I scouted the raps while waiting for Jon and Andy to finish up and shared the summit with our new friends just before sundown.


TEAM. (Photo: BF)

Pingora summit, NE Buttress

This place is so rad. Summit #3, on top of Pingora (Photo: BF)

We got into camp just after dark, immediately destroyed several thousand calories and slept hard. Bryan and I looked at each other on Saturday morning and quickly agreed that neither of us were doing anything other than sitting on our butts and celebrating the previous three days of climbing. The weather was increasingly sketchy, and a major storm system rolled in around 4pm. Our crew piled under a sweet boulder cave and hunkered down for the night. Sunday morning was still dodgy, and I was still plenty sore. Bryan agreed, so we said goodbye and headed for the cars at Big Sandy. Low clouds and raindrops made for a comfortable walk out, and settled any doubts we had about climbing- plus I think we both felt plenty “done” for this trip.

Rest day tai chi. Open the hips gentlemen.

Andy and Jon model the rest day tai chi. Open the hips gentlemen.

Perfect is a strong word, but I couldn’t have asked for better partners, a better place, or a better experience. I got what I was looking for, and a whole lot more. This one is going to stand out for a while.

Until we do it again soon.

Until we do it again soon.

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