Cirque of Towers

Pingora, NE Face (5.8+); Wolf’s Head, E Ridge (5.6); Haystack, Minor Dihedral (5.9)

I am not sure when I first saw of the photo of the Cirque of Towers in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I do know that it was long before I was a rock climber and long before I met Kylie. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a few cams, a talented and committed partner, and found myself headed towards the Cirque. Were we ready? Well, if nothing else, two weeks of starving on the Sierra High Route left us ready to return to the vertical realms and there is possibly no better place to do that than the Wind River Range.

Day 1: Hiking into the Cirque

We had a late night driving in to the trailhead all the way from Reno the night before. There were hundreds of crazy suicide bunnies bounding across the dirt road at 11 pm at night, but I think I managed to avoid all of them in the minivan. So we slept in before packing our stuff in the late morning.

In the morning, we walked around the parking lot, which was filled with hundreds of cars. We counted only a handful of Wyoming license plates. Most of the cars were from the Midwest. Apparently the Winds are some of the first real mountains Midwesterners hit as they drive west so they flock here.

The trail to Big Sandy Lake was quite boring honestly. We did pass a NOLS outdoor group on their way out. They had spent three weeks in the Deep Lake area learning to trad climb and multipitch. They reported perfect, storm-free weather and awful mosquitoes. Our experience would turn out to be the exact opposite.

Big Sandy Lake
Haystack Mountain and Big Sandy Lake.

After Big Sandy Lake, we climbed up to Jackass Pass. We started to pass under steep, overhanging rock towers. The trail was a little bouldery in places but still a good trail by climbers’ standards. After cresting Jackass pass, we got our first view of the Cirque of Towers, and it was mesmerizing.

Cirque of Towers
Pingora and Wolf’s Head loom large in the Cirque of Towers.

Everything was lush and green, with clean granite walls rising all around us. The immensity and sheerness of the big walls were unlike anything we had ever seen in an alpine environment. We took our time wandering through the flowing streams before finding a campsite in the idyllic valley. Despite the area’s popularity with climbers, there were not an abundance of established campsites. There were, however, an abundance of sticks hanging off tall boulders to act as bear bag hangs.

Cirque Meadow
Flowing meadow in the Cirque of Towers.

It was a relaxing afternoon and an early bedtime in preparation for our next big day. We made great use of the huge bottle of moisturizing lotion that we brought along. It was much needed after the wetness of the Sierra High Route destroyed our feet.

Day 2: Pingora, NE Face (5.8+)

We awoke around 4:30 in the morning to get an early start. We knew there was a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms and that this was a long, popular route, so we wanted to be climbing at first light. We hiked through open trees towards the east face of Pingora, staying high and crossing over some boulder fields.

We had read that the start of the route followed some ramps in from the right to the obvious crack system, but being so close beneath the face in the darkness, we had trouble seeing. We saw a rope dangling down mysteriously from the face and scrambled up towards it. However, it did not seem like the start of the route, so we backtracked downwards. Suddenly, I just stumbled upon a Black Diamond Ultralight C4 0.75! We had gotten some other booty nuts throughout the summer, but this was truly striking gold!

Slowly, the sun began to come up, and we realized we need to work around right around the face further to the north. We spotted the ledge system and began climbing up. Lonesome Lake looked peaceful in the pre-dawn light.

Lonesome Lake Sunrise
Sunrise on Mitchell Peak with Lonesome Lake beneath.
Pingora Base
At the base of the NE Face of Pingora.

We began traversing over to the first pitch at the same time that two other boys our age were there. We were all perplexed when we came to an exposed face traverse right before the base of the route! Kylie and I ended up getting ahead, finding some awkward 5.8 face traverse that we were able to sort of protect. The technical difficulties of just this “approach pitch” were indicative of the rest of the climb. We were not climbing in the Sierras anymore!

Pingora pitch 1
Looking up the arcing layback crack on the first pitch of the NE Face of Pingora.

The first pitch was a long dihedral that slowly got steeper. As it got steeper, the rock also got slicker, polished from all the foot traffic over the years. Carrying the full pack for the two of us, I was starting to feel it. The Sierra High Route had left me out of climbing shape and weak. After maybe 50 ft of straight 5.7 lieback, I was worked! My legs were trembling out of exhaustion, but I managed to jam my body into the dihedral and find a rest. Wind River Range “5.7” was going to be tough!

Pingora Views
Towards Warbonnet Peak from Pingora.

As we began to embrace the burly nature of the climbing here, the next pitches went smoother. It was still steep climbing, with few opportunities for breaks. Except for some polished sections, the rock quality was immaculate! I never once questioned my holds or gear. The routefinding was also pretty straightforward since usually the alternatives looked 5.10+.

In another few pitches, we reached the crux 5.8+ off width. Kylie bravely took the pack for this pitch. With new found freedom, I led up the off width surprisingly easily. I think I place a single #2 and then simply squirmed my way up, feeling secure the whole way. No need for a #4 cam like people said!

Pingora Crux
Crux 5.8+ off width crack on the left.

During the climb, Kylie had enjoyed talking to the two college-aged boys behind us. Their leader had just free soloed Complete Exum on the Grand Teton, which was our next climb after the Cirque! It became quite clear to us later on that they were fully depending on us for the routefinding. On one pitch, there was a sharp face traverse right just before the belay. Their leader, seeing Kylie above him, tried to cut directly towards her, encountering scary 5.10 face climbing that he barely made it up!

For the final technical pitch, there was supposedly an “easy chimney”, according to the topo. I wandered into a deep cavern and started up this ominous looking chimney. It definitely did not feel easy and there was no way to place gear inside. After leading nearly 1000 ft of relentless granite, I was getting pretty tired. I had trouble smearing my feet in the chimney and suddenly, everything slipped and I slowly cheese-gratered down the chimney back to the ledge 10 ft below. It was my first lead fall in the alpine ever and I did not even weight any gear! I took a little moment to regroup and then sent the chimney after much grunting and groaning. It was a fitting ending to this burly, strenuous route!

Kylie arrived at the top of the chimney similarly beaten and exhausted. A little bit of scrambling to the left brought us to the summit of Pingora. It felt like we were standing on a granite island looking out across the Cirque of Towers, surrounding us on two sides. The knife edge ridge of Wolf’s Head, our goal for the next day, looked insane.

Wolf's Head
The imposing view of the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head.
Cirque of Towers Panorama
The Cirque of Towers, from Warbonnet to Bollinger.
Cirque of Towers
Admiring the Cirque of Towers.
Pingora Duo
Hanging out on top of Pingora.

It was around 1 pm on a beautiful afternoon, and it appeared thunderstorms would not be an issue, which was great for the three slower parties behind us on route. We made a few rappels (fine with a single 60m rope) down the classic “K Cracks” or south buttress route. This route seems to be the Liberty Bell “Beckey Route” of the Wind River Range: a popular, easy first alpine climb for many.

South Buttress Pingora
Looking up at the South Buttress of Pingora, which we rappelled down.

We followed a cool network of ledges back down to the Cirque Valley, where we washed off in a lovely little alpine waterfall. The meadows here were magnificent so we took some time to admire the flowers since we were barely 10 minutes away from camp at this point.

Cirque Flowers
Wonderful meadows in the Cirque.
Cirque Goddess
Kylie looking lovely in the Cirque of Towers.

After that, it was a restful afternoon back at camp. A moose even walked through our campsite!

Day 3: Wolf’s Head, E Ridge (5.6), hike to Clear Lake

We got up early once again and hiked towards the upper lake on the approach to Wolf’s Head. There are two approaches to the base: Tiger Tower and the grassy ledges. While “grassy ledges” may sound benign, they are apparently a nightmare when wet. We took this approach, weaving our way up fourth class ledges. It took a bit of route finding and a few exposed moves, but we got to the base of the E Ridge pretty quickly.

Gloomy Cirque
A shadowy sunrise from the base of Wolf’s Head.

We agreed that this would be Kylie’s climb. She does great with exposure and adventurous leads. So we racked up and she started off across the incredible 2 foot wide knife edge ridge. The exposure on either side was at least 500 ft down to rock slabs. This section was barely climbing (more like scrambling) but exhilarating and truly a classic!

East Ridge Wolf's Head
Kylie leads the incredible knife edge that starts the east ridge of Wolf’s Head.
Wolf's Head Belay
Kylie belays from the spine of Wolf’s Head.

As I recall, there are four towers once on the ridge and you essentially weave between them, ducking through chimneys and holes along the way. Communication was definitely difficult here, but Kylie and I have a sixth sense for each other at this point. The second tower had this improbable looking face traverse that somehow went at 5.6. Great lead Kylie!

The only pitch I led was the bomber hand crack traverse. With perfect pulls and hand jams, I traversed a crack with my feet smeared on the wall beneath, looking down nearly 1000 ft to the base of the wall! This was one of the best pitches I have ever done.

Wofl's Head Traverse
Kylie enjoys the exposure of the hand traverse on the east ridge of Wolf’s Head.
Wolf's Head Traverse
Kylie focuses on her footwork of the hand traverse on the east ridge of Wolf’s Head.

During the entire route, we were just amazed at how the difficulty never exceeded 5.6. Many sections seemed so improbable, yet worked. It is one of the most unique routes I have ever climbed. Huge props to the first ascent party, who must have had the true spirit of adventure!

Wolf's Head Tunnel
Kyle squeezes through a tunnel near the end of the east ridge of Wolf’s Head.

At the top, we got a different view of Pingora, Bollinger, and the Cirque of Towers. It was kind of hazy, possibly from wildfire smoke and high clouds.

Bollinger Peak
Bollinger Peak rises impressively over the Wind River Range.
Wolf's Head Summit
Kyle chilling on the summit of Wolf’s Head.

Everyone warns about the descent of Wolf’s Head, which is arguably longer than the climb itself. There were probably 5 rappels, a lot of traversing and scrambling, and some snow descent in the end. I think it did take about as long as the climb, but at least we felt it was pretty easy to follow if you just pay close attention to the beta.

Back at camp in the early afternoon, we packed up and headed over towards Haystack Mountain. After a little detour where we took the wrong trail, we reached the far end of Clear Lake around dinner time, finding a camp in the woods next to some beautiful granite waterslides. With two classics already sent, we were ready for Haystack the next day!

Haystack Mountain
Haystack Mountain from our camp next to a nice stream.

Day 4: Haystack Mountain, Minor Dihedral (5.9)

After a rainy night at camp, we woke up just before dawn. We were waking up about 30 minutes later each day, so the extra sleep was nice. It was a real short approach to Haystack, about 30 minutes of hiking through wet brush. We were worried that the rock will be wet after the rainstorm, but it seemed moderately dry.

Temple Peak
Temple Peak from the base of Haystack.

We traversed over onto the face, skipping the first three pitches, but few people actually do them. The rock quality seemed very similar to the Cirque, except less polished. The face had a very different quality than the Cirque though because it was so broad (probably one mile long!) and consistent.

The first pitch has the supposed “mental crux”, a spooky 5.9 face move, but you are not far above your last piece of gear, so it was not bad. Some more quality climbing brought us to a “scoop” on the topo, a tricky traverse right, which Kylie handled well after some waffling. We were flying up the route. Some easier terrain led us up to the base of the namesake dihedral.

I launched into the 5.9 dihedral, full pack and all. I pulled out all the tricks, stemming, laybacking, jamming, and enjoying every pull. I think the classic 5.9 Dihedral route at Minnehaha in Spokane had prepped me for this. Although challenging for the grade, this 5.9 was still nothing compared to the Minnehaha Dihedral!

The Dihedral just kept on giving, and I kept on going. It was amazing! After maybe 100 ft of it, I decided I would make one more move before establishing a belay. My strength was running out and I suddenly found myself in a tough spot. I felt myself shaking, unsure of the next move. But then I realized how simple the next move was and told myself to trust my abilities and strength. I sent it. Kylie crushed it next.

Minor Dihedral
Kylie ascends the incredible Minor Dihedral!

The dihedral was not done, and the next pitch climbed more dihedral goodness before splitting into a twin crack system and finally some more substantial ledges. The last few pitches were supposedly easier and more ambiguous on the topo, but we still found ourselves pulling burly roofs. Physical climbing!

Haystack Smiles
Kyle nearing the top of Minor Dihedral on Haystack with Clear Lake below.

At the top of the route, we scrambled a little bit right to the true summit, which is little more than a bump on the ridge. Ominous storms clouds were beginning to build over the Cirque of Towers a few miles away.

Haystack Summit
All smiles after a great climb of Haystack Mountain.

We descended the “Grassy Goat Ledges” a series of exposed, 4th class ledges that miraculously splits the vertical face. Since it was dry, it was pretty easy but we could imagine it might be terrifying in a rain storm. From the base, we could see some climbers climbing the “Railroad Tracks” route further up the face. Hopefully the storm would not get them!

On the hike back down to camp, we passed some dads and their sons playing around in the nice granite slab waterslides. The boys were sliding around, braver than we were. Literally two minutes after we arrived back and crawled into the tent, the storm hit. Hail pounded the ground and pretty quickly, streams were running underneath our tent, eroding away the soil with it. Such incredible timing once again! We snuggled and took a nap amidst the storm around us.

There was a break in the evening, but then once again rain throughout the night. Even though it rained seemingly every day in the Sierras, it never rained at night!

Day 5: Haystack Mountain, North Face (5.6), hike out

The rock was simply so good here that we felt like we had to do one more climb before heading out. We found the North Face on my MountainProject app and it seemed like a good half day climb. We woke up and hiked to the north shoulder of Haystack, getting absolutely soaked by brush and then frozen by a cold wind. We debated just heading down, but Kylie wanted to send one more climb and get some opportunities to lead, so we decided to go for it, puffies and all.

Haystack North Face
Kylie leads the start of the North Face of Haystack.
North Face Haystack
Looking down the north face of Haystack.

The climb was not anything notable, but still a fun 3 pitches on very good rock. At the top, we were able to find some wind protection and warm up our frozen hands. The descent was simple and then we hiked back down to camp. By then things were drying out and we were warming up.

A leisurely hike out brought us back to the car in the mid afternoon, escaping the thunderstorms just barely! 

This was the best four days of alpine rock climbing we have ever done! We completed three four star routes and another fun shorter route. The accessibility, impeccable rock quality, and wonderful scenery make the Wind River Range truly a special place. It was awesome to have such a relaxing, perfect trip after the grueling Sierra High Route. It seemed everything went our way this trip, evading the storms, sending the routes, and even getting some climbing booty!

Notes:

  • Although Minor Dihedral (5.9) is rated higher than the NE Face of Pingora (5.8+), we felt Pingora was more sustained and overall more difficult. It is also polished in places, adding to the difficulty.
  • Although Cirque of Towers has the world famous routes, you should not pass on Haystack! Simple approaches and descents plus an amazing wall of granite would make it a classic if it was anywhere but next to the Cirque. Minor Dihedral was every bit as good as Pingora.
  • Compared to the Sierras, the grades here are much stiffer. The climbing is very physical and exhausting. Be prepared for extensive liebacks and finger cracks.
  • The E Ridge of Wolf’s Head (5.6) is an amazing, adventurous route that is a must-do regardless of the grade you climb at. The descent is really not too bad if you just follow the beta.

 

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