So reads Gary Clark's description in the North American Classics CD. Kelsey also includes the route in his personal top ten list in the Winds. Rated III 5.6, it is a 1500 foot sweep of rock, similar in scale to the West Ridge of Mt. Conness, but with nearly continuous fifth class climbing.
It sounded like the perfect route for me and my partner.
Ever since visiting the Cirque of the Towers a decade ago, I've wanted to return to the Wind River Range and explore it's other highly popular area, Titcomb Basin. The idea kind of got shelved over time, but after several friends went to climb Gannet Peak last year and returned with glowing reports of the beauty of the region, Dot Reilly and I made more definite plans.
But what to climb? In a quick perusal of Kelsey's guide to the Winds Gannet Peak tends to kind of jump out of the pages at you. It happens to be the state high point, which isn't really a reason to climb it or to avoid it in my book. But even the easiest route on it is interesting in that it ventures onto one of the glaciers, which is large by California standards. It's also a long, physical day from Titcomb Basin, with a required 1200' climb to get back to camp *after* you descend from the peak.
But upon further research, I found myself drawn primarily to another of the area's plums, Ellingwood Peak's North Arete.
The hiking out of Elkhart Park (9300') is pretty gentle, barely gaining elevation as it rolls up and down. But with packs loaded with 25 lbs of climbing gear, a week's worth of food, and all the other paraphernalia, we were quite relieved when we could finally drop our loads at a seemingly forgotten tent site at around 11,000'. About 13 miles from the trailhead but just one scant mile from the main drag in Titcomb Basin, our camp in beautiful Indian Basin was relatively isolated and untrammeled. To the north stood Fremont and Jackson peaks, with Elephant and Ellingwood to the south. There were several pristine lakes nearby, devoid of other campers most nights, a babbling brook with several small waterfalls, and an abundance of wildflowers. The only thing missing were the expected mosquitos. We carried in way too much DEET and Picaridin.
After a day to get acquainted with the area and do a short recon of the route approach, we set the alarms for 4:king early and planned to climb. But the next morning the Winds served up a helping of its fickle weather and we decided to postpone for a day. As a diversion we hiked up nearby Fremont Peak, a class 2-3 scramble on excellent rock, to view the glaciated world northeast of the divide. Although threatening, it never really rained that day, but the wind on top of Fremont was blasting and cold.
The weather we had experienced up to this point had an odd conveyor belt feel to it. The clouds and sunshine would seem to stream overhead in a random fashion, threatening doom and destruction one minute, frying us in the heat the next. While dayhiking into Titcomb Basin on another day, a backcountry ranger smiled at my query about the Wyoming weather and drawled: "Just wait 15 minutes and it will change." At that particular moment, it looked like we were going to be either drenched or electrocuted or both, and yet the ranger and his parter were without jackets or any gear other than a trashbag and a notebook and pen. They must have been amused by our Goretex jackets and boots, warm hats and gloves, and an overall REI Catalog appearance. Twenty-five minutes later the "storm" was only a memory.
Nonetheless, as we set the alarms again for the next day we figurativly crossed our fingers. What did we get? A day about as splitter as one could imagine, awesome even by Sierra standards. After a 90 minute hike to the base, we roped up and started up the route. There is no topo, only vague descriptions of where to start. Basically, you begin to the right of the arete where the terrain is clearly easier, and then diagonal up and left to join it after a few pitches. A dozen feet above our roping up point I found a small duck, so at least one other party agreed with my choice.
The first pitch was likely the crux, with a move over a roof that was probably about 5.7 or maybe a little harder. After that the difficulty remained fairly continuous at 5.4-5.6. We took nearly full advantage of our 60 meter rope and the relative abundance of good ledges in order to limit the number of belays, and so most pitches were 180 feet or longer. Our sixth pitch was simply unbelievable. Relatively steep, it looked at first as if we'd bungled into some harder climbing. But chickenhead-like dark intrusions, perfect edges, flakes and a few small cracks had Dot and me laughing the whole way up. It was so delightful. The following pitch was almost as good.
There was the usual alpine annoyance of loose gravel on ledges and in lower angle gullies, but overall the rock quality was quite good. Stacked, detached blocks up higher forced us to tread with care, but nothing came close to budging. By the time the arete ran out, we'd completed 9 long pitches and we were smiling widely in the bright sunshine. Eyeing what appeared to be the summit plateau above I commented, "Kelsey says the summit is only 200 feet above the top of the arete. That means it's just one more pitch." Dot seemed doubtful. I guess she's seen her share of false summits and isn't as easily duped as I am.
It turned out that the "plateau" I was looking at was actually the ridge crest. And it wasn't until halfway through the twelfth pitch that we gained third class terrain and, after a snack, the summit.
It had taken us about 8 hours to climb the route and the Winds' weather was remaining uncharacteristically friendly. So the descent seemed a foregone conclusion. After a bit of futzing around on the initial class 4 terrain, we settled into the long slog down the ridge. But as it turned out, the ridge is quite long and our speed on the jumbly rock was something short of lightning fast. So it ended up being a rather long day for us. We pretty much used up all the available light, but were back in our beautiful site in time to celebrate with a cocktail.
This was one of the best long moderate routes I've done. I can think of a Sierra route or two of comparable length and difficulty that is nearly as good, but none that is better.
I'll be returning to the Winds.
Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, Joe Kelsey Second Edition, Chockstone Press
North American Classic Climbs: http://www.naclassics.com
(bad URL as of 2007)