Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Storm That Chased Us From Wyoming to South Dakota

Eastbound from the Wind River Range and Lander!

We stopped at Devil's Tower in eastern Wyoming.  Totally climbable!  And also 95 degrees with a high forecast for thunderstorms.  We looked but didn't touch.

nothing else around besides this huge tower
We also didn't touch the ground hogs, even though I wanted to squeeeeeeeze them because they are so CUTE!  (I'd feel differently if they were in my garden...)
A storm formed above Devil's Tower and chased us east for 200 miles.
really glad i'm not one of the climbers we saw on top of the tower
We drove past Mt. Rushmore, but it's really a huge tourist trap so this was as close as we got.
kind of lame
As we neared the Badlands, we could see the storm in our rear-view mirror.
ruh roh
We ate dinner in the car and set up our tent during a break in the rain.  Otherwise, we chilled out in the car, chatting at watching the lightening, before retiring to the tent.
it looks so pretty
like a painting

surely this storm will blow through quickly...  right?
At 2:00 a.m, all hell broke loose.

The sky lit up with a stream of paparazzi flashbulbs, bright enough to see the tents across the field.  I awoke to a constant screaming wind, interrupted with the drumroll of angry thunder.  The wind had changed direction - actually, it was coming from all directions - and it blew the side of the tent onto us, again and again.  The stakes holding the vestibule ripped out, and once those blew, the corners started going.  We tried to restake from inside the tent, because the only thing holding that tent to the earth was our body weight.

There was a violent, prolonged, intense wind to my side of the tent... and then silence, stillness, and near total darkness.  For 4 or 5 long seconds, we could hear the wind shrieking across the hills around us.  In our field, though, we could hear the crickets chirping.  Yes...  creepy.

And then, without warning or warm-up, a giant's hand squashed our tent like a mosquito.  The most violent and aggressive of sustained gusts hit the tent squarely on Dave's side.  He threw himself to the corner to hold it down, and I grabbed his back.  "This is getting scary."

No more screwing around: we needed to reinforce this tent, or we needed to get the hell out of South Dakota.  I made a mad dash to the car for extra stakes, rope, and a hammer.  I drove in stakes like my life depended on it (my sleeping bag sure did) while Dave sprawled like a starfish in the tent to keep it in place.  Bowlines slipped from my fingers onto the guylines like a pianist performing a sonata - thank goodness for practice.  Once the tent seemed like it wouldn't blow all the way to Minnesota, Dave joined me in his boxers.  We doubled the number of stakes and guylines holding the tent to the clay earth and hopped back inside, hoping for the best.

It was 3:30 a.m.

The worst was over.  It did continue to storm throughout the early morning hours, but without the violence of that storm cell.  We woke in the morning to distant thunder - still! - and a field largely vacated of tents.  Seems like the Double Rainbow was one of the proud few to survive the night.

tarptent double rainbow FOR THE WIN!
western south dakota: buffalo and thunderstorms
After the excitement of the night, the Badlands weren't terribly interesting.  The landscape reminded me a lot of the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon in Utah, just less impressive.
meh. insane electrical storms are way more exciting.
From South Dakota...  homeward bound!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

When the Crux is the Approach

Climbing & Backpacking the Winds (Wind River Range)

Q:  What happens when you combine a climbing trip with a backpacking trip?

A:  Really freaking heavy packs.

Q:  What happens when your pack is really freaking heavy?

A:  Misery.
so. heavy.
Before we headed into the Wind River Range, we spent an evening in the Ridley's grocery store in rural Pinedale, Wyoming, calculating the products with the highest caloric content per weight ounce. (Two dirty backpacking climbers with calculators among the horse trailers and cowboy hats = hilariously awkward.)
"pinedale: all the civilization you need"
We discovered that Pop Tarts and Fritos are in, and quinoa and fresh produce are out. Basically, the more Amurrrican the product, the better it fit our criteria for convenience, calorie content, and packability. Unfortunately, it was a perfect demonstration of one of the causes of America's weight issues – if you eat this sh!t and you are not burning >1,500 calories per day due to exercise and altitude (which I'm going to guess is most people), your body will NOT be happy.
testing recipes in the grocery store parking lot
Even reducing our total food weight, our packs were still pretty darn heavy. Take everything you'd need on a 5 day backpacking trip (including food, tent, stove and fuel, map, clothing layers, first aid and survival kit, etc), and add TWO 60 meter ropes, a full trad rack, harnesses, shoes, and helmets. Dave took the group climbing gear, and I took most of the group camp gear.

My personal definition of alpine climbing is: “when the crux is the approach!!"

DAY ONE: Big Sandy Trailhead to Cirque of the Towers

The hike from the trailhead to Big Sandy Lake is easy (mostly flat), but I am tired. So tired.
somehow i am still upright
Then, the trail starts to climb. Taking a break at the outlet of North Lake, we hear “Dave and Nicole?!?” And standing in front of us are two friends from Ithaca! I nearly fell in the creek! What a small world, what a lovely coincidence, and what a way to lift the spirits!
the best thing since poptarts: coincidental run-ins with friends from home...  6 miles from the trailhead and 
Going around North Lake is a pain; we gain elevation and lose elevation and also lose the main trail.
pretty, but harder walking than necessary
At Arrowhead Lake, we choose to take the climbers' path, which heads directly into the Cirque by crossing a boulder field instead of climbing up and over Jackass Pass. Routefinding around the boulders is tricky against impassable rocks the size of our house.

a *very* provisional thumbs up
And then we pop out into the Cirque. Pretty amazing.
I find a campsite high on the southern ridge of the Cirque, tucked into some trees and hopefully above the mosquitoes.
home sweet home
DAY TWO: Climbing Pingora, 11,884', 5.8 III

For me, a “relaxed morning” is two cups of tea, journalling, a nap, and then leaving camp.

For Dave, a “relaxed morning” means sleeping until 7:00 a.m. and eating oatmeal in camp instead of Pop Tarts on the trail.

Interestingly, this pattern is reversed when we're at home. But in any case, mountain climbing barely allows for a Dave-style relaxed morning, so off we go.
sugar, fat, and calories. and a stomach ache.
Because of our camp location, we had twice as far to bushwhack as most climbing parties. Much of the bushwhacking is boulder-scrambling, which is slow and annoying. It takes several hours to pick our way across the Cirque. It sucked.
this looks way cooler and prettier and happier than it was. you just can't see my face is all.
Reaching the southern shoulder of Pingora, we can't decide how to apply the general guidebook approach description to what we were seeing. It was frustrating.

Finally, we decide to scramble the class 3 and 4 ledges up the southern toe of the southern shoulder. Correct choice, but there are several sections that were exposed and slightly dodgy. It was scary.
what do you mean, i'm supposed to go right up the side of that? unroped?
Of course, as soon as we rope up, I have my security blanket (I'm such a baby), and the climbing goes very well. It was awesome!

Pitches are long...
holy exposure, batman!
We take fun variations 'cause why not... (and we got to pass a slow party, again - since when are we the fast ones?)
proof that tricams are useful
The most technical sections are also very aesthetic...
The setting and the views are BEAUTIFUL...
very nice
Weather holds perfectly...
except for the intense wind
...And we top out on one seriously cool mountain.
we made it!
cirque panorama
Of course, the day isn't complete without some drama.

First time ever that we get a rope stuck on a rappel. Dave ties in with our other rope, leads up to the problem flake, then down-leads. Not too bad.
exposure on rappel
Then, we can't find Dave's pack. All of the ledges look the same. Did an animal grab it? Did it blow away? Ah, there it is.
where the HECK is that pack.
We are tired and out of food and water. My contacts are so dry from the wind it's hard to open my eyes completely. Time to move intentionally and deliberately, checking everything. No rushing. No impatience. We'll get down, sooner or later.
still a long way to go
Finally at the trail junction where I left my pack, we eat snacks, drink water, and I wash my hands in icy snowmelt and peel the contacts off my eyes.

Return across the boulder fields...
the very definition of type II fun
And finally back to camp at 9:00 p.m.
“It's just a three pitch climb,” they said. “It won't take that long,” they said. As long as you know the approach and don't mind exposed scrambling and remember that it's always later than it should be in the mountains!

Well after dark, we see the headlamps of the party we passed, descending the boulder field. At least we weren't that slow.

DAY THREE: Hike Texas Pass, ~11,400'

My birthday! Dave lets me do whatever I want. Today I get my two cups of tea.

We hike down the Cirque to Lonesome Lake and rest in the sun for a while.
reigning nap champ
Two climbers make the scramble along the shoulder of Pingora we made yesterday. They are itty bitty against the granite expanse. I feel small.
can you see them?
Hiking here means picking the line of least resistance and going cross-country. Most of my hiking has been on trails in higher use areas. The Cirque area has some herd paths, and it's best to use them if they exist and you can find them, but today we wander.
I'm feeling rested and happy, so we continue up the other side of the Cirque toward Texas Pass. The pass has a small snowfield, easily bypassed. And amazing views!

that one in the middle? we climbed that!
Great way to spend a birthday.

When we get back to camp, our tent has blown over. Hrm, windier than I thought.
I catch up on my journal and take a nap. Ahh, this is nice, especially after the death marches of the past two days.
reflecting and documenting
The mosquitoes are intense, though.
"i vant yer blooooood"
And so is the storm that blows through while we're cooking dinner, hiding under the overhang of a boulder. The thunder echoes and rumbles around the Cirque like rocks in a clothes dryer.
catching run-off from the boulder to rinse my dinner bowl
DAY FOUR: Return hike, Cirque to Big Sandy Trailhead

Even though we brought food for five days, we decide to head out on day four. I'm not inspired by the other climbs in the guidebook. I've got other plans on my mind. And I'm not feeling super great, with bloody sinuses and the beginnings of a hacking cough.

The wind continues intensely from last night's storm as we cross Jackass Pass, this time on the hiker's trail instead of the climber's trail.
nice hair, dave
As we descend, the clouds begin to gather. Crap.
seriously? what else on this trip...
I explode my pack at Big Sandy Lake and repack everything inside a contractor bag. The wag bag (i.e. alpine poop bag) stays on the outside of the pack. Imagine how many crude turd jokes Dave made.
yes, yes i did. back at the car, of course.
The contractor bag acts as a talisman, and the clouds drop only a spritz of hail and rain on us. And then we're back at the trailhead.

A few hours drive puts us in Lander, one of the most climber friendly towns on the planet. We have a shower at the local climbing and fitness gym, then camp in the City Park. Legally, for once!
what? usually we have to be discreet...

type 2 fun. but still fun :-)
It was a heck of a butt-kicking trip, but I had fun.  More over, I'd love to return here someday. The Wind River High Route and the Deep Lake climbs look awesome. I would definitely do more trip planning, and it would be even better to return with someone who knows the area (Jeff??). Some day!
cirque of the towers from lonesome lake