American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Face of Monolith Peak

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  • Publication Year: 1964

The North Face of Monolith Peak

Arthur Gran

You have probably never heard of Monolith Peak in the Wind River Range. Well, neither had I until a year ago when John Hudson suggested it as a possible climbing objective for 1963. After some research and much optimism, Doug Tompkins, John and I decided to try a first ascent of this peak sight unseen.

On August 2 we left Big Sandy Opening and packed east, past Lonesome Lake and down the Popo Agie River to a double lake. As we reached this lake, we were amazed to find the mountain so imposing. Instead of three low-angled slab faces, as anticipated, we found the 1800-foot north wall. Here, truly, was the prettiest mountain in Wyoming, much like Pingora except steeper, blanker, and with more relief. There was at once no question as to a route, for a single crack broke the face like a fine brush stroke.

We set up camp on a meadow at the south end of the lake. It started to rain, but we made our plans anyway for a two-day venture on the face if all went well. We packed the gear consisting of two ropes, forty pitons, forty carabiners, a small bolt kit, one gallon of water, bivouac gear and cold food for two and a half days.

The next morning the weather was bad; not quite the day to embark on a giant wall. We took a half an hour to move our climbing gear up to the base of the face. Truly fine routes look more severe the closer one gets. It had an overall angle of 75° and long vertical stretches. There could be no traversing to another line on this smooth face. It was either up or down. About two thirds of the way up we noted possible blank sections followed by an extremely overhanging dihedral and then by a ramp.

We spent the remainder of the day looking over the rest of the mountain. We walked up to the west and were surprised to find a glacier this far south in the range. We were then at the base of a long couloir which we decided to climb. By first scrambling on loose rock, then kicking steps for 600 feet and finally scrambling on the slabs on the right, we gained the saddle. From here a short walk brought us to the summit of Monolith. We then traversed to Big Sandy Mountain and descended a steep snow couloir on the east side of the Monolith Cirque as it started to hail.

The next day it rained and hailed, but cleared at night. We awoke at four A.M. to a starry sky. Upon reaching the base of the face, we crossed a short snow slope to a shallow chimney, which we climbed to a ledge. We organized the gear and roped up. John and Doug carried the packs and I carried the bulk of the iron. I started up at six, working up a corner, cutting steps in ice for my right hand and foot, and using pressure on rock for my left. This brought me to a crack which needed strenuous jamming and nailing to a small ledge at a ceiling. On the next pitch we escaped from this tight corner out right and ascended a nose to a comfortable ledge. We gathered together and felt much better as the sun hit us. I now ascended the fault to a poor belay stance on a steep slab. When Doug reached me, we had an awkward time changing positions. After stepping left and over a bulge, I moved straight up to the base of a long chimney, which I entered and climbed to a ledge. At this point everyone needed food, so we consumed a small part of our provisions.

The face was now very steep, but the chimney appeared quite straight forward. The next pitch was a full 150 feet directly up the chimney to a chockstone. This was followed by another long lead in the chimney to a ledge where it widened. We now became quite impatient, for the next pitch would leave the chimney and might give us a view of the possible blank section. We then face-climbed the back and emerged onto a ledge with a poor view. The weather was deteriorating. The fault now became a bit rotten. I nailed a short overhanging wall and climbed up to a small stance.

We were now just below the overhanging dihedral and it looked quite grim. It was five o’clock and starting to hail. However, we were passing the possible blank sections with no unusual difficulties. Almost 1000 feet of technical rock was behind us, but not without its price. We were really feeling the weight of the gear and had to stop and replenish the expended energy and water. Our spirits were quite high for we had survived some exceptionally bad weather in Canada and knew we could do it again.

I started up a shallow groove and cleared a bulge; then, to my surprise, a ledge led off to the right. I stepped out on it and over a bulge, then up a short wall, gaining a large ledge. This was the first time we could leave the main fault. This ledge was perfect for a bivouac and the hail was coming down extremely hard. But, after talking it over, we decided to try for a higher ledge, which I reached in semi-darkness. I was now 60 feet right of the overhanging dihedral and a fault appeared to lead from where I stood up to the ramp above it. On my right and just a little below me was the prettiest thing I have ever seen. It was a perfectly horizontal platform 20 feet by 20 feet. While Doug was bringing up John, I prepared the bivouac. John had a helluva time cleaning the last pitch in total darkness in a storm.

When all was set for the night a gala meal was eaten to celebrate the abating of the storm, and besides, we were hungry. This was followed by a chorus of "My Daddy said, 'Stay off the Eiger’.” As in all such bivouacs, morning never came. But this one was not too bad. In the pre-dawn we had some food and arranged the equipment.

The first pitch was started just as the sun hit the upper face. A loose block was passed which gave access to a short groove on the right, then to a ledge. Future parties will do well to avoid this (groove) detour and continue straight up. However, a crack on my right led to a ledge a pitch higher which appeared to lead back left to the ramp. We reached the ledge and followed it left, but it ended. We did a 40-foot rappel to the start of the ramp.

We ascended the ramp for a pitch and assembled to look the route over. The next lead appeared to be quite hard, but climbable. I started up a shallow chimney and gained a ledge. The walls now closed in to form an overhanging bomb-bay-type chimney. This was passed on rotten rock, with an extreme effort, to a foothold belay on the left. After the packs were hauled, Doug came up and it was difficult changing places on this foothold. The next pitch was a thin traverse left to a crack in the now quite steep ramp which we followed to, and over, a large bulge. A second bulge was turned on the right to a lovely flower-covered ledge.

The top was in sight. Doug took the lead and did a fine job on the final difficult rocks. In a rain storm we descended the couloir we had previously climbed. On the next day we quite speedily packed all the gear up this couloir a little after a giant rockfall came down it. This gave us a straight downhill walk to Big Sandy and cut our packing time in half.

The pitons needed to do the climb are: horizontals — 1 rurp, 3 knife blades, 10 assorted; angles— 6¾" and 1 each of 1", 1¼", 1½",2" and 2½"; also about 6 hero loops for tying off pitons.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Ascents: First ascent of Monolith Peak, 12,200 feet, via West Couloir, August 3, 1963. First ascent of North Face, August 5 & 6, 1963.

Personnel: Douglas Tompkins, John Hudson, Arthur Gran.

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