Recon: Titcomb Basin
Spanning 80 miles of the Continental Divide, Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains bold some of America’s favorite wilderness rock. The southern granite is famous. The north?
Have a look for yourself.
Prior to 1969 I’d climbed in the Sierra, Cascades, Bugaboos, Canadian Rockies, and Tetons but had only heard of the Wind Rivers. A friend had climbed its highest peak, Gannett; a Gunks lass had a gleam in her eye remembering the Cirque of the Towers; and a Vulgarian mob had been to Titcomb Basin, where they did no climbing but abused substances.
In August 1969 I finally hiked into the Cirque, to meet friends already there. The next morning I awoke certain I was where I belonged. Early the next summer I left Yosemite and headed straight for the Cirque. For a few years I spent as much time as I could there. Then, in 1973, in a three-day jaunt to get in shape for the Logan Mountains, I hiked to Island Lake and from Titcomb Basin bagged Fremont Peak. The Logans trip was a fiasco, during which I often wondered why I’d driven so far to not be in the Wind Rivers.
My most vivid early impression of Titcomb Basin was its spaciousness. I feel at home with space and distant views and am happy walking across spread-out terrain. Spaciousness, though, proved a disadvantage when recruiting partners; it translated to longer approaches. Nevertheless, I enlisted enough climbers willing to haul rock gear plus axes and crampons 12 miles to Island Lake that I got up many of the routes I had my eye on.
In the meantime I stumbled into guidebook writing. The existing guidebook too often baffled rather than enlightened, and during our early-seventies Cirque days several of us, for one another’s benefit, wrote up routes we did, collecting them in a notebook I became custodian of. One winter I copied reports from AAJs and Appalachias and added them to the notebook, thus unintentionally becoming an author. My first guidebook was published in 1981.
The Cirque, with its concentration of granite spires, remains the Wind Rivers’ claim to fame. Titcomb’s appeal comes from its lesser renown, its wildness, and its untapped potential, for me and for everyone. I still haven’t climbed many routes that I’d like to, though I may not have the youthful vigor for those highest on my list. But I’ve come to appreciate Island Lake, Titcomb Basin, and neighboring Indian Basin as places simply to be, the best of consolations for aging.
A Quick Tour
Much of northwestern Wyoming constitutes an ecosystem of contiguous mountain ranges. One of these ranges, the Wind Rivers, an outlier protruding into the high plains to the east and south, contains all but a few of Wyoming’s highest peaks.
The uplift that created the Wind Rivers resembled a wave breaking from east to west, so the eastern flank rises in long slopes that obscure the high peaks. The rise is more abrupt on the west side, and views are better. Most conspicuous are the massive west faces of Fremont Peak, Mt. Sacagawea, and Mt. Helen. Fremont, Sacagawea, and Helen rise above five-mile- long Titcomb Basin, a valley graced by a string of lakes and drained by a stream that tumbles into Island Lake. The view from the lowlands has much to do with Titcomb Basin’s rich history, the Titcomb peak’s prominence enhanced by their all but hiding 13,804-foot Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s high point.
The west-side rise is interrupted, at 10,000 to 10,500 feet, by a six-mile-wide terrace that distances the Wind Rivers from civilization and contributes to the modesty of the ranges fame. Sprinkled with lakes and meadows and situated near treeline, the terrace adds much to the Wind Rivers’ charm. With streams having carved cirques back toward the Divide, the standard base camp sites are at this elevation. Island Lake sits at 10,346 feet.
We can characterize the northern half of the Wind Rivers as alpine, the southern half as rock. The focal point of the southern end is the Cirque of the Towers, with such household names as Pingora and Wolf’s Head along its jagged rim. Just south of the Cirque lies Haystack, with the Wind Rivers’ densest concentration of rock routes, and just north are the range’s biggest walls—on Hooker, Cathedral, Ambush, and Raid.
The focal points of the northern half are the glaciers surrounding Gannett, east of the Divide, and Titcomb Basin, west of the Divide. In Titcomb Basin, as throughout the American West, alpinism can mean as little as using an ice axe on a descent from a Grade IV rock route. It can also mean serious ice climbing, and it can mean climbing a mountain because its summit seems a worthy goal. We can most simply define Titcomb Basin’s alpinism as variety of opportunity.
Fremont (13,745 ), the range’s second highest peak and Wyoming’s third (after the Grand Teton), offers a scramble, a long snow couloir, nondescript 5.2-5.7 routes, and several Grade
IV rock routes. Sacagawea (13,569) has a 1,000-foot west face—two, since its south summit has its own face. Helen (13,620), unlike the many one-sided Wind River formations, is a real mountain, its complex architecture including three towers. Tower 1 is of particular interest to climbers, featuring the area's biggest wall and sheltering the Wind Rivers’ premier ice climb.
At the head of Titcomb Basin stands elegant Mt. Woodrow Wilson (13,502). Woodrow Wilson offers climbers little besides elegance. But its sidekick, the Sphinx (13,258), is spicier, as sidekicks often are. To their east the pass variously known as Dinwoody and Bonney connects the basin with Dinwoody Glacier to the north.
Titcomb Basin is bounded to the west by the Titcomb Needles, damned with faint praise by Robert Underhill after climbing several: “The most that can be said for them is that they offer a very pleasant bit of exercise under mildly exposed conditions.” Rising behind the Needles, however, is a classic three-ridge pyramid, Henderson Peak (13,115).
When we say Titcomb Basin, we mean Titcomb Basin and/or Indian Basin. Indian Basin has much to offer, though it lacks Titcomb Basin’s big west faces. Its south side is dominated by Ellingwood Peak (13,052), with its north arete unlikely to be overlooked by a climber. Maps call the peak Harrower, but the name Ellingwood was established by climbers decades ago.
At the head of Indian Basin is Knife Point Mountain (13,001), whose skyline more resembles a saw blade than a dagger. North of Knife Point, between it and Jackson Peak (13,517), is Indian Pass (12,120+), a prehistoric Divide crossing reached by a trail. They say you can see evidence of prehistoric trail construction, but I only see evidence of rockfall. Indian Pass connects Indian Basin with the Bull Lake Glaciers: Knife Point, Upper and Lower Fremont, Sacagawea, and Helen. Lapping high on the east sides of their eponymous peaks, the glaciers limit climbing interest on that side, except for ice couloirs on Jackson.
While Cirque rock is famously good granite, Titcomb’s is more enigmatic. If Cirque rock is vanilla ice cream in its uniformity, Titcomb rock is many flavored, including various swirly concoctions. Most of the northern Wind Rivers is gneiss—metamorphic rock, which didn’t crystallize from melt but was formed when rock below the surface was subjected to such high temperatures and pressures that it softened and flowed like chocolate in a warm pack. Titcomb’s gneiss was there when granite intruded, but the emplacement of granite didn’t occur as cleanly as a geologic map suggests.
The magma melted nearby gneiss, further metamorphosing and deforming it. Magma flowed into cracks; gneissic chunks dropped into the granitic soup. The resulting mix, called migmatite, is prominent throughout much of the northern Wind Rivers.
Geologists have described Wind River migmatite as “alternating dark and light stripes, swirling around in complex patterns,” “layers…stretched and separated by flowage into lenses, wisps, and streaks,” “swirly and chaotic.” Different geologic maps characterize the same rock as gneiss, granite, and migmatite. Despite its lack of homogeneity, the granite-gneiss mix of Titcomb area rock is hardly inferior to Pingora granite. It’s just more interesting.
In 1842 a young Army engineer took a steamboat up the Missouri River, sent to survey the wagon road not yet called the Oregon Trail. Also aboard was a Rocky Mountain trapper who had returned to civilization after 16 years in the West. But after a few days in St. Louis, he had grown “tired of the settlements.” Thus John C. Fremont met Kit Carson. Fremont, who later ran for president as “The Pathfinder,” hired Carson as scout, adding him to a party of other experienced trappers.
Fremont’s cartographer and artist was an impoverished German immigrant named Charles Preuss. Preuss never let his gratitude for the job stand between him and his disdain for the West and the man who dragged him through it. His diary, published as Exploring with Fremont, is a foil to Fremont’s rosy Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842. Some of Preuss’s entries are terse: “Murky weather, melancholy mood.” Others are more detailed: “For breakfast, yesterday’s dish was warmed up; it did not taste excellent”; “Had a remarkably bad night… the others lay safely under their [mosquito] nets; mine had been forgotten because of Fremont’s negligence.” Preuss sensed “a certain tension, not only between Fremont and myself, but also between me and the rest of the people. Only, of course, because I want to be smarter than the others.”
Here is Preuss approaching the Wind Rivers:
Whoever has seen Switzerland and expects something similar here is bound for a great disappointment. An American has measured them to be as high as 25,000 feet. I’ll be hanged if they are half as high, yea, if they are 8,000 feet high.
Fremont’s mountain veterans were of the opinion that the Wind Rivers included the highest peak in the Rockies. According to Fremont, the height of this peak “had been a theme of constant discussion.” There was, therefore, enthusiasm for getting a barometer to the top.
With 15 men on mules, Fremont led his entourage toward the high peaks of Titcomb Basin. The peaks suddenly came into view as “a gigantic disorder of enormous masses, and a savage sublimity of naked rock, in wonderful contrast with innumerable green spots of a rich floral beauty, shut up in their stern recesses.” The going became rocky, so three men stayed with the mules while the others proceeded on foot.
Their intended peak appeared so close that, expecting to climb it and return the same day, they took little clothing and no food—except Preuss:
“Only I, a more experienced mountaineer, stuck a piece of dried buffalo meat in my pocket.”
The next few miles are frustrating even for a modern backpacker, who should recognize the terrain described by Fremont:
The first ridge hid a succession of others; and when with great fatigue and difficulty we had climbed up five hundred feet, it was but to make an equal descent on the other side.… We clambered on, always expecting, with every ridge that we crossed, to reach the foot of the peaks, and always disappointed, until…pretty well worn out, we reached the shore of a little lake, in which there was a rocky island.
Thus the name Island Lake. The men made what camp their scant provisions allowed on a bluff overlooking Island Lake, near the falls that drop from Titcomb Basin. Fremont’s notes suggest he suffered from altitude more than most, and the wind and cold of the dinnerless, blanketless bivouac didn’t improve his condition. As for Preuss, “as always, the best spots were already taken…and I can truthfully say that I did not sleep a single minute.”
The next day was not a success. Fremont became progressively sicker and eventually could go no farther. Two trappers became ill and lay down on rocks. Preuss, trying to cross snow, slipped and fell a few hundred feet into rocks, where he “turned a couple of somersets” but suffered only minor bruises. Carson climbed the peak to the right of their objective but couldn’t cross to the main peak and didn’t consider the ascent, apparently of Jackson Peak, worth mention in his autobiography.
Men had gone back for mules, blankets, and food, and the second night at Island Lake was more comfortable than the first. Fremont, planning to leave the mountains in the morning, sent Carson out at dawn. But the remaining six men felt well enough for another try at their peak and headed up “a defile of the most rugged mountains known,” probably Titcomb Basin, though it could have been Indian Basin. In either they would have been “riding along the huge wall which forms the central summits of the chain…terminating 2,000 to 3,000 feet above… in a serrated line of broken, jagged cones” and encountered “three small lakes of a green color, each of perhaps a thousand yards in diameter.”
Halfway up, Fremont changed from thick-soled moccasins to a thinner pair, “as now the use of our toes became necessary to a further advance.” Upon reaching the crest he “sprang upon the summit, and another step would have precipitated me into an immense snow field five hundred feet below.”
The victorious climbers rammed a pole into a crevice, attached the American flag, and admired the setting:
Around us, the whole scene had one main striking feature, which was that of terrible convulsion. Parallel to its length, the ridge was split into chasms and fissures; between which rose the thin lofty walls, terminated with slender minarets and columns. A stillness the most profound and a terrible solitude forced themselves constantly on the mind as the great features of the place.
Fremont’s barometer indicated an elevation of 13,570 feet, remarkably close to the 13,745 feet on current maps. Preuss had guessed that the barometer readings “will probably correspond to almost 10,000 feet.”
Preuss’s diary entries after the climb suggest he was well pleased with the ascent. His one complaint is that Fremont didn’t give him time to make measurements and that “when the time comes for me to make my map in Washington, he will more than regret this unwise haste.”
Fremont’s wife Jessie polished his journals for publication, adding much flair, but these may have been his own reflections as he left the summit:
We had accomplished an object of laudable ambition, and beyond the strict order of our instructions. We had climbed the loftiest peak of the Rocky mountains, and looked down upon the snow a thousand feet below, and, standing where never human foot had stood before, felt the exultation of first explorers.
Thirty years later Americans still knew little about the interior West, but four government survey parties were filling in the map. With vaguely defined domains, their leaders, Powell, King, Wheeler, and Hayden, scrambled around Washington for funding. Art attracted Congress’s attention, and the surveys competed not only for turf but for artists, the most sought-after being painter Thomas Moran, photographer William Henry Jackson, and sketcher William Henry Holmes.
Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden wandered through Colorado and Wyoming, investigating whatever interested him. Summer 1877 found Hayden’s men in the Wind Rivers. A.D. Wilson, with two companions, “started for the point I then took to be Fremont’s Peak.” They reached the point but found themselves on 11,857-foot Mt. Baldy.
Wilson returned in 1878, bringing Jackson and Holmes to depict the landscape. They found Fremont Peak, and a group that included Wilson, Jackson, Holmes, and Hayden climbed it. A Holmes sketch catches a triangulation team at work on Fremont’s summit, with (according to its caption) a “snow capped peak north of Fremont’s” visible in the background. Wilson’s report and map give no hint that the surveyors found this Rum Doodle to be higher. They were establishing a triangulation network across the West, and were sighting lines to Wind River Peak (the one 13,000er in the southern half of the range) and the Grand Teton. By 1906, when that snow-capped peak was determined to be nearly 60 feet higher than Fremont, the four surveys had been consolidated as the U.S. Geological Survey, its Chief Geographer being Henry Gannett, for whom the peak was named. Nevertheless, the topographic map published in 1906 is the Fremont Peak quadrangle.
Twentieth Century Climbing:
In 1924 and 1926, Albert Ellingwood, a Colorado professor, visited the area. As a Rhodes Scholar, Ellingwood had climbed in England’s Lake District and learned how to use a rope. In Colorado, in 1920, he led the first ascent of Lizard Head, in the Sangre de Cristo, perhaps then the hardest climb in America. In 1923 he made the first ascents of the Middle and South Tetons. He must have been the first climber to bring a rope to Titcomb Basin and must also have been the first of many prominent climbers who achieved renown elsewhere but parenthetically left their mark in the Titcomb area. In 1924, with Carl Blaurock and Herman Buhl (though not that one), he climbed Mt. Helen from the east and, with Buhl and Buhl’s wife, the Northeast Ridge of Fremont, the first non-Southwest Slope ascent. Two years later, with various partners (or not) he climbed Helen from Titcomb Basin, Sacagawea, Knife Point, and the peak we call Ellingwood.
In 1927 Kenneth Henderson visited Dinwoody Glacier and, though he did not climb, was left with “the distinct impression that here was to be found one of the best climbing centers in the United States.” He returned two years later with Robert Underhill and Henry Hall. Henderson and Underhill were becoming well known for ascents in the Tetons: East Ridge, Underhill Ridge, and North Ridge of the Grand, and the first ascent of Mt. Owen.
They climbed most everything around Dinwoody Glacier, including Gannett by its north face, the Triple Traverse of Warren, Doublet, and Dinwoody, and the Sphinx. On their last day, after traversing the Sphinx, they considered continuing to Woodrow Wilson before thinking better of it. Appalachia was at that time the journal of record for the Wind Rivers, and in 1932 and 1933 Henderson published long articles that may be considered the range’s First guidebook.
At this time another noteworthy name appears in Wind River history: Paul Petzoldt, who a few years earlier had conceived the notion of guiding people up the Grand Teton. In 1931 Petzoldt and Gustav and Theodore Koven made the first ascents of American Legion Peak and Mt.
Arrowhead, presumably from Jean Lakes.
Henderson returned to Titcomb Basin in 1936 with a mob, and Underhill and his wife Miriam returned in 1939. While their accomplishments lacked the significance of their earlier climbs, Henderson did get his mob up the peak now named for him.
Hans Kraus, the pioneer of numerous early Gunks classics, visited Titcomb Basin in 1945 and 1946, climbing Woodrow Wilson’s South Face, the Sphinx’s Southeast Ridge, and Helen’s Tower Ridge—routes that not only were harder than earlier routes but two of which still qualify as classics.
After 1946 the Cirque of the Towers, 30 miles southeast, began making headlines, which helps explain Titcomb’s disappearance from whatever radar the Wind Rivers have ever been subjected to. For the next two decades Titcomb Basin was not unvisited but was not where standards were being advanced.
This left a venue with such opportunities for pioneering that it inevitably attracted Fred Beckey, who made his first appearance in 1969, with Pat Callis. Sacagawea’s south summit has a west face distinct from the main peak’s west face, and Beckey and Callis climbed it. They also climbed the Red Tower, between Fremont’s west face and southwest slope. And the North Arete of Ellingwood, though Beckey later got the worst news possible for him: that Bob Bauman, in 1967, had soloed the arete. Also on the 1969 trip, Beckey and Callis detoured to Mt. Arrowhead, which, while it doesn’t overlook Titcomb Basin, has a south face often in sight during the hike to Island Lake. They climbed the first of the four routes now on the face.
In the 1970s the ripples created by Yosemite’s Golden Age were spreading farther from the Valley, and Titcomb saw a flurry of activity. In 1976 Beckey, Bill Lahr, and Craig Mortinson climbed Fremont’s West Buttress (now IV 5.10) and the west face of Helen’s Tower 1 (V 5.10 A2). Also in 1976 Michael Kennedy and Chris Landry climbed routes on Fremont’s west face (IV 5.10) and the west face of Sacagawea’s main peak (III 5.9). In 1977 Landry soloed a dihedral (IV 5.9 Al) between those two Fremont routes. Also in 1977 Carla Firey and Jim M. McCarthy climbed a III 5.9 route to the left of the other Fremont west face routes.
Meanwhile, in 1971 Ray Jacquot and Bill Lindberg climbed the Wind Rivers’ answer to the Grands Black Ice Couloir (also first climbed by Jacquot): Helen’s Tower 1 Gully.
There remained opportunity for a straighter line on the area’s biggest wall, the west face of Tower 1. Such a line was climbed in 1981, in 11 pitches, by Greg Collins and Mike Keough— still the area’s only 5.11.
Getting There and Being There:
The 12-mile hike to Island Lake begins at Elkhart Park, 14 miles of paved road from the town of Pinedale. Elkhart Park’s elevation of 9,380 feet implies a gain of a mere 1,000 feet to Island Lake, which sounds too good to be true. It is too good to be true: you gain and lose those thousand feet repeatedly. The initial five miles are efficient but not scenic and bring you to the first view of the mountains, at Photographers’ Point, where hikers reflexively reach for cameras and snacks. From here the trail is inefficient but scenic, as you bob up and down past many lakes before meeting the Highline Trail, coming from the south. The Highline, the Wind Rivers’ answer to the Sierra’s John Muir Trail, parallels the crest for 65 miles from Big Sandy Opening to Green River Lakes and coincides briefly with the Island Lake Trail before continuing north. If you’ve been admiring Arrowhead and its neighbors during the hike and want a closer look, follow the Highline to the Jean Lakes.
The Island Lake Trail ascends one final rise, to what may be the classic Wind River view: lake in foreground, peaks beyond. Unless you’re of stouter heart than many of us, you may be tempted to drop your pack just before the lake. There are two reasons not to: the campsites are overused, and whatever you plan to climb is farther along. If you continue another mile, rounding Island Lake, you come to the junction of the Titcomb Basin and Indian Basin trails.
The Wind Rivers offer the most luxurious campsites of any range I know. Most lie at an elevation between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, and at the Titcomb-Indian junction you can see idyllic campsites all around. During midsummer there are likely to be tents in some of these spots, and you may think this must be the place to camp. It isn’t. Wilderness regulations specify that campsites be 200 feet from trails and lakes and 100 feet from creeks, but also consider privacy. In the Cirque I’ve seen climbers leave in the morning camped in seclusion and return to find themselves in a Zuccotti Park of tents. You can see many excellent unoccupied sites from the junction, plus there are even better ones you can’t see, behind knolls, across creeks. If campers spread out, Titcomb Basin can accommodate a large number without feeling crowded.
Camping near the Titcomb-Indian junction is as good as it gets, and the day’s hike from Elkhart Park may be all that most of us have in us. But if your plans include Helen, Woodrow Wilson, the Sphinx, or Dinwoody/Bonney Pass, beware of that scoundrel, foreshortening. Upper Titcomb Basin, close as it may look, is five miles away and nearly 1,000 feet higher. While upper Titcomb is austere tundra compared to Island Lake, its camping offers all the amenities. Indian Basin is much the same once you climb for half a mile from the junction, though its geography is more convoluted and its campsites more sporadic than Titcomb’s.
The hospitable environment of Titcomb and Indian Basins confers the obligation on us to minimize our impact. If you’re coming from certain climber-infested habitats, the Wind Rivers may seem pristine, but they aren’t. I won’t reiterate the obvious misuses that trash a meadow, but I will deplore the heaving around of rocks.
Rocks are inanimate objects, and there is no shortage in Titcomb Basin. But evidence has been accumulating that the main cause of deterioration of mountain meadows is campers rearranging rocks. Why move rocks? Wind River turf takes tent stakes as well as need be; experiment before positioning your tent. Wind breaks are another unnecessary engineering feat. Despite the range’s name, the Wind Rivers are no windier than other mountains of the Rockies. When situating a campsite, look for natural windbreaks, such as boulders and tree clusters.
Campfires aren’t allowed above 10,000 feet, but a better reason for not making a fire at Island Lake is that every branch in reach was stripped long ago from the sparse trees. It is even more unconscionable to consume this even scarcer resource near the Titcomb-Indian Basin junction. In the upper basins your ethics are spared a trial: the nearest tree is miles away.
Your goal should be to leave a campsite looking like no one had camped there.
Anything Lhft to Do?
After Mark Jenkins returned from his 2011 trip to the Titcomb Basin, during which he climbed new routes on Fremont and Sacagawea (see Climbs & Expeditions pages 105-110), we had an e-mail exchange that went something like this:
Kelsey: Good job! I hope you appreciate the context in which you did those routes. The Wind Rivers are climbed out, and cool people climb only in the Cirque and at Deep Lake. But there you were in the heart of the range, on two of the most significant peaks.
Jenkins: You’re joking about the Winds being “climbed out,” aren’t you? There are at least twenty routes on the East Face of Longs Peak, and there are many walls like it throughout the Winds. Half of the faces and spires of [redacted] remain unclimbed. There are dozens of 10-pitch+ routes left in the [redacted] valley, not to mention routes deeper in this watershed near the Continental Divide. What’s more, many routes have yet to go free. Comparing the Winds with Yosemite Valley, there are lifetimes worth of new route potential.
Kelsey: In 1970, my 2nd trip to the Cirque, on the way in I passed Beckey on his way out. He’d gone to do a new route on Warbonnet, failed to find a route worth trying, and declared the Cirque “climbed out.” He didn’t know why people went there any more, maybe to have a good time. So, yes, I’m kidding, or at least mimicking pundits. While reminding myself to be sure my writings don’t imply an end to any Golden Age.
Your “deeper in the watershed” of [redacted] Creek is intriguing country— the wildest I know of in the Lower 48—and I encourage you to poke your nose farther into it, even if your routes are never repeated. Just having routes there would add to our connection with the Wind Rivers. Presumably you haven’t even contemplated the [redacted] area yet.
I’ve had a mantra for would-be new-routers: remote, unknown, without a prominent summit. This takes you away from the Cirque of the Towers, where adventure is diminished by popularity.
But Jenkins’ adventures on two of the range’s most conspicuous faces, leading to prominent summits, has me revising my mantra to include peaks that have spent a generation out of the news.
The quest for the undone may be motivated by lust for renown, but, as Beckey
conjectured, climbers do go to the Wind Rivers for a good time, not fame, and reporting is less rigorous than in more prestigious ranges. The concept of a new route depends on your definition of new. Reading reports in the AA], you get the impression that you haven’t climbed something new in the Wind Rivers unless you discover fixed gear. (See Chris Barlow’s Ambush report on page 108.)
You may suspect a cadre of insiders is keeping secrets. Not that I know of, and I think of myself as a historian. I’ve been as mystified by fixed gear as anyone, most memorably far from Titcomb Basin, near the south end of the range. In 1967 Beckey and Bob Stevenson climbed a formation they named Continental Tower. A next-door neighbor was shrouded in literary silence, so Paul Horton and I climbed it, via a five-pitch arete that led to a shoulder a few hundred feet from the top. I led a pitch, and Paul began a final one. Halfway up, he muttered unintelligibly.
“What?” I yelled up.
“A piton!” A pre- Chouinard, soft-iron piton, then another. On the summit was a cellophane bread wrapper, not preserving well a note that once must have given first ascent data, and three more trusty rusties, obviously rappel anchors.
I hoped my AAJ report would flush the culprits from hiding, but it didn’t. The signatories of the ink-smeared pulp will achieve no recognition beyond the guidebook notation “FA: Unknown,” no reward beyond memories. Far from disappointing me, our mysterious predecessors enhanced my experience—not quite up to finding a mummy on an “unclimbed” Andean volcano, but adding another dimension to our adventure.
Don’t let the discovery of artifacts ruin your day. Measure not the virginity of your line but its quality and the pleasure of a day in the mountains.
The best you can do toward learning what has been climbed is to refer to my guidebook, to the AAJ (where occasional Wind River routes qualify for inclusion among “The World’s Most Significant Climbs”), and the Internet. The scattered climbers who visit the Wind Rivers gather at such on-line sites as Mountainproject.com. Like the Internet in general, Mountain project democratizes significance, with 5.7s standing proudly beside 5.12s.
To ascertain what has not been climbed, try the old-fashioned way: go look. The best way to find new route possibilities halfway around the world may involve research, but the best way to find a line that needs climbing in your neighborhood Wind Rivers is to seek adventure. If you spot an alluring line, and a new route happens, we’ll look for your report. But even if you come upon a fixed stopper 10 feet from the top, you’ll have had your adventure. I know of eight new routes done in 2011, of which six ascend rock pictured in the guidebook. The photos may show the best-known features in the range, but they show a tiny fraction of the possibilities.
To my knowledge there is only one bolt in Titcomb and Indian Basins. This scarcity can be attributed to the character of the rock, the backpack of 12-plus miles, or the outlawing of power drills in designated Wilderness. But the most important factor is climbers’ reverence for the precious commodity of wilderness.
Although these may be good enough reasons for not bolting, it’s worth considering that “fixed anchors” (bolts and rappel anchors) in National Forest Wilderness have been a sensitive issue. Promiscuous bolting could give the Forest Service cause to revisit fixed anchors. Climbers have been working with the Forest Service to devise a reasonable Wilderness climbing policy. Among points of the proposed policy are these: Climbing that doesn’t rely on fixed anchors should be the norm. Fixed anchors are appropriate only where necessary for rappelling and no other safe means of descent is available. (No bolted rap routes simply for convenience.) This proposal reflects the attitude of nearly all Wind River climbers.
Perhaps we can define wilderness as a place where we are free to place bolts, but we refrain because it is wilderness.
Time doesn’t hurry by in Titcomb Basin, and 1995 seems only a few years ago. Lorna Corson, Norm Larson, Paul Horton, and I went to Indian Basin to check out a presumably untouched formation. On Ellingwood’s east ridge was a tower called Notch Pinnacle, which had been climbed a few times, and farther along another tower, unnamed, unmentioned, and perhaps overlooked. Notch Pinnacle and its neighbor stand as proudly free as several of the Cirque’s towers, so it seemed a certifiable summit. Until its real name revealed itself, we referred to it as Not Notch Pinnacle.
The one reasonable line looked nice, worthwhile whether unclimbed or swarmed over by humanity. And it was nice: seven pitches, all 5.6 or 5.7, all with personality. I arrived last at the top, where Norm was already wrapping webbing around the only block suitable for a rappel anchor, and asked, “Any evidence?” My friends shook their heads. The evidence that a peak has not been climbed is never as conclusive as evidence that a peak has been climbed, but the absence of a cairn, of soggy paper crammed in a rusty tobacco tin, and of a wind- frayed, rodent-gnawed, sun-bleached remnant of rappel webbing made us as certain as we could be of being first. It isn’t a summit from which you’d descend without rappelling.
No sooner had we shrugged off our ropes and racks in camp than Norm insisted that Not Notch Pinnacle was not a name. So we warmed ourselves with soup and vetoed suggestions. We looked at our formation, hoping to follow the tradition that has given the range Bear’s Tooth, Camel’s Hump, Shark’s Nose, and Wolf’s Head, but no one could see so much as an anteater’s snout. Paul, who had been listening more than participating, then undid an hour’s effort by wondering, “What’s wrong with Not Notch Pinnacle?”
Will anyone be so lucky again? I can’t say, but I can say that within sight of a few of the Titcomb area peaks is a significant formation, apparendy unclimbed, whose existence only a few are aware of.
There are other Not Notch Pinnacles in the lives of men.
Notes, Some Personal, on Interesting Routes:
Ellingwood Peak, North Arête (III 5.6). The most popular rock route in the area. Ellingwood’s north and east faces intersect at a 60° arete, visible in profile from as far away as Pinedale. Notwithstanding its solo first ascent, its 1,500 feet are continuously exposed, and most climbers remain roped. A topo would be superfluous; you flow wherever looks best.
The descent of the class 4 Southwest Ridge takes time but is clean and preferable to any of the class 3 northwest-facing couloirs.
Not Notch Pinnacle (III 5.7). I am skeptical of a first ascent team’s claim that their route is a classic. But when I am the first ascent team’s spokesman, I am more credulous.
The route deserves a better descent than ours. A rappel from an obvious horn a few feet from the summit gets you down 200 feet, but that takes you to several hundred feet of class 3 zigzagging through rubble that precludes rappelling. I reoxygenated when I finally found a solid block a ropelength above terra firma.
Knife Point Mountain, Northwest Ridge (II 5.4). The El Dorado of the Wind Rivers is “Another Wolf’s Head”—a jagged crest like Wolf’s Head’s East Ridge, in the Cirque of the Towers, which features two-foot-wide, hideously exposed gangplanks and garish gendarmes circumvented by improbable horizontal cracks. Knife Point’s Northwest Ridge, with its mile of shaggy silhouette, was a candidate, but as Another Wolf’s Head, it fails to provoke the terror and pessimism we crave. Most of Knife Point’s obstacles are too easily bypassed, and the cruxes involve downclimbing their backsides.
Jackson Peak, North Couloirs (III 50° Ice). There is little to differentiate two broad icy couloirs, both seven pitches, both 50°, both perhaps too wide to be called couloirs. When Jack Clinton and I went to climb one or the other late one September, they were guarded by impassable bergschrunds, so we climbed a narrow couloir between the two.
Fremont Peak, Southwest Slope (I class 3). A hiker’s way up a well-known peak. You can reach the 11,840-foot saddle at the base of the slope from Titcomb Basin’s Mistake Lake or Indian Basin’s Lake 11,008, the former being more obvious, the latter far pleasanter. Routefinding up the slope is confounded by overabundant cairns.
Fremont Peak, Five-Finger Couloir (II Snow). A worthy way up Wyoming’s third highest peak, the Five-Finger Couloir helps identify Fremont from as far south as the Cirque, but it can’t be seen from the Indian Basin approach till you are beneath it. South-facing is not propitious for a snow route, but the couloir is inset deep enough to minimize direct sun. One of the five fingers into which the couloir branches deposits you at the very summit.
Fremont Peak, West Buttress (IV 5.10). This rib, separating the steep west face and gentle southwest slope, is Fremont’s most prominent architectural feature and therefore the most obvious of the more difficult objectives.
Fremont Peak, West Face Dihedral (IV 5.9 Al). The west face is split by a particularly straight corner, so this route is easy to identify. We often note an aid rating attached to a route description and read no further. However, if you read the fine print—here quoting Chris Landry in the 1978 AAJ—it may say something like “a small amount of aid was used.” If you crave significance, a FFA awaits.
Mt. Sacagawea, West Face Right (III 5.9). The most ambitious trip I’ve made to Titcomb Basin turned out to be the wettest. On our best day we squeezed in Sacagawea’s West Face between three thunderstorms. While I focused on the sky, I did note a nice route underfoot. After you scramble unroped for a surprising distance, there are four pitches on the face. You then step around the face’s right edge and are surprised to find four challenging pitches right of the edge. Mt. Helen, Tower Ridge (III 5.7). The first half of Hans Kraus’s route, which ascends Tower 1, mixes class 3, class 4, and easy class 5 so haphazardly as to be indescribable in terms of pitches. Bypassing Towers 2 and 3 requires either routefinding acumen or luck. I’ve heard of several ways up the summit tower, some 5.6 and some 5.7. Hurrying to beat an impending storm, we found a 5.8 way.
Helen, being a real mountain, involves a real descent: a few hundred feet down a class 4 ridge, Sacagawea Glacier, and interminable rubble. I was exhausted by the end of the day, with increased respect for the leather-booted, shoulder-belaying pioneers.
Mt. Helen, Tower 1 Gully (IV WI3+). To anyone who has descended south from Dinwoody/ Bonney Pass, Tower 1 Gully needs no introduction. You only need reassurance that its steepness is only 60°. From the top of the gully, you can continue via Tower Ridge to the summit or work your way down from the south side of the Tower 1 col.
Mt. Warren, Triple Traverse (III class 5). Mt. Warren (13,722) does not quite overlook Titcomb Basin, but its satellites Doublet and Dinwoody do, and a traverse of the three, beginning with Warren, inaugurated by Henderson and Underhill, is one of the few traditional Wind River traverses. While usually done from Dinwoody Glacier, it is feasible from upper Titcomb, by way of Helen Glacier.
Gannett Peak via Dinwoody/Bonney Pass. Gannett is reached by the same effort from the range’s west side (Flkhart Park) as from the east side ('Trail Lake). However, success is far more frequent from the east. The reason must be that hiking in from the east, you get the ups and downs out of the way during the hike in, not on the summit day. To climb Gannett from an 11,000-foot camp in upper Titcomb Basin, you hike up snow or global-warming scree to 12,800+-foot Dinwoody/Bonney Pass, then descend Dinwoody Glacier to 11,600 feet or worse, before climbing 13,802-foot Gannett—and then retrace your steps.
A classic way to traverse the range involves backpacking in from Trail Lake, climbing Gannett, crossing Dinwoody/Bonney Pass, and hiking (and perhaps peak bagging) through Titcomb Basin and out to Elkhart Park.
The Sphinx, Southeast Ridge (III 5.7+). Hans Kraus often asked Jim McCarthy why he didn’t climb Kraus’s routes when he was in the Wind Rivers. So in 1994 Jim and Laura McCarthy, Dick DuMais, and I climbed the Sphinx. The account of Kraus’s first ascent devotes what seemed disproportionate attention to five “digits.” I didn’t know whether to treat the digits as quaint or worrisome, since the view from Titcomb Basin shows the ridge rising in two steps, separated by a horizontal break.
The lower step begins with a difficult little headwall. The route, and history, was marked by a Kraus-vintage piton. I climbed to the piton, clipped it as communion, placed a nut for safety, and found no holds. I heard Kraus’s gentlemanly voice in the piton telling me that if he could climb it, I could, but I eventually climbed a crack off left, surely not the 1945 way. Jim later reminded me that in those days European free climbing included holding and stepping on pitons; this, the piton’s voice neglected to mention. The lower step ends in one of those magical 5.0 pitches. This one ascends a steep face 10 feet wide, with monstrous drops to Sphinx Glacier on one side and Dinwoody Glacier on the other, over rock studded with door knobs and split by an irregular crack.
From the top of the lower step, the digits reveal themselves. The view from Titcomb
Basin turns out to be like the view of your hand when you hold it palm-sideways. From a distance it appears that you simply climb the thumb, then the index finger. Now, seeing the ridge’s upper section differently, we saw a gauntlet of five or more gendarmes, some separated by thin cracks, some by wider gaps. I passed the thumb high on its left side, but the left side of the next digit overhangs, so I traversed under its right side, then climbed the crack separating it from the digit beyond. We spent a few hours passing digits to the left, to the right, climbing cracks between them, reaching digit tips, and descending to notches.
Henderson Peak, North Ridge (II class 4). When I scrambled up American Legion Peak, the north ridge of Henderson Peak looked exceptionally fine, though I hadn’t heard of it being climbed. Paul Horton and I approached from the jean Lakes side, no doubt more hassle-free than a Titcomb-side approach. We came equipped for 5th class climbing. We never used the rope but, always expecting to, kept it handy. The ridge is solid, exposed, and often improbable. There are moves that could be rated easy 5th, but they are invariably just above ledges. While climbers tend to agree about a harder route’s quality, our assessment of easier routes is far less consistent. Consider this subjectivity as I say that this is my all-time favorite route I’ve done unroped.
In the summit register were two entries recording previous ascents of the North Ridge, but there was also Kenneth Henderson’s signature, dated 1936.
G-17, Northwest Ridge (III 5.9).
When the northern Wind Rivers were first mapped, the surveyors designated peaks by a letter and numeral. G was the letter in the upper Green River drainage.
The worthier peaks eventually acquired names, so that G-9 became Arrowhead and G-15 became Henderson. The peaks retaining G designations might suggest Karakoram grandeur, but actually they were the least interesting. However, a summit at the end of a spur extending from Henderson, while not of topographic significance, offers a climb of interest.
Paul Horton and Dick Olmstead first climbed the Northwest Ridge. Paul wanted to show me their route and wanted to leadthe first pitch. This continuous pitch was unquestionably the crux, which was the problem. I led 20 feet of the second pitch, after which the route disintegrated into scrambling, until the top few hundred feet, which involved minimal fifth class on an extremely airy edge.
While I wouldn’t declare the route a classic, it was a good day on rock, even if my memories of the difficult first pitch and airy but easy top pitches are as if from different climbs.
Arrowhead, South Face (II-III 5.7-5.8). Arrowhead’s southern aspect faces just the way we rock refugees like. Moreover, the arrow is fluted, and the south face is scored by numerous systems. There are four routes, all on good rock, with not much to distinguish one from another. Might as well make the approach and decide which to climb while you change into rock shoes at the tarn at the base. In the old days, Wind River route names were not a problem: you climbed a south face and called your route the South Face. When there was a second route, the guidebook resorted to South Face Left and South Face Right. Four routes, however, overwhelm the system, and it may be too late to rectify. They could be the Beckey-Callis, Horton-Olmstead, Chouinard-Jenkins, and Horton-Horton-Lang-Stolp, but I am an egalitarian, and it pains me when such names are condensed to “the Beckey Route” or “the Chouinard Route,” giving the more famous all the credit.
Stroud Peak, Southeast Ridge (I class 2). My favorite Wind River walk-up. The ideal is all grass and bedrock, no boulders or rubble, and Stroud’s Southeast Ridge comes close to this ideal. Plus the view is vertiginous enough that you can imagine you’ve reached a significant summit.
The antediluvian definition of class 2 included “proper footwear advised.” Class 2 also prescribed “occasional use of hands for balance,” in contrast to class 3, where “handholds and footholds are used.” I didn’t originally expect to write a guidebook, and when I was compiling the first edition, I couldn’t remember whether, during my peak-bagging rambles, I’d used my hands for balance or prehensily. But I could remember which peaks my golden retrievers had summited, so I differentiated class 2 and 3 according to my dogs’ successes and failures. I snuck the dog-possible criterion into the introduction, supposing that no one reads introductions, forgetting that on rainy, tentbound days climbers are starved for entertainment and read anything. My definition became the most cited passage in the book. Dogs can’t do Stroud’s summit block, but I credit mine with an ascent because they get close enough to not whine at being abandoned.
No one hikes to Island Lake and beyond for one-pitch routes or toproping. However, most Wind River cirques offer splendid cragging for days when the rain stops at 10 a.m.. Two hidden crannies in the Titcomb area are worth mentioning. At Mistake Lake, on a bench above the Titcomb Lakes, is a slab not overly challenging but great for instruction. Under Elephant Head, reached by valleys from either Island Lake or Indian Basin, is a collection of one-pitch cliffs: Elephant’s Foot, of course.
A Brief Note About the Author:
Joe Kelsey was born two years after the first ascent of Henderson Peak and first tied a bowline around his waist in 1962, in the Gunks. Since 1972 he has based his Wind River excursions from a primitive cabin in Jackson Hole, also his base when guiding for Exum for 20 years. He winters in Bishop, California, at the base of some other mountains.
The third edition of his guidebook is due out in Spring 2013.