American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

New Routes on Elephant Head, Fremont Peak, and Mt. Sacagawea

North America, United States, Wyoming, Wind River Mountains, Titcomb Basin

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Mark Jenkins
  • Climb Year: 2011
  • Publication Year: 2012

Of all the ranges round the world, the Wind River Mountains, right in my backyard, remain one of my favorites. Granite walls towering above idyllic green meadows, marmots chirping, pikas braying, trout jumping, and skeeters buzzing—it simply doesn’t get better. I got into the Winds twice in late summer last year.

The first trip was with legendary Winds guidebook author Joe Kelsey (72) and photographer Ken Driese. We camped on the western edge of Indian Basin and Joe regaled us with tales of his 42 years of climbing in his beloved Winds. He’s been fortunate enough to miss a number of world-shaking events— Nixon resigning, Hurricane Katrina—by being in the mountains. Something we should all strive for.Ken and I put up a short route on the north face of Elephant Head, just right of the north arête. On the third pitch, at the belay, a loud, unknown scratching sound surprised me. Suddenly a huge packrat jumped out of the crack and began gnawing ferociously, with sharp teeth, on a sweaty, salt-soaked sling—the sling holding the belay. I beat it off before any damage was done, but for the rest of the belay I waited for it to leap from the crack and bite my face. Hence the route's name: Packrat, 6 pitches, 5.9.

On that same excursion I rope- soloed the short arête on the Red Tower, the southernmost fin on the west face of Fremont. A dangerously loose grunge pitch, several gorgeous 5.8 crack pitches, a difficult off width, and then, naturally, hail and lightning on the knife-point summit: Red Tower Arete, 6 pitches, 5.10.

I returned two weeks later with Class V kayaker Oliver Deshler. We camped in Titcomb Basin at the north end of Mistake Lake, directly below our objectives. The first day we attempted one of the west faces of Fremont, the first one north of the West Face Spire that Michael Kennedy climbed in 1977. After five pitches we were stymied by overhanging finger cracks and unwisely traversed right into a gully, doing two more pitches before I dislodged a 40-inch-TV size block that came within two feet of killing Oliver. We bailed.

The next day we climbed a new route on the swooping, sail-shaped main west face of Fremont, between the West Face Dihedral and the West Buttress routes. After a two-hour trod up talus, we started in a seepy black cave and did three easy pitches to vertical flakes. Two pitches of 5.9 led to an unseemly seam, so we delicately traversed right, 5.10, to a beautiful, arcing, left-facing dihedral. We did four lovely pitches of crack climbing—5.7, 5.9, 5.8 and one of the most exposed 5.10 traverses you’ll want to do—before the dihedral pinched off and we rapped 40' into the next dihedral north. Two more pitches, 5.8 and 5.7, in the sun at last, and we reached the summit scramble. We descended via the standard route on Fremont, dropping west rather than east off the saddle.

Because of the face’s western aspect and the north-facing dihedrals, until the last two pitches we spent the day in the shade. We climbed in our down jackets and were still trembling at every belay, goose down leaking from our torn sleeves and swirling in the air. Hence the name: Dark Side of the Moon, 12 pitches, 5.10.

We reached camp at Mistake Lake just at dark, and, true to his own twisted tradition, mad kayaker Oliver stripped and dove into the frigid water. A rest day followed, in which I lolled in the sun reading, popping ibuprofen, and drinking beer, while Oliver went for a short hike.

The following day, after another two- hour hump in the cold morning dark, we found ourselves at the base of Sacagawea. Our goal: the directissima. Starting dead center, we ascended flakes for nine pitches—5.7, 5.8, 5.9, 5.9, 5.8 chimney, the obligatory sketchy 5.10 traverse, where we left a nut with a purple sling swinging in the breeze, 5.10 off width, 5.10 face, 5.6 gully. The north-facing dihedral then turned to an overhanging off width/chimney for which we had no gear, so we ramped right out onto the face and into the sun (yes!), 5.6; curled around and ascended the south ridge for two more pitches, 5.7, 5.7, then another ropelength scramble west to the summit.

Low on the route, where the climbing was easy, we found two old pins, both set up for raps, but nothing above that. Again we chose a route in the shade, so we shivered our way up some of the finest, cleanest climbing I’ve done in the Winds. In honor of such a beautiful line on such an elegant peak, we named the route Indian Paintbrush, 12 pitches, 5.10.

There are lifetimes worth of new routes left in the Winds just waiting for the few, the proud, the backcountry alpinists. The climbing itself is not unlike that in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, although the hike in is often twice as far (15 miles), the approaches up talus twice as long (two hours), and the climbs themselves twice as tall (a dozen pitches). Which means you can’t easily rap back to the base. Instead, one typically hikes down from the summit. Hence, climbing with a relatively heavy pack (approach shoes, light down jacket, rain jacket, fleece cap and gloves, two quarts of water, lunch, etc.) is often obligatory Nonetheless, for a mere tank of gas and bag of groceries, the glory of unexplored granite is all yours.

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