From California, through Nevada, to Utah and Wyoming. We could not help but sing the song ‘On the Road Again’ as we drove miles and miles of road on our way to the Cirque. The open road once again felt free as we cruised endless highway, windows down.
Cirque of the Towers or “the Cirque”. Abbreviated because any climber in North America, and maybe beyond, knows exactly what and where this place is when one says “the Cirque”. A high-alpine lake surrounded by thousand-foot granite towers on nearly all sides, it is considered yet another premier alpine climbing area in North America. It also remains one of the most wild.
To get there one must first make it to the tiny town of Boulder, Wyoming. Here, the dogs went to boarding, and we continued our trek east for 40-miles of dirt road travel. This long, but beautifully remote road landed us at the Big Sandy Trailhead which is the gateway to the wilds of the Wind River Range. We camped for the night in the parking lot rather than the campground. We organized our gear, packed our bags and slept well in prep for our early start.
The Cirque is certainly not the only climbing area in the Wind River Range, host to numerous big alpine climbing targets. For access to specifically the Cirque however, at 7 AM we started up the Big Sandy trail for 13-miles of mind blowing terrain, wildflowers, alpine lakes, and peaks. The Cirque area is up and over what is called Jackass Pass, but along the way we trekked by three glass-like alpine lakes and multiple other peaks that hosted numerous climbing lines of their own. It is not until you reach the top of Jackass Pass around mile ~10 that the Cirque comes into view. Then? In-your-face, massive and dramatic towers everywhere in sight. As tired as we were from hauling the 60-70-lb packs and out-running the bird sized mosquitoes*, seeing those towers put us into a sprint for the finish.
*One of the most repetitive warnings we received and read about were in regards to the mosquitoes. No, not that climbs, loose rock and potential snow/ice falls…the mosquitoes. We read numerous trip reports that stated the insects were unbearable, especially the time of year we were to be there. ‘DANGER, DANGER’ the trip reports read. ‘Bring GALLONS of mosquito spray, a head net and pray you make it out alive!’ I am being dramatic here, but we were genuinely concerned about our experience from all that we had read! Honestly? If you are reading this and are considering a visit to the Cirque, have no fear. The mosquitoes, while pesky at times, were not near as big and bad as those in Minnesota or the Midwest. Just bring your grit for tolerating bugs, not your whine and cheese. : )
Unfortunately, it had been raining most of the day with periodic thunder so other than setting up base camp, our adventure for the day was limited. But, we were not terribly disappointed as it forced us to rest after the 13 mile approach, and the weather report looked good for the rest of the week. So, we set-up our new Big Agnes Shield 2 tent (which we LOVE!, 4 season tent, built bomber), explored the area, scouted out the next day’s climb from below, and cooked dinner. On the hike in and throughout our days there, we met folks from Arkansas, British Columbia and many other places. While there were a fair amount of backpackers and climbers also calling Cirque home this week, the area was so expansive, we felt alone. We curled up for bed.
The alarm was set for 5 AM. We hoped for an early start with the goal of climbing a four pitch 5.9 high on Pingora Peak. However, as the alarm sounded its tone was drowned out by the sound of rain on the tent. Another delay, but the rock tends to dry quickly – the plan was to sleep a little longer and see where things were at an hour or two from now. We woke again at 7 AM to sunshine, a dry tent, and dry grass. Dry grass = dry rock! We quickly ate something and started the 90 minute approach to the climb. We quickly realized, however, it was not going to be our day.
By the time we arrived at the base of the climb the temperature had dropped, the wind had picked up its pace and dark clouds rolled our way. We sat roped up for nearly 30 minutes watching the clouds and struggling to decide whether to go for it. It was the kind of weather that just as easily could do nothing as produce a heavy rain or storm. It was clear other parties were debating the same both on our peak and others. Some were deciding to bail and head down, others pushed on. We decided to head down – a conservative and safe decision. It is never easy to walk away from a climb due to such a relative unknown, but, as the saying goes…safety first. It was early in the day and if the weather broke we could make the approach again and climb the route in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it teased all day with spitting rain and staying just dark enough to make us weary of another attempt. Could we have made the climb in those conditions? Sure, but maybe because it was not our “one” climbing venture of the summer, or because we were tired and not motivated enough, or maybe acting on the very conservative end of the spectrum….regardless, we spent the day napping and playing cards. Tomorrow we would try again.
The third day granted us a blue-bird day. We got another early start and arrived at the base of the climb once again (Pingora Peak, Southwest Face) at about 7:30 AM. It was a four pitch climb that proved each pitch to be truly on classic level. Only one pitch threw our not-so-favorite style at us…involving off-width groveling (when a line is off-width, the crack is wider than your fist, but too small to allow your body to fit inside, making hand and foot jamming a bit harder). We finished the pitches in three hours, enjoyed the summit, and rappelled back to the base. Once at the base, we discussed whether to squeeze in another route, but, with another party just about to start the same climb ahead of us, we decided to call it a day. We hiked back to camp, packed up our gear and started the hike up and over Jackass Pass. Our plan was to hike six miles out and camp just below Sundance Pinnacle. Our sights were on the five pitch Right Crack (5.10b/c) in hopes of climbing the route in the morning before hiking the rest of the way out.
It was a gorgeous night with stars so bright that headlamps were not needed and the Milky Way so incredibly present it was tough to force ourselves to bed. As we talked more about the Sundance climb, the more and more we became conflicted. We could not place our indifference. We felt desperate to get another Cirque climb in. We were there, at the base of such impressive rock. We HAD to. On the flip, we were tired. The last two months of climbing with as little as ten days off were starting to take a toll, physically and mentally. What was wrong with us? We both did not want to say it.
Finally, we both agreed out loud. The route could potentially take over four hours + a two hour hike out + a two hour drive to pick up the dogs from boarding before business closing = a decision to skip the climb. We hiked out the following morning and reached the van craving real food, quality pup time and the time off ahead. We were Montana bound to a family cabin, lakeside to Flathead Lake for a well-deserved week of rest.
Reading this one might think that we would be filled with disappointment and frustration. We only were able to enjoy one day of climbing out of four in this wild backcountry. Yes, of course, we wish we would have climbed more. But, to simply see such an incredible place was worth every step, effort and mosquito swat. To be so far removed and see such stunning beauty is life changing, every single time. While climbing is the ultimate goal of our travels, it really is just the vehicle of which allows us to explore and truly experience new places. A well-known quote that resurfaced as we pondered our last two months resonates: “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”
Two months in. We have traveled five states, three national parks, five national recreation/forest areas and so many other phenomenal places. We have climbed sandstone, volcanic rock, granite spires, and granite domes. We have stood at the highest and lowest points of the lower 48. Our dogs have lived a dog’s dream-life. We have met people that made us laugh, made us think and have inspired. We have been moving non-stop. For two months. Boy, we are tired.
As we drove to the end of the dead end road to Eric’s family cabin on Flathead lake, we sighed with a bit of relief. We were ready to be settled for a bit, in a real bed, unpacked, and with real food options beyond oatmeal, peanut butter sandwiches, and what had become rather standard and limited dinner tendencies. We were ready to fully rest and reignite the mountain-stoke. At Flathead, we enjoyed a few visits to Tamarack Brewery (YUM!), time with family, skiing, running, swimming in crystal blue water, and plenty of dock sunbathing. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. On to Canada, eh?
Once again, check out the Photo Highlights page for more photos of our Cirque and lake time!