When i first heard about the Wind Rivers, I was sweltering in Camp 4. It was high summer in Yosemite Valley, and we were all tired of cowering in the shade. The idea of road tripping to a far mountain range felt like, “of course!” Leaving our Sierra home to strike out across the Great Basin, Carolyn Collins, Chris Fredericks and I were beset on all sides by exotic Americas: rural gas stations pumping languid time by the gallon, midnight hot springs off a Nevada two-lane, the unnaturally wide streets of Mormon outposts. Pinedale felt like a real-deal cow town with a feed store, no mountain shop, and working cowboys banging the bar door.
Long before the Winds appeared in our windshield, this journey had the keen excitement of fresh experience. Even leaving Chris to hitchhike east, bound for love not climbing, by the forlorn roadside of mining boomtown Rock Springs carried the tone of a noble quest. And that shivering wonder, the newness of everything we touched, pervaded our anticipation at each turn of the ascending trail.
Bent on the intrigue of smooth, radiant granite, we met my climbing buddies Kurt and John Wehbring. I lashed a potato sack bulging with gear to an aluminum pack frame. A quarter mile later, a moose grazed elbow-deep in Big Sandy Creek. Wildlife aside, the Winds felt eerily like a dirt-road byway of the Sierra but with many times more wildflowers–along with the fierce thunderstorms that watered them.
By the outlet of Lonesome Lake, the Cirque of the Towers arced around the skyline, calendar perfect. We pulled trout out of the water as fast as we could fry ’em. Overwhelmed by bounty, we finally resorted to fish chowder just for a change of pace. Carolyn didn’t climb, but she, too, felt entranced by the alpine sharpness: clean air and pure light, set off by a graceful spiryness of peaks. The Cirque felt like an echo of vanished Pleistocene glaciers, a natural enclosure focusing space itself, arising out of a strange and wonderful pluton. I could almost hear the cracks zinging into being as the range surfaced, its crystal brightness opening to the sun after eons of pressure in the dark underworld.
Kurt, John and I had brought the latest klettershoes, which, before there were modern rock shoes, were really more like lightweight, snug-fitting boots with a shallow-lug sole sensitive to each bump underfoot. Tied into a 3-strand Goldline rope, we slid piton hammers into their belt holsters and soared onto perfect granite.
Though we were alone, we sensed the traces of climbers who preceded us. Leafing through Orrin and Lorraine Bonney’s Field Book: The Wind River Range, we learned that Midwesterners–and even East Coasters–had toiled across the plains to seek adventure in this corner of the Rockies.
Across the lake rose a Yosemite-like tower with swooping, graceful sides. We were drawn to a line up its curved South Buttress, which turned out to be Pingora’s second route in 1951. The surprise, though, was that its first ascensionists hailed from a club called the Wisconsin Hoofers. The Chicago Mountaineering Club and even the Iowa Mountaineers had established lines nearby. William Plummer had teamed up with Wyoming local Bill Buckingham to climb the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head in 1959, which has become almost everyone’s second climb in the Cirque. These spires ringing above our heads came alive with a more far-flung and motley history than that of Yosemite’s walls, with their rather linear generations of Californians.
Since the early 1960s, when the pace of climbing intensified, the Cirque had begun to seem like a cosmopolitan crossroads of North America’s notable alpine rock climbers: the ubiquitous Fred Beckey; Yosemite compatriots Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Steve Roper and Eric Beck. And the Vulgarians would swarm in by the end of the decade–Joe Kelsey, for instance, who stayed to write the definitive Winds guidebook, one of the most literate anywhere. Even the Sierra’s own venerable Norman Clyde, whose routes I fondly traced back home, somehow found his way here as early as 1941.
After climbing classics every day, it was easy to assume that the great lines had all been snatched up. Our steps turned homeward, with lingering views of the great Cirque vanishing over Warbonnet’s shoulder. One last wall, Sundance Pinnacle, hesitated our footfall.
A prominent line capped by an offwidth promised a tension between allure and challenge, just uncertain enough to be irresistible.
Soon we threw off packs, grabbed the rope, clambered up steepening corners and found ourselves staring at the offwidth crux: my lead, and of course it yawned beyond our largest gear. But here was a starkness distinctly reminiscent of our home Valley, including the squirm of no protection. No gear had been developed yet that was wide enough. So, in time-honored style, I ratcheted upward, inches–or less–at a time. At least I must have; no trace of memory remains. Chalk those vanished moments up to intensity of focus.
We scrambled onto the blade of a summit–my first, first ascent–giddy and a little stunned. I thought of the great cartoonist Sheridan Anderson, at a Yosemite campfire earlier that summer, conjuring up a farcical route description requiring “an extra left klettershoe.” I liked its whimsy, so in honor of my bon vivant friend, I dubbed our climb Andy’s Only Extra Left Klettershoe Chimney and proudly sent the description off to the Bonneys in Texas. Our California humor must have been lost in translation; when the updated Field Book appeared years later, I was mystified to see our name truncated to Klettershoe Chimney.
We’d felt buoyant coming off every climb in the Cirque. Now, as we glided down the rocky trail, that feeling got suffused with a new layer, a kind of active, and paradoxically sharp, serenity. Suddenly we burst out running for no reason but exuberance. We had composed our own short story in a vast, still-quiet range, one that we’d return to for the rest of our lives–more important, this place had left its mark, indelibly, on us.