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My Big Scary First Ascent

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

Mitchell Peak (12,482'). [Photo] David Salisbury

Mitchell Peak (12,482′). [Photo] David Salisbury

SHEETS OF RAIN POURED OVER us as we reached the summit ridge. Even I, a naive college student from California, knew that hearing thunder instantly after lightning meant that the strike was damn close. Never mind that it appeared to be hitting the ridge of the peak we were still trying to summit–despite the dark, rain and lightning bolts. But, then, we had no choice. Our descent route lay on the other side of the mountain.

“Are we going to make it?” I asked. We’d crouched under a rock for partial shelter, and the thunder muffled my partner Dick Dorworth’s reply. We’d completed our first ascent of a new route on the north face of Mitchell Peak, my first new route on a big wall, and I wondered if it might be my last.

I’D NEVER BEEN TO WYOMING before that trip, but I’d heard about the high snowy mountains of the Tetons and the big granite walls in the Wind Rivers. To escape the Yosemite heat that summer, my friend Linda and I hitchhiked to Jackson, where we met up with Anne-Marie Rizzi, a climbing partner from Yosemite. We hoped to hitch to Big Sandy Opening. A few rides got us to Pinedale, the easy part–still on paved roads and in civilization. Now we had forty miles of dirt road left. A rancher felt sorry for three young girls, and he drove us the rest of the way to the trailhead. My friends and I shouldered heavy packs, weighted down with my parents’ ratty canvas tent that leaked on one side, my dad’s old rope and some chocks, and we hiked about nine miles over Jackass Pass.

The view when we woke intimidated me: dark, sheer walls surrounded the aptly named “Cirque of the Towers.” Linda said she wasn’t climbing. Anne-Marie and I decided to do the East Ridge of Wolf’s Head, which seemed reasonable at 5.5. (Today it’s rated 5.6 or 5.7.) Our ascent went well: on a ridge, it’s hard to get lost. Now we needed to get back down.

Rather than rappel with my pack, I had the brilliant idea to throw it below. As it fell, it tumbled over the wrong side of the mountain–the one that led away from camp. After scrambling hundreds of feet down to retrieve the pack and then back up to the ridge, we continued our descent. Clearly, I was not a mountaineer.

The next day, Linda hiked out, deciding that all the climbs looked too big and scary. Anne-Marie stayed another day, and then, missing the bar in Yosemite, the beer and cigarettes, she, too, left for the Valley.

Dick Dorworth, a guide who was camped nearby, asked me if I’d like to climb with him after his client left. He mentioned a new route possibility that he’d seen on Mitchell and suggested that we try it. I decided to stay.

A thunderstorm forced us to retreat on our initial foray, but eight days later, we headed up again. Dick handed me our minimal gear, pointed, and said, “Just head up that corner until you get to a good ledge, and set up a belay.”

I gulped. Just into my second summer of leading, I’d never lead a pitch on an unclimbed big wall. I had no idea what to expect, how long it would be before I could place gear or even find a place to belay. But my father, a strict German alpinist, had taught me to obey, so I grabbed the gear and headed up the steep-looking cracks and forbidding dark corners. When I arrived at a suitable-looking ledge, I slotted in a few nuts and yelled “Off Belay.”

Dick seemed satisfied with my lead, and he continued up the next pitch. Once I reached his belay, as before, he handed me the gear sling and I proceeded up another set of steep corners. Storms had taken over the afternoon skies on several previous days, so I felt pressure to go fast. After eleven pitches, we attained the summit plateau as all hell broke loose. The lightning seemed to aim directly for us.

Dick saw an overhanging ledge, grabbed me, and we huddled beneath it. I remembered that during a lightning storm, one should avoid high places (mountain summits), metal (our hardware), and caves (did our overhanging ledge count as a cave?)

In the pauses between lightning strikes, we noticed that night had fallen. Neither of us had headlamps. Clouds blanketed the sky, covering any light from the moon and stars.

“How will we get down?” I asked.

Dick assured me that we could descend in the dark since he remembered where the rappel slings were located. As lightning illuminated the summit plateau and outlined the rock outcroppings, we could see all the way to the far end, and we crawled toward the descent route. With each flash, Dick checked directions, and we inched ahead, awaiting our next glimpse of the terrain.

“I’ve got it!” he yelled. A brilliant stroke had lit up the rappel sling. In the next flash, we rigged our rappel and retreated, cold and soaking wet, reaching the ground in the pitch dark. Realizing our plight, our friends built an enormous bonfire that we could see from Mitchell so all we now had to do was head toward the red glow.

The next morning, I woke to blue skies and rays of crystal clear sun illuminating Mitchell. Even the corners we’d battled up a day earlier looked inviting in the golden light. I was warm, dry and ready for more.

Read more essays from our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile. Subscribe today or order your own copy in the store.