Our Little Rodeo: Adventures and a First Ascent in the Wind River Range
Out of context, it all seems a bit absurd: the sleek expedition duffel dropped catawampus into the dusty pannier on the horse’s side, a lake with icebergs in mid-July (in Wyoming, not Alaska), a day that began with a race against mosquitoes and ended with a race against the setting sun, “attempted” open bivies (twice, mind you), front-pointing in tennis shoes down an icy couloir, another first ascent simply to retrieve a bag of rock shoes and water bottles. It was the accumulation of these absurdities that compelled us to contemplate the more philosophical ramifications of our existence as rock climbers. All that really came of them was a burly rock climb, a witty route name, and a pretty good story.
Mad and I met up in Lander, WY in early July. The plan had few more details than “a big mountain adventure.” Slowly, something more substantial emerged. Through all the photos, internet spew, conversations with other climbers, a single objective kept our attention: the east face of Ambush Peak.
Nestled deeply in the Wind River Range along the upper end of the East Fork Valley, Ambush’s east face is a bit of an obscurity, despite its being one of the largest faces in the Winds. There is good reason for the obscurity; the east face proper begins with 800 feet of moderate, clean slabs that eventually curve into a massive wall of discontinuous cracks and steep, complex corners. This 800-foot headwall is guarded nearly in its entirety by a large roof system – upwards of 30 feet at its largest – across the middle of the wall. The face’s history dates back to the 60s when Fred Beckey first climbed it and proposed “Ambush” as the name. Since then, the east face, which actually encompasses four distinct aspects of two summits, has seen somewhere around a dozen new routes by as many teams. For some reason, this activity has been poorly reported. There have been little blurbs here and there, but few of the most modern routes on Ambush’s east face have much of any detail in their descriptions. Nearly all of these narratives have a few things in common: dubious routefinding through nebulous features – often involving significant traversing away from the “intended” line – and the notorious “evidence of previous ascents” (i.e. fixed gear) high on the route after many pitches of what seems to be virgin terrain. From what we could gather from these reports, most of the established routes climbed slightly off from the true east face proper to avoid the roof system. As far as we knew, only one line went through the roof itself – an unreported Chip Chace line carrying the formidable “A3+ R” rating. Not that encouraging.
Mad and I hoped to change the shroud of obscurity around Ambush Peak. Armed with enough bags of gear to make the two of us and a horse stagger under the weight, we set off on the 14-mile hike from Big Sandy Opening to set up basecamp near Midsummer Dome. A record snow year in the Winds stopped the horse packer much shorter than we’d hoped, thereby forcing us to add an extra day of hiking to get the black duffel to our camp. Pyramid Lake, our home for two weeks, lay mostly beneath a large sheet of ice. The next day, we tried a moderate line on Midsummer Dome. What began as a mellow 600-foot 5.9 turned into an extended traverse away from cracks running with water followed by a hurried descent down steep snow as lightning split the sky overhead. “Our Little Rodeo,” as we’d somewhat ironically come to call the trip, had started off smashingly.
This is when I need to confess something. There was a time when I could climb the way a cowboy could. I didn’t dread the unknown; I dug it. Objective hazards weren’t reasons to go down; they were bullets to dodge. I wasn’t weighed down with fear; I was fueled by it. This has all changed. It didn’t take long before the mass of responsibility, commitment, and all the other “adult” things I’ve accumulated over the years started tugging on my tagline, reminding my that getting up there didn’t mean what it used to. Madaleine faces the mythical challenges of mountains a bit more elegantly than I do; she stares them down (even seeks them out on occasion) and suffers through them with resolve. She’s a pro and approaches this unknown world with a professional commitment. Needless to say, we had some tense belay-ledge conversations about the wind or impending rain. The crux of our tension was the issue of meaning – What did it mean to climb it? What would we give to climb it?
To our credit, we did manage to continue “doing something” while contemplating these questions. We started our exploration of the east face by climbing Ambush Plaisir (III 5.9). James and Franziska Garrett had established that route up the middle of the lower slabs to a rappel anchor below the large roof in 2006. We decided to leave from their high point to find a line through the roof system into the upper headwall and to the summit. After a short reconnaissance, we began forging up and right through the most accessible weakness of the roof we could see. Over a few days, we traded long leads (and corresponding belays) as we aided, cleaned, and equipped a few pitches through the steepest part of the wall. While we hadn’t free climbed the pitches yet, we felt that we may have broken through the major barrier to the line. After a rest day, we went for it. The mosquitoes were getting pretty thirsty, and we were getting antsy.
To give us more time on our route, we avoided the first several pitches of Ambush Plaisir by scrambling up a gully to the left. The gully offered quicker access to the upper wall and a longer feeding period for our little blood-sucking friends. The bugs had left by the time we started on the new pitches of climbing. Mad led a tenuous roof and slab to put us below the big roof. The next pitch was the big question. I had only seen the pitch from the comfort of aiders, and Mad had only briefly tried the moves on toprope. As I started climbing, I realized my stomach had been tight all morning. It wasn’t because it was dangerous (I hadn’t spent hours hand drilling those bolts for nothing!); it was that it was hard, that I might fail. When I started climbing, I let go of something; I accepted discomfort, fear, and the possibility of failure. And then I floated the pitch.
It wasn’t in the bag after that. Sure, the crux was done, but we had lots of unclimbed rock above us (didn’t know it at the time, though). Mad took the next pitch, a dicey lead through poorly protected 5.9 to a long, technical 5.11 splitter. After that, I crimped my way left into a steep dihedral. It started to rain slightly then cleared. We almost got thwarted by a benign-looking ramp that ultimately necessitated another bolt and some more reckoning with danger. We found the requisite “evidence of previous ascents” – an old fixed stopper in a crack near the top of the wall. Eventually, the climbing relented. The sun went down as we scrambled the final ridge. We gave each other high-fives and hugs by headlamp on the summit.
The descent of Ambush is not straightforward. One is supposed to descend to the west then traverse south to the saddle, then descend the couloir back to the base of the east face. We did the best we could with 10 meters of LED light. The distant lights of Pinedale teased us. After several hours and several hundred vertical feet of backtracking, we decided to give up and huddle under a boulder. Mad says it’s because I’m a bad bivouac buddy, but I think it was just that cold. We didn’t last long before we decided to go lower. Open bivy attempt #1.
We did find a better, more protected shelter, only this one had its entrance from directly above. After getting in settled, I looked through the opening above but couldn’t see any stars. Madaleine confirmed this. It was about 1am, and our levels of exhaustion had reached the “matter-of-fact” stage. This is when everything in one’s world is utterly a matter of fact. It became very clear to us both that if it started to rain, we would quickly become very cold and probably die. Obviously, the only solution was to continue walking. Open bivy attempt #2.
We reasoned that we could simply descend all the way to the base of the west face and at least find shelter and maybe even hike back up the drainage to the saddle. This actually worked. At 2am, we started descending east from the saddle down steep talus. Then, it started sleeting. Then, we opted to kick steps in the snow instead of the talus. Then, we were down. Finally, at 5am, after 23 hours of moving, we both curled up in our sleeping bags and fell asleep.
There was a catch. We’d left much of our gear in a cave at the base of the wall. More importantly, we still had gear on the wall – sort of. On our final push, we had chucked much of our extra gear down the wall in a dry bag. It seemed like a somewhat bad idea, but the alternative seemed worse. The slabby bottom section of the wall hung up the bag well above the bottom of the wall. The poorly protected, chossy, traversing 270-foot 5.7 wouldn’t have been fun under any circumstances, but the sting was particularly sharp two days after our ascent. We were done. We’d done what we came to do, and we were too tired to come up with something else. We packed our stuff and left it waiting for the horse to pick it up.
There’s not some grand philosophical resolution to this, despite the questions the experience catalyzed. We put up a rock climb – a damn good one, if you ask me. We hope other people will do it and enjoy it, maybe even have some kind of transcendence like we did. If nothing else, maybe it’ll give someone a chance to feel a little like a cowboy again. I sure did.
This article was published the 2011 Colorado College Alpine Journal. Read more stories like this one and check out other issues of this great publication here.