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Last Unclimbed Wind River
Posted on: August 29, 2016
Ellingwood Peak (13,052'), the most prominent in the photo, with Notch Pinnacle (12,720'+) to the immediate left and Not Notch Pinnacle (12,760'+) farther left. [Photo] Joe Kelsey
We'd read of a 1967 ascent of Continental Tower, but literary silence shrouded its sibling peak, so in 1994 we packed in to Little Sandy Creek's valley. We could have hiked up adjacent talus to a shoulder high on the tower, walked out on a ledge, and rock climbed just the upper few hundred feet. Instead, we headed up an acute-angled, lower arete—what climbers illogically call a logical line.
After five worthwhile pitches, we reached the shoulder. Two ropelengths separated us from the top. As Paul led toward a chimney on the final pitch, he let out an equivocal chuckle. If you climb long enough, you develop an ear for partners' mutters, but Paul's didn't match those that signal rattlesnake, loose block, jammed rope or wasps' nest.
It was an antique, forged of the soft iron that Chouinard's hard-steel pitons made obsolete around 1960. A few feet below the sloping summit, Paul came upon a second piton, this one holding an Army aluminum carabiner—a type I was taught to distrust when I began climbing in 1962. Unable to step up at this relic, he crossed to a more tractable corner, which took him to the top. At the summit, a cellophane bread wrapper enclosed what presumably had been a note giving the date of the earlier ascent and the names of the participants. It was now ink-smeared pulp. Just beyond the summit were three more pitons, obviously rappel anchors.
The first ascent must have taken place before the mid-sixties, during an era when most climbers reported new routes. Our unknown predecessors, though, were apparently happy enough to have climbed this obscure tower without publicizing the event. I was happy to have chanced upon a mystery. Paul, who has a sense of whimsy, was pleased enough to have pioneered, presumably, the lower five pitches. It turns out that Paul and I really have the same objective—intellectual pursuits as an excuse for mountain adventures.
I wondered how to research the earlier ascent. Perhaps, if I wrote up our ascent for the American Alpine Journal, some ancient alpinist, now living less on the adrenaline of the here and now than in the fading glow of memories, might see my note and get in touch. This unlikely scenario never happened, and unless some technology enables us to decipher the paper in the bread wrapper, the first ascent team will remain unknown.
NOT FEELING ENTITLED TO NAME the formation, we've referred to it since as South Continental Tower. Our experience there got us wondering about the possibilities of truly unvisited Wind River summits. The Tetons, despite being compact and accessible, have long been haunted by such a fata morgana—the Last Unclimbed Teton. When someone climbs a Last Unclimbed Teton, someone else, either poring over maps with a thicker lens or redefining peak more liberally, finds another. The concept is even shakier in the Wind Rivers, with the range's sprawl and its hard-to-reach crannies. Some of its rambling massifs are more than a mile wide, with nebulous outcrops poking up from the tundra.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, unclimbed implied perhaps unclimbable. These days unclimbed is more nearly synonymous with unnoticed or unworthy. In the old sense, there are no unclimbed peaks in the Tetons or Wind Rivers. The highest and hardest have been climbed. A search for a last unclimbed peak is no longer an effort to extend our concept of what is possible but an exercise in nostalgia. That is what old-timers were doing—looking for untraveled territory.
The Wind Rivers attract wayfarers who casually cross obscure formations, without thinking to report such prosaic deeds or even to mark ill-defined summits with cairns or registers. Still, Paul and I talk, facetiously, about the Last Unclimbed Wind River, meaning, I think, the Last Unclimbed Wind River worth our bother.
We hit upon a Last Unclimbed that appeared to offer more flair than most, especially since thousands of alpinists (including me) had plodded by it en route to Gannett Peak. But even those inclined to notice less awe-inspiring scenery would see this point as a promontory of Goat Flat—the middle prong of an E, with Phillips Creek and Double Lake Creek draining the cirques in between. Only by squinting through a magnifying glass at a topographic map, did I notice that the apparent spur stands separated from Goat Flat by a thousand-foot gap—though the map further obscures it by splashing "Dinwoody Lakes" across its summit and by not explicitly giving its elevation. A contour line at 11,760 feet indicates, however, that it's at least that high.
In a coffee-table book, a photo of Peak 11,760+ shows a steep face on the Double Lake side, its flanking ridges also rising smartly. I hadn't heard of climbers so much as admiring this nameless crag, and in 1996 I recruited Paul without our usual beer-and-pizza negotiation.
As we hiked, the peak emerged from behind a nearer spur, revealing the prosaic truth: a boulder-strewn ramp diagonaling across otherwise steep rock, a slope that should provide an easy, if unstylish, route. Unclimbed suggests a peak guarded by a dragon, such ogres as steepness, smoothness. Our objective was protected by its camouflage as an appendage of Goat Flat and by the lack of much reason to climb its trivial rubble.
But we had come to climb the peak, even if we were now deprived of our zeal. In the morning, we decided to ascend Double Lake Creek into a cirque south of our mountain, cross the thousand-foot notch between it and Goat Flat, and descend Phillips Creek to the north. If, during this circumnavigation, a line caught our fancy, we'd try it. If not, we'd resort to the boulder-slope break, knowing there were no sportier alternatives.
As we traversed below Peak 11,760+, Paul stayed as close to the wall as a network of ledges, ramps and slabs would let him. I boulder-hopped several hundred feet downhill. From my overview, I could see that the lower half of the wall featured many ledges, separated by steep little headwalls, all of which appeared broken by climbable cracks. We should be able to work rightward on the highest ledges to the east ridge and follow it to the top. It looked like fun.
I yelled and pointed, but the noise of a tumbling creek precluded meaningful dialogue. Paul nodded and smiled, as if politely pretending to understand a Finno-Ugric speaker's tongue, and continued along the base. After a half a mile, our paths intersected near the far end of the face. Here were vast expanses of vertical granite, split only by a few discontinuous cracks—though just where rock looked most featureless, a bighorn ram bounded up numerous ledges we hadn't noticed. From a few hundred feet up, he watched us, motionless, rock-colored grey, revealing no continuation of his line.
We resumed our circuit, rounding the peak's southwest corner to look up at further steep, crackless rock. At last, we ended up just below the unwanted ramp. Leaving behind ropes, climbing shoes, and hardware, we zigzagged up grassy ledges to the tent-shaped crest of our flawed grail. Traversing over and around boulders for half a mile, I detoured to a false summit, while Paul continued to the true one. There he discovered a cairn, and then a film canister bearing a message. In 1978 four people had climbed "Diagonal Ledge on SE Face," which sounded like the route I'd shouted about below. They'd found the cairn already there. Our ascent was no better than third.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER, in search of a less frequently climbed Last Unclimbed, Paul and I went to Island Lake with Lorna Corson and Norm Larson. A mile-long ridge tails off eastward from 13,052-foot Ellingwood Peak. Two Cirquelike towers rise from the crest. The nearer one had a name, Notch Pinnacle, and documented ascents, but from what we could learn, humanity had overlooked the far one. To identify it, we gave it the working title "Not Notch Pinnacle."
A north-facing prow swept for hundreds of feet from Indian Basin to the serrated ridge of Not Notch Pinnacle. It looked like an attractive, smaller-scale model of Ellingwood's popular 1,500-foot North Arete—the kind of exposed, continuous, but moderate line that comes as close to an ideal as actual rock can.
Starting to the left of Norm and Lorna, Paul and I climbed over a roof and a series of fragmented cracks, up ledges and large black knobs to a hatchet-blade of an arete. Here our route joined Lorna and Norm's. Higher up, although I couldn't remember having climbed parallel offwidths, my body seemed to know how to stuff arms and feet into each crack and apply counterpressure between their far walls. As the prow narrowed, it was scored by seams barely wide enough for an occasional small nut or a fingertip. In my enthusiasm, I kept moving until Paul screamed that I was out of rope. Before continuing, I had to pause while he reestablished his belay thirty feet higher. On the final pitch, Paul stepped onto the crest, made a few moves up a fist-wide crack, and sailed on up the gentler rock above.
"Any evidence?" I asked, when I joined my friends at the highest block. All three shook their heads. Norm had piled a few small rocks as a token cairn and was already wrapping webbing around the one block suitable as a rappel anchor. The evidence that a peak has not been climbed is never as conclusive as evidence that a peak has been climbed. But the absence not only of a cairn and soggy paper crammed in a rusty tobacco tin, but also of a wind-frayed, rodent-gnawed, sun-bleached remnant of webbing, made us as certain as we could be of being first. This is not a summit from which you'd descend without rappelling.
In 1842 Fremont reached the summit across Indian Basin from us, the "loftiest peak of the Rocky mountains," as he recounted in his report. "Standing where never human foot had stood before," he and his comrades "felt the exultation of first explorers." I cannot claim such exultation, but I did feel the satisfaction of having climbed seven pitches, all clean, all about 5.7, all with personality.
Back in camp, no sooner had we shrugged off our ropes and racks than Norm insisted that Not Notch Pinnacle wasn't a real name. So we warmed ourselves with soup and vetoed each other's suggestions. Frivolous proposals were rejected three-to-one because of our tower's nobility. Grandiose proposals lost by the same margin: we'd only reached a subsidiary summit. We looked hard at the formation, hoping to follow the tradition that has populated the Wind Rivers with Bear's Tooth, Camel's Hump, Shark's Nose, and Wolf's Head, but no one could see so much as an anteater's snout. Paul, who'd been listening more than participating, now wondered, "What's wrong with Not Notch Pinnacle?"—thus undoing an hour's earnest effort. Not Notch Pinnacle it remains.
Was Not Notch Pinnacle the Last Unclimbed Wind River? I hope not.
[This essay is abridged from the author's book A Place in Which to Search: Summers in the Wind Rivers, now available to order —Ed.]
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