Sphinx Sphincter

As usual, I wished for rain.  It is always easier on the ego than feigning a case of the Sphinx Sphincter or Gannett Gut, things that are failings of the human spirit or the human body.  These ailments (which are by no means indigenous to the Wind River Range), Gregory Crouch writes in Enduring Patagonia, revolve mostly around an aspirants recognition that they are not up for the task.  I knew I was up for the task but was willing to forgo the ascent on account of some precipitation.  Rain or shine, high risk or low risk, I get paid the same.  But, as my dad used to say, “you can piss in one hand and wish in the other one and see which one fills up first.”  Needless to say, it neither rained nor did I loose control of sphincter in a display of uncontrollable diarrhea.

The Sphinx (and its Northwest Ridge) as viewed from the north along Dinwoody Creek
The Sphinx (and its Northwest Ridge) as viewed from the north along Dinwoody Creek

In his guidebook to the Wind River Range Joe Kelsey writes “the allure of this route is its profile, not its rock, which is disappointing.”  I now, after years of study and debate, believe these words to be true.  In his new edition he calls the route Grade I, fourth class.  “A fourth class move or two can be found” he also writes.  Indeed that is the case.

We awoke early even though it earned a Grade I in the guidebook.  The night prior Will had asked me why we needed such an early start for such a small objective.  “Small?” I did not reply… “it looms large in my mind.”  There were three of us, we had a mile and a half approach and in the Winds thunderstorms are always a possibility. Seventeen hours later late morning rumblings from the quickly building cumulus congestus  gave weight to my reasoning.  Plus, I have gotten into the habit of taking Kelsey with grain of salt.  Not sandbagged, but real.

At the glacier’s edge we donned crampons and roped up.  We ascended the Dinwoody Glacier’s hard, crusty snow in the growing daylight.  The bergschrund proved to be relatively uneventful, its biggest challenge was deep, soft snow.  We regrouped at the saddle below the ridge and assessed our options while eating some eats and drinking some drinks.  A snow couloir or a rocky ridge.  The rocky ridge won out, so we stashed our crampons and pickets and restacked the rope.  Even at this early hour, the building cumulus hinted at a forthcoming storm.  Casting glances over my shoulder to the west, I hurriedly ran out the rope and fixed a line through a sea of loose rock.  The students moved cautiously up the line, efficiently but delicately picking their way through the loose rock that was only occasionally interspersed with bedrock.  We gathered up at a small saddle below a ten foot gendarme.  A bit of scouting led me to the conclusion that due to the loose rock, ascending traverses of fixed lines would be the safest, though not necessarily quickest, option.  A couple more rope lengths of third and fourth class terrain through house of cards like stacked rocks put us just below the summit.  Below me George was picking his way up the ridge, his prussik on the the fixed line securing him to the insecure mountainside.  I turned, scrambled up the remaining thirty meters and fixed our other rope to the summit.  “Wooo-hooo” I let out a summit yelp.  From somewhere to the east, near Bob’s Towers I heard a return whoop.  I peered and looked but failed to locate my cohorts two summits to the east.   With the line fixed, I turned, sped back to the lower anchor and the quickly approaching George.  Above, the cumulus had slowly congealed into a gray stratocumulus layer that occluded the sky.  George clambers through easily upset stacks of rocks and joins me at the anchor.  He clips into the master point and at my instruction, switches his prussik to the summit line.  “Head up, take a selfie and come on back” I say as we check his system.

“Sounds good, can I use your camera?”  he asks.  I hand over my camera.  “I won’t drop it” he promises with a smile.  He surmounts the first block and heads toward the summit.  I turn and descend a bit to a vantage point from which I can watch Will’s upward progress.  Soon enough Will has ascended and George is back from the summit.  They swap places and once again I watch them tediously tiptoeing through teetering blocks.  George clips into the anchor; “I’m off” he shouts up.  At the announcement Will clips in, checks his system and begins his delicate and deliberate descent.  I follow, cleaning the rope and gear once Will is off the rope.  I breathe a sigh of relief, we are off the summit by eleven, but our slow progress downward does little to ease my mind as the clouds continue to build.  A half hour later I am fixing the last line for our down climb when the thunder rolls for the first time.  We still have another 200’ to the saddle, but luckily, after another clap or two, it takes a small hiatus, kindly waiting until we have postholed through thigh deep mashed potatoes and crossed the bergschrund.  Eventually though, my wish came true, though too late to do much good.

The view southward from The Sphinx
The view southward from The Sphinx

I had looked at the ridge for year and for years I had wondered.  I finally decided to go up and have a look and now I know.  The allure of the route is its profile, not its rock.  Kelsey says the east ridge is good though.  And now I know the descent…

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A bit of a nomad, Jared likes to refer to himself in the third person.