The Spirit (or the stupidity)

As Leonard Coyne quipped “You either got the spirit or you don’t. If you got the fu***g spirit you rock. And if you don’t… you’re a sport climber. “

I guess it was the spirit of the venture that counts. We had the right attitude and had the right intentions. We had the spirit, but we failed in our quest for a new route. Sometimes it is what you don’t have that makes the difference.

I ran into Joe in the usual spot an itinerant NOLS employee in Lander wrangles a climbing partner: the kitchen on the third floor of the Noble Hotel. “Want to go into the Winds and climb something?” I asked. He didn’t even ask what or when before he said yes. We settled on trying a new route somewhere.

After perusals of the maps and ganders at some photos, we settled on doing the long drive and casual hike to New Fork Park. Settling on that one valley out of 2800 square miles of possible terrain was just the beginning. The Park is over two miles long with escarpments rising on both sides of the river valley. After our gentle seven mile walk in, we realized the scope of narrowing down the four miles of cliff line. “You could use days in here to scope lines, it is a hard task, coming in here on an overnight mission, scoping a line, climbing it, then heading out,” Joe would later surmise.

None the less we established a camp and set to scouting. In the meadow outside “our” tree clustered campsite we paused, our gaze fixed on the western escarpment. The Park Place Buttress had at least one established line on it, but sans guidebook that is all we knew. Regardless, my eyes were drawn right toward the Dome Peak drainage and cliffs I had photographed a year prior. At the left end of our view a large solitary formation rose up culminating in a Wind River rarity: a small, distinct summit. We stood and discussed the merits of each and eventually, due to proximity to camp, we chose the left, solitary summit. “Lets head up the drainage and try to gain the ledge system where the rock steepens” Joe suggested. I agreed and we set off across the river and then up the avalanche path/gully. Distinct ridge after distinct ridge faded into rubble piles and fourth class scrambles as we drew nearer, then passed them. Our initial ledge system left us high and dry without appealing options. We opted for a scramble to the summit. We sat on the pointy tip and discussed options. Noting looked promising or appealing.

“Well, lets head back and scout that lower ledge system on the way” I suggest. We pick our way down the gully, with the occasional slip, slides and calls of “rock.” We gain the lower ledge system and immediately spy a corner with a finger crack through a roof. “hmmph, mere cragging options” I think. “That just puts us on the upper ledge with nowhere to go.” Joe echoes my thoughts out loud as we move past. Ten more meters puts us at the base of another beautiful crack line, this one, an overhanging hands and fists that would once again deposit us on the upper ledge. We walk on. We wind through some large boulders and then the large south face is revealed to be a clean sweep of quality stone. Our spirits rise as we see potential. The main, east facing corner system rises above and we scope it out.

“Corner looks blank” Joe says indicating to the first pitch off the ledge.

“What about starting further left” I ask. We walk and look.

“Seems plausible, it’ll at least get us to the same spot” he says upon inspection.

We walk further west around the base of the buttress. Easy terrain leads to dihedrals up high which arc out left. The unknown, the reality of the first ascent creeps in. Dihedral looks blank. One rope. Bailing. Will we get gear in the crack? “The wide stuff down low doesn’t bother me, it’s that I can’t tell what’s in the dihedral. Will it seam out, will it take gear? I don’t know” Joe says.

“Yep” is all I can say. It is the nature of the beast. We ponder silently then move back east and north.

“This looks the most comforting” Joe says as we stand looking at the main corner system on the east face.

“Sweet, lets do it” I say, moving the process along. “It looks amenable to our desires.”

We snap a photo in back lit afternoon light before returning to our camp low on the valley floor.

Fifteen hours later Joe is giving me a belay from the top of the first pitch: a chimney to a slab move and up a right facing corner with a crack of all sizes. Quality stone, yielding occasional, but very few loose blocks. I am inspired by Joe’s efficient movement and cool head. I wonder if I could have led this pitch in his excellent style. Jams, jugs, crimps, smears and edges grant me upward progress. I join him on the ledge and offer up the customary, yet well deserved “nice lead.”

“Yeah” he responds “that was a good pitch, really good climbing.”

Joe Frost following the second pitch of a route on Ra Mountain in the Wind River Range
Joe Frost following the second pitch of a route on Ra Mountain in the Wind River Range

He hands me the remainder of the gear and I rack up. Above, what had the potential to be a blank corner, is thirty feet of fingers at a reasonable angle. Unfortunately it widens into a bit of a blocky crack with some possible looseness. I start upward. The fingers pass easily and quickly give way to some “chockstonesque” rocks. I navigate slowly and timidly through them, move left around a five foot blade of rock, then back right to a splitter hands flake. I pause under a square roof, then pass it on its right via fingers and side pulls. The move back left is dubious, but I blindly fish in some thin protection and step out. A few insecure moves have me grabbing a square cut ledge with only grass filled cracks above. “Uh-oh” I think to myself and step downward a touch to take more advantage of the half-loaf hold I have been given. I look around, then stem back out left, traversing to the inviting looking foot holds that are on the less than vertical arête. Above, I find a horizontal crack accepting of a couple of cams and fiddle in an anchor for a hanging belay on the arête with the valley 1500’ feet below under a sweep of granite slabs. I let Joe know that the belay is off. He quickly dispenses of the pitch and joins me at the belay. He looks right and we discuss options. Higher up a chockstone guards the top of a corner but cracks further to the right give access to the corner above the chockstone.

I put Joe on belay and he stems out right directly into a loose block. “Whoa” he exclaims as he backs off toward me. “I might trundle this thing. It’s kinda scary.”

I look down. “Probably no one below” I add skeptically.

“ROCK!” he hollers loudly before giving the block a gentle nudge. The lunch tray sized rock clatters down the route, shatters, explodes and disintegrates as it nears the valley floor. We watch in awe and silence after it has finished its untimely migration downward and our screams of “rock” are no longer necessary.

We turn back to the task at hand, excited about the potential of the upcoming pitch. Joe stems and sidepulls back right and looks up at the main corner. A beautiful, low angle, thin hands crack graces the back of the dihedral. He susses out the exit, into the chockstone and decides against the beautiful and the obvious. A few balancey moves later and he is at the base of a splitter finger crack. Fingerlocks and hand jams allow upward movement until he reaches the chockstone. A traverse left over it, then a thin hands corner lead up to a small overhang at a notch. Good jugs offer passage through the roof and soon he has disappeared.

“Halfway” I yell up, letting him know how much rope he has used and how much he has left.

“Thank you” he responds.

A few minutes and armloads of slack later I realize that indeed, it is the spirit that counts.

“There’s a fixed pin up here” he shouts down.

“Fuck, that’s a bummer” I respond. Our goal is shot. Someone has been here before. He continues upward, almost the full seventy meters of the rope.

After some shaky communication, I disassemble the anchor then point my nose upward on a long, fabulous pitch: more solid rock, engaging movement, consistent difficulty, clean cracks and inspiring leading by Joe. After the notch, and just above a broad ledge where the crack seamed down, extruded the evidence of prior passage: a Black Diamond angle driven to the hilt. I unclip the draw then smear and stem my way up the techie corner. Higher, Joe is belaying from a wide ledge. “Bummer about that pin” I add after the congratulatory “nice fucking lead on a nice freaking pitch.”

We munch on an apple, sip some water and empty our bladders before once again, turning upwards. I launch into a small chimney that is followed by 4th and easy 5th class terrain that leads me to the ridge crest proper. I bring Joe in with a hip belay and then we move west another thirty-five meters along a more jagged, narrow ridge. We unrope and  descend toward the block of the true summit, all along looking for a quality direct line to the top. We scout the east and then north sides but find no inspiring routes toward the blocky summit thus, by default, migrate into the gully. “Well, nice work Joe.” He holds up his hand and we tap a light high-five. “Guess we should figure out what we climbed, eh?” I say, a bit disappointed.

“Yeah, I guess, or we could just call it Schmegma Facial” he adds.

“Yep, it is the attitude of it, but we probably should have looked in the guidebook before driving all the way out here.”

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

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