Date Hiked: July 3-5, 2019
Elevation: ~10,800 Ft
Partners: Anthony and Salix (dog)
Of all the places I have explored so far, none has matched the spectacular Cirque of the Towers found in the Wind Rivers of Wyoming. Long ago, when I began my journey on the 14ers, I had no idea that a place like this existed, much less did I dream I would actually see such a place. After reading of it in a copy of Alpinist, I added it to my bucketlist of places to visit (and climb) and set that on the back burner while I finished off the 14ers. Years later, here I was at Big Sandy trailhead with a good climbing friend of mine, Anthony, and my pup Salix.
The drive up was long and dreary, but worth it from the moment we stepped out of the car. The hike begins with forest interrupted by sprawling meadows and a rushing river. The day was warm, and sunny, with the lightest breeze. We set a strong pace as both of us felt fit and were eager to see the Cirque. In 2 hours, we had reached Big Sandy Lake where we stopped to take pictures, eat some food and enjoy the sun.
After the brief break, we continued up toward Jackass Pass. At this point, the going became much slower with the slew of switchbacks we ascended. Once past the switchbacks, we moved onto a snowy, rocky trail that was a little harder to follow, but manageable. For a third time, the terrain changed, the wind picked up, the sun became hidden behind clouds. crossing Arrowhead Lake was the most difficult part of the hike, requiring some easy third class moves to gain the large boulders that barred the way to the top of the pass. At a few points, I even had to help Salix make it up and over some boulders.
Once past the lake, the rail once again became easy to follow, although the wind was persistent enough to be annoying and force us to cut our time on the pass short. However, before we made the top, I ran into an old friend of mine: Derek from Aconcagua! I was in shock and couldn't believe we just happened to meet in such an awesome location. I hadn't seen him since our trip to South America. It was good to see him and hear about he and his wife's journey over the past week. After a heartfelt greeting, we went our separate ways and descended into Cirque of the Towers and Lonesome Lake. It was at this point, the full magnitude of the Towers became apparent.
As much as I love Colorado, we have nothing I can use to compare to this area. The closest might be around Vestal Peak, or maybe up around Longs Peak and Key of the Winds. Yet, even those peaks don't quite have the ruggedness found here.
Once near Lonesome Lake, we set up camp and quickly made dinner. Once we were all set up, we made a small fire and swapped stories and memories from previous climbs. Being this far out, we were careful to keep our food far away from camp to avoid bears. My biggest fear was Salix chasing after one if it wandered into camp, so I kept the bear spray close by in case I needed it quickly.
The next morning, we got up a little later than I intended. However, since we had no official plans to move camp, there was nothing wrong with taking our time. This was one of the very few times I've slept in the same spot for multiple days, and it felt a little strange not packing as soon as I got up. Once we were up and moving, we ate a filling breakfast and went out for our day's only objective: Texas Pass.
Like much of the Winds, the hike up was steep and the trail became hard to follow once we reached treeline. Yet, the nature of the slope was such that it naturally lended itself to easy route finding. Near the top of the pass, we stopped for an early lunch, taking in the views. Across the gulch lay Shadow (?) Pass, which is often used on a thru hike of the Wind Rivers. After a descent rest, we continued up. Just as we neared the top, we noticed the unnamed peak 11,925 looked like a fun scramble. We called an audible and began the ascent up the gradually steepening slabs and ledges.
Once the climbing became too steep, I tied Salix to a boulder and we continued up without her. One of the most heart-wrenching sounds is the whimper of your dog when you have to leave her behind, but this was better than letting her get injured. We pushed hard to the top, not wanting to leave her behind any longer than we had to.
As expected, the views were rewarding, and the temptation to continue the ridge traverse was high. However, I was not about to leave my dog behind for a multi-hour, high exposure ridge traverse. On the way back, we picked up the pup, and made a speedy descent back to the lake where the sun shone strong.
Once back at the lake, we took our time working back toward camp. Anthony seemed eager to explore what lay down valley (and looking back, it would've done no harm to look). However, I was pretty satisfied with our trip and figured that it would be nothing but hiking through thick forests down valley based on what we could see and the maps I had.
Once back in camp, we took out the binoculars and started spying lines we'd like to come back and attempt to climb ourselves one day. Off in the distance we could hear the commands coming from climbing parties somewhere on the leaning towers high above. This is what I imagine a primitive Yosemite would have been like had it not been turned into a national park.
The day wore on slowly, and the mosquitoes became a nuisance. Knowing this would be the case, I covered every inch of exposed skin in some form of protection, my ankles being the only exception. Anthony and Salix, however, were not so lucky. Anthony had only brought short sleeves and gave in to putting on his rain jacket once all other options had been exhausted. I put salix's jacket on her as well, yet this offered little relief as the cursed bugs simply went after her head. After a while of eating any mosquito she could capture, Salix finally gave up and gave in to her itchy tormentors, no longer putting up a fight.
As the sun went down, the mosquitoes slowly eased up, and we made our meal preparations. Again we had a nice campfire crackling near us, enjoying a harty meal which included some summer sausage and cheese I'd brought along. Nearby we found an almost full bottle of rum that must have been left behind by another party. We were sorely tempted to enjoy the 4th of July with some drinks to finish off the night, however not know what had been done to it and as it had already been opened, we opted to play it safe and leave the bottle alone.
The next morning was our final day in the Cirque. I was not eager to leave, but I knew I had to make time at home, so we packed up once we had our fill of breakfast and began the slow journey home. We decided to take a small detour into the Cirque itself in order to see the climbs up close and get a feel for just how the approach would be on our return.
The "small" detour turned out to be an arduous approach for such a short hike, with no obvious trail and much snow still guarding the flanks of the approach. However, our effort was rewarded with a spectacular cirque, one that I am not sure exists anywhere else in the world.
Pictures will never do this area justice, but the sheer scale and quality of the walls, with the snow climbs intermittent between the peaks was a hard thing to turn down. Our mission was a success. I saw a dozen lines here I wanted to come back for. The problem was, I now had to add some mountaineering routes as well. Sadly, as I sit here typing this up, my entire spring was to originally set out to do two things: ski the steepest lines in Colorado and Wyoming, and to train very specifically for rock climbing in this mountain range. These plans, have been dashed with a broken leg, and the soonest I can expect to be at that level will not be until summer of 2022. However, I hope to be in enough shape to take one trip into this range at some point this summer.
Once we had our fill, we began our hike back out to the trailhead. Very rarely do I regret leaving such a trip. Usually by the end, I'm ready to be home with my wife sitting in the comfort of air conditioning and running water. However, the Winds are special, and every peak captures the imagination. When creation was born, this place was made special, and I am grateful to live within a half days drive of such a place.
Once on the other side of Arrowhead Lake, progress was quick, and we used our momentum to keep our sore feet going. Unlike the hike in, the snow was nearly gone from the trail, to be replaced with pockets of mud or standing water. Although this hampered us a little, I only remember one particularly nasty bit.
Back at Big Sandy Lake, we took a quick break and gobbled up the very last of our food. At this point, I began rationing my water as I didn't want to have to stop to fill back up again and I knew we'd have a bit of a drive back out. Once on flat, smooth trail, we really picked up the pace, Anthony racing ahead, pushing to see if I could keep up (turns out he was training for the Ranger program, so it makes sense now why he pushed so hard). After a few more stops we made it back to the car. Once there, we found out someone had supposedly injured themselves base jumping off one of the towers that day (sometime after we left) and was asking if we'd witnessed anything. Unfortunately, we were of no help. We then packed up, put the gear and dog in the car and began the slow drive out, at which point Salix promptly fell asleep. Our journey was over, but this is one of those trips I wish to repeat someday soon!