As we passed Big Sandy Lake, Chuck and I admired a mile-wide, thousand-foot-high expanse of granite to the south, Haystack's west face. With Haystack resembling a bread loaf far more than a spire, we were not lured by the prospect of a summit experience. We went for the joy of moving through an ocean of rock. The route Chuck and I picked ends half a mile from the ill-defined summit.
Back in 1972 when I first explored this region of the Wind Rivers, there were relatively few routes on Haystack, and we simply opted for the best-looking one. We had a sketchy description of the first ascent and knew climbers who had failed to find the start. The guidebook rated the route 5.7, and the north end of Haystack's west face seemed an unlikely place for 5.7. The guidebook called it the "Fowler Route," after Phil Fowler's first ascent write up by him and two companions. In my guidebook, I have avoided naming routes after one member of a team and have tried such names as "Right Dihedral" and "Minor Dihedral," neither of which I like. Fortunately, nomenclature is irrelevant to the climbing.
That day we found 12 pitches of the original Fowler Route. We encountered 5.9 moves on two pitches and 5.8 sections on two other pitches, but the wall is still an unlikely place for a route that is "only" 5.9. Today, the West Face now sports 17 routes--some very good, a few very bad--but Fowler's Route remains my favorite.
The original route begins below the right end of an immense arch that sweeps across the west face's north end. However, we eventually discovered we could bypass the original route's first three mediocre pitches--an easy pitch, a pitch involving a long downward traverse to a break in the arch, and a loose pitch--by a grass slope to the right. The new first pitch (old fourth) follows a 130-foot right-facing corner, whose 5.9-crux is a discontinuity of the corner passed by delicate footwork. The next, 160-foot, pitch ascends a right-facing ramp that becomes an overhanging corner (5.8). The third pitch begins with a tricky step (5.7) right to a scoop, which is crossed to broken rock. The 5.6 fourth pitch involves a left-facing corner, a small ceiling, and a nice crack that ends at the ledge below the right-leaning dihedral that is the route's identifying feature.
The route then follows the dihedral. A short sequence on the fifth pitch is the route's crux: either wide stemming or overhanging jamming. The sixth pitch involves a chimney and is 5.8. The eighth pitch features a complicated overhang (5.7). The ninth, final pitch is easier.
There are two descent routes. The class 4 Grassy Goat Trail brings you back directly to the valley between Clear and Deep Lakes but requires care for several hundred feet. After storms the valley houses a streamlet. The North Gully is less worrisome, except for a ten-foot 5.1 section (easily rappelled), but makes a more roundabout route to Clear Lake and Deep Lake campsites.
Access: To reach the Big Sandy Opening trailhead from Jackson Hole and Pinedale, leave U.S. 191 at Boulder and follow Wyoming 353 for 18 miles to the pavement's end. Continue for 9 miles to a junction; turn left and proceed 7 miles to another junction. Again turn left; this road ends in Big Sandy Opening. Coming from Rock Springs, turn at Farson from U.S. 191 onto Wyoming 28. After 2 miles turn left onto a dirt road and follow it for 40 miles to the first junction mentioned above. Coming from Lander, turn west from Wyoming 28 just south of the Sweetwater River and follow a dirt road for 25 miles to the Boulder route's second junction. From Big Sandy Opening, hike 5 1/2 easy miles to a junction at Big Sandy Lake. Turn right and follow the trail on the lake's east shore for 2 miles, passing Clear Lake. The best campsites are between Clear Lake and Deep Lake.
Permits: The approach trail and Haystack are in Bridger-Teton National Forest's Bridger Wilderness. No permit is required.
Special concerns: As in the Cirque of the Towers, trees are sparse, and wood should not be squandered on campfires. Cirque bears occasionally have visited Clear Lake; hang food with bears in mind.
Gear: A rope at least 50m (165') long, a spectrum of stoppers, and cams to 3".
Maps: The USGS's 7.5' Temple Peak quad shows Haystack, Clear Lake, and most of the approach hike. A bit of trail is on the Big Sandy Opening quad, though not enough to justify buying the map. Earthwalk Press's topographic Hiking Map & Guide, Southern Wind River Range, WY covers this area nicely.
Guidebook:Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, by Joe Kelsey. Chockstone Press; 2nd edition (November 1994); $25.00.
Contact: Bridger-Teton National Forest, Pinedale Ranger District, (307) 367-4326; www.fs.fed.us/btnf/bridger.htm.