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Climbing Wyoming's Wind River Range: Pingora

This spire deep in Wyoming's Wind River Range serves as the climbing pinnacle of the Cirque of the Towers.

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During the 1920s and 1930s climbers visiting the Wind Rivers focused on the high, alpine peaks in the range’s northern half. Mountain winds carried misty rumors that the North Popo Agie River, to the south, emerged from a cluster of magnificent granite spires. Then, in 1940, climbers found their way to Lonesome Lake, at the head of the North Popo Agie. Admiring the tower that looms above the lake, one declared, “Of all the peaks we’ve seen it looks the most impossible, but you know, some day some damn fool will climb it.” The next day, they climbed it, naming it “Pingora,” Shoshone for “high, rocky, inaccessible peak.” They named the environs “The Cirque of the Towers.”

When I first visited the Wind Rivers, in 1969, the Cirque had become the place to climb and Pingora the most obvious objective. We headed for the South Buttress, which Dave Roberts had characterized as “one of the nicest three-pitch climbs anywhere.” I have now climbed the South Buttress 30-40 times and each time remark on the middle pitch being the nicest 5.6 pitch I know of. Pingora now sports ten routes, of varying lengths and difficulties, all on good rock. The South Buttress has far exceeded the original (5.2) route in popularity. Surrounded by higher peaks, Pingora is secluded from civilization making even that much more of a charm to climb.

The South Buttress rises from Pingora’s south shoulder as steep slabs stacked to form a number of corners. Gain the shoulder by zigzagging up class 2 and 3 ledges on its west side. From the shoulder climb two short class 4 steps to a large ledge. The classic line then ascends the right-facing corners that are second nearest the buttress’s center. Begin the 5.5 first pitch in the straight left crack or begin in the nearby curving right crack, then step across to the left crack. The continuously 5.6 second pitch involves a variety of techniques–jamming, laybacking, stemming between two walls, stemming between two cracks. The long second pitch brings you to a pedestal below a 90-foot face split by cracks that form a K.

The easiest way to climb the third pitch involves stepping down and left from the top of the pedestal into a left-facing corner. However, I highly recommend bringing a few extra small stoppers for the 5.8 thin left K crack. When guiding, I try persuading my charges to try it. They inevitably claim not to be 5.8 climbers but inevitably succeed; it involves not strength and exotic technique but balance and footwork. From the top of either variant, a few hundred feet of third-class scrambling in the bowl above leads to Pingora’s summit. Descend the route either in three rappels with two 50-meter ropes or five with one 60-meter rope.

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 at 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 miles to a trail junction at Big Sandy Lake. Turn left and follow the rugged trail for 3 miles across Jackass Pass. Camping is not allowed within 1/4 mile of Lonesome Lake, but superior sites abound in the meadows above.

Permits: The approach trail is in Bridger Wilderness. Campsites and Pingora are in Shoshone National Forest’s Popo Agie Wilderness. No permit is required.

Special concerns: To squander the Cirque of the Towers’ sparse wood on fires is unconscionable. Bears were a big problem a few years ago, because campers stored food carelessly. Human awareness has minimized bear confrontations, but if you let down the cycle could be repeated. Considering the Cirque’s popularity, the impact of climbers has been less than might be expected. It feels good to continue this tradition. Campsites can be found scattered in scattered nooks and crannies–no need to crowd others.

Gear: Either two 50m (165′) ropes or one 60m (200′) rope, a spectrum of stoppers, and cams to 3′.

Maps: The USGS’s 7.5′ Lizard Head Peak quad includes the Cirque of the Towers. The Big Sandy Opening and Temple Peak quads show parts of the approach trails, but these maps are hardly needed. 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; Shoshone National Forest, Washakie Ranger District, (307) 332-5460;

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