An Unplanned Night on The Frigid Heights

by Phil Knight  |  Tuesday Mar. 1st, 2016

Even though I had never endured an unplanned bivouac, I knew the clues. I saw it coming. I could feel it, could taste the bitter tang in the air that spoke of cramps, shivering and dehydration, of bones aching against unyielding rock, mouth dry as a packrat nest, eyes searching for that first hint of daylight.

I probably knew we were in for it from the moment we left camp. In true sluggard tradition, Todd and I had slept in, frazzled from four days of mutli-pitch climbs at Deep Lake combined with the ass-kicking approach over Jackass Pass to the Cirque of the Towers. To top it off we had bouldered to exhaustion the previous day on the inviting, clean-cut hunks of granite which are strewn about the floor of the Cirque.

Not that we had suffered so far on this trip, our first into the Wind Rivers. Tom had a summer trail-crew position and had scored substantial scam points by getting our food and climbing gear packed in on horseback, leaving Dave, Todd and I to dawdle along the Big Sandy trail in sloth and indolence. We discovered how much work Tom had saved us in the mile-long final approach to Deep Lake, for we were forced to actually carry our schwag, looking like some sort of bizarre modern pilgrims as we grunted up the final slabs, each with a huge plastic bucket of food in hand.

Another now obvious hint of looming trouble: Three friends from Missoula had stumbled upon our camp the night before our attempt on the East Ridge of the Wolf’s Head. We spotted their tiny lights bobbing like fireflies high above camp, and were amazed when they turned out to be familiar folk who had just completed the route we lusted after. The only words to escape their parched lips: “Get an Early Start!”

 

Woe unto us, we failed to do so. Sometime in mid-morning we finally emerged from our greasy sacks, squinting at the sun, now high over the East Ridge, scratching and groaning, wishing there was some coffee left. More precious minutes were lost negotiating the hideous approach chimney and the horrifyingly exposed rappel off the Tiger Tower to reach the base of the Wolf’s Head. However, according to the photocopied guidebook pages we’d bummed off some climbers on the hike in, the route was only rated 5.6; surely we could cruise it!

 Well, we did not count on the complexity of the route, the length of it, our rusty rope-handling skills, getting off route, nor the sheer intimidation of traveling this knife-edge of glacier-honed granite.

The first real taste of exposure comes on the first pitch which, were it ten feet off the ground, one could surely walk along, as it’s nearly as wide and flat as a sidewalk. But it’s a thousand feet straight down on either side! So, more interested in life than style, we beetled along on all fours. “Right on” Todd bubbled as we topped the third pitch and gained the ridge proper. “We’ve got this wired.” That was the last time that day we felt so confident.

The guidebook listed a series of towers and described on which side to traverse each one, but failed to even mention lesser features which, up close, looked as big as the major towers. So we lost count. “Which one is the Third goddamn Tower??” I snarled as we stared along the seemingly endless ridge of granite fins.

My last short, awkward lead had ended in a tiny cave, with the entire 1,500-foot Southwest Face hurtling off in a gut-wrenching drop beneath my tucked-in-toes. But I thought for sure I was on route, as I found a sling and carabiner someone left on a rock horn. My addled, sun-baked, wind-blown brain should have guessed this was an escape sling - left, in fact, the previous day by our friends who had realized their error and found the real route!

Todd soon reached my cramped little hobbit hole, moaning in fear at the off-width, overhanging slot offering the only hope of exit. Had it been my lead, I do not believe I’d have even tried it. Todd rallied however, spouting “I’ll get us the hell out of here!” as he scrabbled above my head like some giant gecko gone berserk.

In no time he was out of sight, though I expected at any moment to behold his hurtling carcass as he peeled out of the slot and rocketed past my perch. But miraculously, the rope kept feeding out. At one point there was a lull in the action, punctuated by muffled cries from above. At a loss to interpret these sounds, I just waited in grim and dwindling hope. At last the rope coiled out again, followed by the welcome, and at the same time dreaded, “Off Belay!” from a thousand miles away.

Todd had outdone himself. Not only had he completed the nasty and difficult off-width, he had followed it with the most exposed hand-traverse of the climb, thirty feet of sheer pumping fear on the lip of the Southwest Face, with rope-drag added for spice. “Christ, I about came off” he growled at me as I flopped onto the huge belay ledge, safe at last. I tried not to think of the consequences if he’d peeled, out of my sight, over the lip, hanging free. Peering about, we realized where the real route was, on a big flake on the other side of the tower!

The rest of the route offered no real difficulties, just heaps of space below our flailing feet and so many pitches I lost count.

Sunset, on one of the most remote summits we had ever attained, lost its luster somewhat as we contemplated the sketchy guidebook description of the complicated, multi-rappel descent down the North Face. By the time we’d untangled the Medusa of ropes at the bottom of the second rappel I had my headlamp out, its feeble beam searching the vast North Face for a ledge. All the clues were now revealed, and the game was up. Bivvy Time!

The gods had mercy on these rock rats, and granted us a clear, if cold, night. We lacked any sort of overnight gear, having opted to go light with only fanny packs. In the last light of day we discovered a secure niche in which we could spend the night unroped. We even took off our climbing shoes. But a long, frigid night lay ahead. Todd was destined to suffer more than I, being more lightly dressed.  

After padding our niche with the ropes and wrapping them about us in a feeble attempt at insulation, we passed the first few hours with lies, songs, and all the animal noises we could imitate, until our throats, parched from lack of water, could take no more. Food consisted of dry granola crumbs that we dared not contemplate without water. I might have even slept, but Todd kept leaping up to get his circulation going, jostling my head as it repeatedly sagged onto his bony shoulder. He even found a place to do push-ups.

The sun rose long before it came anywhere near our frigid perch on the North Face. The south faces of distant peaks basked in early sun as we emerged from our eight-hour stupor and creaked off to the next rappel.

Reaching camp at eleven, we found Dave lacing up his running shoes, preparing to go for help. He’d been awake worrying most of the night, and got up at dawn to search for our mangled carcasses below the Southwest Face. Dave, who had worried far more than us (we knew we were OK) got revenge on us with the indigestible gruel he made from the last of our camp “food” and his tuneless singing on the interminable hike out and all-night drive home.  

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