The Head of the Wolf

A great adventure in the Wind River Range of Wyoming with three old friends.

John, Dave and Franz in the Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming; The Wolfs Head Tower is in the upper left corner.


“The route goes right up that knife edge ridge” exclaimed my old friend Franz Helfenstein, as we reached the top of Jack Ass Pass in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. We quickly dropped our over-loaded packs and gazed at the incredible vista of classic granite spires that compose the Cirque of the Towers. The East Ridge of Wolf”s Head is a classic and very exposed line and the first glimpse gave us all a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Franz is a 60 year young math professor from Bend Oregon who is a veteran of many expeditions. He is also known as the “Mad Math Professor” because of his many extreme kayaking adventures, including the first descent of the Cotahuasi River in Peru. This might be the deepest canyon in the world, and it is also one of the best. The clear waters start in the high Andes and create miles of pristine class IV-V whitewater as they flow through a paradise filled with Inca ruins and old vineyards. Franz was also a a fairly accomplished climber, and the Wind Rivers was one of his favorite haunts. He had already climbed many of the classic spires.

Franz had already set up camp in a very pleasant meadow, so we finished the last bit of the arduous hike, and dropped our packs for the last time. It had been a very long day, but now we could enjoy the luxury of a well stocked camp in a mountain paradise. The happy team watched the alpenglow on the large towers as we feasted on a gourmet dinner including a small ration of reasonably good wine. Tales of old adventures flowed freely, and we feasted on the joys of nature and old friendships.

Sleep came very easy and we awoke to another perfect day. The nearby granite tower called Pingora was our first objective. It was big and very steep, but a carefully hidden series of ledges provided an easy, but very exposed route to the summit.

Our group included four old friends, so we split into two groups of two and used technical climbing techniques. I had been climbing with Gringo Negro since the early 70’s and it was great to share a rope with him again. This somewhat famous wild man has spent a good portion of his life exploring the world, and he had been part the team that explored the Cotahuasi. His real name is David Black, (Hence the nickname) and he honed his early climbing skills on Camelback Mountain, AZ. He is only 55 and our skills were a bit rusty, but the difficulty of the route was well below our current skill level, and we were excited about the adventure. The forth member of the group was a seasoned 56 year young adventurer named Ken Ransford. Most of Ken’s outings were with his kayak, and we had enjoyed many, including a 17 day trip on the Humla Karnali in Western Nepal. Ken was a bit of a novice climber, but he was very fit and teamed up with Franz, who was a fearless leader.
We all enjoyed a very thrilling ascent and completed the route without any problems. The weather held, and we savored a warm and sunny summit with pristine views of the surrounding towers. This included a birds eye view of the Wolf’s Head Ridge, which was very intimidating from this viewpoint. The first pitch is a narrow 30 degree slope with more than 500 feet of shear cliff on both sides. The summit view made it look steeper than it really was, and pondering the route that we planned for the next day was a bit frightening. But, the perfect weather helped to calm our nerves and we found a comfortable ledge with a natural rock backrest.

“Wow! Isn’t this awesome? This is what life is about.” Exclaimed Franz, as we nestled in to our natural chairs. Summits are magical places and we enjoyed a casual lunch with a lofty view.
The summit of most routes (especially spires) is really only about half the climb, because getting down can be very difficult and dangerous, and descents have been the scene of many accidents. Descending Pingora involved three rappels, but the anchors were already there, and Franz knew the way.

Ken looked a bit nervous as he clipped into the ropes, so I checked his rigging and technique very carefully. We proceeded with caution and arrived safely at the first of three comfortable ledges. His nerves relaxed a bit for the second and third rappels, and a short scramble brought us safely back to camp. The alpenglow provided a second great light show, as we feasted on another gourmet meal.

“We need to get a really early start tomorrow.” Exclaimed Franz over dinner. “It’s not much harder than what we did today, but it’s a lot longer and a long descent. It’s an awesome route, but I think we’ll all find it exciting.”

We awoke to a very pleasant day and scrambled quickly to the high saddle between Wolf’s Head and Pingora. The very narrow ridge looked like a very steep and narrow sidewalk to heaven with intense exposure on both sides. It didn’t look that hard, but a fall by either party would be really bad. Franz bravely lead the first pitch, and Ken followed without any problems.

Once again, we climbed in pairs of two, and Dave and I prepared our belay while we waited. Dave had chosen to wear some old hiking boots because of comfort, and they made the steep ramp a bit more challenging. I watched and belayed him nervously as he cautiously climbed up the steep ridge. He seemed a bit anxious, but his old instincts served him well, and he made it to the top without any problems.

“Off Belay! That was really a rush!” He exclaimed, as he finished setting up the anchors. His belay would prevent me from hitting the ground if I fell, but he had only managed to place a couple of pieces of protection, so a fall would still be very serious.

I take three deep breaths and follow his lead. One of the main reasons I climb is because of the complete mental focus that is required to be a competent climber. All the worries of the world suddenly disappear, as the narrow ridge consumes all of my thoughts. My boots feel somewhat secure on the course granite, and the edges of the ramp provide descent handholds, so I climb like a cat up the exposed ramp.

“Yeow! That was great!” I exclaim as I reach the belay ledge.

“I should have let you lead that one.” he remarked in his usual joking manor, as I arrived at the belay. “I thought the next pitch was going to be harder, but it looks great from here.”

The next pitch is mine, so I grab the rack from Dave and continue upward. The ridge steepens a bit, but there are two beautiful hand to fist sized cracks that provide excellent holds and plenty of protection. The combination of exposure and confidence provides a state of pure euphoria, and I am grinning from ear to ear as I top out and set up the belay.

The route eases quite a bit, so we coil the rope and continue very carefully. Ken and Franz have vanished in front of us, but we soon catch them at a narrow squeeze chimney that is challenging enough to require a belay. Franz and Ken climb into the chimney and drag their packs, but Dave and I find a way to stem the edge of it. This method is a lot less grungy, and much more exciting.

The next obstacle is a 50 foot spire that blocks our path on the exposed ridge. The established route involves traversing a steep slab with some thin moves and intense exposure. The route has been protected by some fixed pitons, but they are about 15 feet apart, so a fall by either the leader or the second would be very thrilling, and could result in an injury. A small thundercloud is threatening from the West as Franz takes the lead and disappears around the corner. We send Ken next, and belay him with a rope from each side for better protection. He does just fine, and I watch anxiously as Dave follows quickly behind him, and disappears.

The brief moment of solitude creates a more intense mood, as I clear the belay and wait for the signal from Franz.

“Belay on! Climb when ready.” He finally exclaims.

The rope tightens, and I move very cautiously around the spire. The next pin is about 15 feet away, so I will take about a 20 foot swinging fall 800 feet above the ground if I slip. The finger holds are very small, so I am relying almost completely on some small footholds that are spaced a bit further apart than I would really like. I have chosen to wear my mountaineering boots for comfort and now I suddenly wish that I had brought my technical climbing shoes instead. But, Dave has already survived with his hiking boots so it can’t be too bad. One of the moves involves trusting most of my weight to a tiny foothold, but my boot soles stick, and I reach the safety of the next pin. From here the climbing eases, and I join my friends on a large ledge.

“Yow! That was a great pitch. My adrenaline level is very happy right now! How is yours?” I exclaim as I reach the comfortable ledge.

“Me too!” Exclaims Dave with a big smile.

Franz continues up the steep ridge and Ken follows as they disappear from our sight. It is my turn to lead, and I scramble somewhat fearfully up to a horizontal crack. The first moves are quite hard and a fall back to the ledge would be long enough to get injured, so I move very cautiously up to the safety of the hand sized crack. This provides great handholds and an opportunity to place protection. But, the friendly crack suddenly ends as I step around the blind corner. The next move is a bit awkward and extremely exposed, but a good set of handholds allows me to swing over to a low angle ramp.

Ken and Franz have vanished from sight, so I am forced to find the proper route on my own. I scramble to the top of another very exposed ridge and straddle it. I cannot see Ken, and it looks like there might be an easier route lower down on the right, but I am already committed and continue leapfrogging in my straddled position. My adrenaline gland is starting to max out, but I find Ken and a very comfortable ledge to set the belay. Ken is on a very small ledge belaying Franz who is out of sight.

“How does that next pitch look?” I inquire.

“It looks pretty scary. It’s probably not that hard, but you have to balance on your feet because it looks like there aren’t any handholds, and it is really exposed.” Ken replies in a very nervous state.

“That last pitch was sure wild, and that cloud looks a bit ominous. I hope we’re almost done.”

“Me too.” He replies as he cleans the belay and prepares to climb.

“Wow! That was kinda hard and really scary!” exclaims Dave with a big smile, as he reaches the belay. “I hope we’re almost done.”

All of our nerves are being pushed to the limit, and the anxiety of waiting for the next pitch pushes them even further.

I nervously watch Ken traverse the narrow ledge as I move the belay to the tiny exposed shelf, but he makes the moves without any problems as Dave scrambles up and takes his turn at lead. This pitch involves standing on the edge of a horizontal crack that traverses the rock face. The best technique involves shuffling sideways with his toes in the crack and his upper body hugging the wall that was void of handholds. His heals are hanging over the edge of the narrow ledge, but he moves onward without any problems, as I belay him carefully from my airy perch.

“Off belay! Your turn!” He exclaims with a somewhat ominous chuckle, as I clear the belay and prepare to meet my destiny.

I have been sitting and watching for quite some time, which does not help my unsettled nerves, and standing up is probably the hardest move. But, the crack ledge proves to be friendly, and I am very relieved to find that the footholds are solid and the shear face is sloped enough to make the positions balanced. I suddenly have thoughts of an old James Bond movie, as I move quickly along the skyscraper window style ledge to a comfortable belay.

“The rest is easy and the storm is moving in, so we need to hurry!” Exclaims Franz. He and Ken are standing on the summit, so we move quickly up to join them.

I would have enjoyed lingering for at least a few moments, but the storm is threatening and summits are the most dangerous place to be in a thunder storm. A quick rappel drops us on a comfortable ledge, and the storm changes directions, so we take a well needed break, and enjoy the lofty view. Four rappels and a bit of challenging scrambling bring us back to terra firma and a great celebratory dinner.

Photos of the Wind River Range:

Earthquake in the Colca Canyon

Hiking into the deepest canyon in the world.

The steam from the many hot springs and the occasional giant condor made us feel as if we were dropping ever deeper into a great abyss. But as we reveled in the incredible scenery, the rapids became a bit more serious.

Kayaking the Humla Karnali in Nepal

“The love of the wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth… the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had eyes to see.”               — Edward Abbey

Paul Zirkelbach in the first gorge.