Wyoming 13ers Quest, The Sequel
Day 2: Koven to the Sphinx (5 Peaks)
Today’s goal was to reach Titcomb Basin. While I would traverse the remaining Continental Divide 13ers between my camp and the basin, my mom would backpack in from the Elkhart Park trailhead. We planned to rendezvous at an agreed-upon location above the uppermost lake, which would serve as my basecamp for the next few days. But first, I needed to do some of the most serious climbing of the whole endeavor.
Since I made it farther than expected last night, I slept in until 5 a.m., then lay in my bivy for a bit waiting for the sky to lighten. After packing up and trekking across Bastion’s summit plateau by headlamp, it was light enough to see by the time I donned crampons and crunched across the Gannett Glacier towards my first target, the infamous Mount Koven.
Climbing the wrong line on Koven’s southeast face was by far the biggest mistake I made during this project, and possibly the most dangerous mountaineering close-call of my life so far. I knew that the enjoyable snow couloir I climbed in June of 2020 would be melted out this late in the season, but I also knew that Teresa had also found a reasonable scrambling route somewhere on Koven’s southeast side. However, her route must have been a bit farther to climber’s left, since the part of the face I ended up climbing was unexpectedly serious.
First, to access the face, I had to tiptoe along the edge of a miniature serac that had fallen into the gaping bergschrund between the Gannett Glacier and Koven’s steep rock wall. The upper edge of the glacier has pulled away from the rock, leaving an overhanging lip of snow with a gap too large to jump. Part of this bergschrund had collapsed on itself, providing a tenuous snow bridge.
After taking off my crampons, I started up the only apparent weakness in this section of the face, a deeply inset chimney filled with steep, loose sand. About 50 feet up, the chimney was blocked by overhanging chockstones, which I overcame with a delicate mantle onto an adjacent ledge. The next several hundred feet involved more of the same, but with a new twist: loose rock. Since the face is covered in snow most of the year, it doesn’t have much time to undergo normal freeze-thaw cycles, so fractured blocks stay in place until disturbed by an unwitting climber. In half a dozen places, I climbed up from underneath overhanging blocks of suitcase to chair size that moved with the touch of a hand.
I recall wondering how it would end–the climbing was so steep and loose that I doubted whether I could downclimb it safely, but if it got much harder above, I would run out of options. Would I keep going until I fell, or would I reach some threshold where I called for a rescue on the InReach? A long time ago, I swore that if I ever used the Delorme’s “get out of jail free” button, I would never climb again. (I have since made an exception for serious injuries, but just getting stuck is a different matter.) That rule was meant as motivation to be ultra-responsible and always climb within my limits, but I was definitely outside my limits now. Is it a virtue or a vice to push self-reliance up to the point of failure?
Of course, while I was actually climbing, my thoughts were a bit simpler. “Am I going to summit?” and “Am I going to die?” alternated with about equal frequency. The thought, “Is this block loose?” was constant.
So, I made it to the summit, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Climbing mountains isn’t supposed to be a game of chance. Yes, there is always an element of risk, but you’re not supposed to commit to a blind faith in luck. And now I had to get down! I was carrying rappel equipment for later peaks, but rappelling my ascent route seemed like a bad idea because of the loose rock and lack of solid anchors.
Instead, I decided to downclimb the south ridge, the route that had been used by Eric/Matt and Sean. Based on their trip reports, the proper south ridge sounded much harder than the route I used in 2020, so I hadn’t studied it too closely, counting on repeating my “east face sneak” to join the ridge past the major difficulties. Now, I regretted that oversight, as I prepared to onsight down-solo the south ridge. Even if the climbing was harder, I reasoned, the rock should be better near the ridge, and I would much rather make committing moves on good rock instead of tenuous moves on friable rock.
As a side-note on my ascent route, I revisited the old Bonney guidebook after the fact and realized that my route corresponded closely to their description of the “SE Face direct” route, rated Grade II Class 5.5 (old-school 1960s ratings). I had originally assumed that the “SE Face direct” referred to some other line since this couloir/chimney system was pretty mellow as a snow climb in June of 2020, only class 4/steep snow (plus the low 5th class summit ridge). I still think the southeast face is the easiest way to climb Koven in ideal conditions (i.e., consolidated snow), but the rock underneath the snow is best avoided, a lesson I learned the hard way.
The south ridge actually ended up being pretty cool. Although I probably stayed a bit too close to the crest, it was still quite a bit easier than the route I ascended. This is the way to go after the east face melts out, no doubt about that. I ended up making two ~100 ft. rappels down sections that I could have downclimbed, but there were plentiful rock horns for anchors and at this point I wanted to err on the side of safety.
This photo shows Mount Koven as seen from Split Mountain on day 3. The south ridge is on the right (partially sunlit).
There is a certain adrenaline rush that accompanies getting away with something. I got away with climbing the wrong route on Koven in bad conditions. The feeling that luck intervened and preserved you from bad choices is not a good feeling–it inspires a sort of survivor’s guilt, the intuition that considering an ascent like this as an “accomplishment” is somehow insulting. Camus might say something about authenticity: is celebration the authentic response to a near-miss?
Still, the sense of realness, the gravity that accompanies a dangerous climb, can become intoxicating. After my balked second attempt at the 13ers in August, I remarked in the parking lot that I need to stop being addicted to doing impossible things. But after you’ve done something impossible, what else is there to do?
So much for all that. As Robert Hunter once said, “A little of someone else’s reported extasis goes a long way.”
After returning to my pack at the base of Pinnacle Ridge, nothing stood between me and Mount Woodrow Wilson, except for the glacier of course. The lower bowl looked ok–it was still snowy, and the concave topography limited the potential for crevasses. Above, a giant bergschrund separated the main glacier from a hanging ice sheet which I needed to ascend to reach the west couloir. This upper section had melted down to bare alpine ice: rock-hard, light blue, and rather intimidating without a rope or ice screws.
I decided to see what I could expect in a less-committing setting by crossing a small patch of similar-looking ice below Pinnacle Ridge. I figured in the worst case, my practice ice patch had a good runout on the flat glacier with no visible crevasses. Sure enough, I apparently wasn’t cautious enough, and about halfway across I slipped. Self-arresting on bare ice is as hard as it sounds, but I dug in my axe as hard as I could and soon stopped sliding. However, in the process, I badly scraped the knuckles of my pinky and ring finger on the sharp ice. I wasn’t bleeding too much, but I could see that more than an inch of skin had been ripped away on my pinky. I cursed my imprudence for moving too confidently on the ice, but for now at least, my attention was too focused on climbing Woodrow Wilson to worry about my wounds.
At this point, I was still mentally rattled from my experience on Koven, and I had just slipped on my “practice” ice patch. On Woodrow Wilson’s upper ice sheet, I would have to climb directly above a series of gaping crevasses (visible in the photos above where the hanging ice sheet meets the snowy left edge of the glacier). If I slipped, I could easily slide straight to my doom.
I almost decided to bail here, descending into the valley and crossing Bonney Pass to limp into camp beaten but alive. But no, I couldn’t do that, couldn’t survive Koven and give up now, couldn’t turn tail on this clear-sky day with a perfect weather window, not now, not here, not like this. It’s interesting to watch yourself think from an objective perspective. “I wonder what I’ll decide? Oh God I hope I don’t go for it. Oh God I have to go for it.”
So, I walked up to the edge of the bergschrund and stepped across the snowbridge onto the clear, blue ice. Balancing as delicately as possible, I was glad I had sharpened my well-worn steel crampons a month ago. I settled into a nervous rhythm: move one foot, move the other foot, re-balance, then sink the pick of my ice axe as hard as I could above my head, all the while looking for slight dimples and cracks in the ice that might afford better purchase. Since I only had a mountaineering axe instead of ice tools, each placement was marginal at best. Once again, I was too nervous to take pictures, at least until I had traversed far enough up and to the left that my fall-line ended in talus instead of gaping crevasses.
Risk it for the biscuit. ~ Unknown
To descend from Woodrow Wilson, I headed down the west couloir route. I hadn’t climbed it previously, but Sean had used it for his FKT, and it sounded like I should be able to rappel the hard sections and downclimb the rest. I carried 100 ft. of 6-mil cord for rappelling and 100 ft. of 2-mil cord to rig a biner-block. This gave me almost the same rappeling flexibility as a single 60 m rope while only weighing a couple pounds.
The issue is that sometimes the knot can get stuck on the anchor, making it difficult to pull the rope. On my first rappel from Woodrow Wilson (from an established anchor), it wouldn’t pull until I climbed back up the rope and repositioned the knot (pulling on the rope to re-ascend ended up making my wrist rather sore for the next day or two). The other trick is to keep the ultra-thin pull cord from getting tangled by uncoiling it as you rappel. Here, I double-check my setup before the second rap.
“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince,
“Is that somewhere it hides a well…” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I reached camp at dusk, where my mom and Tess (an adventurous little Havanese) were waiting. I was surprised how long this day had taken: it was only 10 miles with 5,600 ft. of elevation gain, but the extra time I spent switching in and out of crampons, setting up four rappels, and slowly negotiating the technical bits must have really added up.
In camp, I pretty much crashed, and it took a while before I was feeling rested enough to eat, bandage my scraped fingers and blistered feet, and settle in for the night. I spent a good hour just shivering in the sleeping bag, not from the cold but just from exhaustion and nerves. My exercise-induced asthma was also kicking in, despite the overall success of my new inhaler while I was climbing, and I had regular evening coughing fits. It was wonderful to have my mom in basecamp to help cook and support me in the evening–I don’t know how I would have had the strength to continue day after day without that morale boost. It wasn’t until about 11 p.m. that I finally got to sleep. I had knocked off several of the toughest 13ers, but the peaks had exacted their toll.