Sky Ladders - Climbing Magazine

Sky Ladders


Five Classic Alpine Rock Ridges for Everyman

Wolfshead (left) and Pingora, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Wolfshead (left) and Pingora, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Sun Ribbon Arête, Temple Crag, California

“Yeehaw!” I bellowed as Josh Smith and Sam Gardner, both from Los Alamos, closed the back of the freshly loaded truck. We pulled into the Bernalillo, New Mexico, Burger King, bought enough grease for the all-nighter to Big Pine, and headed west. Sam, a world traveler and wannabe Himalayan farmer, had recently been kicked by one of his yaks (still not sure why he owns them) and was feeling pretty un-Western. Josh and I, living in the Southwest, fancied ourselves handy with ropes. Our destination was Sun Ribbon Arête, in the High Sierra near Bishop, California, famous for its Tyrolean traverse rigged by lassoing a granite spike.

By next afternoon, we were camped at Second Lake, beautiful even by Sierra standards. High up a valley that starts sere but greens with each upward step, Second Lake reflects the mammoth Temple Crag, a 13,000-foot peak, thanks to the addition of a one-foot summit cairn. On this 2,200-foot wall, home to four near-mythical granite arêtes, Sun Ribbon sits center stage, to climber’s left of the 34-pitch buttress of Dark Star (V 5.10c).

The next day, all went smoothly till the infamous chasm, about 1,200 feet up. Here, Josh fashioned a cowboy lasso, and set to twirling it expertly. Three tosses later, the spike remained unclaimed. “Give me that rope!” said Sam, soon likewise embarrassed. Round and round we went for 20 minutes until someone finally coaxed the loop over the spike. (You can also rap or free-climb past the chasm, but that would be cheating.)

Several pitches later, we looked down as another party reached the chasm. Each climber coiled a length into one hand, the rope running between the two in a big U. On cue, they tossed the coils to either side of the spire, neatly looping it first try to rig a two-strand Tyrolean.

Josh Smith crossed the famed Tyrolean on the Sun Ribbon Arête, Temple Crag, Inyo National Forest, California.

Josh Smith crossed the famed Tyrolean on the Sun Ribbon Arête, Temple Crag, Inyo National Forest, California.

The Beta

  • Difficulty: IV 5.7 or 5.10a, 1,800 feet; 18 pitches, plus third- and fourth-class climbing

  • First ascent: Don Jensen and John Fischer, 1969

  • Approach: Seven miles, 3,400-foot gain to Second Lake; you must obtain a camping permit through the Inyo National Forest Service office in Lone Pine or Bishop

  • Route Beta: Begin in a gully left of the ridge. An ice axe or sharp rock might be useful for cutting steps in the snow. Cross ledges rightward to a wide, brown corner (5.6). Use the corner to gain the ridge, then ramble six more ropelengths to the second gendarme and the rope lasso. One pitch past the Tyrolean, you’ll encounter another gendarme with slings. Ignore the slings, descend to a notch, and rap rightward. A fist crack and thin face provide the 5.10 crux; a 5.7 variation lies to climber’s left, on the east face. Summit via progressively easier terrain.

  • Guidebook:The Good, the Great and the Awesome, by Peter Croft; Climbing California’s High Sierra, by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler;

Pigeon Spire and Bugaboo Spire, Bugaboo Provincial Park, British Columbia. The Kain Route follows the left skyline on Bugaboo.

Pigeon Spire and Bugaboo Spire, Bugaboo Provincial Park, British Columbia. The Kain Route follows the left skyline on Bugaboo.

In 1916, Conrad Kain made the FA while guiding three clients. With no logging roads then, the 30-mile approach was likely the biggest hurdle, and it alone took several attempts. Kain was an Austrian emigrant and a consummate mountain guide. During his 30-year career, he completed more than 60 first ascents. Most notable are Mount Robson, on which Kain chopped 1,600 steps up a 50-degree ice face, and Mount Louis. He considered Bugaboo Spire’s south ridge equal to his finest climbs, writing of the route, “When every hold is solid, difficulties are welcome and met with a smile.”

The Beta

  • Difficulty: III 5.6, 2,500 feet including approach to the col; four pitches with significant scrambling

  • First ascent: Conrad Kain and clients, 1916 Approach: Four miles, 3,200-foot gain to Applebee Camp; passport needed to enter Canada

  • Route Beta: A very popular line. The infamous, engaging “Gendarme Pitch,” a 5.6 crux led by Kain in hobnail boots, surmounts the formation on the south side of the pinnacle. A couple more pitches lead to lower-angle scrambling and the South Summit. Descend via six 25-meter rappels (anchors in-situ) along the route.

  • Guidebook:The Bugaboos, by Chris Atkinson and Mark Piché; Or Bugaboo Rock, by Joe Bensen and Randal Green;

Kit Carson Peak, Sangre De Cristo Mountains, Colorado. the Prow is the prominent sunlit fin.

Kit Carson Peak, Sangre De Cristo Mountains, Colorado. the Prow is the prominent sunlit fin.

The Prow, Kit Carson Peak, Colorado

Some call The Prow the best 5.8 in the world. Having climbed it three times, I concur. I believe position is 90 percent of any great climb, and on this flying buttress of super-solid conglomerate up a Colorado Fourteener, the exposure feels beyond enormous, 6,000 feet above the San Luis Valley and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

While the climbing is mainly 5.6 and easier, The Prow’s altitude (it begins at 12,500 feet and ends at 14,165 feet), scarcity of protection, and unusual, near-crackless stone demand full attention. The entrance exam comes right away — overhanging 5.8 moves with difficult pro. Take heed: the effort to place the protection will certainly perplex the aspiring 5.8 leader, and falling is not an option. Pass this test and you should complete the course, though retreat from the first five pitches would be very unlikely. Start early to beat the ubiquitous southern Colorado mega-thunderstorms.

On my first trip up The Prow, a cold front moved in and filled the mountains with swirling mist. It was as if we were riding the Loch Ness Monster as the dark stone undulated before us through the fog. The route snakes over several vertical steps and convenient belay gendarmes before easing into an angle like the curvature of a beast’s long neck. Although we froze and fretted about the rain, there was something singularly comforting about the day. As we neared the top, the fog burned off and we summited under bluebird skies.

Josh Smith bouldering in upper Spanish Creek. The Prow is visible above.

Josh Smith bouldering in upper Spanish Creek. The Prow is visible above.

The Beta

  • Difficulty: IIII 5.8, 1,600 feet; five to seven pitches, plus scrambling

  • First ascent: Unknown

  • Approach: 5.5 miles, 4,300-foot gain. Expect slow going through sections of forest-fire deadfall in Spanish Creek, on the San Luis side; or approach from South Colony Lakes to the east, access point for the 50 Classics’ Ellingwood Arête, a 5.7 on Crestone Needle. Regardless, bring bug dope!

  • Route Beta: From a nice campsite just above treeline, gain an obvious notch via an arching ramp from the right. Surmount the crux overhang and continue upward on a more moderate (but runout) face. A 60-meter rope and simul-climbing see you to the best belays. Bisect the hiker’s trail near the top and continue up the ridge for a summit pitch. Descend via a hiker’s trail to the east, and then back south down a wide gully.

  • Guidebook: Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach; Or

Unknown climbers on Wolf's Head, Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming.


East Ridge of Wolf’s Head, Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming

Steve Roper and Al Steck’s mythical book Fifty Classic Climbs (1979) eloquently describes Wolf’s Head East Ridge: “For those who love clean, solid, intriguing granite, Wolf’s Head is an absolute delight. Of all those who come to the ridge, including the hard men, few leave unsatisfied.” Their words still ring true today.

I climbed the white-granite razorback, nine miles deep in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, almost by accident. In 1991, I had hiked into the Cirque with my parents and spent the evening fishing in Lonesome Lake. The trout were biting, and the evening was made all the better by the beautiful form of Pingora overlooking the lake. Next day, after a morning trout feast, I set off alone up Pingora’s South Buttress (5.6), at the right tip of the Cirque’s horseshoe of peaks. From the summit, the view pulled me onward — why not loop west and south? I downclimbed, set off across Wolf’s Head, and continued over three more towers before I got hungry for more fish and hightailed back to camp via the gully between Shark’s Nose and Block Tower. Of all the routes that day, Wolf’s Head was the highlight.

Most notable is the sidewalk start. Three feet wide at its narrowest and 300 feet long, this monolithic spine of knobby granite angles gently upward over infinite exposure. Beyond, you summit by contouring and weaving along horizontal fractures past four sub-peaks. You can negotiate the horizontals either via delicate foot shuffling or by dropping down into strenuous hand traverses. The former method is more elegant, but nearly impossible to protect.

The Beta

  • Difficulty: III 5.6, 400 feet; circa 10 pitches

  • First ascent: William Plummer and William Buckingham, 1959

  • Approach: Nine miles, 2,665-foot gain

  • Route Beta: Approach from the south up grassy ledges (5.4). Follow the “sidewalk.” Next, pass the first tower to the left, the second and third towers to the right, and the fourth tower to the left. Scramble to the top. Numerous short raps and downclimbing off the summit complete the circle to camp. Start early to beat thunderstorms.

  • Guidebook: Most recent is Cirque of Towers and Deep Lake, by Steve Bechtel; Joe Kelsey’s Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains is the standard guide;

Kennan Harvey lives in Durango, Colorado, and stays in shape on a local outdoor toddler climbing wall with his daughter, Roan.