A heady game on Wolf’s Head peak

Jerry Painter climbs along the Piton Pitch of Wolf's Head in the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range on Friday. Although the climbing was generally not difficult, the exposure to heights was off the charts. (Photo by Tanner Pursley)

Kelly Painter, of Idaho Falls, climbs "The Sidewalk" section of Wolf's Head in the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range on Friday. Although not steep, The Sidewalk narrows down to about shoulder width in places and drops of several hundred feet on both sides. (Jerry Painter photo)

Jerry Painter traverses a wall offering only a foot rail and no hands during a climb of Wolf's Head peak in Wyoming's Wind River Range on Friday. (Tanner Pursley photo)

The Wind River Range's Cirque of the Towers also offers excellent trout fishing besides world famous rock climbing. Here Tanner Pursley tries his luck in the Popo Agie River which flows from the Cirque. (Jerry Painter photo)

I was leading the third pitch on Friday of the famous Wolf’s Head peak found high in the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming’s Wind River Range when I made a mistake.

Picture a giant mohawk hairdo more than 1,200 feet tall on both sides, obscenely narrow — shoulder width in places — and mostly straight-up vertical.

That’s Wolf’s Head.

Climbing the ridge line is generally a traverse (climbing horizontally instead of vertically). But what it lacks in technical difficulty, it makes up in exposure — as in exposure to heights.

My directions told me to circle on the south side of the first rock tower, but although it appeared to be a tower, it wasn’t what I was looking for. I circled to my left and grabbed a man-sized flake (a thin slab of rock detached from the main face). It shifted on me and I quickly grabbed a flake next to it. It was solid, so I plugged in a camming device and clipped on my rope.

Then I moved around the corner of the flake and was gripped in terror. This was not the way. I was faced with a giant blank granite face that dropped all the way to the valley floor. A literal dead end. About 20 yards beyond, the easy climbing picked up again. The sudden slap in the face of awesome exposure rattled my nerves. I turned back and my rope went slack and drooped.

“TAKE UP ROPE!” I yelled to my belayer, who was out of sight. I carefully removed my cam and climbed back to the middle of the ridge and continued along the center of the ridge to easier climbing.

Climbing Wolf’s Head (12,165 feet) had been on my bucket list for years — ever since I saw a photo in a climbing magazine of people on its giant knife-edge ridge. Our group of four included my son Sam, his wife Kelly, and a friend Tanner Pursley. We climbed as a group using two ropes. We weren’t fast, but we set a steady pace.

Our information said the route could be done in eight pitches (rope lengths). But with our large group of four, we tended to stop at more accommodating belay ledges. We made it to the top in 10 pitches. After four pitches (thinking I was halfway), I turned over the leading to Sam. It eased my frazzled nerves a bit, but the nature of the climbing — long sections of horizontal climbing with little to no protection against falls — made it feel like everyone was leading each pitch.

“One rule is no falling allowed,” I told everyone before the climb.

I thought Kelly was going to break that rule on a little squeeze slot at the base of a formation called the Darth Vader Tower. She entered the slot — about the width of a small refrigerator — facing the wrong way. She found herself with her back pressed against one side and her feet against the other inching along slowly. It didn’t help that at the far end of the slot, the bottom dropped away off the side of the mountain.

“You got this Kelly,” we told her nervously. At one point a foot popped off and I held my breath. Slowly, she inched down to a larger hold and crept to a large ledge around the corner. I think we all let out a sigh.

One pitch, called the Piton Pitch because it has a series of pitons pounded into the rock every 10 to 15 feet, was particularly exciting. It was a wall with a small foot rail allowing only toes in some places that leaned in just enough to give you confidence that you could hold on to small finger crimps. Below you the wall seemed to drop away into infinity. It was a don’t-look-down section.

When we arrived at the final summit tower, time was becoming an issue. We still had six rappels to get off the peak and the sun was about an hour or so from the horizon.

After the third rappel, I could feel the tension in my body begin to flow away. I knew we would not be doing any of the rappels in the dark. But we did walk the last half-mile or so back to our campsite in the dark. It was OK — we were almost giddy with joy and exhaustion at having done the deed.

Our freeze-dried dinners never tasted better.