Keeping it together in dicey situations

Jerry Painter stands on the summit of Pingora Peak in the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range with Wolf's Head peak in the background. The giant, fin-shaped peak is a popular objective among climbers, but has been the scene for several epic outings. (Photo by Sam Painter)

The day after climbing Wolf’s Head in Wyoming’s Cirque of the Towers this summer our group was just sitting around camp fixing dinner. It had been a chill day of goofing off, fishing and hiking.

A pair of strong climbers from Colorado showed up to look through our copy of “Climbing and Hiking Wind River Mountains” by Joe Kelsey. We had met the pair the day before while climbing the same mountain.

We got to talking about their experiences in the mountains and the woman from Colorado told of a harrowing experience that reminded me of the old adage that “you learn something each time you go into the backcountry.” My take on it is that experience is a great teacher, but I’m tired of learning things through experience, especially bad experiences.

We told this couple that we took longer than expected to climb the peak because of our large group, but all went well.

“The first time I climbed it,” the woman said. “It took me 24 hours.”

We all stared at her waiting for the rest of the story. To do it in 24 hours means something went terribly wrong.

“It was a few years ago,” she launched into her story. “My friend and I were not real experienced (traditional) climbers and we didn’t know the route so we kept getting off course. Finally we decided to bail when it got dark. We started rappelling off the face of the mountain (not the normal way off). But our rope kept getting stuck. I had to climb back up the rap route and get it unstuck.”

We all pictured the nightmare in our minds as she told us her story. “Were you freaking out?” I asked.

“I wasn’t, but my friend was,” she said. “He was having trouble keeping it together. I just thought it was all a big adventure.”

I was thinking how rappelling down an unknown route was scary enough, but doing it in the dark and having your rope get stuck would compound the challenge and the scare factor. I told her I could empathize; I too was once “be-nighted” in the Tetons with a stuck rope.

Her positive attitude impressed me and I hope to hang on to a part of that conversation and its nuggets of wisdom: Don’t freak out, keep a positive attitude in the face of crazy circumstances and enjoy the moment.

When the woman and her boyfriend (a different guy this time) climbed Wolf’s Head on this trip, they cruised the route in a fourth of the time as her previous trip.

“Looking back on it,” she said, holding my guide book, “we were stupid not to have good directions on the climb.”

One’s attitude — good or bad — can make the worst situation palatable or the best situation miserable.

Later that evening as we watched the sun set and the stars begin to come out, we saw two headlamps more than 1,000 feet up on the huge face of Warrior 1 — a monster peak on the southern end of the Cirque of the Towers. My breath caught as I realized they were rappelling in the dark down the vertical face of the peak. We all sent them positive vibes as we watched them rap a second pitch down.

“They’ll be all right,” my son Sam said. “You don’t get on that mountain unless you know what you’re doing.”

I thought, as long as they have a healthy dose of positive attitude.