Loren Rausch - The Classics

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Classic Routes for the Mortal Man

By Loren Rausch

We’ve all been on them.  Those routes that are so much fun to climb, where all the elements of climbing combine euphorically for that single route, pitch, or move.  These are the classic routes.  Every climbing area has routes such as these, whether you’re bouldering or alpine climbing.  As I have progressed as a climber I have always wanted to do the classic routes that were at or near my climbing level, the harder the climb the more classic I thought it was.  Lately I have had a reawakening in terms of why climbing is fun.  Climbing is fun on many different levels, don’t get me wrong, but the unencumbered movement of flowing effortlessly on stone or ice in an alpine arena is my personal favorite.  No other style of climbing offers movement on such a big scale and in such an archaic place.  What I realized after introspection gained from visiting the various climbing areas is that the routes I remembered the most weren’t the hardest.  They were the moderate, long, and exposed routes that brought me directly to a beautiful summit.   Here is a list of three of the most enjoyable and classic routes I have done, where the lack of hard grades puts me at ease and I can just climb for the pure joy of it.

East Ridge of the Wolf’s Head – 5.6

Wolfs Head is a serrated peak located in the Wind River Mountains of central Wyoming where the wind rakes the spine of the continent.  The east ridge of Wolfs Head rises above the famous Cirque of the Towers in a gentle, sweeping arc of perfect granite.   Bridget and I awoke early in the predawn darkness to discover that our water bottles had been completely frozen during the night.  August in the Winds is a lot like winter elsewhere.   We waited until the sun struck the formation and thawed our bodies before venturing out onto the grassy ledges, the standard approach to the East Ridge. We roped up here and simul-climbed to the ridge crest.  Once established on the ridge beautiful rock swelled upwards.  We left the guidebook in the bottom of the pack and ventured forth on intuition.  The first few pitches climbed the exposed “sidewalk” section where the entire ridge crest narrows to a few feet wide but remains as smooth as a sidewalk.  The remainder of the ridge was pure bliss.  Squeeze chimneys, super exposed hand traverses, friction slabs, and “miles” of ridge scrambling brings one to a podium of a summit that looks outwards into the heart of the Wind River Mountains.  The descent off the peak was straightforward and soon we were sitting in the sun on the shores of Cirque Lake.  As we watched a pika gather grass that deep sense of peace that follows a genuine humanizing experience took hold of me.  The east ridge of Wolf’s Head remains the best 5.6 route I have ever done.

West Ridge of Pigeon Spire – 5.4

Pigeon spire thrusts dramatically out of the upper Vowell glacier and looks upon a seemingly infinite assembly of mountains stretching to every horizon.  Pigeon Spire is located in Bugaboo Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada, and the West ridge of this spire contains one of the better routes in the park.  The dirt road wandered for miles through thick timber as we neared the Kain Hut Trailhead.  Suddenly the road took a sharp bend and the first view of the Bugaboos and Pigeon spire were revealed.   This is a view not easily forgotten! The hike into either the Kain Hut or Applebee Dome is a beautiful jaunt up a trail complete with a fixed ladder and chain handrails.  The next morning we awoke early and cramponed up the perfect frozen snow of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch col.  Soon we were standing beneath the west ridge of Pigeon Spire and changing into rock shoes.  We climbed together feeling the cold rock beneath our fingers as the exposure grew with every move.  The climbing went fast to the first summit then slowed a bit as we worked the friction slab on the back side.  Gaining the second summit was by far the most enjoyable section of the climb.  The infamous au cheval portion presented us with a dilemma.  Should we climb this by putting our legs on either side of the arête and scooting along the rib this way, or should we stand up and balance across?  We chose the latter and tiptoed across feeling the exposure on either side of us fall away to the glacier way below.  After the second summit the route became very snowy (not typical in August).  Luckily we brought our boots and crampons along so the remainder of the route to the final summit went smoothly.  After we tagged the sharp summit we were rewarded by reversing the route (aside from 2 short rappels).  It was as if we got to climb the West Ridge twice and going down was just as much fun as going up.  We finished the climb by descending the Bugaboo glacier to the base of Snowpatch Spire.  This is a perfect inclement weather climb and should not be missed.  The best part?  The hardest moves encountered go at 5.4!

Northeast Ridge of Mount Cowen – 5.6

As a Montanan I can’t ignore the great low key climbing we have in our own backyard.  Perhaps one of the better alpine routes of the grade exists in the Absarorka/Beartooth Wilderness of south-central Montana.  Mount Cowen is the high point of the Absaroka Range standing at 11,212 feet and overlooking the beautiful Paradise Valley, where the Yellowstone River wanders undammed in its entirety.  The hike in entails 9 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain keeping the area pristine and relatively not crowded.  The Northeast Ridge of Mount Cowen rises 1,200 feet directly to the summit and is the classic profile of the peak when viewed from Paradise Valley. Brad and I left our tent perched at Elbow Lake and skirted the satellite spires on the peak’s east side as the morning sun warmed the rock.  We crossed a pass, dropped down a few hundred feet onto an ice field and eventually gained access to the northeast ridge.  We climbed together up moderate terrain for the first 500’ then stopped where the arête narrowed and steepened.  The crux of the ridge is a wildly exposed slab with a short splitter crack that took us to a knife edge arête.  More cracks and short cruxes followed as we climbed together for the remainder of the route.  We climbed a short 5.4 chimney then we suddenly found ourselves on the top as the west face dropped beneath us to a frozen tarn far below.  We coiled the rope and headed down the standard route (5.4) passing the frozen tarn and many large waterfalls.  The North-East ridge of Mount Cowen provides everything that an alpinist could dream of; remoteness, great climbing, good rock, a spectacular setting, a sharp summit, and all at the 5.6 grade.


While these climbs are not cutting edge, they are among my fondest climbing memories.  They have all the elements that made me want to become a climber in the first place, and years after I first roped up, I still find that these routes stick out as some of the best climbing experiences I have ever had.  Big, committing, and hard routes are becoming a dime a dozen these days; the true gems are the classic and accessible routes anyone can enjoy.

Post Your Comments

 ← refresh image