Nick Knoke – 3 Climbing Adventures

Nick is the ALN Technical Director, and Producer of the ALN Th@4 program of informal, online chats every Thursday at 4 pm Eastern.

3) A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

…and this drone footage is worth 1 million!

Nick Knoke sport climbing a 5.12b in Wyoming’s Wind River Range

I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the end of summer…

…than driving down one of the roughest roads, cooking and camping out with good friends, and climbing the route Wind Drinker up at 9500′.

My third grand climbing adventure came just in time, as the following day it snowed!

2) First Ascent of a New Route: Zig Zag Sensei

If you have read my story Climbing the Grand Teton then you will probably have guessed that Daniel was my inspiration to find a new route up a 1000′ granite face in the Wind River Range, but for those of you that haven’t heard of him: Daniel is my strongest and most adventurous climbing partner, and it is his ambition that has led to some of my most harrowing days, and also my most spectacular summits!

Daniel and Nick
Daniel following in Red Rocks NV
Daniel leading in the Wind River Range WY

This adventure began as many others have before, with Daniel suggesting an objective that I had never considered. In all our years of climbing together, we had always followed in the footsteps of previous climbers – taken paths that were pioneered by someone before us who had the gumption to truly set off into the unknown. Now Daniel had suggested the unthinkable.

We would drive from our hometown in the plains, up four or five-thousand feet, to the last parking area before the Popo Agie Wilderness, and then hike the five or six miles in to the Leg Lake Cirque, where we would try and find a new route to the top, by connecting various crack-systems and other features up the 1000′ wall.

Approaching the cirque from Leg Lake
Daniel bouldering at the base of the wall

As the pioneers of Yosemite had, we would bring lots of food, water, ropes, and gear in the hopes that we could reach the summit through sheer perseverance, if necessary. We were really hoping that what looked like a feasible route from the ground would continue to be possible under closer inspection.

The hike went quickly despite being weighed down with all the extra metal climbing gear (pitons, hammer, bolt kit, etc.), gear that we would never even use if all went well and we were able to simply free climb. Sidenote* free climbing is often misunderstood as “free soloing” which is the act of climbing without a rope – while “free climbing” allows the use of a rope for protection, though not to aid upward progress (which would be called “aid climbing”).

After a restless night sleeping in the mountain’s shadow we rose early, ate breakfast, packed our bags for the day, and scrambled the quarter-mile of talus from our camp to the base of the massive wall. The suspense was eating me, so I agreed to start the day off. I grabbed the heavy rack of rock climbing gear, tied-in to not one, but three ropes, and set off.

The path of least resistance became fairly obvious, if not straight-forward, and Daniel and I made slow progress up the wall. Though both of us have extensive mountain climbing experience, the height and exposure seemed to affect us particularly that day, so we were glad to be able to hand off the sling of gear and let the other lead the way.

After hours of route-finding and pretty good rock climbing, we made it to a big ledge and sat down to think. We knew we were more than halfway, but it was 4pm and we were quite aware that we didn’t have as much daylight as in the peak of summer. Ultimately, we decided to bail. Rather than press on into the unknown and potentially get benighted, we chose retreat, and quickly started back-tracking through a series of rappels.

That evening as we cooked dinner, again in the shadow of the mountain that had bested us, we wondered, “is that the end of that?”

The following morning, rather than pack up the tent and start the heavy walk of shame homewards, we decided we would come back the following weekend and take the route to the top! One excellent feature of this decision was that it meant we didn’t have to hike all our metal and ropes out, and instead, stash the hard goods near the base of the route.

The hike out was fast and foot-loose, as we had eaten our food and were unburdened of all the heaviest components of our gear.

Almost every night the following week, I would lay awake before bed, thinking about the parts of the route that we had discovered, and the second half, which remained a mystery.

“What if the way above our high-point was impassable? Could we successfully bail from higher on that wall?”

These questions circled my brain while we drove, hiked, and climbed back to our high-point from the previous week. Then I was back on the “sharp end”, leading the way up into the unknown!

More than once I found myself in a position where I wasn’t sure that upward progress could be continued safely, but each time I was able to quell the fear rising in my gut, return to my breath, and trust myself to know what to do. After a particularly hair-raising rope length of rock climbing, I was able to build a belay and bring Daniel & Peter up.

Daniel took the next section and led off beyond what Peter and I could see. For what seemed like hours, all we knew was that the rope kept feeding out as Daniel (apparently) climbed higher. And then, we heard a whoop of excitement from far off in the distance…

As luck would have it, we made it to the top (since, after all, luck favors the bold)! Sitting on the summit, we soaked up the sunset while letting the stress and uncertainty melt away. And then, began the not inconsequential descent back to civilization.

Daniel looking deeper into the Winds

Peter boulder-hopping back down to Leg Lake

After much deliberation we decided to call the new route Zig Zag Sensei, on account of the wandering nature of the path of least resistance we found up the great Leg Lake cirque. If you are interested, you can find climbing-centric information about the route on Mountain Project.

1) Climbing the Grand Teton

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