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Cirque of the Towers Traverse 

YDS: 5.8 French: 5b Ewbanks: 16 UIAA: VI- ZA: 15 British: HVS 4c

Type:  Trad, Alpine, Grade V
Original:  YDS: 5.6 French: 4c Ewbanks: 14 UIAA: V ZA: 12 British: S 4b [details]
Season: summer
Page Views: 11,489
Submitted By: fossana on Dec 9, 2015  with updates from AJ

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Cirque of the Towers at Dusk


As a long-time Sierra climber I feel blasphemous writing this, but the Cirque of the Towers is the most spectacular place I have ever visited. And what better way to explore it than with a traverse of the 11 major peaks, and that also includes one of the 50 Classic Climbs.

Rock Climbing Photo: first part of the traverse minus Pingora
first part of the traverse minus Pingora

Rock Climbing Photo: second part of the traverse
second part of the traverse

I rated the traverse based on the easiest path that tags the true summit of each peak while still starting at the S end of the ridge at Pingora and not doing any major deviations from the ridge. Note that as with any traverse there are variations, as well as some contention around the Shark's Head true summit, which will cause the rating to vary for individual parties. I used Kelsey as the source of truth given his extensive knowledge of the range.

Closest Real Town
Pinedale, WY with groceries, gas, brewery, laundry, 4G, library, and showers at the super nice rec center. If you have time check out the Museum of the Mountain Man. You can also go in from Lander, bu this adds an extra hour to the drive.

The Tetons Climbers’ Ranch said they mostly use NOAA for the Winds. With the topology the Cirque tends to be extra cold and storms can creep up on you unexpectedly, so take the forecast with a grain of salt. Mosquitos are bad at times. I was told to go mid Aug through early Sep, although I’ve been burned on weather in the Tetons in early Sep.

Wind River Range South (Beartooth Publishing)

Guide Books
  • Cirque of the Towers and Deep Lake (Steve Bechtel)
  • Wind River Mountains (Joe Kelsey)

Trailhead Amenities
Bathrooms/campground at the trailhead. Primitive camping also allowed in established spots along the way. No bear boxes, but keep food contained.

Rock Climbing Photo: trailhead amenities
trailhead amenities

Lots of rivers and lakes along the way and in the cirque, but no water on the ridge unless there’s snow to melt.

Backcountry Camping
There are many established primitive campsites in the Cirque. Please keep the area pristine with leave no trace ethics.

Traverse Tips
If any of the rock seems crappy you’re off-route. The raps tend to be directly above whatever notch separates your next objective with the exception of the ones off of Wolf’s Head. Be prepared for many raps. Route-finding is fairly straightforward compared to some of the Sierra traverses.

Pingora (S Buttress, 5.6 or 5.8)
Most people start the traverse with the S Buttress of Pingora (5.6 or 5.8 with the K Cracks variation). Approach the route from the left side of the S shoulder via 3rd class ramps. The route starts on top of the shoulder where the main formation steepens.

Rock Climbing Photo: S Buttress of Pingora
S Buttress of Pingora

Wolf's Head (E Ridge, 5.6)
After the Pingora summit drop down to the raps stations to the west into the notch between Pingora and Wolf's Head. Don’t use the normal S Buttress raps. Staying on the S side take the ledge system (4th) until you join the Wolf’s Head E Ridge. Follow the beautifully exposed E Ridge to the summit. If you like Matthes Crest you'll love this route. It's deservedly in the 50 Classics.

Rock Climbing Photo: the spectacular E Ridge of Wolf's Head
the spectacular E Ridge of Wolf's Head

Overhanging Tower (NW Ridge/W Face, class 4)
There are many ways to descend from the summit, but the goal is to rap to the west until you can hike south to the gully in between Wolfs Head and Overhanging tower. I mostly downclimbed this. From the notch take the NW Ridge/W Face route to the summit.

Rock Climbing Photo: Overhanging Tower from Wolf's Head
Overhanging Tower from Wolf's Head

Shark's Nose (N summit via NW Buttress, 5.6; S summit 5.8)
Downclimb (5.5) or rap from the summit into the notch separating Overhanging Tower from Shark's Tooth. There seems to be some disagreement between Kelsey and Bechtel as to the true summit; Kelsey says it's the N one, Bechtel the S. At least some of the former speed record holders only did the N so take your pick.

From the notch head up the higher of two ramps. At this point I continued trending right passing some rap lines, then up past a piton. I ended up at the base of a fairly committing rightward slanting crack (5.6). After the crack continue up easier terrain to the summit.

Traverse the ridge toward the S summit. The 5.8 section, although a boulder problem, is super exposed and burly. I suspect most people will want a rope here even if you soloed the rest.

Rock Climbing Photo: Shark's Nose
Shark's Nose

Block Tower (E Ridge, 5.5)
If you did the S summit rap down into the notch between Shark's Nose and Block Tower. From the N summit head along the ridge to the S summit until you're able to set up a pendulum over to easier ground on the W side (obvious ramp). There were older anchors here, but they had been cut. The ramp linked me into the S summit raps. There are other rap options directly off the N summit, but this seemed more direct.

From the notch take the 4th class ramp until you reach a 5.5 chimney on the E Face. Take this to the summit.

Rock Climbing Photo: Block Tower summit
Block Tower summit

Watchtower (class C for crappy slog)
From Block Tower rap into the notch at the base of Watchtower. The easiest way is to slog up the gully just to climber's right of Watchtower until you top out on flatter, more stable ground to reach the summit.

S Watchtower, Pylon Peak, Warrior II, Warrior I, Warbonnet
At this point you're mostly hiking with a little bit of scrambling as you tag the summits around the cirque.

Rock Climbing Photo: the hiking part of the traverse
the hiking part of the traverse

Rock Climbing Photo: very approximate route
very approximate route


Park at Big Sandy trailhead (42.6885,-109.2695). The graveled roads to reach Big Sandy are long, but mostly in good condition with the exception of the last few miles. There were a number of 2WD low clearance cars at the trailhead when I went.

From the trailhead follow the signs to Big Sandy Lake (trail 99, marked), ~5 miles. Continue on toward Jackass Pass past North Lake where the trail will begin to ascend steeply to a flattish area. Before the trail ascends again look for a trail heading off to the left toward Arrowhead Lake and the Cirque (both hidden). The turn-off was cairned as of Aug 2015. The Cirque can also be reached from Jackass Pass, so don’t worry if you miss it. Cross the Cirque to the prominent S Buttress of Pingora. There is plentiful water and camping in the Cirque as well as all along the approach.

From the summit of Warbonnet continue S then E, dropping down to Big Sandy Lake. Catch the trail back to your campsite or to your car.


  • mandatory single 60m rope/tagline for raps
  • supplemental rap station gear recommended
  • alpine rack if roping up

Photos of Cirque of the Towers Traverse Slideshow Add Photo
Rock Climbing Photo: View during traverse from summit of Sharks Nose
View during traverse from summit of Sharks Nose
Rock Climbing Photo: Here is our GPS tracks of the Traverse and all 13 ...
BETA PHOTO: Here is our GPS tracks of the Traverse and all 13 ...
Rock Climbing Photo: Racking up with the new BD Ultralights at the base...
Racking up with the new BD Ultralights at the base...
Rock Climbing Photo: Soaking in the sunrise & view from the first summi...
BETA PHOTO: Soaking in the sunrise & view from the first summi...
Rock Climbing Photo: Nearing the end of the traverse and looking back a...
Nearing the end of the traverse and looking back a...
Rock Climbing Photo: A view looking back after completing the most tech...
BETA PHOTO: A view looking back after completing the most tech...
Rock Climbing Photo: A rough outline of the route as seen from the star...
BETA PHOTO: A rough outline of the route as seen from the star...
Rock Climbing Photo: Looking back to where we will finish as we head to...
Looking back to where we will finish as we head to...
Rock Climbing Photo: Yes, it's as good as it looks.
Yes, it's as good as it looks.

Comments on Cirque of the Towers Traverse Add Comment
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Comments displayed oldest to newestSkip Ahead to the Most Recent Dated Jul 10, 2017
By Mees
From: Iowa
Dec 9, 2015

Would be so fun to do in a day. really excellent write up , thanks. It's not blasphemous to say the Winds are... wait a sec. The winds suck , the Sierras are where it's at!
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
Dec 9, 2015

thanks, Mees! Don't forget mosquitos and t-storms. It's definitely reasonable to do this in a day (or C2C) if you're in condition, can move quickly over more technical terrain, and in my case, don't have some messed up inner ear vertigo thing. I was able to do all but the final peak C2C :/
By Brooks Groves
Dec 10, 2015

I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, and those will always be my home mountains, but this!! I have been meaning to get out there and check this area out ... thanks for some extra inspiration. Shooting for the end of July early August ... super stoked!!
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
Dec 11, 2015

You're welcome Brooks. I originally had my sights set on the Grand Traverse, then saw photos of this. To top it off the rock is on par with Tuolumne. Have a great trip!
By MasterBeta
May 6, 2016

Hey all, I'm considering linking this route up after doing a backpacking trip on the Wind river high route. (week long trip). Do any of you know logistically how I could make that happen? maybe leave a car at the trailhead near the cirque traverse with climbing gear? or suffer and lug the gear on the trip? My partner and I are very fit, but I wouldn't make him follow me up anything more than 5.9. This route appears to be do-able under 5.6?

Also, permit-wise I can't seem to find any restrictions or other info online. I plan on doing this in early August this summer.

Thanks for your help!
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
May 6, 2016

Parking at Big Sandy for that trip looks logistically less appealing if you're also planning to use that car for the shuttle. You could bribe some friends to meet you or use one of the pack outfitters in Pinedale to get your gear to the trailhead or Cirque.

As far as I can tell you only need a backcountry permit for organized groups, commercial outfitters or if you have pack animals. There was a self-registration book at Big Sandy at least.
By MasterBeta
May 10, 2016

@fossana thanks for the info brother. I think I am gonna sweet talk my mom into driving us to Big Sandy, dropping gear and car, then leaving us at Green river lake since she is in Driggs. Good news about permits. How's the exposure and gear on the route?
By logistically less appealing, do you mean that I shouldn't leave a vehicle parked at BS? It's an AWD toyota van
@Brooks Groves, maybe I'll see ya out there! I'll probably end up in the Cirque around august 9-10th
By fossana
From: leeds, ut
May 10, 2016

@topropetoughguy123 It's sister, but that's ok.;)

From Skurka's beta: West-side access is less ideal for a thru-hike. It’s a 4-hour, 100-mile drive between trailheads... And there’s no good route to Wind River Peak from Big Sandy: to avoid a loop or an out-and-back, it’s necessary to drop out of the high country for an unacceptably long time.

Skurka does a lot of enduro routes and his logistics info is reliable.

I didn't use pro, but an alpine rack should be fine if you lead 5.9 and your second is OK on that type of terrain. Heady exposure in the first half of the traverse to add to the fun, especially on Wolfs Head.
By Sirius
From: Oakland, CA
Aug 15, 2016

Oh my god. I've never been so fired up by a MP page. This is fantastic, fossana, thank you for putting it together.
By Chris Walden
From: Soldotna, Alaska
Aug 18, 2016
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a R

We just finished the Traverse last week and it was incredible! The Cirque is straight out of Lord of the Rings. Weather was your standard alpine unpredictable beast, splitter blue bird one moment and snowing the next.

I think for most this is a Grade V route. Wolf's Head alone is ~10 pitches grade IV, tack on ~17 more alpine pitches, ~15-20 raps, route finding, stuck ropes, boot jams on Wolf's Head, and nearly 22 miles to bag all 13 summits; all but the fastest parties will be bivying somewhere. The Cirque Traverse is BURLY! we were moving on route ~34 hours.

A few notes below.

  • During our trip we talked with many people that underestimated the length and difficulty of the route (ourselves included) and bailed after spending nearly all day on Pingora & Wolfs Head. We were amazed how many people were heading into the Cirque with the idea of just banging the Traverse out. Once we rapped off Wolf's head into the col we saw nobody the rest of the way... ;-)

  • Our beta comes after doing the harder pitches along the traverse including the 5.8/5.9 roof & hand crack on Wolf's Head, 5.8 direct start on Shark's Nose, South Summit on Shark's Nose 5.8/5.9. The Traverse goes 5.6 but we choose to do the harder pitches along the way. YMMV but regardless it's burly...

  • Gear: Single 60M, BD UL's to #3 (doubles .4-#1 if I remember correctly), ~8 alpine draws, paired down set of nuts and offsets, 4 cordelettes to backup raps (we used up 2.5).

  • Bivy locations are plentiful the entire way. On the Shark's Nose South Tower raps there are some really good ledges where we bivied.

By fossana
From: leeds, ut
Aug 18, 2016

Consulted with the Sierra crew and bumped up the rating to grade V. :) Hope you get out there soon, Sirius and glad it went well, Chris.
By Chris Walden
From: Soldotna, Alaska
Aug 19, 2016
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a R

Fossana - Ah awesome I think updating the grade will hopefully prepare others for the magnitude of the climb. We saw a few teams that looked like they had seen a ghost bailing off the Cirque and too many teams hiking in not prepared.
By Dan Evans
From: Phoenix, AZ
Aug 26, 2016
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a R

At the first prominent tower on Wolf's Head (before the piton pitch) if you go left it's a 5.9 bulge to a short 5.6 chimney followed by quite possibly one of the best hand traverses (4 stars hands down) you could imagine. Once you crest the chimney it puts you on a ledge the size of a horse saddle, then there is a 30 ft horizontal hand crack (5.7) with 1000 ft of vertical rock underneath your feet on small edges. Absolutely worth it if you are comfortable at the grade. I think that was the highlight of the entire traverse for me and it wasn't even part of the actual route.

The moves getting to the south summit of Shark's Nose I think go at 5.9. I know it's one or two moves, but gaining the ledge after the exposed 5.8 "step across" is pretty burly. My 2 cents. I would say if you are going to the S summit of Sharks Nose, be confident leading 5.9.
By Jordan Collins 1
Nov 17, 2016

The raps are what kill you on this thing! Doing both wolfs head and pingora before can help dramatically. They dont take long at all if you are not behind people and know where to go, but if you dont know where your going its easy to cost yourself some valuable time. Finding the start of the sharks nose NW butress can be difficult, after rapping down from the overhanging tower into the col, you walk right down the col towers shadow lake, OPPOSITE way of going back to the cirque, there will be two gullys on the left and you want the one that is higher up/closer to the cirque. The crux of the route is definetely the one single move on the south summit of sharks nose but it really is not difficult it is just exposed and a little hard to commit, however the protection is at your chest and it is one move so it is not very bad. The rappels off of this formation are extremely exposed and over hung, definetely reccomend some time of prussic just in case. After this the last real difficulty for us was going up through the 3rd class choss to get to the ridgeline no real beta just go up some 5.2 dirt. watch your step and staying close at this section is recommended so you cannot kick rocks on partner below. I think a single rack to #1 would suffice. A few bailer nuts just in case. Though you could get away with a 60m we found that it was much quicker with a 70m as there is never any downclimbing to the next anchor. worth the weight in my opinion. This is one of the funnest days both of us have had in the mountains and is amazing alpine granite.
By DavisMeschke Guillotine
From: Pinedale, WY
Jul 10, 2017

I agree with some of the above comments that 5.6 is soft for the climbing you actually encounter on-route; 5.8 would be more in-line with what you climb, especially if you choose to do the NE Face of Pingora and the S Summit of Sharks Nose. Also, the Traverse as you have described is definitely a grade V for most parties. Climb the NE Face for added value, incredible rock, and a 50 Classics tick.

+1 for being on your rap game.

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