Summer is a time when we can take climbing trips and have adventures. Being in Tennessee can feel claustrophobic with all the vegetation. I really enjoy traveling west to Wyoming, to escape this feeling, and be in wide-open spaces.

This year I chose to go to Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Mountains with my son, Derrick, and his wife, Andrea.

Here are 6 lessons I experienced and learned during “summer school” climbing in the Cirque of the Towers, WY in 2019.

Situation: Pingora, East Ledges (climbing as a 3-person team)

Arno and Derrick in Cirque of the Towers

It’s helpful to know our weakness before we do something. One of my main weaknesses is not thinking enough during preparation and planning. Climbing in 3-person teams isn’t common for me so I planned a practice session for us at the Obed in Tennessee.

We determined who would lead (Derrick), who would belay the leader (Arno), and who the third partner would be (Andrea). We made this decision based on Derrick’s desire to lead and Andrea’s limited climbing experience. I also wanted to support Derrick in his desire to lead our team. We visualized the whole ascent as a 3- person team and then practiced climbing in that way.

Another weakness of mine is rescuing others. Derrick has limited trad experience, which could cause him stress on Pingora. This may slow our climbing. I needed to be aware of my tendency to “rescue” him, to allow him to struggle, yet I need to also keep in mind the overall goal of being timely in getting off the mountain.

The adventure unfolded well as we climbed. Derrick led confidently but soon became fearful. He was doubting the trustworthiness of his gear. He also hadn’t led multi-pitch on such a big objective. His fear did slow our progress; I noticed my desire to take over the lead and relieve his stress.

Knowing beforehand I may try to rescue him helped me allow Derrick to struggle. He struggled, but I kept silent, just giving occasional reminders about how to remain calm. I also kept in mind the timeline for our climb. He led pitch after pitch until we were three pitch from the top of Pingora.

Andrea in Cirque of the Towers

The sun was setting. I suggested taking over the lead, given our overall goal of being off the mountain before dark. We switched leads, continued to the top, rappelled and made it back to camp in time for dinner.

  • Lesson learned #1: Stress is valuable, so it’s helpful to allow others to struggle. We can encourage them in ways that help them stay focused while at the same time knowing that they’re supported. And, we find balance by keeping the overall risk in mind while allowing others to learn within the risk.

I had the opportunity to also observe Andrea in how she dealt with her limited climbing experience. She could have trusted us too much; expecting us to make all the risk decisions and just tag along. She didn’t. She asked questions when we practiced at the Obed and on Pingora about the rope systems so she’d know what was expected of her and how she could contribute to the team.

  • Lesson learned #2: Don’t blindly follow others. No matter how limited our climbing experience is, we need to be engaged in our own risk-taking by asking questions, gathering information, and deciding ourselves if risks are appropriate.

Situation: Wolfs Head, East Ridge (2-person team simul-climbing)

Wolf's Head. Cirque of the TowersEast Ridge, Cirque of the TowersDerrick and I decided to climb Wolfs Head via the East Ridge. I knew my weakness of poor planning could also impact this climb. Therefore, we read the route description, the descent, and all the comments climbers posted on Mountain Project (, which emphasized the importance of simul-climbing much of the route.

The descriptions also described a complicated series of five rappels and scrambles for the descent. We looked at photographs, and the mountain itself, as we read through the ascent and descent. I decided to do all the leading on this route so we could move faster. We felt prepared. We left camp at 7:30am.

Our progress slowed immediately. The route began with a snowfield that bars the wall leading to Tiger Tower, which must be traversed to get to the East Ridge. Derrick wasn’t feeling confident with simul-climbing, so we pitched-it-out: leader leads, sets up belay, follower follows, repeat.

We did great on the route finding, but the ridge was very exposed, so we had to pitch-out the entire way to the summit, arriving at 8pm.

East Ridge, Cirque of the TowersWe began the rappels as darkness descended. The time extended, as we made mistakes and found our way through the darkness. The wind began to blow; it got cold; we were getting exhausted. Midnight, 1am, 2am… We wanted to be back in the comfort of our camp, but we stayed focused on the task. Derrick helped correct some mistakes I made as we searched for the final rappel point. After that we scrambled down the final slope and made our way back to camp, arriving at 5am.

  • Lesson learned #3: I assumed Derrick would be okay simul-climbing given the fourth class and low fifth class terrain. I underestimated how the exposed ridge would affect him. We could have discussed and practice this beforehand.


The greater lesson is about relationships

  • Lesson learned #4: struggles strengthen, not weaken, relationships. I don’t have to rescue others; I can allow them to struggle. Derrick’s struggle on Pingora gave him confidence in himself but also confidence in how I supported him.
  • Lesson learned #5: coach others with directness and kindness. I gave Derrick specific information about how to remain calm to help them deal with the stress of leading. And I didn’t get frustrated with him for our slow progress.
  • Lesson learned #6: love and respect for others can create closeness in relationships. Derrick and I maintained our awareness of love and respect for each other during the difficult descent on Wolfs Head.

Derrick, Andrea, and I left the Cirque with an increased appreciation for our family bond. Not only did we grow stronger in our relationship, but we had great adventures we can reflect on for the rest of our lives.

Wild flowers grow, Cirque of the Towers

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Kai

    Thoughtful and though provoking, I enjoyed the read.
    thank you!

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